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Meek: Public works department needs an oversight board

April 18, 2017 GMT

The city of Rochester’s 2016 budget was $259 million. Of 18 city departments, the largest budget allocation goes to Public Works -- 39 percent, or about $100 million. Public Works is responsible for filling potholes, plowing snow and running the bus system -- arguably some of the most vital city services.

The next four largest city departments by budget are Administration, Parks & Recreation, Police, and the Airport, which have a combined budget of just over $100 million. In other words, the Public Works budget is larger than the next four largest city departments combined. Yet the department prioritizes its spending with the least amount of public oversight.

Administration, which includes management of Economic Development Authority and Destination Medical Center contracts, is accountable to several public boards. The Charter Commission, the DMC Corp. Board, and the city Economic Development Authority board provide additional public oversight of these administrative groups.

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The police department is responsible to the Police Civil Service Commission and the relatively new Police Oversight Commission. The airport operates with direction from the Airport Commission and the Joint Airport Zoning Board. The activities and priorities of Parks and Recreation department are driven largely by the Park Board.

In fact, every one of the largest eight departments by budget allocation have an oversight board or commission that provides guidance and prioritization recommendations to staff, supplementing critical insight to their technical expertise. More important, these oversight boards and commissions provide transparency and public engagement.

Public Works has made major strides in recent years with public engagement. Until about 10 years ago, street reconstruction projects were something that happened to you, not for you. Today, major road projects do not get by without several public design reviews. But after these open houses, how is the public’s input incorporated into the design in an open and transparent way? How are decisions finalized on which design elements are included or not included? Major capital improvement projects such as multimillion dollar street reconstructions or bridge replacements lack prioritization and guidance by the people who are most directly affected by them.

Investments in public works, while not glamorous, are citywide and the impacts are long-term. A street or bridge replacement is a 25-, 50-, sometimes 100-year commitment. They affect the city’s transportation choices not just today but for generations. Allocation of these dollars should be chosen not by one person or small technical department, but by a diverse group of citizens.

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Public Works would benefit from an oversight commission. The first order of business for such a public body would be to develop a strategic plan, outlining community infrastructure goals and priorities. Last year, the Parks Department adopted a Parks Master Plan to help guide their decision-making, and this effort would not have happened but for the support of the Park Board. Public Works would benefit from a similar framework to guide the department’s priorities.

Policy concepts brought forward, such as sidewalk improvement fees, could be initiated by such an appointed commission. Policy recommendations would carry more weight with the City Council and the public if it came from a public commission rather than as a unilateral policy priority of the department head.

Public Works employees are burdened for the next 15 years with DMC infrastructure projects, which already have increased their workload and accountability to the public for capital investments. The public will demand more, not less, oversight of these dollars administered through Public Works.

It is time to establish a Public Works Commission for the city to improve transparency in spending, guide project prioritization, and increase public engagement of infrastructure projects.