Photo | Shane Rice
While campaigning for the city’s top office in 2012, then-mayoral candidate Sandy Stimpson made a promise to voters. He wanted to make Mobile the “safest, most business- and family-friendly city” in the country by 2020.
Now that 2020 has arrived, Lagniappe spoke to Mayor Stimpson about the successes and failures of his administration to reach that lofty goal.
The promise made at the outset of his initial campaign for mayor, Stimpson said, coincides with his push for “One Mobile,” which he called a “just cause.” The phrase, he said, was more of an aspirational goal.
“A ‘just cause’ is a specific vision of the future that does not exist, but it’s something to inspire people to try to attain it,” Stimpson said. “So, I have no regrets about setting that as a vision for the city.”
The goal was designed to put pressure on the administration and on city employees to be better every day when it comes to city services and to help them sort out challenges.
“Now, I will own the fact that we cannot claim that we are the safest, most business- and family-friendly city, but I would come right on the heels of that by saying that we are better poised right now today, for multiple reasons, in order to accelerate our quest to get there and a lot of that has to do with the personnel that we have in place now,” Stimpson said. “It’s only recently that we’ve filled out some of the key positions, but because of systems in place — whether it’s the computer system; whether it’s methodologies of how we go about things and the people in place; I’m talking about city employees being inspired to get it done — I feel better about 2020 than I have about going into any other year since I’ve been here.”
Possibly the most glaring issue with the campaign pledge comes from the promise to make Mobile the safest city in the country. Stimpson will admit he’s fallen short, despite a downward trend in crime overall since 1995.
As of the end of November, the city recorded 38 homicides, 137 rapes, 231 robberies, 1,050 aggravated assaults, 1,929 burglaries, 6,879 larcenies and 689 vehicle thefts in 2019.
The city had 10 fewer homicides in 2018, at 28, but had a slight increase in rapes, at 168, robberies, at 378, and aggravated assaults, at 1,162. Last year also saw an increase in burglaries, at 2,580, and larceny, at 8,633. Vehicle thefts were also higher in 2018, at 1,089.
The number of homicides reached its highest point in the last 20 years in 2017, at 50. The previous high mark since 1999 was 44 in 2016. Before that the highest mark in the last 20 years was 2001 and 2008, which saw 42 homicides each.
Despite seeing the homicide rate dip lower than in 2017, Stimpson said the work is not completed.
“We have said it time and again, one homicide is too many,” he said. “We will continue to look at programs to go do things to get a different result then we are getting today.”
One tricky area where the city could improve its crime statistics is with domestic violence. Domestic violence was the top motive for crime in 2018, according to numbers released by the Mobile Police Department (MPD). Domestic violence was the motive in 33 percent of crimes in 2018.
Stimpson said he hopes to improve on that in the coming year.
“One of the most difficult things, or one of the things that impacts the city in a negative way from a criminal standpoint, is domestic crime,” Stimpson said. “It is a very, very difficult situation for the police and the community to address that because it can be deep-seated [and] you don’t know if it’s getting ready to happen, but we formed a task force the other day to start thinking about … how can we do [things] differently than what we’ve been doing in order to help us get the desired result. So, my guess is in the next 60 days we’ll have something we’ll be rolling out to the public to talk about things we think we can do better in that specific area.”
Stimpson called domestic violence a national problem and blamed it on the “breakdown of the family.”
The number of robberies per year has fluctuated since 2008 with peaks and valleys throughout that time. The number of robberies reached 883 that year, dropped to 854 in 2009 and fell by 200 in 2010, before falling to its lowest in 12 years with 404 in 2015. The number rose again in 2017 to 440 before falling to 378 in 2018 and 231 as of November of this year.
The Stimpson administration has implemented 13 initiatives to combat crime; two of those have been nationally recognized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Those 13 initiatives, Stimpson said, help those at every level, from school-aged children to prior felons.
“All of those things we are doing have all been part of trying to fulfill, or make progress to fulfilling that vision,” he said. “I would say we could show you where statistics show the trend of crime continues to be down. We will continue to look at programs to do things to get a different result then we are getting today.”
The problem is not with the police force, Stimpson said; he is proud of the work the men and women in blue do on a daily basis to help keep Mobilians safe. Instead, Stimpson believes the city needs to do a better job engaging the public. The areas of education and affordable housing are also very important. With Superintendent Chresal Threadgill and Mobile Housing Board Executive Director Michael Pierce respectively helming the two agencies tasked with development in those areas, Stimpson feels good about 2020.
“From a policing standpoint, I believe if we were able to be analyzed by another city, or the national accreditation of policing, on a scale of one to 10 we’d be a 10 from a policing standpoint,” he said. “The components that are missing that need to be addressed community-wide has to do with education, has to do with the public and affordable housing and, really, I believe with the leadership you have in the public schools and with what we have in the Mobile Housing Authority, we are teed up right now to make more progress right now than anytime in the past years.”
Stimpson praised his team for helping to advance two pieces of legislation aimed at reducing gun violence in Mobile. One makes it a felony in the state to possess a stolen gun and the other requires hospitals to report gunshot wounds, Stimpson said.
Not only is Mobile not the safest city in America, it’s not even the safest among cities in Alabama. According to the FBI, Mobile ranks behind Montgomery and Huntsville in Alabama’s major cities. It is safer than Birmingham.
