Friday, July 5, 2013

Someone is watching us!

Last week as I headed downtown to grab some lunch a man stopped me on the sidewalk to tell me that a slat on one of park benches downtown was broken. I thanked him, made a mental note to ask public works to fix the park bench, and moved on down the road. I didn’t think that much of the exchange because it happens all of the time. I meet people, they tell me about something in their city they need fixed or addressed, and I try to remember to see that it gets done. I think we get most of it done but occasionally a few things fall through the cracks. I like it when people tell me about things in their city they would like to see changed. It makes my job easier because I don’t have to guess about what citizens would like to see happen.

After lunch I returned to my office to find a pile of post it notes on my desk with names and numbers. This is also pretty normal, and I set about the task of returning calls. It turned out that one of the calls was to the man who told me about the bench. When I spoke to him on the phone he revealed to me that he and his wife are retired, and every Friday they load up the car and go and visit a small town in South Carolina. They shop in the local shops, and they eat in the local restaurant, and they enjoy a day exploring our state’s smaller communities. He wanted to share his impressions of our city with me.

Are you ready to hear what the stranger said about us, Clinton? He said that this was one of the cleanest and nicest small towns in the state. He said the people here were friendlier than any other small town he and his wife visited. He said our downtown was nice. He said we should be proud to live here. He said he looks forward to coming back. Now isn’t that exactly what we want to hear from a visitor? You bet it is.

And it turns out that this guy wasn’t your average visitor. He is an elected official from one of our state’s largest and fastest growing counties. He knows what it takes to make a community run, grow, and be successful.

When you meet a person on the street, or when they visit your store, you never really know who they are. That stranger two booths over at the diner could very well be a site consultant hired by a major manufacturing company to scout out our town for future industrial growth. Think that never happens? It probably happens more often than you think. At a recent lecture given to economic developers at Georgia Tech, some of nation’s top site consultants, the folks that big companies like Caterpillar, 3M, and others look to for help when determining where to locate factories, admitted that they do just what the man who stopped me on the street does in order to find the right community for a project. Turns out, there have been strangers visiting us and sizing us up for years.

The point is, someone is always watching what we do and developing an impression of who we are based on our actions. We know this is a great community. We know our schools are better than our statistics show, we know the quality of our people, and we know that our city is good place to do business.

We also know, better than anyone else, the problems our city faces. Like most people we tend to focus on the problems, primarily because no one ever fixed a problem or addressed a challenge by ignoring its existence.

We must realize that every day when the sun rises over our city we are taking the stage to audition for the role of our lifetime. We are presenting ourselves to strangers in an effort to entice them to believe in us, to invest in us, and to help us create the community we want for the future. When we talk negatively about our community we project an image that may put our future at risk. When we come together to address a problem, reach out to a stranger, keep our city clean, and help a fellow citizen we project an image that may change our community for the better.

Each day, every day, we need to defend the image of our community. Our future depends on it.

Is it getting foggy in your neighborhood?

There is a fog rolling in. No, it’s not the type of fog that sometimes drapes our city in cool mist in the mornings making the drive through town a bit more treacherous. And no, it’s not the fog from the 1980’s horror flick in which a ghostly fog envelopes a small town bringing ghosts and goblins that wreak havoc on the town’s people. The fog I am talking about is somewhere in between.

FOG  stands for Fats, Oils, and Grease, and if you work in the sewer industry, your greatest foes come from this type of FOG. Fats, oils, and grease are produced in your home as a natural waste product when you prepare food. If you pour your waste fats, oil, and grease down the drain, then it gets into your sewer system and the city’s sewer system and cools. As it cools, it becomes more solid and begins to clog up the sewer system. When enough grease has built up on the side of the sewer system walls that sewer cannot flow freely through the system a sewer backup or overflow can occur. A sewer backup or overflow can push raw sewer out of a manhole into the streets or it can back up drain pipes in your home and enter your house. Pretty nasty picture, right?

Our sewer system is one of our greatest assets. When it works the way it should, things you don’t want in your home are whisked away from your home and neighborhood. However, when fats, oils, and grease damage the system the impacts are far reaching. Sewer overflows can damage your home or property. Sewer overflows can damage the environment. The damage caused by fats, oils, and grease in our sewer lines results in increased maintenance and treatment costs, and that directly impacts your pocketbook because as maintenance costs rise the rate we charge you for sewer maintenance will have to increase also.

