Equipment and labor issues slow public works maintenance, worsening flooding

One of the biggest obstacles to maintaining ditches across the city is a lack of staff and equipment, Public Works Director Casey Bush told the Columbus City Council during a business meeting Thursday.

Much of this meeting focused on stormwater drainage issues. City Engineer Kevin Stafford told council that the majority of the city’s flooding problems can be traced to poorly maintained ditches, which have silted up or become clogged over time.

Bush told the council that the equipment needed to do the job is old and broken. An excavator, needed for ditch cleaning work, is dilapidated and requires the repair of one of its tracks.

“We have a (Caterpillar 323 excavator) that needs about $30,000 of work to get it back up and running properly,” Bush said. “We are constantly spending money trying to make it work and fix it. I just can’t see constantly investing money in something when we could get something that works.

Bush told The Dispatch on Friday that the city purchased the shovel in 2014 and due to heavy use, it was nearing the end of its life.

“We use it on a daily basis,” he said. “At this point we really have to start thinking about replacing him.”

Bush said the tracks on one side of the excavator kept coming off.

“I don’t want to keep using it and keep tearing it up because it will cost even more to fix,” he said.

Bush didn’t know what a replacement would cost, but he said it would cost about $330,000 to buy back in 2014.

“There’s never really been a priority list of things (Public Works) to maintain and how often you need to change and maintain equipment,” Mayor Keith Gaskin said.

Bush agreed.

“I ran it through (former Mayor Robert Smith), the stuff we need to make the department work,” Bush said. “It has been remodeled several times. But we haven’t had the funds in my department for five years now.

Gaskin asked Bush point-blank if he had the equipment needed to maintain the city’s ditches.

“Not at the moment,” Bush said.

Ward 5 Councilor Stephen Jones suggested renting equipment if needed.

“If you have a big project, it would make sense to rent something just for that day,” Jones said.

Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene liked that sound.

“If $330,000 is what we’re looking at for a new (excavator), how many times could that money pay someone else to clean that ditch?” asked Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene.

Bush said he thinks the city will “find itself in the hole” if it starts leasing equipment.

“The problem with heavy equipment is that we’re definitely going to be spending money,” he said. “But then we have equipment that will last. Once you have a piece of gear that you’ve been using daily for six or seven years, that’s when it’s time to start considering trading it in.

Gaskin asked Bush to get a list of the equipment he needed, as well as how much it would cost to maintain the ditches once cleared, and bring it to Tuesday’s council meeting.

“If we want to clean them, we have to be sure we can maintain them,” he said.

On Friday morning, Bush told The Dispatch that labor issues also needed to be addressed, and a major issue was wages. He said Columbus pays $14.50 to $15 an hour, while surrounding cities pay $18 to $19.

“We have people who come here with no experience, then we train them and they go somewhere else,” he said.

Bush said he has four equipment operators, but two of them are at the landfill, leaving two to work in the city.

“We need three more to dispatch so we can do more work,” he said.

Bush said his department’s full complement was 62 people in total, and it’s about 49 now.

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