Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Looking Ahead (and a little bit behind)...

If you asked me last year if I thought the city was heading in the right direction I would have told you yes, we most definitely are following the correct course. Are we solving every problem? No. Are we getting better at it? You bet we are.

Here’s how I know we are moving in the right direction. We are replacing ageing water infrastructure at  a steady pace. Musgrove Street, portions of Clinton Mill, Lydia Mill, Gastley Drive, portions of Holly Street, portions of York Street, and other areas all received new water service over the past couple of years. Sidewalks in Lydia Mill and Clinton Mill both have been repaired. Solid plans to upgrade equipment have been developed. We have retrofitted our generators (which we run to save the city money on its electric bill which in turn allows us to absorb some of the PMPA wholesale power rate increases), starting taking a hard look at utility rates, started replacing water meters with more efficient system, testing a new electric meter system, and replacing ageing software programs that keep us from being as efficient at city hall as we should and could be. All things we should be doing and some things that will put us in the lead when it comes to the level of service we provide.

We’ve also invested in our personnel to give them the skills and tools needed to do the job. Supervisors have more supervisory and leadership training than they have ever had access to in the past. Three city employees are graduates of the South Carolina Economic Development School, four are candidates for certification in public power utility management, and two are candidates for utility customer service credentialing programs. Four staff members graduated from USC Municipal Department Head training this year. We are also successfully recruiting highly capable personnel at every level of the organization. Our problems require smart solutions, and we are getting smarter every day.

But that’s the past. Let’s talk about the road ahead and what we need to address in 2014.

In 2014, we have to continue to look at finding equitable ways to fund government. Fire trucks and police cars and utility services are not free. It takes people, equipment, and money to provide the services you rely on every day.  Our costs are rising, despite our best efforts to reduce them over the past few years through staff reductions of nearly 20% and delaying replacement of infrastructure and equipment, in some cases to the point where we now have no choice but to replace equipment. In funding government we have to be mindful every day that this is your money that you are investing with your neighbors in order to create a nice place to live and work. We cannot and are not wasteful with what you have provided and we must continue to be mindful of your investment in our city.

In 2014 we need to take a long hard look at how we enforce property maintenance codes. Our city should not and cannot be a city where substandard housing is ignored, where abandoned building eat up city blocks, and where property owners are not held accountable for the actions they take which negatively impact all residents. Our employees charged with this task are doing a great job which is evident by the fact that in the past five years code enforcement personnel have had approximately 100 derelict and abandoned structures torn down largely through voluntary compliance measures which have kept costs to taxpayers low. Now however, many of the easy projects have been completed, and we find ourselves dealing with property owners who live out of state, or who challenge or efforts on legal grounds. It is time for us to take a long hard look at how we enforce property maintenance codes and change them to make sure we are protecting our citizens, neighborhood property values, and not interfering unnecessarily in what a private landowner does with his or her property.

In 2014 we must continue to work on economic development and we must pursue economic development as a regional team. The county and the cities must work together to develop new opportunities, change strategies that are not working, and implement new tactics to recruit employment opportunities for our citizens. Economic development should be a team effort because, in all honesty, it is my belief that you don’t care who recruits the industry, as long as they come here. Partnerships are built on trust, and economic development can be highly risky, but the special purpose districts, local government entities, and economic development corporations that are dabbling in it must coordinate their efforts, support and trust each other, and jointly take the necessary risks to bring prosperity to our community. Participation has to be more than simply saying something is good idea. We must take actions to grow our city, our county, and our region.  

And finally, we have to find new ways to support the efforts of our schools. By schools, I mean everywhere that our residents go for education. From our public elementary schools to the hallowed halls of Presbyterian College, a greater portion of our economy is becoming based on providing educational services to residents and non-residents.  The future of our city depends heavily on the quality of education that our residents receive both in grade school and in post-secondary education. While we can all talk of people who made it very far along the road of life without very much education, the reality is that making it without an education is about as likely as winning the mega millions lottery – for the majority of people its just not going to be a reality. Our future depends on the quality of education that our residents receive, and those cities that are thriving and succeeding and winning the new developments in retail and manufacturing are those cities whose populations are highly educated.

