Gulfport, Miss., moved more than 100 public works employees off its payroll when it hired a private firm to operate its streets/drainage and water/sewer divisions. “Private companies can incentivize employees in a way that a city can't—spot bonuses, for example,” says Gulfport, Miss., public works director Kris Riemann, who remains a city employee. “And they can terminate employees who aren't meeting standards.” Photo: Pat Sullivan
Angelia Parham worked on a survey crew, for a development company, as a researcher for the Texas Transportation Institute, and was deputy transportation director for the city of Roswell, Ga., before joining CH2M Hill OMI as public works director for Sandy Springs, Ga., the state's seventh-largest city. “In the private sector, there's a lot more opportunity to be innovative and creative, to think outside of the box,” she says, “and that is very much appreciated and rewarded.” Photo: City of Sandy Springs

Angelia Parham was deputy transportation director for the city of Roswell, Ga., when a friend at CH2M Hill told her the company's OMI division was looking for a public works director for a city just 7 miles from her home.

As director of public works for Sandy Springs, Ga., much of Parham's work centers around streets, roads, sidewalks, and traffic lights, all of which were maintained by the Fulton County Public Works Department until Sandy Springs incorporated on Dec. 1, 2005. When she reported to work in April 2006, Parham learned the county would be providing no data regarding the new city's infrastructure assets—no information about the number of traffic lights, street signs, potholes, work order histories, miles of sidewalk. She had nothing to help inventory and report their value as required by federal accounting standard GASB 34.

She immediately hired a firm, Infrastructure Management Services of Chandler, Ariz., to drive streets and roads and develop a comprehensive conditions report. She contracted with at least five other firms—some local, some established OMI partners—to respond to work orders that began pouring in as soon as residents realized complaints would be addressed. Because these subcontracts were wrapped into the city's contract with OMI, Parham circumvented the approval process—and the delays—public managers face and achieved results almost immediately.

In less than a year, 26 miles of roadway were striped; 1750 tons of asphalt were used to repair roads; 1800 work orders for roadway and right of way issues were completed; 450 traffic signal lamps were upgraded to brighter LED lights; and 1100 traffic signs were cleaned, replaced, or installed. (Parham must clear any project that requires city funding, such as capital improvements, with the city council.)

Gregory Wilson became public works director for CH2M Hill client Milton, Ga., shortly after it incorporated on Dec. 1, 2006. Unlike Parham, who's new to the company, Wilson was already a CH2M Hill employee.

He joined the company's Cleveland office four years ago as vice president and area manager. Before that, he was Cleveland's assistant commissioner for water distribution, where he oversaw 500 employees belonging to 20 different unions.

When he learned OMI had won the contract with Milton, he saw his chance to move back to Georgia, where he'd been born and raised and where his parents still live.

“I wanted to be with an employer that would give me the opportunity to relocate to the South,” he says of his decision to enter the private sector. “If I stayed in the public sector, I might be able to get a job in the next town over, but not several states away.”

Like Parham, Wilson appreciates the efficiency with which he can achieve his goals. As commissioner in Cleveland, he was required to get three bids for any purchase of more than $10,000. OMI, on the other hand, has a contracts manager to whom he can assign the work of getting bids and recommending suppliers. OMI gets bulk pricing through national sales contracts and receives government rates on equipment and supplies.

“It's the best of both worlds,” Wilson says. “If you want to serve the public, you get to serve the public. And you get to see how the private sector does things.

“In the end, though, I am a private-sector employee working for the citizens of Milton. When I stand before the city council, I stand there as public works director for their city.”