After touting 2015 accomplishments in his State of the City address Thursday, Monticello Mayor Zack Tucker identified four key focus areas for 2016: civic engagement, workforce development, infrastructure improvements, and public safety.
“Public participation in local government, in my eyes, is most important to any municipality,” Tucker said. “We can’t begin to address issues like public safety, city infrastructure or job training without engaging the public for input, support, and volunteers.”
Tucker said the centerpiece of his campaign for mayor was a commitment to make city government more open and provide opportunities for citizens to be involved in the decision-making process.
“If we are to encourage an atmosphere of cooperation in our community, it is imperative that we establish civic engagement as a key foundation to city operations,” Tucker said. “My passion for community development and civic engagement is the reason why my first act as mayor was issuing an open-government directive. This directive established principles to help guide the city’s actions intended to commit to transparency, meaningful public participation, and collaborate with the public and other local governments.”
Tucker said his new open-government practice includes public notification of city agenda, a public comments segment at all meetings, a new city website, the mayor’s weekly address, and a social media presence. He said he also implemented an open application process for board, commission and committee appointments.
In regards to workforce development, Tucker said he asked the Drew County Workforce Alliance for Growth in the Economy (WAGE) board to “reorganize and meet the challenge of addressing job readiness in Monticello.”
WAGE, Tucker said, has developed industry-specific training so that local employers can hire local workers. “As a ready community, we must work to prepare ourselves for the future while embracing the lessons we have learned from the past. We must identify the major issues that face our community, engage the community to find innovative solutions, and meet the challenges head on in an open and honest approach.”
In the last decade, Tucker said, Monticello has seen growth in population, jobs and retail sales revenue, while in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression. Last year, Monticello saw the second largest decrease in unemployment in the state, he said.
With an $840,000 grant from the governor, Tucker said the University of Arkansas at Monticello has empowered the local WAGE board to create a sustainable workforce development plan. “Monticello is currently on the path to be recognized as a national ACT work-ready community,” he said.
This process, he said, will develop a comprehensive plan that will involve the schools, university, city, employers and service industry to implement a sustainable plan to better prepare the local workforce for works or careers.
“I encourage any employer who is not involved to get involved,” he said. “The board will be shaping workforce training and career preparedness efforts of our community and your experience and input is earnestly needed.”
WAGE, according to Tucker, has a free career-readiness program in which local WAGE partners can audit the skill needs of a business or industry and develop a skills assessment for applicants can take prior to employment.
“As a result, applicants will have a nationally-recognized certificate verifying their skills compatibility to your business,” Tucker said, adding that the city will utilize the program in its hiring process.
Citing “a lack of leadership in most of 2014,” Tucker said the city’s water system project has been “derailed” and has lost the trust of the public.
Though the project has had a “rocky start”, Tucker said he believes it is imperative to the future growth of Monticello.
Tucker said he, along with the city attorney, and Cliff Gibson, the Monticello attorney the city hired to represent the city in the problems associated with the project, all agree that the city is moving toward a resolution of the dispute.
“Although I may be a little optimistic,” Tucker said, “by fall, I hope to be able to ask the city council to get back on track with this particular project and move with a more open approach than the last go-around, which will include community meetings.”
Tucker said the city has been unable for years to repave or resurface city streets due to water lines beneath the streets.
“Heavy equipment used to repair the city streets has damaged the underground water lines, which then, repairing those water lines, in turn, damaged the city streets which we just recently repaved,” he said.
By moving the water lines so that they are parallel to streets rather than underneath the streets, the city can begin to repave the streets, he said.
“In the meantime, I would ask city council to work with me to find solutions to another major transportation issue in our community: sidewalks,” Tucker said. “Walkability in our community is horrible. Currently sidewalks are left to the responsibility of property owners (rather than) the city. And although I understand the liability and accountability that it would leave on the city if we were to accept (maintenance) of every single inch of sidewalk as our responsibility, I want to remind everybody of a project we took on last year: storm water drainage.”
Historically, storm water drainage has been the responsibility of property owners. After advice of engineers and lengthy discussions, the city agreed to make storm water drainage a city responsibility and priority, Tucker said.
“Today, we are working on four major drainage projects in our community, and soon will be reviewing a long-term maintenance plan; not an ‘all-or-nothing’ plan, but a strategy that allows the city to deal with major city-wide issues and allows residents to deal with smaller home-based issues,” Tucker said. “And I have full faith that we can work together to find a solution for sidewalks similar to the way that we did with drainage.”
Tucker said this week he also launched a summer internship program in which five Monticello or Drew Central graduates currently enrolled at UAM will work together as a team to research, develop, and propose to the city’s engineering staff a recommendation for a master pedestrian network.
“There is walkability and storm drainage money out there today and we should utilize our local talents — our students that we have in our community — before the money runs out,” Tucker said. “A greenspace-based pedestrian network is a perfect way to make improvements to storm water drainage using green spaces and bioswales to improve the walkability of our community through sidewalks. Simply put, if Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas can do it, there’s no reason why can’t make this happen too.”
