National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV
26506-6893


The Information Age is Here
Small Town Web Sites Proliferate

by Mark Kemp-Rye
On Tap Editor
mkemp@wvu.edu

 

In less than a decade, the World Wide Web (WWW) has gone from little more than a curiosity to a vital information source for millions. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1993, when statistics about the Web were first tracked, fewer than 150 Web sites had been launched; by 2002, more than nine million sites existed worldwide.

Part of this phenomenal growth comes in places you might least expect it: small communities. Although no statistics are readily available, anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more small communities see a presence on the WWW as being an important part of how they do business.

Why develop a Web site?
Web proponents point to a number of reasons for having a site. A good Web site can:
• communicate information to your customers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year;
• provide more in-depth information, such as reports and studies, that would be prohibitive to mail;
• encourage communication from customers;
• foster a sense of community by seeking input on decisions; and
• be more cost-effective than traditional forms of communication.

It’s also important to recognize that the Internet has become the primary information source for the next generation of customers. “You have to remember that people under about the age of 30 don’t get their news from newspapers,” says Dana Keith, a computer programmer and Web developer who works with clients around the country. “They go online for information. In the very near future all organizations—both public and private—will need to have a Web presence if they want to communicate with people.”

For a small water utility, a Web site may provide a cost-effective way to reach customers. In particular, it may offer an alternative to mailing out hundreds or thousands of the annual consumer confidence report (CCR) required in the Safe Drinking Water Act. “The CCR rule allows systems serving fewer than 10,000 people to request a waiver from sending out copies of the CCR to each customer,” says Jenny Bielanski, operator certification and capacity development coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “If a system is granted a waiver from the governor or his/her designee, one way that the system can make the report available to customers is to post it on the Internet.

“The system is still required to inform its customers that the report will not be mailed, but has been prepared and is available for public viewing. By advertising the report’s availability through a water bill (or other means, such as a newspaper) or publishing the report itself in one or more local newspapers, systems can meet this requirement. Systems that have waivers must make the report available upon request.

“Systems serving 500 people or fewer may forego publishing the report in a newspaper, but must inform their customers at least once a year that the report has been prepared, is available for public viewing, and the location of availability,” she adds. “Any system doing so must obtain a waiver from the governor or his/her designee.” Many small systems have discovered that the costs they save in printing and mailing more than make up for the expense of developing and maintaining a Web site.

Although the benefits of having a Web site may seem great, pitfalls do turn up. Without good planning, a site can become a logistical nightmare and reflect badly on the community. “Nothing is worse than a stale site (one that has outdated information or that never changes),” says Keith. “When you get into this, you should have a clear sense of the money and personnel you’ll need to keep the site interesting and up-to-date. I’ve seen sites that were launched with great fanfare, only to see them languish because no one has been assigned to work on them.” For a modest site, Keith recommends that one person be responsible for updating the site and keeping the content fresh. This person should have adequate training and equipment to perform this task.


Items to Include on Your Web Site

Any Web site designer must determine what to put in and what to leave out. Here are some things that various small towns and water departments include on their sites:
• Water and sewer rates
• Billing information, including online payment of bills
• Ways to conserve water (particularly in arid parts of the U.S.)
• Consumer Confidence Reports
• Agendas for upcoming public meetings and minutes for previous ones
• Water board resolutions
• Contact information

What to Put on Your Site
If you’ve decided that, yes, a Web site is a good idea for your town, the next step is to decide what to put on the site. “There are many things a town can put on a Web site,” says Steve Wyatt, utility operations consultant with Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service. “I specifically recommend a list of elected officials with contact information; dates, times, and agendas for council and board meetings, including information on how to get on the agenda and how the public can participate; economic growth and business data; information about the town in general, such as special interest items, recreation, schools; and the town’s departmental areas (public works, fire, police, utilities) with contact information and rate schedules, if applicable.”

Many small town Web sites incorporate the suggestions Wyatt makes, in one form or another (see the examples beginning on page 35). Others embellish these efforts with more complicated interfaces. One example of this is providing online payment of water and sewer bills. Another is incorporating photos and graphics on the site. Visual information can be particularly effective if the town is constructing a new facility—it lets customers see where their increased rates are going.

The Web Can Be a Marketing Tool
While a Web site can be effective in keeping the local community informed, it can be a valuable tool for those outside the community, too. One way small towns increasingly use the Web is in conjunction with economic development activities. A business looking for a new location, for example, should be able to learn all about your community—including data on water and other utilities—from your site. Many industries, especially high-tech manufacturing, need a reliable water supply.

On a smaller scale, individuals considering a move to your area should also be able to get a feel for your town. When Dana Keith was considering a move to a western city, he investigated water quality. In fact, he thinks a well-run water utility could be used as a marketing device. “When I thought about relocating, I spent a lot of time reviewing the usual things: housing market, schools, traffic congestion,” he recalls. “Having heard about water shortages and water quality issues in the West, I also checked out water quality. More and more, as resources are stretched and pollution increases, I think people will want to know about the condition of the local water when they consider moving.”

