Live Blog

rss

WaterOperator.org Blog

Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Featured Video: Formulate Great Rates

Featured Video: Formulate Great Rates
If you're a utility manager or a member of a water utility board, there's a good chance you've had to deal with utility rates at some point. If not, there's an even better chance that a rate-setting conversation is in your future. As the nation's infrastructure ages, many communities are coming to terms with the fact that their utility rates have been too low to allow for replacement costs. Whether you've been forced into an expensive repair by a catastrophic failure or simply know a major piece of your infrastructure is living on borrowed time, you may have no choice but to consider a rate hike and other fundraising measures. But even if your position is not that dire, utility rates have to respond to many complex factors including inflation, fluctuations in number of customers, and changing water treatment standards.

If the whole thing sounds overwhelming, you're not alone. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) has produced several resources to guide utilities through this process. Their handbook Formulate Great Rates provides guidance for small communities that need to conduct water system rate studies. They also recorded a 2-part companion webinar for the handbook, the first video of which is linked below. The webinars are presented by RCAP experts with experience in rate-setting and help explain some of the more challenging sections of the handbook. This first webinar is about half an hour long.


Formulate Great Rates: A webcast on setting rates in small-community utilities (Part 1) from RCAP on Vimeo.

If you need more help understanding the handbook, or need a hand with rate-setting in general, RCAP's regional partners offer technical assistance for rural communities. You might also want to check out the Environmental Finance Center's rate dashboards.

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

Funding for Water Infrastructure Improvements

Paying for maintenance and upgrades to your utility is no small task, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates the cost of replacing water and wastewater infrastructure in rural communities could be almost $190 billion in the coming decades. It’s unlikely a single source can meet your costs, and smart financing will instead require a mix of external funding, capital planning and rate setting to meet your goal.

External funds

The U.S. EPA provides a thorough starting point for finding external funding sources. Federal funding for water infrastructure includes:

There is also funding available at various agencies designated specifically for water and wastewater utilities dealing with declared federal disasters, or those seeking funds for proactive planning and design.

Funding options at the state level vary, but the Environmental Finance Center Network maintains a list of funding sources by state. The lists will include the last date of update, basic information on how to apply, and staff contact information to learn more.

Finally, there may be local or private foundation grants available, depending on your situation.

Capital planning

As the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill states, “Long-term planning is required to schedule major infrastructure improvements and spread the capital costs over many years in order to avoid having to raise rates significantly in any one year to pay for a capital project that was unplanned.

To that end, the center has developed resources and compiled best practice guides to help small utilities develop Capital Investment Plans and/or Asset Management Plans. These include the “Plan to Pay” tool, which uses Excel to project your fund balance (revenues, expenses and reserves), and necessary rate increases for the next 20 years.

Rate setting

Once you know your options for external funding and projected balance for infrastructure improvements, you’ll know whether and when a rate change is needed. View our past blogs on Laying the Foundation for a Successful Rate Approval Process and Tips to Help Utilities Get the Water Rates They Need.

As always, you can find additional resources in the WaterOperator.org document library, including examples specific to your state by selecting “Financial management” under Category and your location under State.

Featured Video: Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority

There are a lot of rewards to living in a rural community: seeing just enough of your neighbors, lots of satisfying work, and (depending on where you live) getting to see the beauty of nature in the way a city dweller never can. Unfortunately for rural water utility operators, some of these benefits don't completely translate to their jobs. If you're the only operator---the only employee---at a rural utility, sometimes independence and hard work end up meaning the operation of the utility is all up to you all the time. Never being able to take a day off or have a vacation can be tiring enough. But you add in some of the weather Mother Nature can produce while she's busy being scenic, and sometimes you end up working nights, weekends, and 24-hour days, trying to keep your friends and neighbors supplied with clean, safe drinking water.

If this sounds familiar, a regional partnership might offer you a little breathing space. Regional partnerships can give you the opportunity to get a nearby operator to cover your utility while you take a vacation or go to town for a doctor's visit. Pooling your resources with other rural utilities can also help you qualify for employer insurance, access tools and resources from neighboring communities, and meet other knowledgeable operators. This 7-minute video from the Rural Community Assistance Corporation shows how a regional partnership helped unincorporated communities known as colonias help each other:

Lower Rio Grande Public Water Works Authority from RCAC on Vimeo.

