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Public Works Director's Passion and Excitement Fuel Vision for the Future Safety of Our Water Infrastructure

17
Jul

Public Works Director’s Passion and Excitement Fuel Vision for the Future Safety of Our Water Infrastructure

Measure W to have major impact on projects in LA County

By Marci Stanage, Water and Environmental Relations, Southern California Partnership for Jobs

On November 6, 2018, voters of the County of Los Angeles approved an ordinance amending the County Flood Control District Code by adding Chapter 16, establishing the Los Angeles Region “Safe, Clean Water Act” (now known as Measure W). This imposes a special parcel tax within the County Flood Control District to provide for increased capture and cleanup of stormwater and urban runoff in the District. This special parcel tax is a rate of 2.5 cents per square foot of “impermeable area” (i.e. paved surfaces like concrete patios and driveways), except as exempted, and begins with fiscal year 2019-20.

The County of Los Angeles Public Works is the largest municipal public works agency in the United States, providing vital public infrastructure and civic services to more than 10 million people across a 4,000-square mile service area. Mark Pestrella is the Director for the agency, which consists of six major core service areas: Water Resources, Transportation, Environmental Services, Public Buildings, Development Services, and Emergency Management.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mark via conference call to discuss this newly-implemented Measure W. His excitement and passion about his vision for Los Angeles County was not lost on me.

Q1: What has been accomplished to date for the newly implemented Measure W?

A: The County of Los Angeles voters approved this Measure with a 69.5% vote to increase safe drinking water supplies, prepare for future drought, and protect public health and marine life.

The County is now developing the implementation ordinance for the “Safe, Clean Water Program,” which will allow the County to receive tax revenue. That will begin the process of meeting the goals of Measure W, which were described in the ballot. That ordinance will go before the County Board of Supervisors for their approval by August 1.

Also, we are developing the governance structure for the candidates who will be selected to sit on our watershed committees. If approved, those candidates will be appointed by the Board.

Q2: What do you foresee being the biggest challenges when choosing projects using Measure W dollars?

A: There’s a tremendous demand for this type of infrastructure [stormwater capture and recycling]. Despite the new funding stream, there is still more project demand than money to build.

Criteria is being set up for what we believe will be quality projects that meet the objectives of the Measure. We feel very strongly that this will allow the watershed groups to clearly decide which projects should be funded as a priority.

Q3: Do you have any idea when the first project will be implemented? And do you have a list of projects as of now?

A: The County of L.A. Public Works has been in business for more than 100 years and has been actively developing solutions to regional water quality and water supply challenges. Thus, there are projects, even now, that are lined up across the County, including projects within the Sun Valley Watershed; the cities of Los Angeles and Lakewood; and a big project we have all been supporting, the Los Cerritos Channel project at Long Beach Airport.

Funds will become available in January 2020. That’s why it’s extremely important to have the watershed committees up and running early, so they can work throughout Fall 2019 to prioritize which projects will take precedence.

One of the first tasks of these watershed groups will be to start a 5-year capital improvement plan for each sub-watershed. While those are being developed, projects that are shovel-ready for 2020 will be presented to the Board of Supervisors. We are enthusiastic about our role in facilitating this process and also eager to get these projects rolling as soon as possible.

Q4: When these projects are approved, who will be doing the design and who will administer the contract?

A: “The Safe, Clean Water Program” provides for a local return of 40% to cities. Each city that receives funds is responsible for developing projects that, at a minimum, address the stormwater quality issues within its boundaries.

There is also the 50% regional pot. That 50% will be overseen by the County Flood Control District, which is a component of the County of L.A. Public Works. The District will be the administrator and project overseer. It will also conduct site feasibility and project design through its in-house forces and through consulting agencies across the County of L.A.

Q5: How strict will the accountability requirements be when overseeing not only the spending of this money, but the timeliness in getting these projects out to bid?

A: When it comes to project management, the mantra here is “on time and on budget.” Accountability is a fundamental part of our values system, and the County Flood Control District is a AAA+ rated agency.

We not only have our own internal auditing system, but we will also have oversight by the County’s Auditor Controller, and an independent third-party auditor through a contract that will be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Performance metrics will be required on each of the projects developed. Benefits, such as enhanced public health and a more resilient water supply, will not happen overnight. We envision a 20- to 50-year program where we expect to double the amount of stormwater capture in the County of Los Angeles for water supply purposes.

I have great respect and confidence in the County’s internal auditing system; however, I know voters will have greater peace of mind knowing that we are using a third party to create metrics that are transparent and meaningful to the public.

Q6: I have been following Prop 1 for quite a while, and as you know the money has been sitting in the coffers since 2014. The lack of urgency in spending this money is frustrating, to say the least. How do you think the “Safe, Clean Water Program” will differ from Prop 1 as far as timeliness and getting these projects on the streets?

A: Let me start by explaining how the “Safe, Clean Water Program” is different than the State’s Prop 1. We have local control [with this program] and we do not have numerous hands controlling the money.

Although well-intended, the State’s regulations related to construction can be disheartening. I recently met with infrastructure leaders across the County of L.A. to discuss the obstacles we all face when it comes time to deliver a project. The County of L.A. is extremely fortunate that voters saw the need to say “yes” to Measures H, A, and W. I am working really hard at regional collaboration and prioritization so our local communities can receive the benefits of those measures.

The second way we differ is by making sure we have the labor force to deliver. Southern California Partnership for Jobs (SCPFJ) has been a huge help in this effort.
There are numerous large-scale projects that are waiting to be green lighted, including the County’s Devil’s Gate Reservoir Restoration Project. We are now on week three of a project that took seven years to go through permitting. There really isn’t a simple answer to how long it will take to get these projects “construction ready.”

The permitting and entitlement process slows down construction. That all adds up to increased cost. When we slow down, the economy slows down as well. We need to work together to enhance the quality of life in Los Angeles County and the region at large. I am going to need the trust of the communities to do this. It can’t be done alone. I would ask that we all step up and “lean forward” as we initiate construction within our communities—which may include some inconveniences during construction. Ultimately, we have a great vision that is going to be life-changing for the County of L.A..

Q7: I can tell that you are excited, and it’s nice to see how passionate you are. SCPFJ is also very involved with working with our Unions workforce development. It is extremely critical that we start educating our students at an early age that it’s possible to have a career in the construction industry.

A: The “Safe, Clean Water Program” is going to change lives. From the jobs that will be created to the Union forces that will carry it out — multiple generations will be affected. The positive impact on the economy is certainly not lost on me. Of course, with every opportunity comes a certain amount of risk. The good thing is, we have a great set of leaders who are willing to step up and go for it.

About Southern California Partnership for Jobs

The Southern California Partnership for Jobs (SCPFJ) is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit partnership between organized labor and construction management representing more than 2,750 construction firms employing more than 90,000 workers across the twelve counties of Southern California. SCPFJ advocates for responsible investment in public infrastructure projects to help fix our aging transportation networks, water, sewer and storm drain systems, while building for our future needs and economic growth.

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