Melinda McGrath, executive director of the Department of Transportation, reviews a document while meeting with state legislators. Credit: Zachary Oren Smith, Mississippi Today

Legislators reviewing state spending and taxes questioned Department of Transportation officials on Tuesday about whether the department might be more cost efficient if it contracted out more of its services.

Rep. Robert Foster (R-DeSoto County) asked why the department did not do more contracting for maintenance.

“There are redundancies that I would expect government to have more of then a private sector company,” Foster said.

“If a private sector company was in the business of taking care of maintenance, I would expect that they might be more efficient — having all the necessary people on hand and they might do a better job of taking care of the site,” Foster said. “It would cost them more money to send a second crew out.”

Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Melinda McGrath responded that the department does contract out for some maintenance work. McGrath said her analysis of the department budget showed that the in-house maintenance workers, when compared to surrounding states, saved the state money.

“Our first priority is to maximize the federal dollars,” McGrath said. Key questions in evaluating how to perform the work are “would it (cost us) less and do we have the staff to perform the work,” she said.

Speaker Philip Gunn asked if the department could save money by contracting out its needs for engineers. In a previous meeting, McGrath explained that the department is losing many of its engineers between their fifth and tenth year with the department due to better wages in the private sector.

But as McGrath explained, federal regulation requires the department to have a number of in-house engineers in order to qualify for certain grants. More than half of the Department of Transportation’s budget is from federal funds with similar stipulations, she said.

On contracting generally, McGrath noted that contracts are initiated on the district level, they must be reviewed by the Attorney General’s office and may pass through the Department of Finance and Administration or State Personnel Board before reaching the Department of Transportation’s commissioners for final authorization for her to execute the contract.

“We have strong controls built into the process,” McGrath said. “We make sure not one person can control any part of the process just to make sure we are all following the proper procedure for the contract on the table.”

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