By Terri Ferguson Smith
Just a few weeks shy of his first year in his first term of office, Mayor Percy Bland of Meridian said much has been accomplished in his administration but much more is planned.
At a council meeting on Tuesday, Bland presented his annual report, which he said looks at what has been done as well as what is to come for the city.
"The purpose of this annual report is to reflect on the achievements already made, to lay out our goals and to pinpoint our community's strengths and the hurdles we must jump in order to move forward," Bland said. "The excitement and energy radiating from the residents on the inside cover of this report reflect a spirit of optimism about our ability to grab our dreams and shape them into a better Meridian."
Accomplishments listed in the report include:
• A living wage increase bringing city employees up to at least $9 per hour,
• A balanced budget for 2013-2014 with no tax increase,
• Replacing contracted workers at Union Station with city employees for cleaning and for security, saving about $200,000 a year,
• 311 — See Something Say Something
• In the last six months of 2013, collected nearly $800,000 in outstanding fines,
• Interstate Crime Unit Enforcement unit seized approximately $750,000 in drugs, cash, and vehicles in last six months of 2013,
• Officer Next Door program,
• Safe Routes to School Program,
• Saving money on housing prisoners by sending some to Kemper County for $20 a day instead of Lauderdale County, which charges $38 per day.
Bland was optimistic about projects under way to revitalize downtown, such as the 5th Street revitalization, which the city received a grant for to help revitalize the historic African-American business district. The grant was awarded during the Cheri Barry administration and includes sidewalks, lighting and landscaping between 23rd and 26th avenues.
Other projects under way include:
• New Marriott Hotel and restaurant,
• New Comfort Inn extended stay hotel,
• Civil Rights 50th anniversary celebration,
• New Meridian Public Transit/EZ Tag partnership to provide transportation to those in need,
• Purchase of new equipment to work on urban renewal, abandoned houses,
• Condominium project in the old bank building on Fourth Street,
• Renovation of building at 22nd and Sixth Street for use as a restaurant,
• Urban renewal strategy to demolish abandoned structures, and
• Mapping marketable community assets with Mississippi Development Authority.
Still more projects are proposed and among them is infrastructure improvements. With a price tag at about $35 million, the city's wastewater treatment is among project that will need attention in the coming years, according to Ward 1 Councilman George Thomas, council president. He said he thought the mayor's annual report was well-stated and he is optimistic that some of the problems that occurred early on in Bland's administration are all behind them now.
When voters put Bland in office, they also ousted three incumbents, bringing in Ward 2 Councilman Dustin Markham, Ward 4 Councilwoman Kim Houston, and Ward 5 Councilman Randy Hammon. Only Thomas and Ward 3 Councilwoman Barbara Henson kept their seats on the council.
"There was a learning curve there. Things have improved," Thomas said. "The annual report looked very good. There were a lot of projects that were ongoing when the mayor and all of us were elected. A lot of those programs were already ongoing. I'd like to see more new programs."
Two priorities the city must face are the wastewater treatment system and the future of the North Lauderdale Water Association. Thomas said because the city annexed northward several years ago, they are going to have to provide water and sewer to those residents. They are served by NLWA but don't have sewer, as houses have individual sewer systems.
"We cannot do anything until we make some kind of deal with the water association. They have the franchise," Thomas said.
Markham said he was pleased with the mayor's report.
"I thought it was a very good report that highlighted everything that we have tried to do in working together over the last year," Markham said. "I'm very optimistic as to where we can go in the next three years and placing Meridian where it needs to be."
Markham said he wants to do more to expand opportunities for young people.
"My top priority has to deal with the situation as it relates to our youth and trying to make sure we are doing all we can for our youth to keep them out of the criminal justice system," Markham said.
That means supporting and improving public schools, which also helps attract industries, he said.
Markham said the city needs to allow the new police chief, Benny Dubose, to stabilize the police force and make the streets safer.
"He's coming in with a big job on his plate and it's going to take a lot of resources and a lot of help from our community, a lot of help from elected officials," he said.
