Yarber Running into Council Wall on Contracts

Mayor Tony Yarber and Jackson City Council members frequently disagree about key decisions on infrastructure and other city contracts, and the mayor is frustrated about it.

Mayor Tony Yarber and Jackson City Council members frequently disagree about key decisions on infrastructure and other city contracts, and the mayor is frustrated about it. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

— During a June 3 gathering at Koinonia Coffee House, Mayor Tony Yarber lamented the lack of progress the City has made on infrastructure issues and blamed it on poor confidence based on past experiences with large companies, as well as political differences.

"At the end of the day, a lot of our issues have to do with a lot of different things: politics, money, disinvestment and neglect," Yarber said of past contracts with companies, including Siemens. "And nobody in their right mind wants to see this City in a position where we cannot be self-sustaining, where we cannot be in a position where we can move and thrive."

MAC & Associates, one of Siemens' contractors in its $90-million contract with the City, is now suing that company, and Yarber said that has stained the impression the council has about large and out-of-town companies.

"The Siemens contract has put the City in a situation where we have not seen the kinds of results that we thought we would have seen if it had been implemented appropriately," Yarber said, mentioning citizens' complaints about high water bills and difficulty finding relief for lost service.

Consent Decree and Sludge

The city council's most recent contract rejection was for an agreement with Los Angeles-based AECOM to manage the Environmental Protection Agency-mandated consent-decree projects over the next several years for a total cost to the City of $2.5 million. The Rules Committee, headed up by Ward 6 Councilman Tyrone Hendrix, unanimously voted against the agreement during a June 6 meeting.

The mayor reiterated his earlier comments after the committee meeting. "It's always about the contracts," Yarber told the Jackson Free Press after the Monday's committee meeting. "It's never about the people."

Hendrix disagreed during a phone interview later, citing his hesitance to place another obligation on the taxpayer during lean times for the city.

"At the end of the day, I hear what the mayor said, and I feel his frustration, but it is our job as the council to make the financial decisions that make the most sense for the City of Jackson," Hendrix said.

With recent revelations that the City has dipped deep into its emergency reserve funds, leaving a little more than a million dollars for unforeseen expenditures, Hendrix said that agreeing to the contract without assurances that the money was there to pay for it did not sit well with him.

"When we look at the price tag of two and a half million dollars, and we don't know how much money is in the account that is going to pay for this particular service that we are going to vote on and approve, that's a reason for pause," Hendrix said.

At Koinonia, the mayor also mentioned a contract the council rejected last week with BFI Waste Services, LLC, now owned by the larger and out-of-town Republic Services.

"You couple all of that with a water treatment plant, the O.B. Curtis plant, that needs to have sludge taken away from that plant that the city council voted against this past Tuesday so we can't remove sludge, so we can't continue to treat the water at that plant," Yarber said June 3.

Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps led the charge to block the contract, which succeeded, after learning that the City would not be dumping the sludge waste onto farmland in the surrounding county, but instead in a city dump. He called the byproduct "free fertilizer."

Outgoing Director of Public Works Kishia Powell told the council that the sludge would be deposited in a city-owned landfill, not used to grow crops. Nevertheless, Stamps introduced an amendment into the agreement to ensure that the waste, if the sludge was ever to be dumped on farmland, would be sent to at least 40-percent black-owned farms.

"You couple that with us trying to replace water lines in Wards 2 and 3, but the city council voted against it because the engineer wasn't from Jackson, but then they approved the engineer that was from Ridgeland," Yarber said.

Michael Baker and Infinity

The mayor was referring to three different and separate projects, two of which failed due to council members' vocal opposition to the companies' lack of local presence, and one local company's contract that passed without any resistance at all.

The contract between the City and Michael Baker International Inc. for the Mayes Street Bridge replacement passed quickly with little to no resistance in under a minute unanimously. The bridge itself was constructed, agenda documents state, in 1969, and the project will replace the concrete structure, funded out of the 1 percent tax, for a total of $877,507.41.

"I know that Michael Baker has been here for a number of years, but they are still located in Jackson?" Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon asked.

The managing engineer of the project, Charles Williams, told the council that the company had an office in Ridgeland. "I guess that's close enough," Barrett-Simon said. "They will employ Jackson people."

The council rejected the other two contracts, one with Infinity Engineering Consultants and the other with Stuart Consulting Group, after inquiries about where they were based.

Infinity Engineering Consultants, out of New Orleans, was slated for approval of a contract to begin the work necessary to replace the waterline on Hanging Moss Road for a total cost of $147,000.

"And we couldn't find anybody here that could do that work?" Barrett-Simon asked.

Williams explained that the company submitted its own statement of qualifications, or SOQ, along with 50 other companies, for 1-percent sales-tax projects, and that the company would need to get some work here before they could build an office in Jackson.

"Well, we have other companies that have established offices here before getting any work, and we also have engineering companies here that are invested in this community. They live, work, play ... they have their lives here," Barrett-Simon said.

"I just don't understand when we have companies that are hurting in this city, although this is not a big engineering contract, that we have to go to New Orleans to get it."

The mayor tried to steer the conversation back to quality of work over the price or the location of the company's home office.

"You have 50 people that submit an SOQ (statement of qualifications), and there are going to be 10 or 12 people selected from there," Yarber said during the meeting. "What we want to be able to do is, of course, find the best folks from the City, but you also want to find the best folks (who) can find or turn out the best service for the City."

"I don't want to have the impression be that Jackson folks have been overlooked," Yarber said.

"It's tough for me on this particular item because they are not based in Jackson," Ward 4 Tyrone Hendrix said at the May 31 regular city council meeting. "They aren't based in Jackson, and the work has to get done, and we don't want to hold up the work. But at the same time, I think we have shown a commitment even approving things on the claims docket that we as a council support and must continue to support our Jackson businesses. So it is going to be a tough one."

Barrett-Simon said that the council could easily choose a Jackson-based business instead of Infinity. "It is not an either-or situation," she said.

Yet, after the council rejected the contract with the out-of-town Stuart Consulting, based in south Mississippi and Louisiana, for the improvements to the drainage system from Woodrow Wilson to Erie Street, one of the council members had a moment of hesitation about the group's approach to multi-state business.

"I have talked to a lot of local businesses, and they are in businesses in other cities," Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman said, citing Shreveport, La., and Houston, Texas. "Big firms operate in multiple markets or states, and if (you) look at Coke, they are all over the world. Our favorite contracting business, Siemens, is all over the world, including Jackson."

"So if I was in business I would like to do work in Alabama, other local cities in Mississippi and Memphis and other markets. I think it is something that we have to open up our horizon and visualize how big business operates especially engineering and these other big firms," Tillman said.

Email city reporter Tim Summers, Jr. at tim@jackson"reepress.com. More local news at jfp.ms/localnews.


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