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Supporting small-town and rural communities with public works

By John Fleming posted 10-08-2021 02:29 PM


Small and rural communities across America often struggle to provide service to their constituents. This means not only aging water and wastewater infrastructure but also maintaining road, drainage, and even trash and recycling services on very limited (and sometimes) combined budgets. However, water and wastewater are often at the bottom of the list to maintain. Frequently the public does not think about what they cannot see. The pothole on Main Street in any small town generates plenty of phone calls to political leadership, and in turn to the public works department. Yes, the pothole is important to address, but so is the deferred maintenance on 50-plus-year-old water and wastewater lines just under the pavement.

I have worked on land development projects in major metros like New York and in small towns with populations below 2,500. Both locations place significant stresses on their respective public works staff. Yet the small towns very often lack the ability to attract or retain management staff. I have seen cases where an elected official is assigned the responsibility of public works. Mind you, not in charge of a committee, but in actual day-to-day operational control of the limited public works staff. In a larger city public works is a staffed department and can guide the city to maintain the desired level of service. Yes, larger cities also engage consulting firms to handle projects, but public works will manage the project and set overall goals. In a small or rural town, the consulting firm may be interacting directly with the mayor or other elective official. The engineer is called in when something breaks or goes wrong. The town may understand why the consultant is there: to provide a solution to a problem they have, or one an outside regulator told them they have. Yet sometimes their mindset is“OK,, let’s fix it and move on, we can pull money from the parade this year if we have too.” They may be missing the critical importance of the bigger public works issues in their town.

Engineers have an obligation to protect the public, and I feel that goes beyond providing a good technical engineering solution. I believe it also means helping nonengineering leaders understand the importance of public work – especially in small towns. The local political leaders may be bankers, farmers, insurance agents, business owners, etc., but in my experience they are seldom engineers. This gives engineers an opportunity to help preserve a town’s history and viability when working with a small or rural town.

One great option to assist is ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, as it provides a launching point to engage with local leaders. The letter grades bring it down to language people can understand. Typically, engineers are not extraverted, so getting out to help the small-town public works department market their message may feel daunting. However, it is quite worthwhile for us to attend local council and civic meetings to explain to nonengineers, both conversationally and via presentations, the value of public works. It is very rewarding to see the smile as someone gets it on why public works is just as, if not more, important than the long-running festival or parade to the continued success of their town. Your efforts to use your knowledge and experience to inform leaders may very well help a resident who will never know your name have a better life due to well-maintained public works. A state senator told me just yesterday, “[C]lean safe water is now considered a right; that could not be said just 50 years ago.” We have a responsibility to ensure that public works departments in small and rural towns can continue to provide services to their residents.

I know some may dispute this, but you can go three days without cell service. But it is very hard to go three days without water. So that single well supplying the entire town, and the pump that public works has been saying needs to be replaced for months, really are big deals. So, let’s help the elected and civic leaders understand the importance of public works before that pump breaks one night so the public works crews can have a quiet evening with their family like everyone else. 

John Fleming, P.E., M.ASCE, is the Director of Development for the SouthernCarolina Regional Development Alliance, a nonprofit full-service economic development organization covering seven counties in South Carolina. He previously spent over 20 years with a regional full-service civil consulting firm working on land development projects across the U.S. Fleming is a former Region 4 Governor and currently serves as a corresponding member on ASCE’s Committee on Preparing the Future Civil Engineer.