February 13, 2009
Kristin Mamrack -
The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors’ president and Columbus’ mayor have different reactions to Columbus-Lowndes Development Link CEO Joe Higgins’ call for action in improving quality-of-life issues, but both officials agree the issues are important to the community’s future.
Through recent and ongoing meetings with the Link’s Trust board of directors and city and county officials and in visits to various civic groups, Higgins has stressed the city’s and county’s focus now should be on quality-of-life issues such as public safety, fiscal responsibility and instilling community pride.
District 1 Supervisor and Board President Harry Sanders believes Higgins’ concerns are valid.
“I think there’s a lot of merit to it, because if you don’t recognize you have a problem, you don’t look for solutions,” Sanders explained. “I think Joe’s just saying we’ve got problems and we need to address them. There’s a lot of people taking it personally and thinking he’s trying to criticize, but that’s not what he’s trying to do.
“Primarily, the problem is, we need to maintain our infrastructure and not let it deteriorate,” he continued. “We need to do a better job in our housekeeping and clean up. We need to instill community pride, which has nothing to do with the government; it primarily lets the citizens know you can’t just sit there and do nothing.”
Sanders equated the issues to “having children, with no parental involvement.”
“You’ve got to have structure,” he said. “(Higgins’ message) is just a wake-up call, that’s all it is. I’m sure people are criticizing Joe, but don’t shoot the messenger because you don’t like the message. It’s not just the city he’s criticizing; it’s all of us. It’s the group as a whole. We just can’t keep running and hiding and not doing anything about it. We just need to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, whose term as mayor largely has been focused on beautification efforts, agreed the issues are the responsibility of everyone, but stressed the city already has been making significant progress toward offering a higher quality of life for citizens.
“I think Joe is blowing the thing out of proportion,” he said earlier this week, acknowledging “there are some concerns from some of the business people.”
“When he says public safety, yeah, there’s always room for improvement,” he added, noting the City Council, two weeks ago, voted to hire six new police officers, bringing the Columbus Police Department staff up to 70. “By doing this, you’ll have more officers per shift. The police department has four shifts, so, by beefing up patrol, that will improve things from the safety standpoint. From the mayor and council’s standpoint, we’re not just sitting on our laurels.”
Crime has “increased in certain areas,” but it’s also “dropped in certain areas,” Smith added, explaining youth crime in Starkville is “up,” while youth crime has decreased in Columbus.
“But they also discussed appearance of the community,” Smith said, referring to Higgins and members of the Link Trust. “I, along with the Public Works Department, and the council, the one thing we have done in the last two years (is) spend a lot of time beautifying and enhancing the appearance of the city, especially when you come into the city. In some areas, people do not travel; there are dilapidated houses, abandoned vehicles and overgrown lots. But we have spent enormous time cleaning up, not just in the uptown area, but all over the city. We have demolished 55 to 68 (dilapidated) houses in the last two years. Also, we cleaned up lots.”
“We have a full-time litter control officer, who has the power to arrest people for throwing litter out and has the authority to force people to clean up what they’ve messed up,” Sanders said of cleanliness in the county. “We have a full-time community service person, with a secretary, who works in cooperation with the Justice Court judges for individuals who elect to perform community service, instead of paying a fine. (They work with) the Humane Society, the Parks and (Recreation Department) and the courthouse. They do housekeeping chores and pick up litter on county roads.
“Then, we have a program we use through (the Mississippi Department of Transportation), through the Sheriff’s Department, where he runs two litter-control crews to pick up litter on highways or state roads in the county and they’re using state inmates or prisoners to do that,” he added.
“From a fiscal responsibility standpoint, we have done, I think, a good job,” said Smith. “Because, back in 2005, the city was almost broke. Now, the general fund is good. Last month, sales tax was down, but ad valorem taxes were up (compared to the same period last year). Due to the economy and recession, you’re going to look for things to drop in certain areas, but we have been frugal and the department heads have done outstanding jobs at not spending unnecessarily.”
“Fiscal responsibility and keeping taxes as low as we can affects quality of life, probably more than other things,” said Sanders, who noted the county spends “a good portion” of its budget “on quality-of-life stuff.”
“We have a tendency to throw things away and not take care of them,” he elaborated. “We just need to realize we need to build things and take care of them for our children and folks down the road.”
Sanders referred to plans to build a new county Health Department, on Chubby Lane, and new fire stations in the county.
“We plan on spending more extra money on roads this year,” he added. “We’re looking at doing something about parks and recreation, possibly on building soccer fields and adult softball fields, to start with. We need to take one step at a time; we can’t do it all at one time.”
“My idea is to pay as we go (on improvements in the county) and not burden people with higher taxes, which affects their quality of life,” Sanders said. “One thing we did take into effect, which people don’t realize, is when we sold (Baptist Memorial Hospital–Golden Triangle), our sales agreement (stipulates) the hospital will pay for care for all residents of Lowndes County, who are indigent. It took the burden off taxpayers and put it primarily on the hospital.
“We fund the (Columbus-Lowndes) Humane Society, Contact Helpline and about 10 or 15 agencies out of the county’s general budget that are quality-of-life things,” he continued. “And (we help fund) the public library; we share expenses 50/50 with the city and we’re able to furnish books.”
“Instead of Joe or whomever getting out there and trying to ridicule the city and county, it’s going to take all of us — the city and county, as a whole — working together for the common goal; and the common goal is to make progress,” said Smith. “But it’s going to take all of us working together, not one or two out there complaining. So, what do we do? Let’s all try to get together and come up with some solutions to the problems. And if we come up with solutions to the problem, we can improve the situation.”
“Quality of life is very important to both the people who live here and to the people who are moving here, because of jobs or the industrial development we’re going through,” said Sanders. “They certainly don’t want to downgrade themselves from where they’ve been. Mississippi’s reputation, nationwide, historically hasn’t been very good. Most people have a preconceived idea about what Mississippi’s like, and we certainly don’t want to project a negative quality of life for people moving here, so it’s very important we change their perception, if we want them to be happy here.
“Our problem — and I think it’s happened all over the United States — is we are spoiled,” he continued. “We just have so much room and it’s a throw-away society. We tend to litter and we don’t pick up after ourselves. I think we need to do a better job of housekeeping. We’re not the richest state in the country, a