INTERNATIONAL IDEA EXCHANGE
A land of opportunities: the Czech and Slovak Republics
Assistant City Engineer
City of Poway, California
How exciting! A trip to Europe to share thoughts and experiences with public works officials in the Czech Republic and Slovakia! This was going to be a chance to learn about different cultures and meet new friends.
In my 28 years in the engineering profession I'd been exposed to many things that work well for us in the U.S. I was excited about the opportunity to share them with our colleagues in Eastern Europe. I hoped to teach them about our "advanced systems." What I was about to find out was that, in many ways, their methods were more effective than ours. We could learn as much from them as they could from us.
With only a limited knowledge about the two countries, I was under the impression that both Slovakia and the Czech Republic were in desperate need of our expertise. In some respects, this may be true, but they also have an active, living system of delivery of public services in both countries that function reasonably well. They struggle with the same issues of underfunded maintenance budgets and finding well-trained employees that we face. They just have a larger deficit in these areas to overcome.
Slovakia is a country of about 5.4 million people in a land area about twice the size of New Hampshire. The Czech Republic has about 10.2 million people in a country about the size of South Carolina. They are historically similar, having been ruled by many of the same empires over the centuries. But culturally they retain many unique identities from centuries gone by. Most recently, under Soviet rule since WWII, they had been submitted to the ultimate test of cultural blandness. During this time, they were dominated politically and economically. They became subservient to the Soviet economic needs. They produced what Russia needed and bought what Russia sold.
The cities of Czechoslovakia were transformed by the installation of hundreds of "cookie cutter" apartment buildings that dominated the landscape of almost every city from Moscow to Prague. These buildings were meant to be "new and improved" living accommodations which fit with the communist philosophy that everyone shared equally and received equally for their labors. But after many years of neglected maintenance, these buildings were no longer wonderful places to live.
The same concept of limited maintenance was employed with much of their public infrastructure, during the 40 years that the Soviets ruled Czechoslovakia. Because of this neglect and the failing economies of the entire Soviet-influenced world, in 1989 the "Velvet Revolution" occurred, and the Soviet rule was quietly ended.
Soviet-style apartments in Kosice, eastern Slovakia
This relatively bloodless exchange occurred in a very short time, leaving the new country on its own. The Czechs and the Slovaks had historical unity and cultural uniqueness. The new leaders decided in 1993 to separate the countries, leaving most of the population to wonder why. Most people realized that their strength had resided in their combined resources, and separated they would be at a decided disadvantage competing in a world economy. Especially, this would be true without the economic support of the USSR.
In the last 15 years since independence, great strides have been made to provide a solid foundation on which a promising future can be built. However, much remains to be done. Even with the entry of Slovakia and the Czech Republic into the European Union this past spring, there are major needs to be met before these countries can be the significant players in the international arena that they hope to become.
Slovakian Parliament Building, Bratislava
In Slovakia, the national unemployment rate is 15%. In the Czech Republic it is a slightly lower, 9.9%. This was a common concern we heard from every official we talked to during our trip. The countries' economic health, as well as the political future of every elected official, rests on the ability to turn this around and improve the standard of living of their constituents. For this reason, our small group from the U.S. was given the royal treatment wherever we went, in hopes of making a crucial contact that would help their town land some economic assistance from North America. There was keen interest from all the officials we talked to about our contacts in the government, or in the private sector. Their hope was that we may know someone that may be interested in investing in their region. The private companies we encountered were extremely eager to connect up with a potential buyer of their goods or services from America. Or with an investor that might give them capital to expand their organization and gain an advantage on their competition.
|Seated: Geoff Greenough and Lord Mayor Bobik. Standing left to right: DPW Baltesz, Assistant DPW Prada, Deputy Mayor, Margo Greenough, Jackie Crombie, Susi Kutzner, George Crombie, Brad Kutzner, and Milan Podzuban|
Our delegation from APWA was made up of three members: Geoff Greenough, Commissioner of Engineering and Public Works, Moncton, New Brunswick; George Crombie, Public Works Director, Plymouth, Massachusetts; and Brad Kutzner, Assistant City Engineer, Poway, California. Our wives, Margo Greenough, Jackie Crombie and Susi Kutzner, accompanied us. The delegation was sent to continue an effort started a few years earlier by APWA's International Affairs Committee, to establish relations with similar agencies in other countries. A beginning had already been made with the Slovak Public Works Association (SPWA). This trip was to formalize the agreement with SPWA and to try to build a similar agreement with the Czech Republic Public Works Association (CZPWA) and, if possible, with Poland, Hungary and the Ukraine as well.
