Jackson City Council approves emergency staffing contract for water plants
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A vote by the Jackson City Council on Thursday afternoon will help staff the city’s two water treatment plants until a long-term operations and maintenance contract is approved.
At a special called meeting on November 10, the council voted 4-0 to approve an emergency agreement with WaterTalent LLC to provide temporary water operators for the O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plants.
The contract is not to exceed $720,000 and will run through February 28, 2023. The first 10 weeks alone is expected to cost $400,000.
“We hope it doesn’t go that far. We hope we can get an O&M operator in here before that, but we have this as a fail-safe measure,” Ward 7 Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay said.
Under terms of the deal, Talent will provide the city with four Class A water operators to help augment staffing at its two treatment facilities. Those operators are expected to report to Jackson on Sunday, November 13.
The contract will be in place at least until the city brings on a long-term operations and maintenance contractor to take over the duties.
That could take another 30, 60 or 90 days, according to Ted Henifin, a consultant speaking to the council Thursday.
Henifin said the contractors would be able to give Jackson’s overworked current water operators a break.
“We’re still relying on the same operators who are working long, long, long hours and long shifts,” he said. “So, we identified this company, and they recruit these folks and have them on standby, essentially licensed operators, that are willing to deploy for some emergency periods, and we’ve gotten a proposal from them.”
He said the operators recruited by WaterTalent were either retired or were looking for emergency deployment opportunities to break up their careers.
Council President Ashby Foote questioned the cost of the contract, asking if the operators would be paid $100,000 each.
Henifin said the workers would earn “probably in the $40-an-hour range.”
By comparison, level 1 water operators in the city earn between $34,698 and $41,797 a year, while level 2 operators bring home between $36,323 to $43,776 annually.
“That sounds high, but that covers everything,” Henifin said, referring to the contract’s cost. “Their insurance, their supervision and their travel... When you add all that up, it actually seems reasonable.”
“I’m not saying that contracting is always the cheapest option, but in this case, it may be the only option,” he added.
Council Vice President Angelique Lee said the city doesn’t have much of a choice but to accept it.
“Our backs are against the wall. We’ve been doing a national search looking for Class A operators. That’s hard to find, and we have been unsuccessful,” Lee said. “So, [if] this is what is needed to make sure our water plant is running successfully... If the cost is high, that is what we have to do.”
WaterTalent will step in just days before the state of emergency governing the plant expires. Once that emergency ends on November 22, state agencies working at the facilities will pull out, turning operations back over to the city.
Since late August, the state and federal government have been supplementing staffing at the troubled facilities, after equipment failures at O.B. Curtis cut water service for tens of thousands of people.
In an October 13 letter to Gov. Tate Reeves, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba asked for the emergency declaration to be extended for six months, arguing, in part, that the city was still woefully understaffed.
“Jackson’s mayor has announced that the city will have a private operator in place by [then],” Reeves said. “At that point, the state of emergency must, by statute, end as the water system can be managed solely by local control, as has been insisted on upon by the city of Jackson.”
Jackson, though, will not have a long-term contractor in place by that date, putting the city in danger of another plant failure and in danger of violating state and federal statute, according to the mayor’s October 13 letter.
State and federal law mandate a Class A worker be on duty 24 hours a day, seven-days a week. However, documents obtained by WLBT show that the city has been unable to provide full staffing, even with operators working hundreds of hours of overtime.
Those staffing shortages, meanwhile, have been a major sticking point with the Environmental Protection Agency, which they say likely contributed to a string of incidents at the Curtis plant since early 2021.
In September, the Department of Justice said it was preparing to take legal action against the city, citing numerous Safe Drinking Water Act violations, including those related to staffing.
The Lumumba administration is currently in talks with the agency to draw up an “enforceable agreement” to bring the city’s system into compliance.
“EPA is very interested in ensuring that we have sufficient water plant operators at the plants, prior to us actually entering into an agreement with them,” City Attorney Catoria Martin said.
She said a final document related to those negotiations will be presented to the council next week.
EPA compliance aside, water operators likely will welcome the help. Timesheets obtained by WLBT showed that between June 1 and July 25 of this year, operators hundreds of hours of overtime to ensure full coverage at both plants.
“The big piece of this is it also allows [operators] not to have to work 70 to 80 hours a week,” Henifin said. “They’re actually going to get some of their life back, which I think they would all like at this point in time.”
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