INTEGRATING PUBLIC INFORMATION AND CUSTOMER SERVICE IN SEPTIC-TO-SEWER CONVERSION
Abstract:Marketed as Florida's “Culture Coast,” Sarasota County is one of the state's most affluent communities and is recognized for its outstanding beaches and Gulf coast beauty. Paradoxically, wastewater treatment for thousands of properties in the county continues to be performed by septic systems situated on small lots with sandy soils and a high groundwater table. In 1997, the Sarasota County Board of County Commissioners agreed that septic systems were one of the major factors contributing pollution to Phillippi Creek, a major tributary to Sarasota Bay, which is designated as a National Estuary. The creek contains pollutants that have been associated with human wastes and is so polluted that the County Health Department posted the creek “No Swimming” in 1997.
After an extensive planning effort in 1998 and 1999, the county embarked on the largest capital improvement project in its history, seeking to replace 14,000 septic systems in the Phillippi Creek drainage basin with central wastewater treatment over 10 years. Commissioners passed a mandatory connection ordinance requiring property owners to connect to central sewer within 365 days of Notice of Availability. Construction in the first of eight project areas began in 2001, and the first customers connected to central sewer in late 2002.
To support this ambitious project, consultants and county staff developed an extensive public information program that is closely linked to customer service and utilities operations. A multi-disciplinary team implements printed materials, neighborhood meetings, a web site, customer service procedures and media relations to support direct and unfiltered communications with future customers of the utility. Key external audiences include property owners, neighborhood associations and news media. Key internal audiences include County Commissioners, administrators, staff in related departments, Environmental Services Customer Service staff and consultants interacting with the public.
Tactics used in the program include:
Direct mail – The county has prepared detailed information on the program including an overview of efforts to provide central sewer service, answers to frequently asked questions, costs and incentives, on-lot work and project area maps. Mailings are sent at different stages in the program including survey notice, open house invitation, pre-construction notice and connection notice.
Neighborhood open house meetings – The county conducts open house meetings in each project area during the design phase. The County mails invitations to property owners in the project area and provides notice of the meetings to the news media. Meetings are held in school cafeterias in the vicinity of each project area and are staffed by county employees and consultants. Various stations relate to finance, engineering, the overall program, vacuum system technology and on-lot work (septic system abandonment/public health issues). Property owners speak directly with staff and consultants, pick up printed information and provide written comments. Approximately six to 12 written inquiries per meeting have required additional follow up by staff. Most of those inquiries related to financing questions or site-specific design concerns. According to written and verbal comments, the open house format has been well received.
Web site – The program's Web site at www.mycentralsewer.org also has been well received. The site is content-rich and provides extensive detail on the program, including maps for the individual project areas. The Web site has allowed other local governments to access information about the progress of the Sarasota County program and has facilitated technology transfer on outreach activities. The site is updated frequently. Email sent from the site to firstname.lastname@example.org is fielded by a senior staff member with Environmental Services Customer Service.
Customer service – The public is encouraged to direct inquiries to Environmental Services Customer Service where staff is trained to answer most questions about the program. Inquiries may be forwarded to other county staff or to the design engineer, as appropriate. Periodic training sessions are provided to Customer Service staff, other county staff and consultants who interact with the public. This activity was unprecedented in the county. Help lines at design engineering offices were established to allow property owners to alert the project team to construction-related issues. Field personnel provide literature and customer service contact information to property owners who make inquiries in the field.
Media relations – The news media are informed of key milestones and activities of the project. Spokesmen have been designated, and staff and consultants cooperate effectively on fielding media inquiries and preparing spokesmen for interviews.
Evaluation methods included:
Customer service training session evaluation forms;
Comment forms collected at open house meetings;
Email messages received at www.mycentralsewer.org;
Random follow-up with customers who contacted construction help-lines;
Rate of response to early connection incentive.
Preliminary results show that customer service training sessions are effective in helping staff and consultants respond to inquiries; customers want to receive direct, unfiltered communication from the county, preferably through direct mail; the Web site is a useful tool; and the construction help-line has been effective in achieving quick response to technical and construction inquiries. The strategies, tools and procedures tested through this program by a multi-disciplinary team of staff and consultants demonstrates an integrated approach to customer service and public information that would apply to a wide array of major infrastructure projects.
Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: January 1, 2003
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