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Public Partnerships Meeting Competition Head-On Or Think Private and Play With the Big Dogs

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The trend in public utility management over the last decade is the implementation of cost saving and efficient operational strategies to become more competitive with private utilities. The Butler County Department of Environmental Services (BCDES) takes “thinking private” very seriously. In their 1999 Business Plan, one strategic goal was “to look for opportunities to enhance revenues.” Regionalization of public utilities, while even going beyond a water shed approach, is one way utilities can partner to accomplish BCDES goals and/or to realize cost savings. When a local county government put out a Request For Bid regarding contract operations of the water and wastewater systems, BCDES saw this as just such an opportunity. BCDES put together a proposal to operate Clermont County's 10 wastewater facilities, 91 lift stations, and 600 miles of collection sewers. “Counties in Partnership” was the title of the BCDES proposal and when the bids were opened on November 17, 1999, BCDES' bid was the lowest cost for the wastewater operations. Clermont County subsequently chose a private provider who also had a design-build-operate project in the county, but BCDES is a still winner! Public sector employees put together a contract operations cost that competed with the best in the business. This process broke new ground, going far beyond the “managed competition” that has been done by several public agencies across the country. BCDES is also a winner because the process itself was a learning experience that has already enabled them to implement even more far reaching strategies to lower O&M costs within the Butler County organization.

With labor being the biggest, single item in a utilities budget, the number of employees needed to operate the system is a very important decision. Higher performance expectations and greater workforce flexibility are key ingredients to lower labor costs. While attrition will hopefully be the long-range method of staff reduction, BCDES is not simply waiting. BCDES Labor/Management Team is working towards moving staff from areas of excess capacity to areas of need. Excess labor capacity is also being used to construct capital improvements, thereby saving contractor markups. Breaking down work silos is the key to efficient staff utilization. Changing the oil in a truck in the morning and fixing a water main break in the afternoon is typical in a work day at BCDES. Each employee has a core competency, but moving outside of that to assist in an area of need is the best way to serve the customers. Measuring performance is the main ingredient.

Since the bid submittal, BCDES has accomplished the following staff utilization analyses:



Benchmarked laboratory services against a private provider and found 2 FTE's in excess.


Benchmarked fleet maintenance against a private provider and found 1.4 FTE's in excess.


Using the Clermont County bid as a starting point, found 4 excess FTE's in wastewater operations.


Eliminated two FTE's in clerical field services positions.


Eliminated 2 FTE's in Customer Service.


In each of these cases, the particular skill set of each of these employees was utilized to determine the best fit within areas of need. This utilization strategy has allowed BCDES to forego hiring additional staff for a system that has experienced a 6% annual growth rate (approximately 1300 new connections) since 1990. We have also reduced the total cost per water main break by 40%.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2000-01-01

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