Good evening to the Council and to the public.
I would like to thank the Council for allowing me the opportunity to present the State of the City of Laurel, Mississippi to you and to the public. I will attempt to be as brief as possible.
In accordance with MS Code 21-8-17 which states that the mayor shall annually report to the Council and the public on the work of the previous year and on the condition and requirements of the municipal government.
I offer to you the state of the City of Laurel, MS for the year of 2021.
In 1881 the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad located rails in this area and Laurel was incorporated in 1882. Out of 345 municipalities in the state, Laurel is #22 in population.
Located in each department throughout the city is our mission statement: “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.”
One thing that I have found over the years, is that city government is different. City government reminds me of a quote by Nelson Mandela, “After climbing one great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
We had an election last year and as a result the council has three new members and four members returning.
I began this year as I do every year with the goal of, giving our employees a raise, sometimes it happens and sometimes it does not, but we again begin with that aim.
The city has six departments which are led by department heads. These department heads are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, they work at the pleasure of the mayor, according to state law. These heads are: City Clerk/Finance, Fire, Human Resources, Parks and Recreation, Police and Public Works. Aside from department heads, we also have a Superintendent of Inspection, a municipal judge, judge pro tem, a city prosecutor, a city public defender and a court administrator. We have a city attorney who handles our routine legal issues. Suez is contracted to handle all the city’s water production and distribution, wastewater collection and treatment and also billing and collection of water and sewer charges. Included also on the water bill is the garbage fee, which is collected by Suez. We contract out to Waste Pro to pick up our household garbage, this contract began January 1st 2021 and we also contract with H2O for public works duties, this contract began August 1st of 2021.
This department is headed by Nellie Satcher and there are three other full-time employees and one part time. The city currently has 241 active employees, versus around 300 this time last year, included in that number are 7 AmeriCorps workers, who work year-round. They processed three employees for retirement during the year. They processed an additional 71 candidates for employment and had a total of 184 applications taken and 101 drug screens and 46 physicals. They administered six Civil Service Exams, including for the Police Department and Fire Department. Employees received 42 flu shots during the year. On COVID vaccinations there were 75 administered by SCRMC and 19 at the Fair Grounds administered by the Department of Human Services. They also participated in two job fairs across the year. They handled open enrollment, where the employees choose the insurance coverages that they desire to have for the upcoming year. The payroll department, which is a part of Human Resources, in addition to processing the biweekly payrolls, also handles all the taxes and PERS forms, handle the payments for dental, vision, AFLAC, burial and life insurances. She also handles dues to fire and police unions, and payments to United Way. We appreciate the employees who contribute to the United Way, it does a lot of good in the community. She currently has 73 child support orders that she must pay, 25 garnishments and 3 bankruptcy payments for employees. In addition, she prepares W-2 forms for employees. The Safety Department which is also a part of Human Resources conducts quarterly safety meetings with each department. The Safety Officer makes sure that employees are not double dipping while on workers comp claims. She keeps tabs on expired driver’s licenses, to make sure that city employees are current, to prevent the city from being in a liability situation. We are also about to begin to do the same with Suez employees who drive city vehicles, to make sure that their licenses are valid. The Safety officer also has problems with some departments reporting accidents on time, and also insuring that employee undergo drug screenings when having an accident.
A new communication system was installed at the Sportsplex. Through the use of fiber optic connectivity, all fields and dugouts have been connected for communication and internet access. Internet connectivity is now provided at all press boxes and the hospitality center through a centralized system. Through the fiber optic backbone, internet speeds are consistent at each location. We also have communication between each press box, just by dialing an extension number. We have also installed credit card machines at the Sportsplex to be used in all concession areas. Mr. Ulmer says that adding the ability to accept credit cards at the concession areas was one of the best moves that has been made, he guessed because of the convenience, sales increased tremendously. Some of the biggest changes in the city infrastructure through IT began to happen, with the implementation of the 2022 budget. Our current computer lease has expired and we are installing new computers that will be faster and more productive than our current models. Also, we are upgrading all of the computer network wiring in City Hall. We discovered some network wiring 25+ years old, and we will be installing newer network wiring this year. Jeff Williams is hoping that this wiring will also improve the effectiveness of the phone system in the city. We will also be upgrading network connectivity devices as needed to improve the computer network at City Hall. In this year there are plans for four new fields at the Sportsplex. We will be connecting the new fields to the new communication system when they are complete. Also in the coming year, we are working with the different departments to expand the scope of our use of GIS infrastructure and mapping technology to improve city services. With the city’s commitment to its citizens and services, the ITS Department is striving to keep the technology needs at the forefront of current standards to maximize the efficiency for every department to perform at its greatest potential.
This department is led by Tyrome Russell. He was confirmed by the council on November 11, 2021. Tyrome oversees the work that H2O performs for the city. Along with the regular 31 H2O employees, he also oversees five city employees. These five were allowed to remain in the employ of the city, because they had over fifteen years in PERS, and they were allowed to remain with the city until they are eligible for retirement. Public Works went through a search for a leader, after Lorenzo Anderson left in February 2020, and we replaced him with Ted Collins in July 2020. Ted made a speedy exit, and we struggled along with Harvey Warren in charge. He did the best he could, and I appreciate him holding it together. The contract with H2O began in August and Mr. Russell came in November. He has been the perfect person for the task. Even though his background had been in the oilfield, he has proven to be an excellent fit for Public Works Director in Laurel. He is energetic about getting the job done, and is great at motivating the employees. If we can ever get him to realize that Public Works does not have the money tree that the oilfield had, we will be great. The area of Public Works on Moose Drive has aesthetically been greatly improved, and is still being worked on. I think the city made a wise move in this hire. H2O has a mission statement that reads “The Department of Public Works/H2O Innovation is committed to providing a professional and quality service that benefits the community. We will strive to improve Public Works through using safe, communicative teamwork with integrity and positive innovative methods to develop the City of Laurel.” The VISION: “Enhancing your way of living with the service we provide daily.” The VALUES: “Excellence-to excel with hard work, consistency and satisfaction. ACCOUNTABILITY: To be a world class service to the needs of the public. DEDICATION: to value our employees and build a family atmosphere. H2O gave the city $30,000 towards the paving of the parking and driving areas inside the facility. Tyrome also oversaw an auction of vehicles and equipment that was scattered across the city for years and yielded a total of $140,300. Public Works had a very expensive paving machine that had been purchased several years ago from Jones County. It was sitting on the public works yard collecting dust. Whenever I would inquire about it, from Mr. Anderson or Mr. Warren, the answer was always that we had no one who knew how to operate it. Mr. Russell considered auctioning it off when he did the auction, but then he reconsidered and decided to attempt to learn how to use it. He brought a crew from Jones County Beat 3, who were experienced in operating paving equipment, and Beat 3 showed them how to operate the equipment. The first street that they overlayed was the 900 block of S 14th Ave, which is the dividing line between Wards 1 and 7. The asphalt, eight men and some trucks were provided by Jones County Beat 5, three men were provided by Beat 3 and labor and equipment were provided by our Public Works Department. Public Works will not be able to overlay streets like Leontyne Price or 5th Ave or 7th Ave, but we should be able to do some neighborhood streets, and areas like West Hills Apartments, that the city is responsible for through no fault of our own. They will get better on paving and we also will be able to save the taxpayers money. Public Works is divided into five divisions, which are Administration, Streets, Drainage, Sanitation and the Equipment Shop. There have been many major projects begun, especially in drainage that Public Works has been addressing that have been complained about by citizens for a long period of time. Mr. Russell also recommended the purchase of an asphalt recycler that should give us the quantities of hot asphalt needed to repair potholes, and to possibly save the city funds, since we are currently purchasing all asphalt from outside the city. Some of the goals for public works in 2022 are to continue and complete the American Public Works Association accreditation process. Building a new warehouse facility to house tractors and attachments such as bush hogs, grapples, mower decks, graders, skids, lawn mowers, etc. Mr. Russell writes that each employee of the Department of Public Works is an “EVERYDAY HERO.” The City of Laurel Public Works provides many significant services that impact the lives of citizens each day. No citizen or business within the City of Laurel starts or ends their day without using a service or facility that Public Works touches. Public Works is proud to be a part of the American Public Works Association. APWA’s theme for this year is “STRONGER TOGETHER.” This year’s exciting theme challenges our members and their citizens to think about the role public works play in creating a great place to live. By working together, the impact citizens and public works professionals can have on their communities is magnified and results in the ability to accomplish goals once thought unattainable. Public Works helps a community’s strength by working together to provide an infrastructure of services in transportation, stormwater treatment, public buildings and management. Public Works provides togetherness needed for collaboration with all the stakeholders in capital projects, infrastructure solutions and quality of life services. Public Works is directly responsible for amenities such as smooth paved streets, trash pick/up and disposal, proper storm drainage, and clear right of ways that touch the lives of citizens and visitors. The importance of these items is often not noticed until a problem occurs. It is at that time the need is realized and a prompt response to the problem is expected. Many hours of preventative maintenance are performed on each of these systems so that downtime and inconvenience is minimized. The Department of Public Works is one of the most improved departments in the city, in large part due to Mr. Russell.
