"I don't get no respect." The old Rodney Dangerfield lament is one you hear all the time from people, whether in government, industry or the nonprofit world, who operate the infrastructure that provides water and energy and hauls away the trash. What frustrates these providers is the invisible role that they typically play in their communities -- that is, until there's a problem.
Some communities regularly deserve (and garner) recognition for their creative and sustainable water, energy and waste-management services. In California, San Francisco is one such city. Santa Monica is another. Often the difference comes down to resources -- having the money to build the infrastructure, keep it maintained and provide reliable service at a reasonable cost.
So it might seem surprising when a city like Bakersfield, in the heart of California's Central Valley and with fewer economic resources than San Francisco or Santa Monica, joins the group. Bakersfield's public-works department did so by creatively engaging the local community to find a sustainable solution to a growing roadside-litter problem.
As so often happens, it all started with a policy change at another level of government. Freeway upkeep falls under the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans). But the state's ongoing prison-realignment effort resulted in a loss of local inmate labor to hire to pick up trash on the roads. As litter accumulated along Bakersfield's freeways, residents found themselves driving through a growing eyesore.
Though not Bakersfield's responsibility, it still was a visible waste problem that the city would have to address. "Bakersfield was getting a bad name, and it wasn't under our control," says Sal Moretti, Bakersfield's Solid Waste Division superintendent.
Moretti started looking for solutions and hit on a novel idea: hiring clients of local nonprofit homeless centers to clean up the freeways. CalTrans agreed to come up with some of the money to pay the homeless-center clients, as long as the labor costs wouldn't be higher than they were for inmates.
Not only are the freeways being cleaned again, but a sense of hopelessness among Bakersfield's homeless is being addressed. And local businesses really liked that the homeless were working to get back on their feet. Several stepped forward and offered to support the project. So arrangements are now in place for companies to sponsor a mile of freeway for $6,700 a year, and the project is moving toward a self-sustaining model.
While solving a very visible problem in such a creative way may have returned Bakersfield's public-works department to the unwelcome role of invisible provider, I'd say Moretti and his team definitely have earned some respect.