By James Beaty
McAlester Mayor Steve Harrison presented his State of the City address to the McAlester City Council on Tuesday night, summarizing it to say things have been “improving” at the city over the past year.
However, after all the agenda items for the meeting were completed, City Manager Pete Stasiak told the council during his city manager’s report that the city could end the fiscal year in June more than a million dollars under- budget.
Before Stasiak presented his findings, Harrison outlined his view of how the city fared in 2012, an annual presentation that’s required by the City Charter.
Harrison, who presented his State of the City message during the council’s regular meeting at City Hall, said he would focus only on the highlights.
“If I were to choose a single word to describe the state of our city, I would choose ‘improving,”’ Harrison said. “I think this improvement has been occurring now for the past eight years.
“It has not always been as evident as it is now and it has not always been steady improvement in all areas — but we definitely continue to improve.”
Harrison said that eight years ago the city was being crushed by a debt load of more than 1$150 million.
“At one point, the city didn’t even have enough money to make payroll. We were technically bankrupt,” Harrison said.
Now, roll forward to today, Harrison continued.
“Through disciplined budgeting, we have reduced our debt one-third, to a much more manageable level,” he said. City bonds now have an investment-grade rating instead of the junk bond status they once held, said Harrison.
“Through prudent cost control, having the fortitude to set money aside during the best times, we have established an emergency fund of $3.6 million, which we can access in case of disaster,” Harrison said.
“We also do our best to maintain a a $1 million fund balance in both our general fund and in our Public Works Authority. These fund balances are there to help us weather economic downturns in a less disruptive manner.”
Highlights of 2012 include “refinancing or some of our old, high-interest debt,” Harrison said, noting voters approved the refinancing measure during the November General Election.
“As a result, the city will save about $7.5 million in interest,” he said, adding that he expects to bring a similar measure before the voters in a few months.
Harrison also spoke of road and street projects over the past year, including the complete reconstruction and extension of Elks Road, state-of-the-art traffic signals at the Strong Boulevard and Wyandotte Avenue intersection, the replacement of 268 concrete panels on streets around the city and new asphalt overlays in several areas. Harrison said 2,496 pot holes were repaired in 2012.
Other significant infrastructure projects included close to a million dollars worth of investment at the city’s water treatment plant, replacement of water lines at Tandy Town and the Steven Taylor Industrial Park, a new water line at the industrial park and the extension of sewer service along U.S Highway 69, as well as continued maintenance for the city’s water storage tanks.
The mayor said the city will continue to provide tools and equipment city employees need in order to do their jobs, such as the asphalt zipper used to prepare streets for new overlays, a back-hoe for utility work and a new ambulance for the fire department.
He also noted the city’s partnership with MPower Economic Development in identifying what needs to be done at the industrial and pursuing resources to make it happen.
The mayor also noted that building permits are up.
He also spoke of the McAlester Regional Health Center, including the accreditation for two new residency programs, one in family practice and one in internal medicine, with each program approved for up to nine physicians serving three-year residencies.
“Hopefully, many of these physicians will remain in McAlester after their residencies are concluded,” Harrison said.
Harrison noted that the city council has authorized two transfers of dedicated city sales tax totaling more than $1 million to McAlester Public Schools which are being used to fund roof replacements.
“Also during the past year, the city approved the master plan for the city of McAlester trail system,” Harrison said.
He said the city had planted 100 trees in city parks and along the city rights-of-way and that identification labels supplied by the Sertoma Club have been placed on more than 100 trees in Will Rogers Park.
Harrison also noted that Pride in McAlester received the Devon Great American Cleanup Exceptional Achievement Award, along with a $1,000 cash prize, at the Keep Oklahoma Beautiful Banquet. He also spoke of plans to restore the OKLA Theater and a $200,000 grant for the abatement of asbestos and lead-based paint. Restoration of the OKLA is a cooperative effort between PIM, the Ardeneum of Oklahoma and McAlester Main Street, he said.
Harrison spoke of all the local organizations that are helping the city, including the McAlester Defense Support Association, formed to “support, protect and create defense-related jobs in the McAlester area.” Harrison and Stasiak were among 21 individuals who traveled to Washington D.C. last May to visit with members of the state’s Congressional delegation, as well as key military and Defense Departments officials.
Harrison said the city is already seeing a local economic impact due to defense cuts and the sequestration — across the board budget cuts set to going into effect March 1, unless the president and Congress act before then to change it.
Harrison also said the city’s sales tax revenue has declined.
“If negative revenue trends continue, I can assure you that this administration and city council will act to take the necessary steps to keep our budget balanced while continuing to provide essential city services,” he said.
“Maintaining and strengthening our joint efforts with MDSA is one of the proactive steps we must take to help minimize the negative impact of decisions being made at the federal level,” Harrison said.
The message to Washington is “just let us compete,” said the mayor, referring to the defense industry in the McAlester area.
“I started my message tonight by choosing the word “improving” to describe the state of our city over the past year and over the past eight years,” Harrison said.
“I believe we are well-positioned to continue that improvement.
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