Coconino County, AZ: Looking Internally for Innovation, Sustainability

ARTICLE | Mar 26, 2014

Shortly after the economy slowed in 2008 and government budgets began to shrink, Coconino County turned to its employees to brainstorm ideas to increase efficiency and sustainability within the organization.

County leaders formed the County’s Cost Saving Initiative program (dubbed “CSI: Coconino”) to provide an outlet for staff to offer their long-held ideas regardless of how simple or extravagant. The program asked employees what the County could do better, smarter and cheaper to enhance sustainability.

County employees, who provide services to residents in the nation’s second-largest county of 18,000 square miles, recommended everything from standardizing document fonts to save printer ink and paper to a vacation-sellback program that allows employees to sell personal days off back to the organization.

“Local governments were greatly impacted during and after the Great Recession,” said County Manager Cynthia Seelhammer. “Our county, which is larger than 60 countries in the world, provides services to multiple diverse communities and encompasses the Grand Canyon National Park, National Forests and Navajo Nation. For us to maintain multiple critical services for our residents, we needed to innovate and work more efficiently in a sustainable way.”

One simple, yet cost-saving, idea came from Facilities Management Trades Worker Henry Lopez.

After a morning restriping a county parking lot and running low on paint, Lopez returned to his truck and settled in for lunch. Between bites of his sandwich, he thought: “Why do we need to paint the whole line?” said County Facilities Management Director Susan Brown.

“Everyone already knows how to park between the lines, which are primarily used as markers to guide drivers and get maximum density in a parking lot. So why paint the entire line?” Brown said.

After checking with his supervisor, Lopez began painting two-foot stripes at the front of and rear of each parking space. This helped to save both time and paint.

“We didn’t get a single complaint,” Brown said.

The practice spread to other county parking lots and Facilities Management saw a 54-percent reduction in the area painted and a 49-percent decline in the amount of paint used. Overall, the department saves about $500 per year depending on the number of lots painted.

“This also helps to free up staff to focus on other pressing projects and helps us avoid using additional paints and chemicals,” Brown said.

While the savings from departing from the “normal” way of doing business is small, over time it adds up, Seelhammer said. Most importantly, however, the practice ushered in a new approach to inviting employees to try out new ideas and to streamlining the way the organization delivers services to residents.

“We are focused on enhancing our services with as little waste as possible,” Seelhammer said, noting that “it is just as important to make sure that we can sustain these services for the long haul.”

The County is also furthering its “green” initiatives by increasing energy efficiency and moving into alternate sources of energy, which will help save taxpayers millions of dollars in energy costs over decades.

Within the organization, Facilities Management fine-tuned and upgraded climate control systems to ensure they are running as efficiently as possible. Crews also properly sealed windows and doors to maintain comfortable temperatures throughout buildings.

Facilities Management uses thermal imaging tools to find weaknesses in facilities to target and reduce energy waste. The County has even installed low-flow and waterless plumbing systems in many buildings to conserve water.

This year, the County will venture into the use of solar photovoltaic energy by installing solar panels at the County Public Health Services District and Community Services building, the Flagstaff/Sheriff’s Office Law Enforcement Administrative Facility (LEAF), the County Jail and Juvenile Services buildings.

The Flagstaff region receives about 165 clear, sunny days per year, making these facilities prime locations to harness solar energy to help reduce the organization’s $623,000 yearly electricity costs.

The four sites selected for solar panels account for more than 60 percent of the County’s electricity consumption. By employing solar at these locations the County expects to cut its energy bill by about one-third. 

“In addition to the energy savings, which will be substantial over the lifetime of the system, the use of solar panels fits in with our overall sustainability efforts,” Brown said.  “We are continuing to become more and more energy efficient in our operations. It makes sense to harness natural resources – such as our ample sunshine and thinner atmosphere – to diversify how we get the energy.”

However, the push for sustainability and efficiency doesn’t stop inside the organization.

“Sustainability isn’t just the latest cool thing,” Brown said. “For us it means taking our combined knowledge and experience about our operations and combining it with workable solutions. We don’t just fix or replace something, we ask ourselves: ‘What works? How has it been working? What can we change to make it work better?’”

For several years the County has partnered with local developers and homeowners looking to build sustainable structures through the County’s Sustainable Building Program (CCSBP). As of February 2014, there were 21 residential and commercial projects utilizing resources available under the program. 

“We live in a world where most of our resources are finite,” Seelhammer said. “With that in mind, we can help connect area developers and residents with experts and the necessary tools to build sustainable structures.”

CCSBP partners with the Willow Bend Environmental Education Center in Flagstaff to offer free monthly educational sessions on the latest sustainability methods, tools and resources available to all community members.

The County also works with partners such as the US Green Building Council to develop tools for local governments to monitor their overall sustainability efforts.

“The growing reliance on programs such as these only demonstrates the increasing interest within our communities and the County as an organization to focus on the long-term viability of our services, our structures and our communities as a whole,” Seelhammer said. “Remaining innovative and efficient is important for our future. However, we must ensure we are relying on solutions that are sustainable and continue to work over the next 10, 25 or 40 years.”

“Often that means asking and listening carefully to our staff and the people we serve every day. Some of the best ideas are often right in front of us,” Seelhammer said.

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