The best investment you can make

George Crombie
Director of Public Works
Town of Plymouth, Massachusetts
Chair, APWA Solid Waste Management Committee

In the early seventies, I pleaded with my elected Board (yes, money was tight in those days) to travel to the APWA Congress to be held in Toronto, Ontario. I knew little about APWA at the time, but I was intrigued by the diversity of topics that would be presented at the Congress. Being a public works official, there are few conferences, if any, that you can attend that allow you to listen, exchange ideas, and learn about so many different aspects of public works in one place. After asking the Board a number of times, they finally approved my trip.

So off I went in an old police cruiser, and traveled the 500 miles from New England to Toronto. When I arrived at the conference I really didn't know what to expect. I will never forget the opening of the equipment show Sunday noon. It was like walking into a "Public Works Candy Store." During Congress week, my time was filled with attending sessions, meeting new people, researching new equipment, visiting the beautiful City of Toronto, and seeing what the best and brightest in public works were doing to improve the quality of life of their respective communities.

As I drove home from Canada, I was filled with new ideas to bring home, and was convinced that I would always be a public works official. There was no better position to be in to impact the quality of life in my community. It has now been almost 30 years since I attended my first APWA Congress, and I have attended just about every Congress during this time. It is my time to refocus and to ensure that the operations that I am responsible for are at the "cutting edge" in the public works profession.

I am now often asked by upcoming public works officials, "Is it worth spending $1,500 a year to attend the APWA Congress? Can't we get all of the information provided at the Congress over the Internet?" The answer to the first question is that it is the best investment you will make each year. The answer to the latter question is no, and let me outline just a few reasons why and relate them to real-life experiences.

Attendees and exhibitors at the 2003 Congress in San Diego. Saving your community money is what it's all about on the exhibit floor.

  • The APWA Congress provides the best equipment show in the industry. You can see equipment not only used in your region of the country but across the U.S. and Canada. I remember one year when salt spreader manufacturers first introduced flow control salt spreaders and identified the savings in salt that could be achieved. Although the technology was new at the time, by seeing it I gained the confidence to go home and purchase the equipment. I not only saved thousands of dollars in salt, but the savings also covered the cost of the equipment and improved the environment by using salt more efficiently.
  • One year for a number of months prior to Congress I was trying to get the federal government to deem certain aspects of a project eligible for federal funds, but to no avail. While at Congress I attended a session on a similar project in another region of the country. And low and behold their project had been accepted for federal funding. I went back home and wrote a letter identifying the inconsistencies and, after a number of meetings, all aspects of our project were deemed eligible. This saved my community hundreds of thousands of dollars. With more space I could give you numerous examples of how Congress has saved the communities that I served thousands of dollars.

  • One of the trends that I watched closely at Congress was automated solid waste collection. This practice of collecting solid waste is very prevalent in the western and southern parts of the country, but not in the northeast. When you study manual solid waste operations, you find out that it is one of the most dangerous jobs in a municipality. If I hadn't gone to Congress and listened to my peers in other parts of the country on how efficient automated collection is and how it reduced employee accidents, I never would have had the confidence to implement the process in a region where little automated collection is taking place. Today, in the community in which I implemented automation, productivity is up, service is better, accident rates are lower, and there are annual savings of more than two hundred thousand dollars per year over the old system.

  • Another important aspect of Congress concerns the relationships that are formed and the realization that we are all dealing with the same issues. You discover that the labor requirements, bidding conditions, restricted budgets, and demands by the public and elected officials are not unique to your community. Public works officials across the country are dealing with the same issues you are facing. By talking with your peers you establish new ideas to handle the challenges before you, and these discussions provide you with the confidence when you go back home that you are either on the right track or that you may need to adjust your strategy.

    Congress attendees during one of the 150-plus presentations in San Diego. APWA has the finest educational program in the public works community.

  • One of the great challenges of a public works official today is managing people, the public, and elected officials. You may have the greatest solution from a technical perspective, but if you can't win public support and funding, you will never cut that ribbon on your dream project. In the past number of years, APWA has wisely understood that the public works leader of the future will not only have to be good technically, but must have the personal skills to get projects through the public process. Many of the guest speakers at this year's Congress will outline techniques that are required to understand how human beings think and react, and what you need to do to manage the public process.

  • The technical sessions at Congress provide a tremendous amount of good, solid information. Either APWA or one of the APWA Technical Committees selects the speakers chosen for Congress. The speakers have been tested by their peers and bring to the Congress the best practices in the business. This type of peer review is hard to find over the Internet. The technical sessions build confidence and provide you with new ideas. The panel discussions in particular allow you to form common threads of knowledge that are consistent themes (pro or con). The technical sessions provide a benchmarking exercise to test your thoughts and ideas with experts in the profession.

  • As noted earlier, budgets were tight back in the seventies, and I have yet to see a good budget year. When I was Director of Public Works in Burlington, Vermont a number of years ago, there wasn't any money in the budget for the APWA Congress and I introduced this opportunity. Today the City of Burlington's Public Works Department and its wonderful director, Steven Goodkind, bring eight individuals on an annual basis to Congress, because Goodkind understands the value of education. This year I had to cut over $200,000 out of my budget. But at the same time, I increased travel and training funds, because I know that investing in education is the best thing I can do to improve the efficiency and services we provide. Over the years I have observed that the best public works officials in the country find a way to get to Congress each year.

  • The APWA Congress provides an opportunity to meet some of the great leaders in our country. I will never forget some years ago listening to Senator Jennings Randolph from West Virginia. Senator Randolph was a leader in the Senate for the advocacy of public works and the sharing of ideas with others. He stressed the importance of being involved and how important public works was to the strength of our country and our neighbors, and he pushed the public works agenda forward in the U.S. Congress. He convinced me that public works officials need to work with elected officials to trumpet public works projects and that we must exchange ideas on an international platform. In early April I will be traveling to Europe on a Jennings Randolph International Fellowship Program to study public works with our international partners. The APWA Congress provided me with the opportunity to meet Senator Randolph, and my trip will be augmented for the exchange that I had with the Senator at an APWA Congress.

In closing, I won't be taking that old police cruiser to Atlanta this coming September, but I will be attending with the same amount of enthusiasm as I did some thirty years ago. It is my annual retreat to listen, interact, and to learn with the best people in public works across North America. APWA is a great organization, and if you can find a way to get to this year's Congress in Atlanta, you won't be sorry. It is the best investment you and your community can make for $1,500.

George Crombie was one of APWA's Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year in 2002. As the May issue of the APWA Reporter went to press, Crombie was in Europe attending the conferences of the Slovak Public Works Association and The Czech Republic Public Works Association. He will contribute an article for a future issue of the APWA Reporter reflecting his experience at the conferences and will make a presentation at the 2005 APWA Congress and Exposition on his findings. He can be reached at (508) 830-4070 or at gcrombie@townhall.plymouth.ma.us.