Tannehill: Increased services and lower taxes: The 2022 budget is done

Published 3:24 pm Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The past two years have been unpredictable at best. From floods to snowstorms and protests to pandemics, Covid-19 has changed our society and continues to challenge us on many levels. As a city government, Oxford began tightening our belt in 2019 knowing that the pandemic could present economic challenges. In 2020, when our first positive cases presented, we instructed all Oxford City Departments not to order equipment that had previously been approved, to cancel all travel, suspend all part time positions, and suspend or not begin any capital improvements.

Our Board of Aldermen also made the extremely difficult decision to furlough 135 employees for three months in 2020.  Furloughing employees was a gut-wrenching decision, but we furloughed at a time that allowed our employees to receive State and Federal Unemployment Benefits. This resulted in 95% of the furloughed employees receiving more on unemployment than they did in salary. The thought process was that we could save around $1,000,000, give employees increased pay, and not raise taxes.

These tough decisions positioned Oxford to be in great fiscal shape as we come out of the first phase of the pandemic and budget for the new 2021-2022 fiscal year.

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When we look back over the past two years and try and figure out the recipe that got Oxford through the pandemic, there is one ingredient that stands out:  our people – both City of Oxford Employees and residents of Oxford. There are innumerable examples of citizens taking care of each other, enduring frustrations to protect others, and finding ways to serve those who needed it most.

I am proud to report that Oxford had the privilege to invest in our people in the 2021-2022 budget that will be presented to the public at our meeting of the Board of Aldermen on Aug 17.

The proposed budget includes an increase for all full-time employees of either $2,500 or 4% whichever is greater. The proposed budget also includes a tax decrease!  Yes … you heard me right … a tax decrease of .5 mills for our Oxford residents. Our Board felt strongly that we should not only tell our employees and residents how much we appreciate their hard work and commitment, but we should put our money where our mouth was.  We did.

With our sales tax and special tax revenues rebounding, the Board spent hours thinking through capital improvements, services, equipment and infrastructure projects to determine ways to benefit the most citizens in the coming year. The coming year will see us hosting community meetings as we begin the design phase of new community swimming pool. We want to hear what our citizens desire to see in a new swimming facility. We have budgeted for the design phase of this project and are excited to see it get off the ground.

The Oxford Park Commission will be moving forward with a much-anticipated splash pad near the Skate Park, and mTrade Park will be able to put turf on two additional fields.  These projects drive tourism in Oxford.  mTrade Park has been the most consistent driver of tourism during months when indoor activities were ceased, and we have also been able to budget for two additional outdoor basketball courts.

During the 2021 session, the Mississippi State Legislature graciously allotted $250,000 to build a new pocket park between Oxford City Hall and Square Books, Jr. on the area referred to as RSVP Plaza.  My administration set aside additional funds so that we can develop a space that is inviting to residents and visitors to the downtown area. The park will be a gateway from the parking behind City Hall and will provide the perfect spot to enjoy coffee or ice cream on a bench, read the paper, or just people watch.  Additional grant funding is being sought for this project, as well.

Infrastructure is always at the top of the City of Oxford’s priority list. The Board of Aldermen has budgeted to begin design of a roadway that has been on the project list for more than eight years and would connect Pegues Road and Ed Perry Boulevard allowing another connection from Sisk Avenue to University Avenue. We are hopeful that MDOT will begin the Highway 7 at University Avenue improvements in the coming year and these two projects combined will offer improved connectivity to the east side of town. Funds are also set aside to provide a connector road from Brittany Woods to F. D. “Buddy” East Parkway and to make improvements to Gator Road among others.

Sewer and water infrastructure projects will be addressed utilizing money received through funds appropriated from the American Recovery Plan. The City of Oxford annexed more than ten square miles in 2018, and these funds will allow us to work towards needed upgrades in those areas.

February’s snow storm did not do Oxford’s roadways any favors. In addition to funding set aside to purchase new equipment that will help us when this type of weather event happens again, the Board set aside an additional $700,000 to address repaving of roads.

The Oxford Police and Fire Departments will be adding additional officers in the coming year. Funds are set aside for the final touches on a new Oxford Fire Station on F. D. “Buddy” East Parkway and to the Oxford Enterprise Center on Industrial Park Drive to become home to the Oxford Police Department.

New software in the Development Services Department which includes Planning, Engineering and Building will allow developers to track their projects as they go through the approval process. This should save time for developers as they can make changes along the way instead of receiving all necessary changes at the end of the review process.

This is the first year for the Animal Resource Center to be a city department, and the Board has made an investment in animal welfare for our community that makes us all proud. Renovations will be completed in the coming month and the ARC will be in full-swing.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of all of the projects and services addressed in our budget. We have worked hard on many of these projects over the past four years, and it will be so rewarding to see them come to fruition over the next four years.

Robyn Tannehill is mayor of Oxford. Reach her at robyn@oxfordms.com.