The City of Clinton has implemented a FOG prevention and control ordinance and will be working closely with local business owners that have a high potential for creating FOG, such as restaurants, car washes, and maintenance facilities, to reduce the amount of FOG in our sewer lines. These businesses will be working closely with the staff in the Department of Public Works to protect the quality of our sewer system. We are excited about working with our businesses to help improve the quality of the infrastructure that we all rely on and look forward to forming new partnerships to improve our community. However, we need everyone to do their part to help keep your citizen owned sewer system in good shape and make sure that we can keep our operating costs as low as possible.

First, do your very best not pour fats, oils, or grease down the drain into our sewers. Scrape food waste into the trashcan instead of pouring it down the drain or putting it through your sink disposal. Pour left over grease into a container and put it in your trashcan. If you are worried about the smell of grease or the liquid leaking out of your trashcan, pour the grease ad oils into a lidded container and keep it in your freezer. When the container is full just toss it out in the trash. Use metal strainers to catch food waste in your sink before it goes down the drain. Teach your children to put oils and grease in the trash and not in the sink. Be sure to let grease cool before putting in your trash can and make sure the grease is in a lidded container with the lid closed or sealed securely in a bag before placing it in your curbside trash can.

If you read my column last month, you learned about the challenges that we face in maintaining our ageing infrastructure. The truth is that it is your infrastructure. You own it. You helped build it through your rate payments and tax dollars. Now we need you to help maintain it to keep the system running, avoid future costly repairs, and keep the sewer utility rates as low as possible for everyone.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Because of Public Works

The City of Clinton will celebrate National Public Works Week during the week of May 20th, 2013.  Public Works Week is an annual national celebration which began in 1960 to recognize the tens of thousands of men and women in North America who provide and maintain the infrastructure and services collectively known as public works. In Clinton, public works includes streets, sanitation, parks, water treatment, water distribution, sewer, storm sewer, and the electric utility. Our public works employees are dedicated to improving the quality of life for present and future generations in Clinton, South Carolina.  Because of Public Works, we enjoy clean water, reliable power, and safe clean communities.

Public Works in our city is a vast unnoticed and unseen infrastructure system. Thirty-eight employees, 38 of your neighbors, work every day to maintain 75 miles of electric distribution lines, 101 miles of underground water lines, 63 miles of underground sewer lines, 53 miles of storm sewer lines, and 81 miles of city owned streets. If you laid our infrastructure system out end to end, it would stretch from downtown Clinton, across the Blue Ridge Mountains, past Asheville’s famous Biltmore House, over the Appalachian Mountains, over the Eastern Continental Divide, and end in Nashville Tennessee. We would even be able to light your five hour drive from Clinton to Nashville with 1,300 streetlights, conveniently placed every third of a mile along the way. Along the way you might pass our garbage truck leading a caravan of tractor trailers because the 3,340 tons of waste we create each year that our sanitation crews transport away from our homes would fill 133 tractor trailer trucks.

It’s a big system, that for most us, we only notice when a part of the system breaks down. When the lights go out, when the water tastes funny, when there is that weird sewage smell in your neighborhood, when a work site slows down traffic,  or when one of our over 4,000 garbage cans gets missed; that’s when we notice public works. But outside agencies such as the American Public Power Association and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control have recognized the city through a variety of awards and recognition for the safety, quality, and reliability of our public works program.

It’s a big system that is not without challenges. Some of the water lines in our city are approaching 100 years old. We have infiltration of rainwater into our sewer system that increase the costs associated with sewer treatment. The cost of transporting and disposing of garbage, leaves, grasses, limbs, and other residential debris is increasing as the cost of the fuel to power the trucks that transport those items increases, and as the cost of paying a landfill or other facility to accept our waste increases. And you don’t need me to tell you about the condition of our roads, which in some parts of our city keep our local dentists busy replacing filings that are jolted out of our teeth by the humps, bumps, and potholes that plague our city streets.

