Barn-Raising Spirit Revival
Beats High Project Costs
A long-standing initiative in N.Y. state which helps communities help themselves when they face the high costs of building or renovating sewage and water treatment facilities has spread to 10 states, saving communities millions of dollars in construction costs alone.
The Small Town Environment Program (STEP) developed by the Rensselaerville Institute encourages communities to identify what work they can undertake themselves rather than turn over to high paid contractors when upgrading water systems, which often must be done to meet federal and state standards, says Chris Conway, a senior associate for the institute.
"Effectively, the town becomes its own contractor," Conway says. "There is a lot of work that communities will pay engineers to do in construction and other ways that really could be performed much more cheaply by the community itself."
For example, there are always phone calls to be made and errands to be run. "Then there's things such as some of the bookkeeping duties and even manual labor that the community will pay the engineer a premium to contract out," Conway says. He is quick to emphasize that any and all work performed by the community or engineers has to meet strict codes and regulations.
When Clarksville, Texas, faced a $385,000 estimate to fix the serious problem of sewage backing up into people's homes, the town approached the project like an old-fashioned barn raising, said Wayne Dial, Clarksville city manager. "It turned into the old-style barn-raising atmosphere. Back in the 1800s, if someone's barn burned down, the neighborhood came together and helped build a new one. Well, our 'barn' burned down with regard to the sewer line, and our community has come together to get it fixed," Dial says.
City and county departments, along with businesses, local citizens and even a nearby Army Reserves unit, all contributed time and effort to the project and saved thousands of dollars in labor costs of the original estimate for the project.
Also needed is what Conway describes as a community "spark plug." Typically, this is the person who, before he or she even heard of the STEP program, was out galvanizing and motivating the community. "Without this kind of motivater who is willing to take responsibility for shepherding the project, it can be very difficult to make this kind of program work," Conway notes.
Other requirements for the STEP program include a history of community involvement among locals, a generally cohesive community, a demonstrable presence of the skills necessary to perform relevant tasks, at least 15 households within the target area, a strong perception that there is a problem and that local solutions will work and the support of local government.
Combining resources can bring other benefits, like increased buying power, Conway says. In Washington County in western Maryland, six communities shared the cost of a large truck and some specialized video equipment. None of the towns needed the equipment more than a few days each year, so they store it in the department of sanitation and "rent" it to each other as needed to recover its cost.
Posted October 13, 1997
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