Case Study 3: The Future of Water Leadership: Camden, NJ and Buffalo, NY

Case Study 3: The Future of Water Leadership: Camden, NJ and Buffalo, NY

Though the water workforce overall is reasonably diverse, a recent Brookings report found that only 15% of water-related chief executives are non-white and almost all are male.  In large part this reflects the pipeline of engineers, lawyers, and scientists who often feed into the lead role at utilities and private sector firms in water fields.[1] With the traditional demographics come traditional approaches to providing water services.  In the case of water supply, this often means viewing the water utility as a commodity provider, “selling” water to “customers” in a way that meets permit requirements as well as running a financially sustainable enterprise. Along with that comes public safety expectations, as water utilities are expected to provide water for fire protection.

Wastewater utilities don’t generally think of themselves as being in the commodity business, but they do traditionally pride themselves for taking care of an important problem for a community and protecting their community’s water.  They collect and treat polluted, pathogen-ridden waste from the community and turn it into clean water, all while meeting permit requirements.

While these traditional values continue to be embedded in every water utility’s mission, new leaders are expanding beyond the confines of their fence lines seeking ways to provide more value to their communities. No two people exemplify this new breed of water leaders more than Andy Kricun and Oluwole McFoy.

“We're a public entity, so we have to stay in our lane, but we can widen the lane as much as is legally defensible.” – Utility leader based in the Northeast

Andy has been at Camden County Municipal Utility Authority since shortly after completing his degree in chemical engineering more than thirty years ago. From his early days as a staff engineer, he was struck by the environmental injustices absorbed by the community that sat just 100 yards from his wastewater treatment plant. In a recent interview he reflected, “One would have to be pretty hard-hearted to work here and not be struck by how unjust it is.”  The utility he joined, like so many around the country, was narrowly focused on complying with its discharge permit. With Andy’s encouragement, the utility began to shift to a “do no harm” attitude toward its neighbors starting with the most basic step of odor control.

In the intervening decades Andy rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the Executive Director / Chief Engineer of the wastewater authority. With his leadership the utility evolved further into thinking of themselves as an “anchor institution” for the county, and particularly for the city of Camden itself.  At each step of the way, he’s tried to put people– particularly disadvantaged people – first, and to look for creative ways to bring multiple benefits in the solutions he adopts.

For instance, he has been out front in New Jersey to tackle combined sewer overflows.  He wasn’t being pressured to do this by the state, but he knew it was the right thing to do for both water quality and for those who were suffering from basement backups, and flooded streets and playgrounds. With a limited budget he began by opportunistically separating sewers, seeking partnerships to build rain gardens and green his city to improve lives while also absorbing rainwater. He went further to develop long-standing partnerships that have created local jobs for building and maintaining the infrastructure.  Most recently he developed a multi-pronged approach to get his utility entirely off fossil fuels and bring renewable energy to the neighboring community, all while holding his rates to imperceptibly low annual increases.

Andy cares about holding down rates for everyone, but especially his disadvantaged neighbors. New Jersey law prohibits him from having income-based rates, but he cleverly and justifiably argued that the City of Camden’s residents should not have to pay for the capital and maintenance of the extensive collection system that serves the suburban portions of the county. That simple shift in mindset provides a 37% savings for the city residents, which he refers to as the “host community”.

About 350 miles northwest, Oluwole McFoy, known to most as “OJ”, is also bringing about big changes in the city of Buffalo where he has the dual role of being CEO and General Manager for the Buffalo Sewer Authority as well as chairman of the Board for Buffalo Water. Like Andy, OJ started his tenure as a staff engineer which gave him a firm grounding when stepping up to the leadership role.

One of the first things that OJ tackled as he took the reins at the sewer authority was to overhaul all aspects of how they communicated with the public. With the support of the Buffalo Community Foundation, he revamped the website to be as transparent as possible to community members.  With tabs like “How We Can Help You”, and links to budgets, commission meeting minutes, etc., and a direct link for making a FOIA request, the website reflects a desire to create strong relationships with the public, and to build trust.

OJ also insists that “if we’re going to spend money it’s going to be good for our people as well as our environment.” He carries this out in part with “first source” contracts, which put an emphasis on reinvesting their project funds back in the Buffalo community, as well as other mechanisms that ensure that projects are designed and funded in a way that rejuvenates the community. He has also created a team that goes out of its way to work directly with the community.

Wearing his water distribution hat (OJ is board chair for the water authority as well as chief executive for the sewer authority), OJ’s sense of justice drives him to find solutions to affordability and lead service lines that stymie most other water supply executives. Rather than get caught up in the red tape of private vs. public portions of the lead lateral, he advocated for an ordinance that makes it illegal to repair a lead service line. When his crews go out, they’re replace the lead lateral in its entirety. “We’ve been hanging our hat on public health”, which means putting people and their health first.

While most work on affordability is focused on rate structures, and safety net programs, with OJ’s leadership Buffalo Water is looking into how they can extend their support to what goes on inside of people’s homes. Constantly running toilets and dripping faucets may be the biggest contributor to large water bills, especially in poorly maintained rental housing. He has also teamed up with the University of Syracuse to find new language for late notices that has increased payment by 38% and helped avoid stepping into the dreaded territory of water shut-offs.

Andy Kricun and OJ McFoy are the first to say that they are not alone, and that there are other mavericks who are changing the image of what water utilities can and should do.  For them, it’s not enough to do their job and meet their permits. While they may not be alone, they are also inspirational and deserve to be a model for others.

 

[1] The overall water workforce was approximately 33% non-white as of 2016, while water leadership was 15% non-white. Legal, scientific and engineering positions in the water field ranged from 14 to 22% non-white. See Table 6 in “Renewing the Water Workforce: Improving water infrastructure and creating a pipeline to opportunity”. Joseph Kane and Adie Tomer, June 2018. Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.  https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Brookings-Metro-Renewing-the-Water-Workforce-June-2018.pdf