Community Voices: Sidewalk Surveys and Street Conditions

Blaine Hill is the Morris City Manager

Imagine a place where you could find the minds and energy of young people eager to learn a little bit of everything…the true calling of a liberal arts college. Then imagine a place where you could get them to help you with your work. You would be at the Center for Small Towns (CST) on the campus of the University of Minnesota at Morris. 

With dwindling resources being a constant problem for cities across Minnesota, as the City Manager in Morris, I looked to CST for assistance. In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that I’m a 1987 graduate of UMM and could possibly have a bias, but believing that would take away from the true story of CST. CST is an outstanding organization with the ability to provide some of the finest young minds in the Country that are willing to work with you on your issues. The leadership within the organization and faculty resources within the campus network assures you that you will get the right students to help you.

I’ve worked with CST over the course of the last few years and on a variety of issues. From providing a top notch team to update the City’s statistical information to a student that helped design a communication system for the public access channels that we are trying to resource. More recently, I’ve had students assist me with survey work to prepare for union negotiations that will start this fall and to evaluate everything from street conditions, to sidewalks and route mapping, to a housing study, and to a review of the Retroreflectivity of our street signs. What a mouthful, but it’s a new Federal requirement that has to be met. Who is going to do it?

I’d like to talk specifically about a couple projects and the students that helped me, but first I need to thank the staff and faculty. The CST staff does an outstanding job of getting the projects started. They find out what you need and then help match you up with the right students. Sometimes you find a way to work directly with the faculty at UMM to have students do internships working on your projects. This wouldn’t occur without that direct connection to the campus nurtured through the CST.

One such project was the gathering of statistical information for union negotiations. I pride myself in being prepared, a lesson I learned at UMM, but I also realize there isn’t enough time in the day. I had the opportunity to work with two students from Professor Roger Rose’s political science class. Dallas Coleman and Joshua Lozancich had an interest in public administration and this was a perfect opportunity to learn. I had them collect data from my comparable group of about 44 cities like Morris. 

The information was primarily focused on wages and health insurance. They met with me several times to find out what I needed and then proceeded to collect the data. Wage information was a bit more straight forward, but the health insurance was not. This was particularly true with the new requirements under the Affordable Care Act. I would venture to guess they learned more about health insurance than they ever imagined, but they did learn. I asked them to give me their recommendations on what my position should be on wages and insurance and they did. 

The second project was more of a summer of surveying project. Zach Threadgill assisted me with several different projects to survey the condition, and in some cases, the location of things. The primary project I was interested in to start the process was a sidewalk survey with a goal to create a map. The map we discussed was a map that showed where sidewalks are, and aren’t, and a condition rating. We developed a strategy and he went to work. The final step was a meeting with our map maker in our engineering firm and now we have a sidewalk map. The map was recently discussed because of a need to have clear sidewalks in the winter, a major problem we are trying to solve.

Zach also helped me with an update of a street condition map that was done by another student named Zach. Zach VanCleve did this survey several years ago and it needed to be updated because of the recent winter conditions and the deterioration of the roads. The system used to rate the roads held true and we used that information to finalize the Capital Improvement Fund allocation of resources for 2015 and 2016. Hopefully all of our roads will be updated to a more acceptable condition. Zach helped me again with a sign survey determining what signs we have in Morris that don’t reflect light adequately at night. The end result of this survey was a report we needed to document compliance with a Federal transportation law. We will begin replacing the signs that don’t meet the standard we applied.

Finally, he helped with a survey of properties to find nuisances to include unlicensed cars, junk and debris, and to do a down and dirty review of housing quality through a walk-by survey. 

You don’t realize how long it takes to do these surveys until you drive the City several times. Then you know you need help and CST has the ability to provide it. I will continue to use them as a resource moving forward. There is a cost in some cases, but it is worth it when you figure the quality of the individuals you are getting and how valuable the product of their work is to your organization. 

Written by Blaine Hill, Morris City Manager

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