Our municipal court judge is Kyle Robertson and the judge pro tem is Risher Caves. The Court Administrator is Rebecca Clark, along with five additional clerks. 2021 was a good year for Municipal Court. They are continuing to cross-train in order to produce a strong knowledge of the entire court process among all employees. This hopefully will produce good experiences for citizens seeking information from court personnel, as well as individuals having to navigate through our processes. We have implemented processes so that individuals are notified of a missed initial court appearance. This gives them the opportunity to appear in court or pay the ticket before a contempt warrant is issued for not appearing in court. This is a huge service to the person appearing in court. Municipal court processed 13,510 violations, which is a 34% increase from 2020. Traffic citations accounted for 10,669 of these violations. In 2021, Municipal Court had $1,466,948.94 in total collections, of which $729,184.73 went to the General Fund. This produced an increase of approximately $520,000 in total collected funds in comparison to 2020, and an increase of $249,000 to the General Fund. As in sales tax and some other collections, the majority of the funds the court collects go to the State of Mississippi. For those who are financially unable to pay their fines, there are opportunities to do community service, that will count against the fines that they owe to the city, allowing them to pay their debt in a physical instead of financial manner. Municipal Court is looking forward to 2022 and the challenges that it will bring. While navigating and mastering the challenges, we will continue to educate and improve the department in an effort to bring the best service possible to the citizens and visitors of the City of Laurel.
The Laurel Police Department’s chief is Tommy Cox, who advanced through the ranks, to become chief. They are budgeted for 55 officers and currently they have 47 on shift. One new hire during the year was a 51- year-old female, who has passed the academy. LPD has a total of 8 sworn female officers, and they say they would like to have many more. There is often criticism on Facebook and other outlets, that Laurel only has White officers on the streets. I would challenge those critics to apply or to encourage someone else to, because I know for a fact that the department does everything in its power to recruit and hire Black officers. I have seen them literally beg Blacks who have shown even a little interest in the job to apply. We can’t stop the criticism, but we can know the facts. The Department generated 34,704 complaints compared to 32,942 in 2020. They made a total of 2,628 arrests compared to 2,015 in 2020. During the 2,628 arrests there were 31 uses of force. That number represents 1.2% of all the arrests. Unfortunately, we had five homicides for the year, they all were solved and are currently being prosecuted. There were six officers who received commendations for actions above and beyond the call of duty. The police department continued the Traffic Services and the Impaired Driver Grants, allowing funding for extra officers to help keep our streets safe. In the way of public outreach, the Police Department participated in the DEA Drug Take Back for the 15th year, collecting 2,420 pounds of unwanted prescription drugs. Captain Caraway continued the DARE program where Middle School students are taught about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco at an early age, in hopes that they are not entangled with them in the future. Melicia “Teya” Cooper coordinated activities for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, highlighted by a proclamation by the mayor and virtual vigils and testimonials and a blood drive held at the Department. Coffee With a Cop was restarted last year. They continued the Fill- A-Truck for the sixth year, to benefit the Good Samaritan Center, and done in honor of the Late Chief Tyrone Stewart. The event raised over $3,300 and ten truckloads of food. A food drive for the Salvation Army raised $2,978 and two truckloads of food. A hurricane relief drive for Grand Isle, LA raised $2,900 and a trailer of food. This was delivered to Grand Isle, by the Laurel Police and Fire Departments. The Fraternal Order of Police continued to provide Christmas to children. LPD officers used their NO-SHAVE November funds to provide Christmas to a child whose home had recently burned. Ringing of the bell for the Salvation Army collected $704.10 for the Army. The departments’ Senior Citizens Initiative continued to do two monthly checks on local Seniors. If you know of seniors who would like to be added to this list, please contact the chief. The department participated in the AD-47 Cops and Cleats Football Camp sponsored by Akeem Davis. In October they held the very successful Night Out Against Crime, they had book bags and supplies, fair hot dogs, COVID vaccinations, entertainment by Spinning Top, and other things, it was all free to the public. They were able to take delivery of 13 new patrol cars and revived at least three persons who had overdosed with NARCAN. You hear lots of people saying that officers can do what they want to do with no repercussions. On last year LPD received 9 written citizen complaints. 1 required corrective action and 8 were deemed unfounded. Officers received 12 disciplinary warnings with 2 resulting in officer suspensions. There were two internal affairs Investigations, one resulting in the officer being cleared and the other resulted in officer suspension. The use of the body cams has been a great assist in keeping check on activities of officers in the field, and also sometimes proving that some citizen complaints are warrantless. LAUREL ANIMAL/PEST CONTROL: are under the Police Department, and is overseen by Yolanda Powe. They handled 1321 complaints for the year. They picked up 635 live animals off the streets and owners brought 27 animals to the shelter. They euthanized 536 animals (344-dogs, 187-cats and 5 wild animals), released 51 animals back into the wild (raccoons, opossums, snakes, etc.) and 21 animals died at the shelter due to parvo and other animal related diseases. A total of 54 animals were adopted or given away. They also cleared the streets of 127 dead animals. So be aware when you are headed to work and see road kill and then on your way home it is gone, it was not by magic, it was probably because of Yolanda and her crew. Between April 15-October 15 they sprayed all the city streets, alleys, parks and ball fields to eradicate mosquitoes. This is our seventh consecutive season without any reports of the West Nile Virus being contracted by a citizen of Laurel. They are on call 24 hours a day 7 days a week and do an excellent job, in taking care of the pests and animals. TRAFFIC MAINTENANCE: This department is under LPD and led by Joe McCullum along with two other employees. They do all they can to help move traffic around the city in an efficient manner. With all the traffic lights and traffic signs, they are very busy, from replacing a stop sign that an errant driver has knocked down to a light at a busy intersection that is flashing on all sides. They are also on call 24/7. We appreciate the work they do.
