Pascagoula City nears decision on public-private partnering

05/07/03

By BRAD CROCKER

PASCAGOULA -- Next Tuesday, the City Council could approve a contract to privatize the city's public works department and many of the 72 employees that work there.

City Manager Kay Johnson said the past two weeks of city negotiations
with OpTech have been completed. Council members now have the final contract in their hands to review.

Council members voted Tuesday to recess until 5 p.m. May 13 before making their decision, but the momentum seemed to favor privatization, a
move that some workers have opposed.

Some workers picketed City Hall last month when privatization was proposed. None of the workers were present at Tuesday's
council meeting.

"We're caught between a rock and a hard place. We've got to get this thing off the ground," Councilman Robert Stallworth said.

The city has been without a public works director since last fall. As a result, Stallworth said, worker morale has suffered and "there's no one to
control them" for certain tasks.

Councilman Keith Belcher asked why the council had to wait a week "when we can make a decision right now."

Although many of the council members' questions were recently answered by OpTech officials, Johnson recommended officials take a final look at the proposed contract before voting.  "We all have a chance to look at an agreement now," Mayor Joe Cole said.

Public works employees should also be told what to expect by OpTech officials, Cole said. "We should take every opportunity to do that,
too," Cole said. "But oftentimes, we can explain it but we might
not be able to make (workers) understand."

City officials have said they want the contract to offer better opportunities and benefits for employees.

However, some city workers are worried about losing state benefits and job security.  

The city can save up to $400,000 annually by privatizing, city officials said.

The contract, if approved, would mean OpTech would provide all labor and supervision for the operation and maintenance of the distribution of
potable water, collection and pumping of wastewater, corrective and preventive maintenance of city equipment and repairs, reports of solid waste handling, gas distribution, property maintenance, beautification, city streets, drainage and animal control.

The city would provide power, chemicals, repair parts, capital improvements, asphalt, concrete, pipe materials, miscellaneous supplies, fuel, vehicle and equipment cost. Major construction projects by the city also will continue to be done by outside contractors.

OpTech has handled the operation and management of the Gulfport public works department since March 1999, with duties including maintaining and cleaning city streets, patchwork and cleaning more than 300 miles of
ditches each year, according to company officials. It also distributes the city's water to customers and collects sewage.

Brad Crocker can be reached at 934-1431 or
bcrocker@themississippipress.com.