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Special Districts Adjust to New Realities During the Crisis

Leaders from special districts in California, Illinois and New Jersey, with widely varied responsibilities, talk about maintaining operations, as well as functioning remotely, during the pandemic.

Water treatment plant.
Water treatment plant. Special districts for parks, transportation and water are adjusting to new realities during the crisis.
One of the primary responsibilities of the Contra Costa, Calif., Transportation Authority (CCTA) is to create programs that reduce traffic congestion. As Californians shelter at home and drive less, Randell Iwasaki, CCTA’s executive director, is taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity to accomplish the authority’s mission.

CCTA is currently involved in updating a major interchange. “It restricts circulation in our [area] because it was designed in the '60s and the volumes have doubled, maybe tripled,” said Iwasaki.

Significant reductions in traffic make it possible to do construction during the daytime instead of at night, without endangering workers. “Humans are not nocturnal by nature,” he said. “We thought, ‘Why can't we work during the day? We can accelerate construction.’”

It’s a challenge, but also an opportunity, according to Iwasaki. “We're trying to get our contractors closer to the finish line so they can accept more work if there's a stimulus package that includes transportation dollars,” he said.

Dramatic decreases in traffic have also greatly improved air quality, but fewer drivers mean less revenue for the district. “We're a sales tax organization, and people are not out in the community spending dollars,” said Linsey Willis, CCTA’s director of external affairs. “People are not driving; gas tax revenue is not going to the state; and, it's not going to get kicked down to agencies like ours at the rate we had all assumed six months ago.”

Federal funds could help. “We want to be sure that we make the right ask,” she said. “We're not just putting our hand out because we think we should get something. We're trying to think about what we need to deliver on our promises to voters, what we can do ourselves and what we will need beyond that.”

Iwasaki has found that working through these issues with a staff of telecommuters requires adjustments that go beyond having the right technology. “I have to make sure that my communication to others is better and more complete, because we're not standing next to each other,” he said. “I can’t get the clue that they didn’t understand what I just said.”

Parks District Goes Virtual

In Illinois’ Naperville Park District, trails remain open to those who practice social distancing, but playgrounds, athletic fields and courts are closed. Omar Sandoval, the director of information technology for the Naperville Park District in Illinois, is helping keep the city’s parks active using tech.

For example, the spring soccer season can’t proceed as usual, so Naperville created a six-week eSport competition using Rocket League, a video soccer program in which players drive rocket-powered cars. The league is open to players of all ages and all skill levels, and there’s no cost for participation.

“It’s not a violent game and it’s kid-friendly, adult-friendly, teenager-friendly,” said Sandoval. “It’s also one of the few games that is cross-platform functional; you can play from an Xbox, PlayStation or a computer.”

Naperville Park District wanted to offer a gaming experience that was as user-friendly and safe as possible, according to Sandoval. Not every parent can handle the costs of traditional sports. Moreover, gender and disabilities become irrelevant in virtual games, he pointed out.

“Unfortunately, mental health problems are rampant right now,” said Sandoval. “Is this going solve all the world's problems? No, but it can serve as a distraction.” 

The district has launched a range of virtual services at NaperParks2You, including dance lessons, yoga for children, art, nature and learning activities, and a Zumba class for seniors. 

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to come back quickly, but what are people's expectations going to be?,” Sandoval asked. “Are moms going to carry wipes and disinfecting sprays and wipe down the swing before their kid uses it? Are we going to be forced to have two swings instead of four? We don’t know.”

Critical Need for Clean Water

With a network of more than 250 miles of sewer lines and 31 pump stations, the Western Monmouth Utilities Authority (WMAU), located in Monmouth, N.J., provides wastewater treatment service to more than 25,000 customers. 

“When you talk about sectors that are part of the national security infrastructure, water and wastewater are right up there with the power grid and law enforcement,” said Brian J. Valentino, chief executive officer of WMAU. “None of the sectors can survive and succeed without clean water.”

WAMU has to maintain a workforce that is healthy and able to work during the pandemic. That’s a challenge, according to Valentino, who says only licensed operators are allowed to maintain WMAU facilities. “We're in the New York City area, so we're in a hot spot the of the whole world right now,” he pointed out.

“I have to keep enough people healthy to be able to conduct our operations. I've got to keep enough people in reserve in case the numbers get worse.”

Meanwhile, a best practice for preventing contagion is causing headaches for WMAU. “One of the things that we always struggle with is non-flushable rags being put into the sewer system,” said Valentino. “Everyone is cleaning with them now and instead of throwing them into a garbage can, they're flushing them down the toilet.”

What is normally a big problem has grown exponentially worse, Valentino said. “The rags get caught in our pumps and in our pipes and they have to be removed by mechanical means at multiple steps along the treatment train. That is manpower intensive.”

WMAU staff are collaborating remotely to meet these challenges. “Two or three years ago, we decided that we were going to transition all our key financial systems to the cloud,” said Valentino. “We transitioned from a desktop computer to a laptop computer for everybody in authority, the idea being that in a snowstorm — or God forbid, a fire — we could just pick and go anywhere and be ready to go to work.”

But the special district never foresaw the need for so many of its workers to be out at the same time. “While we've been served very well by going to all those online systems, we didn't have enough laptops — but we're making do with desktop computers,” said Valentino.

“One thing we didn't envision was the need to have to deliver or process paper from one person in the office to another — we assumed we'd all move to a different location together and work as a group,” he said. “Now we get mail from our headquarters, process it, break it up into pieces and have a courier drop it on people's front porches.”

Valentino runs a training academy for New Jersey’s Association of Environmental Authorities, and emphasizes the need for colleagues to imagine worst-case scenarios. “It's a pretty humdrum existence most of the time, but when we have an emergency, it's a major urgency,” he said. “Nobody wants raw sewage running down the street.”

“The tabletop drill where we envisioned our administration building getting washed away in a hurricane, and not having access to our regular systems, drove us to be prepared for this emergency,” said Valentino. “If there was one piece of advice I have for my colleagues, it's that there is no such thing as a crazy drill.” 

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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