By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
“We have to have priorities established and expectations lowered,” City Manager Tim Bennett told the City Council members after their May meeting. “We have some high expectations of how the city should look, but we’ll have to make some heavy decisions.”
His remarks were in reference to the city’s extremely tight budget and meagre revenue sources that would mean heaving to choose between having the city look “nice,” as in clean, attractive and well-kept-up, versus letting some of those appearance/cosmetic issues go and focusing on what is strictly necessary to keep the city running while still safeguarding the health and well-being of its citizens.
The city has had to back away from demolition of dilapidated structures and go with just putting liens on them. With the issues of much needed sidewalks in some neighborhoods, using MCI labor would save money, but it would take a lot longer to complete the projects than with using city crews, since MCI workers had scheduling constraints. Bennett predicted that council members would soon start getting calls from constituents about the conditions of sidewalks, roads and so forth.
Councilman Jim Catron stated that part of what the council was looking at were necessities and immediate needs like wastewater and flooding services, things that had already gotten the city in trouble with some penalties from the Department of Environmental Protection. Bennett confirmed that the city had two fines from DEP coming its way in the near future, fines that were the direct result of failing infrastructure several months ago.
“The core of the city, its infrastructure, is 100 years old,” he reminded the council. “It is brick and clay.”
And it is deteriorating.
“Every week, there seems to be a wastewater problem due to infrastructure,” he added. “We’re drawing down our Enterprise funds to pay for general operations of the city.”
It was, he told them, a “perfect storm” of public safety, pensions and infrastructure problems that was causing the city to “cannibalize” itself, eating away at the Enterprise funds instead of re-investing in them.
“We’ll quit spending money wherever we can quit spending money,” he said. “Be prepared for the phone calls.”
There were questions about whether problems such as, for example, a vacant house with an overgrown yard would be considered a “cosmetic” issue or a “public safety” issue. What if it began harboring snakes and rats?
Such issues would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, with the crucial test being: was it indeed a true threat to public health and safety.
On top of that, hurricane season was fast approaching, with all of its public safety issues.
Councilwoman Rayne Cooks said that they were working with agencies to to try to get the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district extended all the way to the city limits to help with the infrastructure problem, “but it can’t be done right away,” she said. “It’ll take time.”
In the mean time, it was going to be hard choices and careful planning, and as Councilman Jim Catron noted, “A need for us to look at planning for multiple years (in the future).”