A new service could bring the benefits of the sharing economy to public works departments around the nation.
The sharing economy is bleeding into the public sector: A new service called Munirent lets local municipalities rent equipment to one another, and may potentially bestow the same convenience and cost efficiencies realized by consumers of Lyft and Airbnb.
Launched in January, Munirent now has six member municipalities, and though no transactions have happened yet, equipment is listed and the company says participation is nearing critical mass.
Five of Munirent’s members are Michigan townships and cities – Chelsea, Milan, Hazel Park, Mt. Clemens and Ann Arbor. The sixth is Troutdale, Ore., the region where founder Alan Mond says he’s looking to expand the service next.
“Most of the cities that are now on Munirent were, I’d say, early adopters,” Mond said. “They all immediately got the idea and they were big supporters from day one.”
Support through Code for America’s 2014 Accelerator gave the service credibility, he said, but he thinks once this catches on, most governments are going to see the value.
The idea of the service, Mond added, is to provide an economic infrastructure that boosts efficiency. A lot of municipalities have equipment that spends a lot of time unused, and other nearby governments could save time and money by renting equipment from their neighbors. Listing on Munirent is similar to listing an item on Ebay; membership is free, and Munirent takes between 10 and 20 percent from the equipment owner’s earnings on a transaction.
“We’re handling the payment, the invoicing, we’re handling all the backend so to speak, and all they have to do is prepare the equipment so the renting municipality can come pick it up, use it, then return it,” Mond said. “We handle all the administrative costs of performing that transaction, so having a rental agreement in place, having an agreed upon price, invoicing the renter, sending a check to the owner, and having all that is really where our value lies for these municipalities. We’re essentially off-loading a big barrier for them to charge each other. We’re acting as a kind of clearinghouse for them.”
Mond also envisions Munirent being useful and timely in the event of a natural disaster, like a mudslide. The service's equipment listings are done using FEMA resource typing, a kind of standardized nomenclature that allows public works directors to know exactly what kind of equipment they’re renting. That clarity, Mond said, is crucial during a fast-paced emergency.
Prior to joining, the first Munirent members had questions about logistics, Mond said, most of which have been figured out. A piece of equipment that is damaged, for instance, was determined to be the responsibility of the renting party, as is the case with most other equipment or car rental services. The rest of the legal details and logistics are arranged when a municipality initially joins the service.
Equipment sharing between municipalities is already a regular part of business in some regions, like around Marion County, Ore., where an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) has enabled a sharing economy since 1994. Don Newell, administrator of the Portland Metropolitan Area Transportation Co-operative IGA for Marion County Public Works, said they’re not committed to Munirent yet, but are considering using the service as a supplement to their IGA because that arrangement has been of huge benefit over the years.
More than 40 Oregon municipalities participate in the Managing Oregon Resources Efficiently (MORE) IGA, Newell said, and dozens more are expected to join in the coming months, transferring over from an old agreement.
“It’s a cost savings deal,” Newell said. “We all saved money by not buying a bunch of specialized equipment. I could tell you story after story after story. Some agencies are too small to own a road-striper truck so they get road striping from me. I’ve got two of them. If you’re an agency, particularly smaller agencies, you can’t afford some of this equipment. I have a cold planer that mills out asphalt and loads it into trucks: $450,000. Next week I’m renting that to the city of Salem for $150 an hour. They can’t afford to own it, but they can afford to rent mine.”
Newell said he doesn’t need Munirent to make connections, because they have decades-old relationships with their neighboring governments, but a lot of regions don’t have those relationships. Munirent also solves one of the biggest problems MORE-IGA members have had over the years, Newell said, which is maintaining equipment lists.
“That was a real headache because everybody’s fleet kept changing,” he explained. “By having Munirent online, those parties that exercise that option, now they can keep their fleet current at will and meanwhile the rest of us can see who’s got what.”
Munirent can give other regions that don’t have mature intergovernmental relationships a tool to facilitate the same kinds of benefits Oregon has realized over the years, Newell said, and the more members the service gets, the greater he thinks the benefits will be.
IGAs go beyond equipment rental, and so will Munirent. Aurora, Ore., turned to a neighboring MORE-IGA member when they needed an engineering team to install their first traffic light, Newell said. Just as with equipment, it doesn’t always make sense to make a large investment in a specialized resource when the same service can be contracted for a nominal fee.
Munirent is designed to allow municipalities to contract talent, Mond said. “If a municipality would like to rent out their street sweeper with an operator, such as the case of city of Chelsea in Michigan, they can do so on Munirent no problem.”