Coronavirus and Utilities Management

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As 2020 gives way to 2021, many realize that there will be lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on local governments. Across the nation, these governments, as first responders when disasters strike, have scrambled to provide vital resources such as PPE, testing information, sites and supplies, hygiene products, mental health services, food, housing, and direct fiscal assistance. In this time of crisis, there is collective recognition of the importance of local governments to shore up reserves, have a ready network of healthcare workers and volunteers, conduct centralized, clear, and cogent communication to the public, and support access to technology easily and reliably. As never before, the pandemic has exposed just how essential a well-working local government is to the seamless conduct of daily life.

Utilities such as water are an important function of local government often overlooked or taken for granted by the public. Public utilities are built mostly with borrowed funds, and the revenue bonds are predominantly paid back through service fees and charges. The costs to operate, maintain, and improve the infrastructure associated with utilities are substantial and difficult for anyone without years of experience involved in their management to understand fully. On the other hand, clean water is a public good uniquely imperative to human life and community vibrancy.

The pandemic has created substantial challenges for public utilities managers. Certainly, dramatic revenue declines and/or significant, unexpected spending since the onset of COVID-19 has strained local budgets. [1] This contributes to three pressure points for utilities. First, increased spending in other areas means decreased spending for utility infrastructure maintenance and capital improvements. Second, a poor economy threatens utility customers’ ability to pay fees and charges related to use. This, in turn, jeopardizes the performance of scheduled and necessary maintenance as well as the ability to raise usage rates. Third, community water supplies must be continually and accurately disinfected to prevent the spread of the virus and other infectious diseases.

Failure to address any one of these challenges carries considerable and dangerous risks. Water contamination is more likely to occur in communities that stretch the life of equipment that they cannot afford to fix. Deferring needed maintenance can affect local public health and end up costing literally billions of dollars to ameliorate. Any local finance officer who has experienced a water main break knows the gravity of such a situation. Perhaps more serious, at present, is the possibility of widespread coronavirus infection through a community’s water system. Routine disinfections of local water systems are even more critical today. There are multiple complications to this scenario. That is, if most of the utilities staff becomes infected, disinfection conduct and performance may be compromised, resulting in crucial mistakes. [2] Despite everything a locality may be doing to navigate through the pandemic, widespread infection could very well be facilitated through the government itself!

The challenges for public utilities in the time of COVID-19 may seem overwhelming. However, an inspiring silver lining regards the agile actions of utilities managers evidenced since March 2020. For example, Athens-Clarke County utilities has made efforts not to raise rates and partnered with the University of Georgia to test samples of the community’s water for the coronavirus. Their contract states that this effort will continue to test three water treatment plants and three sewer lines, twice a week for thirteen weeks. Efforts like those of Athens-Clarke County are what allows us to remain optimistic for utilities leaders when faced with the challenges of the global pandemic. [3]

Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL)’s mission is “to engage the brightest minds in local government by providing timely and relevant content through podcasts, blogs, webinars, social media and conference gathering, with the objective of fostering authentic and meaningful connections that are grounded in practices of equity and inclusion.” [4] This organization suggests six policy solutions to assist utilities leaders. Recommendations emphasize values such as collaboration, accountability, and perhaps surprisingly, muddling through. [2] Maybe the best way to support utilities managers through these extraordinary times is to consciously revisit the all-too familiar ideals of public service. In practice, this could involve repurposing resources, re-budgeting across functions, and reassigning staff, renewing old partnerships, and establishing new ones. Such efforts can boost those of utilities managers to do what they do best—provide their communities with clean, safe water as we wade into a new and surely unpredictable year.

[1] Young, G. (2020, November 4). 10 Common Outcomes of COVID-19 on Local Government Budgets. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://icma.org/blog-posts/10-common-outcomes-covid-19-local-government-budgets?_zs=mxlsb1

[2] Hawkins, G., & Cricun, A. (2020, April 13). Coronavirus & Water: Immediate Action Required to Improve Resiliency Now & in the Future. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://elgl.org/coronavirus-water-immediate-action-required-to-improve-resiliency-now-in-the-future/

[3] Soileau, Sheridan, Planning, Budget, and Research Coordinator for Athens-Clarke County. (2020, November 24). Personal conversation.

[4] Engaging Local Government Leaders (2020, November 04). About. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://elgl.org/about/

Article Written By:
Kelsie Kruskol
Honors Program, UniversAity of Georgia
MPA Candidate Fall 2021


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