New York Rural Water Helps Utility Plan for Sustainability; Saves Community $10,000

MAYFIELD, N.Y. – The process goes by the unassuming name of Workshop in a Box. It is a method for analyzing the functions of water and wastewater utilities, then creating plans to improve their management and long-term sustainability. The Village of Mayfield was like many communities across the U.S. – suffering from equipment breakdowns without sufficient reserves to replace them – when assistance from the New York Rural Water Association helped them create a sustainability improvement plan.

Steve Grimm, a NYRWA Wastewater Technician, contacted the community several times as part of his work with the wastewater program.

“I got to know the clerk really well,” Grimm said. “She was developing a pilot program for asset management.”

Mayfield was not chosen for the pilot program, but the discussions created an opportunity for Grimm to introduce the Workshop in a Box program.

“Asset Management is a hot buzzword,” Grimm said. “An engineer will come in and put together a management plan with little input from the community. When the community leaders open the plan, and find out what it costs to implement, they put it on a shelf and it just gathers dust.”

Workshop in a Box was developed by a combined effort of the USDA and EPA. It is specifically-designed for small and rural utilities, relying on input from the community to design their plans.

“I always try to include at least two members of the sewer district,” Grimm explained. “They’re the most important because they’re the ones paying the bills.”

Grimm showed the clerk some of the plans he’d helped other communities develop and eventually presented the concept to the mayor. After officials agreed to the concept, Grimm helped assemble a committee to assess the performance of the wastewater utility.

One of the issues facing Mayfield was an aging facility that suffered from frequent equipment failure.

“In the past few years, the plant has experienced increased operation and maintenance costs and equipment breakdowns,” Mayfield Mayor Jamie Ward said in a letter.

The plant began operation in 2001. While Mayfield’s rates provided for basic operations, the funds were insufficient to keep a preventative maintenance schedule, plan for long-term stability, or fund capital improvements.

“It’s nothing new,” Grimm said. “Almost every municipality is facing the same issues.”

He explained that communities had to balance the need to fund operations, maintenance and future replacement costs with the pressure to keep utility rates low. Utilities in this situation may maintain service on thin budgets, but face disaster when a major piece of equipment fails and there is no reserve fund to purchase a replacement.

Operational improvements are only one of the ten key management areas addressed in the Workshop in a Box. Other areas include Water Resource Adequacy, Product Quality, Customer Satisfaction, Community Sustainability & Economic Development, Employee & Leadership Development, Financial Viability, Operational Optimization, Infrastructure Stability, Operational Resiliency and Stakeholder Understanding & Support.

Mayfield’s plan was to start by improving three areas before trying to make other improvements.

“Three is not overwhelming,” Grimm said. “If you try to do too many, it gets overwhelming and nothing gets done.”

Each part of the improvement plan also has a timeline.

“It’s important there is some kind of timeline for progress,” Grimm said. “If there’s no timeline, people will tend to put it off.”

Some of the early plans for Mayfield include creating a sustainable financial structure, doing inventory for spare parts, instituting a proper maintenance schedule and having NYRWA conduct an energy audit. Even though the plans are in the early stages, the program is already benefiting the community.

“We estimate at least $10,000 has been saved by having NYRWA assist and guide the Village,” Ward said.