Thank you to the council for allowing me to present the State of the City of Laurel, MS to you and to the public.
The state of the City of Laurel, MS for the year 2022 is strong and sound. It is sound financially, it is strong culturally, it is sound recreationally, it is strong infrastructurally, it is sound in safety, it is sound and strong in all the ways that a city is measured.
In 1881, The New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad located rails in this area and Laurel was incorporated in 1882, and out of over 300 municipalities in the state Laurel is ranked number 23 in population. We are also consistently in the top twenty-five in sales tax diversions from the State each month. Even with some outsourcing of certain jobs, we are still #15 on the list of the top 25 employers in the county.
Each department is required to have posted the mission statement of the city of Laurel, which reads: “The City of Laurel is dedicated to delivering excellent municipal services and public safety through participatory government that is responsive to our entire community and consistent through the fiscally responsible use of resources in a manner that promotes outstanding cultural, recreational, educational, and economic opportunities for residents and businesses.”
Mississippi native, Eudora Welty wrote that, “it doesn’t matter if it takes a long time getting there; the point is to have a destination.” This administration has a definite destination.
I normally begin my state of the city report announcing that I will again be seeking a pay increase for the employees. One of the reasons given by many employees for continuing with the city and other positions that are covered by PERS,(Public Employees Retirement System), is that they may not earn the highest of salaries during the working years, but that compared to several other employers, the state retirement is a good system for the retiring employees, especially considering the receiving of what most call the 13th check, which is a cost-of-living adjustment that builds in value over the years, and is issued in December each year, in addition to the regular December retirement check. PERS is increasing the employer’s contribution by 5% beginning this year, which brings the total for the city to 22.4% as our contribution to the city of Laurel employees. That increase would be $491,469, and this is not a one-time increase, but would be in perpetuity. As of this moment, a salary increase is not on the table. There is a possibility that this could change. I realize that some who will not like this decision, but there are other benefits that city employees receive that many other employers do not offer. We offer 100% paid health insurance to all our full-time employees, we have paid vacation, where you receive two weeks’ vacation after one year, we have eleven paid holidays, we have paid sick leave, we have retirement, we have deferred comp. The MML had supported bills in the House and the Senate this year that would have increased our sales tax diversion from 18 ½ % to 20%, but neither bill made it out of committee. The request for the increase was to be used to offset the increase in PERS, that is being passed on to the cities as an unfunded mandate.
This department is supervised by Nellie Satcher. There are five employees in this department. In 2022 the city had 9 employees to retire. We had 45 employees hired throughout the year. 10 in Ameri Corp, 4 in Inspection, 18 in Parks and Recreation, 8 in the fire department and 18 in the police department. Our Worker Comp claims were up this year from last, this year we had 35 compared to 26 in 2021. Of the 35 claims all but three came from the police department. The Safety Officer who operates out of the Human Resources Department is Laquita Wilson, she continues to have regular safety meetings with all departments, in an attempt to keep all employees as safe as possible and accident free. We had five EEOC complaints filed against us this year and there is one still open, we were not found to be liable on any. The City of Laurel contributes to the economy of the city and surrounding areas with an annual payroll last year of $9,280,678.55.
The IT department is overseen by Jeff Williams and John McGraw. All the cabling infrastructure throughout city hall has been upgraded and all computer and VOIP phone cabling have been replaced with new CAT6 network cable, this replaced cable that had been in place over 20 years. All of city hall is now connected via fiber optic cable, replacing the old copper wiring to promote faster output throughout the network.
The City of Laurel maintains a computer lease on desktop computers and in 2022, all 110 computers were replaced with new machines. This lease allows the city to stay current with equipment to maintain the highest level of productivity, they are scheduled for another upgrade in 2026. Also, the city is in the beginning stages of upgrading the current VOIP (Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol) phone systems. Our current phone system is provided by a company called Ambit, that is based in AL, we are moving to service provided by C-Spire that is MS based.
The city has also improved the workflow between Public Works and Veolia by combining the project and workorder software under one company, this is a program called City Works, it gives Public Works crews the ability to use our GIS-based information system, and it also allows Veolia and Public Works to streamline the communications between the two departments to be able to better serve the public. Also, in the final stages of the Sportsplex, the final press box is being built and will be connected via fiber optic cable to the other buildings in the complex. The soccer fields will be connected in this final stage to allow full communication capabilities with all the facilities at the complex. IT is committed to maintain and improve the technological needs of the city to allow the many different departments to best serve the citizens of the City of Laurel.
The Municipal Court Administrator is Rebecca Clark and she has five other employees in the Court. The department processed 9,910 violations, which included 7,665 traffic violations, 1,838 misdemeanor non-traffic violations, 125 City ordinance violations and 282 felony charges where bond was set. Collections for Municipal Court were $1,133,780.43 in fines and fees, with $584,215.82 going into the General Fund, and $549,000 going to the State, and other entities. Individuals participating in the Community Service Work Program produced $53,774.62 in work credit. They had one longtime employee to retire and they have replaced her. They continue to cross-train all employees in order to maintain consistent and dependable service to the citizens of the City of Laurel.
PARKS AND RECREATION:
Parks and Recreation is headed up by Elvin Ulmer who began his position as director in September 2001. He has 54 employees that he oversees, 42 full-time and 12 part-time. He had three longtime employees retire during the year; Karen Robinson in February, with 24+ years, Jaime Henry in March with 28+ years and Ethel Abney in April, with 28+ years. Jaime and Ethel started on the same date 10-01-1993.