To see more resources for water utilities from RCAC, check out their Guidebooks.

Featured Video: Communicating Science

As a water utility professional, you probably spend at least some time talking to people about your job. Whether you're explaining operations to a utility board, breaking down a bill for a customer, or just chatting at a barbeque, eventually, someone is going to want to know how and why you do what you do. For some of you, this might be an easy task--you're an outgoing educator with a passion for your job. For others though, getting asked questions on the spot makes your mind go blank and your palms go sweaty. Still others may be happy to talk, but have a hard time getting people interested in what you have to say. Trying to help people understand a topic as complex as water and wastewater treatment can be a challenge, particularly when you're immersed in the topic yourselves. Add in the financial challenges some small systems face, and opening up meaningful communication with your community can feel even more daunting.



Scientists face similar challenges. Like water operators, scientists have a lot of knowledge about complex fields with specialized jargon. The work they do may not be obvious to people outside the profession, just like utility operations can feel hidden in plain sight. One resource that helps scientists learn how to communicate with the press and other non-scientists is the Alda-Kavli Center for Science Communication. In this video, co-founder Alan Alda talks about his inspiration for starting the Center and some of the basic communication principles he keeps in mind:



To read about water utility outreach programs, visit our document database and type "public relations" (without the quote marks) into the Keyword search field, then click "Retrieve Documents." Being open with your community about the challenges and successes at their utility can help you gain public support, even when you need to undertake big projects like rate hikes or infrastructure overhauls. Even if you don't have big projects looming on the horizon, taking the extra time to engage with your community can make your job more rewarding, and builds goodwill for when you do need a helping hand. If nothing else, taking some time to think about these issues ahead of time will give you some better conversation topics at your next barbeque.

Featured Video: The EFC Water and Wastewater Rate Dashboards

The new year may be a time for considering budgets as well as operational challenges. But for small water utilities in particular, setting rates and managing budgets involves a complex set of social and financial issues that can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are resources out there that can help. The Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina has developed a set of free, interactive Utility Financial Sustainability and Rates Dashboards. According to the project website, these dashboards are "designed to assist utility managers and local officials to compare and analyze water and wastewater rates against multiple characteristics, including utility finances, system characteristics, customer base socioeconomic conditions, geography, and history." To learn more about how the dashboard works, you can watch their nine-part video series, beginning with the video below:

Dashboards are currently available for twelve states. (For the most up-to-date versions of these dashboards, and to check if new states have been added, use the map at the project page.)

Even if your state is not on the list of current dashboards, it may still be interesting to check out what communities similar to yours are doing around the country. If you'd like more help working on rates and budgeting at your utility, the Rural Community Assistance Program provides technical assistance to small, rural utilities in need of both operational and administrative support. They also have a number of helpful guides aimed at supporting board members of small utilities, including this one dedicated specifically to rate-setting.

Utility finances can be difficult and complicated, but they don't have to be impossible. Find out which assistance providers near you can help you determine what's most realistic and sustainable for your utility.

So You've Got a Website...Now What?

In an earlier post, we talked a little about the value of having a website—or webpage on a city site—to connect with rate payers. Getting the site up is one step, albeit a huge one. Now you face the challenge of driving traffic to the site or page. After all, the most informative site might as well not exist if no one knows it’s there.

Marketing a website may sound like a full time job, but it doesn’t have to be. There are a handful of things you can do to raise awareness and promote use without adding much to your already lengthy “to do” lists.

