First Barker budget passes

By BUSTER WOLFE,

With little fanfare, the Hattiesburg City Council unanimously approved the first budget under Mayor Toby Barker last week with the inclusion of pay raises, improved infrastructure and new projects in each ward.

Barker said he was pleased with the City Council’s positive reaction to the budget.

“This budget was a very much inclusive process,” he said. “I was glad to see a 5-0 vote. Everyone had their own recommendations on what to work on. So I think this was a great job of trying to get us out of some of our financial challenges while addressing some needs in infrastructure, particularly wastewater, water and streets as well as doing something for our senior employees in certain departments. I am just glad to see a spirit of cooperation and am looking forward to what this next fiscal year will bring.”

Council President Carter Carroll agreed with Barker after the vote last Thursday during a special City Council meeting.

“I think this is a really good budget, one of the best we have had in years,” he said. “Obviously, we got a 5-0 vote on that. It has something for everyone – our hourly employees, something in each ward that our Council members have been wanting for some time and we’re going to be able to start construction on our Public Safety Complex. I am really excited about this budget and I think it’s going to do well this year.”

Each of the city’s five wards received important improvements in budgeted items:

• Ward 1 – 38th Avenue sidewalks and new fire station on U.S. 49 North (which will receive one of the 3 mills included in the tax levy).

• Ward 2 – Twin Forks Phase II study costing $80,000 and establishment of a Community Development Financial Institution to provide affordable lending services and promote development in the Twin Forks area at a cost of $150,000.

• Ward 3 – Midtown development, which includes 31st Avenue upgrades, Arlington Loop relocation and Regions Bank project.

• Ward 4 – Camp Street upgrades and acquisition of the former Hattiesburg American building and pursuing development of a Community Arts Center.

• Ward 5 – People’s Park pavilion, lighting at soccer fields and relocation and relocation of Fire Hall No. 2 (Depending on design and site location, FEMA and insurance will cover most of the cost).

As for city pay raises, employees in the Water & Sewer, Public Words and Parks & Recreation department will begin seeing larger paychecks after April 1, 2018, with increases from 25 cents per hour for workers with 2-4 years on the job to $1.50 per hour for city veterans with 25 years or more. The five code enforcement officers will receive an annual raise of $1,000.

Carroll agreed that the raises were overdue.

“You never can pay these employees enough,” he said. “But we are limited with the funds that we have and we are going to do these raises in April after we see how much we get from our December sales tax, our road and bridge taxes and our ad valorem taxes.”

Along with the improvements in infrastructure, Barker said the budget in on target with campaign promises.

“The things that were priorities to people during the campaign, the things that were priorities to all five of our Council members, those are the things that we tried to act on,” he said, pointing to an increase in the paving budget. “We have a lot of ground to make up (in paving). $2.3 million is not going to fix every road, but it will take some significant steps forward. What I hope to see is that we increase that investment every year so that we get every neighborhood on a schedule so you know periodically that your road will be paved.”

Barker said he wants to make improvements in each area of the city.

‘We hope to make progress, equitable progress, across the city so that every neighborhood sees progress and build on that in future years,” he said.