THE LAUREL FIRE DEPARTMENT: is led by Chief Leo Brown, who also came up through the ranks. They currently have 56 certified firefighters, and they have 63 budgeted. They have a total of 67 on staff, with four being in administration. There were seven new firefighters hired, with two being female. One of the females, Anna Ard has become the second female firefighter in the history of the Laurel Fire Department to have completed the State Fire Academy. The other Savannah Buckman is being prepped to attend the academy. The first female firefighter, Vondia Ponder retired as a captain. They had one firefighter to retire, 3 resigned, 3 were terminated and one failed to pass the academy. Four promotions were made during the year with two captains and two lieutenants. They had 36 reported building fires for 2021, compared to 47 in 2020, that was a decrease in 11 for the year. This is the third most run category for the department. Thankfully, there were no fire related deaths for the year 2021. They worked 21 vehicle fires, which was an increase of the 19 in 2020. The Laurel Fire Department had 351 reported vehicle accidents, which was an increase over the 314 reported in 2020. Motor vehicle accidents with injuries rose from 122 in 2020 to 140 in 2021. Accidents with no injuries rose from 167 in 2020 to 173 in 2021. There were two traffic fatalities recorded, one male on Hwy 59 North and one female on Hwy 15 N. Vehicle accidents are the most run category, totaling 38.3% of all calls. They had 180 false alarm calls, most originating from SCRMC, Wal-Mart and accidental alarms going off in residential homes. This accounts for the second most run category at 19.5 % of the total calls. There was one reported arson and one attempted arson, the arson suspect was a female and was arrested by Laurel Police Department, while attempting to leave the scene. They did not request Mutual Aid from the county during the year and we received six requests for Mutual Aid from the Calhoun Volunteers. The Department modernized the training facility with new technology and improved the training grounds. They began to do in-house CPR recertification by sending department personnel to the State Training Academy, and then they are able to return and train the other personnel, thereby saving money for the department. They outsourced the annual testing of the fire apparatus, which earned more points from the State Rating Bureau, improving the chances of achieving a Class 4 fire rating. The reason they received more points is because the rating bureau looks at an outside tester as more unbiased than they would a department grading themselves. The Department had a successful visit from the MS State Fire Rating Bureau on October 21, by receiving a score of 57.86; this is the closest we have ever been to achieving a Class 4 Rating, the score to obtain a Class 4 is a score of 60, so we are right on the verge. As we continue to upgrade and improve our training and water supply, hopefully by next year’s report, we will be announcing a move to a Class 4. The Department reestablished the Firefighter of the Year Award, in conjunction with Brian Ginn and State Farm, after a fifteen-year hiatus. Voted by his peers, the Firefighter of the Year was presented to Jermaine Cobbins. We look forward to continuing the partnership with State Farm, and there is hope to expand the program to include Fire Officer of the Year. On another note, we have four fire stations that were built in the 1970’s. They all either need to be replaced or have extensive renovations. Our long-range goal is to replace these four stations, realizing that the price tag will exceed $1 million for each station and # 1 station which houses the Command Staff and two trucks, with one being the ladder apparatus will be even more expensive. That is the goal for the near future.
THE CITY OF LAUREL DEPARTMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION: is ably lead by Elvin Ulmer. Aside from himself he has 43 additional employees. The Parks and Recreation Department has many duties that they perform on a daily basis. In general, they removed diseased, dead and dangerous trees when they are on city right of way. They helped to clean up streets from limbs and trees after storms. They grinded several stumps of trees in Mason and Gardiner Parks. As usual they maintained all the flower beds across town, edged curbs and sidewalks throughout the city, picked up litter throughout the city, kept traffic signs and lights visible by pruning overgrowth. They also maintained the high school football and baseball fields. They assisted Laurel Main Street with downtown events such as the Steak and the Chili Cookoff, Loblolly Festival, Touch-a-Truck and Craw-fest. And as if they did not have enough to do Mr. Ulmer volunteered his department to take over from Public Works the maintenance of Council ordered lots of which they cut 109 and city-owned and state-owned lots, which totaled 150. For information purposes, when a lot is ordered by the council to be cut, the cost of the cutting is placed on the taxes of the owner. If the owner does not pay for the cleaning fees or no one else pays the fees and taxes for a period of three years, the lot reverts to the state. When it reverts to the state, it is a vacant lot that no one takes care of. Traditionally, the city would have to send a letter to the state, requesting permission for the city to go onto state property to cut a state-owned lot, sometimes it would take months for them to reply. Their reply was always the same, you may proceed to cut the property, but we do not have the funds to pay you to cut it. So, we would cut the state-owned lot and we would not be paid, even after having to wait for months to get permission. State-owned properties are governed by the Secretary of State’s office. So, since we were not being paid for cutting, and since the purpose of cutting was to make the city look better, I sent a letter to the Secretary of State asking that he give us blanket permission to go onto state property and cut vacant lots, since we are not being paid for it anyway. Surprisingly, he gave us blanket permission to enter the properties and cut them, for a period of one year. We have to request permission each year, and we still are not paid for the labor. Even though the state has millions of dollars, that they don’t know how to spend, they still say they don’t have the funds to reimburse the city for cleaning state owned property. We currently have approximately 250 state owned lots that we maintain. In the same way, Parks and Recreation cuts the MDOT intersections, because MDOT only cuts the intersections, at the most twice a year, so Parks and Recreation cuts these to make the city look maintained, of course MDOT freely gives us permission. The department also was again awarded the AmeriCorps grant, which is turning out to be an excellent addition to the offerings of the city. The Susan Boone Vincent Sportsplex, that naysayers said would never be successful when we were attempting to have the 1 cent added to hotels and restaurants to build in 1996, hosted the 2021 Dixie Youth World Series from July 30th through August 12th. There were approximately 1600 players and coaches from eleven different states in attendance and over 27,500 paying fans. We have found that parents, grandparents, and other kin love to travel to support the players, and Dixie Youth has found that Laurel, MS is the perfect place to hold their annual event. It also hosted the Laurel-Jones County Youth Soccer Spring League with 542 participants and approximately 5,000 in attendance. Hosted the Laurel-Jones County Youth Soccer Fall League with 489 participants and approximately 4500 in attendance. Hosted season three for the Ladyhawks, in practice and game play, they are a home-schooled soccer league who rents the facility. Hosted a Laurel High soccer tournament with 54 teams participating and a South Jones soccer tournament with 62 teams participating. The Sportsplex also hosted 10 USFA Youth Softball Tournaments. They also hosted 3 BPA and 1 Grand Slam Baseball Tournament, the tournaments each had 40-55 teams that participated in each tournament and all ten fields at the Sportsplex were utilized for these tournaments. Mr. Ulmer has been saying for over twenty years that if we build eight new fields that he could have them full on most weekends, he is proving to be true to his word. Phase I of the eight fields, which consists of four fields was completed; all the fields have been irrigated, sprigged and sod laid, scoreboards installed, carpeted batting cages installed, backstops installed, phones and helmet storage was done in dugouts. The first four fields of the Elvin Ulmer Eightplex are complete. Now if we can just get a sign installed. Also, at the Sportsplex the Natatorium is used on a daily basis, for swim team practices, water aerobics, swim lessons, lifeguard training, recreational and fitness swimming. It also hosted 14 swim meets that included high schools, invitational and Laurel Swim Association Meets. When the idea of adding one cent to hotels and restaurants to build the Natatorium, the Sportsplex had already been financed with a 1 cent tax on hotels and restaurants to fund the building of it. The mayor at the time came up with the idea to add another cent to fund a Natatorium. There was one particular councilman who was adamantly opposed to the project. He nicknamed it Susan’s Concrete Pond, and said it was a total waste of money and not needed. There was a vote of the citizens of the city and the county and it passed. As time progressed, this by now former councilman, began to have some health issues, and he required therapy in the form of water aerobics, and guess what? He began to use the facility on a daily basis for his health, that he said was a waste of money and unnecessary. The Natatorium continues to be a successful venture. So, just because you can oppose a thing does not mean that you are correct. All the other facilities that are overseen by Parks and Recreation were all busy during the year. The Tennis at the Sportsplex hosted United States Tennis Association men and women’s leagues, provided courts for member and open play throughout the year. Tennis at the Sportsplex is huge and there is discussion of finding a way to add more courts. The Splash Pad at the Sportsplex is always well used. The only drawback to many things at the Sportsplex that requires water, is that we are not allowed to use city water, since it is located in the Calhoun Water Association. We have requested from Calhoun to grant us the right to enter their territory and to provide city water to the Sportsplex, but so far, we have been unsuccessful. We are continuing to have hope. Boots Smith Fields, West Drive Fields including the Wooten-Legion Field, Walter-Lion Field, Lonnie Hosey Field, A. W. Watson Field, Gardiner Park, Boston Park, Oak Park Football Field and Fieldhouse, Oak Park Swimming Pool, L. T. Ellis Swimming Pool, K. C. Park, Mason Park, Liberto Park, Leontyne Price Park, Pinehurst Park, Trustmark Park, Daphne Park, Daphne Skate Park, Sandy Gavin Park, Cotton Mill Park, Euclid Park, Oak Street Pocket Park, Cameron Center, L. T. Ellis Center, Train Depot, all fall under the oversight of Parks and Recreation. There was much activity by citizens and much maintenance and repair done at all these facilities. FACILITIES MAINTENANCE which is led by Victor Heidelberg is also a part of Parks and Recreation and they are tasked with the maintenance of the various building that are owned by the city of Laurel. They completed 735 work orders across the year, at various sites. The also handle street lighting downtown, maintain the fountain in Pinehurst Park, put up and remove all the beautiful Christmas decorations, sets up the Christmas trees at city hall and Pinehurst Park. They remove graffiti from buildings, they secure building reported by Inspection. They do a great job in keeping things operating on a daily basis. THE DEPARTMENT OF CEMETERY led by Eddie Hutto, is with Parks and Recreation, they maintain all the city-owned cemeteries. Oak Hill #2 and Hickory Grove. Both of the cemeteries are getting very close to full capacity. We are in need of between 15-25 acres to begin another cemetery, if we choose to remain in the cemetery business as a city. Some of the hundreds of tasks accomplished by Parks and Recreation were the walking track at Sandy Gavin Park was resurfaced, revamped all the fields and play areas at all the ball fields, hosted dance and cheer lessons, provided fields for Spriggs Youth Football, planted trees, assisted with Christmas lights at Mason Park, maintained the dog park, hosted birthday parties, hosted gender reveals, resurfaced basketball courts and parking lot at K. C. Park, hosted blood drives once a month at Cameron Center. The tennis courts at Daphne Park were completed, and they will be for citizen use and also as the home courts for Laurel High School Tennis. In the Facility Rentals, the Depot had 28 rentals, Cameron Center-76 and L. T. Ellis Center had 59 rentals. Rentals were down due to many things being closed. Later this year we will add the Oak Park Alumni Building to the list of rental facilities and we expect it to be rented on a regular basis. Mr. Ulmer continues to be the top producer. Thank you, sir!