Markham said he hopes to help bring in more businesses that employ large numbers of people and offer good wages. He acknowledged that there were some problems during the mayor and council's first year together, but he too expects things will continue to improve.
"We all have had growing pains, I think you have seen that," Markham said. "We're constantly having to reexamine what is best for the community and sometimes we are not going to agree, but we have to make sure we are moving forward because our community depends on us. They put us in office to do the job and it's up to us, at the end of the day, to do it when no one else takes it on."
Henson said she was happy with the report, but she's not surprised about that.
"One thing about those annual reports — they are compiled so that we feel real happy with them. The pictures are pretty, the words are nice and whoever gives it, like the mayor did, it just sounds wonderful," Henson said.
In her 24th year as a councilwoman, Henson has already said that this will be her last term. However, she still has goals set for her ward and for the city. Like others on the council, she worries about crumbling neighborhoods.
"In my ward in particular, we have a situation where the husbands and wives purchased their houses when they were young folks and now they are old, like me," Henson said. "They've either gone on to move away from here or they've passed away. Their children don't want the houses. They either live somewhere else and don't want to come back or they can't afford to take it so the houses sit there empty. That is what I see all over the city."
That further contributes to the decline of neighborhoods and a lower tax base.
"You can work all you want to but the people who have fallen heir to those houses are in other cities or other states and they don't give a rip about it," Henson said. "You can't find them to pay their taxes, then the state has to take over them, then they turn them back over to us."
Houston is optimistic that the coming year will be good for Meridian. She is among council members who earlier complained about communications problems between the mayor and council.
"I think it's already getting better. One of the things I'm pushing for is to have more work sessions," Houston said. Work sessions are informal, but public meetings in which the council discusses upcoming business items. They are not allowed to cast votes in a work session.
"Usually we have a lot of them around the budget time but I would love to maybe have work sessions at least once or twice a month sometime either before the actual meeting so we can kind of know where we are on some things," Houston said.
She said she wants to continue to build relationships between the churches, businesses and the Meridian Public School District.
"I think if we really want to curtail the crime in this city, we're going to have to get to these elementary kids and give them something to believe in again — give them some hope and some purpose," Houston said.
Houston said no one can deny that there are gang problems in Meridian and she believes people must reach out to young people before they are taken in by gangs.
She wants to make improvements to Q.V. Sykes Park and she wants to continue the sidewalk project, Safe Routes to School.
"We're going to take care of the needs our our constituents," Houston said. "I also look forward to working with the rest of the council to support any ideas that they have. I still want us to continue to tear down houses and revitalize our communities."
Hammon said he was pleased with the report, but his concerns stem from the recent audit that showed the decline in property taxes.
"It's exactly what I've been saying for a long time. The audit said the sales tax went up $600,000 but the property tax went down $800,000," Hammon said. "That's a bad trend to set."
But the city is already finding ways to save money, such as dropping the contracts at Union Station, having an energy efficiency audit and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollar in old fines.
Hammon has been the most consistent and vocal voice on the council regarding urban blight. As part of that mission, he has pushed for more funding for the city's Community Development Department.
"If you don't have good infrastructure you're not going to get the amount of property taxes that you want because you have to have people living here and paying property taxes," Hammon said. "If you have a good environment, you'll stay."
Hammon said the city has already taken steps to fully staff Community Development, bringing the number of building inspectors to three and adding the job of code enforcement manager.
Hammon also noted that the recent audit showed that the city has a rainy day fund of approximately $12 million.
"We have may tapped into a little of that but that is pretty much our buffer fund. That's why we are in good shape as a city," Hammon said. "We are kind of like the state. We don't dip into our rainy day fund."
Hammon also pointed out that the city has not raised taxes in 10 years. He said he doesn't know if this will be the year to do so, but residents may have to think about their priorities.
"Everyone wants more services. They want more police, more fire protection. They want infrastructure improvements, street improvements," Hammon said. "To get some improvements that you want, I think it's common sense to say if you want some improvements, I think a one percent tax increase would be very acceptable. You're talking maybe $15 a year for most people."