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May 2016 Update

Warmer weather is here which means any day now it’s going to get hot and stay hot until fall. Although our FY-2017 budget will not be approved until closer to the end of summer, work on it has already begun. Other projects continue to occupy my attention as well and although predicting the future is tricky business, here are a few things to look for:

  • ALDOT & The Ross Clark Circle – I spoke with ALDOT yesterday morning and they said a recent bill passed by Congress may allow them to obtain slightly more federal funding on a state-wide basis than they originally thought. They are still evaluating that and their plans for the Circle. I am hoping work will began in 2017.
  • Maybe a minor off-system road project in 2017 – While doing a large project is fiscally out of the question and a bond issue won’t be a possibility until FY-2019, I’m hoping we can find some money for a small project in FY-2017. Also, South Bay Springs Road is still scheduled to be resurfaced late this summer as part of the FY-2016 budget.
  • Moderate expansion of industrial base – Several economic development projects are still in the works. We soon hope to have good news for more expansion at the Dothan Airport. Local development officials continue to market the mega site just south of the state line. There has been some interest in the mega site from large companies, but nothing solid has developed as of yet.
  • Technology Upgrades for the Sheriff’s Department. Chasing the bad guys isn’t a cheap business to be in. Just like any other business, the policing business requires technology; technology that only lasts so long. Finding the money to fund these technology improvements is becoming increasingly difficult. We won’t be able to buy everything we need, but everything we do buy will be greatly needed.
  • More intersection safety improvements. The large trees that are restricting the view at Bay Springs Road and Fortner Street will be coming down in the next several days. I’m hopeful that will help people navigate the intersection more safely.

Let me also take a moment to say that I greatly appreciate the opportunity to serve you on the County Commission. Please let me know of any questions or concerns you have.

-Brandon

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Time for Bentley to Go

Over the past few days, I’ve been asked several times if I thought the Governor should step down. I can dispense with that opinion very quickly: yes, he should.

He should resign, not just because he cheated on his spouse, but because of numerous missteps that call into question his judgement and show that he can no longer be trusted to run the state government. Missteps such as:

  • His campaigning on a message of “no new taxes” and after winning reelection, suddenly “discovering” that our state is in a fiscal crisis and asking for higher taxes. This revealed himself as just another politician who says one thing and does another.
  • His doling out of $73,000 pay raises to his department heads while the state’s infrastructure crumbles because of lack of funding. This myopic, inept, and flawed decision-making isn’t just bad optics, it’s just plain stupid.
  • His heavy involvement with a former chief advisor who didn’t answer to the people of Alabama because she wasn’t paid by the people of Alabama. In fact, no one knows who was paying part of her salary. She could have been paid by Blue Cross & Blue Shield, Alabama Power, PETA, George Soros, who knows?

When I look to Montgomery, I don’t see a group of distinguished citizens making sound policy for our state, I see a clown show. I’m sad for some of our very fine local legislators who go to Montgomery and try to do the right thing, only to have to sit through the circus that has become our state’s government. I’m also ashamed for the many good Republicans I know who vote, volunteer, and donate because they want fiscally responsible, morally-sound government.

It is time to refresh the tree of democracy in Montgomery, Alabama. It is time for Governor Bentley to go.

Things In The Works

I thought I’d use this month’s column to talk briefly about a few of the issues we are currently tackling:

Road Funding – We’ve been talking about this for a while and, as I write this article, the Alabama Legislature is debating it. No one in this area likes taxes. Politicians don’t like to talk about them and very few people like to pay them. Since 1992, the gas taxes paid by the average automobile driver has been dropping because of increased fuel economy. In 1994, the owner of a ’94 Honda Accord would have paid roughly $185 in fuel taxes. In 2025, using the EPA’s proposed fuel economy standards, the owner of a 2025 Honda Accord will pay roughly $80 in fuel taxes. If the cost of labor and asphalt were falling in line, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I am in favor of an increase in the gas tax as long as it can be used for road projects and nothing else.

Radio Upgrade for the Sheriff’s Department – There are a few areas in the county where a Deputy cannot reach Dispatch by radio. This could be a huge problem if a Deputy suddenly needed to call for backup. As the current system nears the end of its life, it is important that the issue of spotty radio service be solved.

