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City of Perris – Demographic Changes Create Need for Different Infrastructure

Case Story

Community: City of Perris

Population: 69,967

Summary:

The City of Perris, located in Southern California’s Riverside County, faced a public health problem due to an outdated septic system that could not keep pace with the population growth in the Enchanted Heights neighborhood.Before a new sewer system could be built, homeowners needed to sign a right-of-entry form to allow city officials to come into their homes and disconnect old septic systems.This necessary step created a significant public engagement challenge – and opportunity – for the city as many of the immigrant families in Enchanted Heights were unfamiliar with local government processes and agencies, and some did not speak English. The city responded with a one-on-one outreach effort that secured the needed signatures and the support of residents.

Program Highlight:

  • The city of Perris, along with its regional partners, was able to secure the necessary funding for a new sewer system through a grant from the California Department of Public Health to convert Enchanted Heights’ septic system to a mainline sewer system.
  • To get the necessary right-of-entry forms signed by homeowners, a one-on-one approach was taken through the hiring of a bilingual water expert, Maria Elena Kennedy, who walked the neighborhoods and explained the process and its outcomes to residents.
  • Local children began walking with Maria Elena and became important ambassadors of the project, often helping to bridge the language gap by translating the process into residents’ native languages.
  • By the time the community outreach effort concluded, more than 95 percent of the 446 Enchanted Heights property owners signed right-of-entry forms.

Lessons Learned:

  • Face-to-face, one-on-one interactions by a city outreach worker gave residents a clear understanding of the problems with the old septic system and the benefits of a new sewer system; and secured the necessary “right of entry” signatures.
  • Having a bilingual outreach worker, who was comfortable walking the community and interacting with residents, allowed for good communication and trust building.
  • The city’s success has reinforced their now standard operating procedure for public engagement.
  • Although meeting with people one-on-one naturally took more time and energy than possible alternatives, the respectful  conversations and engagement with residents has helped revitalize the community.

Resources to Learn More:

Enchanted Heights Sewer Project website: http://www.cityofperris.org/enchantedheights/

The Rest of the Story…

The City of Perris, in Southern California’s Riverside County, is an ethnically diverse city of 70,000 residents.  The City’s Enchanted Heights neighborhood has experienced particularly dramatic demographic shifts in the past 40 years, and residents now include many immigrants and a large number of low-income families. Originally developed in the 1970s as a retirement community, Enchanted Heights catered to retirees in the warm Southern California climate. The development’s mobile homes and accompanying septic systems were a good fit for individuals and retired couples, but as the area’s demographics shifted from one and two-person households to larger families, the increase in population stressed the septic system. After considerable rain in 2010, a severe flood resulted in raw sewage spilling into the soil.

Perris local officials recognized the urgent need to build trust among the residents, because without their signatures the project would not be able to proceed.  A one-on-one approach was taken and along with Maria Elena, the city manager and the assistant city manager also went into the community personally to continue the conversation, answer residents’ questions, and further explain the process.

The overwhelming support for the project was a true testament to the time and energy spent in the community building personal relationships and trust. One of the children who walked the community with Maria Elena shared that she now wants to pursue a career in public engagement or advocacy.

This particular public engagement effort has received countless accolades, including the League of California Cities’ Helen Putnam Award, the Municipal Management Association of Southern California’s Organizational Excellence Award. On the basis of this project, Perris was also selected by the National League of Cities as a 2012 Showcase City. However the change that took place in the community is the real—and ongoing—reward.

Western City Magazine featured a story on the City of Perris as an Helen Putnam Award Winner based on the success of the Enchanted Heights Sewer Project in its February 2013 issue.

City representatives are now finding that Enchanted Heights’ residents are more engaged in their community because of this public engagement effort.  As Joe Vargo, Perris Public Information Officer, explains, “this is how government is supposed to work.” While meeting with people one-on-one naturally took more time and energy, treating Enchanted Heights residents with respect and engaging them  in conversations  has revitalized the area and paved the way for a new mainline sewer system that will better serve the whole community.

Inspired by the work done in their community, residents of the Enchanted Heights project are now communicating with residents from a mobile park in the City of Beaumont to share their experience and support.

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