August 14, 2014 11:18:24 AM
Last week, as the city council and mayor were engaged in a discussion of the city's grim financial outlook, councilman Bill Gavin pushed back when the city's chief operations officer, David Armstrong, suggested that a tax increase was inevitable. Gavin's position was the city should explore all possible options of reducing expenses before taking that step.
One of the ideas presented then was an old one: privatization of the city's public works department. A proposal to investigate that possibility failed, however, when the council deadlocked in a 3-3 vote and mayor Robert Smith cast the deciding vote against considering whether privatizing public works would save the city money without sacrificing services.
Armstrong said the city had explored that possibility "six or seven years ago," but decided not to proceed.
Yet other Mississippi cities have privatized at least part of their public works department and have reaped benefits for doing so.
On the Coast, Pascagoula, Gulfport and Long Beach have all privatized some are all of the services previously performed by those cities' public works department. Gulfport officials say the move has saved them roughly $1 million.
All three cities are under contract with Utility Partners LLC, founded 20 years ago by Meridian native and Mississippi State graduate Bob Monett. Monett's company has contracts in 11 states and 37 municipalities.
Would what worked on the Coast work in Columbus?
Monett is fairly certain of it. After all, Monett was the company than made that proposal six years ago.
His recollection: "They said it was an election year and that it wasn't a good time."
During last week's discussions, councilman Gene Taylor said he would never consider privatization of public works, mainly out of concern for the 67 employees in the department.
But Monett said those fears are misplaced.
"Typically, we will bring on one, maybe two people, usually management level," he said. "As for the rest of the jobs, these aren't the kinds of jobs you would normally bring in from outside. The only prerequisite we have is that they have to pass a drug test."
In his 20 years, Monett said he understands city employees' concerns with privatization.
"First, they're going to keep their job," he said. "Once they know that, they want to know about health insurance, benefits, vacation-time. What I can say, based on what we have proven, is that we bring them in at the same rate of pay. If an employee has three weeks of vacation, we honor that tenure and he still gets his three weeks' vacation. Our health insurance is structured so that insurance doesn't cost more than $300 per month. In Gulfport, the costs are $1,000 for a family. We pay $750 of that."
Monett said employees who are within a year or two of being fully vested in the city's retirement plan are allowed to stay on the city payroll until fully vested while working under the private contract.
He said that his company will conduct an audit -- at no cost to the city -- to determine if privatization would be a good move.
As for the quality of service, Monett said the contracts are performance-based.
It is understandable the city would want to make sure its employees are treated fairly. But it is even more important that the best interests of the rest of the 24,0000 citizens of Columbus are given consideration, too.
The council is wrong to suggest that the only two options available to balance the budget or cutting services or raising taxes.
Privatization has proven to be another option.
City officials would be derelict in their duties not to seriously consider this possibility.