  • Add a teaser to your email signature. Something as simple as “Visit WaterOperator.org for more information” with a hyperlink is enough. Emails get forwarded, copied, and otherwise shared. You never know who may be reading and clicking.   
  • Create a bill insert informing rate payers about the site. If resources allow it, consider including refrigerator magnets or something similar with the url and your logo to serve as a more lasting reminder.
  • Share website information on your utility’s Facebook, Twitter, or other social media accounts. If you’re not active on social media—or even if you are—reach out to whoever runs the accounts for your city or town to let them know the site is available as a resource. Whatever you do, don’t forget to include the link.
  • Participate in Facebook groups and Google Plus communities. This is a particularly good strategy if your own social media accounts don’t have a lot of followers. Perhaps your community has a Facebook community for parents, university students, seniors, gardeners, or more. Ask to join these groups and start directing people to relevant information on road closures, water conservation, or whatever else the group may find useful.
  • Offer to write a guest post for a city or community blog. By including your website in the bio at the end of your post, you can draw in visitors from sources that may get more hits than your website.
  • Reach out to your local print and tv media and offer to talk about some of the resources available on the site. 
  • Start an email list. Email marketing is still one of the strongest ways to engage with the public. Chances are, you found this very blog post through one of our email newsletters. Once you have it, use your list to highlight whitepapers, videos, conservation tips, and utility news recipients can find on your site.

As you start marketing your site, be sure to share your successes, mishaps, and everything in between on Small Communities #TalkAboutWater. Your experiences could help another small system reach their rate payers more effectively and efficiently.  

Financial Accounting for Small Systems

This article originally appeared on the SmallWaterSupply.org blog in 2012 as part of the Water We Drink series, developed by the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Environmental Services Center. Written by Certified Public Accountant Hatsy Cutshall, its ideas and tips still hold true today.

A cascade of bad economic news since late 2008 has focused nearly every citizen’s concern on finance, certainly at home and often at the public level. Many who are struggling to pay their own bills are looking to municipal leaders and asking valid questions about how their tax money is being spent.

A water or wastewater system is often the single largest asset owned by a small community. Like a homeowner with his property, all the stakeholders of those systems are best served if that asset is well managed and maintained to get the longest and best use at the lowest cost to all concerned. It is imperative that the board and the system managers understand and appreciate the value of the financial aspect of running the system. With that understanding they are then prepared to address public questions and concerns to help them understand how and why many decisions are made.

Financial management is not just about depositing cash in the bank and paying the bills. When used as part of an effective overall management strategy, it helps managers plan for the future to avoid unpleasant surprises like a compliance order or the sudden and unplanned need for significant infrastructure replacement. It also prepares management to explain to the rate-paying constituents how the decisions are made that go into setting the rates that keep the system going.

Without sound financial information, it is easy for the public to make incorrect assumptions about how much it costs to provide safe, reliable drinking water. Often, the first target for public scrutiny is the staffing expense. In response, many small system managers and governing boards are tempted to short change the accounting and finance function in favor of technical staff. By doing so, they risk problems that could cost them far more in the long run than the salary or accounting fees they have opted to avoid.

Furthermore, when a system does face the need for additional investment or maintenance costs, managers will find that there is less money flowing overall, fewer grants, and more loans. Funders are imposing stricter reporting requirements on systems to prove their capacity to manage the money they're borrowing.

There has never been a better time for small systems to take a look at their financial management and make sure it can stand up to this heightened scrutiny. In doing so, they likely will also discover ways that their financial information can help them decide how to make better use of the income and other resources for which they are responsible.

To help system managers and board members form a strategy for improving their financial management, I've compiled some ideas for how to get started. I've had the good fortune to talk with a number of technical assistance providers and other consultants who work with small systems. They've highlighted some common situations that they find when they begin work with a small system, as well as solutions that can help resolve some difficult situations.

