Mayor Schloegel's 2010 State of the City Address - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Mayor Schloegel's 2010 State of the City Address

Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel's 2010 State of the City Address (prepared text)

Good evening:

Tonight my voice is the voice of the more than 600 supervisors and employees of your city. I speak with pride representing seven dedicated City Council members, and I speak with appreciation for the spouses and family members who give us daily support.

I would like to ask my wife, Peggy, and members of my family, and the council members and their families, to please stand and be recognized.

Would our supervisors and dedicated employees, and their families, please stand.

This will be the first time I am speaking to you in this setting since taking office just a few short months ago. In that time, Gulfport has been tested in ways none of us could have imagined.

Today, our city still bears scars of Katrina, our nation still wrestles with an economic recession, and our citizens are concerned about rising medical costs, losing jobs, making mortgage payments and putting children through college.

America has seen its share of economic afflictions. To be specific, we have seen 33 recessions and 32 recoveries and we will again recover from this one.

This recession, however, caused by the collapse of our housing market, is unlike any since the Great Depression. This recession has lasted longer, and the affects have been more pervasive, than anyone could have thought.

Since 2007, the unemployment rate in Harrison County has nearly doubled, sales tax revenues have declined and the real estate market has slowed to a crawl.

But despite all of that, I could not be more excited and hopeful about the future of our city than I am right now.

Tonight Gulfport, the state of our city is strong, because our citizens are strong.

As we are entering the twilight of our hurricane recovery, we are, at the same time, clawing our way out of the recession. And the same collective spirit of determination and dedication that was evident when the winds died and the water receded in August of 2005 is still alive and well today.

This building that we are in tonight is a great symbol of our resolve.

Destroyed by fire in 2007, the new Lyman Community Center stands today as an example of what is possible.

Because of the spirit of our people, the hard work of our employees and the dedication of our City Council, I am convinced Gulfport will reach the finish line of storm recovery, and we will again survive the economic storm.

There are some very promising signs that the downturn has weakened, financial institutions are lending money and people are again beginning to spend. But the fact is the nation's economy still has a long way to go.

Many families in Gulfport and along our Coast are still struggling to recover financially.

And with many of our families tightening their belts, it makes sense that City Hall should do the same.

As a result of the credit crisis, Americans stopped spending. And consequently, sales tax revenue in Gulfport, which makes up 40 percent of the city's budget, has dropped significantly from our earlier budget estimates.

Revenue collections for this budget year are now expected to fall short of our initial projections by more than $2 million and this will require significant adjustments.

We must confront the urgency of this crisis and act swiftly to ensure the solvency of our government.

In July, each city department head was asked to cut 10 percent of their operating budget for fiscal year 2010. Our department directors courageously met this daunting challenge and scaled back spending to help bolster the city's financial future.

Tonight, we know that additional cuts are necessary if we are to correct our budget.

When we came into office this past summer, we faced a $9 million deficit. The new budget that our City Council wisely approved in October cut that deficit in half.

That was phase I.

We presented phase II of the plan to the council earlier this month, outlining more than 40 detailed courses of action from the city's department directors.

These 40 suggestions could shore up this year's budget and result in a complete reversal of Gulfport's financial condition within the next 18 months.

In a totally separate initiative, by working through their department supervisors, we have created a volunteer panel of employees from each department in the city.

They call themselves the Initiative Management Process and Action Committee, or IMPAC. The committee is gathering ideas from employees citywide and formulating a permanent, long-term plan to improve and enhance all of the city's operating procedures.

Each and every employee has been given the opportunity to make suggestions to IMPAC for how Gulfport might increase revenue and lower expenditures, beginning with — but not limited to — the departments in which they serve.

The work to stabilize our finances will be a collective effort. Every man and woman working for the City of Gulfport has, and will, play a big part in this initiative.

Part of IMPAC's responsibility is to present additional ideas, and the committee will also be asked to fine tune some of the 40 or so initiatives, which have already been presented to the City Council.

We believe some of the action steps will be more effective than others, and some may even prove to be unworkable, but we must give each one of them careful consideration.

The IMPAC committee will consider every idea when charting its course of action within the next three weeks.

Most of you know I spent 53 years in the banking industry. After the election this summer I joked that my career had officially gone from debits and credits to dogs and ditches.

Well, apparently, it is time for me to return to debits and credits.

We will not go through the list of all 40 budget-improvement items with you tonight, but we would like to mention a few:

NO 1: We plan to reimburse the general fund for loans made to the Bert Jones Yacht Basin and to the Water and Sewer Department.

