City public works overworked?

Published 1:19 am Sunday, June 3, 2007

Eric Smith’s cell phone rings almost constantly with callers asking him to cut tree limbs, trim grass, fix potholes and fix cars.

And most Natchez aldermen said Smith’s office, the Natchez Public Works Department, handles all the calls pretty well.

Smith, who already served as co-director, took the responsibilities of director when then-director Ronnie Ivey resigned in March.

Email newsletter signup

His department has many responsibilities, from keeping the city lawns clipped and clean to keeping police cars running.

On top of that, “We get 100 to 120 calls every week from residents,” Smith said.

His office keeps track of all those requests with work orders, sheets of paper with the date the request was made, the address and the work that needs to be done.

This system keeps them pretty well caught up, Smith said. The bigger jobs take more workers and, thus, tend to take longer.

The trick is to prioritize jobs, he said. If the situation is potentially dangerous, it gets done first.

“If we have a pothole that’s ruining people’s cars, it’s a priority,” Smith said.

Visible problems, such as grass cutting or trimming limbs, get taken care of before the less-visible ones, too, he said.

“Say we have a grass-cutting job. If it’s on a main thoroughfare, we’ll cut it first,” Smith said. “If it’s not visible, we’ll hold off until we have more time.”

Some projects need special consideration, such as speed bumps, which have to be scheduled for certain days the suppliers mix the materials.

Other requests take some collaboration. For bigger problems, such as large dips in the street, public works consults the city engineering department. That takes a little more time, too.

One work order from mid-March asks the department to fix a dip on Fourth Street. Another, from mid-April, identifies a broken curb that needs to be repaired.

Most work orders get done within a couple weeks, though, Smith said.

Some of the more recent requests, from late May ask that potholes on Dale Court be fixed and limbs hanging over the road trimmed.

Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said response to her requests for work had gotten “a little better” recently.

Although she still sees overgrown yards and the like, things have improved, Mathis said.

“I think we’re being more efficient in at least examining the situations,” Mathis said. “Now, I’m getting reports back.”

Alderman David Massey, chairman of the board’s public works committee, said the department is more efficient and looking to fill the position Ivey left.

“We interviewed for the construction foreman’s job this week, and I think we have the right person for that,” Massey said. “That would give us a full staff.”

The construction foreman would work directly with the work crews and take some of the load off Smith, Massey said.

In the meantime, “He’s really, really thorough and seems to be doing a good job,” Massey said.

“We’re doing everything we can to run public works like a business,” he said. “We cost out each and every project. We’ve got a real good system going right now, and everybody seems to be doing a good job.”

Alderman Theodore “Bubber” West said the department was doing the best it could to keep up with the work requests.

“Public works is doing the best they can do,” West said. “They’re still undermanned, and we have a lot of territory to cover. You have a lot more abandoned properties now, more people not keeping their properties up.”

The public works department trims grass on private property that becomes a nuisance, and the city charges the landowner for the labor.

Alderman James “Ricky” Gray, who has in the past voiced concern about overgrown lots and the need to keep them trimmed, would not comment.

Alderman Jake Middleton said he hasn’t had any complaints about public works in recent months. Middleton said he has been satisfied with the recent response from the department for several years.

“What I have called in has been taken care of in a prompt and quick manner,” Middleton said. “I have no complaints with public works.”