Thursday, August 03, 2006

Government and Maintenance Planning

Maintenance issues and planning have been in the news lately. Failures such as the main breaks and the low water pressure at the Honey Creek apartment fire have added urgency but the impression that this caught the city council or city workers by surprise is unfair.

Infrastructure and maintenance problems have been a frequent topic at current council meetings and workshops. A great deal of information had been presented over the last year. During the recent workshop, information on maintenance problems in all areas including water, roads, buildings, etc. was discussed. The one question that was continually is "How did we get in such bad shape?"

First off, maintenance is expensive. Maintenance is also necessary. Most people are familiar with regular, preventive maintenance on their car. Change the oil. Check and eventually change transmission fluid. Flush the radiator. A multipage checklist comes with each new car. With good regular maintenance a vehicle will last many years and miles. You can defer (put off) some maintenance, but if you put it off too long you will have a break down.

City maintenance works the same way but on a much larger scale. They have all the problems of your average home owner and business owner combined with some uniquely government problems. Managing maintenance on this scale requires planning and skilled, dedicated people. Some basics on this can be found here.

There is great political pressure to keep taxes and utility rates low. One way to do this is to cut and defer maintenance and hope that major problems won't occur on "their watch." This temptation has been yielded to in the past. The section that handled the inspection of hydrants and valves was eliminated in the 1990s and the water department had to try to keep up when other alligators weren't being wrestled. Similar cuts were made in road maintenance with the promise that outsourcing would make up the difference. Outsourcing can be useful but you have to be careful how far you go. I don't think I would do without a spare tire or jack just because I could outsource flats to some towing company.

Maintenance has an image problem. It isn't exciting. Buying a new car is much more fun than putting new tires on an old one. I've never anyone that thinks oil changes are sexy, but they still need to be done. Maintenance also has another problem: When it's done right, you hardly notice it.

We have a fairly accurate picture of the state of maintenance today. We need to keep that picture updated and accurate. We need to make sure that anytime a major project is proposed, we have answers to all the maintenance questions, including how much it will cost. We need a comprehensive maintenance management plan complete with maintenance indicators, schedules, and lines of responsibility. We need to make sure that these expensive projects that the politicians and voters love are taken care of after they are out of the headlines.

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