Monthly Archives: January 2014

I have said before in this blog that my Dad’s family were born and raised in Detroit – not the suburbs, in the City, about a mile north of Tiger Stadium.  My great-grandfather was a butcher.  His sons all became butchers, so my Dad grew up around the butcher shop as a kid.  It was the Depression, but because of the shop, my Dad had food on his table.  My Great-grandmother managed the money, and acquired a number of properties in the area of 13th and Magnolia that the sons, and extended families would eventually move to.  It was a solution to the difficulties outside the shop.  Family was the means to survive the hard times of the Depression. 

Of course Detroit was a booming city – over 100 auto companies were in Detroit at the turn of the last century, and the City was becoming the center of a new mode of transportation – the automobile.  Henry Ford developed the assembly line to allow everyone to own a car, furthering the status of the City.  As the twenties developed, Detroit and Chicago competed to become the “jewel” of the Midwest.  Elaborate stone buildings, expanding infrastructure for roads, trains, water, sewer and storm water were all centerpieces of pride in the City.  Employment and incomes were high, worker benefits were good, the workforce was highly skilled and education was good. Profits were good and the auto industry was Detroit-centric. Detroit was a vibrant City in the first 50 years of the last century. 

Scroll ahead 60 years and how the city has fallen.  The City has lost a million people.  It has $18 billion in debt, and is collecting $0.3 billion less in revenues since 2008.  The tax base has been decimated.  Houses can be purchased for minimal prices.  Churches have been abandoned.  Crime is high.  Employment is down, unemployment remains above the state and national average.  Poverty is up, incomes are down.  Huge areas must be served but serve no one or only a very few.   The City filed the highest profile bankruptcy for a municipality ever.

The television show Low Down Sun last summer provided a graphic look at the City – blocks of the City devoid or mostly so of housing or other buildings, schools no longer in use, roads in disrepair, classic stone buildings with the windows broken out.  You can see what the City was, and the haunting view of the City today are a stark reality.  To add insult to injury, the Sun-Sentinel wrote a recent article about how people are making money doing tours of abandoned buildings in Detroit, or how farming is occurring in the City limits. 

So if Detroit failed, why not Cleveland, Akron, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati or virtually any other large, older Midwestern industrial city?  Sadly many of these cities have lost the industries that made them famous and provided jobs and a stable tax base and incomes.  Many of these cities are also stressed, much as we found Birmingham was.  There are many arguments for what precipitated these losses:  unions, shifts in population, outsourcing offshore, competition within the US, changes in consumer preferences, technology…… the list goes on.  But the reality is it doesn’t matter why, the City must deal with the reality that is.  We all look at Detroit and its recent bankruptcy filings.  Maybe looking at Detroit allows us to feel better about our situations, but we need to learn the lesson from Detroit, Birmingham, Cleveland and others who filed for bankruptcy.  We need to look back to determine where the decisions were that created the issues.  Was it expanding to fast, poor economic assumptions, failure to manage finances better, political failures, failure to raise revenues/taxes/water fees, or failure to maintain or replace infrastructure?  Rarely is it corruption, so it is people trying to do well but failing in their jobs.  The question is why? 

I would start with training.  We need to train our public managers better, but MPA and MBA schools are not teaching about these failures.  In part it may be because we tend to teach positive lessons, versus negative ones, but they would be useful case study of the potential challenges.  In a prior blog I noted that the biggest challenge for government managers is managing in lean times.  Often lean times can be overcome by saving money as fund balances and investing (well), but long-term downturns like Detroit, Cleveland and other cities have experienced cannot be corrected this way.  There are major policy implications that must be overcome. 

From a utility perspective it is important to note that the economic difficulties are not limited to cities and counties but utilities are subject to long-term declines as well.  The problem is particularly acute in industrial communities where a large industry (think mills in the mid-Atlantic states) move away and leave water and wastewater facilities at far less capacity than they were designed for. Small systems may be especially at risk.

As an industry we need to learn from these failures.  We should study the difficult times to determine how the problems can be avoided.  The need to figure out how to manage funds better, deal with customer losses, and define strategies to overcome losses.  If anyone has some thoughts, please respond to the blog, but doesn’t this sound like a research project in the making?


When we ask what the biggest issues facing water and sewer are in the next 20 years, the number one answer is usually getting a handle on failing infrastructure.  Related to infrastructure is sustainability of supplies and revenue needs.  Resolving the infrastructure problem will require money, which means revenues, and overcoming the resistance to fully fund water and sewer system by local officials, the potential for significant costs or shortfalls for small, rural systems and the increasing concern about economically disadvantaged people. 

