New Albany may hire lobbyist, plans to streamline absentee voting

NEMiss.News Mayor Kent on Zoom
Mayor Tim Kent reads an agenda item at Tuesday's city board meeting held via Zoom.
January 7th, 2021     Government & Politics

New Albany officials are apparently considering hiring a lobbyist to represent the city and seek state, federal and other funds for various projects.

The topic was not on the agenda in Tuesday’s January meeting of the board of aldermen. It came up through a question by Ward One Alderwoman Amy Livingston.

Community Development Director Billye Jean Stroud said the idea was referred to her by Rep. Sam Creekmore and Sen. Kathy Chism.

While the two representatives do lobby for the city and county, they have other duties and also do not have the expertise and experience of a more professional lobbyist.

Stroud said she is getting more information about lobbyists used by other cities and the success they have had in obtaining projects.

Stroud indicated later that she might ask for $20,000 to pay the lobbyist for a year. It was noted that the city has paid the Retail Strategies Group $30,000 a year for several years with no results and this might be a better use of the money.

No action was asked for or taken Tuesday.

Absentee voting

City officials also took a step toward simplifying the upcoming municipal election process.

Union County Election Commissioner Mike Beam explains how the new election software will help.

Union County Election Commissioner Mike Beam presented information about software that will help the city in holding the primaries and general election.

He referred to the unusually large number of absentee ballots needed for the presidential election in light of the coronavirus pandemic, along with the trouble and cost in getting them.

“In the presidential election four years ago there were 800 absentee ballots. This year 1,804 were requested and 1,750 came back,” he said. He added that the city may anticipate a similar increase this year.

“That’s a lot of paper to have to pay for,” he continued. “Phyllis (Union County Circuit Clerk Phyllis Stanford) had to order twice, and then had unused ballots left over.”

The problem with the current system is that absentee ballots have to be specially printed on heavy paper and there can be delays in receiving additional ballots if needed. There also is the cost.

What Beam recommended is using software called VotingWorks. “It prints absentee ballots on demand,” he said.

The software means only the ballots needed are printed, that they can be printed on regular inexpensive 25-pound paper instead of the more costly thick paper, and still can be scanned with the equipment county election officials use.

A bonus, Beam said, is that the company will allow the city to use the software for the municipal election free. They only require a $500 security deposit that can be returned. “They are trying to sell it,” Beam said of the software.

He told aldermen that Tippah County has used the system successfully during the past election. “I view this as a win-win,” he said.

Aldermen unanimously approved using the software.

Departmental business

In department business, light, gas and water manager Bill Mattox recommended and received approval for hiring new employees Dalton Hall and Chase Erby.

Also approved was another payment on the new wastewater plant, made to KAJACS Construction in the amount of $271,357.05. The approximately $15 million construction project is being funded with a grant and a loan that will be repaid through utility user fees. It is expected to be operational this fall.

Mattox also will be allowed to make the final payment on the Marshall County gas expansion project that has been going on for several years. That amount was $5,749.31 to Buz Plaxico.

Community Development Director Stroud referred to the monthly report she submitted to aldermen and was asked by Livingston about progress for the Alabama Street Park. Stroud said that grant money is available to purchase equipment for the park but requirements are strict and they need to meet with those in the community around the park before proceeding.

Police Chief Chris Robertson had no business to bring up but reported his department is still fighting an outbreak of COVID-19 and the police department office remains closed to the public.

Fire Chief Mark Whiteside also had no current business but said he plans to present some grant proposals at the next board meeting. He added that his department currently has no COVID-19 cases and everyone is back at work.

Building inspector and zoning administrator Eric Thomas reported that the planning and zoning board had approved three requests at their meeting Monday evening.

Barnes Crossing Community Ford received a site variance to build a new building at 413 Carter Ave. across the street from the current building, and Sam Creekmore received a site variance for 302 Marshall for office construction.

TRY Properties LLC asked for a zoning change at 1104 Bratton Road from C-2 commercial to R-2 residential for home construction. Since this is a zoning change, a public hearing will be needed at the next board meeting.

General and upcoming items

In general business, aldermen approved an engineering agreement with Southern Furniture for compliance with a Community Development Block Grant. The grant in question will actually be to add a new roof and loading dock to the Fusion Furniture plant, which is under the Southern Motion umbrella and is in the former Emerald Mississippi facility.

Among action items, the board noted for the minutes that Tina Wood has been certified to continue serving as municipal court clerk for another year.

Alderwoman Livingston told other board members that she wants to revisit the city’s animal control ordinance.

She said it is mostly a matter of fine-tuning the present ordinance addressing items such as animals being chained to trees. She added that the changes are mostly following those of other municipalities and she may present them at the next board meeting.

Livingston also had one other matter to bring up, concerning salaries of aldermen and the mayor. She has expressed concern about salaries of city officials and employees at several previous meetings.

She said some people want to create a policy that sets salaries for the mayor and aldermen for four years at a time.

“It’s so we don’t have anything to do with it,” she said. “I’m not asking for a vote.”

Alderman-at-Large Keith Conlee brought up the question of whether that would restrict the board. “What if another pandemic comes up?” he asked, concerned the board might need to reduce salaries during such as emergency but not be able to.

Board attorney Regan Russell pointed out that, “No board can tie the hands of another board,” so changes could be made in event of any catastrophe.

Ward Two Alderman Johnny Anderson called the question a moot point. “I see this as a reflection on Tim and his leadership.” He said he considers the mayor essentially the CEO for the city, and CEOs he deals with make three times as much as the mayor. “I don’t think we need a committee to set salaries. That’s our job,” he said.

Attorney Russell clarified that any committee could not set salaries anyway, but only make recommendations to the board.

Before adjourning, the board went into executive session to discuss a land matter. No action has been reported.

The aldermen met remotely via Zoom again for health precaution reasons. Ward Three Alderman Kevin Dale White was absent.

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