New Jackson public works head claims turnaroundBy WYATT EMMERICH,
Jackson Mayor made a good appointment when he named Bob Miller to head the department of public works.
Miller was the number two guy in New Orleans and was there during Katrina reconstruction so he’s not new to challenges.
Miller spoke recently to the Rotary Club of North Jackson and made such an impression that he received a standing ovation. That’s usually reserved for when the governor gives a talk.
Miller, wearing a dark suit and tie, started the talk telling how he received his spiritual calling at a Rotary Club meeting 26 years ago in Louisville, Ky. At the time, he was chief financial officer of Louisville Water Company, which serves 800,000 customers. He had been there 26 years.
A retired pastor who had just returned from a Russian mission trip was speaking. Miller was planning to duck out when the lights went down, but the pastor’s slide projector jammed and the lights came back up and Miller was stuck right in front of the speaker.
“On that day, at a Rotary Club meeting, I found out why I was born,” Miller told the group. “The preacher told about God’s plan for salvation through Jesus Christ and why I was created. I had heard it all before but not that way. I heard those words and was never the same again because I found out I was born to love and serve God and my purpose was to serve Him by serving His people. You see, He had taught me how to make cities work by providing safe drinking water, by collecting and treating waste water, by managing storm water flows to protect people and property, and to build and maintain streets for safe travel.”
Miller was able to retire from Louisville Water Company at age 49 with full pension and benefits. He began to serve Christ by working where he thought he was needed the most. That led him to New Orleans four years after Katrina and now Jackson.
“My wife cried for three days after I told her we were moving to Jackson. She corrects me and says she cried for 30 days. She only stopped crying in front of me for the other 27 days,” Miller said. “But we’re here now and we love it.”
Miller and his wife Marly live near Christ United Methodist Church which they attend. They have two grown children, Allison, a coal mine inspector in West Virginia, and a son Paul, a banker in Kentucky. They also have one grandson, Denver.
When Miller arrived in Jackson he saw four key priorities: Make sure there was no lead in the drinking water. Fix the streets. Fix the water department billing system. Get the sewer system into compliance with the federal consent decree.
He soon had to add a fifth and sixth priority: To deal with flooding, and to coordinate a capital investment plan.
The lead problem was mostly fixed before he got here. The latest lead report shows lead levels the lowest in 10 years. “The water is safe to drink,” he said.
“I got the downtown streets paved in just over a month and got it done prior to the museum opening. I’m bidding out right now six million dollars of additional paving work. More paving coming.
“On fixing the billing system, hiring back Siemens was not an easy sell to the city council. I think I could have sold hiring Satan and his minions to fix the system easier. But in the amount of time we had to fix the system – because we were going to go belly up and default on our loans – I needed to bring them back.”
The city and Siemens began a 20-week project to fix 23,000 stranded accounts. Of 57,400 accounts, more than a third were not receiving bills.
Eleven weeks into the project, 13,000 accounts have been resolved and 11.2 million additional dollars have been billed and collected $1.2 million. “We will finish this project on time,” Miller promised. “And I will resume shutoffs for non-payment sooner rather than later.”
Regarding sewer system consent decree compliance, Miller compared it to a western town on a Hollywood movie set. “You could see the saloon, the hotel, the jail, the schoolhouse, the horse stable, but it was mostly like painted plywood and not much behind it. There was no management system to ensure compliance and no funds to pay for it.”
Regarding drainage and flooding, Miller called this a “truly difficult problem. What you call creeks here, I call drainage outfall canals. The problem is made worse by the attitude of the people who live and work at the top of the hill, who look at the people at the bottom of the hill and say, ‘It sure must be tough to be you.’ We need to clear the creek beds. We need to slow down the run off. And we need to create a new revenue stream to pay for it.”
Regarding the capital investment plan, Miller said he stacked all the recent engineering reports. It was 12 inches thick. None of the reports had been coordinated with each other or funded. “I am going to get a two-year plan based on our pressing needs and existing funding. You don’t need a study to determine your needs when the needs are right under your face.”
Miller said he will then develop a framework geographic information system and a 10-year plan based on new funding sources. Current funding sources are property taxes, water and sewer revenues, municipal sales taxes, the Capitol Complex Improvement District and state and federal grants. “I anticipate we’ll still need to increase our water and sewer rates even beyond where they are already.”
Miller also is working on an implementation plan for public investments so the private sector can have the confidence to make private investments.
To comply with the federal consent decree will take $800 million, Miller said. That is made steeper by the fact that Rankin County is withdrawing as a Jackson partner and building their own system, which will take away 25 percent of the revenues.
Miller has fired incompetent staffers and hired new ones. He sees things clearly. He has a plan. He is extremely competent. He believes Jackson is on the verge of a turnaround.
But he plans to retire in three years. And the money to execute all the plans, at the moment, is still nowhere to be found. Jackson still needs a miracle.