BY JEFF CLARK
After a brief hiatus for the annual Mississippi Municipal League conference on the Gulf Coast, Mayor Robert Smith and the city council were back in action Tuesday night.
The meeting was one of the most well-attended in recent memory. Friends and family members of the promoted officers in the Columbus Police Department showed up in respectable numbers to support their loved ones.
The controversial J5 project manager deal was a hot topic for some of the council members. This was the first public discussion on the subject since the council meeting on July 2. Actually, this was the first public discussion on the matter as it was added to the July 2 meeting with no prior notice, which is the council’s right. Items can be added to the agenda at the last minute — remember when Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens added an almost 30 percent council pay raise at the last minute in June?
The deal was sealed Tuesday night to the tune of $90,000 a year with an additional six percent off the projects and some expense costs, as well. And although (former?) City Engineer Kevin Stafford said on the record he wanted to continue to do business with the city, I’m now hearing, not from Stafford, that he plans to break ties with the city and Neel Schaffer doesn’t want to be bound to the $150,000 retainer with the city.
So the city moves on with another firm.
Like it, love it or think nothing of it, J5 is in place, so it’s time to get down to business.
And that business is infrastructure improvement.
July has been an extremely wet month for the Friendly City, proving the city is vulnerable to flash- and regular old flooding. Although flooding is nothing new for Columbus, there has been a lot of rain in July. WCBI Chief Meteorologist Keith Gibson told me there had been more than 14 inches of rain so far this month.
“This is almost 10 inches above average rainfall for this time of year,” Gibson said. “This area is the exception; it’s not this way everywhere.”
And 14 inches of rain brings about more flooding than usual.
I’ve had conversations with residents from the city’s six wards, and flooding is a problem everywhere. But it seems especially bad in Ward 4.
When Marty Turner was running for councilman in Ward 4, a position to which he was elected, he told me one of the biggest concerns for his ward was drainage problems. Ward 4 could see some relief as projects have been announced to deal with the ditch on 14th Avenue. This is the prime opportunity for Turner to move forward and take care of his ward’s business. Turner should be actively pursuing any grants or aid he can get to help curb the flooding in his beloved Memphis Town, and all of Ward 4. With J5’s Robyn Eastman telling the council the firm will be working for the city on a daily basis with him overseeing some projects with Public Works Director Casey Bush, let’s get to work. Turner should be ringing Eastman’s phone off the wall to stay on top of the drainage problems in Ward 4.
Pastor Rone Burgin, whose church bought the IC Cousin Center located in Ward 4, dropped by my office and showed me some photos of the drainage problems that are creating flooding in his church. Burgin claims the city has not been properly cleaning a nearby ditch. This is a great opportunity for Turner to intervene and help one of his constituents.
But flooding is not just a problem in Ward 4. I had a conversation with Mrs. Robert Jones of Ward 6 this week. The Joneses have lived in the same house in North Columbus for 40 years. But since the completion of Creekstone Chevron about 10 years ago, Mrs. Jones said heavy rains bring big woes for her family.
“We live on Chapman Road,” she said. “When we have big rains, it floods our house. Water gets in the house. It is ruining our furniture. Plus, we have to pay to have the water extracted. It’s costing us thousands of dollars and it is very stressful on our health — my husband is 80 and I’m in my late 70s. It makes me physically ill. I wish we could just pack up and move away, but we can’t.”
Mickens has been adamant about the flooding issues in his ward, which runs into Charlie Box’s Ward 3. Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor knows how badly the Southside can flood, and Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem said he is well aware of the flooding in his ward.
“Flooding and inefficient infrastructure is a big problem in Ward 5,” Karriem said. “It is something we have to address. I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the public works department needs to start working a few hours on Saturdays to get the drains and ditches cleaned? But at the same time, the residents need to start doing a better job of not throwing trash in the ditches to help keep them working properly.”
Flooding and inadequate infrastructure are citywide problems.
The city recently spent about $20,000 to take the mayor and council and 11 more department heads to the MML conference. This money was budgeted, and the attendees received training, attended seminars, etc. In a nutshell, it is what it is.
Now that the city has J5 in place and a well-trained City Hall, it’s time to put on the big boy pants and get down to work. If the city wants to play with the big kids like Biloxi, Gulfport, Meridian and Jackson, then the citizens need to see some action.
J5 claims they have grant writers, consultants and a basically endless arsenal of resources, and we need to see some results.
Columbus is a city with a dwindling population, lower-than expected sales tax returns and some failing infrastructure. When the budget preparations start next month and city leaders are faced with raising taxes, which is a reality, the time for cutting bait has long since passed.
It’s officially fishin’ time.
Jeff Clark is the Managing Editor of The Packet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org/packet.0