Our trip began in Bratislava, the capitol of Slovakia. Our members arrived separately and were met by Oliver Celko, one of the many private sector consultants working in local governments in public works functions. Mr. Celko guided our tour around Bratislava, which included a visit to the new home of the Slovakian Parliament.
This is appropriately sited next to the ancient castle of the Prince of Bratislava (now the residence of the president), overlooking the Danube River and the entire city. We also visited a newly refurbished trash-to-energy plant, which showed the country's dedication to making strides to clean up air pollution in the urban areas.
After gathering our group, we were transported to the east end of Slovakia, to Michalovce, 20 miles from the Ukrainian border. This was the site of the SPWA national conference. Our hosts had arranged for a stay at the Hotel Juliana, overlooking the Zimplenska Sirava, a beautiful lake resort. The board of directors of SPWA met us that evening for dinner and welcomed us with great enthusiasm and warmth. What a great start to this adventure!
The next day we attended the conference and made our presentations to the delegates. A major focus at this conference was on solid waste issues. This turned out to be a concern of many of the local officials we talked to throughout our trip. The intention of my trip was to discuss the delivery of Capital Improvement Projects. But I found out that the interest of most of the public works officials was in getting investments, grants or partnerships from the U.S. to assist them with their local problems. The politicians are interested in bringing in U.S. manufacturing companies to create jobs for the townspeople and to utilize the vacant plants that are no longer creating goods and machinery. They can't afford to talk about capital outlays until they establish a healthy local economy that will create the revenues to support capital projects. Our meetings with the Michalovce Lord Mayor, Josef Bobik, and with the Director of Public Works, Juraj Baltesz, confirmed this direction.
I discovered that many of the public works departments are operated like a non-profit company, that bid on the projects against private companies. Sometimes they are successful with their bid and get the work, and other times the work goes to the private companies. As the agency staffs tend to be small, the private contractors are generally better suited for larger projects. Projects are typically done under the design/bid/build process, which is the typical model for capital projects in the U.S. They do, on occasion, use a design/build process, but not routinely. There appear to be no restrictions on local Slovak governments using this process, which allows free use of this delivery technique. In some areas of our country there are legal barriers to such use, limiting its application.
Many of the public works functions have been contracted for in both the Czech and Slovak Republics. The extent of the use of consultants varies with each area, but in general appears to be much higher than is typical in the U.S. Consultants are used in every capacity, from director of public works all the way to performing daily field maintenance on streets, water and sewer systems. This appears to be a result of the disappearance of the federal government that existed under the communist system. When this was suddenly removed, it was necessary to replace this function immediately. Only private companies were able to step into this gap in such a short time.
In the Michalovce area, unemployment is in the 17-20% range, and the monthly salaries are around $300-$400 per month (about half what is paid in the Bratislava area). And with the Ukraine only 20 miles away, the Ukrainian unemployment of 30% impacts the Slovakian economy as well.
We became aware through our talks with the local officials that the system of government and the funding process are much different in this part of the world than in the U.S. There are no state governments. Local funds are generated mostly by disbursements from the federal government. The federal government maintains the local water and storm drain systems, while the local agencies are responsible for lighting, streets, sewer, parks and solid waste.