SUEZ: Has been employed to be our water/sewer contractor for the last fifteen years. Suez is required by contract to have a staff of 52. Suez provides various trainings, both in-house and externally for their employees to maintain their current certification and also to achieve new certification. Uniforms, personnel safety equipment, safety supplies and outside training are provided for employees at an approximate annual cost of $119,000. Suez is responsible for any cash shortage that occurs within the management and operation of the City of Laurel’s Customer Service Department. They are also responsible for any environmental fines that may occur due to the operation of the plants. Suez accepts or shares the liability in many claims due to sewer backups and vehicle damages that are not the responsibility of Suez. Since the start of the contract with Suez in 2006, Suez has paid a total exceeding $600,000 in claims. Suez also accepts liability for any vehicle accident in which a Suez employee is driving a city vehicle. In proving to be a good corporate partner Suez contributes $2,000 to the Sawmill Square Fireworks Show, donated $500 to Laurel Police’s Night Out Against Crime and also donated 500 Suez coloring books to the police department as give aways to children during their events. Donated $500 to the Laurel-Jones County Dixie Youth Baseball and also $2500.00 to the City of Laurel for the Dixie Youth World Series. They also donated $1,000 to the Ward One Mentoring/Scholarship program. Any Suez employee who drives a dump truck or the jet truck are required to have CDLs. Last year they sent three employees to the 10-week CDL training at Jones College at a cost of $5,400.00. Each employee completed the course and obtained CDL Class A license. Once this is achieved, they receive an increase in their hourly pay. According to the contract Suez is required to provide four vehicles to Laurel, they are providing nine trucks, two boom trucks and two mowers. In the last of 2020 we had an amendment to our contract with Suez, this amendment added a four-man crew to do special projects that we had previously contracted out to another contractor, this has allowed the city to have substantial savings in this area. For example, the crew replaced 54 feet of 16-inch perimeter water main and also installed a new 16-inch valve at E 7th St and MS Avenue. On Queen Street, between Ferrell and Leontyne Price Blvd. the crew replaced 42 feet of 8-inch sewer main at a depth of seven feet. They replaced 610 feet of cast iron water main with a new six-inch water line. In this same project, they replaced 6 water services and meters, this was on Leontyne Price and Commerce Street. On S 16th Avenue they installed new services off a 6-inch water main and killed the old 2-inch line from Ferrell Street to Airport Drive. On the Central Avenue project, from the new roundabout to 5th Avenue they replaced 900 feet of old water main with a new water line. They also replaced water services and new meters. Three fire hydrants were installed and a sewer service that was 9-feet deep was replaced at 545 Central. At the north entrance of Meadow Lane Drive, they replaced the old 2-inch water main with a 6-inch new water pipe, also replacing seven water services and meters, and installed a new fire hydrant. During the year Suez repaired 1311 water leaks, located 1490 lines, repaired and or replaced 30 fire hydrants, did 38 water taps, 25 sewer taps, plugged 112 water or sewer services, unstopped 557 sewers, worked 125 sewer cave-ins and raised 8 manholes. During the year, Wastewater Supervisor Mike Votta kept communications open between our pre-treatment industries Masonite, Amick Farms and Sanderson Farms throughout the year. Wayne Farms approached the city about assisting them in some upgrades and expansions to the lift station. This expansion and rehab would have cost the city upwards of $300,000. Since this lift station is used solely by Wayne Farms, and the rehab would only benefit Wayne Farms, the Administration approached Wayne Farms with the possibility of them taking ownership of the lift station, since they were the only recipient of the operation of the station. Wayne Farms agreed to examine the offer from the city. After beginning discussions with Wayne Farms on the lift station, the sale of Wayne Farms took place to Amick Farms. In our first meeting at city hall, with the new owners, Amick Farms, we broached the subject with them on the lift station. We later met at the Amick Farms offices on Wayne Drive and were pleasantly surprised that Amick Farms agreed to accept the lift station and to save the city the cost of its maintenance and rehab, which as we said was in the neighborhood of $300,000, aside from the regular maintenance. Mike Votta helped to facilitate the ownership transfer of the lift station to Amick Farms; this was completed by council order on December 7 of 2021. A grant was awarded to the city in the amount of approximately $5 million to rebuild the levees at Smyly and Massey lagoons. During the past year, the Massey Wastewater Treatment Plant treated one billion, five hundred fifty-four million, five hundred fifty-nine thousand gallons of sewer. The Smyly Wastewater Treatment Plant treated one billion, six hundred ninety-six million, nine hundred thirteen thousand gallons of wastewater. Total treated at both plants were three billion, two hundred fifty-one million, four hundred seventy-two thousand gallons of sewer. On the other side of the operation, the Water Production Department produced two billion, one hundred sixty-five million, four hundred thousand, nine hundred gallons of water. In January 2018 a seventh amendment to the contract with Suez was entered into for the purpose of rehabbing water wells. The schedule was to rebuild/revitalize four wells per year until all are completed, over a ten-year period. In 2021 Well #4 was rehabbed, resulting in a 54% capacity increase. Well #9 was completed resulting in a 55% increase in capacity. Well #7 increased capacity by 43%. Well #14 is currently under rehab. Due to the increased capacity after each well is rehabbed, significant savings in electrical costs are recognized. New control panels for the wells were designed, built and installed by Suez. Each water well is being upgraded with these panels, one at a time. The control panel is designed around a soft start that is less aggressive on the motor, pump and discharge line on startup and shutdown. These panels contribute to electrical savings. The City of Laurel’s four elevated tanks continue under contract with a division of Suez, Utility Service Company. This contract provides elevated tank inspections and elevated tank maintenance that fulfills compliance with the MS Department of Health. The Customer Service Department collected $14,632,055.00 during the year; this amount exceeded our budget by $704,686.00. We again raised water and sewer rates by 3%. The reason that we have a slight increase on an annual basis is that the public utility fund in which the water and sewer operates out of is what is called an enterprise fund, meaning that it must pay for itself, from user fees. That means each time we replace a water line, it must come from this fund, whenever we replace a sewer line, it must be paid for out of this fund. When we repair a sewer cave-in it comes from this fund. When we spend $400,000 a year to clean sludge out of the wastewater plant, it must be paid for from this fund. The salaries of all the employees and all the vehicles and equipment must come from this fund. Since the administration has strived to repair the water and sewer underground before doing major street projects, these repairs must come from this fund. On March 2 of this year, we received the Report of Inspection of Drinking Water Supply from the MS State Department of Health on an inspection that was conducted on February 16, 2022. It stated that at the time of inspection, the system appeared to be well- maintained and operating properly. The system’s sanitary survey was performed and no significant deficiencies were found. We received an Overall Capacity Rating of 5.0/5.0. You hear people on the street who claim that our water is bad etc. the MS State Department of Health says otherwise. In September of last year there was a visit from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to inspect our two Publicly Owned Treatment Works at the Massey and the Smyly treatment plants. At the conclusion of the inspection of the Massey facility MDEQ wrote, “No concerns were noted during this inspection. The laboratory facility and equipment appeared to be well maintained, and no discrepancies were