The following is the full text of Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber's 2015 State of the City address delivered Thursday evening at the Mississippi Arts Center.
Great day and thank you!
To my colleagues on the Council of our city, elected officials and city leaders, our amazing city employees, and the citizens of the Bold New City of Jackson, Mississippi: thank you for your unwavering support and commitment to this city. I would like to extend a special thank you to the Arts Center of Mississippi for allowing us to be in this beautiful facility, and I thank each of you for joining me in bustling downtown Jackson and online via various media outlets for the 2015 State of the City Address.
To my beautiful wife, Rosalind, and our wonderful children, I appreciate your selflessness and pledge to serve our extended family of Jacksonians. Tonight, we are all gathered here as a family. A family that is concerned about its present and its future.A family that has undertaken a clear mission. A family that is devoted to producing a legacy that we can all take pride in. A family that is vibrant, connected, prosperous, innovative, and committed. A family that simply cares.
Last year, I started my address by stating, “Progress is a 24-7, 365-day a year job that requires the diligence to stick with and through the process of betterment.” I also mentioned that our journey ahead would be arduous. Tonight, I present to you a State of the City that is not laced with elaborate rhetoric or overreaching promises. Instead I present a State of the City that highlights our city’s transformation through transparency, hope in the midst of our hardships, and realism throughout our city’s evolution.
As Mississippi’s largest city, Jackson is often asked to bear the load and make larger sacrifices. Of course, that means our City is expected to do more with less. Over the course of the past few years, external funding from the State and Federal levels has decreased. Family, we must have the foresight to understand that there is a great need for fiscal responsibility and accountability. The decisions we must make to reshape the financial integrity of our City are not pretty, but the consequences of improper preparation are even less attractive.
The City of Jackson is currently facing one of the toughest budget seasons in its history. The Administration and the City Council are prepared to make choices that will not gain us popularity, but will ensure our city’s stability. Last year, the city closed the budget cycle with a $14 million deficit. This deficit was balanced with monies from the City’s fund balance. This practice has become a normality and has perpetuated a system that is adverse to the financial health of our city. For those of us that don’t completely understand what this means, it’s almost like balancing your check book with your savings account. It implies that there is a reliance on the ability to cover overages with savings. Family, our city cannot and will not function in a system that does not ensure its viability and prosperity. This year, we will make decisions that are necessary for our city’s improvement.
Our city has been presented with an opportunity to completely revamp its fiscal, debt management, and investment management policies and procedures. In short, the City has begun the process of recovering from a long-term state of financial distress. For the upcoming fiscal year, The City of Jackson has entered into a Priority Budgeting process. This process forces us to make judgments based on the science and not the art. It forces us to budget based on an assessment of the facts and not on our feelings.It means that at alllevels; we will make decisions to fund things that are relative to our city’s sustainability and its ability to function properly. Things that are not necessary, secondary items and programs, will be funded based on their effectiveness and impact for our citizens. I assure you that although this process will not be easy, it will shape the legacy that this administration intends to leave. A legacy that speaks to transparent, data-driven governance and systematic principles to push our City forward.
Many of us have the burden of balancing our personal budgets. The decision we make to ensure that our bills are paid, food is on the table, and that the welfare of our families is in intact outweighs the sacrifice of eating out, going out, or even having cable TV. Understand me clearly when I say that the City’s budget will be treated no differently. Hear me clearly and firmly when I say that this budget season will test our city. The administration and City council will make decisions to move this city towards a system that allows for our continued financial growth. I don’t expect the tightening of our budget to be painless. Sometimes budgeting for the necessities forces us to leave out the superfluous.Often times we find ourselves infatuated with the “extra” things and not the needed things. This year is a year of belt tightening. This year is a year of fixing our systematic glitches. This year we will take on the challenge of ensuring that there is a plan for our fiscal integrity as we did last year for infrastructure improvement.
In the upcoming year, our City continues to improve our infrastructure, and for the first time ever, there is a systematic and respected plan in place to foster infrastructure stability. Jackson’s Infrastructure Master Plan is a definitive piece of the puzzle that will help us put our City together in the best possible manner. With revenue from the 1% sales tax that passed in 2014, the City will leverage funds to make massive improvements to our City’s infrastructure. The truth remains that with an estimated need of $1.4 Billion in infrastructure improvements, the 1% sales tax will not fund our City’s transformation. With this in mind, the City is aggressively seeking external funds, weighing leveraging options, and cutting excess in all areas.
