Fort Wayne City Utilities’ story of resilience
Case Study

Long-term strategic planning: Fort Wayne City Utilities’ story of resilience

The utility's commitment to its strategic plan positioned FWCU as a nationally recognized Utility of Excellence.
Fort Wayne City Utilities’ story of resilience
Case Study

Long-term strategic planning: Fort Wayne City Utilities’ story of resilience

The utility's commitment to its strategic plan positioned FWCU as a nationally recognized Utility of Excellence.

Client background

Fort Wayne City Utilities (FWCU or the Utility) is a regional utility owned and operated by the City of Fort Wayne, Indiana, providing water, sewer/wastewater and stormwater services to its customers. Fort Wayne is Indiana’s second-largest city and is the heart of the Northeast Indiana economic region. FWCU serves a population of approximately 270,000 within the Fort Wayne city limits and approximately 43,000 outside the city limits. In addition, the utility provides wholesale water and sewer treatment services to several surrounding communities. FWCU has 360 employees and a $150 million annual budget. Infrastructure assets include 1,429 miles of water mains, 1,416 miles of sewers and 697 miles of storm sewers. FWCU is governed by a strong mayor-council government and a Board of Public Works. A director, appointed by the mayor, oversees the Utility’s three water utilities and four business units – business services, engineering, operations and policy and planning. FWCU also seeks guidance from a local Utility Advisory Board comprised of local stakeholders, including neighborhood leaders and representatives from local organizations.

FWCU developed and adopted its first strategic plan in 2005, in which it now updates and publishes on a five-year basis. The initial plan included a vision, mission statement, values, defined goals and objectives for FWCU and business strategies needed to be successful in the future. Further, the strategic plan documented and analyzed the issues FWCU needed to address in the coming years to achieve its goal of being the utility of choice for the Fort Wayne region, which included recognizing the competitive forces at play. After acquiring several private utilities in the region and expanding its footprint, the Utility realized its overarching goal was achieved, which prompted the development of a new long-term strategic plan.

Organization challenge

After successfully implementing the first strategic plan, as a next step, the Utility engaged with Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors (BTMA) to provide supplemental strategic planning and consulting services to FWCU’s executive leadership team by bringing a broad and experienced external perspective as well as financial and accounting expertise to the generation of an even more comprehensive strategic plan that would capture and monitor the Utility’s established goals, objectives and priorities for the next five years.

Baker Tilly’s collaborative approach

The new strategic plan required recommendations to guide key policy, facility, personnel and training and resource allocation decisions during the five-year period. Further, FWCU reinforced the importance of following the 10 Attributes of Effective Utility Management to measure individual, departmental and utility-wide performance, which would also be reflected in the final strategic plan.

The process to update and produce the FWCU strategic plan included the following:

  • Meetings with FWCU leadership
  • Meetings with FWCU stakeholders, including:
    - City Department heads
    - Current and former elected officials
    - Representative of the development community
    - Member of the Utility Advisory Board
    - Employees in representative groups
  • Online employee survey

The meetings with all of the stakeholders focused on discussing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis) to FWCU – and its customers. What does FWCU do well and what areas need improvement?

The collaborative efforts of FWCU and BTMA produced a strategic plan resulting from the above process, particularly identifying six strategic initiatives:

  1. Human capital development
  2. Community and employee engagement
  3. Customer service
  4. Technology
  5. Affordability and cost management
  6. Environmental stewardship and conservation

Each of the six strategic initiatives includes goals, actions and parameters to measure success detailed in the plan, which informs and guides the FWCU’s operations for the next five years. The significant stakeholder input sought and incorporated into the plan provides a broad base of support for the strategic initiatives and instills confidence in Utility leadership that its objectives align with community needs.

Results achieved

Fast-forward to 2020. FWCU is in the middle of implementing its 2017-2022 strategic plan – and the COVID-19 pandemic happens. Many local governments and utilities are struggling, but FWCU is resilient through the national emergency thanks in large part to its strategic plan. The plan sets the tone of the Utility’s culture, in which its people and community are top priorities. Water utilities were essential to fighting the coronavirus, and FWCU’s essential workers were front and center during the pandemic to ensure safe, clean water for the region. Because human capital and community engagement are strategic initiatives, they are engrained in the Utility’s culture.

FWCU’s emphasis and investments in technology significantly improved operations, including providing enhanced customer access. Just before COVID-19, Fort Wayne installed an outdoor payment kiosk at City Hall, achieving one of its strategic goals of providing 24/7 access to customers to pay their bills even as the building closed due to the pandemic. Additionally, improved bandwidth allowed employees to work from home and Utility leadership observed improved customer service and support while remote. Automated work orders helped ensure services were provided safely.

The financial component of strategic plan that BTMA helped develop to ensure affordability and cost management was critical to Fort Wayne in facing unforeseen disruption, including the pandemic. The Utility instituted a forward-looking financial strategy with multiyear rate plans and capital improvement plans that enabled them to be resilient during economic setbacks. Regionalization efforts has allowed FWCU to continue to diversify their rate base, so they are not overly dependent on certain industries or customer classifications. Diversifying rate structures and better aligning fixed and variable costs have also contributed to the Utility’s resiliency. Fort Wayne also established non-traditional revenue sources, including providing services to other utilities and on-call field operation services to surrounding jurisdictions as well as generating methane and leveraging their robust asset management plan.

FWCU’s commitment to all six strategic initiatives positioned the Utility, a nationally recognized Utility of Excellence, and Fort Wayne City to keep operations going and ensure its communities have access to water during an unprecedented and challenging time.

The Utility has won several regional and national awards, most recently including the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Partnership in Safe Water Treatment and Partnership in Safe Water Distribution System Directors Awards and the Indiana Water Environment Association (IWEA) Excellence in Safety Award.

For more information, or to learn how Baker Tilly's public sector team can collaborate to assist your utility, contact our team.

Fort Wayne City Utilities 2017-2022 Strategic Plan

CommuniTIES podcast

CommuniTIES: remaining resilient amid the pandemic: a utility’s successful approach to strategic and financial planning

Hear CFO of Fort Wayne City Utilities, Justin Brugger, tell his story

Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors, LLC is a registered municipal advisor and controlled subsidiary of Baker Tilly Advisory Group, LP. Baker Tilly Advisory Group, LP and Baker Tilly US, LLP, trading as Baker Tilly, operate under an alternative practice structure and are members of the global network of Baker Tilly International Ltd., the members of which are separate and independent legal entities. Baker Tilly US, LLP is a licensed CPA firm and provides assurance services to its clients. Baker Tilly Advisory Group, LP and its subsidiary entities provide tax and consulting services to their clients and are not licensed CPA firms. ©2024 Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors, LLC

Water flowing from creek in Independence, Missouri
Next up

City creates successful debt repayment plan and strengthens credit rating while minimizing revenue fund impact