The US built fantastic infrastructure systems in the mid-20th century that allowed our economy to grow and for us to be productive.  But like all tools and equipment, it degrades, or wears out with time.  Our economy and our way of life requires access to high quality water and waste water. So this will continue to be critical. 

ASCE and USEPA have both noted the deteriorated condition of the water and wastewater systems.  In the US, we used to spend 4% of the gross GNP on infrastructure.  Currently is it 2%.  Based on the needs and spending, there is a clear need to reconstruct system to maintain our way of life.  This decrease in funding comes at a time when ASCE rates water and wastewater system condition as a D+ and estimates over $3 trillion in infrastructure investment will be needed by 2020.  USEPA believes infrastructure funding for water and sewer should be increased by over $500 billion per year versus the proposed federal decrease of similar amounts or more. 

Keep in mind much of what has made the US a major economic force in the middle 20th century is the same infrastructure we are using today. Clearly there is research to indicate there is greater need to invest in infrastructure while the politicians move the other way.  The public, caught in the middle, hears the two sides and prefers less to pay on their bills, so sides with the politicians as opposed to the data.  Make no mistake, our way of life results from extensive, highly efficient and economic infrastructure systems. 

In many ways we are victims of our own success.  The systems have run so well, the public takes them for granted.  It is hard to make the public understand that our cities are sitting on crumbling systems that have suffered from lack of adequate funding to consistently maintain and upgrade.  Public agencies are almost always reactive, as opposed to pro-active, which is why we continuously end up in defensive positions and at the lower end of the spending priorities. So we keep deferring needed maintenance. The life cycle analysis concepts used in business would help. A 20 year old truck, pump, backhoe, etc. just aren’t cost effective to operate and maintain.

Another part this problem is that people have grown used to the fact that water is abundant, cheap, and safe. Open the tap and here it comes; flush the toilet and there it goes, without a thought as to what is involved to produce, treat and distribute potable water as well as to collect, treat, and discharge wastewater.

Water and Sewer utilities are being funded at less than half the level needed to meet the 30 year demands.  Meanwhile relying on the federal government, which is trying to reduce funding for infrastructure for local utilities is not a good plan either. We need education, research and demonstrations to show those that control funding of the needs. The education many be the toughest part because making the those that control funding agree to increase rates carries a potential risk to them personally.  But there are no statues to those that don’t raise rates – only those with vision.  We need to instill vision in our decision-makers.

Back during the dark days of the late-1970s, when America was being held hostage by Middle East oil interests, the Department of Energy was created, ostensibly to free our economy from the dependence on foreign oil and all that trappings that go with it.  It was a noble goal – the American economy could grow without the risks posed by foreign governments.  Thirty five years later, could we finally be reaching that goal? 

Interesting the often criticized billions of energy company subsidies of the Bush era do not appear to be responsible for solving the issue.  Nor are the prior efforts to subsidize or otherwise encourage investments before.  The energy subsides since 2000 do not appear to be the reason, but the arctic wilderness did not need to be disturbed either.  The success had nothing to do with any of it, but instead a series of private risk takers to a gamble on an unproven technology, to make great strides – fracking.

Based on the success of the development of fracking for natural gas, we have made major improvements.  But it is not just fracking, as many power plants are or have been rehabilitated to convert away from oil and coal to cleaner burning natural gas, thereby developing the market for natural gas.  Local governments have been migrating their fleets to natural gas for years – natural gas can use the same engine with an $8000 conversion kit that allows automobiles to run on both.  The conversions have made the demand for natural gas greater, making the investments needed to frack, more profitable.  The US has significant reserves of natural gas, and fracking has made it easier to capture this resource.  The benefit of natural gas is that the demand for oil is down, creating a glut of oil on the market and a decrease in price (at least for now).

But the question that has been left unanswered is what the domino effect of natural gas is.  Certain advertisements will argue there is 200 years of natural gas available for the US so we don’t need to worry about energy.  Others will argue that only 10-15% of that supply is actually recoverable (it should be noted that this assumes current methods), which is a far shorter horizon.  But in either case, natural gas in the ground is not a renewable resource so the question must be asked – does the fracking boom interfere with investment in truly renewable resources? 

Since 2000, Washington has invested heavily in renewable resources – wind, solar and to an extent waves.  Some energy companies like NextEra have been investing heavily in wind and solar power (they are the biggest investors in renewable power in the US), so what of these truly renewable investments?  Will the rush to frack turn resources away from truly renewables?  Or will renewable continue to be a small fraction of energy demands for the near future?  The question remains unanswered for now.

