Columbus councilmen took the first step toward potentially privatizing its public works department during its regular meeting Tuesday in the Municipal Complex.
By a 4-2 vote, councilmen tapped Opelika, Alabama-based ClearWater Solutions to proceed with an analysis of the department, including estimates on how much money the city could save if the private firm took on department operations.
Company President Rick Ailiff, who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, said the analysis will not cost the city.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones and Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin all approved proceeding with the analysis. Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor and Ward 4 Councilman Fredrick Jackson opposed it.
ClearWater, according to its website, provides service in 34 communities, primarily in Mississippi and Alabama.
ClearWater Vice President Brent Stauffer said the company has saved money for client cities. For example Moss Point, he said, saved $180,000 by switching from state retirement to the company’s retirement system in the first year, and the company refunded the city an additional $176,000.
In Greenville, he said, the city saved $476,000 in its first year.
Stauffer said the company provides a 401k and health benefits through BlueCross BlueShield.
Ailiff said the company typically does well in retaining and transitioning city staff to working for a private firm.
“We come in and we offer every employee an opportunity to come work with ClearWater,” Ailiff said. “We keep, I think, about 85 percent of our people. For some it just doesn’t work out — they don’t want to work for a private firm and they become successful somewhere else.
“We don’t come in and fire people,” he added.
Stauffer, in response to a question from Box, said the company could look into ways to keep Public Works Director Casey Bush in his position, should the city ultimately decide to proceed with a contract.
“Certainly that’s an avenue we can explore,” Stauffer said. “We’ve done it in other locations. In Tunica County, we’ve got some of the managers that we retained and are still in the same capacity as they were.”
Gavin asked how the company would handle emergency situations.
“Emergencies are one thing where if we’re having thunder-storming like tonight, we’ve got to have people who can go out and block off the road, and take care of things,” Gavin said.
Stauffer said the company could negotiate with the city on the scope of services it provides.
Jackson, after the meeting, said he wasn’t interested in moving forward with ClearWater.
“It’s something I wasn’t interested in doing,” Jackson said. “I saw a limited benefit.”
Mickens, speaking to The Dispatch, said he was impressed with ClearWater’s presentation and thought it was at least worth seeing what the company would find.
“Any time someone comes in with a presentation that can save the city some money — I mean you’re talking a substantial amount of money — I think it’s worth looking at,” Mickens said. “We didn’t make any decision (Tuesday) night. We’ll just see their presentation when it comes back, and the mayor and council will make a decision.”
He added that it was important to him to keep Bush, if the city moves ahead.
“We don’t want to lose Mr. Bush,” Mickens said. “He’s a good worker and I stand behind him. He’s been doing an excellent job and the whole council has been pleased with him. If there’s a chance to improve public works without discrediting anyone or losing anyone, I think that’s something we should look at.”
Mickens also said, if the ClearWater presents favorable findings for moving forward through its analysis, he would like to see the city allow an opportunity for public feedback.
“This wouldn’t just be a mayor and council decision,” he said. “We want to get all the input we can from everyone who will be affected. Not just employees, but citizens also.”
In 2014, Mayor Robert Smith broke a tie vote on a move to study privatize public works, opting instead to keep it public.
Then, Gavin pushed for the study. Bush said at the time even considering privatizing public works showed a lack of appreciation for his department.
Today, Bush said he still does not support contracting out the city’s public works services. He said about 80 percent of his 66 employees live in city limits, and many work to support their families.
He expressed concern about an outside company caring for his workers and their families’ wellbeing.
“They’re in the business of making money,” he said. “I understand that. The only way I can see them saving the city money is cutting my guys’ insurance and retirement packages.
“I’ve been through these companies coming in before,” Bush added. “They come in and sure enough, they hire them (the workers) back, but the insurance and benefits will be higher because there’s no way they can provide the same insurance we provide.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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