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Capping an unprecedented year: Some of the best COVID response ideas we’ve seen

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This is our final issue of 2020, a year that required unprecedented agility and innovation from special districts as they navigated one of the most disruptive events in recent history. Throughout this year, we hosted a running conversation with special district leaders to track the COVID-19 crisis as it unfolded and find solutions to the many challenges it created. We appreciate your participation and engagement in these activities.

We didn’t anticipate COVID-19 when our Special Districts Program launched in 2017, but we did envision a community tailored specifically to the needs of the nation’s 38,000 special-purpose government districts. This program was built to help special district leaders share ideas, expertise and best practices to make their organizations more efficient, effective and resilient. Giving special districts a forum to connect with their peers on these issues was important then; it’s mission critical now.

We’ll continue this vital work in 2021 as districts work to revive local economies, reopen public offices, rethink workplace policies and reimagine digital strategies. Have a happy and safe holiday season. See you next year.

The Best of 2020
Our final virtual summit of 2020 recognized how some of the nation’s most innovative and effective special districts responded to COVID-19. This year’s Special Districts Innovation Award Program received more than 200 nominations – all focused on technology deployments and leadership related to pandemic response and recovery efforts. Our Dec. 15 Year-in-Review virtual event presented some of the best ideas we’ve seen. Here are some highlights:

  • The Orange County Water District (OCWD) – winner of a citizen service award in our Western Region -- rapidly adopted new forms of digital outreach to engage citizens during the pandemic. Efforts included a new COVID-19 information center on the district’s website stocked with fact sheets and videos highlighting the safety and reliability of local drinking water, as well as new resources for media outlets.
    “The first and most important component of our outreach was to clearly and quickly convey that COVID-19 does not impact the quality or supply of drinking water,” said Vicente Sarmiento, board president for OCWD.
    The district also implemented virtual versions of typically live events, including board and committee meetings, community planning sessions and even tours of OCWD’s Ground Water Replenishment System, the world’s largest wastewater purification facility.
  • The City of El Paso Housing Authority – winner of an operations award in our Southwest Region -- reconfigured physical offices to provide touchless services to residents applying for housing assistance. Massive new monitors and two-way video connections installed in the authority’s headquarters enabled remote receptionists to direct clients to private stations where they could work with staff via video to fill out application forms and upload documents.
    Although residents also could perform these tasks online, the authority needed options for applicants who required more help completing lengthy forms and submitting supporting material, says Gerald Cichon, the authority’s CEO. “Even though we could run 100 percent remote, we still had to up our game and make sure no one fell through the cracks.”
    Cichon added the authority’s shift toward virtual work and service delivery will reduce its physical footprint. “We’ve realized that this 100,000 square-foot building is no longer necessary,” he says. “Our plan now is to move into something about one-tenth the size and still run at 100 percent efficiency.”
  • The Meridian Library District in Idaho – winner of a leadership award in our Western District -- launched free home delivery of library materials when a statewide pandemic shutdown order closed library branches in March. After five months of offering the service, the library has delivered more than 7,000 items to nearly 1,600 patrons.
    “Our patrons could not come to us, so I wondered if we could perhaps bring the library to them,” says Library Director Gretchen Caserotti. “We own vehicles that we use for outreach to assisted living facilities, childcare centers and community events. Why not repurpose them to deliver materials to our residents’ doorsteps?”
    Caserotti says the delivery service will continue after the pandemic subsides, helping the library serve the expanding population of Meridian, one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. “Building enough libraries to keep up with our growth is not possible,” she says.

Listen to the entire Year-in-Review Summit.

District Spotlight: Making the Case for Video Analytics
In the wake of COVID-19, the Columbus Regional Airport Authority (CRAA) is exploring how video analytics can reassure nervous travelers, as well as improve security and efficiency.

The authority, which operates John Glenn Columbus International Airport and two other airports in the area, is launching a series of pilot projects to test use cases for the technology. The initiative will investigate how video analytics can be used to enforce rules on social distancing and mask wearing. CRAA also will use the technology to give travelers a best estimate for expected wait times for security screening.

“We’re definitely looking at how we can establish technologies and programs that will build confidence in air travel. That’s our No. 1 priority right now,” says Jodie Bare, chief innovation officer for CRAA.

Read the entire story in our newest Special Districts Brief.

More Articles Worth a Read
Here are more stories from special districts around the country. Share your own news with us for inclusion in the next newsletter.

The Central Ohio Transit Authority is working with the Ohio Department of Transportation and 12 surrounding cities and counties on a massive data-fusion effort. The initiative will provide real-time data to facilitate regional cooperation across transit organizations.

The Chattanooga Area Regional Transit Authority will use machine learning to guide new transit options. The authority and its academic partners hope to gain new insights for deploying electric buses and on-demand transit services.

COVID-19 fueled public transit innovation. These services emerged as a lifeline to ensure critical workers arrived at hospitals and other institutions needed to keep the country functioning