State of the City Address
Feb. 22, 2021 | Osceola, Arkansas
The Theme for this Annual Report is “Be an agent of change through team work”. With that, I want to recognize all of you, the council members and the staff for having been agents of change for our city in 2020 in regards to 1) the appearance of the town, 2) quality of life, 3) growing retail business, 4) public safety, 5) utility customers, and 6) transparency in city government.
Code Enforcement – Enhance the appearance of town, housing, properties and rentals
I want to start off by thanking Greg Baker, who chairs the Code Enforcement committee for completing the revised Ordinance to Condemn so that we can begin the process of condemning substandard properties for the purpose of demolition. Greg is also working closely with our code officers in developing a plan to fully implement the International Property Maintenance Code. We have developed a good working relationship with the new District Judge and will begin collecting the assessed fines, fees, and licenses to aid our code enforcement. We also appreciate Judge Catherine Dean for re-establishing the Community Service program and working closely with our code enforcement deputy officer to provide workers and probationers who help clear lots, ditch banks, and pick up trash. We also anticipate the addition of public service inmates once they are cleared from COVID protocols.
If you remember, the Osceola City Council approved the “Comprehensive Plan, Osceola Forward 2040” about 6 years ago, but this was the first year that the city really focused on it.
Additionally, the Osceola Community Improvement TaskForce has met bi-weekly. As a result of this regularity, they have managed to coordinate and carry out United for a Clean Osceola with Big River Steel, contributed most of the early leg work towards the removal of the old Mobil gas station, and helped to obtain monetary donations to fund these efforts. The group is planning another community clean up in April and is also looking into a TAP application for about $500,000 street scape to repair sidewalks along Walnut. Further, the group has identified nearly 300 substandard houses and has turned over the information to Code Enforcement. Special thanks go to the chairman Britt Lorino, his wife Donna Lorino, and the tireless former chair Shawn Chafin, who have all donated so much unpaid volunteer time to these efforts.
We also have a new community improvement group forming - the Renew Osceola Community Development Corp., which plans to improve and expand the housing stock and ownership in Osceola.
Looking forward, we should fill the vacancies on the Osceola Planning Commission and empower this group to engage with property owners to comply with code standards.
Gary Cooper has done a wonderful job this year leading the Public Works committee and helping to shape a method where this department is more engaged with the community and council regarding scheduled street repair and ground water runoff maintenance. Our street department worked with the MS CO Solid Waste Board and used an $11,000 grant from them to develop our cardboard recycling program. This year, we hope to continue that partnership and begin a countywide recycling program for plastics, glass, paper and tree stumps. We have asked the Solid Waste board and USDA Rural Development to help purchase a $113,000 forestry mulcher for a program to reduce our landfill costs.
OPAR and Animal Control – Emphasize Quality of Life. Generate new grant opportunities. Strengthen population and compete for new residents. Unify all city departments, agencies, groups in collaborative vision
Sandra Brand has done a great job energizing the OPAR Committee. Sandra was also instrumental in helping to open the new Bark Park opened on the north side of Florida Park.
Our animal shelter received grants from Arkansas Community Foundation totaling $5,500 for emergency dog food and spay/neutering, and for part of the HVAC system. USDA Rural Development also kicked in $3,000 for the HAVC system. The state legislature just appropriated funds for Animal Shelters, so we should be receiving $25,00 new state funding,
For bragging rights, Osceola was selected as a Volunteer Community of the Year in 2020.
Increase partnering with Osceola School District and AR Northeastern College, COVID limited.
In terms of grants, The Grants Alert Team meets to discuss and assign grants on the city’s radar. There are a lot of potential grants available for recreation this year including: the Outdoor Parks due this summer for about $60,000 grant, 50/50 match required for Tennis Courts and a skateboard park, the $40,000 Baseball Tomorrow grant for fields, the US Soccer Foundation for fields, the $150,000 Blu & You grants for parks, a large recreational trails fund grant for bike paths, a KABOOM grant for playground equipment, an $8,000 Sunshade grant for park covers, and a green schoolyards grant for the old West elementary.
