City leaders supportive of merger of public works and utilities departments

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday expressed support for a recommendation to merge the city’s utilities and public works departments.

After undertaking a review of the two departments, city staff recommended that the two departments merge in order to improve efficiency, collaboration and services. Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen, at the commission’s work session Tuesday night, said the merger is in line with the goals in the strategic plan, which the commission created last year.

“I thought it was important that we set that out in the strategic plan, and so I’m really glad to see this start to come together,” Larsen said.

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. The new department, Municipal Services and Operations, would maintain all city infrastructure above and below ground, with the exception of Parks and Recreation assets.

City Manager Tom Markus told the commission that the employees of the two departments represent more than 40 percent of the city’s employees and resources, and that the merger would improve collaboration, efficiency and city services. With budget limitations, he said the city needs to look at how it operates.

“You all know, going through the budget discussions, how many challenges we have fiscally,” Markus said. “So I think we have to look at how we operate as well as anything else. We can’t always run to looking for additional revenue streams.”

Markus said jobs would not be eliminated as part of the merger, but that the city would continue to evaluate all positions as they are vacated as part of its attrition plan. Commissioner Matthew Herbert said using an attrition-based approach, as opposed to layoffs, was better for the work environment.

“Unfortunately, that happens a lot, when you have a fixed amount of money and a budget, the zero-sum-game theory tends to be tossed around, so I appreciate that that’s been the perspective,” Herbert said. “That’s crucial that it be done that way.”

As part of the merger, a new director of the combined department would be identified. The merger will require city code revisions and the adoption of several ordinances, which are expected to come before the commission in coming months.

In other business, the commission:

• Authorized an addendum to the city’s contract with GHD Inc., which is undertaking a study to come up with a new strategy for the city’s cleanup of the former Farmland fertilizer plant. Commissioners approved the contract earlier this month, but questioned the cost for the consultants to conduct stakeholder meetings with the community. The city revised the scope of that process, and the cost, previously set at about $27,000, is now about $5,200, according to a city staff memo to the commission.

• Approved adding a city appointee to the Affordable Housing Advisory Board. Last month, the board voted unanimously to recommend adding a second member of the general public to the 12-member board following concerns from commissioners that there was not enough representation from the city at large.