In 2006, the Water and Sewer Department received a $5 million loan from the general fund, and in 2007, the general fund loaned the Bert Jones Yacht Basin $1.5 million.

By running the Water and Sewer Department correctly and by properly managing slip rentals, the $6.5 million debt can be repaid and both departments can generate revenue for years to come.

NO. 2: Is a plan to give serious consideration to the city's employee benefits package.

Now let me be clear, because of the hurricane and because of the recession, our employees have had to step up and take on additional responsibilities and they have answered that call valiantly.

We should never forget that Gulfport has some of the more dedicated and hard working employees than you will find in any other city in America.

In 2008 and 2009, Gulfport granted an unprecedented salary increases for most city employees.

On average, each employee whose salary was adjusted saw nearly a 12-percent wage increase, putting the pay for Gulfport employees at or above that of their counterparts in other similar sized cities in the southeastern United States.

For example, a Gulfport firefighter in 2005 had a base wage of $28,910, plus benefits. Today, an entry-level firefighter is earning a base of $34,298, plus benefits.

A professional planner in our Urban Development Department was making a base of $28,808 four years ago, but today, a planner earns a base of $41,117, plus benefits. That's an increase of 43 percent.

Our employees work hard. And they deserve to be compensated for it.

However, as Gulfport families sit around dinner tables tonight struggling to figure out how they are going to pay next month's rent or put a child through college; as our families are forced to cut their own costs, should not our local government be expected to do the same?

No one is suggesting that we cut the recent increases to base salaries.

We understand the need for a highly-qualified workforce and we understand that our salaries must be competitive if we are to attract and keep good personnel.

But 80 percent of our operating cost goes to salaries and benefits, and over the years, our employee benefits package may have grown excessive.

In 2009, an average employee received 12 sick days, 13 holidays, 3 weeks of vacation, and because of the federal Family Medical Leave Act, an employee is given up to 90 days of leave under many different circumstances.

This means that a husband can take up to 12 weeks of leave when his wife has a baby.

There is not much the city can do to change the federal law.

However, something we can do about vacation days and holidays.

For every city holiday, and last year there were 13 of them, it costs the City of Gulfport the same amount of money it would take to pave 2 miles of road.

Think about that for a minute. Is it possible that our employee benefits package has become too rich?

That is a question we intend to answer. In the current economic climate, we want to know whether it would make better sense to temporarily adjust the benefits package.

NO. 3: Another way we could save money is by changing the way we operate community centers, like the one we are in tonight.

The City of Jackson, with more than twice the population of Gulfport, operates just six community centers.

Gulfport has 16 public centers, nine of which are staffed with a fulltime employee.

The most active center is used only 26 percent of the time. That means that at least 74 percent of the time all 16 public centers are vacant except for the paid city employees staffing those facilities.

This is not a good use of taxpayer dollars.

Now listen, I am not saying that we close some of our community centers. They play a very big role in our neighborhoods and they are very important to the communities that surround them.

However, I am saying that we should take a close look at how we are operating our centers.

Does it make good sense to pay a fulltime employee to sit in a community center 40 hours a week, when that community center is occupied less than 12 hours a week?

NO. 4: Another way we have cut cost in recent months is by eliminating more than 60 jobs, mostly through attrition. And we have another 30 jobs that are currently vacant, which we do not intend to fill.

Each city position costs an average of $50,000 annually with salary plus the lucrative benefits package.

Permanently eliminating the 60 positions and the 30 open positions will save the city $4.5 million each year.

NO. 5: Currently, the daily city payroll is $125,000. We are considering a plan to implement a 2010 furlough program whereby each employee would receive one unpaid vacation day each quarter, saving another $375,000 for the current calendar year.

NO. 6: We are studying a plan to eliminate city-owned, take-home vehicles for those employees who live outside the city limits, or to at least have the employee reimburse the city for personal use of the vehicle. This could save another $80,000 annually.

In addition to the cost-cutting initiatives we presented to the City Council, there are several revenue generators that we are studying as well.

One of those is a plan that is being implemented in dozens of other American cities right now that would reimburse the Gulfport Fire Department for responding to medical calls.

Last year, our firefighters responded to approximately 5,500 medical calls, none of which were billed to insurance companies.

Compare the 5,500 medical calls to the less than 500 calls for fire (*) and ask yourself, in regards to fire, what business are we really in?

Also, tonight we are announcing a plan to temporarily mothball Fire Station No. 4 on East Railroad.

We currently have five stations south of Pass Road in East Gulfport. When we mothball Station No. 4, the plan is to relocate the nine firefighters and trucks to the other stations.

