You know that a business operation has a serious identity problem when its public relations representative not only admits it but is eager to talk about it.
Here's what Samantha Villegas says, for openers, about the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority: "We need to better say who we are. There is a lot of confusion out there about what we do."
The authority provides water and wastewater services to more than 130,000 people in eastern Loudoun, generally east of Route 15.
Yet the water utility often is mistaken for something else.
"With 'sanitation' in our name, many people think we are the garbage guys," Villegas said. "They'll call our customer service department and say, 'You didn't pick up our trash!' And we'll tell them, 'No, we're the water and wastewater guys, not the garbage folks.' "
The confusion has prompted the authority to hire a branding expert, Jen Sterling, of Reston-based Hinge Inc., to shape a new identity, complete with a new name.
"If I have my druthers, the word 'sanitation' in our name will go," Villegas said. "But Jen's firm will help lead us through the process of who we are and who do we want to be."
Sterling said she wasn't keen on the current name either. "This definitely needs to be changed," she wrote in an e-mail.
The authority was created in 1959 to serve residents of Loudoun's unincorporated areas. The Board of Supervisors oversees the authority's fiscal and management policy. But it is otherwise independent from the county, and it is funded through the water and wastewater service charges it collects.
"A lot of people don't understand that we are financially independent from the county because we have 'Loudoun County' in our name -- so that's another problem," Villegas said. "We're not like a branch or a department of the county. We are a state-chartered authority, so that gives us a lot of authority to operate more business-like.
"We're not your father's utility. We're very . . . business-minded in the way we operate."
The rebranding comes as the authority is finalizing plans to move its administrative headquarters from Leesburg to Ashburn, where it has a maintenance facility. "We will be creating a campus setting, bringing our 135 employees together," Villegas said. The authority also is building a water reclamation facility on the site.
The decision to retool the authority's identity was prompted in part by a survey it took last summer of 100 eastern Loudoun residents, according to Villegas.
The survey found that:
* 25 percent of those polled incorrectly said the Loudoun County Sanitation Authority collected trash, and 44 percent correctly identified it as a water and wastewater service provider.
* 40 percent incorrectly said the authority was funded through taxes or local governments.
* 51 percent incorrectly said the authority was part of the Loudoun County government.
* 41 percent incorrectly identified the source of the authority's water supply to eastern Loudoun residents. Only 2 percent correctly named the Potomac River and Goose Creek in Ashburn as the primary sources. The others either didn't know, could identify only one of the two sources or misunderstood the question. (Many residents of western Loudoun are served by community wells, not associated with the authority.)
* 52 percent said they didn't know where the authority's wastewater was treated, and 6 percent correctly identified the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority's Blue Plains facility in Southeast Washington.
Villegas said she hopes the rebranding project can begin soon. As for a likely new name, it's much too early to say, Villegas said.
"We're going to involve employees, our board members and hopefully customers in the process," she said.
Villegas invited customers to post suggestions for a new name on the authority's Web site, www.lcsa.org.