By Terri Ferguson Smith
Issues ranging from morale at the Meridian Police Department to the new "three dog" rule and a $30 million grant the city is seeking marked discussion at Thursday's Ward Two community meeting.
Hosted by Dustin Markham, Ward Two councilman, the meeting included many of his constituents as well as residents from throughout the city and several city and county officials.
"I applaud the work that the mayor is doing in trying to work with us," Markham said. "We work together to try to move the city forward. I guarantee you that after four years, you will know that we did everything we could to do that."
Mayor Percy Bland talked about his administration's first 100 days in office and the city council's approval of the livable wage increase that he recommended. The city has also reestablished a swimming program and a learning center at the Velma Young Center, he said.
Bland said two of his priorities for the city are public transportation and housing.
"If we are going to have a 21st Century community, we are going to have to have public transportation as a key component," Bland said. "We have too many people who don't have access to health care and don't have access to transportation."
Bland also talked about a $30 million grant the city and the Meridian Housing Authority are seeking from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2012, HUD officials announced that Meridian was among 13 cities across the country selected to lay the foundation for neighborhood revitalization. With that came a grant totaling more than $240,000 to help prepare the grant application for the $30 million.
"If we receive that award, it will totally transform Ward Two," Bland said. "There will be a housing component, an educational component. It's going to uplift this community specifically in Ward Two."
The Choice Neighborhood grant being applied for would fund improvements and revitalization in Meridian's East End neighborhood, the site of George Reese Court public housing which has high crime, high vacancy rates, poor health and nutrition among residents and deteriorated housing, according to information from Ron Turner, executive director of Meridian Housing Authority.
"First of all we plan on demolishing a lot of the blighted houses that are in that East End community and we are also planning on getting funds that are going to help houses in the community by bringing them up to codes and standards," Turner said.
Transportation is another key component of what the housing authority and city are doing to improve the East End, Turner said. Having reliable, consistent transportation is essential to people who have to get to work, he said.
"After January, we will know exactly how much money is going to be on the table for the initiative, Turner said. "We know that five cities are going to be chosen. It's a very competitive process."
MHA is in the process of building 10 transitional houses, Turner said.
Turner said MHA is the largest housing authority in the state, with 1,300 leaseholders, which translates into about 3,600 people. But that statistic is nothing to brag about, he said, because the goal of MHA is to make homeowners of these residents.
Another topic of concern on Tuesday was crime, which Bland and Chief of Police James Lee talked about.
The mayor and chief outlined some of the changes Lee has brought about since becoming chief in July:
The See Something, Say Something initiative uses the 311 telephone number people can call to report a crime if they wish to remain anonymous. The caller's number will not show up on caller ID.
Lee divided the city into quadrants and assigned police officers to a particular zone for 90 days, he changed officers from 12-hour shifts to 8-hour shifts.
"We are covering the quads every day, all day long," Lee said. "We can dispatch our officers a lot quicker to areas in the outskirts of the city."
Lee has redesigned the officer reserves program as well.
"I do not believe in reserves," Lee said. "If you went through the reserve program, you put this outfit on, you are the police. You need to go to work. We are making our reserve units come in on the weekend and on the holidays."
And as for holidays, Lee said officers will be out in full force.
"Halloween evening, I have called for a mandatory all hands on deck," Lee said. "Every police officer who has a badge and a gun, including the reserves, will be working in the quadrants, at the mall. Every neighborhood will have one or two cops patrolling so that people can see them, the bad guys can see them and more importantly the kids can see them so they can feel like they are safe while they are getting a stomach ache."
On the day after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday as it has become known, Lee said everybody on the police force will be working.
"I want everybody, including me, in a patrol car, working," Lee said.
With new changes that he has implemented at the police department, Lee acknowledged that morale among many officers is low.
"Morale is low because people are opposed to change," Lee said.
The department has about 120 employees and Lee said there is no way to make all of them happy.
"Morale is going to get better because just like I talked about those hours that they are going to be working on the holidays — I am going to pay them so they can afford a nice Christmas. Everyone at the police department is under the impression that they want to be promoted to lieutenant. The city only allows me so many spots for lieutenants. We cannot all be lieutenants and supervisors."
He also acknowledged that he's not very popular with the officers right now.
"I will make unpleasant decisions that affect morale and I understand that. That's what you pay me for," Lee said.
Lee said the biggest fight he's had so far from police officers is over his mandate that they wear hats. Many have resisted, but he said he insists that they will do so because it will make them look more professional.
"We are fighting the challenges of a system that has been in place for God knows how long and those employees have it in their minds that they are not going to work. We are not going to do this. We are not going to do that. You are not going to do that on my watch," Lee said. "You will protect these people. I do not think this is a perfect plan. I do not, but I think it is a plan and that's where we start. We adjust and do better."
As District Two County supervisor, part of Wayman Newell's district includes the city's Ward Two. Newell said the county has worked to improve the Velma Young Complex. Now its ballfield boasts a state of the art lighting system.
"That field is there. It's yours and the kids', hopefully for a long time," Newell said.
He added that he has plans to build bathrooms and a concession stand at the field also. Newell said he and the city are also working to repair some problems related to Robbins Creek near 26th Street.
Ricky Hood, executive director of the East Mississippi Boys and Girls Club, asked the question, "Why not Ward Two?"
He said the Boys and Girls Club could serve more children on the east side of town if there was a multi-purpose facility for them, not just for recreation but a place where people could go to study for GED tests and for meetings.
"Until we do something different, we are going to continue to get the same kind of results," Hood said.
Ward Four Councilwoman Kim Houston decided to address some concerns that have developed over the last few days as the public has become aware of a new rule by the city council to limit the number of dogs per household to three. Houston said the council adopted the new law because there were people inside the city limits who are breeding dogs for sale. She said the rule is not to take away pets who have become like family members.
"I assure you that we are not going to come knocking on your door, looking to see how many dogs you have in your backyard," Houston said. "There are a lot of people who have kennels. They have hoarding issues. They have all kinds of things going on. We thought it was time to address the issue because we are getting a lot of calls and complaints about those. We are going to be talking about some more things were can put into place to make sure your family member is not impacted by that ordinance."
Houston also talked about the idea that some people may have about the council, based on some recent disagreements between the council and the mayor.
"We are not against the mayor. I think that needs to be said. We highly respect the mayor and we are going to work together," Houston said. "We are all in transition right now."
Ward Five Councilman Randy Hammon said his ideas might not be the most popular, but he firmly believes that the city's codes and ordinances must be updated, and the city's infrastructure must be improved. He recommended that residents read the online report: "Vacant Properties: The True Cost to Communities," which is published by the National Vacant Properties Campaign.
He said when the city does update its codes and ordinances, "Every person here will be glad we did."