Hundreds of Jackson citizens poured through the doors of the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center to hear Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. give the annual State of the City address on Aug 31. Thirty minutes into his speech, on the other end of High Street, about 50 people (not including media) stood in a banquet room of the Clarion Hotel to hear former TV producer and mayoral candidate Frank Melton discuss his campaign platform.
Johnson's seventh State of the City address was very positive, giving examples of improvements in many areas of concern around the city and working solutions to those areas still in need of repair. Both men discussed the need to improve the city's quality of life, particularly in neighborhoods trashed by abandoned and crumbling buildings and open sewage.
"We have to do all we can to improve the quality of life for every Jacksonian. This year we will be assigning a sworn police officer to work on quality-of-life issues," Johnson said. The mayor said he would enhance the city's enforcement code, which will include establishing a rental unit inspection program. "We cannot let apartments that one day provided affordable housing to our citizens go downhill in a hurry and send the rest of the neighborhood into a nosedive. ...
"We are going to become more aggressive in our efforts to address absentee landlords and property owners who allow properties in Jackson to be neglected," Johnson warned. "We will prosecute you, and we will seek justice even if it requires us finding you outside of the city limits and bringing you downtown to Municipal Court to face justice. Get ready, 'cause we are coming."
Melton, while saying that abandoned buildings harbor his pet issue of crime, did not provide clear insight on solutions. "The quality of life should be the same for every one. Neighborhoods should be respectable, clean and crime-free. I am not a cowboy, but I will get the job done," he said.
Both men discussed the homeless problem in the city. Melton implied that unused housing should be converted into housing for the homeless. "There is no reason for Jackson to have a homeless community when every other house is boarded up," he said, without saying how that would be done. Johnson said that homeless residents, just as every other citizen in Jackson, deserve quality services. "I have appointed an internal homeless task force to develop a plan to service this population. We have distributed emergency shelter grant funds for the agencies that care for the homeless," Johnson said. The mayor also mentioned that the U.S. Congress has also appropriated money for the city to undertake a pilot program to provide on-the-job training for homeless persons.
The mayor did not back away from Melton's pet issue of crime, or the problem of crime perception, which is often inaccurate and overblown by media and politicians, but that fuels stress among residents, nevertheless. "We cannot be a great city unless our people feel safe, safe in their homes, safe at work, or just taking a walk or going to the store," Johnson said. Last year, he and Police Chief Robert Moore introduced a five-point community-policing plan to reduce crime in Jackson. "Our plan is working. Crime is at a 16-year low, " Johnson said, citing the FBI's crime statistics for major crimes in Jackson.
Listening to Melton, a fan of more punitive, traditional policing than Johnson's community-policing model, one might ascertain that crime is at a 16-year high in Jackson. He promised that "help is on the way!" and implied that the city and the police chief are fibbing about crime improvements. Melton said that he wants "a third-party safety awareness group and the media to keep up with our crime stats and not the police. This has been a joke for too long. We must acknowledge the problem before we can solve it."
Melton also said that police need less oversight from both the media and higher-ups in the police force. "Let's untie the policemen's hands and let them do their jobs," he said. "We need less management and more enforcement."
In his speech, Johnson pointed to city improvements of blighted areas that have lain dormant for many years. For instance, the budding Farish Street Entertainment District that just two years ago was an eyesore. "We have installed new storm drainage facilities, decorative street lighting, park benches, ornamental trees and we have bricked the streets and sidewalks. More importantly, we opened a police substation on Farish Street and even a Jackson Police Department museum," Johnson said.
Melton, though, said that the Farish Street area is in the worst of condition and that the people in that community deserve better. "It is not about making money but about helping people," Melton said.
The mayor urged city residents to support the new convention center on the November ballot. "This decision will set our future course here in Jackson," he said. "Based on the studies that we have done, sales tax revenue will be significantly increased. There will be over 700 permanent new jobs."
Despite their differences on several issues, both men did agree that the King Edward Hotel, one of the city's most talked-about eyesores, should either be refurbished or come down.
Near the end of his speech, Johnson applauded young people who are rising above challenges in the city. Specifically, he praised Kiwon Williams, an 8th grader at Morrison Academic Advancement Center, a school for academically challenged students. "Kiwon read more books than any student in his school last year when he read an astounding 66 books," Johnson said.
Melton also had a message for young people. "What they need is structure, structure, structure. I plan to use all facilities at the city's disposal, including the Boys and Girls Club to help our children.
He added, "I want [boys] to give all their earrings to their sisters and pull their pants up on their behinds."
JFP Index: Is "No Child Left Behind" Designed for Failure?
• Number of student in Jackson Public Schools: 31,000
• Number of JPS schools scoring Level 5 in 2002-03: 3
• Number of JPS schools "needing improvement" (or "failing") under NCLB standards: 15
• Number of JPS middle schools now "failing" due only to their special-education scores: 8
• Amount 2004 Bush budget underfunds No Child Left Behind: $9.4 billion
• Amount Bush has underfunded NCLB since 2001: $30 billion
• Amount Bush 2004 budget is underfunding Title 1 program to help disadvantaged students: $7.1 billion
• Number of Title 1 and special-education programs eliminated: 38
• Amount of money in Bush budget allocated to help pay for student transfers to other private and public schools: $50 million
• Amount Gov. Barbour underfunded Mississippi Adequate Education Act for FY2005: $44 million
Sources: JPS, Mississippi Legislature, U.S. Congress, White House