State of the City Address | Mayor Magee
Good evening to council and citizens,
I give to you the state of the city of Laurel Mississippi in accordance with MS Code 21-8-17.
The optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious of the rose. Khalil Gibran
I was very optimistic about the city of Laurel in 2016 and I am again filled with optimism as we enter 2017.
As of the first of the year we had a total of 295 employees; we usually fluctuate between 290 and 300 throughout the year. Some of these are very conscientious and hardworking individuals; unfortunately we have some who work harder at avoiding work than the actual work they do, but it is good that the dedicated ones far outweigh the others.
Let us begin with the finances for the year, which are handled through our City Clerk/Finance office and overseen by our City Clerk/Finance Director Mary Ann Hess. That department has 5 fulltime employees and one part timer paid for from a grant. We remain strong in our bond rating – Standard and Poor’s rates us an A+. The assessed valuation for the city in ’16 was $168,000,000.00 and for ’17 it is slightly over $168,000,000.00 (only hundreds of dollars). On the other hand the school’s assessed valuation decreased from $198,000,000.00 in ’16 to $196,000,000.00 for ’17. We had a small increase in the value of a mil; in ’16 the value was $158,700.00 and for ’17 it increased to $159,700.00. The value of a mil for the schools in ’16 was $189,400.00 and it dropped to $187,600.00. People who are unaware blame the city for taxing them too much, but if you live in the city and if you examine your tax statement you will note that the schools and the county taxes are both more than the city portion. We collected $18,671,345 in ad valorem taxes last year. The city kept only $6,312,908 and the schools received $12,358,436, which is one reason that the efficient operation of the schools is so vitally important. In 2016 we added Jim Rasberry to the school board, replacing Mike Axton whose term had expired. Also, in November after much study we revised our ad valorem tax policy by allowing the city to exempt 9.42 mils in the General Fund from any requested ad valorem tax exemption by business and industry. We did not raise ad valorem taxes during the year and that is something we are proud of. We did have a small water and sewer rate adjustment of 3% in March which is what is recommended by the Mississippi Municipal League’s experts. This adjustment was only 87 cents for a minimum bill, was made to cover expenses, make repairs and to repay our state revolving loan fund debt for water and sewer issues across the city. It is important to understand that whatever is done in the water and sewer category, it must be paid for through the public utility fund. We will be recommending another small 3% increase again this March. We had a 60 cents adjustment in our garbage fees because of an increase in the costs where we dump. That fund also must be self-sufficient. Some people feel it is their duty to oppose the city when they make adjustments in their fees, but when Comcast raises their rates and we want to watch the Super Bowl or Empire, or when MS Power raises rates we just pay what they charge and never make a phone call or write a letter or anything, but let the city consider that and it is the worst thing in the world. Our 2015 audit was clean with no questioned costs and the 2016 audit is currently underway. We received $162,887.73 from FEMA for the flooding in April, even though some citizens claim that we received millions of dollars and we are hiding it. And, by the way that bridge on Iris Dr. that was so much discussed, we received $9,273.00. We received $118,906.96 from the fire insurance rebate and these funds go to make the payments on three fire trucks and turnout equipment. We had a total of 108 new business licenses issued in 2016. In 2016 our sales tax collections were $8,647,651 which was a decrease of -10.3% over ’15. Tourism tax collected was $1,462,206 which was a decrease of –2.7% over ’15. In FY 2016 we made close to $1 million dollars in cuts in the general fund because of the decrease in sales tax and in ’17 we made the same cuts without laying off any full time personnel, and without raising ad valorem taxes. We are currently having to look at more cuts of approximately $200,000.00 because of the decrease in court fines. Because of the ACLU and other groups we can no longer jail anyone for not paying their fines, and they know this and won’t pay. The good news is that for this fiscal year sales tax has shown an increase over last year in three out of the four months. The tourism tax has had only one positive month out of four, but we are optimistic that it will turn around.