The cost of maintaining our public works system is high, and the cost of replacing parts of the infrastructure is even higher. Public Works spending makes up 78% of the city budget and total almost $21 million dollars per year. We estimate that our roads will need an additional $5 million in cash to repair. SCDOT figures are even higher, with the estimate to mill, repair, and reconstruct a road coming at a cost of $325,000 per mile. Replacing a water line system in a neighborhood, including residential connections, fire hydrants, pipe replacement, removing roads and sidewalks, line installation, and replacing and repairing roads and sidewalks can creep upwards of $70 per foot. Sewer costs creep even higher depending on the size and depth of the pipe.

While there are challenges ahead for public works systems through the nation and especially right here in our city, our commitment to you remains constant. We will make your public works operate as efficiently as possible every day so that you and your children can enjoy the benefits that come from clean water, reliable power, and a high quality of public health that comes from working sewer and sanitation systems. We promise that when the lights go out, we will leave our families in the dark if we have to in order to get the lights back on for your family, we promise that your drinking water will be safe, we promise that you community will enjoy the high quality of public health that comes when sewer and sanitation systems work correctly, and we promise we will be good stewards of the money you invest in your public works facilities and infrastructure through your monthly payments of utility rates and through your annual tax payments.

We also promise that we will not ignore the condition of the system and we will work for ways to make it operate as efficiently as possible, but we know that as the cost of doing business goes up and the age of our infrastructure increases, the cost of keeping our system in good shape will increase as well. That’s where you come in. As owners of a vast public works system, you will be asked to help us determine what type of system you want, the quality of the system you desire, and how we pay for the system in the future to avoid passing on high replacement costs to the next generation. The cost of maintaining our aging infrastructure is rising faster than the resources we have available to maintain the systems are and ultimately, at some point, we must decide the level of service we expect and the level of service we are willing to fund.  

Quality public works is our promise to you.  As a society, we must promise our children that we will not saddle them with the problems of fixing our aging infrastructure, but instead we will leave them a system they can be proud of and that will meet their needs and our community’s needs for many years to come.


Sunday, March 31, 2013

We Are Going To Teach Your Old Water Meter Some New Tricks

Beginning on May 1, the City of Clinton will begin the process of upgrading all electric and water meters in the city to a new AMR system. This effort represents a significant change in the management of our utility system and will bring many benefits for the utility and for the customer.

Automated meter reading, or AMR, is a method of using communication technology to read meters without having to access the customer's property. The City of Clinton’s AMR system will use meters equipped with wireless transmitters. Once the meter infrastructure is upgraded, reading of meters will be done remotely and customers will not see a field service technician reading their meter in the same manner that it is read currently.

Many of the city’s more than 4,000 water meters have been in service for decades and an overall system upgrade is due. The water meters make up a critical component of our water distribution infrastructure. As a water meter ages the moving parts inside the meter can become worn or gather mineral deposits which slow the meter mechanisms resulting in the meter recording less water use than is actually occurring.

Unlike cities in colder climates, our water meters are located outside of your home or business in a meter box or pit. Usually this box can be found in front of your home, near the street. Because the meter is not inside your home or businesses, you will not have to be present when your current water meter is exchanged for a new meter.

The process of changing your water meter will take about fifteen minutes and will be performed by city personnel between 8 AM and 7 PM. You should expect a very short service interruption while the technician replaces your meter. When your neighborhood is scheduled for meter upgrades, you will receive a notice in advance in your utility bill. Be on the lookout for this notice which will give you a time frame in which to expect a city employee to change out your meter. After the meter is changed, city personnel will leave a door hanger at your residence or businesses to notify you that the change has been completed. All change outs will be conducted by city employees. City employees drive trucks with the city logo and department on the door and wear a city issued uniform. Additionally, all city employees are issued photo identification cards, which you can request to see.

Your new water meter will use a radio signal to communicate with the computer devices that are used to read the meter. The signal meets all FCC requirements and will not interfere with any household electronics that you may have. Each radio frequency device has a unique identification number, which is transmitted along with the meter reading. The unique number is compared to your account record to ensure a match. Your account data is stored in a secure computer system and is not accessible to the meter reading devices.

