City aldermen debate how to keep city cemetery grass cut

Published 12:05am Wednesday, November 27, 2013

NATCHEZ — A motion by a Natchez alderman at Tuesday’s meeting to consider contracting out grass-cutting for the Natchez City Cemetery sparked a discussion about how to alleviate an overworked staff and the cemetery’s financial troubles.

Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard made a motion that failed for the city to solicit bids for grass-cutting contracts for the cemetery, which is approximately 100 acres.

Mayor Butch Brown broke a 3-3 tie, voting against the motion

Dillard said he believes the cemetery could save money and increase efficiency if an outside company was hired to cut the grass. Dillard pointed to the savings the city has experienced because it contracted out mowing for highways and recreational areas as an example.

“The staff is just overmatched,” he said. “It’s not that they’re not doing a good job or working hard … (but) 100 acres of grass is more than they can manage.”

Alleviating the grass-cutting duties for the staff, Dillard said, could allow them to tackle other jobs in the cemetery, such as masonry repairs and wrought-iron work.

The cemetery has been facing financial troubles for the past several years and recently increased fees to help bring in more money.

Dillard pointed out the cemetery board has been forced to use money raised by its annual Angels on the Bluff tour for operational costs, rather than for improvements to the cemetery as it had planned.

Dillard said the cemetery is a public property, and money from the city’s public properties fund, which he said should have in it approximately $160,000, could be used for the grass-cutting services.

Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery said he believes inmate labor has been offered to the cemetery, but they “refused it.”

Brown, whose wife, Shields, is on the cemetery board, said he does not believe the board has voted yet on whether to use inmate labor.

Dillard said inmate labor is a good idea in theory, but with the high demand for inmate labor, a contract with an outside company may offer more reliability and consistency for cemetery maintenance.

Brown said a potential problem with contracting out the grass-cutting would be that a great deal of edging and weed-trimming would be involved, likely increasing the cost of a contract.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith later agreed that based on the sheer size of the cemetery, it may cost the city more to contract the grass-cutting services.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said she would like for the city and the cemetery board to meet and discuss options.

City Attorney Hyde Carby said that since grass cutting is a service and not subject to bid law, the city could informally inquire about the cost of services.

Although the motion failed, Brown told Dillard the city would gather information about the cost of a grass-cutting contract for the cemetery.

In other news from the meeting:

-The board voted to terminate contract negotiations with Mills and Mills Architects of Greenville for architectural services for the renovation of the former railroad depot on Broadway Street.

Community Development Director James Johnston said the planning department was at an “impasse” with the firm because the city is dissatisfied with the fees and scope of work proposed by the firm.

The fees proposed by Mills, Johnston said after the meeting, would be 21 percent of the project’s total cost, close to $150,000. The city has secured $625,000 for the project so far and is applying for more grants, he said.

Johnston said the design phase of a project is typically 12.5-15 percent of the total project cost.

The contract would be for design services for the renovation of the depot, which Johnston said would include exterior repair work, roof repair and/or replacement and, if necessary, gutting the building.

The building, Johnston said, would be repurposed as office space for Mississippi State’s Adams County Extension Service, public restrooms open 24 hours a day every day and a visitor reception area.

The board voted to begin negotiations with Smith Seckman Reid Inc. for the contract. Johnston said the contract is not subject to bid law because it is a “small purchase” defined by state law as less than $150,000.

-The board voted to table a request from the Pro-Life Natchez-Adams County group to place crosses on the bluff for its annual display of support for the right to live movement.

Brown said the display has become “controversial” and he has had requests that the display be moved to church property.

Carby said the board needs to tread lightly when making a decision about the matter as not to infringe on the group’s First Amendment rights to free speech.

-Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said she wanted to reassure the public that the city was investigating why Christ Life Church recently denied a rental request from a high school reunion group.

Smith said after the meeting the group has said the request was denied because it wanted to serve alcohol at the event. Smith said she is not certain that is the reason, but the city is looking into the matter.

Smith said she believes the city set up certain parameters in its contract with the church, that may allow groups renting the auditorium to serve alcohol.

-The board met in executive session for approximately 20 minutes to discuss the sale of Martin school property, which Brown said should be finalized before the board’s next meeting, and two complaints filed by city employees to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.