EPA Small Drinking Water System Operator Training - Texas

WHO SHOULD ATTEND? Operators, Managers and other utility staff of small water systems that are responsible for providing safe drinking water to the residents in the community. This training will provide information on drinking water regulations and operations.  This class is approved by TCEQ for 4 Hours of Continuing Education.

9:00 - 10:10 am          Sign-in, Introductions, Training Overview & Objectives, Pre-Test

10:10 - 11:30 am          Regulatory Overview:  TCR, RTCR, GW Rule, SW Treatment Rule

11:30 - 12:00 pm          Lunch

2:00 - 12:45 pm          Regulatory Overview:  Stage 2 DBPR, Lead & Copper Rule

12:45 -  1:45 pm         Disinfection Overview:  Cl2, Chloramination, TCR Samples

1:45 -  2:00 pm          Wrap-Up, Q&A, Post Test, Class Evaluation

EPA Small Drinking Water System Operator Training - Texas

WHO SHOULD ATTEND? Operators, Managers and other utility staff of small water systems that are responsible for providing safe drinking water to the residents in the community. This training will provide information on drinking water regulations and operations.  This class is approved by TCEQ for 4 Hours of Continuing Education.

9:00 - 10:10 am          Sign-in, Introductions, Training Overview & Objectives, Pre-Test

10:10 - 11:30 am          Regulatory Overview:  TCR, RTCR, GW Rule, SW Treatment Rule

11:30 - 12:00 pm          Lunch

12:00 - 12:45 pm          Regulatory Overview:  Stage 2 DBPR, Lead & Copper Rule

12:45 -  1:45 pm         Disinfection Overview:  Cl2, Chloramination, TCR Samples

1:45 -  2:00 pm          Wrap-Up, Q&A, Post Test, Class Evaluation

Ready for the Future

Hebert is a small community along the banks of the Boeuf River in Caldwell Parish, just south of Monroe, Louisiana. Like most small, rural water systems, much of the operations of the system are placed on the shoulders of one person.

For Hebert Water System, that one person is Randy Mills. He’s been the manager of the water system for more than 20 years. Everyone who knows him is quick to credit Randy for guiding the system to its many successes.

In Randy’s hands, Hebert Water System has thrived. It has even won awards. Among its bragging rights, the Hebert Water System earned the title of the best-tasting water in the entire state of Louisiana from 2010-2012.

Recently, Randy started thinking about his retirement. Recent improvements had the water system on a sound footing. But before he could pass the keys to another manager. Randy wanted a GIS map for the system.

Herbert needed assistance with their Letter of Conditions for a USDA loan and was referred to Communities Unlimited. He soon learned we could offer an affordable GIS (Global Information Systems) mapping option.

GIS mapping uses satellites to accurately plot points on a map, which can be combined with other data to create a variety of maps, much like online maps that show the locations of restaurants, gas stations and shops. The technology can show a full map of the system itself or be queried to display only certain meters, valves, system pressurization hot spots, or whatever the operator needed to see. It’s similar to a person search Google Maps looking for only Italian restaurants.

Over four days, staff from Hebert Water System and Communities Unlimited collected points for the maps using a GIS receiver. The more than 1,500 points collected covered everything from customer meters to valves, fire hydrants and other important points within the water system.

Communities Unlimited returned to the Hebert Water System to train the staff on how to use the system. The training ensured that everyone could use the new GIS mapping system and that they could pass the knowledge on to future employees and board members of the water system. This means that the Hebert Water System will be able to continue to offer top-notch service to customers with a new generation of employees.

Randy said, “We appreciate you coming, explaining the requirements and helping us implement a plan. We could not have done it without you. It has been a pleasure to meet and work with you.”

For Randy, the projects with Communities Unlimited have allowed him to rest easy about his upcoming retirement. With a water system that is set for the future, he can be sure that those who come after him will have all the knowledge, skills and data they need to continue to provide top-notch water service to Hebert Water System’s customers for years to come.

Team Work Helps Ralston PWA Make A Course Correction

Team Work Helps Ralston PWA Make a Course Correction

The Town of Ralston, Oklahoma severs 145 customers and the Pawnee Rural Water District #5 (RWD). The RWD connects on at the south end of town. During the summer months of 2017, the water system had very low pressure in the southern area of the town, and no water was being provided to the Pawnee RWD.

