The public works leader's balancing act

Tim Equels
Assistant Director of Public Works
Fulton County, Georgia

Let's face it. Public works is a very hard business. To be effective, you have to maintain a tricky balance between responding to immediate needs versus planning to meet future needs. Budgets are often tight and the needs are great and continuous.

Not only that, there are many players involved in the decision-making process, including tax and ratepayers, customers, elected officials, advocacy groups, and regulators. Gaining consensus requires incredible communications finesse.

All of these responsibilities cannot be successfully met without effective leadership skills. Leadership requires innovative thinking, determination and a willingness to develop new solutions to problems that arise.

And if you don't focus on the bottom line—whether it's fixing potholes in a thoroughfare, reducing sewer spills, or increasing water distribution capacity—you'll hear about it. You'll hear about it through customer complaints, or permit violations, or career stagnation.

Lack of Leadership
When I joined the Fulton County Department of Public Works five years ago, the Water Services Division was suffering from a serious lack of focus and leadership that translated into very real consequences. The department had also lost a number of senior staff. A consultant firm was performing the top-level management activities.

Not only that, the county's infrastructure was not keeping pace with the demands of double-digit population growth in Fulton County. Our wastewater treatment plants were operating significantly over capacity, which led to serious issues with our NPDES permit.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) had enacted a sewer moratorium in the fastest-growing part of the county, if not the state. No additional connections could be made into our wastewater system until we increased capacity and brought the existing overtaxed plants into full compliance. This had the potential for completely halting new residential and commercial development. The Water Services Division was seriously behind the power curve.

However, over the past five years, we've implemented a number of programs to not only address the sewer moratorium but to plan ahead so that the division is able to meet our very important public health responsibilities. We surmounted a number of major challenges that illustrate leadership and commitment on the part of the department that may be instructive to leaders of other public works agencies.

Step One: Garner Your Resources
Within any organization there are people who, no matter what their position, can work through change. These are the people that can make things happen. As a leader, it's vitally important to establish positive relationships with those people and gain their trust.

At the same time, it's important to put an organizational structure in place that allows people to communicate and operate effectively. At Fulton County, we established four new functional groups: Surface Water Management, Technical Services, Water Protection, and Systems Maintenance.

These groups have similar responsibilities to those in other public works agencies. By clearly articulating each group's functions and responsibilities, our staff was able to function more efficiently and to communicate more effectively on issues that span functional lines. Integrated business plans and performance measures were established that helped the managers to think not only about their particular responsibilities, but also how their work supports the other internal functional areas and the customers who pay our bills.

Step Two: Put First Things First
One of the most fundamental leadership skills is the ability to prioritize. In the public works arena, our first responsibility lies in public health and safety. Therefore, as public works leaders, we need to keep our eyes on the projects that will deliver the most in terms of benefit for the public good.

One of my axioms is that you can't have a bad day when you are delivering drinking water to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who have put their good health in your hands. We must have systems, backup systems, and tried and true procedures in place every day to prevent degradation of our safe drinking water and wastewater treatment systems.

The Camp Creek wastewater plant expansion was the first design-build-operate wastewater treatment plant project in Georgia. It exemplifies creative thinking in response to a critical need.

We also have to think creatively about how to get these projects accomplished to meet the public's most pressing needs. Five years ago, increasing our wastewater treatment capacity was the highest priority in my division. We pushed hard on several fronts to expand the existing capacity of wastewater plants.

For example, we convinced the Georgia Legislature to allow the first design-build-operate (DBO) wastewater treatment plant project in Georgia. This combined procurement process allowed us to competitively negotiate a contract for a critical 13 to 24 MGD expansion to the Camp Creek wastewater plant with a 15-year operations period. By combining these functions into a single procurement, we were able to get significant financial and other guarantees to ensure that the contractor will operate what he builds and build what he designs. This $85 million construction project is ahead of schedule and has met or exceeded every performance milestone to date.

The 2.5 MGD Cauley Creek Urban Water Reuse Plant supplies much-needed reuse water to the surrounding community.

We also awarded a private-public joint venture contract and completed design and construction within 12 months for a new 2.5 MGD Urban Water Reuse Plant at Cauley Creek in North Fulton County. The plant was entirely privately funded through this public/private joint venture and supplies much needed reuse water to the surrounding community.

Fortunately, in my career I've been exposed to a broad spectrum of contracting mechanisms through past experience while a Navy Civil Engineer Corps Officer and at various municipal public works posts throughout the country. I also selected deputies with a broad range of experience. Therefore, my team and I were able to visualize new and innovative ways to accomplish what we needed to do. Our solutions took advantage of the best of both worlds, private and public, and took care of the division's most pressing needs first in the most effective way possible.

"New and innovative" implies a departure from the status quo. That's why it is so important to identify and nurture staff that is willing to apply new tools to the circumstances at hand.

Step Three: Look Ahead
As public works leaders, we can't always be putting out brush fires each day. We need to address the emergency needs while looking ahead, especially in geographic areas that are experiencing significant growth.

Neglect, financial problems, and waste are the most common reasons why infrastructure systems fail. If we don't look ahead, the infrastructure will start to fail quicker than we can fix it. The deficiencies will cascade exponentially if regular, effective improvements aren't programmed into a public works system.

As I mentioned above, several years ago the Water Services Division embarked on a business planning process that ultimately enabled us to balance our facility needs and fiscal affordability. The plan outlined our mission and goals, the driving trends behind our services, the infrastructure we have in the ground, and the programs needed to meet our future demands.

We also analyzed our existing financial model to evaluate how much we could afford to build and what alternative financing mechanisms might be available. This financial analysis provides the detailed justification to issue the bonds and other financial mechanisms for the required infrastructure improvements. In this "Post-9/11, Post-Enron" environment, financial agencies are demanding well-constructed strategic business plans and detailed justifications before they will lend you hundreds of millions in new bonds and other securities.

In addition to providing strategic direction and prioritization, long-range planning is a productive exercise that builds team consensus. This view into the future enabled us to take action on an issue that could become dire if not properly addressed: the limited water supply in the greater Atlanta area.

As a result, we have implemented a water reuse program within the county in which very high-quality wastewater treatment plant effluent is distributed to area golf courses, churches/schools, and new residential subdivisions, all of which use large amounts of water in the summer for irrigation purposes. We are also currently piloting programs to retrofit existing neighborhoods with treated wastewater for irrigation.

In my opinion, developing these types of solutions—that allow public works agencies to be good stewards and to build projects that make good sense—is what makes a career as a public works leader the most rewarding.

Step Four: Nurture Your Allies
All the work that we propose to do by the Fulton County Public Works Department ultimately is brought forth to the Board of Commissioners for review and approval. We have seven districts within the county and commissioners are elected to the board every four years.

To move forward with our program, it was critical to establish a good working relationship with the commissioners and the specific stakeholders that are involved, including the County Manager; County Attorney; the Purchasing, Contract Compliance, and Finance staff; and, of course, the neighborhood community leaders. The efforts at relationship building are a combination of education, trust-building, and good, old-fashioned hard work.

Taking a leadership role in relationship-building with our government colleagues and the communities is where I believe we can make the most difference in the field of public works. The public needs to understand the value of what we do and why we do it. You need to "sell" the program. Putting new wastewater treatment plants in existing neighborhoods can be a daunting task. You can overcome objections by listening and acting on the concerns of those that are directly affected.

If we're doing our job right as public works leaders, we will gain the support of our communities—the essential key in making public works work.

Tim Equels can be reached at (404) 730-7442 or at