Despite our well known infrastructure issues, the City has committed itself to the redevelopment of our city. Over the past year, Public Works crews have filled over 35 thousand pot holes, paved 39 streets, and approved over $13.8 Million in major projects. Our City’s successes don’t just stop with infrastructure; in Public safety we have seen a decrease in major crimes of 13.8% since June 2014. After moving our Community Improvement division from Planning to the Jackson Police Department, we have seen a 131% increase in the closure of 311 requests for board ups, demolitions, and grass and weed cases. Not only has community improvement closed all calls received over the past year, they have started to complete calls in the 311 backlog. In the realm of Economic Development, the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau sited an increase in our tourism with over 2.6 million visitors coming to Jackson last year. The City also saw 938 permanent jobs created and participated in 47 new business openings.
Through an aggressive approach and our commitment to provide the best customer service and transparency, the office of Personnel Management has implemented a city-wide training program for all employees.If you recall, this is a promise I made upon taking the oath of office. As we see the fulfillment of this promise, I am proud to announce that another promise; the promise to bring a clinic to our city employees that would provide free basic healthcare is coming to fruition as well. Our order to create an onsite healthcare clinic for city employees and their families now awaits City Council approval. Once approved, this clinic helps with our fiscal responsibility and our responsibility to provide top notch healthcare to city employees.
The administration takes its responsibility to provide the best quality of life for its employees and citizens seriously. Our Department of Constituent Services implemented creative ways to keep citizens engaged and informed, developed a social media presence, and has driven views on the City’s website up 286% this year. The “I Need You To Make It” Youth Initiative has engaged thousands of students and will give a large number of metro students school supplies at the upcoming Back to School event. Through partnerships and collaborations, the Mayor’s I Need You to Make It Youth Initiative has touched over 34,000 students within the City of Jackson.
Our dedication to providing our citizens and our youth with meaningful opportunities to succeed mirror our belief that we must provide culturally diverse entertainment throughout Jackson. I am excited about the City of Jackson’s Season of Festivals – a period full of concerts, events, festivals, and fun for all of our constituency groups. In conjunction with our great season of festivals, Thalia Mara Hall will be bustling with several Broadway hits gracing the stage. Our city is the hub for all genres of entertainment in Central Mississippi.
Honestly, looking over our time in office, I could speak to numerous victories we have shared as a city and as a family. But tonight isn’t just about patting ourselves on the back; it’s more about ensuring that you understand the course of our city and the progress we look forward to making. If you’d like to see some of our major accomplishments since over the past year, we have developed a Performance report that outlines the thematic principles of our vision. This report speaks to how our City is becoming the destination city we desire it to be through vibrancy, connectivity, prosperity, innovation, and commitment. These are the fundamental themes that have carried us through the current year and must continue to help drive progress in the coming year.
As the year approaches, we are pleased to have federal and private partnerships that see the viability in our great city. The National Resource Network, an organization derived from a White House initiative to build stronger communities and stronger cities, will be partnering with us in our endeavor to foster more economic development throughout Jackson which includes the often forgotten South and West sides of town. This opportunity to create lasting economic growth in our city speaks to the belief that external partners have in our city. As work with the National Resource Network takes off this year, the city will also host an initiative geared toward improving performance management, data analysis, and creating an Open Data platform for Jackson. This would allow citizens to see real time results and information about the challenges, finances, and progression of our city. Industry leading experts will be brought in to assist with the development of this plan, and thanks to the backing of outside funding our city will move forward and be better without causing a financial burden of the city or its citizens.
As we strive to become a more innovative city, we are excited about the impact it has on bettering the processes within our city. This year, permits, licenses, and other certifications through our building and permits division will be available for purchase online. The City will go to a monthly billing cycle for Water and Sewer payments, also available for payment online in August. Earlier this month, the city of Jackson hosted a technology conference named TECHJXN. Teams from our capital city went on to participate in a competition at the Essence Festival in New Orleans and won 1st place. Excitement continues to build and partners like local universities, high schools, businesses, and private organizations are adamant about joining the city in its endeavor to create an innovation district. This innovation district will serve as an essential tool to individuals, businesses, and corporations looking to work, live, and invest in Jackson. Our commitment to make City processes seamless and effective are paramount to us building a City system that is centered on data-driven decision making. If we are to fix the system in which we function, we must understand, adapt, and be willing to admit our flaws. Innovation will help us ensure that the growth and future development of our city is inevitable.
