by Brian Jones
Ward 3 City Councilman Charlie Box visited the Columbus Exchange Club March 17 to discuss city finances, improvements and redistricting.
“This council has been up there for going on two years, and I think we’ve accomplished a lot but there’s still a lot to do,” Box said. “I want to tell you right off the bat that your city is in good financial shape. We’re fiscally sound. When I first started running for this office I heard that Columbus was broke and it wasn’t long until we were going to go under. I promise you that that is not the case.
“We just obtained an A-plus bond rating,” Box said. “That’s not an easy task. It doesn’t just happen by accident. We issued bonds for infrastructure and consolidation of debt, and we saved about $150,000 a year in payments in refinancing that debt.”
The city’s success comes from the skill of its management team, Box said.
“We have an excellent management team, and you don’t hear very much about them,” Box said. “Mike Bernsen is our chief financial officer. He is one of the sharpest CPAs that I’ve ever worked with. He’s very conservative and he takes care of the city’s money. He came from us from APAC and he’s been with us for about four years. All of our reports from the state and all of our audits are up to date. Because of the outstanding management that he’s provided us we are in great financial shape.”
The city ended the last fiscal year with a $2 million cash balance, Box said.
“That wasn’t our reserve fund, that was our cash balance,” Box said. “That enabled us to go into the budget process this year and have another balanced budget without raising taxes. We did have to add about a half a mill on for the police and firemen’s fund, which is mandated by the state government, and we added about a quarter of a mill on to finance the restructuring of the debt, but basically there’s been no additional tax. When we took office, taxes had been raised for four years in a row. You were beginning to see business flee the city and go to the county to get away from those taxes. We’re hoping if we can continue to keep taxes down we can attract some new industry into Columbus.”
Sales tax collections are up, he said.
“Our sales tax revenue has been up for seven months in a row,” he said. “This past month was the first decrease. It went down $6,300, and the experts attribute that to the real bad weather that we had. We’re still about $150,000 over last year, and about $60,000 over what we budgeted for revenue. We’re really doing well.”
Box praised Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong.
“He is a tremendous asset,” Box said. “He has a law degree, and he is the past mayor of Natchez. He has contacts with municipal leaders all over the state. He knows and understands municipal government and we’re lucky to have him.”
Box briefly addressed plans for the Highway 45 bypass.
“We’ve been working on this for a pretty long period of time now,” he said. “We have a final map of the proposed bypass now. The mayor, (City Engineer) Kevin Stafford and some other people from the city went to Washington last week to try to find some additional funding for us. We have received $9 million so far towards the bypass, and about $2 million has been spent on environmental studies and on engineering studies. They were looking for $30 million to carry the project forward. As you know the federal government has put a halt on earmarks for at least two years. We may be able to find some money after that for this bypass, but for right now we’re kind of stuck with what we’ve got. If they get more money, the next step will be the start buying land. Maybe within our lifetime we’ll start seeing some of that happen.”
The city is also looking to find money for a new ditch along Fourteenth Avenue.
“This has been going on for about three or four years,” he said. “That ditch on Fourteenth is an ongoing problem. It’s dangerous because it’s so close to the road, and now the Kerr-McGee stuff is beginning to slough off into the ditch. It’s an eyesore, and it’s dangerous. We were just getting started working on that when the EPA came in and told us to stop working on that because it was in the center of the Tronox superfund cleanup. The money from that project was diverted to Ward 3, where we able to redo the intersection at Ridge Road and Highway 12. The culverts there were crumbling and beginning to decay, so we put a new box culvert in there with part of the money. We used the rest to put in a box culvert at Gardner Boulevard. We’re looking to go back to that Fourteenth Avenue ditch once the EPA figures out what they’re going to do with the Tronox property.”
The city would like to put a diversion channel along the Highway 82 bypass, he said.
“The channel would go from Lowe’s all the way back to the Luxapalila Creek,” he said. “It would drain that water off of all that property that drains into the Brickyard. It would hopefully clear that land for future development. It’s about a $1.2 million project, and we’ve got to get some help somewhere to get that done.”
The city is working to annex land in East Columbus, Box said.
“We’ve done all the work with Bridge and Watson, our consultant,” Box said. “The largest area is east of Lehmberg Road, and it goes all the way up north of Highway 50 in the area of Hobb Sheffield Road. We’ll be working on that in the next year or so. It will have to go to the Justice Department to make sure that they will approve it.
“Our intent was to take in some population,” Box said. “We lost about 2,000 people in the last census. We also want to take in some developable land. There’s a nice plot of land that goes from the Nissan dealership up to Hobb Sheffield Road for development. There’s several plots of developable land along Highway 82 to Armstrong Road.
“The question that I get asked more than anything is why go east,” Box said. “We’re already servicing the area east of Lehmberg through the light and water department and we’re already providing fire protection. There is very little cost to annex that, and we get $270,000 in net taxes in immediate impact the first year after annexation.
“You might have read in the paper that there were only nine residential building permits issued in the city last year,” Box said. “That’s not because Columbus is not a desirable place to live. It’s because there’s no developable land. I talked to a developer who said if he could get the land at a reasonable price he would start a housing development by the end of this year. That’s what we’re dealing with, and why we need developable land. New population will also bring in retail.”
Box said Chick-Fil-A is looking at building on the old Caney Fork site.
“They’ve been to Columbus three times,” he said. “They’re not going to put it in the Caney Fork building, they’re going to tear it down and build their own facility. They have the best land location people in the country. They very seldom have a site that fails. If they’re coming to Columbus, we’re doing something right.”
The city needs to maintain its racial balance, Box said.
“In 2000, our racial balance was 54/43 black to white,” Box said. “In 2010 it went to 60/37. I’ve talked to the mayor about this, and he understands the necessity of Columbus maintaining a good balance. It would not be good for the city if it went all black. One way we can maintain that is to move the city limits.
“I think if we annex an area that’s predominantly black, we need to annex one that’s predominantly white,” Box said. “We have three black wards and we have three white wards. One of them might be considered a swing ward. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. If everything worked right, we should have three black city councilmen and three white city councilmen. When you’ve got that, then the mayor has to make some tough calls and can’t let things just fade away.”
Box was asked if there was any impetus towards metro government.
“We’ve looked at that in some areas,” he said. “There are some areas where that seems to make a lot of sense. We looked at the sheriff and the police department, but Butch Howard was completely against it. I think there are some things we could look at. I think the county does things great as far as public works. I don’t know why they can patch a pothole and it’ll stay there for a year and we patch a pothole and a week later we’ve got to go back and do it again. We’ve got tremendous problems with public works. We’ve got a lot of people who just want to ride around all day. They’ll pass the same tree five times and then go back to the shop without picking it up. There’s got to be a change in that mentality.”