noted during a review of the facility’s records. Effluent from the facility appeared to be clear with no noticeable odor at the time of the inspection.” At the conclusion of the inspection of the Smyly facility, MDEQ writes, “No concerns were noted during this inspection. No discrepancies were noted during the review of the facility’s records, and effluent from the facility appeared to be clear with no noticeable odor at the time of the inspection.” That is definitely not always the case with all treatment facilities. Most of the fines and penalties dealing with MDEQ and consent decrees are usually concerning waste water. For example, the Meridian Star reported on January 14, 2022 that the city of Meridian is on track and in compliance with the $126 million, 20-year consent decree with the EPA to resolve deficiencies in its sewer system. (January 22, 2021, from City of Hattiesburg: Judge signs consent decree between City of Hattiesburg, EPA and MDEQ over wastewater system. The consent decree-a 16-year improvement plan-settles a lawsuit by the EPA after seven years of negotiations, which began in September 2012 when an EPA inspection report notated unreported sanitary sewer overflows. The judge signing the document kickstarts the plan and accompanies a list of milestones that must be completed in 2021 calendar year. The City shall pay its only civil penalty in a lump sum of $165,000 within 30 days of the signed decree. The legally binding document holds Hattiesburg responsible in significantly reducing the occurrence of SSOs and improves the overall operations of its water collection and treatment system. We are glad this Consent Decree has been finalized and that the City of Hattiesburg can finally move forward, said Mayor Toby Barker. This settlement, while recognizing the mistakes of the past, also notes The City will also comply with an aggressive schedule for the rehabilitation of the wastewater collection through a 16-year investment and infrastructure upgrades. Compliance with the requirements of the consent decree is estimated to cost approximately $45 million, and the timeframe for completion of work is 16 years. Water and sewer projects are funded through a dedicated budget source that stems from residential and commercial water and sewer utility collections, said the mayor). (Clarion-Ledger newspaper, 1-27-2021: Proposed 20% water/sewer rate increase would help fix Jackson Infrastructure). The city has to increase rates to fund water and sewer repairs. City Engineer Charles Williams estimated Jackson needs $2 billion to fix both systems. The Environmental Protection Agency had encouraged the increase as part of a consent decree against the sewer system and an administrative order to upgrade the city’s water treatment and distribution systems. Part of our proposal that we’ve submitted to them, is that we would do an increase. Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba says they are the first of what will likely be several planned rates increases in the coming years to help cover decree costs. The mayor said all the changes are being made in conjunction with its decree consultants and the EPA. The city entered into the decree with the U. S. Department of Justice and EPA in 2013. At the time, Jackson agreed to spend an estimated $400 million to bring its sewer system into compliance with federal water quality law. Jackson was given 17.5 years to complete the work. Since then, decree costs have more than doubled. Included in the list of violations were the releasing of 2.8 billion gallons of partially treated wastewater into the Pearl River. I went into depth with the other cities because every year when we begin to discuss increasing the water and sewer rates, there is a lot of push back as to why they should not be raised. As you can see it is rare that when the EPA or the MDEQ comes in to do inspections, that there are no negative findings or even monetary penalties. Suez has kept us from that situation, by professionally handling our water and sewer operations. Make no mistake, it is not inexpensive, but I think the proof is shown that we get our money’s worth.
CITY CLERK/FINANCE DEPARTMENT: City Clerk Mary Ann Hess heads up this department, along with five other employees. This department is in charge of elections. There were Democratic and Republican primaries and also a general election for Mayor and Council during the year. No runoff elections were required to be held. In preparation for the election, each of the five clerks attended a mandatory training held in Jackson or Gulfport. The three Municipal Election Commissioners, along with the City Clerk attended mandatory training in January 2021. The City Clerk’s office is continuing to work on its goal of preserving and quickly retrieving the city’s historic records. All new Council minutes are currently being scanned into the File-X system, even though it may need a little fine-tuning to be able to more easily retrieve these minutes. Being able to fulfill the public requests and other city department’s requests in a timely manner is a continuing objective for the City Clerk’s office. This is one of the most visible ways of meeting the needs of our internal and external customers. During the election, several public records requests were received and responses were made in a timely and appropriate manner. On the permitting side there were 160 new business licenses applied for in 2021, compared to 149 for 2020. The City Clerk’s office also handles special event permits, and for the year 2021 most of the events were postponed or cancelled, and the revenue was significantly decreased, as a matter of fact we collected only $395 in permits for the year. We had four applications for ad valorem tax exemptions for the year. They were Howard Industries requesting exemption on $7,242,610. Wayne Farms requesting $4,980,433. Dunn Roadbuilders requesting exemption on $1,821,812 and Laurel Machine and Foundry requesting exemption on $754,256. Some of the persons who come to speak before the Council make it appear that we are exempting the amount that these companies are asking for exemption on. For instance, when Howard Industries ask for an exemption on $7 million, they are not being exempted for $7 million, but instead they will be exempted on what the ad valorem tax would have been on that $7 million. Prior to 2016 when a company requested an ad valorem tax exemption, they were granted a 100% exemption on the requested amount. In 2016 the administration and council changed the policy and began to require that the industry be exempted all but 9.42% of the requested amount. Instead of receiving 100% of the requested amount, the business would only receive 90.58% and the 9.42% would go into the General Fund. In addition to the ad valorem exemptions that are allowed, there is a freeport warehouse exemption on inventory that is manufactured here, but will be shipped out of the state for sale. Howard Industries applied for an exemption on $33,244, 204 in freeport warehouse exemption. Masonite applied for $12,048,810, Mid-South Industries applied for $1,516,592 and Essmueller Corporation applied for $1,370,119. Again, they will not receive that much in exemptions, but only what the tax would have been on those goods, had it remained in the state. It should be noted that whenever a business requests any type ad valorem tax exemption, the schools’ taxes that are due are never exempted, the schools receive 100% of taxes due to them. In 2021 we collected $23,423,167.06 in ad valorem taxes, the majority of that went to the Laurel Separate School District, the city retained $9,551,616.12 and the schools received $13,871.550.94. The city attempts to operate within its budget and not increase ad valorem taxes unless absolutely necessary. You hear a lot of people who say that city taxes are too high, but if you would examine your tax statement, between the city tax and the county tax and the school portion, the city tax portion is the lowest of the three. It should also be noted that when an area is annexed into the city, either voluntarily or it is a contested annexation, the residents in the annexed area pay taxes to the school district in which they resided before the annexation. They do not pay city school taxes. At its annual Budget Public Hearing, Administration presented to Council a balanced budget in all funds. On September 7, Council adopted the three budget orders-accepting the tax valuations as presented by the tax assessor/collector, voting to remain at the 43.35 mils and passing the FY 2022 budget unanimously. Sales tax was up over last year by almost $813,399 or 8.1%. For the first time in the