Parks and Recreation is in charge of all the parks in the city with William Mason Park being the largest. Mason Park needs some care, in that the largest piece of playground equipment that is over twenty years old needs to be replaced. It was installed by the Laurel Junior Auxiliary. We had an assessment done by a professional recreational consultant, and his findings were that, “Overall the equipment is old and deteriorating. The rot has set in on most of the equipment causing it to become unstable. Several pieces are critical and need to be shut down immediately because they are no longer supporting the structures. There are several other protrusion hazards, entanglement hazards, and potential head entrapment hazards.” The department has closed this section of the park and Public Works has taken it down. We are seeking grant funding to replace this equipment. Parks and Recreation maintains 14 other parks throughout the city. The AmeriCorps program is operated through Parks and Recreation, they had 18 participants during the year. AmeriCorps is a great asset to the city; we are fortunate to have them.
Parks and Recreation does a ton of things throughout the year such as cleaning city-owned lots, cutting private lots that Council orders to be cleaned and cutting state-owned lots. They assist with downtown events and whatever else may be going on. They removed dead and diseased trees on city property, last year they removed 30 trees and ground 19 stumps from these trees. They also planted 152 trees in various locations. Facilities Maintenance is operated out of the Parks and Recreation Department and they maintain all city owned buildings. In assisting the Veteran’s Museum, they installed lights in the parking lot of the museum.
The Sportsplex continues to be the crown jewel of Mr. Ulmer’s domain, and they were again busy during the year. They hosted Dixie Youth Baseball, Select Baseball, Spring Softball, Travel Soccer, Fall Baseball, and Fall Soccer.
Mr. Ulmer had promised that if we built eight softball fields that he would keep them filled with teams. We held 24 softball tournaments and the attendance at these twenty-four events was 66,500, that is an average of almost 2800 people per event. This was for just four months of the year. Mr. Ulmer said he is currently booked with tournaments for the next two years in softball.
The Sportsplex continues to provide entertainment at the tennis courts, the Natatorium, the Splash Pad and many other available opportunities. The Natatorium is continuing to be a major attraction; during the year it had 11 swim meets, that included high school, invitational and Laurel Swim Association meets. They provided pool time for Laurel Swim Association practice and also practice for the high schools. They provide water aerobics, physical therapy, swimming lessons, lifeguard training along with recreational and fitness swimming. In tennis at the Sportsplex they hosted United States Tennis Association, (USTA), Men’s and Women’s leagues. Provided courts for members and open play throughout the year, hosted several Adult League USTA tournaments including one state tournament. Along with the Sportsplex, the other parks stay busy also. At the recently renovated Daphne Tennis Courts, we hosted along with the Laurel Country Club a USTA Juniors Tournament, we also provided courts for Laurel High School practice and game play.
After several requests we installed Pickleball lines on the existing courts, and purchased and installed Pickleball nets. According to Mr. Ulmer, Pickleball is becoming a big hit in Laurel. The skate park at Daphne is well used and we are currently advertising for bids to expand it, through a grant.
At Boots Smith Fields, Wooten-Legion Fields, and L. V. Walters Field, they provided game and practice space for Laurel High Fastpitch Softball, Southeastern Baptist College Fastpitch Softball, Laurel Christian School Fastpitch Softball, Dixie Youth Majors/Pre-Majors Baseball, Adult Softball, Home Schooled Baseball, Dixie Boys Summer Baseball League, and Travel Team Baseball. At A. W. Watson Field they hosted 2-D baseball tournaments throughout the year, hosted Southeastern Baptist College Baseball games and practices. At the Oak Park Football/ Field House, it serves as a voting precinct in city and county run elections, provides the field for J. H. Spriggs Youth Football, provided the field for football camp and provided the field for Laurel School District Field Day. The Oak Park and Ellis pools are still big attractions during the summer and they are scheduled to reopen in May.
Our facility rentals are still strong at the Train Depot having 62 rentals, Cameron Center with 86 and Ellis Center and Oak Park combined for 64 rentals. The Cemetery division is under Mr. Ulmer and they continue to maintain all of the cemeteries in the city. All of our cemeteries are for the most part filled, so if we are to remain in the cemetery business, we need at least 15-20 acres for another facility. Mr. Ulmer is still the go-to person, I must add that after three years, they are finally installing the sign to the Elvin Ulmer Eightplex. He is an asset to the city and we are fortunate to have him on board. Look for greater things from this department this year.
DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS:
Public Works is headed by Tyrome Russell, he has been in his position since November 2021. Mr. Russell oversees the work being done by our contracted company H2O Innovation. There has been a noticeable improvement in the function of the Public Works department under the tenure of Mr. Russell. H2O currently has 31 employees and the city has five employees who handle the duties in Public Works. These five employees are those who were currently employed by the city and had at least fifteen years of service, when H2O began its contract, these five were allowed to remain on the PERS system until retirement age. H2O operates under a performance-based contract, for the operations of Streets and Drainage.