With AMR technology, the utility staff can collect meter readings much quicker. A recent test conducted by our utility billing division using the new technology reduced meter reading time in one area of our city from hours to minutes. The new meters will assist customers in detecting large water leaks and utility staff in detecting malfunctioning or tampered meters. Additionally, additional information and the analysis of the information can help both utility staff and customers better manage the city’s water usage and keep costs down.

While we are taking steps to increase the efficiency of your water utility system, there are some things you can do to reduce your water use and your water and sewer bill. A good place to start is by checking for leaks in your home.  A leaking faucet can cost you an extra $2 to $3 dollars a month. A leaking toilet can be a much larger drain on your wallet by costing, on average, an extra $37 to $52 each month. You may think you don’t have a leak, but the fact is that at least ten percent of all homes lose 90 gallons or more each day due to water leaking from faucets, toilets, appliances, and pipes.

The AMR water meter project will take the City of Clinton three years to complete. Once finished, the project will result in a system that provides  a greater amount of data that can drive future decision making, improve the operational efficiency and accuracy of our water utility system, and provide more information that we can use together to make sure that you are getting the best water utility system possible for the money that you put into it.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Where does that tax money go?

On one particularly normal November afternoon I checked our mailbox when I got home and pulled out a particularly normal pile of catalogs, credit card offers, and assorted junk mail. I tossed it on the table as I went through the door, and a slender white envelope slid out. I stared at it in horror. Picking it up, I took a deep breath and tore it open to see our Laurens County Property Tax bill.

Just like you, I dislike paying taxes. Right at the end of the year we have to write a big check to cover our taxes. Nobody likes paying taxes. I think one of the reasons we hate paying taxes and utility bills is because unlike going to the store, after we pay those taxes we have no tangible product that we can hold in our hand. If you go to any one of our local business and hand over some of your hard earned money, you will leave with something you bought in your hands. When you pay tax bills it is more difficult to equate what you pay with what you are buying.

This month, now that you’ve already paid your property taxes, let’s take a long hard look at a City of Clinton tax bill and let’s see where all that money goes. First, we have to have a piece of property and in this case let’s take a house that has an appraised value of $100,000 and for the sake of argument let’s say the land the house sits on is valued at $20,000. The house is in Laurens County, but it is also inside the City Limits of the City of Clinton.

The total amount that the above homeowner, and taxpayer, would pay, after school and sales tax credits are applied, would be $740.18. This money is allocated to Laurens County, schools, other organizations, and to the City.

Here’s how your tax dollars are divided. First, 64.5% of your tax bill goes to support education in our community. In our example, Laurens County School District 56 would receive $475.79 and the higher education center would receive $1.97. Laurens County receives 29.7%, or in this case $220.17 of your taxes for county operations, EMS, creation of a reserve fund, and capital improvements and a $60 fee for the county landfill. Indigent Care is also funded from your taxes, and in this case that would make up $1.97 from your tax bill.

Finally, the City of Clinton receives slightly over 5% of your property taxes. In this case, the 5% equates to just $40.27. The largest part of your city taxes, 45 % (or in our example $18.19) funds the provision of police and fire services to city residents. Think about that for a minute. For just $1.52 per month, probably the amount of spare change hiding under your couch cushions,  the City of Clinton provides you with police and fire services every day of the year.  

Our inspections and code enforcement operations receive 4%, or $1.78. Both economic development and municipal court receive tax funding at a rate of 2% of your city taxes, or less than $1 each per year. Five percent of your city taxes go towards streets, which in our example equates to a little more than two dollars per year. Seven percent is used to support the sanitation operation. The monthly charge paid for sanitation does not cover the entire cost of providing the sanitation service. Parks and recreation gets 6%, or $2.41 per year. Finally, the remaining 27%, or slightly more than $10, is used to make payments on debt, and cover costs associated with legal services, finance, and other general services.

Understanding your tax bill is complicated because so many services and organizations are receiving part of the funds. It is important to keep in mind that the schools, county, and city all share to some extent the revenue created by property taxes. It also very important to keep in perspective that your city receives only 5% of the total tax bill, and that the 5% is used to provide critical services to make our city a great place to live, work, and to raise a family.