Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

TOP STORY > >Cabot officials plan for 2009

Leader staff writer

Garbage pickup topped the list of priorities set by the Cabot City Council at a biannual workshop on Saturday for incoming aldermen.

Mayor Eddie Joe Williams was blunt in his opinion about whether the city should get into the business of operating its own garbage collection.

“Personally, I say no. We don’t really want to be in the garbage business – it’s a headache,” Williams told aldermen and other city officials at the biannual orientation and goal-setting session.

City officials had entertained the idea of buying a truck and gearing up taking on the job when the current contract with a private company expires in July.

But since proposals from contractors came in a few weeks ago with a monthly per-customer charge almost $2 under the current $16.45 charge, thinking has shifted back to leaving that in the hands of a private company. Lower rates also look like an opportunity to pay for some things the city needs.

“We have some really good proposals from professional people,” Alderman Eddie Long said. “This is a good opportunity to help the community, not increase rates, and have a little to bank back, to build a fire station, buy a fire truck.”

By letting a contractor collect trash and yard waste, rather than the city taking on the financial risk of buying a truck and equipment and starting a new department, the saved fees could mean a windfall for the city of about $175,000 annually.

“We could bank that money every month,” Williams suggested.

Other goals identified by aldermen included setting policy to tap local liquor sales at clubs and restaurants, renovations to the police dispatch room, more sidewalks, signage cleanup, better parks, a new fire station, and marketing of the city.

A new fire station can’t be built right away. The money just is not there. It will cost $500,000 to construct a new station house, and then an additional $750,000 a year to operate it. With bond money not in reach, the “simplest and cleanest way” would be to find a private contractor to build and lease the building to the city, Williams said. In 15 years, under a lease-to-buy agreement, the station would belong to the city.

New Alderman Ann Gilliam suggested that the city look into sidewalk improvements and making sure they comply with federal regulations. She said that a new baseball complex should be a future ambition, having had that brought to her attention by a few voters during her campaign.

Lisa Brickwell, who is returning for a second term, advised that the council get cracking on passing a policy to get a share of liquor sales now that local restaurants are getting in the business of serving alcohol.

The first year or two, the city’s take from liquor sales revenues at Fat Daddy’s and Kopan’s might amount to only $5,000, Williams said, but now’s the time to put a law on the books, with other establishments lining up for permits.

“Rubberstamping is likely,” Long opined.
Making police dispatchers’ jobs a little easier would be one certain outcome if the police dispatchers had their workspace expanded and reconfigured, all agreed. The way it is now, “in the police locker room, computers are in there, and lockers are stacked on each other; you can’t change your mind, much less your clothes in any privacy,” Williams said.

The dispatch room currently is where all the action is between police and the public. If the area were enlarged into existing space, there could be a wall between the outer office and the dispatch room, so dispatchers could have some quiet.

Thoughts of a new sports complex, water park, and walking trails were bantered about, but not likely something the city will launch into anytime soon.

“It would cost millions to do that,” Williams noted.

But it doesn’t hurt to dream or plan. To that end, the city paid consulting firm Jacobs Carter Burgess to gather input from
Cabot citizens about what they want in the way of parks. A report of the firm’s findings is expected soon.

A water park like Jacksonville’s Splash Zone, “could eventually be very effective for kids,” commented new Alderman Jon Moore.

The council will also grapple with the best way to market Cabot as a place to live, work and shop – whether to hire a marketing firm or keep promotion of the city an in-house endeavor.

Mayor Williams pronounced the session a huge improvement over a similar one two years ago, when he took office. At the time, an $800,000 debt, a myriad of worrisome traffic snarls, and a dysfunctional city administration cried for attention and stressed relationships among city officials.

Pressing needs were so numerous that when Williams invited aldermen at the 2007 workshop to air concerns, their ideas filled eight poster-sized sheets of paper.

This time around, when Williams opened up the discussion saying, “If you’ve got something on your mind, it doesn’t matter how trivial,” aldermen’s concerns filled only one sheet.

Reflecting on the last two years, Williams was heartened by progress the city has made. With the help of state road engineers and federal highway dollars, many of the street-design bottlenecks have been corrected. A $2 million surplus has replaced the debt.

New personnel policies and more transparency in city government promise a more efficiently run administration, Williams observed.

Williams wants the elected officials and city employees to continue on the new course set two years ago, when stronger teamwork was imperative to getting on top of problems.

“It was either we fly in formation or we crack in formation,” Williams said.