Fruitland, Maryland, is one place that publicizes their excellent drinking water, both on the WWW and with a series of signs around town. “Fruitland takes the lead in two vitally important areas of environmental quality,” the town Web site states. “In 1996, a wellhead protection plan was established to preserve the quality of the groundwater in the area of the city’s production wells and treatment plant. The Maryland Rural Water Association recently recognized the city for its dramatic efforts at eliminating potential hazards and making the public aware of the importance of safe drinking water. Around town, one can spot the distinctive blue signs advising they have entered a safe drinking water area.”

For many small communities, a well-planned and well-designed Web site can be a significant benefit. It can provide an invaluable first impression to external audiences and foster communication for residents. As society becomes firmly ensconced in the Information Age, many places find a presence on the WWW to be a necessity.

Good Examples Abound

Elsewhere in this article you’ll find suggestions on how to start a Web page and links to additional resources. However, one of the best research methods is to visit small community sites in your area and around the country. Here are five communities from different parts of the U.S. that have developed useful Web sites. A lengthier list of small town Web sites may be found on the National Drinking Water Clearinghouse site at http://www.nesc.wvu.edu/drinkingwater.cfm.

Stinson Beach County, California, Water Districtwww.stinson-beach-cwd.dst.ca.us
Located on the Pacific Ocean, 25 miles from downtown San Francisco, Stinson Beach is a small community with a resident population of 1,500. “Stinson Beach is one of the 10 wealthiest communities in America,” says Mark Richardson, rural development specialist with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation. “Not surprisingly, they have one of the best rural water district Web pages that I know.” The Stinson Beach site is arranged in three main sections, titled “For Our Customers,” “Administrative Information,” and “Codes, Reports, and Technical Information.”

The first section, “For Our Customers,” has information about rates and charges, a flow chart documenting the permit process for new water and wastewater service, a guide to onsite wastewater systems, and a list of frequently asked questions. As you might expect in northern California, information about water conservation and earthquake preparedness is also included. “Administrative Information” contains information about scheduled board meetings, the agenda for the next meeting, minutes for previous meetings, and a budget for the current fiscal year.

“Codes, Reports, and Technical Information,” includes reports on water quality and a hydrologic survey, as well as policies and regulations related to water and wastewater. A helpful glossary and links to other resources are also provided.

Fruitland, Marylandwww.cityoffruitland.com
Fruitland, Maryland, (population 3,500) is another beach community with a useful Internet presence. Their site includes plenty of water-related information including the CCR, current town budget, taxes and fees, permit requirements, and public meetings.

Fruitland’s site is notable for how they incorporate water and wastewater information into a larger public relations and community awareness plan. As previously mentioned, the site publicizes a Maryland Rural Water Association award the town received and also explains how they developed signs around town proclaiming safe drinking water areas. The site goes on to explain an expansion and upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant, expected to be completed by summer 2003.

Stagecoach, Nevadawww.stagecoachgid.com
The Stagecoach General Improvement District (GID) bills itself as “The Best Little GID in the West.” The site, while not as extensive as some of the others cited here, does include an electronic newsletter, CCRs for two different communities in the district, and private well test results.

The most unique feature on the site—in keeping with Nevada’s reputation for games of chance—is the monthly drawing. Any customer who has paid their water bill by the 25th of the month is entered in a random drawing. The winner receives $35 credit on the next month’s water bill, and the results are posted on the Web site.

Rittman, Ohio •  www.rittman.com/water.htm
Rittman, Ohio, (population 6,000) is a farm community not far from Akron. The community’s site features a newsletter and other information about local utilities. In addition to the CCR, the site has a summary of ongoing capital improvements (notably a wastewater treatment facility currently being constructed that will create compost for area farmers), and a graphic showing different water leak sizes and how much they cost a customer over time.

The site boasts a “new payment option,” which will allow customers the ability to pay for city services online. However, this feature wasn’t yet working during research for this article.

Gatlinburg (Webb Creek Utility District), Tennesseewww.wcud.org
One of the toughest things for a water utility to do is raise rates. The Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Webb Creek Utility District (WCUD) presents this situation in a favorable way on their Web site. In an open letter to customers, the WCUD Board of Commissioners explains how they were approved for a low-interest Rural Utilities Service loan that will allow them to extend service and improve water quality. However, these improvements, the letter explains, come with a cost in the form of a modest monthly increase for service.

A gateway to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg (population 3,400) has many customers who live there only during the summer months. The Web site explains how they can disconnect water service while they are away but not the sewer (customers pay for sewer availability, the site explains, not something that can be measured like water). The site also includes a utilities contract, a service application, policies, CCR, and frequently asked questions.