Ten Financial Accounting Tips for Water and Wastewater Systems

  1. Get organized! Before you can begin to create or improve a financial system you have to be able to find your expense bills, your receipts records, your bank statements, and your payroll records. Create a filing system and get your paper records in order so that when you need to refer to a document, you can find it easily. If many of your records are in electronic format, create an electronic filing system for those records, as well.
  2. Review and document the system's rules and policies for income, expenses, and setting aside reserves. Read the minutes of board meetings for policies that may need to be formalized into the operating procedures. Board members and management should consider policies for handling late payments, whether to apply for a credit card, and board policy for setting aside a percentage of all fee income for capital needs reserves, to name a few.
  3. Find the right person to do the accounting work. If the system has a staff member who can take on the work and is willing to learn, get him or her some training. If the system cannot afford or does not need even a part-time bookkeeper on staff, consider hiring a local bookkeeping or accounting firm to do this work on a contract basis. Ask if the contractor has staff members who are willing to attend board meetings to help managers and board members read and interpret the reports.
  4. Talk to some trusted and experienced advisors about the system's accounting needs before you buy software. Often small systems buy accounting packages that are far more expensive and complex than they really need. The accounting software must be able to track the water system's activity separate and apart from that of any other government activity. If the system is small enough (e.g. 50 to 100 connections) a simple Excel spreadsheet may be able to handle all the tracking and reporting you need. For larger systems or those that are ready for a more comprehensive solution, QuickBooks is affordable and can handle most, if not all, of the accounting functions that many small systems need.
  5. Build a budget. Start with the actual results of the prior year's operations and consider what is likely to change, as well as what the board and constituents wish to change and put it in writing. Once approved, enter this budget into the reporting system so that reports can compare the actual financial activity to what was expected. Comparing the two will help managers and constituents plan for the future.
  6. Find and file any records you can that show how much was paid for pipe, pumps, meters, and other system infrastructure. Identify what the system owns and adopt an asset management plan. This survey of the system's physical components then informs the financial planning and budgeting process to reduce the risk of unplanned expenditures. This summary of what the system owns and how much it cost will also give you the information you'll need to record the value of the system's fixed assets on the balance sheet as required by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) 34 rule, which addresses financial reporting requirements for infrastructure assets.
  7. In addition to training the financial staff or hiring a bookkeeping firm, consider offering training for the system's board. Members of a utility's oversight board are often volunteers and may need assistance in making informed decisions and communicating the reasons for those decisions to the public. This type of training, as well as more generalized financial management training, is often offered through the state's primacy (drinking water or wastewater agency) as well as through non-profit organizations such as the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Rural Water Association (NRWA).
  8. Make sure your accounting system can track and classify income by type such as fees for water service, hookup fees, late fees, and so forth. It should also provide reports on aged receivables: how much the system is owed and how much is overdue by 30, 60, 90 or more days.
  9. Classify expenses in such a way that a report reader can easily compare how money is being spent to the board's approved budget. Expense line items such as telephone, rent, electricity, salaries, supplies, and other routine costs should be created; as payments are made and entered into the system, those payments should be categorized according to their purpose. The system should also be able to provide a report on how much is owed to outside vendors and when those payments are due. This report is called an "accounts payable aging" report.
  10. Record financial activity in the system regularly and often, at least once per month. If you let bookkeeping work pile up for months at a time, it is very easy to forget information that is important to the financial reports, such as the purpose of an expenditure or to which fund is should be charged. Monthly (or more frequent) reporting also helps managers see problems in time to solve them before they become more expensive to solve.

Make the decision that financial management is as important as maintaining the plant and equipment. Whether you decide to do it to meet regulatory requirements, citizen demand, or management needs, it's a great idea!

For more information or for advice and help getting started, contact your region's RCAP office, the National Rural Water Association, or your state primacy agency that deals with drinking water or wastewater systems.

The author would like to thank the following people for their help and information in preparing this article: H.B Calvert, Karen Yates and Jan Frederick with the Midwest Assistance Program; Mary Fleming and Linda Martinez with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation; Karen Johnson and Cindy Navroli, MPA, CPA.

Websites Offer Conveniences for Utilities and Customers

If you’re reading this, you're probably already aware of the power of the internet to share information and raise awareness of important issues. Hopefully you think some websites (like ours!) are useful. But have you considered getting a website for your own utility? If you don’t have a website already, here are some things to consider.

Benefits of Going Online

A utility website can provide a number of services, both to you and to your customers. At the most basic level, a website can house the information people ask you for all the time: utility fee information, FAQs, maybe some fact sheets on common local concerns like water conservation or winterizing. Not only does this provide a convenient place to direct people for more information, but some people may Google first, and find what they’re looking for before they have to try tracking you down by phone.

