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

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

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

April 8, 2018


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.


Michael Kort 1 week, 4 days ago

I think that we should put the governor of Michigan ( remember FLINT ? ) in charge of Lawrence's Water and Sewer Utility Systems . JUST KIDDING ! ! !

Now, what go go wrong with that ? ? ?

Water and sewer purification and treatment is way beyond a "general public works back rounded individuals given ability to run something " ......that simple !

Yes, Lawrence could do a better job of coordinating water main replacement or sewer works with paving jobs.............and part of that lies with having a functional general city managers office to coordinate, who knows the what and when of planned construction builds of all types and also having a knowledgable city commission, who know the long term water line replacement and paving plans ( before they hit the fund it button )..........but both city managers and city Commisioners come and go . VERY TRUE .

It is bad enough that a past utility director buried miles of thin wall ductile iron water main pipe without wrapping it in a protective polyethaline sleeve to prevent rusting, that has allowed miles of that 90's vintage pipe to reach an early end of its' useful state of life, which should have been 100 yrs + !

Was there no engineering specification written on how that pipe should be laid and wrapped protectively ?.........or did they just ignore it ?..........because the problems with unwrapped ductile iron pipe rotting out have been well known for many years in the water works industry .

I am alarmed at the idea that an individual who might have a pubic works back round and be pleasing ( but might not know a bit about water treatment and waist sewer water treatment systems, might be put in place to make what they think are minor financial decisions, that end up being disasterous as was what happened in Flint Michigan to save a few bucks on water source costs and treatments, which not only poisoned people with lead but also accelerated the rusting out from the inside out of Flints aging water mains ( you could clearly see the rust that was flowing out continually from the Flints fire hydrants that they were flushing with at low volumes and that much continual rust was plain abnormal and nuts ! ........they lost ( in summary ) ( or stupidly gave up to politicians ) control in Flint, of the waters ph which turned acidic, mobilizing lead and iron pipe rust into their drinking water supply ) ,

Be careful what you wish for.........because it could turn out to be a pig with lip stick that flies !

Ken Lassman 1 week, 4 days ago

Didn't that pipe thing occur because the city, looking for new technological developments that could also save money, placed the pipe BEFORE the premature corrosion began to emerge in the new technology? I don't think that the coating was left off the pipe in order to save money, and as soon as the problem became apparent, the covering was added to all subsequent projects. I could be wrong, but I don't think so.

Furthermore, didn't that issue develop in a separate utility and public works structure? Obviously mistakes can be made whether the two departments are separate or merged. The potential for better coordination exists in a merged department, and there is nothing inherent in a merged department that would somehow result in neglect of the water utilities infrastructure any more than there already is. The devil's in the details and shining successes or miserable fiascoes can occur in either scenario depending on those details, it seems to me.

Michael Kort 1 week, 3 days ago

Ductile iron Pipe ( DI ) is a product of the Engineering Cycle of building it faster, cheaper, lighter, easier to install and was a 1950's role out which usually came with an asphaltic coating on the outside to keep the outside pretty and rust free while sitting in the pipe yard waiting to be sold .

Unprotected by poly plastic wrap in anything but PH benign soils, that sales yard coating can break down and the DI pipes' thin wall thickness can give way to exterior rust thru and failure, from the outside in ( because of it is thinner walls......with less thickness to rust out .....than older Centrifugally Cast Iron Pipes made after the early 20s or the even older Pit Cast Iron Pipes dating back to 1870s in this part of the world .

Think walls get thinner and it faster, cheaper, lighter, easier to why is the 1880 Brooklyn Bridge still standing ?

Unwrapped ( no poly wrap ) DI pipe has a 21 to 40 year life span in any kind of challenging soil environment and soil acidity can vary widely over a city or a pipes coarse .

By the 70s people who had installed unprotected DI pipe knew that they had a problem and the poly plastic wrapper was invented because " plastic is forever " and holds acidic soils and ground water, sewage, etc., away from contacting the exterior of the DI pipe .

Sounds like a " Rube Goldberg " but it works .

To protect DI pipe from the water inside of it, the pipe usually comes with a factory sprayed-on inside cement lining which keeps rust at bay inside and keeps the pipes' inside walls smooth to retain full pipe flow capacity because uneven walls can mess up water flow rates .

Michael Kort 1 week, 4 days ago

It is not that asphalt paving materials, concrete types, concrete additives, rebar and placement aren't important and somewhat a science of engineering vs cost, all of their own, etc., when rebuilding roads, curbs, bridges, etc ......or buying plowing trucks and other equipment .

It is specifically that you don't drink it into your body, discharge it directly into a stream to blindly cause havoc ( as someone's sewerfied fish ) .

What do you say when the neighbors are jumping up and down about their street needing paving before an election cycle ?,........ and not wanting to wait two years for the water line replacements to be done first ?

Maybe new city commission members should have to read the long term list of both public works construction and water and sewer rebuilds or new builds and costs before being able to fund anything ?.........and figure out who else might want to make a street cut for predictable construction reasons that are planed .

Marc Wilborn 1 week, 4 days ago

A common outcome of merged private or public entities is that the salary of those on top go up as the industry compensation data used to determine pay and benefits is required at larger organizations for comparisons.

Michael Kort 1 week, 3 days ago

Not only did Flint have problems with Lead and Rust from inside of damaged cast iron mains, in their water as they stopped adding anti corrosion chemicals to the water and lost control of its' PH but they also had issued several boil orders before the lead became an issue due to bacterially contaminated water testing samples..... but then they over compensated for the bacteria so much by adding too much additional chlorine to their treated waters that they created CARCINOGENIC TRIHALOMETHANES ( TTHM ) in their water supply .......but maybe they inherited some of those from the river water that they unwisely chose to use because TTHM are used in industrial solvents and cleaners .

And which experienced on site treatment plant operators ? were running Flint's formerly close treatment plant when it reopened ?........that was penny wise vs freight train of economic foolishness, that ran right off of the rails producing children that are damaged for life .

The local GM plant quit using Flint's water because it rusted new parts that they were washing in it .

You can't put amatures who might not know water or sewage treatment ( inside out ) in charge of making treatment decisions or pipeline construction choices ( because they might be socially acceptable to the naive who think that things will just take care of themselves because they assume it is so because the elected at all levels are looking after it ......and them ?..........GOOD LUCK ON THAT ONE ! )

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