August 12, 2014 11:14:30 AM
Officials from three Mississippi cities with privatized public works departments say the approach has saved money and led to higher degrees of efficiency.
Whether it could work in Columbus, however, is something city leaders voted against considering last week.
It came up during a budget workshop when councilmen were confronted with the possibility of the city facing a $500,000 shortfall in next year's budget. The city will potentially have to dip into the reserve fund to make up the difference.
Privatization is the act of transferring ownership of a public sector enterprise to a private sector.
Councilman Bill Gavin made a motion to study privatizing public works. The vote ended on a 3-3 tie. Mayor Robert Smith broke the tie, voting against Gavin's motion.
City public works director Casey Bush, in an interview with The Dispatch, said even discussing the idea of privatizing public works showed a lack of appreciation for his department and its 67 employees. The current fiscal year budget for the department is $3,536,059. The suggested budget for the upcoming fiscal year is an estimated $3.5 million.
"When they bring up privatization, they bring it up toward the department that makes them the least money, and that's my department," Bush said. "I stand behind my guys because I know that when it's 100 degrees or it's 20 degrees below, they're still out there busting their butt. It's not fair to the guys and it's not fair to me.
"Even to think about it...that wasn't right," Bush added.
Utility Partners, a private company, handles all public works functions for the city of Pascagoula and many for the city of Gulfport.
Joseph Huffman, the city manager for Pascagoula, said the system was in place when he began three years ago. Prior to that, he had more than 20 years of city administration experience in North Carolina and has never worked in a city with a privatized public works situation. He evaluated how much it would cost to bring public works back in house in Pascagoula.
"When I looked at the numbers, we could not find a way financially to bring it back," Huffman said. "Privatizing was saving so much money that we would have had to increase revenues to cover it."
Though Huffman could not offer a specific amount, he said the savings were "substantial."
Gulfport Public Works Director Wayne Miller said some maintenance of city some infrastructure in that coastal town has been done by a private company for at least five years.
The city conducts quality reports at the end of each fiscal year. The two most recent reports indicated high ratings, which meant services were being performed satisfactorily, Miller said.
He estimated privatizing saved Gulfport at least 10 percent of what it would have to pay if it had public works under its roof. Including the privatization contract, the city's public works budget is $13.8 million, so the savings would be approximately $1 million a year.
The city of Senatobia has some public works functions in house and bids some out, Mayor Alan Callicott told The Dispatch.
The city has in-house employees who cut grass in the summer and clean sewer lines, but they also contract out some grass cutting jobs during summer months. The city doesn't have the manpower or equipment to demolish nuisance properties, so those functions are outsourced, the mayor said.
"Some things are good to privatize," Callicott said. "Some things may not be good to privatize. Every community is different. Every one of them is unique, and what's good for us may not be good for somebody else."
Gavin said he did not believe completely privatizing public works was the correct option because Columbus needed to remain loyal to long-time employees. He felt keeping a small crew of city employees to respond to emergencies was needed, but many functions could be performed by a private entity to save city money.
"We do have some loyal employees down in public works that have been there for a long time," Gavin said. "You certainly want to take care of those people. My thoughts on this would be to just investigate to see how much money the city could save and then those people that have been there for a long time, have the city still keep and employ them and still have some sort of public works department...I think the idea of keeping a skeleton crew of some sort to take care of emergencies, maybe the Riverwalk and planting flowers downtown to take care of some of those things might be a good, workable situation. The digging out and cleaning out the ditches, I don't see why they can't privatize that."
Columbus public works crews are responsible for minor street repairs, grass cutting, maintenance of drains, autumn leaf pick-up, rubbish pick-up, tree removal, demolishing dilapidated structures, right-of-way maintenance and upkeep of the Riverwalk, among other duties.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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