The fire department is led by an employee with over 40 years of service- Chief James Brown. There are currently 67 employees in the department. Last year they answered 885 calls, with 137 of those being for fires; 284 were for rescue and emergency medical. They recorded an estimated total of $1,134,902 in property and content losses. They received a new pumper truck in August and it was finally placed into service in December. The ladder truck is about to age out, so either this year or the next we will be required to purchase a ladder truck. Our fire department received a haz/mat grant for $50,408 to purchase haz/mat suits, gloves, boots and a jaws of life for Station 5. They did a Shop with a Fireman program during Christmas and spent over $8,000.00 on the purchases. We are continuing to attempt to lower our fire rating from a 5 to a 4, but it will require some funds that we currently do not have. The department is currently taking applications for entry level firefighters.
In the police department where the chief is Tyrone Stewart, there are 85 employees with 51 being sworn officers, with one in the hiring process, 28 civilian full time and 6 part time crossing guards. In ’16 they received 35,339 complaints, which is an average of 2,945 a month, 679 a week and 96 per day. They made over 2500 arrests. We had one homicide in November of last year. A sampling of the arrests made were: aggravated assault-9, careless driving-120, false pretense-26, grand larceny-4, improper equipment-125, shoplifting 1st-217, shoplifting 2nd -55, shoplifting felony-5, simple assault-266, contempt of court-probation violation-316, contempt of court-no show for work program-178, no or improper driver’s license-182, robbery-6, no seatbelt-266, suspended driver license-439, open alcohol container-127. The good news in all this is that reportable crimes were down 13½ % for the year. Sgt. Michael Reeves received training for a crisis intervention team in Memphis and returned and trained 15 other officers and two of those are now at the instructor level. They graduated 540 students from the DARE program headed by Shannon Caraway. They collected over 230 pounds of unwanted and outdated prescription drugs during April and September working with DEA. Cpt. Jerome Jackson and Sgt. Michael Reaves completed Level 3 Hostage Negotiation Training. The police department conducted Night out against Crime distributing over 500 book bags and supplies for the children. They participated in the Domestic Violence Awareness Month. They sponsored two children from the Salvation Army Angel Tree Program for Christmas for the fifth year in a row. They rang the bell for the Salvation Army at Walmart raising approximately $800. They had the second annual Stuff-A-Truck for the Good Samaritan Center. They did their annual Shop with a Cop for thirty children and teamed up with the Fraternal Order of Police, Walmart and Laurel Ford to provide fifty new bikes to deserving children. The LPD also began the Officer of the Month program, and restarted the Officer of the Year program. The police have a difficult job to do. It seems that people either love them or hate them, but I support them; that does not mean that I support them no matter how they behave, because I don’t. As a matter of fact there were 17 disciplinary actions taken over the course of the year – mostly for mistreatment of citizens – and three of those officers resigned because of being disciplined. I would also like to point out that since the purchase of the body cameras, the complaints on officers that were coming through my office have drastically decreased. One thing that the chief desires that we have not been able to supply, is new patrol cars. We’ll continue to work on this. Also under the police department is Animal/Pest Control; they have three employees and for the year they responded to 1347 complaints. They picked up 514 animals on the streets, and owners brought 32 animals to the shelter. They euthanized 400 animals and 24 died at the shelter due to parvo and other animal related diseases. 115 animals were adopted out and they cleared the streets of 123 dead animals. There are currently 7 dogs at the shelter available for adoption. From March until October 15 all city streets and alleys were sprayed twice a week for mosquitoes. The parks, ballfields and special calls were made on Fridays. Also, under the police department is the traffic maintenance where they have four employees, and they work to make sure our travel on the streets is safe and orderly.