Beyond this basic usefulness, websites can be outfitted with customer service contact forms, new service request forms, CCRs, board meeting schedules and minutes, online bill pay options, and other resources. Contact forms usually feed into an email account, which can be used to collect and organize non-emergency customer communication even when you’re not available. Online bill pay is a convenience for your customers, and online CCR distribution, if your utility is eligible, can be a convenience for you.

Website Building Services

If you’d be interesting in gaining the convenience of a website without having to set one up on your own, there are services that can help. As an example (but not an endorsement), Rural Water Impact provides website setup and migration services specifically for small water utilities. GoDaddy also offers a range of website design and hosting packages. And if you’d like to try your hand at a straight-forward design, services like Weebly and Squarespace make it as easy as drag and drop.

As always, we here at WaterOperator.org are happy to help you think through your website needs. You can reach us at info@wateroperator.org or 1-866-522-2681.

Planning for the Future

The convenience and organization of a good website can provide plenty of benefit in the present. But those benefits can stretch into the future, as young people accustomed to cell phones and internet use start getting old enough to pay the bills. In addition to providing convenience to you and your customers now, having an established website can prepare you and your utility for a new, more digital future.

A Few Considerations 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that water districts—among others—provide equal access to programs and services. One way to meet these requirements is to ensure that your website makes use of accessible design features. Systems with inaccessible sites may also be able to meet their legal obligations by providing an alternative way for people to access the information provide, such as a staffed telephone line. You can learn more about ADA requirements by calling the Department of Justice's toll-free information line at 800-514-0301. 

State law may also require that public utilities with websites maintained by utility staff post meeting schedules, agendas, and minutes. Your primacy agency should be aware of these requirements and can direct you to the appropriate state office for more detailed information.

If these requirements give you pause, consider talking with city or town officials to see if your system can instead be an active partner on their website. This is also a good option for systems concerned that under-staffing makes maintaining a website impossible. 

Engaging Customers in a Digital World

Like most Americans, your customers probably spend half their day staring at screen—checking emails, commenting on Facebook profiles, scrolling through Twitter feeds. In fact, the Council for Research Excellence recently announced the results of a media study that revealed that 68 percent of us use at least two media platforms—tv, computer, smartphone, audio, print, tablet—at the same time in an average day.

Here’s the take away: joining or becoming more active on social media platforms means meeting customers where they already go to receive information and news.

But, like most things, doing well on social media is much easier said than done. Today we’re sharing a few overarching tips and tricks, but finding the right platform and devising a successful media strategy may require more detailed discussions and a bit of trial and error.

Fortunately, Small Communities #TalkAboutWater is a great place to have these conversations with others who understand the unique challenges faced by small systems. You can also reach out to us directly at info@wateroperator.org or 1-866-522-2681.

  1. Define your goals and audience. Are you looking for greater community engagement? Are you in need of easier, more direct ways to share public notices? Maybe you want to connect with local and state officials. The more specific your goals and audience are, the easier it will be to choose the right social media platform and measure success.
  2. Remember not all platforms are created equally. If your system doesn’t frequently generate new pictures, graphics, or videos, Pinterest and Instagram are likely not for you. If you want to share more detailed messages—perhaps about road closures due to pipeline repairs or tips for conserving water—Facebook may be a better choice than Twitter. This article from The Next Web has more information about the pros and cons of different platforms.
  3. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Time and personnel are precious commodities for small systems. Having a smart social media strategy is worth the time, but don’t feel like you need to join multiple platforms at once or post hourly. Consider starting with a single platform and a more conservative media strategy. The key is sustainability.
  4. Make use of your existing network. Invite customers to follow and like your page(s) in your next newsletter or with a bill insert. Put links to your social media pages on your website. Encourage your existing followers to tell their friends.
  5. Prioritize customer service. For many people, an organization Facebook or Twitter page is their first stop when they have questions or concerns. Stay on top of customer issues by responding within 12 hours. And be sure to re-share favorable experiences posted by customers across your social channels.
  6. Start conversations. It’s called “social media” for a reason. The most successful users ask questions that engage followers and inspire them to weigh in on topics they care about. For example, ask customers to share their favorite water conservation practice.
  7. Share your expertise. Customers see water systems as reputable sources for information on water supply and quality issues. Share little-known facts, post links to important information, provide access to reports or relevant research.  
  8. Get personal. Social media is a place for genuine engagement. A lot of the communication water systems have with rate payers is prescribed—public notices, bills, etc. But that doesn’t mean you can’t show the personal side of your operations. Talk about what you’re excited about, highlight staff successes, wish people a happy Friday.