These 40 ideas and the ideas that will come from the IMAC committee will not be easy, but they deserve careful consideration.

Just as our families are making bold, belt-tightening decisions at home, City Hall must also respond to this recession with bravery and big ideas.

Our departments have already gone through their individual budgets, line by line, and made necessary cuts, and now we're asking for additional changes.

Our goal is to fix our finances before the next budgeting cycle begins, and I am very optimistic and hopeful that this can be done.

And you should know that while our department directors, the City Council and this administration have and will debate our budget ideas vigorously, we have already come together with a sense of common purpose; all wanting the same basic thing for our city: To rebuild Gulfport into the nation's most vibrant, prosperous and thriving community.

But to get through one of the greatest economic challenges of our lifetime, we must understand that it will take productive and civil discourse on the part of every member of the City Council and every department director.

Essentially, we must re-invent the way we operate our city government. We must explore new ways to make our government more efficient, despite the global economic climate.

While the city tightens its belt, we must continue to focus on rebuilding our local economy. We not only need to attract businesses, but we need to retain and stimulate businesses.

We need to market all that our city has to offer. Our neighboring cities are strong competitors. Gulfport must be stronger.

Gulfport collects twice the sales tax revenue than all the other cities in Harrison and Hancock counties, combined. We're way ahead of the pack, but we're beginning to hear their footsteps closing the gap.

We not only need to market Gulfport to the world and around the country, (*) but we need to start marketing Gulfport right here at home.

Our Department of Economic Development is communicating with developers of large and small projects to bring new business to our city.

The goal is to help our existing businesses, in all parts of our city, achieve greater success and increase the ringing of their cash registers.

Our people understand that now is the time to start building a new foundation for lasting prosperity in Gulfport.

And while we are focusing on economic development, we must also focus on cleaning up our city. We must remove the blight. We must rid ourselves of all the visible evidence of Katrina, before the 5th anniversary arrives.

How are we to ever rebound financially? How are we to bring in new businesses? How can our existing businesses be expected to grow if they are surrounded on all sides by neglected and rundown properties?

Tourism is very important to our economy and cleaning up our city will only help our tourism numbers grow. It will also help someone to choose our city when deciding on a place to open a new business or to live and to raise children.

I want to thank those of you who have already cleaned your properties. You have personally taken a giant step toward helping your city recover, and for that we are grateful.

But tonight, let me be clear: For the remainder of this term in office, we will use the strong arm of local government to shake the apathy out of those who own dilapidated and derelict properties within the City of Gulfport.

We can no longer afford to tolerate inaction on the part of individual property owners.

We can no longer afford to be distracted by the same old excuses while complacent property owners downtown and along Highway 49 and Pass Road and other areas strangle the life out of our city's most valuable commercial corridors.

The city will send out a formal notice to property owners in the coming weeks.

This notice will be in your water bills and it will be the last time the city will politely ask you to remove an abandoned vehicle, or to clean or demolish a derelict structure or to cut an overgrown lot.

The next notice will come from an environmental prosecutor and will be accompanied by court costs and possibly heavy fines.

Now understand we can't fight this battle alone. We need the people of Gulfport to help.

We need you to encourage your neighbors to take pride in their properties, and report those who refuse your subtle encouragement to our Department of Urban Development, so that we can begin to motivate them ourselves.

And to help make sure we win this battle, we have created a new Environmental Court, which heard its first cases in January.

The court is designed specifically to respond to abuses against our quality of life, those things that we all hold dear, but that are oftentimes issues not suited for our Municipal Court.

And now with the Environmental Court, violators can be brought through the system in a matter of days, rather than having their cases stuffed into a file cabinet for months.

Our new court will hear issues concerning substandard housing, unsafe buildings, abandoned automobiles, neglected and derelict properties, animal control, graffiti and other types of vandalism, construction and fire code violations, sign ordinance violations and many other infractions.

The court also will enforce our new tree preservation ordinance, which the City Council passed in September, successfully bringing an immediate end to the mass destruction of our natural canopy by allowing the city to impose swift and substantial penalties on contractors who blatantly violate the law.

Last month, our Environmental Court began with 149 properties that were in violation in one way or another.

Most of those property owners worked with our Department of Code Enforcement and willfully resolved their issues before ever having to appear in court. Another dozen or so were prosecuted in the court's opening week.

I want to thank the City Council for supporting this initiative and I want to thank our Department of Code Enforcement and the court employees for carrying it out. This program is working. Together, our stronger laws and our new Environmental Court are cleaning up our city.

Changing the way our city looks is a big part of Gulfport's rebirth.

