Board looks to continue improvements

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mayor George Flaggs, center, speaks during the first meeting of the new Board of Mayor and Aldermen Monday at City Hall. From left, South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson, Mayor George Flaggs Jr., North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield.

Mayor George Flaggs, center, speaks during the first meeting of the new Board of Mayor and Aldermen Monday at City Hall. From left, South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson, Mayor George Flaggs Jr., North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield.

Since taking office July 1, 2013, the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen have fought over major appointments, gotten the city current on its audits, appointed committees on recreation and beautification, increased the city’s use of technology, taken steps to get the city’s bond rating back and prepared to give city employees a pay raise.
Going into its second year, the board plans to continue keeping a tight grip on city finances, look for ways to improve the city’s infrastructure, increase tourism, and improve or enhance recreation facilities.
When it was sworn in July 1, the new board made history, becoming the city’s first all-black board, but its members said they aren’t dwelling on its historical significance.
“I think about it for a second,” Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said. “I’m more concerned about doing what’s best for the city than I am about historical data.”
“You can’t spend one second of your time thinking about race, or all black or all white,” North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield said. “It’s about everybody. It’s about green and white. That’s paper. That’s (the color of) money. That’s what it’s all about. People don’t care what color you are if you do the job right. They want the job done and they want to make sure you do what’s right, that nobody’s doing anything illegal.”
“I haven’t thought about that a whole lot, as far as the gains we’ve been able to do,” South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson said. “But I do think it shows that, from the history Vicksburg’s had, we’re changing into a more diverse community, and that’s important when you’re looking at investors coming into the city.”
Coming into office in the wake of a scandal in which former mayor Paul Winfield was convicted on federal bribery charges, the board almost found itself in controversy when Mayfield and Thompson blocked Flaggs’ nominations for police and fire chief and municipal judge.
Since those first July meetings, Flaggs, Mayfield and Thompson have resolved their differences and developed a relationship that has led to a string of 3-0 votes on major issues that have come before the board.
“We’re willing to compromise more, willing to work together to find solutions that work, and if it’s something we don’t agree on, we’ll find a way that suits the situation,” Thompson said. “If we still can’t agree, we respect each other’s decision and their position why they can’t support something.”
“George Flaggs was elected at large by the citizens of this city to be the mayor,” said Mayfield, who
was elected mayor pro tem by board. “I don’t cross the mayor and his position in any way.
“If there is an issue I have about the City of Vicksburg, I go to the mayor or I go to Alderman Thompson and make them aware of what I would like to see for the City of Vicksburg,” he said. “Those two guys do the same thing with me. They will sit down with me and we’ll discuss it. We don’t stab anybody in the back; we don’t backdoor anybody.”
Perhaps the most important issue the board has faced was getting a handle on the city’s financial situation by adopting a budget with a reserve fund and contingency fund and getting current on the city’s audits.
The city fell behind in its audits in 2007, beginning with the fiscal 2006 audit, and by 2011 the 2008, 2009 and 2010 audits were delinquent. In 2012, Moody’s Investment Services, a New York-based provider of credit ratings and risk analysis, pulled the city’s A-1 rating.
Moody’s cited insufficient financial information on the city’s creditworthiness because Vicksburg did not have completed 2008, 2009 and 2010 audits as the reason for pulling the rating. The 2008, 2009 and 2010 audits were competed in 2012.
The accounting firm of Booker T. Camper completed the fiscal 2011 and 2012 audits in 2013. Camper presented the fiscal 2013 audit to the board in May.
“That’s something (the back audits) that’s been hanging over my head since I’ve been elected to the board,” said Mayfield, who is in his third term on the board. “It was a cloud. Not over my head, but on the city as a whole, and to pound the table and pound the table and hire the people who could get us back to a sunny day was something that the three of us adhered to.”
Besides getting the audits completed, the board implemented a hiring freeze on all departments except fire and police, and approved a $29.7 million fiscal 2014 budget that was about $53,000 more than the city’s 2013 budget and contained a reserve fund and a contingency fund for emergencies. And the board filed papers with Moody’s to get the city’s bond rating back.
“I have no doubt that we have put us in a position where they can’t deny us a proper rating,” Mayfield said. “We’ve done what we’ve been asked to do to get the highest rating.”
“I’m looking to have that bond rating before this first year is up,” Thompson said. “I think by the end of the fiscal year, we’ll have that bond rating, and that will be important in moving the city forward with improvements.”