Police, Fire Committee – Tackle crime, strengthen public safety, Reduce unemployment to lowest in state
Regarding public safety, Stan Williams has done a great job leading the Police and Fire Committee. This year, through a partnership with Osceola Housing Authority, there have been 25 SkyCops installed in town. We purchased a speed monitoring device and have been using it to record traffic speed on certain streets in town. We continue with our Friday morning prayer at OPD. This year, we welcomed Peter Hill as our new Osceola Fire Department chief. At the very first of the year, we paid the cost in full for the fire Department's new Pierce Saber Pumper. Also this year the fire department received a $19,000 grant to pay for gear sets, and USDA Rural Development and PPES grants to purchase valuable equipment and two multipurpose pickup trucks. OPD received a $38,000 STEP award for a domestic violence officer and a $39,400 grant for OPD from the Bureau of Justice funds. In this next year, the fire department and police department will seek more grant funds from USDA and other sources to purchase a new vehicle, additional Skycops, and fire station roof replacement. Additionally, the Fire Dept has applied for the Assistance To Firefighters Grant to replace air pacs.
Finance & Utilities – Resolve recurring issues with utilities and increase number of electric customers
At the end of last year, we had close to $2 million in reserves. This amount is double what we had at the beginning of 2019 and is the most that the city has ever had in reserve. I cannot thank Linda Watson enough for her help. Linda’s Finance meetings throughout the pandemic were valuable as we were most concerned about the financial effects of COVID on the city’s budget. We took on the task to help locate where in our city budget we could reduce expenses and eliminate waste. We also started looking for grants. Linda also advised me and the staff as we increased efforts to help our customers struggling to pay their bills. We have focused on customer service and hear complaints and ensure fees and billing are correct & uniform for all, per ordinance or incentive program. From the low-income home energy assistance program or LiHEAP, the city worked with EOC to have $132,999 paid for our customers’ light bills in September, 2021.
We have partnered with the Chamber to consider options for lowering our retail electric rates. We are also planning to present a program to award monthly negative cost adjustment to our small retail businesses. Our hope is that this program will help to attract a small grocery store.
Additionally, we completed the wastewater lagoon with the help of an $800,000 EDA grant.
Regarding financial help with our COVID crisis: We must thank Governor Hutchinson and his Cares Act Steering Committee, Dave Wallace, Johnny Rye and Monte Hodges for their help. Charles Landrum with Representative Crawford’s office and Courtney Nance and Gene Higginbotham with Senator Boozman’s office for their continued help. Our COVID fund reimbursement was $307,000. We also have staff working on a COVID FEMA Public Assistance reimbursement that should be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Thanks to our amazing staff who have worked so hard during the pandemic.
Looking forward into the year, we will be helping all of our residential customers by switching their electric and water meters to the new AMI - advanced metering infrastructure system - with Aclara.
Regarding the overload on our sewer system, the City has applied for grants to pay for a $3.7 million Phase 3a sewer system project. $2.8 million will come from EDA EAA’s grant, Economic Development Administration’s Economic Adjustment Assistance. And hopefully another nearly $1 million from DRA-SEDAP. Hopefully, we will also be able to refinance our existing ANRC loan balance from the Phase 1 & 2 Water and Sewer upgrades with a lower interest rate.
Communications – Expect transparency in city government. Embrace, engage citizen empowerment
Regarding our city website and government transparency, open knowledge is defined as “any content, information or data that people are free to use, reuse and redistribute—without any legal, technological or social restriction". We are taking the lead in Arkansas to post on our city website, http://osceolaarkansas.com two years of council meeting packets, ordinances, budgets, contracts, strategic and Comprehensive Plan.
When COVID hit, I began having a weekly phone conference call with local pasters. Our topics include COVID case numbers and updates, services that the city can offer, food distribution and food pantry action. These meetings will continue as a forum for the clergy and city to coordinate efforts and ideas.
Also coming up in 2021 will be a broadband high speed, fiber optics internet service for our residents. We have hitched our wagons on MCEC for fiber optic installation through Governor Hutchinson’s AR Rural Connects program. It is hoped that this service will cost our residents about $59.95 monthly for 100 Mbps (megabits per second).