Communities Unlimited, Inc. (CU) was contacted by the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) and asked to meet with Ralston Public Works Authority (PWA). Ralston PWA was put under a consent order because their wells needed to be upgraded to meet current regulations, or they needed to identify an alternate water source as well as not providing water to the RWD. As part of their consent order, they had to engage with a technical assistance provider ODEQ recommended CU. The first item that needed to be addressed was the PWA’s financial situation. Ralston had not increased its rates in some time, causing them financial distress and preventing them from updating their system components. CU performed a rate analysis, and it was approved by the board and went into effect in September 2017. They also needed to bring some past due bills current and make repairs to their service truck and backhoe. CU was able to provide Ralston PWA with $70,000 in financing. Both of these steps put Ralston PWA on the path toward financial sustainability.

Ralston PWA was able to correct the low-pressure issue by connecting the Pawnee RWD directly to the water tower. CU worked with the Oklahoma Emergency Management, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) and ODEQ to secure emergency grant funds to install the line that corrected the low-pressure issue restoring water to Pawnee RWD. CU will continue to provide financial, operational and technical assistance to Ralston PWA to ensure their continued growth.

Safeguarding Your System’s Finances

Safe Guarding Your System’s Finances

by Gaylene Riley, Community Environmental Management Specialist

Every utility system’s management and governing Board wants to believe that their employees are honest, hard-working people that would never take advantage of the trust that has been placed with them, and that is usually the case.  However, even the most unlikely candidates can sometimes be found to be untrustworthy.  Board members, even those who are successful business owners, often miss signs that these trusted individuals may not be so deserving of their confidence.

Over the past two decades, the instances of embezzlement from small municipalities and rural water districts has increased dramatically.  In an effort to provide training to board members on signs to look for and steps to take to improve the safety of small system finances, research was conducted into several cases of misappropriation of funds.  In some cases, there was a lack of knowledge or training on the part of the governing Board, but in all cases, there was a lack of proper oversight.

In one small town, a utility billing clerk took advantage of billing software that was easily manipulated to switch an active account to inactive. She could manually prepare the bill for a higher usage to create an unaccounted for check, and then change the status back to active.  She would also post “credit adjustments” to customer accounts where cash payments were pocketed to manipulate past due accounts reporting.   Customer accounts reflecting payments all showed payment by check, which allowed collection reports to reflect that no cash payments had been received.  The inexperienced town treasurer lacked confidence in dealing with the utility software systems. She allowed the utility billing clerk to prepare the reports.  Audits were not being conducted due to the inability to provide records in an acceptable manner.  The Board took this as being entirely the town treasurer’s fault and let her go.  They hired a person with an accounting background who instituted internal control measures including accountability for consecutively numbered receipts, posting of payments reflecting whether cash or check was the payment method and confirmation and reconciliation of daily collection reports from the utility software.  For the next year, deposits increased by an average of $8,000 per month, with an increase in cash deposits of $6,300 per month.  For the year following the resignation of the utility billing clerk, the deposits increased an additional $4,300 per month, with an increase in cash deposits of $3,500 per month.

In another case, a rural water district office manager was able to steal more than $45,000 over 30-months.  This was done by not providing customers with numbered receipts.  She stopped using the numbered receipt books and started giving the customers a receipt on a scrap of paper or telephone message slip.   Payments were posted showing payment by check rather than by cash.  Reports presented to the Board were of a temporary type and were not intended by the software provider to act as a reconciliation. Deposit slips did not provide a list of customers whose payments were being deposited.  In addition to the theft of customer cash payments, the office manager was in control of the payroll system, and reports show direct deposits to her personal account over time that amounted to more than $20,000.

In yet another instance, the governing Board began noticing questionable transactions following their change in policy to a “no cash; check or money order only” basis for payment of utility bills, due to a decline in cash deposits.  The Board Chairman was contacted by the bank that the system’s checking account was overdrawn, and the savings account had been drawn down to a very low balance.  The Chairman requested a report from the bank as to what vendors had been paid by check or debit card. The Chairman realized that many payments had been made that had not been approved by or reported to the Board.  An estimated $33,000 in unauthorized or undocumented purchases were made using the system’s checking account.  The savings account was depleted by making transfers to the checking account to cover the unauthorized purchases.

