Contractor walked off Jackson road project after not being paid, one-percent commissioner says

Commissioner Pete Perry says a contractor temporarily quit work on a project after it was not...
Commissioner Pete Perry says a contractor temporarily quit work on a project after it was not paid for months.(WLBT)
Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 7:09 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A member of Jackson’s one-percent oversight commission is questioning whether contractors are being paid, saying one firm temporarily walked off the job for nonpayment last fall.

The commission held its monthly meeting Wednesday afternoon, where Commissioner Pete Perry grilled City Engineer Robert Lee about claims that one contractor halted work on a repaving job along Terry Road.

Perry says news that contractors are receiving late, or no payments give ammunition to lawmakers pushing bills to take over aspects of city government.

“I understand they’re owed seven or $800,000. They went out there this week and were raising the manhole frames up... but if they hadn’t been working, if they pulled off the job in September, we should have known it,” he said. “So, I want to know if that’s the fact.”

“I believe they had pulled off, but Hemphill did not communicate that to me directly,” Lee said.

Hemphill was awarded a roughly $3.9 million contract to mill and overlay Terry Road between McDowell Road and I-20. The company began work last summer, Perry says.

The contract is funded with an 80-20 grant through the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District and one-percent matching funds.

Lee told oversight members he found out Hemphill stepped away in late November.

“Then why didn’t we know it?” Perry asked. “Last meeting, I just watched the video, you gave us the same thing... you made an offhand comment, ‘they’re just moving along.’ That’s your comment on Terry Road. If you knew they pulled off in November, it wasn’t moving along.”

Officials with Hemphill were not available for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba answers concerns raised by one-percent commissioner.
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba answers concerns raised by one-percent commissioner.(WLBT)

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who chairs the oversight panel, says he was unaware of the situation, and no formal communication had been made to him. He also says that Lee was not intentionally keeping information from the commission.

“If there’s been nothing written to the city, you know, anybody who’s working out in the field may [tell you] anything. But we’ll dive deeper into that,” he said.

Perry also says the commission has been given the same information on the project for months, sharing copies of monthly presentations dating back to October that report “milling and 1-inch intermediate overlay work complete.”

In September, members were told milling and overlay work was underway and that “once that is done, concrete and base repairs... will begin.”

The Terry Road project aside, Perry says other contractors have been paid late, including one who was not compensated until December 2022 for work that was “finished two years ago.”

Perry said the contractor, in that case, was Waggoner Engineering, but he did not say what work he was referring to.

In September, the Jackson City Council approved paying Waggoner and AJA Management $1.7 million for program management services for the previous fiscal year.

Waggoner/AJA is the program manager overseeing the city’s sewer consent decree.

The council took the administration to task for waiting so long to pay for the services.

“So, they’ve been working for this fiscal year that’s getting ready to close out here in about three days and they haven’t been paid for any of the work for this past year?” Council President Ashby Foote asked. “I don’t think that’s a very healthy relationship for our contractors.”

Lumumba says part of the problem is that city staffers are still getting used to the city’s new accounting software.

“We have a system called MUNIS that departments can enter contracts in, and then it’s able to be seen on the financial side of what we do,” he said. “The MUNIS system gives us more accountability. There are more components to that system that should be helpful to the city moving forward, but until everybody learns, it is only as helpful as their understanding to use that technology.”

“And so, that’s an issue that we’ve been talking about and that we recognize,” he added. “So, we’re trying to make sure that we empower everyone who has responsibility to input that information to do it correctly.”

Meanwhile, Perry believes reports of contractors being paid late could be fodder for state lawmakers pushing several bills to limit Jackson’s authority to govern.

Among measures, the Senate has passed legislation to transfer ownership of Jackson’s water, sewer, and stormwater systems to a new utility authority.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House has passed a bill that would expand the Capitol Complex Improvement District, expand Capitol Police and install newly appointed judges to preside over cases in that area.

Both chambers have passed legislation mandating that municipalities can only charge customers for water and sewer based on usage. Those measures were filed in direct response to Jackson’s water manager’s announcement to implement a new rate structure based on customers’ real property values.

“I think if you can’t keep your books right and know what you’re contracting for and know what you spent, yes,” Perry said. “I think the fact that [the city] can’t give you an accounting... does give them fodder.”

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