After a year of discussion, the Mobile County Commission agreed to restructure one of its largest and most expensive departments to redistribute a swath of responsibility and control that for decades fell to a single employee.
The public works department’s original mission was the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges, but over time its role expanded to include building maintenance, electronics, environmental services, parks and recreation, and a number of other functions.
In 2016, around 30 percent of the county’s $176 million budget fell under the purview of public works — a department supervised by former county engineer Joe Ruffer for 42 years prior to his retirement last fall.
Going forward, the suite of functions Ruffer previously oversaw will be divided between his eventual replacement and the newly created position of “Public Works Director/Chief Engineer of the Division of Public Roads.”
Parks and recreation and environmental services will be removed from the public works department entirely and placed under county administration, as will a number of “duplicative” and “unnecessary” internal functions such as IT service, human resources, and finance. More details on the restructuring can be found on the county’s website and lagniappemobile.com.
The transition is expected to reduce some unnecessary costs, though Mobile County spokeswoman Katherine Eddy said it would be “premature to quantify” any potential savings at this point. She told Lagniappe, “Right now, the focus is on increasing efficiency and what we do as far as our protocols, knowing that cost savings will eventually follow.”
Applications for the engineer’s position will have to be resubmitted along with applications for the public works director once descriptions for those jobs have been approved by the Mobile County Personnel Board. Ruffer retired in 2016 with a salary exceeding $180,000, but it’s unclear what salaries for department heads will be under the organizational redesign.
When the restructuring of the department was approved last week, Commission President Merceria Ludgood commended the employees who helped develop a plan that will impact more than 350 employees but isn’t projected to eliminate any of their jobs.
“Change is hard, but to have one Mobile County, to me, is worth whatever we have to go through to achieve it,” Ludgood said. “We’ve got all kinds of talent, some of which has been untapped, and I’ve been very encouraged by this process. This is like sausage-making or politics — it’s not pretty, but I think we’re going to have something all of us can be proud of.”
While there was ultimately consensus on how best to restructure public works, it wasn’t unanimous. Citing concerns of over-complication and the plan’s failure to address problems identified by a consultant earlier this year, Commissioner Jerry Carl voted against the measure.
Carl said he agreed with “about 80 percent” of the proposal, but believes it would ultimately create an organizational structure with “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
“Moving these [organizational charts] around doesn’t fix anything, it just creates another job,” Carl said. “Government always feels like it can fix things by pouring more money into it or putting in another layer of management, but it doesn’t work.”Carl also brought up the $30,000 review the commission paid The Mejorando Group group for in June, which mentioned an “extremely unhealthy workplace culture” within the public works department. He expressed some frustration those issues weren’t being directly addressed.
“The same people [Mejorando] was talking about here are the same people that put this [proposal] together. So, why do want to keep complicating this?” Carl said. “There are some great people in this department, so don’t think I’m trashing the people that did this.”
Despite the disclaimer, Carl’s comments drew exception from Commissioner Connie Hudson, who said those “same people” he referred to had been “dedicated to their jobs for years” and had made the “public works and engineering department stellar.”
While Hudson acknowledged there had been a “trickle-down” approach when Ruffer was atop the department, she said her impression from the staff since his retirement has been “nothing but teamwork and what’s best for the county.”
“There are no personal agendas here,” she told Carl. “As we continue to grow and continue to consolidate these services, I think a lot of the culture issues you referred to will take care of themselves in a lot of respects. Right now, what we have to do is determine a structure.”
The proposal approved last week was submitted by Hudson, who sought input from a number of employees in the public works, IT, administrative and finance departments. While Ludgood eventually voted to approve the measure, she did have a few concerns of her own.Mainly, Ludgood took issue with the fact that both the public works director and the county engineer would be reporting directly to commissioners — a structure she said might slow down the process whenever decisions need to made quickly.
“I think sometimes we don’t mean to, but we get in the way,” she said. “I have a real concern that we could bring work to a screeching halt or create a situation where people need to make a decision in the moment but don’t feel they can because they need us to say, “Yeah, go ahead and spend that $83 and get a weed eater.’”
However, Deputy Public Works Director Ricky Mitchell said the commission hasn’t always required smaller purchases be listed as agenda items, claiming the practice began after commissioners in previous years expressed concern they were “writing a blank check.”
Though no action was taken to change the process at the meeting, Hudson suggested that by eliminating the stand-alone finance department within public works, “because we’ll have accountability measures in place.”