Wednesday, July 17, 2024

City's reorganization focus on collaboration

by JEREMY GRIMM / Sandpoint Mayor
| April 25, 2024 1:00 AM

Upon being sworn in on Jan. 3, 2024, I faced many typical challenges that new mayors address when there is a change of administration. New faces, names, procedures, policies, passwords and computer systems, and the like all take some adaptation. 

With a fresh start, there were numerous opportunities to hear from over 110 staff members about how things could be changed to enhance the flow of information or our daily routines at City Hall. Without going into all the details, I’m pleased to report that, thanks to staff suggestions, numerous changes have been made to the daily functioning of staff, citizens and in general which improve how we operate. For example, as discussed during the campaign, I have reinstated the various citizen committees and commissions that had been put on pause by the prior administration. These reactivated committees and commissions include Parks and Recreation, Urban Forestry, Pedestrian and Bicycle, Americans with Disabilities – ADA, and the Sustainability Committee. 

We expect some proposed changes to the ordinances authorizing and governing these committees to be presented to the City Council in May and shortly thereafter to fill seats and begin working on the important issues that volunteers on these committees work through and on which they advise the City Council. Not only will the work of the committees help inform and guide the City Council, but the greater involvement of citizens in the workings of the city will help residents understand and be aware of the numerous projects and policy challenges that are before us. 

One of the more challenging situations that I faced upon taking office was responding to the vacancy left by the departure of the former city administrator. Approaching the management and facilitation of the city as a part-time mayor with almost two dozen staff directly reporting to me has provided the unexpected benefit of really getting into the trenches of the inner workings of the organization. Thanks to the enthusiastic response from staff and support from the City Council, I have made great progress toward the reorganization of the city toward a more traditional department head structure with capable, accountable individuals managing their respective areas of responsibility and with the authority to make decisions. We recently filled the Community Planning and Development director position and are actively interviewing candidates for the Public Works Director position. 

Shortly, I expect to have the city fully reverted back to a stable and collaborative department-head-led organizational structure comprised of seven department heads (City Clerk, Finance, Police, Fire, Public Works, CPD, Legal/Central Services), which will allow the council to consider the elimination of the city administrator position from future budgets. One visible benefit to these changes can be observed at the beginning of our City Council meetings, where individual staff and department heads now provide bi-monthly updates and reports. I like this format because it provides an unfiltered and transparent discussion of all activity throughout the city and gives both the public and elected officials the opportunity to gain unscripted insight into the happenings throughout town. This added level of transparency I believe benefits everyone and will help to improve public awareness and keep staff and myself accountable.

Finally, throughout the first quarter of the first year of my term, I have had the opportunity to accumulate a comprehensive understanding and prepare an assessment of the challenges, demands and needs that we face across the entirety of the city landscape from critical infrastructure to policies, areas of community concern and the delivery of essential services. I’ll use the analogy of buying a used car. At this point, I have looked under the hood, crawled around for inspection, and can see where the oil is leaking, what parts are failing, and based on the limited budget and funding available, what can be done to ensure that future investment of tax dollars go as far as possible toward preparing for a secure and prosperous future for our residents. I’ll be blunt: It’s not a pretty situation. From the onset of my campaign for mayor, I stated that I would focus on putting Sandpoint residents first and focus on taking care of what we have before pursuing shiny new projects. The decisions that we face are challenging and will require sacrifice, compromise, and tradeoffs. 

Addressing the systematic failures and obsolescence of our wastewater treatment plan is my number one priority. The World War II-era facility is tragically obsolete and unable to keep up with the demands we place on it. During periods of high flows (rain and rain on snow events), the facility becomes overwhelmed, leading to wastewater discharge that, at times, exceeds water quality standards. Despite the best efforts of staff, they have been put in a situation of near-constant reaction to breakdowns and emergency repairs, which are costly and stressful. The city will need to finance and build a new wastewater treatment plant within the next four years. Preliminary engineering estimates put the cost at between $60 million and $110 million, depending on the type of technology implemented. This will be the largest public works project in the history of Sandpoint and will involve extensive efforts to fund the improvements including grants, loans, and a bond election. In the past two months, I have met with Idaho DEQ and engineering firms, and we are preparing the next steps to implement this project. 

Our streets, many of which were originally constructed without proper base rock, are failing. A recent engineering analysis of pavement conditions confirmed that, despite the additional funding (estimated at nearly $1 million per year) made possible by the approval of our increased lodging tax, we are fighting a losing battle, and our pavement conditions will continue to degrade. During the annual budgeting process, the council and I will need to weigh the benefit of throwing good money after bad by resurfacing streets that lack proper base material or proceeding with a far smaller effort that will include total rebuilding of the street and base. 

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to this problem, which is the result of numerous consecutive years of deferred investment or maintenance. As a first step, I have instructed staff to reach out to Bonner County Road and Bridge to explore any opportunity to partner with equipment, such as their asphalt grinder, and other creative ways to stretch available dollars, such as performing some of the road work in-house with our staff rather than bidding it out to private firms.  The road situation is frustrating for all of us, and I’m afraid that I do not see a quick fix to the millions of dollars of road rebuilding needs throughout town.  In the short term, I have instructed all departments to review operational costs and have directed Finance to focus all available budget toward our streets over new capital projects, such as the Downtown Waterfront Design implementation. 

Potable water is my third top priority—but not the last. The good news is that our water treatment capacity is sufficient thanks to the relatively new (2012) $13 million water treatment plant with a capacity of 10 million gallons per day. The challenge is that Sandpoint provides water  to multiple water districts and serves areas that are many miles outside of city limits. Based on engineering analysis, many areas of the water transmission system are deficient in terms of fire flow or pipe size. 

Due to the incremental expansion of the lines outside of the city — in other jurisdictions — there has not always been a great understanding of future demands, growth areas, and needs in these areas. As such, many transmission lines outside of Sandpoint require replacement or upsizing with estimated costs in the tens of millions of dollars. Typically, a city might go to the voters seeking approval of a bond to cover the cost of such an expansive water system improvement project; however, in our situation, it would be up to Sandpoint voters to approve millions in debt to upgrade water transmission lines that are in other towns or outlying areas. In retrospect, the city would have been wise to have never extended water service outside of city limits, but, as they say, the horse is out of the barn at this point.  Addressing the challenges of the water transmission system is critical to the health, safety and economy of our region and will require significant effort working with our neighbors toward the formulation of a sustainable long-term solution. Like our other challenges, the water transmission situation did not occur overnight, and an equitable solution will take time to develop.

In closing, the above priorities represent a small number of critical projects and policies that the City is working on. In July, I will provide a 2nd quarter update, including progress on other important issues, including the adoption of the Sandpoint Comprehensive Plan, land use and zoning activity, transportation and road projects, sports facilities, the 2025 budget and more.