CEDAR RAPIDS — City staff from the utilities department met with customers in older homes in Cedar Rapids saddled month after month by disproportionately high water bills.
The city team listened, hoping to find a way to reduce the financial burden. The residents had a lot in common. In addition to being lower income, their homes’ plumbing was older, leading to leaky faucets and running toilets.
“They end up with large bills at the end of the month,” said April Wing, a program manager in the city manager’s office.
The city developed a plan to partner with Hawkeye Area Community Action Program to correct the plumbing issues and reduce the bills. The impact can be measured by tracking bills and water usage.
The scenario with the utility department is an example of a new equity initiative being tested in the city government to enhance internal practices and ensure external-facing policies and programs don’t create barriers for disadvantaged groups.
Representatives from eight city divisions, including utilities, transit, parks and recreation, and police, took part in the first round of what is called a “social equity impact assessment” or “equity lens.” They wrapped up earlier this summer.
A second group that includes other departments is planned for the fall. The assessment eventually could roll out to all departments.
Wing created the assessment by compiling examples used by other municipalities and organizations, including the Government Alliance on Race & Equity, the Race and Social Justice Initiative and Race Forward. It comes at no additional cost to taxpayers.
“We just want to keep improving,” Wing said. “People often have unconscious bias, so where are our blind spots and how can we improve and make sure we are accessible and serving everyone equitably. We need to make sure we are not discriminating against our citizens.”
The assessment serves as a tool to examine the effect current or future procedures, policies, services and programs have on underserved populations. By better understanding how various initiatives or policies can perpetuate discrimination when it comes to race, gender, age, disabilities, socio-economic status and others, the city can work to remove those burdens.
Stakeholders are consulted, an issue is identified and examined, a solution is offered, and a method for tracking progress is established.
“Our goal in developing the social equity impact assessment is to create and support a culture of equity-centered practices within the entire city organization,” said Sandi Fowler, deputy city manager, in an email. “We want to constantly be asking the right questions of ourselves in order to identify areas for improvement.”
Cedar Rapids Public Library trustees learned about the program last week. The library, which set inclusion as a top priority in its latest strategic plan, could participate in the next round.
Library use is changing, said Amber McNamara, a community relations manager for the library. A diverse group of users visits the library, staff are more “out in the stacks” interacting with patrons rather than behind a reference desk, and the library is a place for a variety of community connections, she said.
Examining policies such as fines and fees and behavior can help ensure the library is using those equitably and appropriately, she said.
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“No one thing has triggered this,” McNamara said. “But when we look at what is happening in libraries across the country, inclusion and equity is a big trend. We need to respond to changing needs and how the library is being used by patrons.”
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