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Forward Together: Special Districts Virtual Summit

This first Special Districts virtual event of 2021 focused on issues facing special district leaders as the nation recovers from the pandemic.

Key Takeaways

Districts must plan for more complex disaster scenarios: When intense winter weather crippled power and water service in Texas last month, special district leaders in the state faced multidimensional business continuity challenges. For example, call center agents for the San Antonio Water System were working remotely due to COVID when the storm knocked out power and water service to many of their homes. Although the lights stayed on at the water system’s onsite call center, remote agents couldn’t travel to the facility due to poor road conditions. Similar challenges struck the Houston Airport System, where home-based IT staff lost power and couldn’t return to offices. Leaders at both organizations say these experiences will shape future resiliency and disaster recovery planning.

Leaders must be motivators: One particular challenge facing district leaders in Texas during the recent weather event was convincing employees to work long emergency shifts while their own families struggled without power, water and other vital services. Sree Pulapaka, CIO for the San Antonio Water System, said motivation can come from emphasizing the essential mission performed by many districts. “I saw it firsthand – people were working 22-hour shifts without complaining,” he said. “We provide something that’s extremely important to people – and a lot of our folks are motivated by that community experience.” Ultimately leaders need to recognize staff members who step up in these situations and hold accountable those who don’t.

Strategies have a shorter shelf life: Due to accelerating rates of change and growing unpredictability, traditional five-year strategic plans are out the window. “You need to guard against strategies that go beyond three years. Anything longer than that is too long,” said Brian Benn, CIO of the Atlanta Housing Authority. He said the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for district leaders to develop overarching strategies that are flexible enough to withstand evolving conditions. In addition, leaders must differentiate between strategies, which will guide their organizations through disruption, and tactics, which may change to address evolving conditions.

Technology modernization is getting more attention: Special districts are rapidly moving from legacy technology systems – some of them 15 to 25 years old – to new and often cloud-based platforms to support remote workers and digital service delivery. Districts also are upgrading networks to ensure reliable connection to cloud-based resources. “One network circuit doesn't cut it nowadays if you are relying upon the cloud,” said Devon Winthrop, a principal architect with AT&T. “We’re working with districts to set up redundant services and software-defined networks.”

New funding opportunities are on the horizon: With the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill nearing final approval, special districts will have new opportunities to fill funding gaps. Bryan Sastokas, CIO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said his organization used the bulk of its funding from last year’s CARES Act to pay employee salaries and keep transit services running. The latest round of funding could help the authority revive stalled capital improvement projects. “With the CARES Act, we focused on operational needs, but we still have a lot of capital initiatives,” he said. “There are lot of other things that really need to be addressed.”

Tanya Acevedo, CIO, Houston Airport System
Brian Benn, CIO, Atlanta Housing Authority
Paula Brehm-Heeger, Director, Eva Jane Coombe Library, Cincinnati, OH
Sree Pulapaka, VP, CIO, San Antonio Water System
Omar Sandoval, CIO, Naperville Park District
Bryan Sastokas, CIO, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority
Devon Winthrop, Principal Architect, AT&T
Dustin Haisler, Moderator, Chief Innovation Officer, Government Technology