Edith Lovejoy Pierce wrote “We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day”. Opportunity awaits us in 2014, but we are responsible for recognizing it, being prepared to capitalize on it, and seeing that opportunity become reality for our city in 2014.

Spend Your Money...Right Here

Do you remember the scene in the movie A Christmas Story that shows little Ralphie and the family in their downtown gazing in wonder at the toy display in the window of the department store? When I was a kid my hometown had a department store just like the one in Ralphie’s hometown called Globman’s. It was just down the street from a family owned shoe store named McCollum – Ferrell. I hated them both. There was nothing, and I mean nothing, that could ruin a seven year old child’s Saturday faster than being dragged to Globman’s and McCollum-Ferrell on a family shopping trip.

Globman’s was founded in my hometown in 1915, and McCollum –Ferrell started selling shoes in 1947. I wish I could tell you that these fine old stores, where store clerks knew their customers by their first name, believed that the customer was always right, and led the way in the community by supporting area charities, were still in business. They are not. They were both killed by the shopping mall that I and my friends hung out at in high school. After the shopping mall killed these two generations-old family businesses, it proceeded in serial killer fashion to wipe out other downtown stores as well.

Shopping, which we all know is not the reason for the holiday season, plays a critical part of our holiday celebrations. While the main street in the town I grew up in is eerily reminiscent of an old western ghost town haunted by tumbleweeds and lost fortunes, the businesses in our city are still alive and kicking. Here in Clinton you can walk into any number of businesses and be greeted by name. Store owners strike up a conversation about your family, football, or any number of interests. Store owners give to local charities, sponsor your child’s youth sports team, champion causes such as the United Way, and cheer the football team to victory on Friday night right alongside you.

They survive only because you choose to shop there, and when you stop shopping there, they will go out of businesses. Stop and think for a moment what our city would be like if downtown were dead. Does anyone really want to live in a dead city? Do you think a major employer would choose to build a new manufacturing plant in a town that had no shops, no restaurants, no community pride or no community spirit?  

Many times citizens will approach me or a member of my staff and tell us about a business in another town that they wish would locate here. Our shopping habits may actually be preventing those businesses from locating here.  As long as we are willing to travel to another town to be a patron of a business in that town, then that business will not choose to locate here. Why would they invest tens of thousands of dollars in building and opening a new store when we, their customers, are perfectly willing to get in our car and drive up to fifty miles to buy their goods or eat in their restaurant?

I know that as you read this you are pinching your pennies to buy that special gift, pay for groceries, and cover travel costs to see far off relatives this holiday season. You are not alone in your penny pinching because your neighbors, who own and work in businesses in our town, are doing the same. I know you are seeking out the best online deals and waiting in long lines at the mall to get a few percentage points off the price. I know you have to do that, because money is tight. My wife and I are doing it too. Do your neighbor a favor, and take a moment to stop in a local business this holiday season. My family will be doing some of Christmas shopping locally this year. You might be surprised at what you will find in a local store. There are good deals, perfect gifts, great services, and delicious meals to be had right here in our city. I know it is unreasonable to expect anyone to spend all of their money here but do yourself and the business community a favor and just check out a local business out this season.

Protecting our local business community is a two way street. Business owners must recognize that their competition is global. A local business isn’t competing with another local business located on the same street, but instead they are competing with hundreds of retailers in Greenville, Spartanburg, Columbia, Greenwood, and Newberry, and they are competing with the thousands of retailers that can be found online with the click of a button. Business owners must look for innovative ways to partner with each other to provide competitive value for our citizens, and that means being open, working together, and supporting events that your city puts on to bring customers to your doorstep. It also means working with your local government to help us find ways to partner to make you successful.