What do these situations have in common?  One person held too much control of the system’s finances.  In each case, the Board thought they were taking an active role in the management of the handling of the finances by requiring reports.  Getting reports is not always enough.

Lessons learned from these cases:

  • When looking at collections against deposits, look at the composition of the deposits for a mix of both cash and checks. Look at previous years’ bank records to see if cash payments are declining significantly.
  • Look at customer account history to assure payments are posted accurately as cash or check, as shown on deposits. Are there credit adjustments being made to the account rather than payments being shown?  Are there instances of account status being changed from active to inactive and back again?  Have customer account histories been deleted?
  • Assure that numbered receipts are given for all payments received, and accurately posted into customer accounts. If numbered receipt books are used instead of system generated receipts, maintain control of books so that only one book is used until exhausted.  Receipt books should be safeguarded against loss or misuse.
  • Consider implementing a no-cash policy.
  • Consider investing in a billing and accounting system that has built-in safeguards that do not allow deletion of account history, that track changes to entries, and provide adequate reports.
  • All expenditures should be reported to the Board for approval, even those within a set limit that has been authorized, with details as to the date, purpose, and purchaser.
  • Payroll reports to the Board should include details as to the number of hours paid, dates and times for any overtime, and the reason for overtime worked.
  • Bank statements should be provided monthly to all board members as part of the board meeting packet so they can be reviewed as part of the financial reports. The bank should be requested to provide bank statements directly to a designated board member for review.
  • A comparison of actual income and expenses should be compared to the budget on at least a quarterly basis.
  • Make sure that all persons handling monies of the system are adequately bonded.

In almost all small systems, the board members volunteer their time to attend board meetings and make decisions.  Their responsibility does not end there.  When a breakdown of internal controls occurs, and oversight is weak, the loss of funds that may occur is a burden on utility customers when rates are increased to cover the losses.  Implementing the safeguards shown above will take more time for both employees and board members, but will protect the finances of the system and the trust placed in the Board by the customers.


Adaptation, Preparation and PPP Loan: Secrets to Honey Hush's Success

Shelly Evans, Honey Hush Boutique

Adaptation, Preparation and PPP Loan: Secrets to Honey Hush’s Success

The Paycheck Payment Protection loan program has given some much needed assistance to small businesses across the country.

For one small business in Texas, the PPP loan brought relief, but it has only been part of what has served to keep the business running through the COVID-19 shutdown.

Shelly Evans, owner of Honey Hush Boutique in Bogata, Texas, said the process to get the PPP loan wasn’t an easy one. She said going through her local bank helped in securing the loan.

Having heard that funds would soon be available, Shelly prepared the paperwork ahead of time. When the bank was finally allowed to open the application process, she turned her paperwork in within a couple of hours.

So did many, many others, which produced a huge burden for the small bank, Shelly said. As a result, it was nearly a week before her application was formally submitted to the government PPP loan program.

After that, it took about another week to hear the results — she got the loan.

Per the loan requirements, 75% of the money will go to employee salaries. About 15% of it has been used for inventory to keep the business flowing, and the rest will be used for miscellaneous expenses.

Shelly said she was grateful for the loan, because things were looking bleak in the beginning of the shutdown.

“At the start, it was very concerning,” she said. She prepared for a worst-case scenario, including cutting back hours or laying off staff until the crisis was over. But the loan and a “whim” helped save her business.

As the virus began hitting states in the U.S., Shelly didn’t just look at what normal inventory they would need, but also what customers might want or need in the future as the virus spread.

“On a whim, I bought masks, and it just went crazy,” she said. The masks sold rapidly. She also stocked up on hand sanitizer, which quickly became a big seller as well. Then, she got an idea.

“I had a vender that had these great headbands,” she said. She came up with a way to adapt the headbands for those wearing masks. She said her mother helped sew buttons on the headbands so that a mask’s elastic could go over the buttons instead of behind the ears, saving the wearer ear pain after prolonged use.

“We’ve sold hundreds of the headbands,” she said. Hand sanitizer has also been a big seller, but people also are buying clothing.

As the COVID-19 virus began to spread across the U.S., Shelly decided to err on the side of caution. She closed the doors of her boutique to the public.