The annual contract with H2O is $1,921,167.00, and the city withholds a 5% retainage each month, which is a total annual retainage of $96,058.35. The percentage of retainage withheld by the city on an annual basis is based on five main areas to be measured. Those five areas are Customer Surveys/Satisfaction Rate, Quality of the work, Completion Percentage of Requests, Response/Production Time and Routine Maintenance. In the customer survey, we had personnel call the customers by phone, to determine how satisfied they were with the work, the response time, etc. Mr. Russell also makes random visits to sample ten sites a week to inspect quality, response time, completion time, etc. All five of these categories determine how much of the $96,000 of retainage will be held by the city.
The customer satisfaction surveys were done equally across all seven wards and the results were: Ward 1-94% satisfaction rate, Ward 2-100%, Ward 3-100%, Ward 4-100%, Ward 5- 86%, Ward 6-92% and Ward 7 had a 100% satisfaction rate. The average of the Customer Satisfaction Surveys citywide was 96%. Based on the surveys and the other four criteria for success, out of the $96,000 of retainage held by the city, at the end of the process H2O was returned $92,456.19. The city ended up retaining $3,602.15.
There were 5,026 service requests received for Streets and Drainage and H2O completed 5,026 requests. The Routine Maintenance for Streets and Drainage was divided into four (4) areas. Ditch cleaning, Street Sweeping, Pot Hole Patching and Grass Cutting. Routine items are not initiated by a customer but are ongoing proactive programs. Routine items are items that are completed each working day. The inspector determined contract compliance by reviewing the quality and production time according to the benchmark schedule for each item each working day. Based on the criteria, all Routine Maintenance work received a grade of 100% completed. Per the contract requirement, the City of Laurel shall provide equipment to the Contractor at a rate of 90%. The equipment availability rate for FY2022 was 97.9%. Per contract requirements, the Contractor shall reimburse the City for missing materials. The City of Laurel has purchased Storeroom in City Works and has plans for implementation by April 2023. In October 2023 the Department of Public Works staff will perform an inventory count of materials with H2O staff present. The materials are used for both Streets and Drainage Divisions. This program is used to manage the inventory and also compare materials recorded on work orders vs. materials purchased. The accuracy rating resulting from this inventory was not complete in 2022. An acceptable industry standard would be 95%-100%. In 2022 the City of Laurel had not funded a construction crew for H2O Innovation. However, H2O was able to complete 30 construction projects, while still keeping up with the service requests. The value of the bidding and materials for these projects was $360,713. The value of H2O’s labor was $75,000, making a total for all 30 projects $435,713. Equipment Damage: Per the contract, the Contractor shall reimburse the City of Laurel for damage to equipment due to operator negligence. There were 9 instances for a total cost of $13,042. Per contract requirements, on or after ten days from date of loss, H2O shall be responsible to obtain use at its expense of rental or other available equipment until either the claim is settled, or the vehicle is repaired or replaced. There is one incident that has not been settled at this time. It is the damage to a knuckle boom truck. The cost involved in this equipment could equal $100,000. Personnel Shortage Reimbursement. The 2021 contract with H2O sets minimum staffing levels. The City shall be reimbursed for at a rate of 1.5 times per hour the minimum rate of each vacant position after 30 days for Key and Essential Personnel and 15 days for all others. There were 0 vacant positions in the Streets and Drainage Division, reimbursement was $0. Per the provisions of the contract with H2O, this data in my opinion, spells success in black and white for Public Works under H2O. The Administration lauds Mr. Russell for his commitment to the success of the Public Works Department. He is doing a great job, whether it is working a collapsed storm drain to getting a cat out of a tree. Thank you, Mr. Russell.
LAUREL POLICE DEPARTMENT:
The Laurel Police Department is led by Chief Tommy Cox, who rose through the ranks to become chief. They are budgeted for 55 officers and they had 46 on staff. Last year at the end of the year we had 47 on shift, with 55 budgeted. In 2022 LPD generated 30,713 complaints, compared to 34,704 for the previous year, complaints are down. Out of these complaints they made 2122 arrests, compared to 2628 last year, so arrests are down. We had three homicides for the year, all are currently being prosecuted, on last year we had five, homicides are down. Four officers received commendations for actions above and beyond the call of duty. During the year we continued to work on the Traffic Services Grant and the Impaired Driver Grant. These grants allow funding for extra officers that help keep our streets safer. The Department is currently preparing for the promotional process, the eligibility list has been expired for some time, and after this process we can begin promoting from the list again. LPD received 13 written citizen complaints against officers in 2022. Two required corrective action and 11 were determined to be unfounded. LPD officers received 11 disciplinary warnings with 2 resulting in suspensions and one termination. LPD conducted two Internal Affairs Investigations and resulted in two suspensions.
Every year I make the same statement that I support our police, I do not say that they are perfect or anything of the sort, but I do support them when they are right and I support disciplining them when they are coming incorrect. If they observe the same rules that the public is expected to observe, everything should be good. I do think sometimes they get a bad rap, for instance I often hear that all the roadblocks or check points are always in South Laurel or the traditionally Black community. If it is repeated enough times, it becomes the truth to some. I heard it so much that I asked for the statistics for the past year. As it turned out, there were a total of 167 checkpoints. In the South, there were 85 checkpoints which was 50.8%, in the North there were 71 checkpoints which was 42.5%, and 16th Ave there were 11 sites for 6.5%. There is an old saying, “figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.” There does not seem to be a great disparity in the numbers, would you agree?
