The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why I let Domino’s fill my city’s potholes

What does it say about American infrastructure that a pizza chain is paying for our repairs? I don't know, but I'll take it.

(Courtesy of the city of Milford)

Before moving to Delaware to become city manager 2½ years ago, I worked as a city manager in northeast Ohio — a region known for tough, cold winters with lake effect snow and endless potholes. There, we knew how hard it was to keep ahead in the never-ending race to fix our streets with limited resources. I was told that my new home, positioned between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays, would have more moderate weather.

Then three weeks into my job as the city manager of Milford, a nor’easter hit Delaware, bringing snow, winds, flooding and low temperatures. And that meant potholes.

Over the next two years, I learned more about Milford’s infrastructure and the available funding mechanisms. While some streets are maintained by the state, the majority are the responsibility of this 10,000-resident city. A street maintenance backlog meant that while about half of Milford’s streets were in good or satisfactory condition, the rest were rated fair, poor, very poor or serious.

Delaware prides itself on being a low-tax state, a policy that has attracted residents who expect excellent services with few, if any, tax increases. So when I heard that a Domino’s marketing campaign was paying municipalities to repair potholes in return for credit for the work, I quickly responded. We worked with a Domino’s ad agency to ensure that the city would be portrayed in a positive light (not as some pothole-infested place you’d never want to visit) and to address any ethical concerns (i.e., we were not endorsing any particular brand of pizza). Our role was easy. In exchange for a $5,000 check, Domino’s wanted its logo and a tag­line saying “Oh yes we did” in spray chalk on the road next to each repair. The company also wanted photos — before-and-after shots. It didn’t want to send a video crew. It didn’t want high-resolution images. It wanted cellphone pictures of a bunch of guys patching potholes. Our maintenance team rolled out our new patching system and got to work. In two weeks, they fixed more than 40 potholes of different sizes — about 20 to 25 percent of the potholes that appeared after the winter. The chalk was gone after the first rain.

Many of us are familiar with business-to-business promotions, such as restaurants that let you show your baseball ticket to get a discount. But rarely has a business directly invested in making our infrastructure better through an ad campaign. The program has elicited some complaints about what it means that a pizza chain is funding basic government projects. On Twitter, one critic called it “a sign of both how horribly infrastructure has crumbled in America and how much power we have ceded corporations,” while another likened it to the trend of “funding our healthcare through GoFundMe.”

But we saw this as a great idea for our community. Relative to our budget for street repairs, $5,000 is not a small amount of money. Our annual outlay is just $30,000, and we use it to cover crack sealing and other repairs, in addition to fixing potholes. Our city’s general fund is just over $9 million, more than half of which funds our police department. In many communities, there’s a constant competition between paying for police and paying for everything else. Milford is no different.

Through the Municipal Street Aid fund, the state of Delaware offers some funding to help cities pay for road maintenance. But that aid covers only about a quarter of our needs. So we try anything we can to be efficient. We stretch utility repair funds by combining projects: If we need to fix a water line but we know that a sewer line on the same block also will need repairs, we wait to tackle those together, to avoid paying to rip up and replace the street twice. We’re working with other governments to find ways we can share equipment or work on projects together — we bought a new street sweeper this year, and another community may borrow it. The new patching system we bought uses a technique that can be deployed in cold temperatures, so we can patch all year.

There are people in this country who think government wastes money. But I treat city tax dollars as if they were my own, and I encourage our employees to do the same. Get three bids on every project; get three quotes on every purchase. Turn off the lights. We were able to lower the price of fuel by getting bulk discounts through state contracts. We apply for two to four grants a year and maybe get one. But a lot of services can’t be funded by grants. We try to develop the types of innovative ideas that foundations like to fund, but the basics — plowing snow, collecting garbage, the regular stuff that makes a city function — don’t win grants. Taking $5,000 from a pizza chain to repair our roads was not a difficult decision.

If there’s one thing most governments have a harder time funding than street repairs, it’s marketing and promotion. I’d bet that many Americans would have a hard time finding our small state on a map; it would be harder still to locate Milford. So I also hope this campaign brings awareness about our state and the accomplishments of our city — we’re operating more efficiently and delivering more services for the same or lower rates. I’ve worked in local government for 30 years, and attitudes toward taxes have been evolving. While they may feel they have little voice or control over federal or state taxes, our residents can see the results of their local tax dollars every day on their way to school or work, and they tell us how they feel — face to face. So, if we demonstrate good stewardship of our resources, then hopefully fewer people will complain about paying taxes. My job, as a professional local-government manager, is to identify the best ways to provide city services in an equitable manner — and then to bring those recommendations to our policymakers. Sometimes that means creative financing. And sometimes that means letting Domino’s pick up the tab.