By Adam Smith
The overall message of a presentation given by Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks Wednesday at Athens State University is the state of the city is quite good.
The mayor presented an overview of the city’s finances, how annual budgets are broken down, how tax revenue is determined and ongoing and upcoming projects. He apologized to the 150 in attendance if he used the word “I” during his remarks.
“There’s no ‘I’ in teamwork, and it takes all of us to put this process together,” he said. “It’s fun when you live in a community that has a great team spirit.”
Marks, who plans to run for re-election in the Aug. 28 municipal election, rarely touched on political topics, with the exception of expressing his concern about the upcoming legislative redistricting.
Limestone is currently represented in the State House by Dan Williams, R-5th, Mac McCutcheon, R-25th and Micky Hammon, R-4th. Only Williams resides in Athens. The county is represented in the Senate by Bill Holtzclaw, R-2nd. The redistricting process could give Limestone an additional two representatives and a second senator, meaning eight people would be representing the county in Montgomery.
Marks fears more representation could negatively impact how much attention local bills receive in Montgomery.
“Right now, if you have a local legislative bill, you have to get five people to sign off on it or … it won’t be put on the calendar (for consideration),” he said. “If we add two representatives and another senator, you go from five to eight. There does have to be some changes and I recognize they have a tough job because somebody has to give and somebody has to be added to.”
Marks asked those in attendance concerned about the process to call their representative and voice their opinion on the issue.
Marks took time to praise all city departments for the work they do, but focused especially on public safety.
“Our community goes down the drain with it,” he said.
The City Council approved the hiring of Floyd Johnson as police chief in February, and has interviewed three internal candidates for the position of fire chief following the retirement of Danny Southard. The council then decided to open the search up to external candidates.
Out of 16 people who have applied for the position, Marks said, the field was narrowed down to six. Council members were set to conduct three interviews for position Wednesday and will conduct the final three today.
“If they’re not satisfied, they’ll expand the search,” Marks said. “The City Council will make a good appointment.”
The mayor also touched on steps the city has taken to improve communications with residents and the media. He said following the April 27, 2011, tornadoes, the city received criticism about the amount of information being released by officials.
The city took steps to hire communication specialist Holly Hollman and Amy Golden, a customer relations manager in the utilities department. Both said Wednesday they have taken steps to improve communications through the city’s website, Facebook, Twitter and Nixle, a website that provides weather and traffic alerts to those who sign up.
“After the March 2 tornado, it was educational for me and Holly as we visited the residents of Nick Davis Road and the Eagle Point subdivision,” Golden said. “We want to get to know the community better, get to know the community and that’s what we’re working toward.”
One project Marks is excited about is a plan to switch some city vehicles over to models that use compressed natural gas. The city’s current budget was designed with an average gasoline price of $3.50 per gallon, and vehicles on the general fund side use about 180,000 gallons per year.
“If we miss it by $1 (per gallon), we miss it by $180,000 on a tight budget,” he said, adding the current per-gallon price of CNG is about $1.40 per gallon.
The mayor said a new bucket truck for the Electric Department would be a CNG-powered model. The city is also planning to purchase a CNG-powered sanitation truck and recently purchased a new Honda Civic that operated on CNG.
Marks also praised the city’s recycling efforts, adding that Athens is one of the only cities in the state that recycles glass
“We’re running at about 30 percent recycling, but we need to be 50 percent,” he said. “It’s important for kids to know about recycling.”
Revenue and development
The mayor said the city’s revenues for the current fiscal year are better than anticipated, and added Athens reached 56 percent of its annual revenue goal by March 31, or mid-year.
He compared the city’s property tax rate of 40 mills to that of neighboring Madison (64.5 mills), Huntsville (65 mills) and Decatur (48.6 mills).
“Come to Athens and Limestone County; it’s the best deal going,” he said, adding he’s not advocating a tax increase.
Marks said part of the fun of his job is watching local companies grow and add jobs, while also working with new companies like Carpenter Technology Corporation.
The Pennsylvania-based specialty alloy maker is building a $500 million facility south of Athens that will employ 203 full-time workers. A second $13 million phase will employ 50 workers and be locate in a building on the former Delphi site.
From 2008 to April 2011, eight local companies made reinvestments in the amount of $65.2 million and added more than 500 jobs. From April 2011 to April 2012, eight additional companies made investments in the amount of $28.9 million and added 365 jobs.
Marks touched on the status of two large building projects that have been in the works for some time, including plans to relocate the Athens-Limestone Public Library to the old Kroger building on Jefferson Street.
The City Council and Limestone County Commission voted in March to approve Limestone Building Group LLC as construction manager for the project. He said officials would meet today with Birmingham-based architecture firm CMH to finalize the group’s contract.
“We’ll start construction very soon,” Marks said, adding there is $2.45 million in a capital account overseen by the city. “There are lots of pledges, so show us the money and we’ll be ready to roll.”
Demolition of the old City Hall building at the corner of Hobbs and Marion streets is also complete, he said, though work continues at the site. He said a space needs study for the new facility has been completed, but design work for the outside of the new building has not started.
Other upcoming projects Marks mentioned included plans to improve the city’s aging sewer system and the paving of Lindsay Lane. The city hopes to obtain a $1.5 million grant for the road project, though the city would provide a 20 percent match.