The bigger question for utilities is whether fracking will divert money away from plans for renewable efforts like digester gas capture, solar cells and wind power at reservoirs and the like that utilities are using to help reduce power purchases.  Will it impact utility efforts to become self-sufficient energy consumers like East Bay MUD?  You see the economy has few favorites.  Government can create favorites, by subsidizing products that would otherwise be too expensive like PV panels. The benefit of subsides can be to reduce costs of emerging technologies that may never otherwise see widespread use.  Subsidizing renewables fit this mode.

Utilities should be concerned that the rush to frack pulls money away from their plans for renewable power.  As the feds look to reduce their contributions to water and wastewater infrastructure, public money to energy does not appear to be decreasing.  And unlike publically owned water and sewer systems, private investment in energy is increasingly available as a result of the potential profits that can be made.  The diversion of funds may decrease prospects for funding water and sewer utility options, especially if interest rates begin to rise.  The Federal Reserve Bank’s concern about rising interest rates was manifested earlier this year when interest rate increased, housing sales decreased immediately.

Of course the issue of fracking goes beyond the potential to disrupt monies for renewable energy.  There are questions about the practice of fracking include water quality impacts, causing earthquakes, land subsidence, etc., issue that have yet to be resolved.  Keep an eye out for a risk assessment that AWWA and others will be involved with to look at these risks.  

We get to start the new semester this week.  The economy is looking up in Florida.  Unemployment is down, although the job growth appears to be mostly minimum wage jobs.  So it is useful to look at last semester’s graduates and see how they are doing.  The good news is they are getting jobs.  In fact our seniors mostly have jobs or internships and none of them are minimum wage jobs.  Excellent news, but let’s look at the new graduates and the workplace. 

A lot of our assumptions about the workplace will change in the 21st century.  The workplace at the “office” is less necessary and younger workers are more comfortable working outside the office environment.  They may be more productive than 20th century managers think they will be because of the side benefits that flex hours allow.  Their entry into the workforce places four generations at work at once:  Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y or Millennials.  The latter are the fastest growing segment of the workforce, and are already a larger percent of the workforce than Gen X or Traditionists.  The Traditionalists are retiring and are expected to be under 8 % in 2015.  Gen X and Gen Y will encompass about a third of the workforce going forward.

All of these groups have different perspectives.  Recent studies indicate the following.  Baby Boomers grew up post-WWII in a time of change and reform.  Some believe they are instruments of change.  They are optimistic, hard-working and motivated by position.  Gen X grew up in an era of both parents working, so are resourceful and hardworking, but not as motivated by position.  They are independent, and prefer to work on their own.  And many are contributing to the way government operates throughout the world. They accept technology as a way to involve others.  The use of online means to solicit feedback in government is particularly a Gen X phenomenon.  Public participation, traditionally are arena where limited public involvement actually occurs except with highly unpopular issues.

Gen Y was born in an era when both parents worked, but in their off-time, the parents spent more focus on the kids.  Think of no winners or losers in sports, but at the same time they have had unprecedented access to technology and are often well ahead of their work mates with respect to the use of tools in the workplace.  But, they are resourceful and can easily overcome technology barriers in the workplace. They care about their image and the world around them.  We can use that to implement change.

However, Gen Y is facing a workplace that clearly has winners as well as some skepticism about technology.  While we can expect some difficulties, it is up to the Gen X and Baby Boomers to help Gen Y make the transition. They have fresh viewpoints as they have had to be creative to get ahead.  Just doing things “the same old way,” doesn’t cut it.  I actually find this refreshing and a positive challenge to me because I use these challenges to go back of evaluate what my thinking was (or is).  We need to embrace this perspective and channel their energy and independence to solving today’s problems. 

We need to help them acclimate to the business world, while understanding that their motivations are not the same as Dan Pink notes in his book “Drive.”  We need new ideas and perspectives while welcoming them to the workplace.  That is how we improve productivity, product new ways to work, and develop new tools.  We need all of these in the utility industry as we need better ways to upgrade infrastructure and deliver our services.

There is a lot of talk about the difficulties that Gen Y is having getting jobs.  They often lack experience, but how do you get experience if no one hires you.  It is circular logic and we have all been there. 

We need to give the kids a chance.  I see a lot of potential in our graduates, nearly all of whom are Gen Y.  I see many who are hard working and know how to find answers to their questions.   They are far better prepared than many think.  We get comments all the time about how good our students are.  That is good, because the truth is, especially in the engineering and utility world, the Gen Y workforce does not understand why things were done a certain way in the past, nor why they should remain that way.  I actually find this refreshing and a positive challenge to me because I use these challenges to go back of evaluate what my thinking was (or is).  We need to embrace this perspective and channel their energy and independence to solving today’s problems.  They offer fresh ideas – and don’t necessary understand why.  That’s ok.  Long-term engineering graduates will make contributions to our water, sewer and other infrastructure. 

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