city’s history, sales tax collections exceeded $10 million. Out of over 300 municipalities who receive sales tax diversions from the State, the City of Laurel is consistently in the top 20 municipalities in sales tax collections. One interesting thing about us collecting $10 million in sales tax is that this equates to the businesses having sales of approximately $667,000,000. Even though we received $10 million the State Department of Revenue received approximately $37 million. Tourism tax showed an increase over $258,961 or 12.4%, the largest increase since Katrina-reaching $2 million for the first time in the city’s history. The formulas are different, but with us receiving $2 million, the merchants had sales of $23.2 million off the two cents tourism tax. The city had an increase in its valuation of 3.7%. The value of each mil increased by $7,588. In 2021 a mil was valued at $191,539 and this year it is valued at $199,123. The Laurel School District had an increase in its values by 2% and the value of each mil increased by $4,048. Schools’ mil in 2021 was $202,926 and for 2022 it is $206,974. At the annual evaluation meeting of the Municipal Retirement Systems, our actuary presented a comparison chart of assessed property values among the seventeen cities that participate in the old Municipal Fire and Police Retirement System. Among the seventeen cities, Laurel had the highest 4-year annual average increase at 4.4% and the third highest in 2020 at 5.2%. In a statement from Mary Ann Hess; “a good steady increase in property values every year is a very important indicator of a city’s overall economic health. Next to a city’s bond rating, this is probably the second-best economic indicator. It shows that the city’s leadership is doing everything that is within their control to increase the value of people’s property through the enforcement of zoning laws and lot cleanings. It also shows an overall excitement and people’s desire to move here, that the town’s businesses, especially small ones are flourishing. I have always said that Laurel is not a wealthy city compared to other cities in our state, but we manage what we have and can compete with them any day. This proves it.” In March of 2021 after analyzing many factors, we gave the employees a 5% pay raise. As mentioned earlier, we began with the intention of giving a raise again this year, we shall see how it works out. It takes $116,000 for every 1 per cent of a raise that is given, and this is not a one-time expenditure, but must be sustained throughout the years. So, to fund a 5% raise an additional $580,000 is needed in perpetuity. The City issued a 5-year Negotiable Note in the amount of $1 million to be used to complete the new Elvin Ulmer 8-Plex, this note is to be repaid out of the tourism tax funds. One of our local banks, First State Bank was awarded the winning bid with an interest rate of .95%. We did not have to obtain another bond rating in 2021, so the City’s bond rating remained at an A. At the end of fiscal years 2020 and 2021, because the City had appropriated funds that were not going to be spent for the original purpose, mainly due to personnel vacancies, Administration requested that Council reallocate these funds to the capital line items. The Police, Fire, Streets, Drainage and ITS Departments were able to make some much-needed capital purchases for their department. Because of our strong end-of-year financial position, no short-term equipment loans were required to make these purchases. The City Clerk and I have been meeting with our Government Consultants, Lynn Norris and Nick Schorr to develop a 5-year Capital Plan for the City. The Plan includes two facets: 1. A scheduled replacement of our capital equipment for various departments, for items like vehicles, computers, heavy vehicles, etc. 2. A scheduled timing of our long-term capital projects and needs, such as bonds and notes. Nick Schorr is quoted as saying, “Laurel’s economic indicators are all strong. Laurel is in a unique position in that they control their own fate. It is not dependent on surrounding cities and entities for its economic development.” The FY 2020 audit was successful and clean. Two audit findings were included in the report and corrective action has been taken to ensure that the city does not receive these findings again. Mainly because of the $434,243.00 that the city received in COVID relief funds, the city exceeded the $750,000 threshold that is a requirement for a Federal Single Audit, which was prepared and submitted to the Federal Clearinghouse for FY 2020. After approving an engagement letter with Holt and Associates to conduct the 2021 audit. The auditor requested several items from the finance department that were timely retrieved and presented to the auditor in preparation for the next audit. During FY 2021, the Finance Department continued to meet its cash flow obligations at our bank, First State Bank, as a result of their winning bid. All of our checking accounts are at First State Bank. Each month Ms. Hess and Krystal Jones work to determine the amount that is 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 account 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 $176,870.10 in interest was earned on all of our excess funds. The additional four mils that are levied especially for streets is in its third year of collections. Around $788,00 was collected from these four mils and were used to complete the 2020 overlay project. There was over a million dollars collected in Road and Bridge funds from the county; this was another first for the city to go over $1 million in Road and Bridge funds. State law states that ½ of all ad valorem taxes by or for a county…within a municipality (the streets which are worked at the expense of the municipal treasury), shall be paid over to the treasurer of such municipality. During last year we collected $1,104,655.17; $500,000 went to the General Fund and $604,655.17 went into the street fund. In 2022 all the Road and Bridge Fund monies from the County will go to the street fund. Another source of street funds is from the State in the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act, from our share of internet sales tax. In its second year of collections, the city received over $800,000 in 2021, thereby doubling the State’s initial projections for the City of Laurel. These funds were budgeted for engineering and construction costs related to the S 16th Ave and Martin Luther King Avenue projects. Each year, the City Clerk has to prepare forms on how the City has spent its infrastructure funds for the previous year in order to prove that the funds were not being used to supplement the existing budget. Revenue that went into the street fund were: a. 4 mils street levy- $788,000, Road and Bridge Funds-$604,000 and the Mississippi Infrastructure Modernization Act-$803,142, for a total of $2,195,797. The City of Laurel expended almost $15 million in projects over 2021, and anticipates spending over $35 million in 2022. We currently have more road improvement projects going on at one time than we have in many, many years. There were many training sessions attended by staff in the City Clerks’ office, both in person and virtually. Our grant writer Whitney Pickering applied for and received an AmeriCorps Grant in the amount of $154,780. Mississippi Arts Commission Grant in the amount of $10,000, which was used to paint the electrical boxes around town. Applied for $100,000 for FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant and received $14,315, this will train four fire department personnel in Fire Inspection, which is another step in our attempt to lower our fire rating. Applied for and received $142,638 through Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to complete the Daphne Park Tennis Courts, we had originally received $175,000 to begin the project. Also, applied for $135,993 in another FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant, has had no word on whether we received it or not, it would be used for equipment and additional training. For the 2021 FY she secured a total of $321,733 in grant proceeds. She also applied for a Kubota grant in the amount of $100,000, for a Ward 4 Park project, this was not awarded. Even though she did not write these grants she did have some input and suggestions; the $23.8 million RAISE Grant, the $3.2 million 12th St Corridor, the $1 million Arco Lane Bridge project. Whitney does an excellent job in securing funds for the City of Laurel and they are appreciated. As she says in her ending report, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil, and I am here to squeak for you.”
