September 7, 2017 10:49:36 AM
As a private firm prepares to conduct a study of the city's public works department, Mayor Robert Smith said he wants to know how the city can save money on the department's operation.
On Tuesday, councilmen authorized ClearWater Solutions to conduct the assessment, at no cost to the city, on a 4-2 vote. Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones and Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin approved the study. Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor and Ward 4 Councilman Fredrick Jackson opposed it.
ClearWater Solutions, based in Opelika, Alabama, is a private public works firm. The company provides service in 34 communities, primarily in Mississippi and Alabama, according to its website.
The council could decide to move ahead with privatizing the public works department after the study, but for now, Smith said, ClearWater is only providing an analysis of the city's public works department. That analysis, according to a discussion between representatives from ClearWater executives and the city council during Tuesday's meeting, will likely cover things such as equipment, operational costs, insurance and expenses.
He said that's no guarantee that the city will privatize its department, and he said there's no reason the city can't take whatever suggestions ClearWater's study provides and try to implement them itself.
"For a person coming in offering to do a free survey, what do you have to lose?" he asked.
Smith said he did have some concerns about attrition and what would happen if employees retire under a private contractor.
"Show us point-blank how you're going to provide savings," Smith said. "Most of the time, when companies come in and privatize, if a person retires, a lot of the times, they won't replace them."
ClearWater did not respond to requests for comment for this story by press time.
Smith contended the city isn't doing the study to target public works, and he believes the department is, generally, in good shape.
"Overall Casey, along with his employees, does a good job," Smith said. "But there's always room to improve, and we always look for ways to improve. I also think that with some employees, it might be an eye opener."
According to figures provided by city Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, the public works department cost $3.7 million in actual expenditures in Fiscal Year 2014. That same year, as the city prepared its budget and grappled with a shortfall, Councilman Gavin suggested a privatization study of the department. The vote failed after Smith broke a 3-3 tie against Gavin's motion.
For the next fiscal year, the department's expenses fell to $3.1 million. Public Works Director Casey Bush said the decrease was primarily due to a budget cut to the department, and he said other departments received budget cuts that year. In FY 2016, the department's expenses came in at $3.4 million, and for the current fiscal year, the department has cost $3.2 million through the end of August.
Public Works is budgeted for $3.3 million for FY 2018, which begins Oct. 1.
Rawle also said the city budgets to receive about $10,000 from the department per year in fees for house demolitions or taking care of overgrown lots. While that provides some income, he said the department isn't a substantial revenue-generator for the city.
Public works provides a broad range of services for the city.
Bush said one of the biggest things his 66-employee department does is the demolition of dilapidated homes and clearing overgrown lots. He said the department also takes care of street and lawn maintenance for special events such as Market Street or the Christmas parade.
Public works also takes care of beautification downtown and at the Riverwalk, takes care of potholes does concrete work and provides brush pickup services.
Smith said the public works department is a very valuable one for the city. He said some services it provides, such as grass maintenance along the Highway 82 bypass leading to the entrance to Columbus, would probably carry an extra cost under a private contractor.
He also noted the department's importance in emergency response situations.
"If there's a storm or high winds, who do they call out first?" Smith asked. "Public works -- they're the ones that get called out at 1 or 2 in the morning if a bridge is iced over or if there's a storm and debris needs to be cleared out. Public works is valuable just like the police department and fire department."
It's currently unclear how ClearWater and the city would handle emergency situations. Gavin asked about the issue in Tuesday's meeting, and company Vice President Brent Stauffer said the city and ClearWater could negotiate how to handle such situations.
Bush acknowledged that public works doesn't make much money for the city. However, he said the services it provides should go beyond that. He said public works maintains an emergency crew that's always on call to respond to situations ranging from glass in the street to a tree falling across a road.
"It's not one of the biggest money-makers, but public works is one of the first departments, other than the police department or fire department, that gets called out," he said. "Especially during a storm, if you've got tees and power lines down on the roads, the fire department can't get there unless we clear the roads.
"If you ask the mayor and council, they call on public works daily to take care of small stuff that I think would get charged from this private company," Bush added.
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