Sunday, March 30, 2014

Time to Roll Up Our Sleeves

I’ve been to Florida. I’ve been to visit Mickey Mouse in his Magic Kingdom, seen the future in Orlando’s EPCOT, been to the Orange Bowl (the old one in the heart of Miami) and rooted for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on their home field. However, I have never been to Florida’s little city of Hampton.

Hampton is a tiny little town of less than 500 people that, through its own behavior, nearly got itself dissolved by the Florida legislature. Money went missing, a police force of nineteen officers ran a speed trap on the highway that oozed corruption, and the mayor was in jail. Council meetings were not held at regular times, water meters were not tracked, and a state mandated audit revealed mishandling of public money.

The point of telling you about Hampton is not to draw comparisons regarding corruption. In Clinton, we produce an independent audit each year, and we develop our annual operating budget in a transparent and public process. This year we released our first accountability report, which explains in detail what we have accomplished in the past year. All of these documents are on the City’s website, and all of our City Council meetings are open to the public. You City Councilmembers want to hear your thoughts on the issues. Your city is transparent, honest, and operates above board. You may not agree with or like every decision that your local government makes, but none of those decisions are made behind closed doors. In fact, we have been recognized for our efforts to create open and honest audits and budgets by the Government Finance Officers Association.

The real story of Hampton isn’t corruption. We hear that story everyday for a long list of government agencies, private organizations, and corporations. The point of the story of Hampton is how it has taken steps to save itself.

When threatened by the Florida State Legislature with dissolving of the city’s charter, which means the little town of Hampton would no longer exist, the people of Hampton would choose instead to rise up. A former city clerk, from Hampton’s pre – corruption days, came back to her office in city hall and is getting the city’s finances back on track. A new mayor has convinced the citizens that Hampton is worth saving. A local religious leader has galvanized an army of volunteers to improve the city, and an attorney experienced in municipal issues has signed on as the city’s attorney and works for the whopping salary of zero dollars and no cents.

Our city has faced challenges in the past that threatened to wipe our city off the map. We all know that Clinton is a transportation town birthed from the railroad, but after the Civil War the railroad stopped running through the city. The citizens would rise and raise the money to restart the rail road line, knowing full well that the city could not survive without its connection to the outside world.

In 1905, Presbyterian College considered leaving town. Recruited by the cities of Sumter, York, Chester, and others, the college considered closing its campus in the heart of Clinton and relocating to a community that might be a bit more prosperous at the turn of the century. Once again, the citizens of Clinton would rise. This time they would raise the money to help the college, and reinforce the city’s commitment to preserving a defining institution.

In the 1940s we would rise. The city’s men were off fighting on the war front. Those left behind kept the city together, supported each other in times of loss, and protected each other from a polio outbreak that threatened to ravage the city.

In the turn of the century our city faced another challenge. Textile mill after textile mill would shut its doors, leaving thousands unemployed. The Charlotte Observer would send a reporter down to Clinton to write an article that predicted the death of a mill town, and that mill town just happened to be our town.

We are still here.

We refuse to accept the destiny that an out of town newspaper predicted for us.

We refused it because we have long history of not listening to what people say about us. We have a long history of rising up as a people when threatened.

We are threatened now.

While little Hampton fights a culture of corruption, we are fighting some very different demons. We are fighting rising meth use as a state, we are fighting for better employment opportunities as a city, and we are fighting probably the most dangerous enemy of all – ourselves.

As a community, we must focus on helping our neighbors rise so that they can obtain the jobs that are out there, and there are jobs out there right now that corporations in our community are having trouble filling. We must break the cycle we are in now to lead our neighbors away from the negative aspects of our community and towards the positive, and we must encourage positive attitudes and positive discussion among diverse groups in our community on how we can make this city better. We must focus on the good, on partnerships, and on shared sacrifice. Those three things have helped our ancestors in this place weather the storms they faced and it will help us to do the same.

