Trio of city departments may be split up soon

Published 12:06 am Saturday, June 30, 2012

NATCHEZ — With the city’s engineering contract set to expire July 31, the mayor-elect and aldermen are making plans for what they want to see happen with the department.

The city and Natchez Water Works signed an interlocal agreement seven years ago that created the current engineering department, which is not directly run by the city.

The contract was renewed two years ago and was originally set to expire May 31, but the Natchez Board of Aldermen extended the contract until the end of July at its May 8 meeting.

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City Engineer David Gardner is the superintendent of Water Works. The city’s engineering department — as funded through the contract — has six other employees in addition to Gardner.

Aldermen have expressed concern that Water Works and Natchez Public Works have operated under the umbrella of the engineering department for several years, which has made the department somewhat self-governing.

Gardner and the engineering department have also received criticism for what some aldermen have said they perceive as an engineering department monopoly.

Mayor-elect Larry L. “Butch” Brown said a lack of knowledge and leadership in the past and in other departments has caused the engineering department to have to do work beyond its scope, such as grant writing, accounting and various projects.

“They have taken over things that are other people’s problems,” Brown said. “Sure they have (been criticized), but who else was going to do it? That may have created the perception that they’re trying to do something outside of their department.”

Brown said he wants to pull Public Works out from under the engineering department and make it a separate department, as it was when he was previously mayor.

Brown said many people do not remember or realize that Water Works is owned by the city. He said having a Water Works board in place sometimes confuses the ownership.

“While it doesn’t operate as a city department, it is still an asset of the city’s,” Brown said.

Ward 4 Alderman Ernest “Tony” Fields said he is very pleased with the work the engineering department has been doing. He said, however he does not believe the city is getting the most out of Water Works, public works and engineering with all three entities acting somewhat as one unit.

Fields said if the city outlines specific roles, responsibilities and concise guidelines for the engineering department, public works and Water Works, the city will be able to maximize its potential with all three entities.

“I believe we can get more bang for our buck if we really look at it closely and put the right people in the right place,” Fields said.

Ward 3 Alderwoman-elect Sarah Carter Smith said she too believes that refocusing and defining what’s expected of Gardner will help keep the engineering department’s work focused.

“I think some of what’s slowing down projects and things like that is that (Gardner) and the department are loaded down with stuff that was never intended for them to have to do,” Smith said.

Brown said he has had and will continue discussions with Gardner and public works, Water Works and engineering employees to figure out what is best for all three entities.

“Right now I don’t have enough information to say for sure what will happen with all aspects, but we’re going to continue those discussions,” he said. “We may need to tweak some things, and we may need to leave some things alone, sometimes that is the answer. Why fix something if it’s not broken?”

Gardner is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.