Mayor considering study to possibly privatize public works

Published 5:19 pm Monday, October 11, 2021

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. is considering a possible feasibility study for privatizing the city’s public works department.

Flaggs mentioned the possibility of the study during a Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s work session to discuss paving city streets and a possible study of city streets to set priorities for paving with representatives from Waggoner Engineering.

The board took no action on the items discussed at the work session but Flaggs indicated the study could be discussed again at a later date. The estimated cost of the study is $96,000.

“We didn’t agree to anything yet; we’ve got to come to a compromise,” Flaggs said after the meeting.

“What I’m leaning toward is the project that allows them (Waggoner) to study the effectiveness and efficiency of outsourcing public works because we’ve got (Public Works Director) Garnet (Van Norman) who may or may not be returning soon and he has a lot of institutionalized knowledge but we do not have the technology in place or the expertise in place at this time.

“A study or recommendation at this time would be very helpful,” he said.

Flaggs said the board presently has two alternatives if Van Norman leaves — promote assistant public works director Dane Lovell to public works director and hire an engineer, or hire an engineer to replace Van Norman.

“To me, we need to be much more sophisticated,” Flaggs said.

The board has already privatized two city services, signing a contract in 2016 with ESG of Macon, Ga., to operate the city’s water treatment plant on Haining Road and then hiring ESG in 2018 to operate the wastewater treatment plant on Rifle Range Road.

Vicksburg’s public works department is an umbrella for several departments: streets, rights of way, landscaping, cemetery, building maintenance and community services.

During discussion on the proposed public works study, Waggoner president Emad Al-Turk told the board the study covers several areas.

“We look at the policies and procedures; we look at two different things, the changes you have to make to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the workers and we privatize the maintenance,” Al-Turk said, adding Gulfport is presently looking at contracting all city services.

“It would become an administrator of service,” Flaggs said. Al-Turk said the city would have the same alternative as Gulfport.

“I’m not for joining in a complete administrative service contract, Flaggs said. “But I do think we are at a time where we can look at more options to make (public works) more cost-efficient and reduce the number of employees and not affect the quality of service or raise the cost to the taxpayer.”

While South Ward Aldermen Alex Monsour would not say whether he agreed with Flaggs about privatizing public works, he believed a study of the department could help find areas for improvement.

“We need a study on all three of them (sections) in order to bring Vicksburg up to a current-day status on our information and technology that we have,” he said. “We all need to look and analyze the department and its programs in order to get it to the technology phase we need to be at.”

North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield said after the meeting that Flaggs mentioned privatizing public works about one month ago, but he hasn’t seen any studies on contracting out the department’s work.

“It’s hard to speak on it until you find out if you go that angle — is it going to be worth you doing that; not just today but further down the road,” he said. “Because once you outsource you have literally taken the board and actions we would do on a daily basis out of the equation.”

In one way, he said, the move would be good because the politics are removed from the department.

“It’s something you lave to look at carefully,” Mayfield said, pointing to the success of the city’s privatization of the water treatment plant and wastewater plant.

Because of the many departments under the public works umbrella, he said, “You’d better make sure before you take a vote to do away with the public works department in-house that you have everything at your disposal to make sure that it’s working.

“You can make a big mistake in a hurry and then it’s hard to correct it.”

Mayfield said he has talked to officials from other cities who have examined privatizing public works.

“Every single one I have talked to has been able to give reasons why not to,” he said. “Every time you privatize something you make the decision when it comes to money. Once you get past the money side, you’ve pretty much taken yourself out of the loop.

“I don’t think you should be arbitrarily making that decision. You should be worried whether it’s going to come back to haunt you or not. As an elected official you should be worried about the real effect that it’s going to have on your overall community because you have no authority or jurisdiction over that department.

“When you sign that paper saying that I’m turning public works private, you’d better be doggone sure you’ve done your homework and you’ve done it to the end.”

 

 

 

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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