Again, I say every year that Laurel needs and desires more good police officers, Laurel needs and desires more, good Black police officers. We are currently more than ten officers less than budgeted. I love to explore history. In the August 1, 1964 issue of the Laurel Leader Call, The City of Laurel announced the hiring of the first four Black police officers, to its previously all-White police force. They were Simon Shanks age 43, Charles Harrison age 33, Martin Jones age 32 and Arthur Holden age 30. I wonder why 58 years later, Laurel, MS cannot find young Black men who want a career in the police department, like those men did in August of ’64, who sought to protect and serve their community, who sought to make a difference? If you think there is something wrong with the department, then, it behooves you to attempt to join it and attempt to change it, to make it better, as these four pioneers did. I would love to see the number of Black officer’s closer mirror the demographics of the city. Or is it like one of the councilmembers often says, that it’s easier to sit on Facebook and criticize than to try to make things better. Let it be known that Laurel, MS is looking for a few good officers.
Sandra Hadley leads the Inspection Department, they have six additional employees, and at the end of the year they were short one field inspector. The department collected $369,952 in permit fees from 1,384 permits, with a construction valuation totaling $51.8 million. That is a 127% increase in permit fees, and an increase of 171% in valuations over 2020. In 2019 there were only 795 building permits issued totaling $151,000 in permit fees and $15 million in construction valuation.
The Inspection Department instituted a new process for issuing permits, by requiring up to a 24-hour review process. Even though some contractors do not like the change it has prevented unlicensed contractors from performing work for projects that are valued over $10,000 in the city, which is what a new State law has mandated. This process also prevented contractors from doing projects on property in flood zones, which are governed by FEMA, and if the city allows this construction to take place, without the property being elevated, the residents of the city who have flood insurance could be affected, by an increase in premiums. We recently had a visit from FEMA and we were informed that we were in compliance. These measures not only protect the city and property owners, but it has also contributed to an increase in revenue for the General Fund. The Inspection Department also assists homeowners to pull their own permits for projects under $10,000 which again is allowed by the State. After the new regulations initiated by the MS Board of Contractors, Inspection worked with many of the long-time contractors assisting them in becoming “grandfathered” into the new system enacted by the State to keep them in compliance. Inspection is enforcing the requirements of the State that there must be a licensed contractor doing work that is valued at over $10,000 inside the city, this new law now also applies to work being done in the County, if the job is over $10,000. This is to protect the homeowner from being taken advantage of by unlicensed contractors. There are those who are not aware that they need a permit and the Inspection Department attempts to work with them, but on the other hand there are those who know they need a permit and purposely refuse to purchase one, these are the ones who are penalized. The department at times is forced to issue a Stop Work order, for not having a permit, but they attempt to get things rectified as quickly as possible, so that the contractor can get back to work. We attempted to hire a Building Inspector for the better part of two years, without success. So, we appointed Donelle Thornton, who was previously a Field Inspector to the interim position of Building Inspector, in June of 2022. She has until July 2023 to complete the exam requirements. In another way that Inspection was proactive was going door-to-door in the recently annexed Pendorff area to inform businesses of the requirement to purchase privilege licenses, most did not possess a license, and also downtown several businesses had never obtained a privilege license. Both of these areas are greatly improved in this compliance.
Nearing the end of 2022, we began to address the need to correctly notify property owners prior to cleaning private property. We had several hiccups in making sure we were following the dictates of the Legislature, but I think we have a workable solution in place. The attorneys are currently working on revised procedures for tagging and removal of junk vehicles. Even though we had some corrections to make in both instances, by no means do we plan to stop cleaning lots nor stop removing junk vehicles. The Inspection Department continues to assist in helping Laurel live up to its moniker of The City Beautiful! There are countless numbers of people who want to reclaim their neighborhoods from filth, squalor and inattention, and turn it into a place of beauty, cleanliness and growth. We need to work together to convince those who are reluctant to join this effort. Unfortunately, some have to be brought along, while they are kicking and screaming. But we have those in every endeavor, but we are committed. The Inspection Department is also tasked with inspecting locations to be approved to have short-term rental facilities. The process is tedious, but it is paying off, in that we have issued fifty-seven approvals, which are $350.00 per unit and renewable annually. Heading Inspection is not an easy task. I think Ms. Hadley is doing a good job.
LAUREL FIRE DEPARTMENT:
The Laurel Fire Department’s Chief is Leo Brown, Chief Brown also rose through the ranks to lead the department. The department ended the year with 51 out of 63 slotted positions filled, they are aggressively seeking to fill these vacancies, through job fairs, career days, in and outside the community and even at Camp Shelby. They had four senior ranking firefighters to retire with over 121 years of experience. One of the major goals of the Department is to lower the city’s fire rating to a Class 4 from a Class 5. One of the main criteria, among others is the number of personnel at each station, this is being actively pursued. The Department had 38 major structure fires, with moderate to heavy loss, which was an increase of two from last year. Fortunately, there were no fire deaths in 2022, and there were no Departmental personnel injuries reported. There were 24 vehicle fires, which was an increase of 3 from last year. They worked 396 vehicle accidents, last year they worked 351. Motor vehicle injuries increased from 140 in 2021 to 157 in 2022. Motor vehicle accidents with no injuries jumped from 173 to 201. The Department’s position is that prevention is effective in reducing fires and accidents and they are committed in educating the public in prevention. The Department has also been involved in the community of Laurel, participating in downtown events and others. These type activities allow them to build relationships with the community and is also a recruiting tool. The Department assisted the Salvation Army on two occasions with the distribution of toys and food baskets during Christmas.