“We closed a good week or two before anyone around us,” she said.

But that closure didn’t mean her business was shutting down. Instead, she used the tools she already had in place, and adapted to utilize others.

Honey Hush already had a website, a Facebook group and a Facebook page. Shelly used the Facebook pages for advertising and allowed online ordering through the website. But they would need more than that to make it through the crisis.

That’s when she came up with a unique plan for a clothing and gift boutique: Curbside pickup.

The concept isn’t unusual for restaurants, and grocery stores that have been delving into the service in the last year or two. But few boutiques offered such services. Still, the strange times warranted thinking outside of the box, so that’s what Shelly did.

And it worked.

Local residents were able to place orders online and arrange a time for pickup. The customer drove up, and an employee would bring out the customer’s order within a few minutes. The idea was an instant success.

“We had four to five cars waiting for curbside pickup,” she said.

Those are just some of the examples of how Honey Hush has continued to thrive despite the COVID-19 crisis — by adapting early and often to the fluid situation.

“It’s looking ahead and adapting to different needs and rolling with the punches. But that’s what I do,” she said.

Shelly said she has had to be creative to draw locals to her website and social media pages so they know what she has and how she can provide it. She goes live on Facebook daily. They also post to Instagram and SnapChat, providing photos of inventory and items recently restocked. She uses Facebook, her website and phone calls to receive orders and set up shipping or curbside delivery.

“Never put all your eggs in one basket,” Shelly advises. “Have revenue from multiple streams.”

The multiple streams have allowed Shelly to keep her business, and her employees, through the crisis.

Though there is talk of state government relaxing stay-at-home orders and allowing businesses to reopen, Shelly says her doors will remain closed for now. The small town recently received its first case of COVID-19.

“It’s just starting here,” she said. The guidelines call for everything to be wiped down and sanitized after each customer enters or leaves the store. That’s too much for her and her employees to keep up with for now while still operating the store.

“That’s exhausting to me, it’s exhausting to my employees,” she said. “It’s a risk to me and my employees, even with the sanitation.”

For now, Shelly said Honey Hush will continue with its curbside and online services. Once the store does reopen, Shelly said she will likely continue the curbside service for those who want it, because it poses little problem to take an order to a customer’s car.

“I think this is going to change the way that we as a people are,” she said. As a result, businesses will need to adapt to “the new normal.”

Shelly said she’s ready for whatever will be necessary to keep her business going and to keep her customers safe.

If you have questions about the Families First and CARES Act, please see our FAQs and Small Business Toolkit.

Honey Hush Boutique is one of several businesses that have worked with Communities Unlimited. Tools and lending available to Honey Hush are available to other small businesses, from information on the latest financial assistance available to business management assistance and training. Click here for more information.

Essential Service Employee Identification Letters / Cards for Water – Wastewater Sector

Essential Service Employee Identification Letters / Cards for Water – Wastewater Sector (Emergency Support Function – 3)

Water and Wastewater Operators, Maintenance Technicians, and other staff employed or contracted by Public Water Systems and/or Public Wastewater Systems are deemed “Essential Service” employees who should be exempt from most shelter-in-place orders by local or state governments in order to execute their duties of keeping the production and treatment of potable drinking water and treated wastewater discharges during this national emergency.

At a minimum the language on the letter or card should identify the staff member (or contractor) by name as it appears on their federal / state identification card or driver’s license, that person’s title or job function, and the county or parish that the staff member is required to travel. This information, along with the words “Essential Service Employee” in bold print with the Public Water / Wastewater System Name, signed and dated by the responsible local official (mayor, board or commission chairperson) of the Public Water / Wastewater System.

This letter or card should be carried at all times by the Essential Service Employee and presented to law enforcement or National Guard if challenged.

If your rural community water or wastewater system is experiencing challenges during this pandemic and would like more information about available technical assistance and capital resources, please call 479-443-2700 to connect with one of our Community Environmental Management staff in your area. These services are provided through the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP, Inc.), of which Communities Unlimited is the southern regional partner serving the following states: AL, AR, LA, MS, OK, TN and TX.

For more information about the Families First and CARES Act for nonprofits and/or public entities, please see our FAQs.

By: Tommy Ricks, Director of Environmental Services – Communities Unlimited