Lawrence City Commission to review proposed merger of public works and utilities departments

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

After undertaking a review of the city’s utilities and public works departments, staff is recommending that the two departments merge in order to improve efficiency and services.

City Manager Tom Markus said that the city projects some financial benefit from the merger, but that overall the goal of the merger is to ensure city public works and utilities services are sustainable, especially in the face of limited resources.

“We know that we have serious challenges in terms of revenue streams and being able to increase those, and so our belief is we have to be more efficient in our operations just to maintain the services that we have and potentially expand on some of those services,” Markus said. “I think our goal at this point is to be able to preserve the services and do things a lot smarter than we have in the past.”

A review of the departments began last year, and the city formed a steering team of employees from both departments and held numerous focus groups, according to a city staff memo to the commission. Similarities were identified in “virtually every function” of the departments, and a proposal to merge the two departments was made.

Markus said that the city held five meetings last week with employees from the departments, and that the feedback was generally positive. One of Markus’ efforts since beginning his position has been consolidating city facilities — including the idea of a public works campus — and he said combining the departments, including their software and project management systems, makes sense.

Brandon McGuire, assistant to the city manager, said merging the public works and utility departments is not unique to Lawrence. McGuire said one of the ways merging the departments will improve efficiency is through project planning. McGuire said the city’s five-year capital improvement plan has helped improve coordination between the two departments, but that examples of poor planning still occur, such as when a utility project essentially undoes the sidewalk or street work from a relatively recent public works project.

“There have been some examples in the past where we do a mill and overlay on a street, and that’s a planned project,” McGuire said. “And then there’s a planned project a couple years down the road for a waterline replacement, and so that freshly overlaid street is then torn up and the waterline is put in.”

The focus groups with city staff gathered input regarding the benefits and goals of the merger, and created a list of 11 benefits, according to the memo. Those benefits include improving the use of resources, streamlining processes, and improving asset management. The memo states that the new department, Municipal Services and Operations, will maintain virtually all city infrastructure above and below ground, with the exception of Parks and Recreation assets.

As part of the merger, a new director of the combined department will be identified. The memo notes that employees will not lose their jobs because of the merger, and that the city will continue to operate under its attrition plan. More specifically, Markus said that there are not a set number of positions that the merger will eventually eliminate, but that as employees leave the department, the city will evaluate their positions and determine whether they should be filled.

The Lawrence City Commission will review the merger recommendation as part of its work session Tuesday. The merger will require city code revisions and the adoption of several ordinances, which are expected to come before the commission in coming months, according to the memo.

Pending commission input, the memo states that the merger process will begin during the 2019 budget process. Markus said that both separated and combined budgets for the departments would be presented to the commission during budget discussions.

The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.