Income surveys are tools that funders use to determine a community’s median household income (MHI), which affects eligibility and favorability of terms for grant and loan packages. To ensure confidentiality, most funders require a third-party entity like the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), the western RCAP, to conduct the survey. Income surveys usually happen in two phases: a paper survey mailed to rate payers’ homes, followed by at least one round of door-to-door interviews with households that did not respond by mail. As an RCAC technical assistance provider, I’ve helped to conduct income surveys.
In August 2020, the US Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD) asked RCAC to perform an income survey in Panhandle Village, a very small community near Rathdrum, Idaho. Panhandle Village was seeking infrastructure funding from USDA RD and the Idaho Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to update its drinking water distribution system.
There were 50 active residential water connections at Panhandle Village, and CDBG requires an 80% response rate for the survey, based on system size. This high response rate is often hard to achieve. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe for technical assistance providers (TAPs) and community members to travel and complete the door-to-door interviews. These interviews are often critical to collect the required number of survey responses, and RCAC has not conducted many income surveys of this size without needing to go door to door.
Nevertheless, the RCAC staff put their heads together to develop a methodology that would satisfy the funding agencies and gather the necessary responses.
COVID-19 presented several challenges to conducting the income survey:
We were unable to host public meetings to answer questions about the survey and the process. Doing public outreach early and often is critical for generating survey participation, and in-person presentations are traditionally the most effective way to garner local support.
Without the option of going door-to-door, we needed another way to connect with all rate payers directly for follow-up. For example, if not all rate payers had email addresses, we could not send the survey via email. The team also discussed an electronic survey, but neither the agencies nor TAPs had a framework or format to perform secure online income surveys, so that was not feasible. The issue with access remained, as not every home had internet access.
COVID-19 also impacted the U.S. Postal Service and, for many reasons, caused serious delays in mail delivery. Since CDBG requires an 80% response rate within 75 days to consider the survey valid, these mail delays were a major hurdle.
Some residents reported they had lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and had either retired or begun receiving unemployment. This meant their reported income for the previous year was not representative of their current or expected future income.
Creative, Collaborative Solutions
RCAC worked closely with funders to identify creative solutions that would yield a valid survey. We also worked with community leaders to develop new strategies to generate buy-in and enable timely responses from ratepayers.
While I worked in close communication with Panhandle Village representatives to track survey responses and focus local outreach to non-responders, the water system’s board members reached out to people they knew personally. The community seemed supportive, but time began to run out while we waited for surveys to arrive by mail. To address this issue, I conducted phone interviews with several residents to achieve the 80% response rate before the 75-day deadline.
Our team also sent out three rounds of mailers (instead of just one) with an extra week built into the deadline, to accommodate mail delivery delays. The funders adjusted their requirements to support phone interviews in lieu of door-to-door interviews. Lastly, community leaders made phone calls and went to the homes of people they knew to encourage residents to complete the survey.
Thanks to these combined efforts and solutions, we succeeded in conducting a valid survey before the deadline!
As with many other processes and systems, COVID-19 revealed weaknesses within the standard median household income (MHI) process. Fillable forms or online surveys may be a future option, although they need to be considered alongside lack of internet access and the ability to maintain confidentiality. Many rural areas do not have broadband or any access to the internet. Even in communities with internet access, like Panhandle Village, many residents do not have internet in their homes. Equitable access to the internet ought to be considered when evaluating traditional mail and in-person income survey alternatives.
From August 17-19, 2021, The Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) will be hosting our annual National Conference. The National Conference is an opportunity for the regional affiliates that make up RCAP’s network, made up of more than 300 Technical Assistance Providers (TAPs) to come together and share their knowledge and experiences to better serve rural communities across the country. The Conference also coincides with the celebration of National Water Quality Month to emphasize the importance of clean, safe water in our communities, homes, and environment. The various learning tracks of the conference cover topics such as operations, regulations, management and finance for water, wastewater, and solid waste as well as sessions on some of RCAP’s newer rural endeavors including economic development and community facilities that all tie back to the larger issue of water quality and the quality of life in rural America.
To better understand what to expect at the National Conference, we sat down with Lisa Fought, Training and Technical Services Specialist, one of the main planners of the event. As a former TAP with the Great Lakes RCAP, the Great Lakes Community Assistance Partnership, Lisa has experience as both a participant and planner of the National Conference.
For those unfamiliar, what is the RCAP National Conference?
The National Conference aims to provide best practices and training to the people who are on the ground, in communities, doing the work. We have so few opportunities to come together across the regions and this is a chance to connect with people doing similar work all across the country. The National Conference is also a showcase of the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge we have across the network. We have over 3000 TAPs on the ground doing this work in all 50 states and U.S. territories. It is a reminder, on a national scale, of just how amazing the people who work for the network are.
When you were a TAP, what was the National Conference like for you?
When I was a TAP, the biggest benefit of the conference for me was the networking. It is an opportunity to connect with the other TAPs as well as staff from the National Office. TAPs can feel isolated because a lot of us work remotely. I worked remotely for twenty years. The face to face (and virtual) connection with people is really important.
What is your experience like now as a member of the National team?
I now have an appreciation for the amount of effort and work that goes into planning the conference. I see that the National Office is really trying to address the needs and wants of the people in the field. That’s not an easy task because you have 300 different needs and wants. We really try to be conscious of what everyone wants to get out of the conference.