Chamber – Energize and cultivate retail & small businesses development—become competitive in area
The Chamber is also helping us with two initiatives, the Local Foods Local Places plan and the Music Heritage Tourism Initiative to create more music tourism using our new Americana Music Highway designation. Thank you to Greg Baker, Gary Cooper and the A & P Commission for their lead on this initiative and funding the study that the Delta Center conducted. A music tourism team meets monthly at the Chamber of Commerce and works to carry out the actions of this plan and well as preparing grant applications such as the $150,000 Our Town grant application and the TAP Street-scape. The team is excited that the renovation of the Coston Arts building is nearly complete. Over $310,000 in grants were awarded and completely paid for the renovations and some furnishings for the Coston Arts building from the Governor’s CDBG, AHPP, USDA Rural Development and AR Community Foundation.
COVID has strained our food security. Last summer, the Osceola School district provided a summer long feeding program and the city was pleased to assist. To help address the food insecurity, we have reinitiated the Local Foods, Local Places initiative. This LFLP team meets regularly and has been implementing the action items that include: farm to market programs, restaurant incubation, promoting community gardens, and a year-round Farmers’ Market. They’re also working with East Arkansas Planning and Development to apply for the city to receive $300,000 in grant funds to repurpose the old city hall. This will piggy back on the $20,000 AR Historic Preservation grant that we received last year for the old Post office to replace its electric wiring repair.
Like the Gary’s Pizza incentive, we plan to offer more economic development incentives for retail businesses. By doing so, we will have a better chance to recruit new businesses such as a grocery store that offers fresh produce and a meat market. We will coordinate efforts to benefit most from new Opportunity Zone, New Market Tax Credit and HUB Zone designation.
As a point of action in our Comprehensive Plan, we are emphasizing efforts to reinvent our downtown. We all look forward to the completion of our courthouse dome.
Daycare for working parents continues to be a need for our residents. The city will continue to work with DENSO, other manufacturers and the college to bring a new large daycare center to Osceola.
Our steel Industry campus continues to grow and brings more high-paying jobs.
Our Riverport received a $300,000 AR Waterways Commission grant for improvements to the port. And they are currently working on a larger grant for this upcoming cycle to fund the expansion of Riverport footprint.
At the Osceola airport, the Pilots’ Committee has been busy. This year we completed $580,000 runway sealing, coating, markings, improved runway lighting, and strobe lights at the ends of the runway for aircraft and passenger safety. These funds were provided 90% by FAA allotments, and we anticipate a successful application by state aeronautics to fund the remaining 10%. In addition, we received $20,000 in COVID funds for the airport. In the next two years, the plans include replacing the hangars and apron through $400,000 grants and private funding.
For the city’s first annual MLK Day of Service event, we received a $1,000 National League of Cities Day of Service grant for street post banners.
The city has partnered with several free food distributions since the Pandemic hit last March. It is important that when food distributions are available that we all pull together and do all that we can to ensure that our residents have food.
In an update about other grants that the city has received this year, I am happy to report that we were awarded a $30,000 King Foundation grant to improve the kitchen at the Rosenwald Center. COVID $25K grant from AR Comm Foundation to assist retail businesses with COVID precaution. COVID $20,000 grant to airport, Music Tourism $2,500 to help film music documentary, National League of Cities and SSCI. Arkasnas Community Foundation also granted us $14,237 for COVID modifications for our City Hall lobby. We helped the Museum secure a $2,500 grant.
Speaking of the Museum, I want to thank Tyler Dunegan for his valuable assistance with writing the four free service contracts that included the one for the museum.
In other grants that we plan to make application include; for the Rosenwald center, there are historical markers grants at $1,250 each from AEDC, there are Brownsfield federal funds to clean up the diesel tanks at the Fruit building & JT Parsons. We will also apply for an AARP Community Challenge grant for the Senior Citizens Center.
In closing, I wish to thank everyone for their hard work during 2020. It was a challenging year and one like I hope we never have to endure again. But we got through it because we found a way to work through our differences and put our residents first. For that I want to thank you again and encourage us all to continue to “Be an agent of change through team work”.