How to Defeat the Endless Cycle of Deferred Maintenance, as Told by Two Southern California Cities

A look at two bold, sweeping approaches to solving local government's infrastructure problems.

A problem: There is a pothole on a busy city street, one that services small, local businesses that pay money into city coffers. There's also a leaky pipe in the library, growing rustier by the month. There isn’t enough money to fix both.

Which does the city fix?

Such is the problem for many local governments around the U.S. They have deferred maintenance backlogs, and constantly have to decide between addressing issues that really needed fixing five years or ago or problems that really, really needed to be solved three years ago. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the country’s infrastructure needs in the span of 2013 to 2020 total $3.6 trillion — almost as much as the entire U.S. federal government spent in fiscal 2015.

Keep that in mind the next time you take a stroll through the alleys of Santa Monica, Calif. The city has become so consistent at keeping up with issues like sidewalk and street repair, it’s actually started looking to places that don’t normally get as much maintenance attention — like alleyways — to get out ahead of problems before they happen.

Santa Monica

The philosophy in Santa Monica’s government goes something like this: Put resources in now for something that doesn’t quite need fixing yet, and over the course of many years, a city will save itself a lot of trouble.

Rick Cole, Santa Monica’s city manager, compares that to a more common cycle present in many similar cities. In years of scarce funding, cities cut back their efforts in areas like capital improvement and deferred maintenance. In good years, they try to catch up.

If the rest of the U.S. put as much funding toward infrastructure as Cole says, the nation would be spending about $387 billion per year on it — about $67 billion more than the status quo for state and local budgets, according to Congressional Budget Office numbers.

Not that spending more is something to be proud of. Rather, according to Cole, the level of investment the city puts in its streets, sidewalks, lights, technology — it all comes back around. The city’s approach means it has little deferred maintenance, and by keeping that backlog small and focusing on preventive work, he said Santa Monica avoids a lot of future expenses for when aging systems break down.

“Not every community has financial resources like Santa Monica. But I think I can say with real credibility that infrastructure investment pays off,” Cole said. “And the better you do at investing in your infrastructure, the more resources you have to continue investing in your infrastructure. And the opposite is just as true: The more you skimp on your infrastructure, the fewer resources you have to invest in your deferred maintenance.”

One easy example: that ever-present pothole.

“There is simply no more hellish way to maintain your streets than to send out an old truck with two unionized civil servants with a load of hot asphalt to dig out a pothole, pour in asphalt, roll over it and come back in six months and do the exact same thing," he said, "versus having a pavement management program that keeps your streets in such good repair that a pothole is an event rather than routine.”

On top of that, keeping things in good order is itself a public benefit — perhaps even an economic one.

“You become a more attractive location for people to operate businesses, to live and to visit,” said Cole. “You reduce the friction that comes with a degraded infrastructure. Your transportation works better, your daily life works better, and your parks are greener and your water is cleaner.”

There’s a small catch to Santa Monica’s system, and it slips in when it comes time to build the municipal budget: Because the city puts so much emphasis on keeping up with capital improvements and maintenance, its staff is forced to look for efficiencies. That means, for one thing, that not everybody gets what they want every year. So there is something of a delicate balance for the city to maintain between the needs of various departments, one involving assuring staff that if they don’t get what they need this year, they are quite likely to get it the next.

To address that problem and help identify ways to complete work more efficiently, Santa Monica has taken to breaking down interdepartmental silos when it comes to budgeting. Department heads will gather together and review one another’s budgeting proposals, find common needs and come up with solutions that any one department head might not have thought of on his or her own.

A common example of departments working together might be identifying opportunities to lay down Internet fiber under a road while the city has it opened up to replace a pipe. Santa Monica’s been doing that since the 1990s, and now it sells 100 gigabyte-speed Internet to commercial clients.

“I think that you have people around the table that are accountable, that need to work together every day, that can understand someone else’s perspective,” said Gigi Decavalles-Hughes, Santa Monica’s finance director. “In the past, many years ago, we would pretty much have a smaller team look at all the projects and have managers or people responsible for the project come in and present. Now by having the decision-makers, the managers, come to the table that … are aware of all the things that are happening, they are much more informed and they can make decisions on the spot.”

It all comes together in a place like Santa Monica’s alleyways. Literally hidden in shadows, the alleyways might not otherwise be a place that get a lot of attention when it comes to city budgeting. And yet they support many of the city’s goals — so, with a desire to address potential problems early on, the city has set a target of spending $200,000 on its alleys annually and visiting every alley every two years.

“Particularly in our downtown area, they’re used by residents, they’re used by our businesses, and there’s also been … a desire to incorporate arts programs in the alleys. They’re heavily used,” said Susan Cline of the city’s Public Works Department. “We’re a tourist destination city, so our downtown services a large influx of people every day, and our alleys are critical to maintain the services, so for … trash, utilities, all of the above.”

But what about the cities that haven’t been keeping up with maintenance for decades? What about those that have backlogs of needed capital improvements sitting uncomfortably atop a pile of holey roads, leaky pipes and burnt-out lights?


Enter the Riverside Renaissance.

The city’s timing was impeccable: It was 2006 and the elected leaders of Riverside, Calif., had no way of knowing about the threatening clouds hanging just on the edge of their vision. Together they decided that it was time to catch up with all the work they’d been putting off for years. Working with city staff dealing with everything from parks to police, Riverside’s government machine came up with an ambitious plan to issue public bonds funding $1.6 billion in city work during a five-year stretch.

And it wasn’t just deferred maintenance, though the city had a healthy $629 million backlog it incorporated into its plans. Riverside was — and still is — one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and city services hadn’t kept up with the growth of its population. Riverside needed new parks, new libraries, more playgrounds, more of the things cities do for their citizens.

“I would say it was, for lack of a better term, the [Capital Improvement Plans] on steroids,” said Riverside Public Utilities’ Staci Sullivan. “So if you normally constructed one park in three years, we were doing six, seven parks.”

Only about a year in, somebody pulled a wooden block out of the rickety tower that was America’s inflated housing market, and the country’s economy came crashing down. For retirement plans, it was dire news.

For Riverside’s plans, it turned out to be quite the opposite. “Here we are in an economic recession and we are, in a way, using that to our advantage. Because instead of a park costing $13 million, we’re getting extremely competitive bids, and now it’s $9 million,” Sullivan said. “Now those savings can be used for something else, and that’s how we were able to do so much with it.”

A sampling of what came out of the initiative: a new skate park, a youth opportunity center, a number of street rehabilitation projects, a lake rehabilitation here, a new playground in a park there, a couple of parking garages, a couple of interchange projects — all said and done, the initiative encompassed 185 projects in a span of five years.

“It touched everything,” she said. “You couldn’t drive the city in those five years without seeing something having been improved.”

But there is no “happily ever after” for Riverside. The renaissance put the city in a place where it was able to catch up with years of pent-up work, and now it needs to decide how it will approach that work in the future. It’s a big question the city manager is wrestling with, Sullivan said: How can Riverside make sure it doesn’t fall behind on its maintenance, especially now that it has all this new infrastructure?

“We did all this amazing work and transformed the city in a very positive way, and now there’s a job of going back and making sure that everything is staying up to par,” she said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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