As we see the new developments sprout up in our city over the next year like the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History, I challenge us to grow, build, and develop just as a construction site. Our foundation for growth is being established through long-lasting processes that will force us to actionable around the facts. Over the course of the next year, you will see the City push a fiscally responsible agenda that focuses on Infrastructure Stability, Public Safety, Economic Development, Innovation, and Education. Speaking of education and while each accomplishment of this past year is valuable, I will mention one specifically. It truly embodies the spirit of this administration and the mindset we have taken to ensure that we are producing the best service for our citizens.
The department of Human and Cultural Services was challenged on my arrival in office to create a component of the I Need You to Make It Initiative that would focus on early childhood literacy. This component became conveniently labeled as Project Read. The project was launched in the city’s three child care facilities in January 2015, using a curriculum geared toward Pre-K students. The goal is to ensure these children are reading by the time they enter kindergarten.
The 4- and 5-year-olds in the program were given a pre-assessment and a post-assessment with an emphasis language development. The pre-test had five sections: reading comprehension, sentence dictation, sound and symbol decoding, spelling and reading capability. The pre-test average of all three sites was 17%. After administering the curriculum, post test results improved to more than 58%. What does this mean for you, our children, our City?
It means that there can be a changing tide of the education attainment of our children through tailored early childhood education. By emphasizing literacy in our city childcare centers, we can ensure that they are emerging as strong readers on par with state mandates. It also means that at the root of all things, proper preparation is key to success. It is my belief and validated by these results that proper preparation will shape future success. It is with a mentality of proper planning and execution that we speak to the positive things our City will birth.
Preparation and proper planning have already begun within the City of Jackson. The administration has developed a financial resiliency plan that includes three critical stages. Stage 1 is Bridging – which includes assessing our state of financial distress and implementing tactics to stabilize the situation. This stage also creates short-term solutions to prevent any fiscal bleeding that may currently be happening. The administration has already identified the most immediate causes of financial distress and is in the process of implementing fiscal first aid and a comprehensive fiscal health model through the newly implemented priority budgeting process. Stage 2 is considered Reformation – in which the city will carry out the short term recovery plan while developing long-term strategies. The 3rd and final stage is Transformation – in which the City of Jackson will institutionalize long-term financial planning, while becoming more resistant to financial distress and able to adapt a changing environment. In short, these three stages will help us achieve a state of Financial Resiliency in regards to fiscal management, debt management, and investment policies and procedures.
Growth is often painful. Change is often resented, but both are necessary for sustainable success. We are not afraid of the challenges that lie ahead of this city. We are not afraid to make decisions that ensure that we are doing good for our city and not just helping people to feel good about our city. The administration has faced the challenges of infrastructure improvement and public safety. In those challenges, our city has seen clear direction and work that speaks to our forward progression. Our fiscal integrity is no different. This administration is prepared to make certain that our city does better and is better. We are prepared to guide this city towards its future success.
Our City continues to persevere through hardships, rise over adversity, and progress amidst the noise of naysayers. We have begun developing a City-Wide Capital Improvement Plan to certify that we are properly preparing to be a Bold New City. We have safeguarded our necessities and now look to eliminate our superfluity. As we move this City forward through a centralized plan that encompasses the holistic view of our future, it is our task to hold fast to the vision of Jackson. Though we face trying tasks ahead, this City has never buckled under the pressure of any issue. The City will continue to handle the problems of its citizens with persistence, wisdom and the collective genius of our communities, businesses, churches, and organizations throughout the City. As I stated last year, “the City of Jackson is not just another city. It is our city. It is the capital city of Mississippi and a diamond needing to be polished. Our city’s future is promising, but that promise will never become productive until we all commit to making Jackson great.”
I feel your commitment to our city. I feel your commitment to this family, and yes, our family is changing. It is growing. It is maturing. Our family is moving forward, and now is the time for us to forge the legacy that will follow our name. We are Bold. We are New. We are Here. Tonight, I submit to you that through our challenges, victories, and our future successes, we are all Jackson.
May God guide us and keep us throughout this journey together. God bless America. God Bless you. God bless the Bold New City of Jackson, Mississippi. Thank you.