Feds threaten to cut funding, session on bridges set for Wednesday
Jones County E-911 dispatchers will receive almost $50,000 in overtime pay that they are owed, according to an investigation by the Wage and Hour Board.
Board of Supervisors President Jerome Wyatt said that agency conducted an investigation and found “inadvertent” violations in the way Jones County Emergency Operations Center dispatchers were being paid.
“They thought they were scheduling to avoid overtime,” Wyatt said.
But the Wage and Hour investigators found that approximately 20 dispatchers who had worked at the EOC over the last three years were owed varying amounts totaling $48,000.
Jones County will pay $21,000 of that amount and Laurel will pay $21,000 while Ellisville will pay the remainder. The amounts each entity is paying reflects the percentage that they will give the EOC, which is 45 percent for both Laurel and Jones County and 10 percent for Ellisville.
The EOC board met last week, Wyatt said, and agreed to pay the employees what’s owed to them.
“The Wage and Hour board classifies dispatchers as clerical, but they were working 12-hour shifts to match with law enforcement,” said Chief Financial Officer Charles Miller.
Dispatchers would work combinations of two to four shifts per week to avoid overtime for two-week pay periods, but workers classified as “clerical” have to earn time-and-a-half for every hour over 40 per week.
Miller said it was not known if an employee filed a complaint to launch the investigation, which started about three months ago.
In another matter, county engineer Ronnie Clark got permission from the board to advertise for “timber pile-splicing projects,” which would reinforce the wooden supports that are holding up 27 bridges that have been designated for closure by inspectors that were hired by the Federal Highway Administration.
Supervisors scheduled a work session for Wednesday morning with Clark and an official with the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s State Aid program to discuss the matter. The federal agency has threatened to cut off funds to the state agency if the counties don’t comply with the closure orders.
“We don’t get funds from them anyway,” Clark said.
Clark has been pushing for a representative from the “outside consultant” that was hired by the FHA to come explain to the board why the bridges were designated for “immediate closure.”
He showed the board an emailed response from Nick Altobelli of Garver Engineering in Little Rock, Ark., that read, in part, “I respectfully cannot agree to appear in front of the Jones County Supervisors. This duty is the County Engineer’s responsibility.”
Clark told the board that he handled bridge inspections for the county for 40 years, “but I had that responsibility taken away.” Last year, the FHA took over the inspection of county bridges because there was a fear that county engineers — who are appointed by boards of supervisors — would be reluctant to tell them that a bridge is dangerous and should be shut down.
But now money that could be spent on repairs and replacements is being spent on outside consultants to conduct the inspections and the voracity of their findings has been questioned by Clark for months.
“Out of 214 bridges, we received recommendations to close 27,” he said, adding that the board has not taken action to close any since the first barricade was removed at one of the bridges on the list on Tucker’s Crossing Road.
Clark pointed out that if it was believed there was “imminent danger,” then MDOT wouldn’t have recently rerouted Interstate 59 traffic over one of the bridges that’s designated for closure on Main Street in Sandersville.
“There were 18 wheelers going over it, and it’s rated for 6,000 pounds,” Clark said, adding that Supervisor Barry Saul has video of the traffic. “If there was imminent danger, it would have collapsed.”
The matter has escalated now with the FHA threatening to withhold federal money from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, Clark said. A State Aid official is meeting with him and the board.
An email from a State Aid official to Altobelli reads, “You indicate that the County Engineer should speak to the Jones County Board. The County Engineer had nothing to do with the inspections that recommended closure of the structures. The Board has questions concerning the inspections and repairs which they are prepared to make to address the findings of the inspections.”
Clark said he didn’t know if splicing the pilings with metal rods would be sufficient to hold up to a re-inspection by Garver, and Altobelli’s email wasn’t clear on the matter. It read, “I recommend that the County Engineer perform that work under his authority as a licensed registered Mississippi engineer and bound by his professional engineering seal and signature.”