January 12, 2014 1:40:56 AM
Nathan Gregory - email@example.com
City financial data shows that J5/Broaddus was paid $30,000 through four months for regular services since the firm was hired for a newly created project managing position for Columbus. That amount is based beginning in August 2013, when the firm's contract began, through November. Since that firm's one-year contract with the city guarantees a flat fee of $7,500 per month, or $90,000 a year, an additional month of services would total $37,500 for a five month period.
Neel-Schaffer, the firm that provides engineering services for the city, was paid $55,590.16 from July 2013 through November of that year, also a five-month range. During the same five-month period of 2012, Neel-Schaffer was paid $41,245.03. That firm bills the city hourly for services on an as-needed basis.
In short, Neel-Schaffer is still being billed as it was before for its services while an extra $7,500 a month in city funds is going to the firm councilmen approved for the new position in July.
These cost comparisons do not include fees for specific projects each firm has managed or is managing, such as the renovation of the Trotter Center or the Old Highway 82 bridge. Funding for projects such as those come from a variety of sources, namely grants, that do not always include city money.
J5/Broaddus is a joint venture between local businessman Jabari Edwards and the project management and planning firm Broaddus & Associates. The Dispatch previously identified Edwards as one of two managers for Columbus Mayor Robert Smith's re-election campaign last year.
Broaddus & Associates project manager Robyn Eastman, has been in charge of operations in Columbus since the contract began. He said one of his first tasks was evaluating efficiency in the city's public works department.
"The first four months we were here we spent quite a bit of time with (Casey Bush, the city public works director) observing some of the department's processes, observing the way they track their work and how they schedule the work," Eastman said. "We provided some input to them on ways they could gain some efficiency. I think there's been some improvement over there."
Bush also said he's seen improvement since Eastman's evaluation.
"We're working pretty well together. We've been on some projects together that J5 gave me good insight on," Bush said. "Anytime I've needed Robyn for assistance for anything, he's right there."
Eastman said he is now in the process of a comprehensive survey of infrastructural deficiencies in each of the city's six wards. That list, which he expects to have about 150 items prioritized in order of immediate need, will be a guide for the city going forward on what problems involving storm drainage and street paving among others need to be corrected, he said.
"(Councilmen) said they were either going to potentially go for some financing or go for a bond to address some of the infrastructure issues they have here in Columbus with storm-water and roads being the two big items," he said. "Today, we're working with the six councilmen to identify the 20 most critical projects in their respective wards."
Eastman said he'd also work with Bush, city property manager Frank Goodman and building department director Kenny Wiegel to identify 10 projects involving their departments.
Another of J5/Broaddus' pitches to councilmen was its ability to secure grant funding for projects. Eastman said he is working on an application for Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding through the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency that would pay for a multi-purpose building in Columbus. That building would serve primarily as a severe weather shelter and city officials could decide what else they wanted to use it for. Broaddus & Associates has gone through this process before and constructed a domed shelter in Smithville that doubles as a gymnasium.
"The domed facility we built in Smithville can withstand 240 mile-per-hour winds," Eastman said. "It's large enough to hold every citizen of the city if they are fortunate enough to have enough time to get to it. The city is deciding what they want the alternate use to be and we're trying to find the most ideal spot to put the dome."
He said the ability to find a site in a concentrated population area would determine how much grant money the city might be eligible for and how large the facility would be if it received the funds.
"There's some people that have pointed us toward the Magnolia Bowl," he said. "It sure sounds like a great idea, but we don't have any parking."
Eastman said he was "very confident" that the city would receive the grant through the assistance of J5/Broaddus.
Too soon to tell
Councilman Kabir Karriem, who voted in favor of hiring J5/Broaddus in July, described the firm's role with the city as a "work in progress" and said a true assessment can't be made until it has been with the city for a year and the contract is up for renewal.
"I don't know if we've given them enough time to assess their worth as far as the benefits they're providing to the city," Karriem said. "I know they've been working with public works to make them more efficient. They're trying to put together a list of the most urgent concerns we need to address immediately and best way to approach that. There are a lot of things I see that they're doing. I think the real assessment comes at the end of the year when their contract is up. As far as I can see right now, I think Robyn Eastman is doing an excellent job."
Councilman Charlie Box voted against the hire and said he'd like to see a report on how much money the firm has saved the city since the contract began.
"It's my understanding that (Eastman) has done some pretty good work with the public works department, but we have not had a report on what they've done to save us money or anything like that," Box said. "I still think it's an added layer of expenses. If we had not had J5/Broaddus, we would have moved along just fine...We don't need to get over here in the 10th or 11th month (of the contract) and find out we spent more and haven't saved anything. That's going to really be a kick in the butt for everybody, especially for them."
Like Box, Councilman Joseph Mickens said he hasn't seen any evidence of savings yet, but like Karriem, Mickens said it would be unfair to make a judgment until the firm has been with the city for a year.
"I haven't seen a whole lot of savings since they came in in six months. That doesn't mean it won't change in the next six months," he said. "If they did the job, they'll get my support. If they don't do the job, they don't get my support. It's that simple."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.