For years the City of Gulfport could protect ancient oaks and old magnolias only on commercial property, but now, thanks to the firm commitment of the City Council, we were able to pass this historic measure and bring that same protection to trees on residential property.

Also tonight we are pleased to announce a brand new program started with the help of the Gulfport Civic League that will allow citizens, organizations or businesses to purchase a tree "in memory of" or "in honor of" of a loved one — deceased or living. The trees will be planted along boulevards and in parks.

The new Memory Tree program will help us eventually replace the trees we lost to the storm or to a developer's chainsaw. And it will give our citizens an opportunity to plant a living memory of a loved one.

The group of civic-minded women will purchase the first oak tree in memory of the Civic League members they have lost.

Members of the Gulfport Civic League are here tonight and we wish to thank them for this great program.

Also, we want to thank the Civic League for their generous donation of $1,400 to purchase to specially equipped wheelchairs for youngsters to use at our new splash pads this summer. Thank you.

You should know that our Municipal Court, the largest court of its kind in the State of Mississippi in terms of volume, recently began an amnesty program that allows those who have outstanding traffic fines to pay the court without fear of penalty or jail time.

In the past three weeks, the court has collected $74,000. That is a huge success.

If we are really to become one of America's most vibrant and thriving communities, then we must never lose focus of our fight against crime.

Tonight, I am happy to report to you that we are winning that fight, and we are winning big.

Under Police Chief Alan Weatherford's leadership, for the second year in a row, the rate of violent crime in the City of Gulfport has been reduced.

I believe that is a direct result of our Police Department's unwavering commitment to neighborhood meetings, which allows the department to develop strong, personal relationships with residents, while gathering a firm understanding of the needs in every community.

And because of these efforts — in the past 12 months — Gulfport has witnessed a 32-percent reduction in violent crime. It has been more than 10 years since the city's violent crime rate was this low.

More specifically, homicides fell 33 percent.

Robberies dropped 25 percent and assaults are down 49 percent.

However, we have witnessed a 5 percent increase in burglaries, a direct result of our nation's slumping economy and the early release of convicted burglars because of our overcrowded jails.

The Police Department is fighting back with its new neighborhood crime tracking system, allowing citizens access to daily crime information and trends in their communities. Citizens can now track crime throughout the city in real time and have alerts sent directly to their email inboxes.

Here is how it works: Citizens can visit Gulfportpolice.net and use the online map to essentially draw a circle around their neighborhood. Crime statistics on the map are updated daily and whenever a crime occurs within the citizen's mapped area an email alert will instantly be delivered to their inbox.

We believe this will help us identify the areas being burglarized and alert citizens to be more watchful, and overall, it will help us reduce the rate of burglaries and other crimes.

You can't put a price tag on the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you and your children are safe at night. But we certainly can thank the men and women of the Gulfport Police Department and the Gulfport Fire Department for putting their lives at risk to ensure that we are safer.

You should know that our Municipal Court, the largest court of its kind in the State of Mississippi in terms of volume, recently began an amnesty program that allows those who have outstanding traffic fines to pay the court without fear of penalty or jail time.

In the past three weeks, the court has collected $74,000. That is a huge success.

In November, Business Week Magazine named Gulfport the Best Place to Raise Children in Mississippi. And you don't get that designation by accident.

It is because of the work we are doing to clean up our city. It is because of our blue-ribbon schools and first-class parks and recreational activities. It is because of our commitment to family and public safety, and it is because of our people and the way we care for one another. Those are the reasons why Gulfport received such a high honor, and you deserve it.

We have come a long way in the past year and in the 4½ years since the hurricane.

Gulfport owes a deep debt of gratitude to Mayor Warr and the previous city council for the laying the groundwork for the successful rebuilding of Gulfport and it is our duty as citizens to continue moving forward; building on the foundation we have been given.

Oftentimes people ask me what we have done with all that federal money we received after Katrina. And that's a good question.

Since the storm we have received more than $240 million from FEMA, and without it, in many ways, our recovery would not have been impossible.

Those funds were obligated for specific projects approved by FEMA.

For example, a $112 million overhaul of our damaged water, sewer and storm drainage pipes and part of the $28 million construction of the new Robert J. Curry Public Safety Center to be opened by year's end.

The $7.6 million that made possible our streetscape enhancement project and the $4.4 million that remade the facades of nearly every building downtown, a program that has led to many new businesses, restaurants and pubs opening again in our business district. Once more parking is a challenge in downtown Gulfport.

It is also the money spent renovating and reconstructing of all of our community centers, parks and playgrounds.