More Information
Not surprisingly, the Web itself is a great source of information about developing a site. The following sites provide more information:
www.webdesign.about.com
www.useit.com
www.websitetips.com

For examples of bad Web site design, visit www.webpagesthatsuck.com.

The Maryland Municipal League (MML) offers a service called “Total Web Government” that helps member municipalities with developing and maintaining a Web site from scratch. One participating community offers its site under construction as an example of a work in progress on the MML website. You can get to this by following the link from the league’s site www.mdmunicipal.org or by going to www.totalwebgov.com directly for a summary of the service and a view of the example.

The National Center for Small Communities (NCSC) has a 74-page guidebook titled “Getting Online 2.0: A Small-Town Guide to Creating 21st Century Communities” that provides information about using computers and technology. The guidebook is available in single copies ($14.95 for NCSC members; $19.95 for non-members) and in discounted, bulk quantities. The minimum bulk discount order is 80 books, for $120 total ($1.50 per guidebook). For more information and ordering instructions, visit the NCSC Web site at www.natat.org/ncsc/NewResources.htm or call (202) 624-3550.

About the Author
On Tap’s Mark Kemp-Rye was previously the editor of The Sunspot, a weekly community newspaper available only on the Web. Launched in 1995, The Sunspot was one of West Virginia’s first “papers” to explore this new medium
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So, you’ve decided to build your own Web site?

Before you begin to develop a Web site, decide what information you want the site to contain. Whether your primary goal is to inform your audience, serve your customers, heighten public interest, or promote your services, defining a goal will keep you focused throughout the Web site development process.

Getting Online
To get started you will need an Internet Service Provider (ISP), a company that provides access to the Internet for a fee. Research the ISPs in your area for one you feel comfortable dealing with and that gives you the most for your money. Although it is possible to change ISPs at a later time, it is also likely that if you do, you will need to make other changes as well.

Your Internet address and location on the Internet is your domain name. Domain names always have two or more parts, separated by dots, and it should identify your organization. After you choose your name, contact a domain registration service. You can do this yourself but many ISPs also offer this service for a fee.

A hosting provider will rent space for your domain name and Web site so that you will not need to buy or maintain a Web server. Most ISPs provide this service. Things to consider when searching for a hosting provider are availability of 24-hour customer support, fast servers that provide interruption-free service, server options, additional services such as databases, and whether or not the service requires a contract.

Web Site Design
Try to keep the site simple, yet complete. Many of your visitors may have older browsers and be unable to connect to newer technology. Keeping that in mind, use simple graphics and photographs, white space, different colors, and no more than two different font styles.

The site should be easy to navigate and information should be readily accessible. Because visitors are looking for information, make sure to include as much as possible about your organization, including how you can help them and how they can contact you.

The first page of your Web site is your homepage. This page should have an index with individual links that steer surfers right back to it. (Remember that visitors may not enter your site through your home page so they may need to find their way to it.) The text should be divided into sections with hyperlinks (words or pictures in a Web page that act as a link to other Web sites or pages) to access different data. Each section should cover a specific topic of interest.

While graphics and pictures enhance the site, it is still the content that is most important so put extra effort into the writing. Writing should be clear, understandable, and to the point. Take the time to rewrite and reread to be sure the information reflects your organization’s philosophy, targets your audience, relates your message effectively, and enables the visitor to respond accordingly.

Many people begin their Web searches from a search engine, such as Yahoo or Google. Contact as many search engines as possible and submit your site information to each one.

There is no fee to subscribe to a search engine, but you must submit your Web pages to the search engine so they can index your site.

Do you need help?
If mechanics or a lack of creative ideas puzzles you, a professional Web designer can help. Fees largely depend on your location, as well as what you need from a designer. Obviously, a plain site will be less expensive than a fancier one with multiple graphics and links. A professional designer may charge hundreds of dollars or more to design a simple homepage with several links, with fees rising for special effects or more involved graphics.

If financing is a major concern, you might consider hiring a high school or college student. Also, do not rule out the possibility of volunteers (retirees, students who need to complete a project for course work, etc.) who specialize in this area.

Even if you decide to hire a designer, you will still need to stay in charge of your site. The site should communicate your idea of what your organization is about, not what the designer thinks. At your first meeting, show the designer preliminary sketches illustrating your basic ideas. During the planning stages, decide if your organization or the designer will update the Web site. Old information on a site is one of the biggest complaints from people searching the Web. If you plan to maintain the site, be sure that you have the software and training to do so.

This article was adapted from “Considerations in Developing a Web Site” in the Winter 2000 E-Train. Published by the National Environmental Training Center for Small Communities (a National Drinking Water Clearinghouse partner), E-Train is a free, quarterly newsletter about environmental training. Call (304) 293-4191. and ask for a copy.