By James Beaty
McAlester Mayor State Harrison said the city made significant progress in 2013, despite what he considered a “lackluster local economy” for most of the year.
Things are picking up now though, the mayor said.
Harrison delivered his message during the McAlester City Council’s regular Tuesday night meeting, held in the council chambers at City Hall.
During his presentation, Harrison touched on everything from financial challenges the city abruptly felt and hastened to meet at the beginning of the year, to progress he said the city is starting to make on a number of fronts.
The mayor called his message “Gaining Ground” —and he said he meant it both figuratively and literally.
“We literally gained ground last year when we annexed some additional land into the city limits, “Harrison said — a reference to annexing land west of the city that included the Steven Taylor Industrial Park and will encompass the new travel plaza currently under construction on the Indian Nation Turnpike.
“But we also figuratively gained ground in many other areas that are important to our continued progress,” he said.
“Achieving these gains in the midst of a revenue decline is a tribute to our city administration and all city employees who continue to figure out how to do more with less,” the mayor said.
“In other words, our productivity continues to improve.”
Last year’s sales tax revenues were $13.2 million — a $1.1 million decline from the previous year, Harrison said. That marked the lowest level since 2006, he said.
This 8 percent decline was made even more difficult by the abruptness with which it occurred, Harrison said. Last January, the sales tax revenue dropped by 10.3 percent when compared to 2012, he said.
“When our February tax check was down by almost as much, we acted quickly and decisively to adjust our expenditures budget to keep it in balance with lower revenues,” Harrison said.
He said the city found the necessary savings while maintaining public safety as well as other essential services.
Although the resulting budget cuts were not without pain, the cuts did allow the city to end the fiscal year on June 30, 2013, and start the new fiscal year in good shape, he said.
Quick action taken by the city to balance its budget were cited by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn as an example to emulate during debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate on how to implement federal budget cuts required by sequestration, Harrison noted.
“I am happy to report tonight that our budget for the current fiscal year is solidly on track,” Harrison said. “We just completed our mid-year budget review and needed only minor corrections.”
“We budgeted conservatively on revenues and are hitting our targets,” Harrison said.
“In fact, sales tax receipts have firmed up in the last three or four months — a sign that our economy is improving.”
Harrison said balancing the budget during the past fiscal year was no small feat and he congratulated city employees “for coming through again.”
Harrison also noted progress the city is making in a number of areas, including the beginning of the streets projects, financed after a vote of the people to broaden the purpose of an existing sales tax.
Although the vote of the people authorized the city to issue up to $13.8 million in bonds to fund street improvements, the city ultimately issued far less following a decline in sales tax revenue around the time the bonds were issued.
“Due to the decline in sales tax that I previously discussed, we chose a conservative approach and issued only $8.9 million in bonds,” Harrison said. “This still leaves an additional $4.9 million in bonds that are authorized and can be sold in the future.”
Construction on the first of the projects – Seventeenth Street from Comanche Avenue to South Avenue – is under way and the next two projects are being engineered, the mayor said.
“These are the first major street reconstruction projects to be undertaken by the city of McAlester in more than 10 years,” Harrison said.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us but it’s good to get it under way.”
Also, the city will continue to use its regular operational funds for additional street work, including patching, re-surfacing and pot hole repair, the mayor said.
Harrison noted that 308 concrete panels on city streets were replaced in 2013, a 15 percent increase over the previous year.
He also spoke of the new land the city has annexed and said annexing the industrial park to common sense. Harrison noted the city already provides all service for tenants at the industrial park and annexing the property has been part of the city’s comprehensive plan for nearly 20 years.
The mayor also noted the new travel plaza on the Indian Nation Turnpike will include a McDonald’s and an EZ GO convenience store that will include a service station with a refueling station for CNG, or converted natural gas, vehicles.
“We gained ground in 2013 in the all-important arena of economic development,” the mayor said.
Commercial activity on the city totaled $7.4 million,” Harrison said, with major new construction projects including the new CVS Pharmacy, Steak & Shake and Trim Rite. Significant additions are also under way at the Kiamichi Technology Center and Lakewood Church, he said.
Residential development totaled just over $6 million, including completion of the Hickory Ridge III subdivision with 40 residential lots and the beginning of the Royal Oaks subdivision with 38 lots. Also, the Carland Group is developing a 64,000 square-foot senior living community at the southwest corner of Carl Albert Parkway and West Street, the mayor said.
Harrison also spoke of last year’s sale of approximately 117 acres of city-owned land on Elks Road to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma for approximately $1,350,000. Included in the first stage of the development is a Head Start facility, a community center and a food distribution center, Harrison said.
“The money received from the sale of the property is restricted to economic development and will provide the city with more resources as we seek out additional opportunities for economic growth,” he said.
A critical part of economic development is the retention and expansion of existing businesses, Harrison said, adding that for McAlester and southeastern Oklahoma, none is more important than the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant.