Today, the city has 38 ball fields, 31 parks, 5 tennis courts, 3 city gymnasiums, 7 walking tracks, a fitness center, a senior center, a swimming pool, and more than 600 acres of parks and recreational areas.

Another $20 million is helping us recreate our Small Craft Harbor into one of the best harbors in the Southeast, with boat slips, an educational boardwalk and fisherman's village.

Gulfport's new 319-slip harbor will be a world-class facility and it is on pace to finish three months ahead of schedule.

While all of us recognize that the rebuilding of the harbor got off to a slow start, the painstaking preparation and planning in the beginning has set our new harbor up for great success.

We expect the piers to be complete by December and we will likely begin pre-leasing boat slips in late summer for occupancy in early 2011.

Tonight, we want to commend our general contractor, Innovative Builders, and the sub-contractors for their cooperation and commitment to building one of the finest harbors on the Gulf of Mexico, right here in Gulfport.

In addition to the government funds, we are grateful for the generosity of people like Jim Barksdale, a Mississippi native and the founder of Netscape, who has donated $1 million for public entertainment facilities in Jones Park, which will become the centerpiece of our city and Mississippi's front yard.

Along with the improvements being made at Jones Park, we announced in November that with the help of the Island View Casino Resort, the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo is coming home after a four-year absence.

The Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo is responsible for some very fond memories for so many people in Gulfport and across the Coast.

The plan this year is to hold the annual July Fourth event on the Island View Casino's beachside property and parking garage. Future plans include moving the rodeo back to Jones Park in a new, first-class pavilion, which will also be home to Cruisin' the Coast, Sounds by the Sea and the Fourth of July fireworks show, Fire in the Sky.

All that we are doing at Jones Park, the harbor and downtown will mesh perfectly with our plan for the old Veterans Affairs property.

Most of what is today a 92-arce property was going to be the site of Mississippi's 100th birthday celebration in 1917.

However, the land was given to the federal government during WWI for military training and the centennial celebration of statehood never happened. It later became a veterans' hospital.

Today, we call the treasured beachfront property Centennial Plaza.

The surviving historic buildings, originally built for the centennial celebration, feature Spanish architecture. The Spanish word meaning "open space or public square" is plaza.

In April, the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission will hold a developer's summit to market our city to investors from around the country. The goal is to find a developer willing to turn the old VA into Centennial Plaza, a center of hotels, conventions, retail and commercial establishments, festivals and galas.

A similar investor's conference is being planned to attract tenants for downtown and our major corridors.

The climb ahead of the GRC is steep, but we have some of the best and brightest minds in our city on this commission and despite the recession and the current obstacles that stand in their way, I am confident they will succeed.

Years from now, will we think of this as the great recession, or as the recession that made us great?

This recession is a major one, yes, but this time it's different. We are different.

We understand that to get out of this, we are going to have to be willing to work together, willing to compromise and willing to trust.

Political bickering, gamesmanship and egos have no place in Gulfport.

Last spring I made a commitment to work with the City Council.

When the members of this City Council decided to run for their seats it is clear that they, too, committed themselves to that same spirit of cooperation.

You have seen meeting after meeting run with professionalism, and measure after measure passed by unanimous votes, following sometimes spirited debate.

Our team has an unbroken line of communication. It has allowed your hometown government to be very effective in the past few months. Together, we have accomplished a great deal.

The people of Gulfport are united today by the destruction that united us 4½ years ago, the same resolve, the same strength and perpetual spirit that have fueled our commitment to rebuilding our Coast.

Even amid the most difficult circumstances, we are joined by a common resilience and determination to showing the world that there is no test too great; no mountain too steep, when South Mississippi climbs together.

The work that lies ahead will be difficult, the challenges will be daunting, but the future does not belong to the timid; it belongs to the brave.

None of this will come without a cost. Nor will it be easy.

But we were elected last summer to do a job, and that job now requires that we solve Gulfport's problems, and continue making it a place where families want to live, work and play.

Despite all the difficulties we face, I am more optimistic now than ever before that Gulfport will triumph. We will remedy the budgeting issues that ail us now and we will move forward, building a brighter future for our city.

What we have already accomplished, as a people, breeds optimism and hope for what can accomplish tomorrow.

I am inspired by the laborious tasks and new possibilities the next three years will bring. So tonight, let us reflect on where we have been and the tragedies that we have shared, but let us also renew our commitment to rise above Katrina and to lift our city from the depths of this economic storm, so that we might stand bigger and better than we have ever been before.

Thank you for coming tonight. Please keep us in your prayers and forgive us for our shortcomings. May God bless you and may God bless the City of Gulfport.

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