Dept. of Environmental Services Profiled in Video

by ARLnow.com November 21, 2011 at 3:45 pm 2,373 29 Comments

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month we ran an article based on a county-produced video that profiled the Arlington Department of Environmental Services. Within hours, the video was pulled down. County spokespeople later explained that the video was accidentally uploaded in an incomplete form. The video has since been re-uploaded, and we’re posting it and much of the original article again for the benefit of readers.

With about 375 full-time employees and an operating budget of more than $70 million, the Arlington County Department of Environmental Services is in charge of maintaining the county’s streets, street signs, street lights, water lines, and sewers. It also collects your trash and leaves, runs the county’s snow plows and operates transit programs.

A new video (above) from Arlington County explores the many ways DES is a part of our every day lives.

The video contains a number of staggering facts about the infrastructure within our 26 square mile county, the smallest self-governing county — geographically — in the United States.

For instance, Arlington maintains 961 lane miles of roads, some 100,000 traffic signs, 526 miles of water lines, and enough sanitary sewer lines to stretch from here to Boston, Mass. Also featured in the video: a new remote-controlled camera that searches sewer lines for pipes that have broken due to tree roots and other factors.

  • nice

    I didn’t ever think about all they do. I’m thankful for DES today. Thanks for posting ARLnow.

    • Ivy

      Exactly! But, I’m sure the infamous I-hate-taxes crowd will somehow try to convince people that they can get “volunteers” to clean up sewage waste or, if people want a sewar and water, they can pay for it on their own. People who don’t want water or sewage dont’ have to be “forced” to pay

      • Zoning Victim

        We do pay for sewer and water on our own, and the infamout I-hate-taxes people (i.e. most of the country) would simply point out that the county could hire a private contractor to do the work and save money.

        • Do you have any actual evidence it would cost less? Here’s one study suggesting private contractors cost more: http://www.ombwatch.org/node/11865

          • Zoning Victim

            I don’t have time to read the study right now, but I will get to it, eventually. I will say this though: if the whole way things are done is ineffective at the process level by comparison to what a private institution would do, then comparing individual categories of work is pretty useless, anyway. I have no doubt that the government can hire people with certain skills directly for less than they can contract out the work, but that’s a very small piece of the overall puzzle.

            We’ve all heard the tales of $1,000+ hammers and toilette seats, but that doesn’t mean that the government can manufacture hammers and toilette seats cheaper than buying them from the private sector. In fact it’s a condemnation of the way the government does business since that should have been caught long before anyone cut a check for that.

          • Zoning Victim

            As I suspected, the summary of methodology basically states that they can’t be sure if their findings are accurate:

            “POGO made every effort to ensure that its study is as accurate as possible. However, there are a number of factors that potentially limit the accuracy of POGO’s findings. For instance, over the course of our investigation, we discovered some disturbing limitations to the federal databases available to us. The most critical limitations are that: 1) the government’s coding, classification, and data collection systems are inconsistent and do not allow for reliable cost analyses[72]; 2) government websites do not provide access to agency documents that detail cost estimates and the justifications for outsourcing decisions; 3) the government does not publish information on the number of actual contractor employees holding a specific occupational position under any given contract; 4) the government only lists the ceiling prices that it can be billed by contractors for the specific occupational positions—the government is at liberty to negotiate prices that are lower than those listed, but it does not publish those negotiated rates (however, based on POGO’s review of GSA contracts, and anecdotal evidence, the government tends to pay the listed billing rates rather than negotiating lower rates[73]); and 5) government websites do not disclose what the expected cost savings for service contracts are, nor the actual savings (or lack of savings) that result from those contracts. These shortcomings prevent government officials, as well as the public, from accurately assessing outsourcing costs. There are other factors that may limit the accuracy of POGO’s findings, and we detail those in the full methodology in Appendix A.”

          • You don’t have time to educate yourself, but you do have time to share your uninformed opinion. Pretty much the ArlNow comment section in a nutshell.

          • Zoning Victim

            Actually, I made time to read through some of it when I finished some work I had to do faster than I thought I would. The report has 23 sections and over 200 footnotes; please tell me all about how you read all of that after reading the article that references it, including the footnote references and analyzed the charts in the appendices before shooting your mouth off to me about uninformed opinions. Even the article states in no uncertain terms that POGO couldn’t really do an effective cost comparison because of the lack of transparency in government spending.