During the holiday season we all reminisce fondly about holidays past, which is what led me to think about the old stores in my hometown and how much I hated Saturday’s spent Christmas shopping as a kid.  I realize now how critical these family run businesses are to our city and to any city. Few things are more American than a family that builds the American dream over generations of managing a family business.  All that is left of the family businesses that were once Globman’s and McCollum Ferrell are their names etched into the marble fa├žades of the buildings they once occupied. The stores didn’t go out of business because of bad service, bad location, bad management or bad products. They closed their doors because the communities they supported and staked their names and reputations on for decades stopped supporting them. We let them down. We looked the other way when they needed us the most. We worried about saving a dime and ended up paying thousands of dimes in tax money to support laid of store clerks and to try and salvage downtown storefronts. We failed.

This holiday season take the advice of the Chamber of Commerce and shop in Laurens County first. Your neighborhood business owners have invested in our city and now is the time for us to do the same. We have the ability to keep our city’s businesses alive, keep our communities vibrant and the ability to show other business that this is a great place to locate. All you have to do is do some of your shopping locally, and by shopping locally you can ensure that our community has a very happy (and profitable) holiday season.

Don’t get mad, get busy.

Seems like, lately, there are a lot of people angry at the government. Pull up your facebook page and read the raging debate about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and you’ll see that all of your friends are spreading angry information about the issue from both sides. Open a newspaper and you’ll see that government recently became so angry at itself that it shut down. Turn on the news and let your blood boil over the fact that a cyber thief was able to get your personnel information from the state’s databases. Open your mail and see your tax bill or your utility bill. Angry yet?

I started to think about our attitudes towards government as a society, be it state, federal, county, school district, or city, as I drove back from a regional government meeting late one evening. In the dark, as I cruised over two lane roads that connect our community to our neighbors, I wondered if the disconnect between our communities and our government could ever be bridged. My thoughts were disturbed when, out of the darkness, the two way radio in my car crackled to  life. A car, probably somebody just trying to get home like I was, had gone of an embankment and our Public Safety personnel were mobilizing to try and find it. The citizen who called 911 had seen the crash, but wasn’t exactly sure where along the road that they happened to be.

It’s easy to dislike your government. You get your power bill and think “How can this possibly be so expensive?” You get your tax bill and think the same. Meanwhile, a fire truck screams through the night and your tax dollars are being spent on the diesel fuel to make it roll.

Whether you like the decisions government organizations make or not, your government – and it is your government (remember what Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address “government of the people, by the people, for the people”) – is working for you. Your neighbors are working hard for you all day, every day. They might be in a ditch working on a water line. They might be hanging from a light pole trying to get your power back on, or watching your street for you while you sleep, or sitting in an office trying to balance the rising costs of doing business with the desire to keep your utility rates and taxes as low as possible. They might be sliding down an embankment in the dark of the night towards and overturned car.

There are many difficult decisions that will face your city in the coming years. The face of our community has changed and will continue to change. We’ve got to decide what our city looks like years from now. What do our recreation program look like? What level of services do we provide? How do we address the rising costs of fuel, electricity, and utilities? How do we afford to repair our water and sewer systems before it is too late? How much can you, the citizen, afford to contribute financially towards the cost of providing government services through your tax payments and utility payments? Do you want your fire and rescue personnel to have all the tools they need to safely extract the injured person from an overturned car, or are you willing to gamble a bit and not buy the best equipment or replace the equipment as often as it needs replacing? Are you willing to buy the equipment at all? Do we pay for the city to become the city we want our children to inherit, or do we accept the city we are currently paying for – which is short of our dreams?

The answers to all those question depend on you, not some mystical secret society known as “the government” because you are the government. Your neighbors are working for you trying to create the city you want Clinton to be. You have the keys. You are in the driver’s seat. Don’t just get angry at government, but instead take the time to learn about the issues and make your opinion known. Don’t miss the key part of the previous statement. Learn about the issues. In the words of a famous politician, you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. Spreading misinformation, or assuming what you read on facebook, twitter, or heard in line at the grocery store is true and basing your views on it doesn’t do anything but hold the rest of us back. Those firefighters working at the bottom an embankment to save a life don’t need you holding them back, and your neighbor who is counting on them doesn’t need to be held back either.

As I pulled into my driveway, I listened to the calm voices of our firefighters as they communicated with a helicopter pilot from a Greenville area hospital. They are not strangers, they are your neighbors and they are just working hard to try to create the city that we all want to be proud to call home.