Board Member Responsibilities for Managing a Water Utility

Written by: Leslie Kimble
Leslie Kimble is a Program Coordinator at the Wichita State University Environmental Finance Center

Elected officials or board members may be members of a city council or county commission, or serve on the Rural Water District board. With a long list of to-dos and policy concerns, how are board members supposed to stay up-to-date and knowledgeable on all that goes into the proper management of a water utility?

A board member’s responsibilities typically extend far beyond the water utility. Nevertheless, the responsibility to provide safe, reliable drinking water should be regarded as paramount. Community members and businesses rely on safe water daily – it is an essential foundation of every community, regardless of population. In smaller communities, the water infrastructure may constitute the largest investment of the community.

Although it is the responsibility of the elected official to perform proper due diligence before decision-making, it is also the job of water utility staff to communicate information to elected officials and board members regularly.

Board members are responsible for providing effective leadership that enables water utility staff to develop and implement necessary managerial programs, policies, procedures and plans. We’ve outlined the top three water utility management practices that board members should know about their utility.

1. Policies and Procedures

Policies and procedures are the “how to” of running a utility. There are many types of policies and procedures, from personnel and staff policies to purchasing procedures, read through all policies and procedures so that you know your utility inside and out. If a policy or procedure is missing, board members and utility staff should work together on drafting and approving new policies.

2. Customer Service Goals & Communication Strategies

Just like any business, a utility’s customers are the reason it exists. Not only does the utility need customers, it needs customers who are willing to pay a sustainable price for water to enable the system to provide quality service over the long-term. It is important for board members to familiarize themselves with customer service goals, policies and communication strategies. Level of service agreements outline what aspect of community water is important to customers, and how the utility is planning and tracking these service goals.

Another important consideration related to customer service is communicating with customers.  Are there strategies in place for working with the media in times of emergency? Who from the water utility is the official public spokesperson? How is social media handled? Communication with customers should be a two-way street. The board should tell customers what services are being provided, but also listen to the customers about what services they desire, and what channels of communication they prefer.

3. Short-Term & Long-Term Planning Initiatives

Managing a water utility is expensive and extensive. Just like managing our personal finances and assets, we must be constantly planning for short-term and long-term needs. Unfortunately, there is no way to achieve everything a water system wants with a limited budget, however, there is a way to properly manage planning in order to leverage maximum benefit to the utility within available funding. This process is called asset management, and utilizing this method of utility planning helps the board and utility make better-informed decisions about where, how, when and on what projects to spend money. Successful asset management programs must have support and input from all levels of utility staff, but more importantly, board members need to thoroughly understand the utility’s asset management plan, so that they can support the utility with informed managerial and financial decisions.

These three management indicators are the foundation of water utility management, and provide a building block for more detailed utility topics like finances and regulations. When clear policies and strong planning efforts are coordinated with board members, utilities are enabled to provide safe, reliable water to their customers, now and well into the future.

For more information on utility management and finance for board members and elected officials, attend our webinar on November 29th, Water System Management and Finance for Board Members. WSU Environmental Finance Center program managers Tonya Bronleewe and Nick Willis will teach the pros and cons concerning managerial and financial decisions about water.

This article is sourced from a comprehensive water utility management course called “KanCap,” created by Wichita State University Environmental Finance Center, in partnership with Kansas Municipal Utilities, Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Ranson Financial. Learn more about KanCap here.