Finally, Tucker said, the city must improve public safety. To that end, the city implemented COPS 21, a community-oriented policing strategy. Three of the nine program strategies include new, casual police uniforms, making officers more approachable; body cameras to provide more evidence-based accountability; and reestablishing the summer bike patrol. This has already had a positive impact on the quality of life in Monticello, Tucker said, adding that Monticello was recently recognized by the Arkansas Municipal League for its quality of life for “the positive police and community interaction as a result of implementing our COPS 21 initiative.”
Since its implementation, the initiative has contributed to a 23 percent reduction in confrontations between police and local residents and a 16 percent decrease in arrests overall, according to Tucker.
“Although successful in improving the relations between police and Monticello residents, our city still faces non-Monticellonians causing some of the most dangerous of havoc,” Tucker said. “In recent times, criminals from Dermott, Crossett, Rison, or Pine Bluff, have taken the lives of families, so-called friends, and even Monticellonians; unfortunately choosing to commit these crimes inside our city limits.”
“The response,” Tucker said, “is not to live in fear, nor to ramp up our police force, but to come together as a community. For too long, we’ve allowed apathy to police our streets. There was a day when neighbors cared about neighbors — where we looked out for each other — and as a community we had each other’s back. Today, due to several factors, including societal changes of more independent lifestyles, we’ve become more isolated from one another and divided from our neighbors. We’ve become a society where it is ok to leave people to do their own thing and ‘worry just about mine.’ We’ve chosen to allow our neighbors, our family and our friends to live without interference and accountability in the community. If we’re to become a safer community, if we’re to become a caring community, if we’re to be a unified community, we must return to the core values that made Monticello a great place to live. We must take care of our own and look after our neighbors. This means taking care of them in their time of need, supporting them in their time of success, and calling them out when their actions become dangerous for themselves or others.”
Tucker said he will soon launch “One Monticello”, a community-driven, neighborhood-based, network of residents working with the local police department to organize into watch groups, name known offenders and enhance the community.
“One Monticello will not be your grandfather’s neighborhood watch program,” Tucker said. “It will be technology-based and empower residents to empower our police department to be community-driven while cracking down on crime.”
One feature of the program, Tucker said, is a free public app to anonymously report crime, including the transmission of images and video footage through a third-party server. “The new technology will allow the (police) department to track crime, types of crime, and utilize data-driven formats to help us improve our police department’s investigations and increase the accountability of our officers while still empowering our residents.”
Tucker said the program is endorsed by the Neighborhood Watch Association and the National Sheriffs Association.
“Today I am proud to report that the state of our city is strong, that Monticello is still poised for progress, positioned for growth, and we will fulfill our purpose as the heartbeat of Southeast Arkansas by working forward the same way our founders did,” Tucker said.
Looking back on last year’s accomplishments, Tucker cited the new Miracle League ball field, new wheelchair tennis courts, the “Safe Schools, Safe Community” initiative, Drew County voters’ passage of a quarter-cent sales tax to help support a $31 million expansion of Drew Memorial Hospital, a partnership with Connect Arkansas and local schools to provide 110 internet-ready computers to low income residents in the community, and the University of Arkansas at Monticello, county government and community groups’ ongoing efforts to develop the Hollywood Plantation near Winchester as a heritage site.
In March, Tucker issued a proclamation, proclaiming March as archeology month in Monticello. The highlight was a week-long dig at the Hollywood Plantation near Winchester. The plantation is the site of a pre-Civil War structure currently being restored and developed as a heritage site by the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
UAM owns the property and acquired a grant to restore it, but the county has assisted in the construction of an access road while local historical and archeology societies have been involved in the planning and research.
The project, Tucker said, will put Drew County and Monticello on the map in the largest and fastest growing industry in Arkansas: tourism, and is a “great example of what’s right about our community.”
Tucker also touted the “Safe Schools and Safe Community” initiative. This initiative, he said, empowered the local police department to develop a special response team to be prepared and responsive in the event of an “active shooter” situation at any of the local schools. It also declares every daycare as a school zone.
Drew County voters’ 2015 passage of a quarter-cent sales tax will help support a $31 million hospital expansion was also featured in the mayor’s State of the City address. “In the near future, Monticello will be home to the most premier and quality health care facility in our entire region,” he said.
The Miracle League ball field was also a major 2015 accomplishment.
Over a year ago, Tucker said, a group of volunteers approached the city about a monumental project: the construction of a fully handicapped accessible baseball field for children with disabilities. At first, the project seemed impossible, especially with a $600,000 price tag. “But, volunteers set out to raise $150,000 in private funds to donate to the city for us to then apply for $250,000 in state grant funds,” Tucker said.
The Miracle League raised more than $150,000 and the state granted the city $250,000
“By this fall, it is our hope that our region’s children with disabilities will be able to play on our region’s only Miracle League field,” Tucker said.
He also pointed out that Monticello last year became home to the only “wheelchair tennis courts” south of Little Rock. This was accomplished through the efforts of local tennis enthusiasts who partnered with the city to obtain USDA funds to resurface the tennis courts at McCloy Park.
“These are all examples of what I love most about Monticello,” Tucker said. “When it’s important to our community, to our children, to our future, we take the time, we make the effort, and we work together to advance our great community.”