Do You Rely on Your SCADA System Too Much?

*Originally posted on SmallWaterSupply.org July 9, 2012 by Steve Wilson. 

I was at an asset management workshop recently that included a number of state regulators. The theme was asset management and certification, but O & M and the tie-in to understanding your assets kept coming up.

O & M Is Tied To Asset Management
I realize the title of this blog post is about SCADA systems, and many small communities don't even have them, but whether you use SCADA or not, the principles behind good O & M are important for all systems. It's all about understanding your system, the equipment, infrastructure, and treatment, as well as the process of running the plant (O & M). I know everyone hears about the importance of testing generators monthly and servicing pumps when recommended, but many times these things are low priority. Weeks turn into months and months turn into years. I was at a plant this summer that was using a federal grant to get a new generator for their water plant. I had just been in the wastewater plant for this same community this last fall where there was a perfectly good generator that would serve the purpose. I brought this up to the consultant managing the grant, but he said it wouldn't work. Unfortunately, the community had no warranty on the generator because they didn't follow the maintenance schedule. It had sat in a garage for number of years and not been ran. As a taxpayer, that's frustrating, but as a small systems advocate, it gives us all a black eye.

So On To Best Practices

At the workshop, someone from Michigan mentioned that one of their larger communities was planning to shut down their SCADA system for a week. This wasn't being done to allow upgrades or changes to the system, this was being done because the Water Supt. wanted to make sure his staff knew how to run the plant. This system is being proactive, both from an emergency standpoint, and also from an operations standpoint. We all rely on technology and automatic this or that for so many things these days, but to really "know" your plant, to be able to troubleshoot and tell when something isn't quite running right, you really have to have a comprehensive understanding of how your system works.

I Know, You Already Know Your Plant That Well
You are thinking, I already have that level of understanding of my plant, I know when something doesn't sound right, look right, or even feel right. Thats great, but what about the next level of support? What happens when you are not there? Do you ever take vacation or have to be out of town for a day or two? Is the person left in charge of your plant as familiar with your system as you are? Do they know your plant well enough to troubleshoot when a problem pops up? They need to have that level of understanding, or have something they can turn to that has those details.

That brings us back to one of those O & M things that are a pain, take time, and because you know the plant so well, keep putting off or don't see a need for. You should have an O & M manual for your plant. No one else can write it, and its only as useful as the information you put into it. It comes down to being prepared and taking full responsibility for the operation of the plant. That also means being prepared in case you can't be there for some reason.

Getting Started
First of all, develop an emergency response plan. There are templates available from a number of sources. You can contact a TA provider you work with, they will be able to get you started. If you want to look at some of the better ones, type in "emergency response plan" in our document keyword search, and use "type = templates". But, for those of you that already have an ERP, take the next step, develop an O & M plan for your plant. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Florida require O & M plans, I'm sure there are others. New Jersey has an O & M template that operators can use to help them develop their O & M plan, as do Florida, Louisiana, and Vermont. Georgia has a guidance manual as well. It was also brought up at the workshop that Colorado is developing an O & M and training manual geared toward walking you through developing an O & M plan for your facility. It sounds like it will be a great resource. Once the Colorado document is available, we'll post an update and provide those details. Lastly, if you need some help, email or call us. We can either help you directly or find someone in your area who can help you get started.

The Latest on Twitter

Text/HTML

Contact Us

1-866-522-2681
info@wateroperator.org