DPW Business Services is the business arm of the Department of Public Works (DPW), the largest user of construction materials within the Burning Man Project. DPW Business Services helps manage those purchases by providing services like pricing research, purchasing, transportation coordination, rental equipment coordination, receiving, bookkeeping, office management, local public relations, and departmental budgeting. In 2004, DPW Business Services continued to mature as we streamlined our methodology and data tracking.
Within DPW Business Services, the Purchasing department has the difficult task of managing the acquisition of goods to build public infrastructure for a city that houses more than 35,000 people. Lumber and other materials, plus a lot of equipment, are required for major projects such as the Man, the Café, and the trash fence just to name a few. The Purchasing department coordinates runners who travel through Nevada (and California, if need be) to pick up everything from scrap metal to dishwashing detergent—a huge task considering the need for almost daily runs from the event site’s remote location. The Purchasing department is accountable to the Budget Committee and serves all departments within DPW, as well as the Burning Man Project at large. Purchasing agents are responsible for collecting material requests from project and department managers and finding sources that offer the best possible deals. The scope of departmental requests varies from heavy machinery, such as an 80-foot crane for lifting the Man, to items like cots for the Emergency Services department. In addition, Purchasing agents must develop and maintain relationships with many vendors that provide services that make life on the playa possible, such as the portable toilet and water truck companies.
By the time the Purchasing department moved to Gerlach for the year in early May 2004, work was about to begin on compliance projects for the various Nevada properties. Unfortunately, no detailed material take-offs or drop schedules were available for any of the major projects until May, so the Purchasing department scrambled to source all the components for the new Black Rock Station. Considering the timeline, things went well, and all projects were completed to satisfaction. A large volume of purchasing unrelated to the 2004 event did not adversely impact the ability to procure and distribute the supplies necessary to build Black Rock City’s infrastructure.
Several projects for the 2004 event were started early, including spires and the Man’s platform. Materials for these projects were ordered and shipped to Black Rock Station for prefabrication. Large orders are delivered to the ranch every year but usually later in the season and usually after a rented forklift is available for unloading. Unfortunately, lumber for the Man’s platform was ordered without considering how it might be offloaded. A whole day spent unloading the truck by hand taught a lesson not to be forgotten.
We always wish for a middle ground between ordering stuff early and storing it versus frantically trying to arrange last-minute deliveries. Last-minute purchasing occupies the bulk of the Purchasing department’s attention during our time in Gerlach. Usually, the department has just enough time to get up and running before managers arrive and start ordering. At this point, people are already thinking about the firm deadline represented by the imminent arrival of 35,000 or more people. The Purchasing department improves efficiency a bit every year, but every year is just as stressful as the last.
For 2004, the on-playa ordering process didn’t work quite as well as it has in the past. This problem was due in part to the DPW reorganization and confusion about the proper channels for approval. Increased communication from the Purchasing department to managers will help.
For the past few years, DPW Business Services has set a goal of providing managers with real-time reports of their spending. In 2003, we began to involve managers more actively in tracking their budgets throughout the build-up to the event. Unfortunately in 2004, due to the DPW reorganization, managers weren’t consulted as early as in the previous year, nor were they involved as much in the budget process. Consequently, we received little demand for real-time spending reports this year. Preparing the reports in 2003 ate up much time and proved to be of dubious value to the managers. In the future, we will focus on making the information widely available without pushing out a large volume of paperwork every week.
The Purchasing department creates and tracks purchase orders using a Quick Books account set up solely for that purpose. Currently, it is not integrated with the main accounting files for the Burning Man Project. Accounting staff at the San Francisco office review the purchase order database and assign invoiced costs to the appropriate departments. This year, a part-time assistant joined that effort with the primary task of migrating the data from the purchasing system to the main accounting system. That effort worked very well and saved us considerable time after the event entering expenses that hadn’t yet reached the accounting system.
Yet this duplicate data-entry is still far short of where we want to be. We have been planning to merge these two systems for a while, and signs indicate that it’s finally going to happen. This integration is a priority for us in 2005, to move us toward a much-streamlined accounting system.
The new fenced yard at Black Rock Station now incorporates an area that is more or less reserved for the purpose of receiving materials. Before the new yard was graded and fenced, drops were placed near the east end of the shop along with parked cars. This messy arrangement ended up with loads packed very closely together without much to differentiate them except obsessive tracking by the Receiving department.
Most material drops on-playa were placed in a large, fenced yard at the DPW Depot, past the outer ring road at 5:30. Sometimes we would ask drivers to drop large orders directly at work sites. Once on-playa, materials were tracked and distributed much like they were on the ranch, ensuring that people got what they ordered.
This year the Gerlach office space received some much-needed attention. A wall was built to separate the reception area from the general office space, providing some privacy for people working there. Previously, folks tended to come in and hang out all over the office and create noise and distraction. Most of the office space can now be closed off, giving us a phenomenal change in office environment.
During the off-season before the 2004 event, the Gerlach office was completely networked with installation of true network ports to replace jumbles of cables running across the floor or walls and cascading through multiple hubs. The new cabling runs through the attic and converges in the former meat locker from the time when the place was a general store. That room now serves as our climate-controlled server room, thanks to a window air conditioner punched through the wall. The room also houses a small file server for those working in the Gerlach office space to share data or back-up their work.
And we’ve got bandwidth, baby! The Burning Man Gerlach office was hooked up to a T1 line to improve internet bandwidth. Our previous access through a satellite service provider was less than spectacular with frequent connection issues. Uploading a large file to the servers in San Francisco was a problematic process, since we shared the limited bandwidth with several other users. The new line is a truly wonderful change that allows live Quick Books entry from Gerlach to San Francisco.
Staff working in the Gerlach office can either plug into a network hub or connect via the secure wireless access point that serves that space. The wireless option allows more people to share the office and it gives them more flexibility in how they work. In addition to the office, Burning Man will also be providing wireless internet access to the residents of Gerlach. The town coverage is currently spotty, as many giant trees block signal. We’re working to rectify the problem.
DPW Business Services functioned smoothly in 2004 thanks to a great crew and cumulative experience from meeting the same challenges for a few years. The improvements to the Gerlach office have made it a much more comfortable work environment, and the upgraded connectivity has tightened communication with the San Francisco office. In 2005, we will continue to streamline the functioning of the department and to develop the long-range projects that will make us a more professional operation. We’re also trying to figure out how to get out of the office every now and then.
Matt Morgan, “HazMatt”
DPW Business Superintendent