Streamlining city services shows improvement

Published 11:37 pm Saturday, November 14, 2009

NATCHEZ — Since the controversial terminations of city employees in September, Natchez leaders are at work streamlining services in an effort to save time and money.

Three city departments — public works, planning and zoning and grant writing — were left unguided after the Natchez Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to terminate Public Works Director Eric Smith, Assistant Public Works Director Francis Ransom Jr. and City Planner John “Rusty” Lewis.

City Grants Coordinator Brett Brinegar, who said she was initially told she was to be laid off, resigned her post.

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Mayor Jake Middleton soon turned his focus to reorganizing the departments, calling on Assistant City Engineer David Atkins and City Engineer David Gardner to revamp public works. The city has hired a new public works supervisor, Robbie Dollar, who will report to Atkins on a routine basis.

“Public works is being structured to go under city engineering,” Gardner said. “When you look at it, most cities operate that way.”

Public works employs 18 people in three divisions — garage, streets and sanitation. Gardner said the department is discovering more efficient ways to handle invoices, keep track of work orders and buy equipment and parts at a cheaper price.

“(David Atkins) has done a good job of working with the public works crews on how to do that,” Gardner said.

“We challenged (the employees) in the very beginning and told them we know that they need better equipment, we know they need higher pay, but if they were ever to get any of that, they were going to have to show they deserved it. And they have performed and met the challenge.”

Gardner referenced grass cutting, litter pick-up, Christmas decorations, the Phatwater Kayak Challenge and the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race as examples of the department’s most recent undertakings. However, more extensive projects are not within the department’s means.

Gardner has petitioned Middleton and board to increase material line items in the public works budget. For example, the department only has $30,000 in its budget to buy asphalt, pipes and other needed equipment for street repairs.

“Thirty thousand dollars to operate 110 miles of street. That’s only $2,500 a month. That’s not enough,” Gardner said. “You can easily buy a piece of pipe that would spend that up.

“We haven’t been able to do any projects because we haven’t been able to afford it.”

Gardner said the proposed changes still mean an overall decrease in operation costs.

“Our overall budget is a decrease yet our line item materials are an increase,” Gardner said. “We would be operating on new, improved budget at a lower cost to the city.”

If the budget request is approved, public works could then address pipe erosion in the Roselawn subdivision and drainage issues on East Stiers Lane. Gardner estimates the Roselawn repairs will cost the city $10,000.

“We can’t get to it until we have money in the budget to do it,” Gardner said.

Planning and zoning

The terminations of Lewis, land use planner Walter Huston, planning specialist Dawn Williams, and the retirement of secretary Darlene D. Williams has reduced the planning and zoning department to secretary Kristie Martin, a new hire, and Building Inspector Paul Dawes.

Dawes, who temporarily oversees planning, informed the Natchez Preservation Commission last week that the city has received six resumes for city planner.

“We’re hoping to find a suitable person who can come on board quickly,” Dawes said.

Dawes expects interviews to begin this week, but an interview schedule has not been released.

Preservation Commission Vice-Chairman Tony DeAngelis insisted representatives of the preservation commission, the Natchez Planning Commission and the Historic Natchez Foundation participate in the interview process.

Dawes said he will request invitations for Preservation Commission Chairman Marty Seibert, Planning Commission Chairman Deborah Martin and an HNF representative.

Dawes has sat in on preservation commission and planning commission meetings since the terminations, providing both boards with site plans for proposed projects.

Members of both boards agree a city planner is needed to enforce ordinances and codes. Dawes said the planning department is doing just that.

“We’ve got the bases covered,” Dawes said. “The planning department is up and running and whatever was required before is still required.”

Grant writing

Since Brinegar’s departure, grant writing is virtually non-existent. However, Middleton and the board have interviewed two consultants who would assume the task.

“We’ve definitely got to get somebody in place to start helping us with these grants,” Middleton said.

Chris Gouras of Chris Gouras & Associates in Ridgeland said his firm assists in city and county governments in acquiring Community Development Block Grants, Capital Access Program loans and tax increment financing.

“We’re hired to work with the administration, public works and engineering to identify the city’s needs, how those needs fit into a CDBG grant and help the city craft a competitive application,” Gouras said during his presentation.

“The way my firm works, we don’t get paid unless we produce.”

Last week, Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District Executive Director Wirt Peterson outlined his firm’s grant writing services.

Based in Natchez, SWMPDD is a non-profit organization providing regional and community services to a 10-county area that includes Adams, Amite, Claiborne, Franklin, Jefferson, Lawrence, Lincoln, Pike Walthall and Wilkinson counties.

“A lot of people see us as grant writers and we are that, but we’re a lot more,” Peterson said. “We’re a full service organization and we’ll do everything you ask us to do within the limits of the law, of course.”

Outside of grant writing, SWMPDD provides assistance in financing for business start-ups and expansions, payments for child care services and services to senior citizens. Peterson said SWMPDD has funded the Natchez Senior Citizen Mulitpurpose Center for several years.

Like Chris Gouras & Associates, SWMPDD will not charge the city for its services unless grants are approved.

Middleton said he and the board will further discuss the interviews when they reconvene at 5 p.m. Monday at the City Hall Chambers on Pearl Street.