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City leaders to determine future of engineering services

Before David Gardner’s retirement from Natchez Water Works, engineering services were provided for various projects, including the north Natchez drainage project, top, the Bridge of Sighs, center and paving of city streets, bottom.  (file photos)

Before David Gardner’s retirement from Natchez Water Works, engineering services were provided for various projects, including the north Natchez drainage project, top, the Bridge of Sighs, center and paving of city streets, bottom. (file photos)

NATCHEZ — When it comes to city engineering, 10 years of water has flowed beneath that bridge.

Since 2005, Natchez has been in an inter-local agreement to contract engineering services with Natchez Water Works, which is owned by the city but operates independently.

For 22 years, David Gardner served as Natchez city engineer. However, when Gardner was named superintendent of Natchez Water Works, the city began contracting with Natchez Water Works for Gardner’s services as city engineer. At the time, the city believed it would save money in the process, but still retain the experience Gardner has with city projects.

The city’s agreement with Natchez Water Works for engineering services expired March 31, and Gardner is set to retire May 1 as the Natchez Water Works superintendent.

While Natchez Water Works has already named Tony Moon as Gardner’s replacement as superintendent, Moon is not taking on the city engineer role.

Now city leaders are faced with a time-sensitive question: Should Natchez hire another engineer, or rely on an outside firm for engineering services?

Most city leaders say they prefer the latter option.

“There are things that require a city engineer, but not on a day-to-day basis,” Mayor Butch Brown said.

Rather than hire a city engineer, or create a city engineering department, Brown suggested the board expand the city’s public works department to include engineering services.

Justin Dollar, public works supervisor, is the candidate Brown recommended to spearhead that expansion.

“I think we have on staff today the beginnings of a very strong, very reliable public works department that would include the operations of engineering services,” said Brown, adding that traffic control services would also be absorbed into public works. “And we have a young man who has the ability to take public works to a level that’s more like most cities in America.”

However, an expanded public works department would still lack the city’s need for an engineer who would have the credentials and knowledge to oversee large-scale projects, such as the North Natchez Drainage Project.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said these projects are at jeopardy when the city no longer has an engineer on the payroll.

“We’re trying to make this place beautiful, but we have a lot of mud to deal with,” Mathis said concerning projects left unfinished after Gardner’s exit.

And although the city hasn’t made any formal agreement to use an outside firm for engineering needs yet, Hayden Kaiser III has already stepped up to the plate and said his firm — Natchez-based Jordan, Kaiser & Sessions LLC — would be willing to take on the job.

According to Mathis, no public bid would need to be made before the city enters a formal agreement to contacts special engineering services to JKS.

“The larger the projects are, that’s when an engineer is needed,” Kaiser said. “Contracting an outside firm, that is exactly what most cities this size do.”

Kaiser also said Natchez would most likely save money by entering into an agreement with JKS for engineering services, as needed.

When the city was engaged in an inter-local agreement with Natchez Water Works, Brown said about $280,000 a year was budgeted for engineering needs.

Included in that amount was Gardner’s salary, which Brown said was approximately $100,000 — though that number has not been confirmed.

“That’s a number the city simply can’t afford,” Brown said.

With an expanded public works department, Brown estimated the new budget for city engineering would be a little less than $200,000 — excluding costs added for consulting an outside service.

Currently, JKS charges a fee of $140 per hour for services.

An estimate of the number of contracted engineering hours the city would need per year has not been made.

“I think having (an engineer) on staff would cost a lot more than having us,” Kaiser said. “We can pretty much provide anything that the city needs.”

JKS employs 26 people, all of whom live in Adams County or Concordia Parish. Of those 26 employees, there are five registered engineers and three registered surveyors.

Jobs contracted out to JKS would involve any project the city might be unequipped to carry out, such as updating water, sewer or drainage systems.

Other aldermen also voiced support for using outside services rather than hiring another city engineer.

“I just think this is the most direct and effective response to our needs, and we’re fortunate to have this option,” said Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard.

Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith said she also has confidence in the city’s public works department to carry out most engineering functions, but would like to know a specific salary requirement for public works employees before the city moves ahead with the expansion.

“I think this would be a great move, but as a city, we need to try and save money wherever possible,” Smith said.

With a larger public works department, Brown said salaries would need to reflect the extra work added.

“Especially if we’re doubling Justin’s role, salaries need to reflect that,” Brown said.

Other engineering services, such as grant writing, would still be supplied by the city, Brown pointed out.

In the past, Natchez Community Development Director James Johnston handled most grant writing and proposals, and that would remain the same if the city decided to use an outside firm.

“The inter-local agreement is over now. The files are moving back to city hall,” Brown said. “I have all the utmost confidence in Justin Dollar’s skill to operate public works. I’m impressed with his job, work ethic, and I’m convinced he can take care of this city. But, he is not a professional engineer — and therein lies the need for a good engineering consultant.”

The board is scheduled to discuss more options concerning city engineering at its  meeting at 11 a.m., Tuesday at the City Council Chambers on Pearl Street.

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