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WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Collaborating Effectively with Board Members

Collaborating Effectively with Board Members

To protect public health and maintain reliable services, operators and board members, or other governing bodies, must collaborate effectively. This collaboration is essential to successfully establish and execute short-term and long-term system goals. In this blog post, we will discuss how to improve collaboration between board members and operators by distinguishing responsibilities between the two groups and providing communication tips for operators.

RESPONSIBILITIES

To work effectively in any team, each member must understand their own responsibilities and how those responsibilities are distinguished from the responsibilities of others. The primary role of board members is to ensure the system provides reliable and compliant services by setting policies and goals, maintaining finances, and communicating important utility information to customers. Their responsibilities include:

Management: Board members are in charge of hiring, retaining, and contracting qualified workers. They must set policies (pg. 9) and goals that allow the utility to operate efficiently and legally. Evaluating these goals regularly will ensure that the system can maintain a desired level of service, protect source water, apply appropriate asset management programs, and keep customers informed. Boards should operate ethically and make sure records are retained properly. To do all of this, each board member should facilitate active participation in decision making while acting as a good team member for the utility. They must also acquire the required knowledge to fulfill these duties.

Financing: Decision makers must maintain budgets, monitor spending, and ensure that the system will have enough money to meet both present and future needs. When necessary, boards are in charge of acquiring the funds to finance infrastructure projects and other activities required by the system. Any major contracts must also be approved and properly recorded by the board.

Communication: Board members must keep customers informed on ongoing projects, system services, and potential emergencies. They should act as the liaison between the system's staff and the community. Additional responsibilities include maintaining transparent communication to the public through open meetings that have been scheduled with appropriate public notice and an organized agenda. By publishing meeting minutes and key decisions, customers can remain informed and provide additional input.

After board members have established the financial and managerial policies for the system, it is the operator’s responsibility to implement and enforce those policies. Operators must develop, update, and execute maintenance plans and standard operating procedures (SOPs) that meet board policies and regulatory compliance. These procedures will help staff facilitate daily operations, monitor the system, and maintain detailed records of the system’s status as well as any financial expenditures. Operators must also maintain, monitor, and replace existing assets. While both operators and board members should possess a sufficient education to manage the facility, operators must do so by upholding their certification license. In addition to these tasks, it’s important for operators to keep board members informed of system updates and needs.

COMMUNICATION

To effectively collaborate and communicate as a team, board members and operators should attend regularly scheduled meetings. The Nevada Bureau of Health Protection Services recommends board members schedule these meetings on the same day once every month. During meetings customers can discuss concerns with board members, board member can inform customers of changes to the system, and operators can provide updates to their board. Successful meetings should always be conducted to comply with the region’s Open Meeting Laws and to follow a pre-written, detailed agenda.

Before any meeting the board’s secretary should collaborate with operators and other board members to produce a clearly written agenda that will include discussion topics, action items, and time for public comment. This is the time where operators can schedule to bring forth concerns, needs, and system updates. The Environmental Finance Center hosted an excellent webinar in 2016 on successful communication with board members. The webinar describes what topics and details are important to discuss at meetings and what are not. The webinar also demonstrates how policies are made and updated during these meetings. The following figure was taken from this webinar:

Board and Staff Relationship

When an operators bring up concerns, requests for funding, or updates on the system, they should do so with the following strategies:

Presenting the Update or Issue:

Proposing Solutions to Challenges:

  • Provide reasonable options to resolve system issues and clearly explain the risks involved in not taking action. Describe how the proposed solution will resolve the issue.
  • When the solution involves replacing new equipment, explain estimated life cycle costs in addition to upfront costs. Identify where the funding to finance the solution will come from and where that will leave the system financially afterword.
  • Understand how proposed solutions and projects will affect other funding needs in the community. Explain how the solution will benefit the community as a whole.
  • Offer the board a non-technical explanation of why the proposed solution is required so they can relay this information to customers.

Other Tips:

  • When operators don't know the answer to questions from the board, it’s best to offer to investigate the answer later rather than guess. Waiting to provide an accurate answer limits confusion and unnecessary conflict.
  • Board members are often unfamiliar with the daily operations of the utility. It can help improve collaboration to offer tours of the facility that demonstrate operating requirements and updated conditions of the plant. Alternatively, operators can invite board members to attend training classes and conferences. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) also offers water and wastewater guides for the non-operator that can act as a starting point for this technical knowledge.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. When board members can communicate their opinions openly it will lead to reciprocation and more effective problem solving.
  • Compromise!

When collaboration becomes difficult, remember that both operators and boards have the same goal: protecting public health and ensuring the longevity of the system. While board members can face different pressures than operators, they still want to maintain this goal. Elizabeth Dietzmann with the Kansas Rural Water Association has written two excellent articles for operators on How to Manage a Micromanaging Board and How to Manage a Problem Rural Water Board Member. The latter addresses “No Show” members, “Blabbermouths”, the “Angry Bird”, and other problem members.