The Inspection Department is ably led by Harold Russell who took over on the retirement of Danny Hayes. That department has 7 full-time employees and one part time. In 2016 they issued 797 building permits worth a total of $12,949,704 compared to last year issuing 750 permits with a total value of $18,794,854. This year, there were 10 site plans conducted. There was a total of 23 demolitions compared to 47 the prior year, the city razed 7 structures and homeowners completed 16. They had 856 lots reported and cleaned 737. There were 128 vehicles tagged. The Inspection Department recorded a total of 1676 complaints for the year. Three special exceptions were issued and four variances were granted. The department also issued three zoning changes, 0 conditional uses, one city code amendment and 13 certificates of appropriateness. The building inspector sent 142 letters outside of Incode: 89 for home repairs, 1 dilapidated fence, 4 dilapidated accessory buildings, 10 dilapidated properties, 9 dilapidated commercial properties, 12 condemnation notices, 7 notices to vacate and 10 no utility service. In 2016 the city adopted the 2015 Electrical Code, the 2012 International Building Code, International Residential Code, International Plumbing Code and the International Property Maintenance Code. Harold Russell has been recertified in asbestos inspection and Scott Shoemaker is certified as a lead base paint inspector. The department is prepared to notify 640 residences which the fire department has identified as having no address or an address that is unreadable or obscured. As I have mentioned in the past, besides the police, the Inspection Department agent is the next least person that people want to see. Mr. Russell, though, has taken the task to heart and is doing, in my opinion, an exceptional job. He brings a bit of his military background with him to the job. Some like it some don’t, but that’s with any job. In a quote from Mr. Russell: “it is the stated goal and mission of this department to provide the correct information or answer to any and all questions correctly the first time without unnecessary delay. That is accomplished through a thorough knowledge of city ordinances and adopted codes. In the event of a delay, a thorough research of ordinances or codes applicable to the question will be made promptly and professionally so our citizens and contractors can proceed with their projects which enhance Laurel as the city beautiful in the eyes and lives of those who live and visit here.”
The Public Works Department headed by Lorenzo Anderson has a total of 53 employees with 2 openings as garbage truck hoppers. You can imagine that this position has a high percentage of turnover, because they are in the rain, the cold, the heat and any other condition in order to pick up our garbage. They had twelve employees who separated from city employment with 5 promotions. On last year they picked up 14,994 cubic yards of rubbish which is equal to approximately 7 NFL football fields at a height of 1 foot. They also collected 27,796 cubic yards of debris which is equal to approximately 14 NFL football fields at a height of 1 foot. This department completed 2,057 work orders consisting of 442 cut outs patched, 340 potholes patched, 221 ditches cut and cleaned, 20 curb and gutters cleaned, 11 demolitions, 221 lot cleanings and 802 others. They purchased one piece of capital equipment which was a 20 yard garbage truck from the county for $83,750. Public Works really needs a street sweeper. The only problem is that they cost in the neighborhood of $200k and we don’t have that in petty cash.
Our water and wastewater contractor is Suez Water Environmental Services, Inc., and the project manager is Mike Moore. By agreement, Suez has 48 employees on staff. Their annual contract is not $18 million as some have stated; their base contract is $2,981,730.00. Suez spends an average of $10,000.00 a year on training and approximately $49,000.00 on safety equipment. They are responsible for any cash shortage in the collection department; they are responsible for any and all fines that may occur due to the operation of our plants; they accept or share liability in many claims due to sewer backups and vehicle damage; they accept liability for any vehicle accident in which a Suez employee is driving a city vehicle. They reduced the annual escalation fee through negotiations with the city, they contribute $2,000.00 for the 4th of July fireworks, and they gave $2,500 to the recreation department for the 2016 World Series. Suez purchased a new boom truck at a cost of $97,986 to be used on the city equipment, such as pulling lift station motors, thereby saving the city approximately $136,000.00 yearly. Their contract calls for Suez to supply four vehicles to the Laurel project, but at the end of the year they were providing 13 vehicles, one backhoe, and one four wheeler. Suez pays all the fuel and maintenance expense for these vehicles. There were 5,213,360,000 