OpTech to take over city

services

05/14/03

By BRAD CROCKER

PASCAGOULA -- After months of discussions and amid some controversy, the Pascagoula City Council Tuesday approved a more than $6 million contract to place its public works and utilities department in private hands over the next 27 months.

Beginning June 1, the city's water, sewer and natural gas, street and drainage, beautification, property maintenance and solid waste divisions will be managed by OpTech, an Atlanta-based company that began in Gulfport in 1984.

Overseeing the city's water treatment and distribution and maintaining city-owned equipment are two other major areas OpTech will handle.

All employees who can pass a drug test will be offered employment with OpTech, which is also offering medical, dental and insurance plans "reasonably consistent with the current city plan," according to the contract.

"We're certainly excited about coming to work in Pascagoula and providing quality services for the citizens and the employees," OpTech President Bob Monette said following the City Council's decision.

Opportunities such as bonuses and advancements are some perks Monette said Pasca-goula's former employees will receive with their new employer that were not as available under city management.

About 15 employees with 15 to 25 years of service with the city will still continue to be paid by the city but will work for OpTech. A 401k plan will be offered by OpTech but many city employees prefer the state retirement plans.

The remaining 68 employees will come under OpTech's plan. Workers like Lee Rogers said OpTech's sick leave and vacation policies and other issues will be hard to build back up for some workers because the company can "wipe the slate clean" regarding such benefits.

Councilman Mike Mangum cast the only dissenting vote regarding the contract, which took about a month to resolve. Mangum said he didn't believe the employees would get all they will need through privatization.

"This has been a difficult issue for me. I believe the employees are our biggest assets in our city and, based on that, I will not support the contract.

I think we could treat them better," Mangum said. Mayor Joe Cole agreed the decision was tough but supported the move. "I'm happy with where we are on it. I'm concerned for the city workers but I believe we're treating our workers fairly," he said.

Monette said OpTech will make small changes over a period of time and will immediately address issues like drainage problems and install a computer work order system and other modifications.

The company will rely on employees' knowledge to ensure quality, he said. "The staff's experienced and understand the problems here. They've got a great institutional knowledge that we're going to draw from," he said.

Without a public works director since last fall, city officials said the public works department has been working without guidance. "We've got to have work force direction. We are inefficient," Councilman Keith Belcher said. "I feel (OpTech) can give us what we need to get the city back on track."

Last month, public works employees gained union support from International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 733, which can represent workers in case of disputes with OpTech.

Councilman Robert Stallworth said OpTech's management will "cut out the good ol' boy syndrome in the city" he said has plagued worker performance and morale. City services have suffered as a result, he said.

"I think our workers will be OK," Councilman-at-large Matthew Avara said. Annual savings up to $400,000 can occur with privatization, Cole said, in addition to offering better services to citizens and get "the best bang for our tax dollars."

OpTech has overseen Gulfport's public works department since March 1999 by maintaining and cleaning city streets, patchwork and cleaning more than 300 miles of ditches each year, according to company officials.

Brad Crocker can be reached at 934-1431 or

bcrocker@themississippipress.com.