The entry into the European Union (EU), while looked upon favorably by most, is going to present more challenges. The local officials will need to be able to function in the larger "federal (EU) government," serving the entire European community. The EU focus will be on larger issues than the Czech or Slovak governments had before. How officials are able to attract money for projects of local interest will be a major area of concern.
|Geoff Greenough, Dr. Neuzil, and George Crombie discussing Dr. Neuzil's business, REMIT, S.R.O., in his office in Sternberk, CZ|
In the Czech Republic the economy was slightly better, but still well short of the aspirations of the communities. The CZPWA host that escorted us around their country was Dr. Jiri Neuzil. Dr. Neuzil owns a public works maintenance company, REMIT, S.R.O., in Sternberk, near Olomouc, CZ. His company serves several of the small villages with street and park maintenance, and also provides solid waste pick-up and processing into recycling streams for plastic, paper, and glass.
Dr. Neuzil arranged for several visits with local officials at the City and County of Olomouc. We met with the Mayor of Olomouc, Martin Tesarik, and with a contingent from the County of Olomouc, headed by Stanislav Losert, Director of the Department of Strategic Development. Their concerns echoed what we had heard from Slovakia—unemployment at elevated levels (11% in Olomouc vs. 10% in the country) and lower salaries than the national average (15,000 Cr vs. 16,800 Cr nationally). So their interest in our visit was to give us a picture of the capabilities of the region, and to ask for help in finding ways to develop enhancements to the local economy. Because of the substantial need, we were again afforded treatment like visiting heads of state.
Arrangements for our housing had been made by Dr. Neuzil at the Hotel LaFayette, a beautiful pension in downtown Olomouc. While in both countries we were supplied with interpreters that stayed with us through all of our official visits and most of the recreational activities. This touch greatly assisted our appreciation of the culture and the interests of the people of these countries. We were able to get an insight into the strengths and the enthusiasm they have for maintaining their heritage, and also for their passions for moving forward, now that they have obtained their freedom of the communist regime.
|Administrators of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage Preservation flank George Crombie, Dr. Neuzil, Brad Kutzner, and Geoff Greenough|
One visit we made was to the Ministry of Cultural Heritage Preservation. The mission of this agency was to direct the renovation of historic buildings. No one was allowed to remodel any historically significant building without their approval of the architectural style to be used in the renovation. The fact that this was a federal agency shows the extent to which the people of the Czech Republic value their history.
Our delegation was shown a segment of the population of these two countries that had a keen interest in growing into the future, while valuing their history. We were entertained with tours of the cities we visited, with parties by the officials of the SPWA and CZPWA organizations, and with personal attention from the hosts, Milan Podzuban and Dr. Neuzil and their families. In each encounter, we discovered an intelligent, active group of people looking for an opportunity to put their talents to work.
With the energy and enthusiasm we observed, I am confident they will succeed. And their countries will move into positions of importance in the international arena. The membership in the EU will benefit these countries, but it will also strengthen the EU. I predict that in a few years, the EU will be an economic force equivalent to the U.S. If we are wise, we will find ways to partner with these emerging players, to use their energy to maintain our successes in the future. These will be the new marketplaces for our goods. These will be the people who will help keep our economy vibrant. Both should be looking forward to a bright, shared future.
Brad Kutzner can be reached at (858) 668-4705 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad was the third Jennings Randolph International Fellowship recipient to submit an article for the APWA Reporter in 2004. The other two Fellowship recipients are Jos‚ G. Gamboa, Superintendent of Solid Waste, Department of Public Works, City of Santa Cruz, California (whose article appeared in the July issue, page 31); and George Crombie, Director of Public Works, Town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and APWA Director-At-Large, Environmental Management (whose article appeared in the October issue, page 20).
Call for Papers: Australia 2005
International Public Works Conference
Adelaide, August 21-25, 2005
The Institute of Public Works Engineering Australia (IPWEA) is inviting submissions for papers to be presented at Australia's premier event on the public works calendar. This conference is only held once every two years and is not to be missed.
The theme for the 2005 conference is: Infrastructure. Services. Lifestyle.
Infrastructure is the building block of our society. Public works is a service industry which is often unseen but crucial to the smooth running of daily life in our communities. The provision of infrastructure and services is the foundation of our very lifestyle.
IPWEA is seeking papers that will stimulate and expand thinking across the many issues of the conference theme and public works. Share your experience and knowledge with your peers. Benefit from the feedback and attendance at the conference.
