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$395,000 in waste? Warren County taxpayers deserve better

It was a true honor when Governor Phil Bryant appointed me to the Warren County Port Commission four years ago.

The governor wanted me to help Warren County become a strong economic development player and to help rein in waste in the use of the public’s money entrusted to the Port Commission.

I saw the appointment as an opportunity to learn how government works from the inside while helping my community. Little did I know how tricky it would be to wrestle with a system that seems to have been designed to waste instead of save money.

It took my fellow commissioners and me a while to understand the why of the many expenses the Port Commission was continuously undertaking. Why some things got done and why some did not.

Things improved once hiring our new director. We were then able to access adequate information when we discussed expenses, investments or projects. It had been frustrating and confusing trying to determine the inner workings that surrounded most projects. The information presented was poorly organized and presented with the expectation that the commission make last-minute decisions.

It felt as if we were not equipped with the right amount of information to make decisions that would help economic development and at the same time give the taxpayers the most bang for their buck.

Once we were able to get better information about how the money was being spent and why, I realized there were several systems that were just plain wasteful.

Too many inspections for assets that were too old and in bad shape.

Too many contractors at the table billing the commission for every interaction.

Too many menial tasks being billed by senior staff members of some of those contractors.

Once we understood this issue, we started making cuts that translated into tens of thousands of dollars that at the same time did not compromise the quality of the port’s operation. This was a crucial move by the commission given that the commission manages and uses public money to fulfill its mission.

Not long ago the commission struggled to find funds to take care of needed improvements at the port and Ceres.

In addition to cutting costs, we have been able to obtain matching grants to renovate buildings at the port, invest in necessary improvements needed at Ceres and attract companies that are providing jobs for the community.

Most recently, the commission decided to design a road that will open new sites for industries at the Ceres site. By simply making the project competitive, the commission was able to save over $390,000 of taxpayer’s money on this one project.

What I saw through this process made me reflect on the impact the decisions made by elected officials can have on the taxpayers. To me this is simple.

If public money is not managed properly, if savings are not actively sought, if costs are not reduced when possible, it can translate into more taxes.

I thought it my responsibility to share my experience with the public.

The Port Commission budget is just a small part of the county budget.

I reflected on the cuts the Port Commission has made and I wonder why I have never heard a discussion come out of the county regarding cost reductions. Instead, they seem to want to approve raising taxes.

As a business owner and a homeowner, I believe it is misguided to address any need the county government encounters with a tax increase. This approach hurts families and businesses in this county.

As with any upcoming project, the commission asked for a cost estimate from the port engineering firm that has been under contract with the commission for years. This firm also does all the engineering work for the county. The cost estimate for the project was in the amount of $473,600, which included $424,600 for the road design and $56,000 for site due diligence.

The commission felt the $56,000 was a fair cost for the due diligence but did not feel the same way about the $424,600 cost estimate for the road design.

At our June meeting, the commission engaged in a lengthy discussion to consider opening the project for competitive pricing. We thought it was in the best interest of the taxpayer to seek additional estimates.

At our monthly public meeting, the supervisors were represented by their board president, who encouraged us to think about the fact that the port’s engineering firm was familiar with the property, that they also do all the work for the county, and that the county trusts them.

He also advised the commission by saying that “at some point in this business, you have to be resigned to the fact that you got to trust the people that work under you.”

That was a pretty interesting moment and it felt uneasy to have an elected official offer such a public endorsement of a contractor currently being paid through the office he represents. The advice coming from the board president led to further discussion by the commission.

In the end, it was decided that the project needed to be open for competition.

This was the first time the port had advertised for engineering services in years.

Five firms submitted proposals and they were all interviewed.

The commission selected an engineering firm, which is not currently under contract with the port. The commission did not severe ties with the current port engineering firm but decided to make this one project open for competitive bids. The commission ended up awarding the contract to the winning engineering firm at a cost of $29,000 instead of the $424,600 that was the original estimate.

It is possible that different firms would give you different estimates for similar work. We all encounter this situation when making repairs at home or in our business. The difference between the original quote by the port’s engineering firm and the final quote by the winner of the selection process is shocking. A difference of over $390,000 that will go right into savings.

This shows how much money can be saved just by obtaining competitive estimates.

How much more money can be saved for the benefit of the taxpayers? How much can the county save if they were to obtain more estimates for work instead of just giving it over and over to a few firms they say they trust?

I think the county could save a lot of money if they made things competitive. They might not even need to raise taxes again.

My point is this, costs can be cut without sacrificing services if elected leaders want to. It is that simple.

A new governor will be inaugurated soon, and I may or may not be appointed to this position again. I am proud to have worked with the other commissioners as a team to make a real difference.

We worked together to make right what we thought was wrong and to reduce waste in the process.

As a business owner, homeowner and father, I think the taxpayers deserve better than to resign themselves to the fact that taxes will just always go up. Taxpayers deserve to keep more of their hard-earned money, and they can, as long as those elected into office make it a priority.

 

Mike Roach is a member of the Warren County Port Commission and a local business owner.