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.