State Farm Agents Brian Ginn and Lori Hearn once again sponsored the Fireman of the Year Award and this year expanded it to include Fire Officer of the Year. Firefighter Alandis Jones was voted Firefighter of the Year and Battalion Chief Robby McLaurin was Fire Officer of the Year. The Department also rededicated two fire stations adding the names of Mr. Manuel Jones to Station #2 on Susie B Ruffin Ave and adding the name of Dr. Eugene Owens to Station # 4 on Queensburg Avenue. A generous anonymous donor gave $10,000 which made it possible for the Department to purchase a much-needed washer and dryer to clean turnouts that are soiled after a fire. The Department’s goals for 2023 are to achieve a Class 4 fire rating, which in turn will benefit the homeowners and businesses in the city by saving on their property insurance and also to bring the Department up to full operating capacity while continuing to improve the fire protection services for the citizens of Laurel by becoming better trained educationally, mentally, and physically while also upgrading our firefighting equipment to better serve and protect our community.
CITY CLERK/FINANCE DEPARTMENT:
The Department head for the City Clerk/Finance Department is Mary Ann Hess. She has four other employees in the department. We collected $10,640,289, which is the most sales tax ever collected in the history of the city! The real news is that we don’t have $10 million more in sales tax, because the year before we collected 10,085,424. So, we actually collected only $554,000 more in sales tax than the year before. Now don’t get me wrong to collect more sales tax than ever before is a good thing, it’s just that it’s not new money, except the $554,000. As I mentioned earlier, the MS Municipal League once again during this current session, requested that the Legislature increase municipalities sales tax diversion from 18.5% to 20%, again this session the Legislature denied the request. I point that out, because if we received back from the State over $10 million after they took 81.5% and sent us 18.5%, what our diversion would look like if they sent us back 20% and they kept only 80% of what we sent them? One interesting tidbit about our sales tax diversion of $10,640,289 is that means that businesses that charge sales tax had sales of over $709 million dollars. Another tidbit is that there are sales that take place inside the city, where sales tax is not collected, such as pharmacies, hair salons, nail shops, etc. Laurel has a robust sales economy. These sales continue to increase with the opening of new businesses and the continuation of existing ones. Sales tax goes into the General Fund, so out of it we pay police salaries, firefighter salaries, fund public works, buy police cars, buy fire trucks, pay for street lights, traffic lights, traffic signs, and pays for city hall operations, among other things. We also had the highest collection of our tourism sales tax, this is really not a tourism tax, even though we do now have a tourism tax, but what we originally called the tourism tax, which is really a recreation tax, that mostly goes toward debt service at the Sportsplex, and the Magnolia Center was the highest collected in history. We collected from the 2 cents on hotels and restaurants $2,260,205 compared to the previous year of $2,088,279 or $171,926 more.
The Tax Valuation for the city in 2022 was $209,077,381 for 2023 it increased by $8,352,704 to $217,430,085. The value of a mil for the city in 2022 was $199,127 and for 2023 it is $207,497 or a difference of $8,370. Property values in the city of Laurel are increasing, that is a good thing.
We had five major businesses that applied for tax exemptions; Howard Industries, Amick Farms, Dunn Roadbuilders, Laurel Machine and Foundry and Morgan Brothers Millworks, for a total of $11,619,000. We did not exempt $11 Million, but the tax that would have been paid on $11 Million. It should be noted that whatever amount is exempted from a company’s ad valorem taxes, they must pay 100% of the taxes for the Laurel Municipal Separate School District. These exemptions are capped at ten years. In addition to the Ad Valorem tax, we are allowed to give a Freeport Warehouse Exemption, which is on product that is on inventory which is manufactured in the city, but is shipped out of state for sale. These were applied for by Howard Industries, Masonite, Esmueller and Mid-South Industries, for a total of $45,990,453, These exemptions are good for one year.
The city collected $23,544,198 in Ad Valorem taxes, $13,790,336 went to the Laurel School District and $9,753,862 went to the city. The Laurel School System received the majority of our Ad Valorem taxes and this is the reason that we must be aware and attempt to place the best possible people to serve as Trustees of the School District, people who are not only academically but also fiscally knowledgeable and responsible.
In 2022 current board member Jeremy Adams moved out of state and we named Tony Wheat to carry out the remainder of Adam’s term. On our last meeting Council approved the appointment of Dr. Read Diket to a full term on the Board. The condition of the school system in any community is of the utmost importance. When industry that bring employees to town, or corporations that want to locate here, one of the first things they look at is the condition of the school system. They want to see what the system looks like academically. Not that sports are not important, but these decisions are not being made based on whether your school went to the football or baseball or basketball playoffs or championships, that is why they are called extracurricular, they are not and should not be the main focus. I hope no one goes out and says that I’m bashing sports participation, nothing is further from the truth, but I am highlighting academics and opportunities for our children to be able to lead a productive life and be able to give something back to society and not depend on society to give to them. When it is all said and done, it won’t matter if our children are the king or queen of the campus in sports, make sure they are the kings or queens in what will matter twenty or thirty years from now. The odds are not in their favor becoming a professional athlete. If anyone has any questions about my position, please contact me and we can discuss it.
The city of Laurel operates within its budget, and tries not to increase ad valorem taxes unless absolutely necessary. I have pointed out previously that if you examine your ad valorem tax statement, between the city, county and city schools, the city portion of the statement is the lower of the three.