While falling short on making Mobile the safest city in America, Stimpson does take pride in his administration’s efforts at eliminating blight, which he said is related to crime. Since starting a blight-reduction program with the help of a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant in 2014, the city has reduced blighted structures by more than half, either by demolishing the buildings or by forcing owners to renovate them.
“The blight program was not listed on the police initiative sheet, but from a crime standpoint, we feel like that was just as important as any of these initiatives, and the impact that it can have is as much as these because the blight creates an environment that, in one regard, diminishes hope for the people who live in that area, but it also creates a place for criminal activity to occur,” he said. “So, being able to eradicate blight is tremendously important. I really think that in the next three years, you’re going to be looking at double-digit blight, maybe less than 50 blighted homes.”
However, success for the program won’t be measured by how many homes are demolished or repaired alone, but how many new homes have been added to replace them. Stimpson said the focus going forward will be on infill, turning empty lots into more residences.
“What you need is an able-bodied man or woman or family or whomever living in that house to change the environment of that neighborhood,” he said. “If you’re going to recapture that neighborhood and get rid of the criminal activity that surrounds blight, you’re going to have to have a working family in there and that’s where we’re headed.”
The Mobile Housing Board recently approved a plan pushed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to demolish two of its oldest remaining complexes, forcing roughly 500 residents out of Thomas James Place and R.V. Taylor Plaza, along the city’s south side. With this fact in mind, Stimpson said it’s important the city step up in the next five years and create affordable housing for the families in those complexes and others.
The city has worked to help businesses cut through the governmental red tape associated with a startup, or a new project. While Stimpson is proud of the steps taken on that front, he is not satisfied that Mobile is the most business-friendly city in the country either.
“The administration is not satisfied with where we are being the safest city, a more business-friendly city or more family-friendly city,” he said. “We know we’re going to improve.”
Stimpson has revamped the way business owners go about applying for a permit with the city and created a new department called “Build Mobile” to help move in the right direction. A new online permitting portal can save some business owners a trip downtown. Anecdotally, Stimpson said the program has been a success.
“They don’t have to come down here, find a parking place, stand in line,” he said. “They can do it online. They can submit stuff anytime, night or day. Yes, it makes a difference, but we still can make it better.”
As for the business climate, Stimpson pointed to several positive outcomes for the city, including the recently re-signed contract with Carnival to have the Fantasy cruise ship continue to make Mobile a homeport, as well as the expansion of Airbus manufacturing at Brookley and the success of the downtown corridor.
“There’s all kind[s] of evidence that people have confidence in what we’re doing from a business perspective in order to invest in the city,” he said. “That’s what you really want. You’ve got to create that environment where that entrepreneur or board of directors say, ‘we’re going to grow our business, or we’re going to plan our business in the city of Mobile because of the direction they’re going in or the things they’re doing.’”
Stimpson credits investments in the city’s parks and in capital infrastructure as helping to make Mobile more family friendly. He is particularly excited about Parks and Recreation Director Shoda Smith and her goal to get the department accredited.
“She will transform our parks and rec,” he said. “She is on a trajectory to get it accredited, which we’ve never had a parks and rec department accredited, and so I know that our citizens are going to have a better experience with the publicly owned facilities that we’re responsible for managing.”
As for the capital investments, the mayor’s office has had a hand in managing departments in such a way to allow for more capital funds to be spent. However, the City Council initially approved a sales tax increase that moved the rate the city receives from sales of goods and services from 4 cents on every dollar to a nickel, making the overall sales tax rate 10 cents on every dollar.
The council’s approval of the tax increase — initially vetoed by Stimpson — helped to set up the popular capital improvement program, or CIP, which the mayor’s office manages with input from councilors.
“I think the investments we’ve made in capital infrastructure … I mean, people don’t want to ride down a pothole-ridden street with patches on it,” Stimpson said.
More under-the-radar advancements are the improvements the city has made to its museums — specifically, the history museum and GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, Stimpson said.
“The progress that’s been made because of the interaction we’ve had with their boards of directors and with their executive directors, I feel very good that people visiting those facilities will have better experience, which all leads to being more family friendly,” he said.
While the city has not reached Stimpson’s goal of being the “safest, most business- and family-friendly city” by 2020, he said he is proud of several accomplishments over the past year.
In addition to securing the Carnival contract, Stimpson said it was very important the city be able to resolve GulfQuest’s debt situation, which involved as many as 10 banks, some local and some very small.
“That may have been the greatest financial exposure or risk that existed in the city, but by resolving it, it has breathed life and longevity into GulfQuest and it took three years to get there,” he said. “So, that’s a huge milestone.”
Stimpson is also proud that the city and the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department were able to garner a “1” rating from the Insurance Service Office (ISO).
“You recall the numbers, but out of the 44,000 fire districts, we were number 323 to have an ISO 1 rating,” he said.
Stimpson also gave a nod to resolving the nearly year-long litigation between himself and the council over who had the power to hire employees. He said he is also proud of the team he has in place now.
“This is what makes me feel really good going into 2020: the team that we have now in public works, which includes parks and recreation; the leadership we have at the waterfront and at GulfQuest; and the leadership we have at municipal court. All those things are going to play into us being teed up for a great 2020,” he said.
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