From politics to layout, Jackson, Mississippi, and San Diego, California, don’t have much in common. But last Tuesday, the city councils in each heard strategies for fixing the system that fixes infrastructure. And while Mayor Tony Yarber of Jackson won the award for boldest proposal — declaring a formal state of emergency — both sessions shone an exacting spotlight on the time-consuming and expensive procurement process that often meets officials who want to maintain their roads and pipes.
In San Diego, Public Works Director James Nagelvoort helmed the presentation.
“Infrastructure needs a lot of attention,” he told council. Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s FY 2016 budget prioritizes maintenance investment, which will expand the department’s workload. Nagelvoort explained that to top its current rate of about capital improvement 1,000 projects a year, some changes need to be made. He presented a list — not of two or three proposals, but of nearly 20.
Some are small: digitizing the bid process and allowing online signatures; passing low-cost projects like sidewalk maintenance off to other city departments; standardizing blueprints for buildings that are often replicated, like fire departments.
But some have more reach. Currently, the city sets aside project funding on the front end, even if those finances won’t actually be needed upfront.
“It’s kind of like buying your house with cash — you know, wait ‘til you get all your cash together,” Nagelvoort explained.
Under the mayor and council’s direction, the department wants to restructure the process so that funds sitting idle in that fiscal year can be used. Because developer impact fees and sales tax revenues that accrue over time provide so much infrastructure funding, the new system would theoretically jumpstart more, faster.
And while it’s riskier than the old system, San Diego’s council showed unanimous support. Granted, the presentation was informational — council will vote on several items at a later date — but members had nothing but compliments for the plan.
“It just makes too much sense to pay as you go on these projects rather than waiting until you have that full amount,” Council Member Lorie Zapf said. “Who does that out there in the real world anymore?”
Her enthusiasm was not mirrored by Jackson’s council. But Mayor Tony Yarber’s proposal, which they voted down four to one (with one member abstaining and one absent), was more than a little unusual.
Jackson hasn’t just had an earthquake or hurricane — but Yarber’s idea to declare a formal state of emergency does point to a city water system that’s so dilapidated it could create a citywide crisis.
“What we know is that we have infrastructure, critical infrastructure, that is at risk of failing at any time, and that’s all over the place, and we know that because we’ve had upwards of 100 water main breaks since the top of the year,” he said. “It’s kind of like waiting on the New Madrid fault line to finally start cutting up and the big one to hit. What we want to do is be positioned to be able to address those as soon as possible.”
A state of emergency could potentially relax procurement laws, and make federal and statewide finances available. As Yarber put it:
“We think that the emergency gives us some leverage, not only to be able to get things done faster but also get us in rooms and find out about information as relates to resources that we otherwise would not know about or be able to apply to.”
But though members of the council seemed to agree that the water system could create a crisis, they were reluctant to take such a big step.
“We know we have an emergency, which is the Chastain watermain,” said Ward 6 Councilman Tyrone Hendrix, adding that the council could probably agree that certain pieces of infrastructure posed a public health threat. But he took issue with the broader, non-specific declaration — and its implications.
“If we relax the procurement laws for such a wide general area that encompasses the entire city, I think that puts us in trouble,” he said.
Probably, he’s right to be cautious. Procurement laws vary state to state, even city to city, and though they tend to be a bureaucratic headache, they often provide some public safeguards in dealing with private industry. (For much, more more on procurement law, here is a 3,000-word story in which I speak with people who hate it and people who love it.)
Still, the strategies discussed at both city sessions resonate. As federal funding stalls, chronic disinvestment rears its ugly head and cash-strapped municipalities are tasked with ever more responsibility, city leaders will look to quicker-fix strategies, be they San Diego’s pay-as-you-go or Jackson’s emergency.
For his part, Yarber seemed confident that his declaration had at least struck a national chord.
“We have changed the paradigm and started a national conversation on what an emergency is,” he said.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.