This city was tested by a global pandemic and social unrest in 2020 and leaders’ responses to those issues helped shape an unusual year in Mobile.
In his State of the City address, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said he believed those responses would be key to shaping the municipality moving forward.
“In a year marked by a global pandemic and social unrest how do we measure the state of the city?” Stimpson asked in the speech. “Should we measure it by Covid-19s infection rate or its death rate? The number of businesses shut down or new business start-ups? Or should we measure it by job growth? Or population growth? Or by crime trends? The answer to all these questions is ‘yes.’”
Before the speech even started, Stimpson mirrored his nightly COVID-19 email updates in a video presentation. He then spoke about the steps the city had taken to fight the virus that has killed more than 262 people countywide since March.
“Clearly, this was uncharted territory and in short order, we were not only in a health crisis but an economic crisis as well,” he said. “Glued to our TVs, we became fearful for our lives and our livelihoods. Almost all decisions coming from City Hall and the governor’s office were controversial and seemingly divisive. There were no easy answers.”
Stimpson praised local hospitals and front line workers. In the speech, he called them “heroes” and applauded efforts to set up and work satellite testing facilities.
“Citizens expressed their appreciation through ‘Light It Up Mobile’ by gathering in parking lots outside the hospitals, with headlights beaming, horns blaring, lifting up prayers of appreciation for their service and protection against the virus,” he said. “Today, there is hope for a brighter outcome on the medical front. Therapeutic drugs are evolving to lessen the severity of the virus, and a vaccine will be available sooner rather than later.”
He applauded the local chapter of the Salvation Army, which never shut its doors during the pandemic and provided beds and hot meals to those in need. Stimpson also saluted grocery stores and restaurants for adapting on the fly to new regulations.
“One example is SOCU, owned by Erica Barret,” he said. “With the fear of losing her newly opened downtown restaurant due to the pandemic, she took to Facebook. She, like many others, experienced an outpouring of support from her customers to buy ‘take out’ meals. You, along with area businesses stepped up and placed enough orders to keep her dream alive as well as the dream of other restaurateurs.”
Other businesses, burdened by closures, were lifted by city grants. Stimpson said 142 businesses impacted by local and state health orders received money from the city to help pay for operating expenses.
“In one case, it was the spark of hope needed to keep Rosshiki Leatherwood’s, Next Level Fitness and Performance open,” Stimpson said. “This grant combined with his customers’ undying sense of loyalty and support have helped keep his dream alive.”
Stimpson also mentioned the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the protests calling for law enforcement reform that sparked around the country and in Mobile.
“Hundreds of citizens filled our downtown streets. Mobile police officers marched beside a sea of peaceful demonstrators, diverse in age, race and cultures, ensuring their right to make their voices heard,” Stimpson said. “Their cries did not fall on deaf ears. Immediately, Chief Battiste and I engaged in community conversations seeking ways to improve our policies and tactics.”
After a number of protests, the Mobile Police Department has released many of its policies and procedures to the public. Stimpson also worked to set up an equity task force, which will meet next week.
“The recently formed equity task force is evaluating policies in five city departments and will make recommendations for improvements,” Stimpson said. “We are adopting new policies that will ensure our police both respect and protect life. These policies are an important measure in continuing to build better relationships between the community and law enforcement.”
The social unrest did not change budget priorities in Mobile when it comes to the police, however. In an interview with Lagniappe following the speech, Stimpson said the proposed public safety budget has increased and changes would be made to “policy and procedure.”
In the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, the MPD is set to receive a slight increase in its budget to over $58 million. The total general fund budget for the city is about $280 million. The total of all three of the city’s budgets is about $338 million.
Despite the pandemic, the city saw an increase in sales tax revenue and has predicted that to carry forward to the proposed budget. The increase will allow the city to give employees a 2.5-percent raise and make no cuts to services, Stimpson said.
State of the County
Speaking on a Livestream in a mostly empty room, Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood couldn’t help to notice the “new normal” that has set in over the last five months.
“Last year, hundreds of us gathered in close quarters, greeting friends while awaiting optimistic reports on the States of the City and County,” Ludgood said. “Who knew that nearly 16 months later old-schoolers like me would really know how to participate in a virtual meeting?”
Like Stimpson, Ludgood used her speech during the 23rd annual state of the city and county event to touch on the challenges that Mobile County has faced in 2020 but also highlighted the local successes that are realized in spite of them.
Ludgood noted that, since the most recent election in 2016, Commissioner Connie Hudson has made good on a promise to address unsafe traffic conditions on Highway 98 but moving forward with renovations on Highway 158 that will divert truck traffic and relieve congestion.
During the same time period, the county has secured a $10-million-dollar sediment reduction grant that has helped Commission President Jerry Carl in his long-standing efforts reduce the number of unpaved roads in environmentally sensitive areas of his district.
Security improvements at Mobile Metro Jail, the transformation of the Escatawpa Hollow Campground into a public park and the grand opening of the Mobile County Soccer Complex were among the other bright spots in a year that has been marked by unprecedented challenges at all levels of government.
Looking to the future, Ludgood said county and city leaders have learned valuable lessons that they will be able to draw on in the future including the need to support nonprofits that have strained resources during normal years yet still fill in the gaps in the services governments are often unable to provide.
In the same spirit, Ludgood noted that, despite many positive developments in the rural and urban areas of Mobile County, the region still lacks sufficient affordable workforce housing stock and has limited public transportation options, especially in areas outside of the city of Mobile. She indicated the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare other areas where the county can still improve in the future.
“We now know we have a lot more people living on the margins than we thought—those who are one paycheck away from losing shelter or being unable to feed their families,” Ludgood said. “We must invest in ourselves to make sure our safety nets hold.”
You can read the full transcript of Ludgood and Stimpson’s speeches below:
Jason Johnson contributed to this report.
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