            As for uninformed opinions, I’ve worked for government agencies, government contractors and several private enterprises, including ones that I have owned, and have firsthand knowledge of the inefficiencies and in some cases outright waste that takes place in government organizations. No chart of salaries can ever speak to the efficiency of government versus that of private enterprise, which is probably the comparison I should have made in the first place instead of contractor. If all that mattered is what people got paid, business efficiency would be simple to attain, yet it is not. The fact that government agencies allow themselves to be ripped off by contractors is a testament to the fact that the government is not efficient, not the ringing endorsement for more government that you and the article you referenced make it out to be. So, hooray! The government employee costs less than a contractor per hour because some other government employee lets the government get ripped-off by contractors in the first place because what the heck? It’s not his money and he can’t make a profit, so who cares?

          • Ivy

            Wow! The $1000 hammer goes back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s kind of like saying if we ease up on health and safety regulations, we’ll go back to the same conditions as noted in the book The Jungle or Triangle fire. Let’s talk modern times. For starters, how do you know if the people in the video are contracted out? How do you know if the management of sewars are contracted out? Take it from someone who has been on the Government side and the contractor side….contracting out makes sense in some situations. BUT, with tasks that will continue, it costs A LOT more money to contract out. I know. I have done the cost analysis. Just “contract out” is not only expensive, but quality goes way down despite what you think. I have seen it first hand.

          • Zoning Victim

            I’ve been on both sides of the equation, too. As I said in my last response, I probably should have been comparing running water and sewer as a private enterprise instead of with contractors, since like you said, contracting is for when you have a temporary problem or project and can’t take care of it yourself.

            I do not agree that contracting out always reduces quality. It can in certain situations and maybe did in the ones you were party to, but it isn’t’ necessarily the rule. There are many things that get contracted out because the government (or a private company) simply can’t do it themselves. Having been on both sides of the contracting arrangement with both private and government entities, one thing is certain; everybody who works wherever you are contracting will always claim that the contractors don’t know what they’re doing and are too expensive.

        • Daniel

          Who says that DES doesn’t already contract out some of its work? You wouldn’t know it from this video, but I’ve driven by plenty of sewer projects that had non-Arlington logos on their vehicles. Some combination of trash and recycling trucks also appear to be contracted out.

          • Zoning Victim

            If that was directed at me, I never said they didn’t contract out some of the work. In fact, I’d bet that there isn’t a single government entity in the US that doesn’t contract out some of its work or rely on contractors in some way.

      • Newt Gingrich

        Get little kids to clean up the sewage! Child labor laws are stupid!

  • jslanger

    Concur. Nice video. You forget about all of those services…at least we know where a lot of our tax $ go to!

  • JohnB

    Can’t wait to hear what the haters will say about this one.

    • Just the Facts

      Probably something along the lines of, “Why are my tax dollars going to promote government?!?”

      • novasteve

        That’s a very good question.

      • LPS4DL

        Probably because it’s a great way to reach the uneducated and unappreciative public.

        • Zoning Victim

          What difference does it make if I’m unappreciative? I have to pay my taxes or go to jail whether or not I’m happy with what they do, and until you’ve had to deal with one of our illustrious departments and their mountains of red tape, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. If you have dealt with them (or zoning or IDS) and still think that they deserve a lot of appreciation, you must be into pain.

    • Chris M.

      How about this? Why does the county make its own signs? I highly doubt that is cost effective.

      • Ivy

        Who said they are or are not making their own signs? And, if they are making their own signs, it probably is cheaper. Have you done a cost analysis comparing in-house sign making vs contracting out?

        • Suburban Not Urban

          Seriously? It’s common knowledge mass produced stuff has a lower cost than doing things one off with a less experienced/efficient operation.(Look up China in the dictionary)

          • OMG OMG OMG

            Have you ever noticed how specific the very many signs are in Arlington? These are not the sorts of things that are mass-produced. Start with street name signs, then consider parking signs, etc.

          • Daniel


          • Zoning Victim

            Using that logic, every professional football team (or any sports team for that matter) should create their own factory to manufacture their team jerseys, hats and etcetera instead of all of them contracting all of their apparel out to Reebok. After all, each team’s apparel is completely different, except for the fact that they’re all the same sizes, use the same materials and are manufactured using the same processes; kind of like street signs.

          • Ed

            Yes! We can save money by having people in China make the signs, and shipping them (the signs, I mean) over here on freighters that don’t even leak very much fuel! That way we can lay off our own citizens who make signs for a living, and we’ll save money! We’ll all be better off, and we can take the money we save and use it to support our new military base in Australia to contain the Chinese!

          • Ivy

            You are funny!

  • Rick

    Less youtube, more signal work.


  • Regarding signs…the County purchases many standard signs, such as stop and yield, pre-fabricated, and ready to install. Specialty signs and signs needed in small quantities are fabricated in-house to save time and money. All signs are produced or purchased with the goal of cost effectiveness and efficiency to ensure the safety of our community.


Subscribe to our mailing list