What is it like having to plan a Virtual Conference?
A virtual conference allows for potentially all TAPs to participate whereas, in person, regions may have a limited amount of travel funds to send participants. The networking and intra-personal elements can be harder remotely, though we are doing our best to set up virtual networking opportunities. Some people are also fatigued from having to connect in this way for over a year, but we’ll see what happens as the COVID-19 pandemic clears and play it one day at a time.
Are there any sessions or elements of the Conference you are particularly excited about this year?
All of them! Every session we have this year has relevance to someone. We try to provide a menu of choices for people to participate in a variety of sessions. Coming in as a new TAP years ago, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so it can be hard to choose with so many great options. We have some really amazing staff across the country who were willing to take the time to design and deliver a session (or more), and it just demonstrates again the depth and breadth of knowledge we have in this network.
This year I’m really looking forward to interacting with everyone in the field. I’m interested in hearing the different experiences, reconnecting, and creating a space to tap into each other’s knowledge. Everyone has their own specialties and sharing this allows us to best serve the communities we’re working with.
Do you have any guidance for first-time attendees to help them maximize their conference experience?
We hope everyone will have patience. Since the conference is virtual, it’s possible (probable) we may have some technological glitches. Attendees should also be willing to listen and learn from presenters and one another. It’s important to highlight that, even though someone may be new to RCAP, that doesn’t mean they are new to this arena. Everyone comes to this network with their own set of skills and knowledge to share that the rest of us can learn from. I’m really hoping to have active and engaged participants this year because that makes the conference so much more meaningful for everyone.
Learn more about the National Conference and its speakers and sponsors here. Follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #RCAPNationalConference.
In the last few years, hurricane season has become even more active and dangerous. September is National Preparedness Month and offers a powerful opportunity to encourage planning and preparedness for natural disasters, especially as they increase in frequency and intensity, by sharing examples of how different states are managing this.
Florida has implemented the Florida Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (FlaWARN) to help in the recovery of water and wastewater utilities after storms. FlaWARN is a mutual aid network to help utilities during man-made and natural disasters.
Mutual aid agreements are an effective regionalization approach that all utilities can participate in. Some utilities have had a fear that by signing a mutual aid agreement, they are agreeing to accept assistance from anyone that offers it or are obligated to assist if requested. None of these things are true. They actually serve to assure assisting utilities that if their help is accepted, they will be reimbursed for it down the line.
FlaWARN coordinates and pairs utilities that have need for support during a disaster with those utilities that can offer assistance through their Water Tracker program. Systems register with FlaWARN as a member and file a signed mutual aid agreement with the organization and then have access to this innovative tool. Florida is demoing the tool for other states in the hope that they can modify it to meet their local mutual aid and disaster response needs. It can be used for any type of emergency not just hurricanes and also was heavily utilized throughout the COVID 19 pandemic.
Once a disaster has been declared, FlaWARN staff enter the event into the FlaWARN database. Member utilities are notified through the system that this has occurred. Members can opt out of receiving notifications for any event at any time. After the event, utilities in need of assistance can make a request. The needs go out as notifications that assisting utilities can respond to. Their responses also go out as notifications. Additionally, systems can go to the FlaWARN website directly to see what is needed.
As an example of how this works, during Hurricane Michael in 2018, the following post was made:
Need: Port St. Joe – Cape San Blas Wastewater and Liftstation
Florida Rural Water Association
Posted by Dyana Stewart (DJS) Oct 24 12:29pm
Update 11/2/18 DJS per Scotty Phillips: City of Tallahassee delivered (3) 6″ bypass pumps and Wewahitcha delivered (1) 4″ bypass pump on 10/31/18.
New Need Update 10/30/18 10:13 DJS: (4) 6″ bypass pumps that can connect to 4″ male quick clamps
Update 10/24/18 2:14pm DJS: Regional Utilities is onsite and will take the lead, but more assistance is needed.
10/24/18 12:39pm DJS: System is needing crews to help repair WW line from Port St. Joe to Cape San Blas in wet area.
3500 Linear Feet (LF) of 8″ C900 Green sewer pipe
(25) 8″ restraint fittings
(10) 8″ hymax couplings
(25) 8″ EBBA megalugs with bolt kits
(8) 8″ Ductile Iron Mechanical Joint (DI MJ) caps
(8) 8″ DI MJ 45°
(8) 8″ DI MJ 90°
3500LF green trace wire
100′ 1 1/4″ construction well point PVC screen
Contact: John Grantland, 850-XXX-XXXX
Each disaster event helps Florida learn and explore ways to improve the system. For example, during Hurricane Michael in 2018, a persistent problem in response was a miscommunication and flawed incident command. In an effort to address these issues, during the following 2019 hurricane season, the state divided itself up into zones with a key utility agreeing to be the lead for their zone during the event. This will hopefully alleviate miscommunication, such as those that occurred during Hurricane Michael, and provide better incident command. It is through suggestions provided by utilities that make this mutual aid network a success which is critical when a natural disaster hits.
Most states have a WARN where systems can help one another in their time of need and do so in a way that will allow them to be adequately reimbursed for their efforts. To find a WARN in your state, you can check out EPA’s website.