Remember that communication doesn’t have to be limited to monthly meetings. Operators can provide weekly email updates or use phone calls to inform boards of important issues. For additional resources on board responsibilities check out RCAP’s Big Guide for Small Systems: A Resource for Board Members. As operators maintain their own continuing education requirements, they can also encourage board members to attend any upcoming RCAP board training that will help them brush up on their job duties and stay up to date on the industry.

Getting Started With ArcGIS Story Maps

Getting Started With ArcGIS Story Maps

Interested in a new way to tell your water system stories? Do you want to reach out to a diverse audience using maps and data in order to help them visualize and more completely understand the issues? Then a Story Map might be just the ticket.

In the past year or so, we at WaterOperator.org have collected examples of how ESRI's Story Maps are being used by water utilities, agencies, states and local governments. Here are few of our favorites:

This Story Map from Cobb County, GA answers the age-old question, "Where do we get our drinking water from?"

And this one from Clarkstown, NY uses all sorts of graphics, 3-D visualizations and maps to illustrate how it maintains its vast MS4 stormwater system. 

The USEPA has also been using this new tool to collect case studies and utility stories for its Drought Response and Recovery Project for Water Utilities

The state of California Division of Drinking Water is using Story Maps to present lead sampling results for its public schools, updated monthly to reflect additional samples they receive. 

And here is an example of a tribal Story Map that shows how the Samish Indian Nation is building resilience for the future impact of climate change in Washington State. 

For even more inspiring examples, Esri hosts a website of contest-winning Story Maps and a Gallery of Story Maps using creative approaches and best practices in a wide range of subjects and industries. 

Story Maps are a great way to combine maps with text, images, videos and more to create impactful stories to leverage support for your water system and to communicate effectively with your audience. Story Maps are part of ArcGIS Online, Esri's cloud-based mapping and GIS platform, and you can register for a free ArcGIS public account here.

Ready to get started? The Learn ArcGIS website has this series of three 30-60 minute lessons, and/or you can watch the video below, and/or read this recent blog post on How to Make a Story Map. 

The Importance of Customer Outreach

The Importance of Customer Outreach
The more a utility communicates with its ratepayers, the more the ratepayers agree with community and water leaders, a new study finds. In fact, constituents who received water‐related information from utility mailings or served on committees and boards had perceptions that were more aligned with leaders' concerns. This is why cutting outreach could be a big mistake for utilities of all sizes. 

Another study finding is that there is a real disconnect between the concerns of customers and that of water providers. Residents showed most concern about potential water shortages and high water bills, while their leaders were most concerned about deteriorating local water infrastructure. This was the case no matter where cities were located or what their water source was. 

From their end, residents have a good reason to be concerned about their water rates. The labor department has released findings that show water rates have increased 5.5% on average each year over the past decade, three times faster than the rate of inflation. At the same time, water utilities are feeling the squeeze while trying to provide high quality water with aging or inadequate infrastructure. 

This disconnect is why it is crucial for utilities to talk to, and listen to, their ratepayers. Giving the public a voice in major decisions and communicating critical issues results in decisions that are more effective and sustainable. And that is good news for everyone. 

Interested in outreach resources? Type in "outreach" in our document database on WaterOperator.org or you can check out this recent listing.

Laying the Foundation for a Successful Rate Approval Process

It’s a problem faced by nearly every small system: your existing budget won’t cover the cost of new capital projects or even routine O&M. Raising water rates is no simple task, but there are strategies you can use to gain community buy-in.

We’ll share more tips for rate-specific communication in a later post. For now, let’s talk about what you can do to lay the groundwork. It is hard to ask customers for more money if they do not know and understand the value that you provide. The first step to gaining public support of a rate increase is to gain that support for your operations as a whole. 

Here are a few easy ways to boost your public image and set the stage for an effective push for a rate increase: 

  • Stop being invisible. Bad news—line breaks, sewer spills, etc.—have a way of getting out. If that is all your customers know about you, they won’t be eager to see their water bills go up. Sharing good news and helping the public and media put bad news in context will foster greater trust in your system and staff.
  • Keep them informed. Whether you’re responding to an emergency or conducting routine repairs that interrupt customer’s daily lives, you can keep the customer on your side by communicating with them often. Tell them what has happened, what you plan to do, and how they can get answers to their questions. 
  • Know your product. It’s not the water. It’s the service you offer customers so they can go about daily life. They will remember their interactions with your employees and how you helped them when you bring up a rate increase later.  
  • Heed the warning signs. Watch how your customers react to what you say and do. It’s much harder to mend broken relationships than to maintain them.
  • Show your appreciation. Consider hosting customer appreciation days or sending holiday cards to strengthen relationships with your customers. 

To find documents with more great tips, visit WaterOperator.org's online resource library