gallons of wastewater treated at Massey and Smiley lagoons, while we produced 2,507,647,190 gallons of water. The reason that we treated more water than we produced is because we have to treat Masonite’s waste, but they produce their own water. A second reason we treat more than we produce is that we have to treat the rain water also – and last year we had lots of it. Suez installed 2340 ft. of 6” water main and three hydrants at the airport hangar project saving the city approximately $75,000.00 by not having to source it out. A new 2” water line and five new services were installed on Management Dr. saving the city approximately. $11,000.00. They installed a new 2” water line and services on Sandy T. Gavin Avenue, saving the city approximately $5,000.00. A new 2” water main and services were installed on W 12th St between 4th and 5th Avenues, saving the city approximately $7500. In November they installed a sewer tap at PDI. A quote was received from Walters, but Suez did the job saving the city $8,430. In December Suez added a new backhoe valued at $93,000.00 – not from city funds. During 2016 they repaired 1293 water leaks, located 1149 lines, repaired/replaced 42 hydrants, made 41 water taps, 59 sewer taps, plugged 16 water/sewer services, unstopped 538 sewers, addressed 148 sewer cave-ins and repaired/raised 14 manholes. The customer service department collected a total of $13,414.31 in outstanding debts. Lynn Jennings and her staff do an excellent job of collecting outstanding debts – especially when people have moved off and left a bill and then return and attempt to restore service. Customer service collected a total of $11,800,197.02 for the year of 2016. I would like to share with you a couple of examples of the costs of repairing water and sewer lines. I know that some tire of me talking about the public utility fund, but the leak at the McDonald’s on 16th Avenue cost the City $50,268.61 and the one at Lowe’s was a whopping $353,353.13. Since this must be paid out of the Public Utility Fund, we have no alternative but to recommend a small adjustment.
The Parks and Recreation Department is headed by Elvin Ulmer, and they have a total of 48 employees. During the year the Parks Division removed 33 diseased, dead or dangerous trees throughout the city, kept up the flowerbeds throughout the city, edged curbs and sidewalks throughout. They received an MDOT Urban Youth Corps grant which enabled the removal of trees and underbrush at highway exits in the city. At the Sportsplex the 1800 sq. ft. splash pad that was installed by a Leadership Jones County group in 2014 was resurfaced by employees of the department. The Recreation Division hosted the Dixie Youth 7-8 year old Coach Pitch World Series, the 7-8 year old Machine Pitch World Series, 10 year old World Series, the 12 year old World Series, the 12 year old O-Zone World Series. All together 60 teams from eleven states from Texas to Virginia were in Laurel to participate. They also hosted six USSSA select baseball tournaments during the year, hosted two high school soccer tournaments for LHS (60) teams and West Jones (50) teams. Hosted two adult co-ed softball tournaments. A Leadership Jones County class is building a male and female restroom for the soccer fields, at no cost to the city. We really appreciate all that the Leadership and Future Leaders do for our city. At Boots Smith Fields, the Parks and Recreation Department replaced the ballfield lights and fencing with proceeds from a grant. They also cleared the right of way on Airport Drive. At West Fields they hosted two adult co-ed softball tournaments, hosted the Dixie Pre-Majors 15-16 year-old State Tournament, and hosted the 17-19 year old state tournament. At Gardiner Park six park benches and five new tables that were donated by Lowe’s were installed. At A. W. Watson field the Recreation Department hosted the semi-pro state tournament. Through a grant they replaced ballfield lights and fencing and also painted the restrooms. Twenty-five crepe myrtles were planted at K. C. Park and twelve six-foot benches were installed. The pool deck was painted at the Natatorium and five swim meets were hosted there. In programs headed by Stacy Comegys, the Recreation Department offerings were many and diverse – including such activities as basketball, baseball, soccer, cheerleading, adult flag football, Hershey youth track and field, NFL punt, pass and kick – and had an outstanding number of participants. The program division of the recreation department continues to grow and that is an asset to our youth. At the Cameron Center with assistance from Jones County we constructed a new handicapped parking lot, and repainted the interior gym area. At L. T. Ellis we repainted the gym area. During the year the depot had 83 rentals, the Cameron Center had 170 and L.T. Ellis had 59. These rentals play an important role in funding our Recreation Department, which is the reason we cannot freely give usage of the buildings when requested.