A 100-300 word description of your proposed paper is all that is needed to submit your proposal. Full details and an abstract template are available from the conference website at www.ipwea.org.au/adelaide2005 and look under "papers." The abstract preferably needs to be submitted by Friday, December 10, 2004; however, an extended deadline is available for overseas submissions.
You may also contact Chris Champion, IPWEA National CEO, at email@example.com direct for any enquiries.
Interested in a Study Tour to Australia for the Conference?
Consideration is being given to organising a study tour to Australia for the Conference. Visits to local authorities would be arranged as part of the tour. If you are interested in this possibility, please register your interest by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
CZPWA and SPWA Spring Conferences
The Czech Republic Public Works Association (CZPWA) and the Slovak Public Works Association (SPWA) will hold their Spring Conferences in April 2005. The CZPWA conference will be held in Jicin, approximately 100 km northeast of Prague. The SPWA conference (location to be determined) will take place immediately prior to the CZPWA conference. Stay tuned to the January and February issues of the APWA Reporter and to the APWA website for more information.
What is Boxing Day? Is it the day when you rid the house of empty boxes the day after Christmas? No. The name also has nothing to do with returning unwanted gifts to the stores they came from, hence its common association with hauling about boxes on the day after Christmas. The holiday's roots can be traced to Britain, where Boxing Day is also known as St. Stephen's Day. Reduced to the simplest essence, its origins are found in a long-ago practice of giving cash or durable goods to those who provide services. Gifts among family and friends were exchanged on or before Christmas Day, but gifts to those less fortunate (the servants) were bestowed the day after.
From 1987 through 1990, I lived in Abidjan, C“te d'Ivoire, in West Africa. A former French colony, C“te d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) has had the influence of many European cultures, including those of some of the neighboring former British colonies, Ghana and Nigeria. Among the numerous holidays observed in C“te d'Ivoire is Boxing Day, December 26. Boxing Day is also officially celebrated in Australia, Britain, New Zealand, and Canada.
There is much dispute over the true origins of Boxing Day, but one common story of the holiday's origins is that servants used to receive Christmas gifts from their employers on December 26, after the family celebrations. These were generally called their Christmas boxes.
Prior to Christmas Day 1987, my wife and I were advised by our Ivorien friends that we should be prepared for Boxing Day. This meant that we should give gifts or money to those who worked for us or who provided a service to us. We were counseled as to the proper gift or the appropriate amount of money. Among those providing a service were the garbage collectors.
Sure enough, late in the evening on December 26, 1987, we received a knock on the door. There stood our garbage collection crew—individuals we had never seen before, but we knew of their service to us. Just as in the U.S., we knew the service they performed by the sound of their collection truck, usually around 8:00 p.m. We felt honored to express our appreciation by the gift of money we gave to the crew.
Boxing Day, in Britain, is traditionally a day of sport. Like other public holidays which may occur on a non-working day, the "day off" will occur on the first day after the public holiday that would otherwise be a working day.
In Canada, Boxing Day is also observed as a public holiday, and is a day when stores, especially electronics stores, sell their excess Christmas inventory at significantly reduced prices. Boxing Day has become so important for retailers that they often extend it into a Boxing Week.
In Australia, cricket starting on December 26 is called the Boxing Day Test Match, and is played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground before the largest, rowdiest crowd of the summer. In Sydney, the annual Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race, one of the biggest and most prestigious ocean racing events in the world, begins on this day, as the yachts depart Sydney Harbour before many thousands of spectators around the harbour and in spectator boats.
How do you show appreciation to those who provide a service to you? Or do you show any appreciation? Boxing Day reminds me that we, in public works, are all in the business of providing service. Make it a point this Christmas season to give personal recognition to your employees in the solid waste department, the street department, the utilities department, the fleet maintenance department, and any others with whom you work. The nature of their service may mean that they will be working when others are enjoying the holidays with their families.
Jimmy B. Foster
Director of Public Works
City of Plano, Texas
"Do not put your spoon into the pot which does not boil for you." - Romanian Proverb
"Forget injuries, never forget kindness." - Chinese Proverb
"If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself." - Native American Proverb