The Inspection Department is led by Sandra Hadley; she has five other employees and one vacancy, in the position of building inspector, if you know someone qualified, please let us know. Ms. Hadley took over direction of the Inspection Department in March of 2021, because in my opinion, the department was not operating up to its potential. I felt that Ms. Hadley had the best interest of the city at heart and that is something that Inspection needed, at the time. She had bought into the idea of cleaning up the city Beautiful, citywide. I emphasize citywide, because sometimes when it comes to beauty and cleanliness, it only refers to certain areas of the city. In some areas it was not okay to have junk vehicles and unkempt yards, but other areas it should be tolerated. We plan to continue to enforce the ordinances throughout Laurel. Some of the things that have been instituted should make things better and add to the city treasury. The department had been operating under the assumption that a demolition order issued by the council did not have an expiration date, but it was found that the expiration date was one year from the time the order was issued, therefore they are behind on some of the demolitions that should take place in certain wards, so council be patient, they are getting there. Also, we were vulnerable to a lawsuit for going onto private property and demolishing property without a proper authorization. Also, the city charges a permit fee for various construction jobs in the city; such as building permits, plumbing permits, HVAC permits, electrical permits - this is the way that the city generates revenue, through taxes and fees. There were many contractors who were not obtaining permits before starting projects in the city, this is being rectified and it should show in the revenue of the Inspection Department. The department is striving to be more customer friendly by making sure that the employees are consistent, on time, working every ward, improving documentation and organization, cross-training and learning more about the operation of the department. It is very difficult to police some of the ordinances that we have on the books, especially when someone feels that they should be able to do what they please on their property, such as not having junk cars in the yard, not allowing overgrown yards, not allowing chickens, not allowing trashy yards. It is a difficult task and a thankless task, but in order to make a difference, it must be done. The department has made much progress and has made many enemies, but they are to be commended; the results are slowly beginning to be noticed. They issued 1,151 building permits, totaling $45,582,656. There were 42 demolitions, with 14 being completed by the city and 28 by the owner. There were 67 business license violations, some of these were for operating a business without a privilege license or some other code violation found during the inspection of the business. They conducted 208 business license inspections, 21 street lights reported out, this is handled by Scott Shoemaker; we want to thank Laurel Police for turning in other lights that are out that are observed while on patrol. There were 498 electrical, gas, plumbing and HVAC inspections. There were 143 citations for improper addresses - some residents don’t like the inspectors telling them that they must have an address displayed. But, when EM Serve needs to find them at 3 a.m. when someone has had a heart attack and there is no address, that makes a big difference. They cited 116 for improper parking in yards, 72 junk equipment, 577 junk vehicles, 2 sign violations, 325 unclean lots, 1,152 overgrown lots. They conducted 45 site plan reviews, Council granted 11 Special Exceptions, 5 Variances, 4 zoning changes, 1 conditional use and amended the City Code by adopting the 2018 International Building Code, and also approved the new flood plain maps. Working in conjunction with the Laurel Housing Authority to do inspections on their Housing Rehabilitation Program, there were 25 homes rehabilitated at a cost of $256,098. The Inspection Department probably qualifies as the Most Hated and Despised Department in the city at this time, and it shows. The culture is changing… for instance, in the past when a ticket was placed on a junk vehicle and the notice gave the owner so many days to correct the violation, they knew all they had to do was pull the sticker off and go on with business as usual. There have been many occasions when the owner came home after the warning time had expired, and saw the vehicle gone. They are disliked, but I commend them for a job well done. If you pay attention, you can see the slow and steady difference they are making. Thank you!
CAPITAL IMPROVEMENTS LIST:
Streets continue to be on the top of the complaint list, especially on Facebook. To show that we are working on streets and other necessities in the city, here is a sample of the work that has been done for the year and some that are still in progress. (1). 13th Avenue overlay and drainage improvements, project area was from Jefferson St to 12th St. it included Wards 2,3,4,5 and 6. It had a price tag of $1 million and was completed in March of 2021. (2). 5th Avenue overlay and drainage improvements, project was from Northview Drive to Central Avenue. The cost of this project was $2.4 million and was completed in May of last year. It encompassed Wards 2,3,4,5 and 6. (3). Laurel Sportsplex Expansion-Contract I. At a cost of $3.9 million, the project included the construction of a 4-field softball complex, complete with parking, access road, press box, and field amenities. It is located in Ward 1 and was completed in July 2021, just in time for the Dixie Youth World Series. (4). Laurel Sportsplex Expansion-Contract II. At a cost of $2.5 million, this project includes clearing, earthwork, waste relocation and clay cap construction of the old landfill, and construction of access roads and parking areas. This is projected to be complete in May of 2022. Again, this is in Ward 1. (5). Laurel Sportsplex Expansion-Contract III. At a cost of $3.5 million, this Ward 1 project will include construction of 4 adult softball fields, concessions, concrete sidewalks, surface paving of roads from Contract II, dugouts, batting cages, and roadway, parking lot, and field lighting. Construction is scheduled to begin in Fall of 2022. (6). CDBG Water System Improvements Phase II-Plant 2, construction was completed in April 2021. This project cost $ 1 million and included the water tank rehabilitation, replacement of the aerator, installation of safety rails on the 1.5-million-gallon storage tank and the installation of a 200,000-gallon bypass tank at Plant 2. With it being a water tank, it encompasses Wards 1,2,3,4,5,6 and 7. (7). 2020 City of Laurel Overlay Project Contract IV. This $1.8 million project was completed in March of 2021. It included roadway improvements on ten different streets in Wards 2,3,4,5,6 and 7. (8). Beacon Street (Leontyne Price) Gateway Project. It is currently under construction and the completion date is projected to be the Summer of 2022. This project is $5.3 million, with $3.6 million from MDOT funding and $1.7 million from the city. It includes roadway and pedestrian improvement from MDOT ROW to the south, to Central Avenue. It will have a median and I have seen where the Facebook experts have weighed in with their disapproval. For the new councilmembers, just so you will know, we did have meetings concerning the project, including the median while the project was in the design phase. (9). Central Avenue Roundabout and 500 Block Improvements, this project is expected to be completed in Spring of 2022. It cost $1.5 million, with $870,00- from MDOT and the match from the city of $592,000. The flag pole has been removed, with plans to relocate it to the Sportsplex, the realignment of the roundabout, constructing of the raised center island, removal of brick pavers, pedestrian and drainage improvements, and opening traffic back up to two-way traffic. This project is in Ward 6. (10). South 16th Avenue Utility and Roadway Improvements Project. This project is budgeted at $1.5 million and is located in Wards 1,6 and 7. The projected completion is Spring of 2022. It includes milling, overlay, striping and utility improvements on 16th Ave from Ellisville Blvd to Queen St. (11). Martin Luther King Avenue Roadway Improvements. It is under construction and is expected to be complete in Summer of 2022. The cost of the project is $2.7 million and includes milling, overlay, striping, and utility improvements along MLK from Chantilly to E 20th St. This project is in Wards 4 and 5. (12). Kimberly and Katherine Drive Utility and Roadway Project. The cost is $2.1 million and is expected to be completed in Summer of 2022. The project includes milling and overlay, striping and utility improvements within the Kimberly and Katherine subdivision. This is in Wards 2 and 3. (13). Brown Street Drainage and Access Road Project. This project which is in Ward 7 is in the design phase and right-of-way acquisition phase. The cost of the project is $650,000 and will include drainage improvements in the Brown Street area and construction of an alternate emergency access road on the western end of Brown Street. (14). NRCS Lagoon Access Road. This project is $4.2 million with $3.4 million from NRCS and $730,000 from city funds. It is expected to be completed in the Summer of 2022. It will install borrow material and grouted rip rap to reshape and protect the Smyly and Massey lagoon slopes and access road around the lagoons. This project benefits Wards 1,2,3,4,5,6 and 7. (15). GIS Water Valve Location. This project is done at a cost of $90,000 and includes locating and entering the water valves into the GPS and updating the GIS water system. This project benefits Wards 1,2,3,4,5,6 and 7. (16). Spec Wilson Blvd Pedestrian Improvements. It is in the design phase, it is a $930,000 project, and will include reconstruction of curb and gutter, sidewalk, raised median islands with pedestrian refuge areas, crosswalks, storm drainage and landscaping. This project is in Ward 5. You know if you listen and look at Facebook, we are not using tax dollars wisely, these projects listed from 2021 total $30.9 million dollars. There are a lot of things going on in the city.