During ’16 we began a Natural Resources Conservation Service drainage project along E. Elmo, Oak Park Blvd. and Mason Park at a total cost of $252,500; our local match was $63,000.00. We completed the 6th Ave decorative lighting project for $179,000.00 with a loan from the Southern Mississippi Planning and Development District. This project was undertaken because the residents on the street agreed to finance the expenses through a property tax increase. We applaud them for that. We completed the water and sewer line installation at the airport for new hangars at a cost of $61,000.00. We completed the Grandview Drive project which came from an MDOT grant in the amount of $917,799. We did the weatherization of the police station roof for $376,173. We completed a State Revolving Fund sewer project in several areas of the city for $2,012,776. We received a Community Development Block Grant for a Queensburg water line and hydrant project for $1.6 million with the city portion being $478,669. We completed the construction of the 7th Ave roadway project at a cost of $1.3 million. We completed the pedestrian bridges at Mason and Gardiner Parks at a cost of $400,000.00 with our local match being $100,000.00. Also, in that project is the covering and lighting of the steam engine at Daphne Park, which should be completed soon. We made our first payment on the emergency radios with our first payment being $195,000.00. Projects that are currently in the construction phase or are waiting to begin include the following: continuing to identify and conduct Phase I and Phase II assessments on properties that may be cleaned up under the $400,000.00 EPA Brownfield grant, the 2016 Phase III SRF sewer loan in the amount of $3.2 million is in the planning phase (which by the way will have to be repaid out of the public utility fund) – kind of an inside joke there. We are continuing to overlay streets with the $10 million bond issue that we executed (and we thank the citizens for your approval of that). The $4.4 million Eight Plex softball complex at the Sportsplex is still in the planning stages and hopefully we will move some dirt in the Fall. We are in the design phase of the 5th Avenue project as well as the Central Avenue Improvements which will come from an MDOT grant in the amount of $705,000.00; this project will include the realignment of the flagpole, roundabout and pedestrian and drainage improvements. The MDOT Beacon Street project which will be approximately $5 million with a $1 million match from the city, is in the design and securing of right-of-way phase. We actually have some of the right-of-way on the agenda tonight, and this will greatly improve Leontyne Price Boulevard. In this project also, we are hoping to move some dirt this Fall. We are continuing with the design of the 5th Ave project which includes the replacement of water and sewer lines and repaving from the flagpole on Central Avenue to the city limits. This is a project that is many years overdue. We will be doing the same on a major portion of 13th Ave. The project on 10th St from 16th Ave to Wansley Rd will be beginning soon, and includes replacement of water and sewer and overlay of the street. The first phase of the latter project is on tonight’s agenda. The City secured a second low interest loan from SMPDD for funds with which to install a traffic light at the corner of 16th Avenue and 12th Street for economic development. The county chose to partner with us for 40% of this project, we thank them for their continued cooperation.
New businesses are opening all over town, and downtown Laurel is experiencing a major revival. I have been in city government over twenty years and this is the first time that this much excitement has existed downtown. We have come a long way from the days of the canopy over Central Ave and the bridge to nowhere. I think that the best way that the city can help development in town is to make sure everything is safe and then get out of the way and let the developers do what they need to do. We don’t want to place any unnecessary obstacles in the way. I would like to thank the people who are investing in our town. We must not forget to thank and heap praise on Laurel Main Street for all they do in assisting downtown.
We are currently seeking a grant to build a skate park in Daphne Park which is expected to cost approximately $120,000.00. We are exploring the possibility of a dog park at the Sportsplex. We are also exploring the possibility of a miniature golf course in ’17, and a first tee type program by which we introduce youth to golf. We look forward to the premier of Hometown in March on HGTV. This much anticipated show will place Ben and Erin Napier and some other Laurelites, and our city on the national stage. I believe we will experience a great influx of new people as a result; as a matter of fact we are already seeing several.
As we move into 2017 another Gibran quote to the council and citizens: “…if I accept the sunshine and warmth, then I must also accept the thunder and lightning.”
This is the state of the city of Laurel Mississippi, thank you.
February 7, 2017 Mayor Magee Addressed Laurel City Council