Accreditation working well for T&ES

Richard J. Baier, P.E.
Director of Transportation and Environmental Services
City of Alexandria, Virginia
Presenter, 2007 APWA Cognress

December 15, 1997 was a historic day for APWA's accreditation program. On that day the City of Greeley, CO and the Village of Schaumburg, IL became the first two accredited agencies in North America. In the past ten years, an additional 40 agencies, making a current total of 42, have joined the ranks, with 40 in the United States and two in Canadian provinces.

Throughout 2007, accredited agencies, their staff members, evaluators, and elected officials will be sharing their experiences with the program. The fifth article in the series is presented below. For more information about the program, contact Ann Daniels at adaniels@apwa.net or (816) 595-5223, or visit the website at www.apwa.net/About/Accreditation/.

The City of Alexandria is vibrant, ever-changing and steeped in tradition. Located in Northern Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. on the west bank, is the 15.75 square miles of Alexandria and our 140,000 residents. Being one of America's most historic communities, the city has many authentic eighteenth-century buildings and the charm of "Old Town" (the historic district) is carefully preserved. New construction and modern conveniences intertwine and blend with our beloved older buildings to maintain our rich history. Alexandria not only entices people to visit, but also enchants the lives of those who choose to stay.

The city's heart beats and thrives off the willingness of its citizens to be involved. It is through this involvement that Alexandrians have become accustomed to the excellent quality of service the Public Works/Transportation and Environmental Services Department (T&ES) team provides in the areas of engineering, environmental quality, traffic control, transit, construction, inspection and surveying, street and sewer maintenance, as well as refuse and recycling collection. They are familiar with the pulse and rhythm of their local government, creating higher and higher expectations. T&ES gazed at the city sprawled before it and staring back was this reality as well as new state/federal mandates and programs, increasing cost of operational services, seven million square feet of mixed use redevelopment with another 10 million square feet in the pipeline, and physical, social and economic growth. All the while, retirement dates of many staff on our team were reaching ever closer to take not only our hard workers but also a great wealth of knowledge. With these certainties encroaching, T&ES realized that only through the redevelopment of our infrastructure, reassessment of the way we deliver services, and evaluating our policies/procedures would the continuance of growth and renewal be attained.

T&ES submitted its application for APWA accreditation on May 2, 2002. Soon after receiving notice of our acceptance, a steering committee was selected. It was important to the Director to establish committees that comprised all position levels within the department. With guidance, the steering committee performed assessments of the department's existing policies, practices and procedures. Through review of existing practices, departmental responsibilities were clarified, better preparing T&ES for everyday work and emergencies. Further into the review process the steering committee charted the department's strengths and weaknesses, recommending changes to existing policies and procedures. Inventories of existing city infrastructure made it easier to compete with other departments in the budget process. These accredited action improvements enabled the City Council to support several tangible changes during the budget process including increased staff in the Engineering, Development Review and Construction/Inspection Divisions, contracting for the consideration review of a Stormwater Utility System and the budget allocation for an existing Stormwater Master Planning effort for the entire city. Attributable to the detailed policies and practices that were added and/or improved on during this process, T&ES was well prepared for any EPA/DEQ visit. When an unannounced visit did happen, which is always cause for angst, it went smoothly largely because we were again well prepared in the helping and notification procedures.

Luckily, the emergency management and procedures practices were well underway when Hurricane Isabel hit the city in 2003. Despite parts of the historic district being under 5-7 feet of water and tens of thousands of residents being left without power, the T&ES team was better able to respond to its customers' needs because of the work done on the APWA accreditation self-assessment. The department had in effect trained management and line staff on procedures and practices during the process. The staff assessment phase turned out to be a valuable exercise despite the periodically tedious research efforts involved. Operations during the emergency were much smoother than in past emergencies and it was noticeable by the elected officials as well as customers.

The APWA accreditation review team recognized T&ES for having model practices for its Personnel Manual. Those practices clearly explain to new employees how to find direct answers to most job-related questions. The manual also clarifies and puts on record many policies that had not been written in the past. Given the number of retirements from T&ES and the "graying" of our public works personnel, the written records are invaluable.

Also recognized was our Career Development Practices and Procedures Program which allows for management and staff to grow in skill and capability to meet increased job responsibilities while having greater flexibility and upward mobility within the department, giving them the tools to efficiently tackle their overall work requirements and meet the goals and objectives of the department. It is working well for T&ES and is expected to expand throughout the department. In addition, our Traffic Calming Program was included on the list of model practices, highlighting the staff we have dedicated to this program as well as the 25 traffic calming projects T&ES has throughout the city.

Alexandria T&ES will better maintain its position with Police and Fire as a primary responder to emergencies due to its dedicated focus but also to the advanced planning and procedures solidified under the APWA accreditation process. With the dedication of enthusiastic citizens fueling the engine, the guiding hand of the Transportation and Environmental Services Department and the ever-watchful eye of all city departments, the delicate balance of old and new has been maintained. We are striding forward, reaching backward, endeavoring to retain the charm and coveted qualities that enrich our heritage and culture while always searching for a higher quality of life.

Richard J. Baier can be reached at (703) 838-4966 or rich.baier@alexandriava.gov.