Welcome to the latest issue of The Districts, where we chronicle the people, issues and activities impacting special districts across the U.S.
Our first Special Districts virtual event of 2021 focused on issues facing special district leaders as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and charts a new course for the future. Our seven-member panel of special district officials and industry experts broke down key trends around disaster planning, leadership and strategy, technology modernization, and project funding. Here are some highlights from this important conversation:
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: 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.
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 have arrived: The Biden Administration’s newly approved $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill gives special districts 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.”
When the pandemic hit last year, MCE, a northern California renewable energy utility, moved in-person customer outreach and orientation meetings to multiple digital platforms. Based on the success of those virtual events, MCE began live-streaming its public Board of Directors meetings to maintain citizen engagement during the COVID crisis. These efforts earned MCE a 2020 Technology Innovation Award – one of 45 such awards given out by the Special Districts Program last year to recognize excellence in citizen services, internal operations and overall leadership.
Make sure your district’s achievements get the attention they deserve by submitting a nomination for our 2021 Special Districts Award Program. This year’s awards program opens for nominations April 5, and we’re looking for examples of effective leadership and innovative projects to provide digital citizen services, reengineer business processes, strengthen information security and more. Mark your calendar and tell us your district’s success story. Find out more about the Special Districts Awards Program.
A renegade mouse cursor signaled the danger at the water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Fla. On Feb. 5, a plant operator for the city of about 15,000 on Florida’s west coast saw his cursor being moved around on his computer screen, opening various software functions that control the water being treated. The intruder boosted the level of sodium hydroxide — or lye — in the water supply to 100 times higher than normal.
Although the operator immediately reduced the level of sodium hydroxide – a caustic chemical used to control acidity and remove metals from drinking water – back to safe levels, the attack alarmed state and local officials throughout the country. Some states have issued alerts to local water systems, and others are providing additional cybersecurity training and inspections.
“This incident is opening a lot of people’s eyes because public health is connected to systems that have cybersecurity vulnerabilities,” says Miranda Mello, a senior water supply engineer at the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin, where the state sent advisories to 611 community water systems after the Florida incident.
Here are more stories from special districts around the country. Share your own news with us for inclusion in the next newsletter.
New stimulus package signed by President Biden contains billions of dollars for public transit, airports and public health. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes $350 billion in fiscal relief for state and local governments.
New report calls for coordination between buses, bikes, trains, scooters and more. Recommendations from the Transportation Research Board could help communities reset transit policies post-pandemic.
Portland regional planning organization parts ways with transit data company over privacy concerns. The dispute ends a pilot project to use de-identified movement data to gain a deeper understanding of transit and travel patterns.
South Central Transit Authority in Pennsylvania adds contactless ticketing and new bus-tracking tools. The move continues a trend toward technology upgrades by local transit agencies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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