What will be the fate of Jackson’s water plant operators under the federal court order?

Published: Dec. 7, 2022 at 4:56 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson likely is getting out of the staffing business, at least when it comes to filling positions at its two water treatment plants.

That’s according to Ted Henifin, the man recently tapped to take over Jackson’s water system as part of a federal court order.

Henifin, who is now transitioning into his role as interim third-party manager over the system, says that among changes, the city likely will begin contracting out water treatment services, rather than hiring and training employees themselves.

Meanwhile, the water operators currently on the city’s payroll likely will be given the opportunity to take jobs with the private contractor brought in or transfer to other departments within the city.

“Obviously, that’s going to be a personal decision that each employee will have to make,” Henifin said. “But my goal would be as many that want to stay working in water and want to take advantage of this opportunity to work for a national contractor... because that’s the best solution all the way around.”

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Wingate approved an interim stipulated order governing Jackson’s water system last week. As part of that order, the water system and Water/Sewer Business Administration were placed under the control of an ITPM, which is responsible for operating and maintaining the system, and implementing capital improvements spelled out in the order’s “priority project list.”

The top priority on that list, in turn, is to put in place an operations and maintenance contract to provide, among other things, “minimum appropriate staffing” in accordance with state statute.

Henifin hopes to have an agreement with a national contractor in place sometime in January and is currently in talks with a company now.

“It’s really hard to tell where everyone’s going to land. But, you know, we’re trying hard to make sure everybody’s well taken care of,” he said. “In all likelihood, not everybody that’s working in water [now] will be working for the city, because we have a contract operator who’s going to need the same staff, and really wants the local folks’ knowledge to work for them.”

More details of how that transition would work at a Wednesday night town hall meeting at Forest Hill High School.

Henifin said private contractors, once they’re brought on, would interview and offer jobs to qualified plant operators and maintenance workers. Those who accept positions would lose their city retirement but would be “made whole” with higher salaries, benefits and private retirement plans.

Employees not hired by the company would be moved other areas in city government, as would qualified operators who refuse to take positions with the contractor or contractors, Henifin explained.

Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, the public employees’ union, said several city workers reached out to her with their concerns about Henifin’s plans.

However, she says she’s pleased that no workers will lose their jobs and that employees who do leave could benefit from higher salaries and the like.

“I think working for [a] company with adequate equipment, proper equipment, safety equipment, and being paid a decent wage, and things of that nature... is something they can look forward to,” she said. “When we talk about public dollars, a lot of times, you’re working with shorter staff[s], and are not necessarily paid what you’re worth.”

When a contractor or contractors will be brought on depends on how quickly funding will be in place to pay for them. Staffing contracts will be funded with money set aside in an “operations and maintenance account,” which must be established within 30 days of the effective date of the stipulated order, court records show.

“When the city, when EPA has to move money, and before they can move money, I have to have bank accounts established,” Henifin said. “I had my first meeting with a bank [Tuesday] to get that working.”

Court records indicate the city must transfer $2 million into the O&M account once it’s established, and then transfer $1 million a month into it for the rest of the 2023 fiscal year.

Until then, it will be business as usual for water plant operators, Henifin said. “Essentially, the city employees that are currently performing the water services are going to continue to do so,” he said. “And the city is going to continue to pay them just like they were, and that will continue until such time that we have the ability to contract for some of these operations.”

“At the end of the day, during this transition, everyone’s just [going to] keep on keeping on, business as usual,” he said. “We’re trying to set things in place, and [getting ready] to move pieces around as needed come January, so as to not mess everybody’s life up in December before the holidays.”

Henifin, a 40-year public works veteran, says he wants to contract out the work, in part, because the city doesn’t have time to recruit, hire and train additional water operators. He points to the fact that Jackson is currently having trouble staffing the plants now, even after the city council voted in significant raises for those workers last fall.

“By bringing in a contractor with professional management and experience running water plants, they’re going to be able to use their vast resources to attract, retain and fill positions that the city just isn’t going to have the ability to do,” he said.

An internal memo from former City Engineer Charles Williams in October 2021 obtained by WLBT backs up Henifin’s concerns.

The correspondence was sent to former Public Works Director Marlin King and copied to Deputy Public Works Director Mary Carter, also no longer with the city.

“The entry level salary for an Operator 1 position attracts primarily high school graduates with limited or no experience. the city must invest six years of training... to qualify him/her to merely meet the qualifications to take the Class A examination. Additional time and monetary resources are invested if they do not pass the examination on the first try,” Williams wrote. He added that some operators who take the Class A certification test resign from the city “immediately afterwards.”

Memo outlines difficulty of recruiting and retaining water operators.
Memo outlines difficulty of recruiting and retaining water operators.(WLBT)

Even after raising pay, Jackson struggled to recruit new water operators. A WLBT investigation this summer revealed just two were staffed at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant prior to the water crisis.

Meanwhile, the city’s decision to raise pay for operators created strife among plant maintenance workers. A November 2021 email from the water plant operations supervisor at J.H. Fewell and obtained by WLBT, showed that maintenance staffers there were requesting a meeting with the administration “over the raise compensation,” just days after the council approved raises for operators.

“We are trying to prevent division amongst the group, so I would appreciate if you all could schedule a date in the coming weeks,” Supervisor Terence Byrd wrote. “Look forward to hearing from you on a scheduled date to meet.”

It was not known if that meeting occurred.

Byrd email shows maintenance workers had concerns over compensation.
Byrd email shows maintenance workers had concerns over compensation.(WLBT)

Henifin says Jackson also is challenged because it is one of just a few cities in the state that require Class A operators at its treatment plants.

“It’s a real challenge to find, in smaller markets, and Mississippi in particular, where those resources are... Large national contractors we’re talking about have those resources in other places [and] they can rely on them to come down and help out,” he said. “I think that’s the reason we’re moving quickly toward contract operation. We’re struggling to keep the water running now, with what we’ve got.”

Jackson already relies on some contracts to keep its plants running. In November, the council approved a $720,000 emergency staffing agreement with WaterTalent LLC to bring in four temporary Class A water operators to help supplement staff at the city’s treatment facilities.

In October, the city issued a request for proposals for a 12-month contract to take over operations and maintenance of its water treatment plants, water well systems and elevated storage tanks. Only one company responded to that proposal, and that firm was unwilling to do a one-year contract.

Henifin believes he can get a longer-term contract in place and is able to do so because he is not bound by state procurement laws that he said limited the city’s RFP to 12 months.

“We need to get to a position where we aren’t having to worry everyday about whether we’re going to lose water pressure, or at least water quality, across the system. And the only way we can do that quickly is by accessing a national firm that’s got those resources immediately available.”

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