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Special Districts Adapt to a New Environment

Leaders explain how they’re evolving citizen services, internal operations and management practices.

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With the COVID crisis passing the half-year mark, special districts are assessing the impact of new virtual services, adapting technologies and project schedules to cope with the new environment, and focusing on the staff impacts of long-term remote work.

More than 200 special district officials joined the Special District Program’s West Region Virtual Summit, which brought together special district leaders from across the western U.S. The Aug. 25 event featured speakers from special districts that provide public transportation, library services, water, electric power, and parks and recreation. Panelists offered a real-life look at how they are adapting to the post-COVID world.

Districts are finding ways to maintain and sometimes increase citizen engagement through expanded digital services. Virtual programs, events and meetings, and public hearings in some cases are reaching larger audiences than the in-person activities they are replacing, special district leaders say.

For example, the Cordova Recreation & Park District in Sacramento, Calif., shifted traditional community planning events to virtual with impressive results.

The district typically holds these meetings in person, where citizens can review park plans, choose various playground options and give other input.

When COVID hit, the district developed digital versions featuring videos of architects and planners describing park features and showing design options.

Citizens submitted their preferences online.

“We actually received the most input we have ever received,” says Cady Nagy-Chow, marketing communications specialist for the district.

The Meridian Library District in Idaho is seeing similar results. When COVID forced closure of traditional library services, the district experienced a 60 percent increase in demand for digital materials such as ebooks and streaming content, says Library Director Gretchen Caserotti, adding the district has reallocated funding to expand access to its digital collections.

The library also repurposed idle equipment to help the community. 3D printers from the library’s maker-space were used to print plastic face shields and facility’s vehicles hit the road to deliver library materials to residents.

Districts are adapting processes, technologies and project schedules based on the new environment. Although districts weren’t planning for a global pandemic, many had existing resources that were repurposed to support the COVID response.

At the Orange County Transportation Authority in southern California, an emergency operations plan developed and practiced well before the virus arrived proved invaluable when offices were shut down.

“We had spent a significant amount of time over the past five or six years really strengthening our continuity of operations and crisis planning,” says Darrell E. Johnson, chief executive officer for the authority. “We really thought at some point we’d have to use it for a flood, a fire or an earthquake. We didn’t think we’d use the plan for a public health crisis.”

Johnson says drills conducted around operating without accessing the authority’s headquarters – as well as a work-from-home pilot launched last year -- positioned the organization to transition 500 staff members to remote work.

“A big part of that shift was technology, of course,” says Johnson, noting that about 100 staff members were issued tablet computers to support the move.

“But the bigger part of that was the drills and exercises that forced our people to do their jobs and interactions from a remote location.”

Another southern California transit district, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit District (LA Metro) is beefing up cybersecurity to protect remote workers and potentially using sensor networks to support social distancing in LA Metro rail cars.

The latter initiative originally was conceived as a way to improve passenger convenience by using onboard sensors to alert riders when a rail car is full before they board. That information now can be used to support social distancing requirements.

“We can tell when certain rail cars are full or not full, and direct passengers to cars that are open,” says LA Metro CIO Bryan Sastokas.

And the Contra Costa Transportation Authority in California’s San Francisco Bay area took advantage of lighter traffic on a critical stretch of freeway to shave time and cost from an important construction project. The authority recently opened a new 25-mile express lane on Interstate 680, a busy north/south stretch of highway east of San Francisco, a full year earlier than planned.

“When a project is done early, you save taxpayers a lot of money,” says Randell Iwasaki, executive director of the authority. “This means our contractor doesn’t need to be out there another year, and the taxpayers get the benefit of the lane a year earlier, which means your rate of return is that much greater. We were able to leverage a bad situation to our advantage.”

As the COVID crisis continues, districts are increasingly concerned about its workforce impacts. Leaders say they’re striving to support employees who are experiencing financial hardships, childcare struggles and mental health challenges due to COVID and the resulting economic downturn.

Avoiding employee burnout and maintaining a sense of connection are two of the biggest worries as districts manage remote workforces.

“It’s hard to stare at a monitor 10 hours a day without getting up and having some sort of physical engagement,” says LA Metro’s Sastokas. “When you’re at home, you lose that cultural perspective of being part of an agency.”

He says the authority is offering more internal content designed to keep employees active and connected. It’s also increasing educational programs for supervisors and staff.

The Meridian Library District is adding new support for employees, as well. Caserotti says the library has begun to offer resources to help staff cope with isolation, stress, finances, childcare issues and other hardships.

“We’re in a place today where we’re really needing to focus on healthcare and mental health because of the issues we know our staff are experiencing,” she says. “We’ve been regularly surveying employees and giving them an opportunity to connect with HR or their supervisors confidentially if they need help.

Multiple district leaders also emphasized the importance of clear and constant communication with staff – even if they don’t have all the answers.

“We keep pushing back the start date for return to work,” says Johnson at the Orange County Transportation Authority. “I keep telling employees, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but here’s how I’m approaching it, and I’ll keep in touch with you every step of the way. I’m doing that personally. I think that’s important.”

To join us at an upcoming Virtual Summit, visit our event page to register.