We received $6,916,530.98 in State and Federal Grants with the major portion being our second installment of the ARPA funds in the amount of $2,254,154.38. We have an aggressive and effective grant administrator in Whitney Pickering, last year we applied for $852,155 in grants and received $695,837. She also worked very actively on the $3 Million grant that we received for the 12th St Improvement/Safety Project.
For the second year in a row, the Road and Bridge Fund from the county was over one million dollars. This year’s total was $1,037,850.36. Previously this money had been going into the General Fund, but this Administration recommended to Council that it be placed into the Street fund, this is the first year that the entire amount went into the Street Fund and not shared with the General Fund. The Road and Bridge Funds are dictated by MS Code Title 65, where it states, “One-half (½) of all ad valorem taxes collected by or for a county… (the streets of which are worked at the expense of the municipal treasury, for road purposes of such county…. shall be paid over to the treasurer of such municipality for said municipality.”
In addition to the 4 mils that we have set aside for streets each year, which totaled $807,000, and with the increase in the mil this year it will be $870,000, we also had the over $1 Million from the Road and Bridge Fund and we also had funds from the MS Infrastructure Modernization Act, where municipalities receive a portion of the Internet Sales from within the City in the amount of $1.4 Million. This gave us a total of over $3 million to pave streets in the city, in which bids will be opened in April. I think that was a very innovative way, approved by Council to have a steady stream of income to pave streets, and not have to take out a loan each time we wanted to do paving. This administration has a destination in for streets and a way to fund it. Our consultant with Trinity Capital Investments, Scott Wilson stated that, “Laurel is bringing trust back to the city government by showing visible signs of growth through its street improvements.” This administration has done more in the proper maintenance of streets than any administration in the last fifty years, check it out.
The City Clerk’s office also handled a special election that was ordered by the Legislature to approve a 3% sales tax on hotels and short-term rentals, to be used for tourism in the city of Laurel. The bill had been passed by both the Senate and the House; it had the support of our local State officials. This bill was pushed through the House by Rep. Donnie Scoggin and through the Senate by Sen. Juan Barnett. The vote by the citizens to approve the tax, even though there was some organized last-minute opposition, passed by a margin of 73% For and 27% Against. We began receiving the tax in November and it has averaged around $25,000 per month, mind you, the registration of the short-term rentals is still taking place, so not all have been collecting the tax. We have purchased two bill boards so far, one at the MS/LA state line on Hwy 59 and the other on Hwy 20 in Meridian. We have also helped sponsor some events, that hopefully will bring people to the city. The requests for sponsorships are being handled through the six-member tourism committee that was approved by Council.
We refinanced two outstanding bonds at the recommendations of our consultants with Butler Snow and Government Consultants, the reason for the refinancing was to save on interest since rates were lower than when we first financed them. One was a 2013 General Obligation Street Bond where we refinanced $1.94 million and the second was a 2012 Water/Sewer bond and we refinanced $1.9 million. The interest rate for both bonds was 1.6%. We also issued a 20-year General Obligation Bond in the amount of $3.675 million to complete the last four fields of the Elvin Ulmer 8-Plex. This bond will be repaid from the Recreation Tourism tax. This bond came in with an interest rate of 4.25%. Over the last year interest rates have dramatically increased, but our consultants still considered this rate to be an excellent one for Laurel, and recommended that we proceed with the issuance. If the opportunity arises, in the future, we will refinance at a lower interest rate.
As of September 30, 2022, the City of Laurel had a cash balance total in all of its funds of $25,583,763 down from $33,484,092 on September 30, 2021. This was due to the fact that the City is spending bond and grant funds which had accumulated in previous fiscal years by completing major street and recreational projects.
Each month the Clerk’s office determines the amount necessary to meet our financial obligations and cash flow for that month. Any excess funds are transferred from our checking account at First State Bank to our investment firm (Trinity Capital) and deposited into our savings bank accounts at Trustmark National Bank. These funds are then invested into government-approved interest-bearing securities. Since these are government funds, the State has extremely strict guidelines that the City and Trinity Capital must follow in making these investments. Over the past year, a total of $786,000 in interest was earned on all of our excess funds. Depending on which fund these monies originated (i.e., General, Recreation, or Public Utility), the interest is credited back to that appropriate fund. We continued our bond rating from Standard and Poor’s at AA rating, the next best rating is AAA.
The City of Laurel signed the first contract with United Water in 2006, then they changed to Suez and are now Veolia, to maintain our water production and distribution, our waste water collection and treatment. As time progressed, we added billing and collections. They are required by Contract to have a staff of 52. Veolia continues to be an active part of the Laurel community through their contributions. The Special Projects Crew that was added to the contract in 2020, had several projects that they took on. This crew does repairs that we once had done by outside contractors. Some of the streets that they worked on were E 5th, 33rd, E 15th, W 16th, Fernwood, Doncurt, S 8th, Lindsey Drive, MLK, Leontyne Price and part of the Central Avenue project. Veolia is also doing the needed utility work prior to the paving of the twenty-two neighborhood streets scheduled to be paved during the spring and summer. Veolia repaired water leaks, replaced fire hydrants, unstopped sewers and worked sewer cave-ins. Veolia treated 2.6 billion gallons of wastewater at our Smyly and Massey wastewater treatment plants. During the same period, they produced 2.4 billion gallons of water. The Customer Service office collected $13,830,879. Now that sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but when you consider what it takes to maintain our system it is not a lot. We collected the stated amount and we spent out of the Public Utility Fund $13,892,353, so actually last year we spent $61,474 more than we took in. The reasoning behind the annual 3% increase in water and sewer costs is so that we can take care of our system, because if you get behind in maintenance, it is very difficult to catch up. Along with the collections, the Customer Service office cut off 2,402 accounts for nonpayment.
CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS:
Here is a partial list of projects completed during the year.
(1). The Contract II at the Susan Boone Vincent Sportsplex/ Elvin Ulmer Eightplex was completed in August of 2022 at a cost of $2.6 Million, funds were from City Recreation Tax and a MDEQ grant to cap the old landfill.
(2). Laurel Sportsplex Contract III is under construction with an anticipated completion date of June 2023 at a cost of $4.9 Million, funded through the City Recreation Tax on hotels and restaurants. It includes the construction of the final four fields at the Elvin Ulmer Eightplex, concessions, concrete sidewalks, dugouts, batting cages, paving of roads, parking lot, roadway and field lighting.
(3). What began years ago as the Beacon Street Gateway Project and ended up being the Leontyne Price Gateway was completed in October at a cost of $5.3 Million, with $3.6 Million coming from MDOT and $1.7 million from a city bond issue. The project extended from the MDOT ROW at 59 N to Central Avenue with roadway and pedestrian and drainage improvements.
(4). Central Avenue Roundabout and 500 Block Improvements was completed in August. It was funded with a $870,000 MDOT grant and a match of $592,000 from the City for a total cost of $1.5 Million.
(5). South 16th Avenue Utility and Roadway Project was completed in August at a cost of $1.5 Million in city funds. Project included milling and overlay, striping, and utility improvements on 16th Avenue from Ellisville Blvd to Queen Street.
(6). MLK Avenue Improvements were completed in December at a cost of $2.7 Million, this included milling and overlay, striping and utility improvements from Chantilly Street to E 20th, this was funded through city funds.
(7). The Kimberly and Kathrine Drive Utility and Roadway Improvements were completed in December at a cost of $2.1 million out of city funds.
(8). NRCS Lagoon Access Road, was completed in June. The total cost of the project was $4.1 million with $3.1 Million coming from NRCS and $950,000 from the city’s Public Utility Fund.
(9). The Oak Park Alumni Building was completed at a cost of $568,000 with city funds. The total of these nine projects during 2022 were $23.6 Million. We have a destination.
UPCOMING CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT PROJECTS/APPLIED FOR PROJECTS:
(1). Brown Street Drainage and Access Road: State funding made available by Sen. Juan Barnett of $650,000. This project will make drainage improvements in the Brown Circle area and also construct and alternate emergency access road on the western end of Brown St. It is still in the design phase and acquiring right-of-way. Located in Ward 7.
(2). Spec Wilson Blvd. Pedestrian Improvements Project. This project is expected to begin in the Spring of 2023. It has a total cost of $1.7 Million, which will include reconstruction of curb and gutter, sidewalks, raised median islands with pedestrian refuge areas, crosswalks, storm drainage and landscaping. It will extend from Carrol Gartin Blvd north to Central Ave.
(3). Massey and Smyly CDBG Blower and Grist System updates at the waste water treatment plants. It is currently in the design phase and should begin in summer of 2023. Total cost is $1.5 Million with funds coming from CDBG and Public Utility Funds.
(4). 3rd Avenue ARPA Water, sewer and stormwater improvements. Total cost of project is $2.3 Million with 50% coming from City ARPA funds and if funded 50% from a one-to-one match from the State. Project will span from 10th St to 13th St and is in Ward 5. If funded by the State, construction should begin in fall of 2023.
(5). Dr. Deborrah Hyde Ave/formerly Joe Wheeler Ave, ARPA Water, Sewer and Stormwater Improvements. Total cost of this project is $3.0 Million with 50% coming from city’s ARPA funds and the other 50%, if funded coming from a one-to-one match from State ARPA funds. The project will span from Chantilly St to E 20th and is in Wards 4 and 5.
(6). 15th Avenue ARPA Water, Sewer and Stormwater Improvements. The cost of the project is $3.2 Million and will be paid 50% out of City’s ARPA funds and if funded the other 50% will come from a one-to-one match from State ARPA funding. This project is located in Wards 6 and 2, and will cover from Congress St to 12th St.
(7). The 2023 Overlay Project, went out for bid in March with bids to open April 6th. This construction cost is estimated at $3.5 Million and we are scheduled to pave and restore 22 neighborhood streets. This will be a city-wide project and will encompass all wards, these streets were chosen by the council people representing their areas. As mentioned, the necessary infrastructure work will be one by Veolia.
(8). 12th St Improvement Project, which makes improvement on 12th St from 7th Ave to 16th Ave, which will include sidewalks, pedestrian and safety improvements throughout the project, especially around the high school, where child was involved in a tragic and deadly accident crossing this street. This project was funded by a $3 Million Community Fund Grant through the last Congress, we were aided with this grant by former Rep. Steven Palazzo.