Little Hampton is still fighting for its right to exist. Yes the community stepped up to the plate in the state of spring training and is trying to take its swing at bat, but the jury is still out for tiny little Hampton. The jury is still out for us too, but unlike Hampton we have been here before, and we have a tradition in our city – a tradition of rising up and doing what needs to be done right when it needs to be done. Roll up your sleeves Clintonians, it’s time to go to work.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Goodbye Old Friend

Some of our citizens lost their favorite tree this week. The grand old oak at the corner of Main and Broad had few equals in our city. Dwarfed only by water towers and the AT&T tower, it had touched the sky in the center of our city for decades.

Ten years ago, when the first big limbs fell from the tree, we knew it was only a matter of time before the tree reached the end of its life. Two weeks ago, when an enormous limb fell crashing from the tree on a windless clear day, the city took steps to have a professional asses the tree’s condition. The severe cracks that now ran through the tree, and the weakened branches and trunk that had slowly become hollow over the past few years meant that a big piece of the tree could let go at any minute. If that piece feel on a pedestrian, a person attending an event, or your passing car, then the results would have been disastrous. We took action, because we knew that the tree could hurt you or a member of your family if it were to fail.

Trees have a large positive impact on our community. According to the National Arbor Day Foundation, trees can be a stimulus to economic development by attracting new business and tourism. The foundation goes on to point out that commercial retail areas with trees are more attractive to shoppers, landscaping can help apartments rent more quickly, business and residential tenants stay longer, and the value of space in a tree lined area is higher. Look to downtown Greenville as an example. The landscaping and the trees make the area more inviting, and the City of Greenville will credit the environment as a key component of their central business district’s success.

Trees have a big impact on your neighborhood too.  The United States Forest Service reports that trees can add 10% to your property values, and if you add some other landscaping to go with that tree then you can see the property values increase by 20%. Tree lined streets not only enhance property values, but they enhance community health by removing pollutants and carbon dioxide from the air. That tree in your backyard can even help reduce your stress levels. According to a study from Texas A&M University, people who were exposed to tree settings recovered form stressful events faster.

Your publicly owned electric utility is impacted by trees. First, trees planted correctly around your house can reduce your energy bill in the summertime by anywhere from 3% to 30% depending on the size of the tree and your home’s condition. However, when a tree is planted too close to a power line, the City has to spend time and money trimming the tree to keep it from impacting your electric service. A tree limb weighted down by ice or leaves can hit an electric line and cause and outage. In fact, in Clinton the leading causes of electric outages that last longer than five minutes are tree related.

Trees, like all living things, require care. If you have a tree on your property, then it is your responsibility to maintain it and make sure that is structurally sound and does not pose a threat to neighbors or people using public sidewalks and streets near your home. When you a plant a tree, be sure to make sure that you call 811 and have your underground utilities located to make sure that your tree’s location will not impact any underground utilities. Also, be sure not to plant a tree that will grow too tall near a power line, because if the tree impacts the power line, the city will be required to trim it or may require you to remove the tree.

Trees have a significant benefit for cities. Studies have shown that people spend more time shopping and spend more money with business located on well landscaped streets. Trees in your neighborhood can go a long way to keeping your utility bills in check in the summertime, and trees improve the value of your property. However, for a long time we as a community have taken our trees for granted. It’s time for us to take a long hard look at planting more trees in our community and restoring tree lined neighborhood streets. It takes many years for a tree to reach a mature size, and while we are waiting for the tree you planted today to grow up, we are losing our city’s older trees to age, decay, and disease and an alarming rate.

I think everyone who lives in our city has a favorite tree. Maybe it’s the one in your backyard that shades your hammock in the summertime. It could be the one you planted with your kids many years ago. For me, it’s the small one at the corner of Broad Street and Calhoun that blooms bright every spring. It’s the first tree in town to wake up after the winter, and I have often thought of it as the one that leads the others out of their long winter slumber. This year our city will have one less tree this spring. Spring will come regardless, we will plant a new tree downtown, and I hope you plant a new one in your yard too.