2022 PLANS: Some of the things that we have in the plans for 2022 (1). We have applied for a grant to allow us to expand our skate park, located at Daphne Park and in Ward 6. (2). We are working on the final details for a park on the campus of Nora Davis School, located in Ward 4. The school district has deeded the land to the city and we’re waiting to proceed. (3). Still seeking funding for 3rd. Ave, off 10th St, with the brick street, cost is in excess of $1 million and located in Ward 5. (4). We will be seeking funding to repair the 400 block of S 14th Ave, located in Ward 6, and again the cost is in excess of $1 million. (5). On the planning stages is the repair of 13th St, again a brick street that is in bad shape, the cost is not even known yet. It is located in Ward 2. (6). We are finishing up the Oak Park Alumni Building, that will be used for functions of the National Oak Park Alumni and also will be a city facility that will be rented, such as the Cameron Center, Depot and L. T. Ellis Center. It is located in Ward 7. (7). Funding for the closed bridge on Arco Lane is a priority, the cost of it is approximately $1 million, and it is located in Ward 5. (8). The 12th Street Improvement Project, where the child was killed near the high school in 2019. We have plans to improve this street from 7th Ave to 16th Ave with sidewalks and other safety features, this project is $3 million and we are actively seeking funding. This project is located in Wards 2 and 6. (9). Wards 1, and 7 have plans to install digital signs for their wards that displays the speed of the driver, and the speed limit, in attempts to slow down speeders in their respective wards. Also, there are plans for Ward 6 to purchase flashing signs to deal with the semis traveling through the residential neighborhoods. (10). There is much interest in Pickle Ball which is played on tennis courts; Mr. Ulmer has plans to do some experimentation with the sport and see if it is as popular as the players claim that it is. The courts will be installed on the top courts at Daphne Tennis Courts. (11). Mr. Ulmer is also going to look at beginning Disc Golf at Mason Park, again this is a sport that has been generating a lot of interest. (12). Senator Barnett is attempting to find funds in Jackson, to pave the parking lot at Oak Park Alumni Building and also to assist in paving some streets. (13). We are hoping to have the Short-Term Rental Ordinance in effect very soon, it has to be approved by the Planning Commission and then approved by Council. (14). One of the reasons to have this ordinance in place, is that because of the hard work of many of our local representative in Jackson, the City of Laurel was granted permission from the Legislature to add 3% on hotels, Bed and Breakfasts and Short-Term Rental units, including Air-B-&- B’s, to help fund tourism in the City of Laurel. The bill introduced by Senator Juan Barnett, SB-2155 passed the House and the Senate and has been signed by the Governor. We must now have a referendum and have a majority of the voters voting on that day to approve it. There were many people who played a large part in this bill being passed; Senator Juan Barnett, Rep. Donnie Scoggins, Rep. Robin Robinson, Rep. Omeria Scott, Ross Tucker and George Bassi along with other members of the EDA, Sen. Chad McMahan from Guntown, who is the Chairman of the Senate Local and Private Committee. We want to give much thanks to them all. (15). The Golf Cart Ordinance is making its way through the Planning Commission and then hopefully soon will make its way to approval from Council. This is the ordinance to make it possible for golf carts and similar vehicles to travel on the streets of Laurel. Many people desire to begin businesses to offer tours to the tourists and also to just move around the city in one. We are working through the details. (16). A MS Home Corps Grant in the amount of $505,000 which was awarded prior to COVID, the offices pretty much shut down afterward, so not much took place. We are now close to starting the construction, there will be two homes demolished and rebuilt and four having major rehab. (17). The Medical Marijuana bill has passed the Legislature, and we are exploring all our options on this law that will benefit the city. (18). We continue to put in place the implementation of our required five-year plans for the annexed Pendorff area. (19). We continue to wait on word that the Legislature has agreed to match our AARPA funds of $4.5 million, dollar for dollar to make improvements to our water and sewer system, or whatever they allow us to use if for. The last we heard they had not made an agreement. (20). A major endeavor for the year is to apply for the U. S. Department of Transportation RAISE GRANT. We have applied for it the last couple years and have been unsuccessful, but last year, our application made it to the desk of the Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The grant is for $25 million and it begins near the fruit stand at Cooks Avenue and Cross Street. The project continues to the underpass where it will replace the MDOT owned pumps that moves the rain water from the underpass; it will also upsize the piping. This should greatly improve the drainage in the area during flash floods. It will continue to Five-Points and continue up Magnolia to Sawmill at the post office, it will then continue up 5th St, past Riser Cleaners, past First Baptist Church to the water plant. Go back to Sawmill at the new round-a-bout at Leontyne Price and continue past Central Sunbelt FCU, cross Mason Street past the old Ramada Inn, past 13th Ave, past Regions Bank to Hwy 15 N. There will be some right-of-way to be acquired along the route, and there will be sidewalks added along the route, along with improved crosswalks with stamped asphalt, with new overlay throughout. This application is due this month and awards will be announced in September. This is a highly competitive grant, and we along with Neel-Schaffer and others have put a lot of time and attention into it. We have attempted to cover all bases. The project is in Wards 5 and 6. (17). Laurel should soon have a much-needed Welcome Center, that is being built by the Laurel Housing Authority. Jones County and the City of Laurel have contributed to it, and also part of the new Tourism tax on hotels and air b and b will help to finance the operation. It will be located in Ward 6. (18).
FINAL THOUGHTS: Laurel is fortunate to be the homebase to a show on HGTV called HOMETOWN, that stars our own Ben and Erin Napier. There has been a great impact on the city because of this show. We are having problems to deal with that other towns our size would cherish. There are license plates in the city of Laurel from states across the nation; I told someone that I had seen a vehicle with a license plate from Hawaii and they told me that you cannot drive to Laurel from Hawaii - I don’t know how they got it here, but the vehicle was parked on Magnolia Street in downtown Laurel, Mississippi. Attending a meeting at Lauren Rogers Museum last month, it was reported that they are seeing record numbers of visitors, and attributed it to not only the excellence of the museum, but also due to the Hometown show. The gift shop has had a great four months, and they were able to meet the gift shop annual budget, in just those four months. The donation container at the front desk is also setting records. Realtors are challenged to find homes to sell in the city. Homeowners are sprucing up their surroundings. Ben and Erin’s visit to the capitol during the debate concerning our tourism tax, I believe, had a huge impact on the way that certain of our legislators voted that day. We appreciate the attention that they have brought to Laurel. While we are offering appreciation, we don’t want to forget Laurel Main Street. This organization got its start when a group went to D. C. to go through the training to be able to set up a certified Main Street organization - this was in 2006. It started as Laurel Express, but the Main Street organization informed us that the name Main Street had to be in the official name, so Laurel Main Street it became. During that time there was not much to do in downtown; Burton’s Jewelers was still open, but not much was going on. A great deal has happened since this time. Main Street had a lot to do with this; they grew and expanded what was the Main Street Festival, which is now the Loblolly Festival; they began the Chili Cookoff, Touch-A-Truck, the Craw-Fest, Wine Down, Live in Laurel; they urged the city to seek permission from the Legislature to have a Leisure District downtown which allowed us to have to-go cup partaking of alcohol; they began the Laurel Leap basketball fun day. They worked with the city and Trustmark and the Hometown team to reconstruct the Trustmark Art Park. They also helped to develop the Leontyne Price Music Park. They have also installed the special lighting that spans the streets in downtown; they have given façade grants to merchants to spruce up their store fronts. They requested and now we have a busking ordinance, where musicians can set up and perform in designated areas downtown. A lot has changed in downtown over the last several years, and again I have to mention Hometown and Laurel Main Street. One other note about the growth downtown and the filling of the once empty buildings - there have been some who persist to claim that the City of Laurel was selling buildings for a dollar and that is the way some of these buildings changed hands. Not true; the city owned one building downtown that is adjacent to city hall on Oak Street, it formerly housed the Inspection Department, Housing Department and Happy Marriage. That is the only building that the city has owned or sold, and it was not for a dollar. It was not sold for $1.00; it went through the bid process and we collected $180,000. So that is $179,999 over the $1. We did also sell the “Bridge to Nowhere” for scrap iron, but it was not for one dollar either. I would like to inform any felons who would like to work for the City of Laurel, to not hesitate to apply; there is no prohibition for felons to work for the City of Laurel. I also would like to thank the employees who do things during the year to help others; our employees are always giving to the United Way, volunteering to ring the bell for Salvation Army, donating blood during blood drives, helping with various fundraisers and food drives, giving of themselves selflessly. Thank you! I would also like to thank the large number of dedicated people who volunteer on all of our boards and commissions. They volunteer on everything from the School Board, the Civil Service Commission, the Planning Commission, The Tree Board, the Library Board, the Fair Commission, the EDA, the Housing Authority Board, the Laurel Airport Authority, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Regional Airport Authority, the Election Commission, and the Pine Belt Regional Solid Waste Authority. These people give of their time and talents to attempt to make this city a better place to live and work and worship. They sometimes have some controversial decisions that have to be made, and they sometimes take a lot of heat from citizens and elected officials. I simply want to thank them for what they do, because for all they deal with for the most part they receive no compensation. We could never repay you.
This is the state of the city of Laurel, Mississippi for the year 2021. We are sound and solid; we continue to move in the right direction, we have accomplished much. But, as Nelson Mandela said, “we have many more hills to climb.”