Editor’s Log: Survey Surprises

This issue marks our “lucky” 13th Annual Municipal Infrastructure Survey. When we first undertook this task, we were not prepared for the work involved nor the positive reaction that followed. It took several years of refinement and work with statistical analysis experts to develop a template that is reasonable accurate and truly reflective of our market. I’ve seen others attempt to duplicate our survey, but the results are generally widely skewed and erroneous.

It’s a lot of work but also very rewarding. It allows us to connect more closely with municipalities of all sizes and from all corners of the country. Reading about the varied mountains of issues being climbed by cities is amazing. Tiny towns have just as many seemingly insurmountable issues as do the large metropolises. Yet, many of the concerns and issues are identical.

In this year’s survey, while it was not surprising that funding was the number one concern for cities, the depth and damage the additional project cutbacks of 2009 have caused is amazing. Several municipal personnel expressed deep concerns that they were already behind in maintaining their systems and now have even further to go. As one respondent lamented “we’ll never pick-up the funding we lost.”

As the economy regains its strength, catching up will be paramount for the sewer and water market. But how to generate the funding remains anyone’s guess.

Recognizing underground
I recently saw an interesting real estate ad in the newspaper (yes, I still read the newspaper on a daily basis – don’t trust most of the broadcast or web news and I don’t like the constant angling to grab your attention with gadgets, misleading teasers and non-news stories. Of course, newspapers are often stooping to broadcast/web levels, but that’s another story).

Anyway, the ad was fairly typical as far as real estate ads go, but one thing caught my eye. The ad was about selling three-acre lots for a high-end subdivision. Among the key bullet point items listing the advantages was an entry for “all utilities underground – no more eyesores and much improved safety and reliability.”

That’s quite a statement – and absolutely true. For a real estate development firm to believe that underground utilities are a strong hook is significant. Note that this ad ran in the Houston paper where the real estate market is still reasonably healthy. Having underground utilities in the Houston suburbs is the rule, rather than the exception. But it wasn’t that long ago that no one gave much thought about overhead vs. underground utilities. The fact that a land developer believes underground utilities are a strong hook for consumers speaks volumes about the progress being made in recognition of the advantages of going underground. We’ve witnessed similar “converts” from around the nation. May the trend continue.

Health care hiccup
As the health care bill prepares to enter its final battle, one key component of significance to the utility construction industry is a provision, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), that would require construction firms with as few as five employees to provide health insurance coverage for their workers or pay a penalty. That’s in contrast to non-construction companies where the minimum threshold is 50 workers.

Predictably, union groups and associations with a strong union membership like the provision, while other groups representing contractors and non-union companies hate the rule.

OSHA reinvented
Following up on a campaign pledge by President Obama, new Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has plans to boost spending and enforcement for OSHA. Due to the higher risk nature of the construction industry, this could very well mark a shift from the more “friendly” OSHA we’ve seen in recent years that worked with contractors to improve their performance, to a more pure enforcement tactic.

In 2009, Solis hired 250 new investigators to protect workers from being cheated out of wage and overtime pay. This year, Solis said her agency will tackle 90 new rules and regulations, including a rule that would make employers disclose whether they sought advice from anti-union labor consultants. Rumors are also flying that scrutiny of the construction industry will increase and OSHA violations will be met with maximum fines.

The irony is that during the President Bush administration, which utilized a more cooperative approach called compliance assistance, the rate of workplace deaths and injuries actually fell to record lows. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make national headlines.

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