Public Works Director Williams: City’s Infrastructure Problems Won’t End Soon | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Public Works Director Williams: City’s Infrastructure Problems Won’t End Soon

City of Jackson Public Works Director Charles Williams shares his ideas on improving its infrastructure profile. He urges patience from Jacksonians. Photo courtesy Charles Williams

City of Jackson Public Works Director Charles Williams shares his ideas on improving its infrastructure profile. He urges patience from Jacksonians. Photo courtesy Charles Williams

Charles Williams became City of Jackson's public works director last month after three years as the city engineer and 19 years working in the department. He inherited a huge infrastructure deficit, low staff numbers with non-competitive remuneration, an equipment deficit and high response times to the citizens' numerous demands for attention.

The failing infrastructure manifests in the intractable flooding issues in some parts of the city, sewer leakages and swaths of dilapidated roads. This reality, coupled with revenue loss from the City's enterprise fund because of a faulty billing system, created a perfect-storm situation he has to deal with.

In a recent interview with the Jackson Free Press, Williams explained the department's problems and his plans to move the needle on Jackson's infrastructural challenges.

What is the state of infrastructure in Jackson?

Jackson has very old infrastructure that needs quite a bit of attention. We are trying to balance capital (projects) and maintenance repairs to the infrastructure due to the age of the infrastructure.

Some parts of the city have older infrastructure than other parts, and they have just met their life expectancy.

We have to consistently or constantly make repairs, which is very burdensome on our very limited staff. And we don't have the number of capital projects that can balance it out, make those critical improvements in infrastructure that will decrease the maintenance calls (for) service.

If you can put a number on it, how much in dollars do you need to solve the problems?

I'm a little hesitant to do that because all of our infrastructure systems are very different. We're very diverse, and you would have to perform a very detailed assessment of all our infrastructure systems in order to come up with a particular dollar amount.

I know in the past, people have come up with actually a billion dollars, $2 billion in order for the infrastructure to ... be efficient and operable, where it needs to be. And I think sometimes those numbers are just based on very limited conditional assessments of the infrastructure.

I think what we'll have to look at is each infrastructure system independently and determine the age of that infrastructure, what it would take to get it up to current standards. And then, the usage of that infrastructure, and what it would take as far as money in order to get it addressed.

So that will have to be a combination of money from the city bond, federal funds and any other funds that may be available in order to pool together in order to address our aging infrastructure systems.

What about flooding?

Flooding is an issue in some parts of the city. I think that goes back to the drainage infrastructure system. We have not really addressed, (or) really put funding in place for some of those drainage systems. And there's also another difficult task of trying to identify monies in order to address that while you have other infrastructure systems that are competing for funding in order for us to address those issues as well.

Is there any role for the state government when it comes to the infrastructure because Jackson is the capital city, or is it all on the City to deal with it?

The state funds the capitol complex (district), and so they are funding projects within that capitol complex. And then the City has its own ... sale-tax funds that are allocated toward areas throughout the 
entire city.

And then, you always are looking for federal funds, which have not been available due to there not being a large transportation bill that has been sent out from Congress. So, we're hoping that in the near future that a new transportation bill will be implemented, (and) from there dispersed to a number of states and hopefully Jackson. (We hope) the capital city would be able to receive some of those funds to dedicate for our infrastructure systems.

What are the plans you're working on now?

We're doing a self-assessment with public works, and we're trying to look at how we can be more responsive to the public.

We acknowledge that we have limited personnel in order to address the multitude of infrastructure issues that we have. And it also affects our response time. So we're looking at what can our work force, what are they capable of doing. Do we need outside assistance from contracting? And then we're always looking for funding in order to address both maintenance and capital projects within the city.

What about your staff strength?

We have some employees who have been here for a while, and so they're very seasoned. We also have some young employees, and so we have some deficiencies that need to be addressed. We know that we need to improve all pay. We know that we need to do a better job of having equipment available. There are all of those particular items we were looking at trying to address. We're looking at recruitment and retention of employees.

We're trying to determine what are those measures that we need to put in place to retain the employees that we have, but also recruit the employees that we need in order to build the department of public works that can meet the daily tasks of dealing with our aging infrastructure.

How will you describe success for you in this office?

We are going to have to be honest with ourselves, in that we know that we're not where we need to be right now.

Then we have to look at what it's going to take to get to where this department is responsive to our citizens, where we are being accountable for improving our infrastructure and making sure that we are being good stewards of (the) money that the department receives in order to address our aging infrastructure on both the proper maintenance and on capital projects. So if we're able to build a foundation over the next couple of years, to get those processes in place here, we can be at an attractive workplace where people would come to work and take care of their families, as well as be servants, as far as public service to the citizens, making sure that their needs are addressed when they call the services.

I think that if we're able to achieve those objectives and get the department efficiently run, then I think that will be a measure of success that whenever my time is up, I can leave to my successor (and) say, hey, we laid the foundation for this, and then they'll have something to build upon.