Improved Career Tech Programs – Many business and political leaders are exploring the idea of a Dothan/Houston County School System partnership to bring enhanced career tech opportunities to High School Students. Hopefully, we can create a system by which trained students will have guaranteed employment in local area businesses upon graduation.

I appreciate the opportunity to serve you on the County Commission. Please feel free to share your thoughts with me about these or other topics.

Recapping 2015 – Previewing 2016

In my January 2015 article, I identified four major issues facing Houston County: road resurfacing needs, unmet needs in the Sheriff’s Department, lack of money and volunteers for the Volunteer Fire & Rescue system, and a lack of jobs for County residents.

Looking back, I believe a lot of progress has been made in the Sheriff’s Department and with the local economy. For the other two items, there is still work to be done.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of needs in the Sheriff’s Department but thanks to Donald Valenza’s leadership, ingenuity, and ability to work with the Commission, we have made a lot of progress. The days of Deputies riding around in 12+ year old squad cars are over for the foreseeable future.

I’m much more bullish on the local economy than I was last year. Even with the growth in jobs and the fall in unemployment, the economic development leaders are still out there finding new opportunities. However, the biggest hurdle to continued economic growth is lack of skilled labor. There are actually thousands of jobs available in Houston County that are unfilled. The problem is that our workforce’s skills and employer needs are not lining up.

While this is national problem, we aren’t just sitting around waiting for the U.S. Government to do something. Houston County, the Houston County School System, Dothan’s School System, the City of Dothan, the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce, Wallace, and Troy Dothan are all working together to find ways to retrain workers for today’s jobs. In fact, some training programs such as C-Jet Academy, are already producing good results.

The crumbling state of our off-system county roads, those that we must resurface without state or Federal assistance, is an ever-growing problem and as I write this article, no monies have been made available to tackle this issue. In addition to our roads, the County also owns numerous other properties with differed maintenance needs that continue to pile up.

Our Volunteer Fire and Rescue system is filling the strain caused by lack of money and lack of volunteers. Despite these challenges, our volunteers do a very good job making use of the resources available to them and emergency calls are typically answered very quickly. In a growing number of cases, however, calls are being passed around to multiple departments until someone can be found to respond.

In 2016, you can expect the Commission to do everything we can to make continued progress on economic development, find ways to address our infrastructure needs, and improve emergency services. Now that 2016 is here and the Holidays are over, its time to get to work!

Vlad

“To the outside, Vladimir Putin says he is in favor of democracy and reform but in his heart he longs for the Soviet Days.”
– KGB Gen. Oleg Kalugin (Ret.) in an 2001 unclassified speech to NSA employees

I was listening intently to General Kalugin’s speech at NSA’s Friendship Annex (FANEX) facility in early 2001. When he uttered those words, there was a noticeable groan from the audience that had assembled to hear the General’s thoughts on modern Russia.

President Bush had only recently been inaugurated and while Putin had been in office since the surprise resignation of Boris Yeltsin on the eve of the millennia, the U.S. was still trying to figure out who Vladimir Putin was, how he would govern Russia, and how he would act on the world stage. The General’s speech was not reassuring and time has shown that Kalugin was right.

More recently, I have noticed a disconcerting level of what I would almost call hero worship around Vladimir Putin on social media. At a recent GOP debate, a few participants seemed to battle over who had had the most meaningful interaction with the thuggish “President” of Russia.

While recent events may have shown that the United States and Russia have a common interest in defeating ISIS, Russia has zero interest in seeing it replaced by a stable, democratically elected government. Nor does Russia want the United States to succeed in any endeavor on the international stage. Putin, quite simply, wants to rebuild the empire of the Soviet Union on the back of a Russian-flavored version of capitalism, capitalism that would look to us like something crossed between crony-capitalism and the mafia.

If we want to look for heroes, let’s not look too far from our own shores. There are plenty of people doing the right thing here at home.

