Mayor Tomlinson Addresses Community Concerns

Written by Armando Fernandez


   Mayor Teresa Tomlinson presented her 6th State of the City Address at the Cunningham Conference Center on Friday, February 17th. Accompanied by her husband and parents, Tomlinson thanked the crowd in attendance, which included Sheriff Donna Thompkins, Superior Court Clerk Ann Hardman, Fort Benning Garrison Commander, Colonel Andrew Hilms and the Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer, Brian Anderson amongst others.

   Tomlinson did not hesitate to dive into controversial topics, immediately addressing the difficulties of public service. She told those in attendance, “One of the most interesting, and sometimes frustrating, things about public service is the constant moving of the civic goal posts.” This, in her opinion, is because, “By the time the fruits of our joint labors are achieved, the community has largely moved on, or anticipated the outcome”.

   Tomlinson then spoke about the 2014 lawsuits filed by four “major pillars of our community, two constitutional officers and two long serving elected municipal officials.” Former Sheriff John Darr, former Muscogee County Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce, Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Bishop. Who “chose to sue our city, our Columbus Council, the Mayor, City Manager and other public servants over budget amounts” process. This process is considered by Tomlinson as “the most sacred trust of a local government official.” She went on to say, “I knew the purpose of that spectacle was to jar the public trust, to undermine the faith of the citizens in their local government.

   “I don’t tell you this to reopen a now cleansed and healing wound of the community. I bring this up to ensure that we do not take for granted the importance of the battle fought and the victory won.”

   Some of the recent outcomes Tomlinson highlighted were the city’s expanded public transit service—a service that has experienced a “ridership increase of 15 percent in the first eight weeks.” This increase in ridership is viewed by employers as “essential component of our competitive viability for jobs and millennial population.”

   The other outcome Tomlinson highlighted was the reform to the Animal Care and Control Center, whose task was to reduce the “shocking” 80 percent euthanasia rate. This reform resulted in the “Columbus Save a Pet Plan,” a plan which last month received the prestigious Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Bright Ideas Award. “We can announce a 2016 euthanasia rate of just 20 percent, and a radically increased adoption rate,” Tomlinson declared.

   Tomlinson enthusiastically mentioned the recent announcements of 510 new jobs at Pratt & Whitney and the Security Force Assistance Office and Military Adviser Training Academy slated for Fort Benning. “With the help of Fort Benning, the help of the Chamber, we have had 1,100 jobs announced in 10 days.”

   “Despite the odds,” Tomlinson added, “and in the face of too many naysayers to count, our city manager, staff and council have stayed the course to revitalize areas of our community [referring to south Columbus]. These areas were left behind by the growth north. They have good-hearted, salt of the earth neighbors, who fight daily the fray of community and disintegrating families that breed crime, under-performing schools and an ill-equipped workforce.”

   The Columbus Council approved funding this past year to transform Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and the Winterfield neighborhood at the intersection of Cusseta Road and Brown Avenue. Tomlinson said, “We owe it to [the residents in those areas] to bring the infrastructure and planning that will allow them to thrive.” 

   Tomlinson feels this prosperity is the best thing the city can do to help the under-performing schools, “aside from working with the board of education, the city’s partner in education.” She feels that “once these healthy vibrant neighborhoods are built,” this will allow for a nurturing environment with mentors and role models and free up the “burden placed on the teachers who have often become social workers.”

   Then, the mayor asked those in attendance to brace themselves, “I am about to collide reality and perception.

  “Crime is down and significantly” said Tomlinson. “That does not mean that there is no crime.” There are just fewer crimes being committed in Columbus than in years past and “we need to appreciate that.”

   She continued “In 2008 and 2009, crime was at its height in Columbus,” she said “with 15,500 Part I crimes.” Part I crimes are defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) as violent crimes. In 2016, there were 10,571. Statistically, she said it means:

  • 5,000 fewer crimes and 5,000 fewer victims.

  • 33 percent decrease in overall crime since its height in 2009.

  • 34 percent decrease in property crime since its height in 2009. And,

  • 17 percent decrease in violent crime since its height in 2008.

   Tomlinson added that crime is politicized “by those who wish to cast themselves as law-and-order community leaders, and who believe that crime is only a manifestation of insufficient public safety funds and a proclaimed weakness of the elected leader who is not their choice.”

   Shifting gears, the mayor talked about “redefining transportation for a new era.” This includes the addition of 27 miles to the already existing 34-mile Dragonfly network. The Dragonfly network is Columbus’ network of off-road greenway trails, which she stressed were “not just for recreation, but for transportation,” as well as the construction of the MidTown’s Minimum Project, a pathway that will connect Lakebottom Park to the river. Both these projects will break ground this year. “This network doesn’t just connect our neighborhoods, schools and amenities. It enhances our quality of life and makes us more competitive for economic development prospects and Millennial population.”

   “The biggest game changer for Columbus,” she said is the “High Speed Passenger Rail Plan.” This rail line is projected to run from the Columbus Airport to the Atlanta Airport and could make the Columbus airport into a “regional hub for low cost air carriers like Jet Blue and Norwegian Air, freeing up precious gates at Hartsfield for the larger carriers.”

   This will also assist Columbus in tapping into the growing film industry in Georgia as well as other art opportunities, such as Black Art in America, the leading online portal and social network focused on African-American Art, and the Bo Bartlett Center being constructed by Columbus State University.

   Tomlinson also talked about the recent failed attempt to thaw the property tax freeze, but pointed out a few observations and lessons learned from the experience.

   “For the first time, data was placed on the table, which challenged the long-held but erroneous perception that    the Freeze is a benefit to all… It turns out that it is a benefit to few and a burden to most.” 

   She also pointed out that support to change the freeze doubled from 20 percent in prior attempts to 40 percent in the thaw effort. Polling showed that most voters under 55 believe the system is unfair and only 19 percent of those under 55 think it’s fair. “Those numbers represent the future,” Tomlinson added.

   Tomlinson closed her address by telling those in attendance that Columbus is no longer an off-the-grid, sleepy mill-town. “We are a sophisticated, capable and dynamic community. We are remaking this city.  It is happening organically through the ingenuity of our citizens and also through the coordinated design of our partners. This is the era of big, bold, audacious ideas and we will not get to the future due us by playing small game ball.”