Besides helping get a new bond rating, the city’s fiscal condition is apparently sound enough for the board to consider giving city employees a raise, starting with an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8 an hour. The board will hold a work session Monday and a special meeting Tuesday, when it is expected to approve raise employee pay effective Oct. 1.
While the board has worked to improve its fiscal position, it has also become more efficient with the implementation of technology at City Hall and the police and fire stations.
The city has implemented e-ticketing in the police department to allow officers to electronically file traffic tickets, installed computers in the fire department’s ambulances through a state grant to send patient information to hospitals and the Mississippi Department of Health, and begun plans to provide citizens with e-mail access to the city and an app to help citizens report problems they see in the city.
The board meetings are now paperless, with the mayor and aldermen using iPads instead of ring-type binder notebooks to keep track of agenda items. The board’s agenda and supporting documents are available to the public through the city’s website at
“We’ve invested in technology, and I believe technology allows us to get things done faster and more efficient at less cost,” said Thompson, who is a member of the city’s technology committee.
The board earlier this year began looking at recreation and improving the city’s appearance as a way to attract more tourism dollars to the city.
An 11-member ad hoc recreation committee was appointed in May to begin looking at upgrading the city’s recreation facilities and examine the possibility of a multipurpose recreation complex. The committee is expected to give its report by Dec. 31.
A beautification committee was established June 10 to begin examining ways to improve the city’s looks. The committee came out of several meetings between the board and local civic leaders to discuss plans to eliminate trash and litter from city streets and crack down on illegal dumps in the city.
Looking ahead, Flaggs has prepared a second 10-point plan that put city improvements among the top items.
Vicksburg streets, the board members said, haven’t been paved in decades. Most of the city’s water and sewer system is more than 100 years old.
City department heads in January presented a five-year capital improvements plan totaling an estimated $57 million. If the city gets its bond rating, Flaggs said, “you’re going to see a capital improvements plan coming forward, resurfacing streets, (and) hopefully we’ll be able to do a sports complex or improve recreation or do both.”
Getting the streets repaved and the infrastructure fixed, Thompson said, is critical. “It’s a priority. These are the things we have to have to attract industry to the city.”
“Our infrastructure is caving in,” Mayfield said. “Our utilities are something we’re going to get very serious about the next time we float a bond.”
He said work on the design of the 529 water line project in North Vicksburg remains underway. “Everyone’s signed off on it,” he said, “We’re very close.”
Plans for the estimated $3.2 million project to install an auxiliary main waterline began in 2010, but lost steam until Flaggs revived it in February.
The line would start at the water treatment plant at Haining Road, go north along North Washington Street to a point south of Vicksburg National Cemetery, where it will cross park property and go down the center of Fort Hill Drive to Cherry Street, where it would connect with an existing city line on Jackson Street.
The project is funded in part by a $2.45 million grant from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with the city paying an $841,821 match.
Flaggs wants to see the city’s budget remain at level funding, which means keeping the fiscal 2015 budget at the same amount or slightly more than the 2014 budget, and keeping the reserve and contingency funds.
“I’m going to ask them again to keep up the good fiscal management style we’ve got by continuing to allow the city to operate under same conservative principles,” he said.
Flaggs said the city will have to lift the hiring freeze for about 10 days “to fill 3 or 4 positions we need to put in.”
He also wants to develop a department of housing and enhance tourism using the Vicksburg National Military Park and recreation as the hubs. Flaggs also wants to see more people working in the city.
“I’m committed to creating about 500 new jobs in the private sector between 2014 and 2015, and I’m already in the process of working with the Mississippi Department of Transportation to start spending that $4 million for the South Frontage Road Extension,” he said.
“I’d like to be able to offer more opportunities to entrepreneurs,” Thompson said. “I think we need to change to way we address downtown. We need to let people know that Vicksburg is open for business.”
All three men say the changes they’ve implemented in the first year are making a difference in the way residents perceive the city.
“There’s a buy-in right now I haven’t seen in a number of years from the general public,” Mayfield said. “Business and industry want to be a part of what’s going on in the city at this time. We’ve put the olive branch out there and we’ve made sure there’s nothing fake about what we’re doing.”
“We’ve had some adversity, but we’ve stuck together,” he said. “I can assure the people that I back the mayor 100 percent when he says, ‘if we stay where we are, you will see a tremendous difference in the city at the end of this term,’ and I believe it.”

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About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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