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Wrapping up my meeting with ALDOT

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to meet with ALDOT to discuss improvements to the highway system in the western portions of Dothan. Here is a recap of everything we discussed:

Ross Clark Circle & Highway 84 West Intersection – ALDOT has long known that this is a bottleneck and they are going to look at several scenarios for improving this intersection. These scenarios will include everything from altering the timing of the traffic signals to installing an overpass. Whichever option that is chosen, if any, will be dependent upon funding availability and community support. I shared with them that we would much prefer an overpass. With the hopes of an I-10 Connector fading, it is my opinion that we should make Highway 231 and the Circle as much like an interstate as possible. I believe making these highways “like an interstate” will be much less expensive that actually building an interstate and will do much to speed traffic and promote economic development in our area.

Widening of the Circle between Bauman Dr and 231N – I was disappointed to hear that funds are unlikely to be available soon for further widening of the Circle. With the current congressional ban on earmarks in place, money cannot be freed from the previous I-10 Connector earmark to be used for Circle improvements. The cost of widening this stretch of roadway is estimated to be $40M. As I was told, ALDOT’s annual construction budget is $50M and we cannot expect them to spend 80% of their budget on this one project. Either we will fund much of this project ourselves or we will literally have to wait for an act of Congress to get the ball rolling again.

Brannon Stand and Highway 84 Intersection – ALDOT is continuing to look at improvements to this intersection. One idea being considered, is to create an additional northbound lane on Brannon Stand where traffic would have the option of turning left onto Highway 84 or continuing straight. I think this, along with a lengthened right turn lane, would alleviate most of the current issues. As with everything else, this project is dependent upon funding availability.

Brannon Stand and Fortner Street – The project to add additional turn lanes to this intersection has been pushed back to FY 2017. I impressed upon ALDOT the concern the local citizenry has about this intersection and the need to complete this project as quickly as possible. They agreed the work was needed, but stressed that there is only so much money to go around and reminded doubtful that the project timeline could be accelerated.

Widening of Highway 84 West – I asked ALDOT to consider widening Highway 84 West. They responded that they are beginning to look at improvements along that stretch of highway. While they would not commit to widening the roadway anytime soon, they did say that they were desirous of a plan for access control (think 231N but without the widening). I mentioned that this would be received poorly by the local citizens but they replied that there was no doubt that access control speeds up traffic. Incidentally, a local police officer told me a few days ago that the 231N changes have resulted in a reduction in the number of accidents. In any event, I anticipate it will be a number of years before any changes begin to take shape along this corridor.

Please pass along any questions or comments you have and thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve you.

-Brandon

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Independence

This July 4th, we celebrate 239 years of our independence. I’ve always had a fondness for the history of our revolution and in studying it, one learns that it was a miracle it even succeeded.

We like to complain about an inept Congress today but the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, which gave us our first form of government, was without even the power to levy taxes for support of the war effort. As a result, the Patriot armies were underpaid and undersupplied while taking on the British Empire.

After Washington’s disastrous planning and execution of the Battle of Long Island, his army was routed. Hemmed in, he decided to evacuate his forces overnight before the British could advance on his position, destroy his army, and capture or kill Washington, himself. The evacuation went slowly, and only by a lingering morning fog did Washington escape across the East River as the British began to march on his position.

In a latter battle, Washington was so distraught over his men’s performance, that he rode along their ranks trying desperately to rally them, to no effect. Some of his men thought he intended to die that day, rather than suffer another defeat at the hands of the British. Paces from the enemy, he was under constant fire until his officers calmed the wild-eyed General and convinced him to quite the battlefield.

In the battle of Brandywine, a Scottish rifleman fixed his sights on an unassuming rebel commander. Ultimately, the Scott made the gentlemanly decision not to fire because the commander was only walking with fellow officers and not an imminent threat. The unassuming rebel commander, the rifleman later learned, was General George Washington.

At the time when each event occurred, these probably seemed like minor miracles which only revealed their magnificent importance in subsequent years. We might very well not have a country of our own were it not for a fortuitous fog, an enemy column that suddenly couldn’t aim, and a rifleman who decides, for whatever reason, to not shoot a high-ranking officer. How can one look at these events and not see the guiding hand of Providence? As we celebrate this month, let us remember our country’s blessings and how fortunate we are to call ourselves Americans.