March 5, 2014 11:37:10 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Quality of life is an often-used phrase from local politicians, a puzzle they all talk about solving when they get elected.
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith has been elected three times now and knows the puzzle has many pieces: Infrastructure, financial stability, safety, aesthetics and many others.
Smith provided a state-of-the-city address to members of the Columbus Rotary Club Tuesday and discussed what he wanted to do to improve in each category under the quality-of-life umbrella.
First, he discussed what has been done under his watch as of late. The city has avoided millage increases in recent years and did not have to borrow cash to balance last year's budget. City departments' budgets were tightened during budget sessions in August. A recent partnership with Columbus Light and Water has led to 16 new street lights between the Highway 82 bypass and Plymouth Road. An effort to crack down on crime has strengthened with the recent hires of veteran law enforcement officers --assistant police chief Tony Carleton, formerly the Tupelo chief of police, and investigator Don English. The police department is also improving its neighborhood watch program. the mayor said.
But Smith said there's plenty ahead to accomplish. He, councilmen and department heads developed short- and long-term goals during a strategic planning retreat in December.
He said the vision that emerged from the retreat includes working with the Golden Triangle Development LINK to increase retail development in the city by 20 percent, doing everything possible to improve the city' schools and image and developing plans for a new convention center.
He wants these things done by 2017.
"It's going to be an effort between the mayor, city council and department heads on whether (a new convention center) comes to completion or not," he admitted.
He also wants to see half of the dilapidated houses in the city limits demolished or rehabilitated by that time. In the past three years, more than 100 dilapidated structures have been demolished, he said.
"There are a lot of houses where the dope boys and crack boys hang out at, so we have demolished quite a bit in the last three years," Smith said. "We want to continue the process and help clean up the city."
Smith's guest was city planner Christina Berry, who updated Rotarians on proposed plans to establish a redevelopment authority that could flip blighted properties into tax-generating parcels by buying and selling property, pursing public-private partnerships, borrowing funds and applying for grants. She said she was soliciting input for the proposed plan.
Smith took questions from members at the end of his and Berry's presentations. One Rotarian noted the amount of planning and costs for various projects on the table.
"Is there anything for taxpayer relief being planned?" he asked.
"We haven't raised taxes in the last two or three years," Smith said. "So, I think from the city standpoint you can be thankful. There comes a time to whereas you have to bite the bullet and we're going to have to raise taxes. From a relief standpoint, I think we've given taxpayers and property owners within the city of Columbus some relief for the last two or three years."
"Is that getting ready to end?" the member asked to laughter from his peers.
"It's coming to an end pretty soon," Smith said.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.