“The second annual fly-in to Washington, D.C., the McAlester Stampede, took place last May when 24 McAlester leaders met with our entire state congressional delegation and top Pentagon officials to emphasize the importance of the defense industry to our region,” Harrison said. Attendance at the Capital Reception hosted by the McAlester Defense Support Association increased by more than 50 percent over the previous year, Harrison said.
He said the MDSA continues in its leadership role, recently meeting with Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine, who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Also, the city has completed construction of a high-strength terminal apron aircraft parking area at McAlester Regional Airport, designed to support large military aircraft such as the C-130, Harrison said, with 90 percent of the funding coming through the Oklahoma Military Planning Commission.
Another key McAlester employer, the city-owned McAlester Regional Health Center, continues to gain ground in a rapidly changing environment as it embraces its vision to become the regional health center of excellence for southeastern Oklahoma, said Harrison.
In 2013, the hospital had a direct economic benefit of more than $72 million to the regional economy, Harrison said.
In July, the Southeast Family Medicine Clinic opened and this month, the hospital is opening a Wound and Hyperbaric Health Center, the mayor said. A new dialysis center that will double the number of dialysis units is also in development, the mayor said.
McAlester has also gained ground in a number of other ways, Harrison said, mentioning a Community Services officer program started by the police department and the McAlester Safe Neighborhoods program started in Ward 4 by City Councilor Robert Karr.
In addition, the McAlester Fire Department has continued its community education program, including hosting the Firefighter Classic where 530 firefighters received training, the mayor said.
“We also obtained a higher ISO rating which can result in lower casualty premiums for businesses and homeowners,” Harrison said.
Speaking of insurance premiums, for the third consecutive year the city was able to reduce its premium costs for employee health insurance while maintaining or improving benefits, the mayor said.
“In today’s climate, I’m not sure that’s the most impressive accomplishment of all,” Harrison said.
In a sign of how far the city has come, the city will receive a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting by preparing and issuing financial reports that “evidence the spirit of transparency and full disclosure,” the mayor said. Only nine communities in Oklahoma achieved this recognition by the Government Finance Officers Association, Harrison said.
The mayor also spoke of state officials who visited McAlester to grant the city recognition fir its achievements.
“State Insurance Commissioner John Doak came to McAlester to congratulate us on our improved ISO rating,” Harrison said. “Dr. Terry Cline, Oklahoma Commissioner of Health, came to McAlester to recognize our city as a Certified Healthy Community. This was followed later in the year by the public presentation of an $8,000 check as a Healthy Communities Incentive Grant.”
Harrison said he and City Manager Pete Stasiak will be traveling to Norman this week to receive recognition for attaining a higher level in the Certified Healthy Community Program.
“The Executive Director of the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality traveled to McAlester to publicly recognize our city as an Oklahoma Clean Community. Pride in McAlester had the honor of being recognized as Keep Oklahoma Beautiful’s Affiliate of the Year at an awards banquet at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame attended by Governor Fallin and several cabinet members in addition to leaders from all over Oklahoma. Pride in McAlester beat out Keep Oklahoma City Beautiful among other contenders,” Harrison said.
“As McAlester residents, we see the good things happening in our community every day,” he said. “It’s nice that the rest of the state is starting to see it too. It’s always good to make the news for the right reasons.”
Harrison also spoke of the refurbishing of the former Hunt’s Department Store by the Parrott family and noted that several local organizations, including the city’s Tourism Department, will relocate to the building.
The mayor also spoke of improvements in the quality of life in the city, including the first funding of $160,000 to the McAlester Trails System.
Taylor spoke of new playground equipment at Chadick Park, the movie equipment used for the Movies in the Park program, the city’s first dog park, Central Bark, that’s near completion; a disc golf course next to Rotary Park and the portion of Hutchison Park that’s being transformed into a replica of a Choctaw village.
“Two other park projects being looked at are a water park and a park devoted to archery,” Harrison said, with an effort under way to develop community gardens.
“The McAlester Young Professionals have begun an ‘Adopt a Street’ program to keep our streets litter-free,” Harrison said.
He also spoke of events at the Southeast Expo Center, including the Professional Bull Riders, the Hunting and Fishing Expo, the Choctaw Nation Pow-Wow and the B.A.S.S. Fishing Tournament.
“Annual events such as Culturefest and the Wild West Festival are getting bigger and better, Harrison said. “And what better way to close out the year as a community than the very first Christmas on the Hill?”
Harrison closed by noting that the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has been designated as part of the official Promise Zone Initiative mentioned a year ago in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. Goals of the initiative are to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing and improve public safety, the mayor said.
“This is a 10-year designation,” Harrison said.
The Choctaw Nation will be joined by numerous partners establishing the Revitalizing Our Communities Commission of Southeastern Oklahoma, he said. The commission will work to develop a long-term integrated vision and plan for southeastern Oklahoma communities.
“I am hopeful that this effort will go a long way toward strong economic development and increased prosperity for our region,” Harrison said.
“I will personally do all I can to ensure its success. And in my opinion, the best possible measure of success would be that at the end of this ten year period, we no longer qualify for programs only available to economically depressed regions,” he said.
The mayor concluded his remarks by thanking those who listened to his State of the City address.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.