What would you describe as the most challenging part of your work?

We have limited resources and trying to allocate those resources to all the priorities that we have. So that's a challenge, and we know that we have limited personnel. So how do we increase our personnel, our staffing, knowing that we have all of these challenges as far as financial resources? So we're trying to do our best to balance that. ... We are asking for a lot of (residents) to be patient while we work through this.

We know that it's going to be challenging over the next few months and next year. Hopefully, we'll be able to get out from under COVID and not be limited by the pandemic, and also we are hoping that increased revenue will come, and we will get additional funding sources even from outside of the City's coffers that will help us pull all of these funding opportunities into one pot and then start strategically putting those funds into those areas that are needed in order to address our aging infrastructure.

Can you mention a few of the sources you're hoping to tap into?

I think primarily, hopefully, our revenues will improve on our water-sewer billing collections. We're also anticipating at some point a federal transportation bill will be passed. We hope that we'll be able to receive some funds from federal resources, and then we'll continue to utilize the 1% sales tax and maximize that in order to address infrastructure needs.

When you talk about using contractors, what are the advantages or disadvantages?

We acknowledge that that's not a long-term perspective, that is not going to solve our problem. But for immediate mitigation, they will be able to come in and assist us with some of the workloads that we have until we can build up our staff.

The problem is that they can come in and help us short-term, but long term financially, that would not be the most advantageous way for the City to move forward in order to build the department of public works back to where it needs to be.

How has the City used the Siemens settlement?

We utilize $3.5 million out of the settlement for sewer repairs, and so we utilized some of that money for that. The rest of it had to be addressed in order to help assist with some of our debt servicing and help with our bond rating.

Are there some decisions made in the past that you wished were different?

I'm a realist, but I'm also optimistic. I think that Jackson is going to improve; I think infrastructure is going to improve; it's not going to happen overnight. I can't control things that happened in the past. Those were decisions that were made without my input. But I don't look toward the past. I look toward the future, and I think that there are opportunities for us and opportunities for the city and also for the Department of Public Works to improve.

I think that it's just going to take strategies that need to be put in place in order for us to be efficient and also to be responsive. As long as we're able to keep that vision of where we want to go ... knowing that the overall goals and objectives will be achieved at some point, we'll continue to strive. And like I've always said, we're going to continue to grind, we're going to continue to hustle, and we are going to continue to persevere during those rough times. And so we're going to keep that attitude moving forward. That's going to be really the attitude in this department, that we are going to always persevere.

What can people expect one year from now?

I think what they're seeing right now, as we have quite a few road projects that are going on, (and) we're looking at some additional road projects. We're also looking at some additional projects that deal with water efficiency and also to the sewer, so I think that within a year, there's going to be other projects that are going to come out in order for us to address our infrastructure.

Just be on the lookout; we're doing our best to put as much information out. A lot of that is being put in our water bills. So just continue to look for projects that will be coming out over the next several months that will be dedicated strictly for infrastructure upgrades within the city.

What is the amount for public works in the budget the City just passed?

I don't have that figure right here in front of me. But, that budget that was adopted primarily was a flat budget from the previous year. And it allowed us to stay operable, but we're looking for improved revenues on water-sewer business administration, our billings, and collections. We should get some additional improvements from property values that will go into our general fund.

What is your message for the public?

We understand the frustration that some of our residents have. We understand what our problems are. We know that the majority of them cannot be solved overnight. And we know that it's tough for people to be patient because it seems like that we're not addressing issues within the city, but we are. It's just that there's so many issues that we have because Jackson is old; it's not a new city. So it's going to take some time. It's going to take some planning. It's going to take funding in order to get them addressed, but there are projects that are going on with utilizing the funds that we have to the maximum. Over time, I believe people will start to see that improvement. It's just going to take some time for us to get to where we need to be.

This process will go beyond my days sitting in this chair. We want to do our best. While we're here, we're going to maximize every amount of funding that we get; we're going to put it into our infrastructure to improve it.

Is there any plan to light up the dark places in the city?

There has been some discussion about lighting. Some of that has gone through our planning department. I can't adequately answer that, but I can say that that has been a discussion that has been talked about in some meetings that I had, and our Planning Director Jordan Hillman elaborated a little bit more about plans for lighting in Jackson.

How did you feel when you were appointed as public works director?

I mean, we understand the gravity of the job that is in front of us. We're excited about the opportunities that are coming before us. And we are excited to be a part of this revitalization for Jackson as far as our infrastructure. So my attitude is that we know the challenges that are in front of us, and we're going to take them on the best that we can.

We understand that sometimes there's going to be some difficult days. And we also know there's going to be some good days, but our attitude is going to remain the same in that we want to do the best that we can. And so we are always going to try to do our best, to be the best servants we can to our citizens, and that starts with me.

So my attitude towards this job is going to be reflected through the people that I oversee. We are always going to be excited. We're always going to be working as hard as we can and try to do our best to make Jackson the best capital city within the nation. And that starts with improving our infrastructure.

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