(9). We received a MS HOME CORP grant in the amount of $505,000 in 2019 and COVID has slowed up the progress. We are in the process of renovating four homes, with average renovation costs of $39,000 and totally rebuilding two at a cost of $123,000 each. The construction is currently proceeding. We will not be able to apply for another HOME grant until this one is closed out, but there are some smaller grants available through USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Laurel has hundreds of people who own their homes, who need assistance in improving them.
(10). The City of Laurel is partnering with the Laurel Housing Authority on the construction of the much-needed Laurel/Jones County Visitors Center on Leontyne Price Blvd, construction is expected to be completed in late Spring or early Summer.
(11). We have once again applied for the RAISE grant which is a project that spans from the intersection of Cooks Avenue and Cross Street to 16th Ave, the projected cost is $25 Million.
(12). We have applied for another Federal Grant to do rehabilitation on West Drive from Grandview Drive to Airport Drive, this is a much-traveled roadway that is in dire need of repair. The cost of this project is estimated at $2.5 Million.
(13). We are actively working with Laurel Housing Authority and HUD (Housing and Urban Development) to be able to provide temporary and emergency housing to those who need it. We want to be able to help people on an emergency situation where Laurel Housing Authority rules will not allow them to offer emergency housing, but there is a need, and we have plans to help where we can. We are also hoping to be able to find ways to assist these homeowners of Laurel who need repairs.
Excluding the HUD partnership with Laurel Housing Authority the total of these projects that are upcoming and or applied for total $47.5 Million. We have a destination.
In September we renamed North and South Joe Wheeler Avenue to Dr. Deborrah Hyde Avenue. Dr. Hyde was born and raised in Laurel, graduated from the Historic Oak Park High School and went on to become the second Black female board-certified neurosurgeon in the nation. When she finished her career, she returned to her hometown to retire.
In the month of February 2023, the City of Laurel received its largest monthly sales tax diversion from the State in the history of the city, we topped $1 Million dollars for the first time with a total of $1,077,711. This payment was from the month of December 2022.
Much of the increase in sales tax, tourism tax and home sales and much of the other positive financial activity in the city is directly tied to the success of the Hometown show that is aired on the HGTV network. There has been a great impact on our city because of this show, and I would like to thank Ben and Erin and their team for the benefits Laurel is able to enjoy because of them. Last year I mentioned a vehicle that was parked downtown on Magnolia St that had Hawaii license plates, well in July the editor of the Leader-Call sent me a picture of a Kia Optima that had plates from the Outback Australia, it was parked on the streets of Laurel. How did it get here? I have no idea, but it was here in Laurel.
We have approved so far 57 short term rental units in the city, each unit is permitted at $350.00 the permit fees alone are $19,950, that goes directly to the city’s treasury, and most if not all of these rentals are the direct result of Hometown.
Laurel Main Street does a lot to help move things along in the city with its Loblolly Festival, the Chili Cookoff, the Craw-Fest, Wine Down, Live in Laurel, Laurel Leap Basketball, and many other things that keep people coming to town. If you would like to volunteer for your community, Main Street is worth a look.
We have many things going on in the city and there is no way that we could accomplish without the very community-minded volunteers who serve on the many boards and commissions. They give of their time and talent to make our city a better place to live, work, worship, dine, play, etc. They serve on our School Board, our Planning Commission, our Civil Service Commission, the Election Commission, the Regional Airport Authority and the Laurel Municipal Airport Board, the Tourism Committee, the Library Board, the Tree Board, The Laurel Housing Authority Board, the Economic Development Authority, the Pine Belt Regional Solid Waste Authority, the Historic Preservation Commission, and the Fair Board. There is no way that we could do the things that we do in this city, without the help of these very generous individuals. On behalf of the Mayor, the Laurel City Council, the employees of the city and each and every citizen, we thank you for your dedicated service, we couldn’t do it without you.
Laurel, we have a very serious litter problem. We have got to do better. Some may disagree with me, but I don’t believe in doing litter cleanup projects. Not that I don’t want it to be clean, but over the years I have found that, when you clean up someone else’s mess, there is no appreciation, and for that reason, you will have to continue to clean it up, if you want it to remain clean. Instead, there must be a culture change, this needs to be taught in the churches and schools, but more than anywhere it needs to be taught in the home. I’m not saying that these are only children doing this because there are many adults who are trashing our city, and they should be ashamed of themselves. I remember a time when it was ingrained into people to not litter, every vehicle had a litter bag in the car, and your litter would go into the bag, until you got somewhere that you could discard it, we need to return to that, then maybe we won’t see so many pizza and chicken and hamburger boxes on the streets of our city. We must do better.
I would like to point out that if you have had run-ins with the law, please don’t let that to stop you from applying to the City of Laurel for employment. You are not guaranteed a job, but you will not be denied the opportunity to apply. We are an employer of second chances, so just because you have a felony conviction, you are not written off, just because of it.
We have lots of people coming into our city and we are very appreciative of that fact. I do have a concern with some of the employees in some of our retail establishments. The concern is that there are lots of times that I shop in stores and the clerk that checks me out, does not even have the courtesy to say, “thank-you.” This is unacceptable, and I am certain that the owners or managers are not aware that this is happening, if the merchandise was free, I could understand not offering a thank-you, but when someone spends hard earned money, it is a necessity. Merchants, let’s do better.
The State of the City of Laurel, MS is sound and solid, and we are open for business.
Eudora Welty said, “It doesn’t matter if it takes a long time getting there; the point is to have a destination.” We have a destination, come and take the ride with us.