Out With 2016; In With 2017

2016 is out and 2017 is here! Here is a short list of things we’ve been working on over the past year as well as a few things to be on the lookout for in 2017:

2016 Recap

  • New radio system for the Sheriff’s Department – Our existing system was so old it could no longer be serviced by the vendor. Yes, it is a lot of money: $1.7M+ at last count, but our law enforcement officers must have a quality radio system. This was a no-brainer decision for me and I’m excited that our Deputies will be able to call for backup no matter where they are located in the county.
  • No, we still don’t have enough money to resurface your road – We have $40M in road resurfacing work that will be needed in the coming years. Ultimately, the Alabama Legislature has to provide an adequate amount of funding for our road system. I’m hoping they soon remember that infrastructure is one of the most fundamental roles of government.
  • New EMA Director – We sifted through dozens of quality applicants and whittled them down to just a few who sat for a formal interview. We had applicants who ran security for large corporations, a former Navy Seal with emergency management experience, and a person who ran a company that trains soldiers for the U.S. military. In the end, the person selected was Chris Judah. I had met Chris before and he came to see me early in the process. I was very excited to hear he was the one that the committee recommended.
  • Wiregrass 2030 – I was able to begin an initiative that I believe will greatly enhance our community over time. Most of the local leaders are now on board. In 2017, we’ll begin to work on some of the finer details of our plan and hopefully see it begin to take shape.

What to look for in 2017

Houston County

  • Our Sheriff Department’s new radio system will go live, hopefully in the late spring or early summer.
  • We will make progress on reforming the pay structure of county employees to encourage better job performance and improved customer service. This probably won’t be completed until 2018, however.
  • The volunteer fire and rescue system we’ve had for decades still works great in some areas but has been struggling in others. I don’t see this system going away in 2017 but we have no option but to look at alternatives and plan for future possibilities. Not having adequate fire and rescue service simply isn’t an option.

Alabama

  • The 2018 election will begin to heat up in June of this year as potential candidates can begin raising funds for the 2018 primary elections. My prediction is for a turbulent election season both locally and state-wide.

Our Nation

  • President Trump will be sworn into office on Friday, 20 January as the 45th President of the United States. Going back to President Washington, the inauguration will mark the 44th time the most powerful office has transferred peacefully from one person to another.
  • A total solar eclipse will pass through South Carolina and Tennessee on 21 August. You can find out more about the exact path by going to eclipse2017.org.
  • On 26 October, the collection of records established by the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 will be completely disclosed to the public.

Road Upgrade Timeline

I met recently with ALDOT to discuss key areas of concern for District 4’s roadways and thought I’d update you on the status of each project:

Ross Clark Circle

The widening of Ross Clark Circle from 231 N to Bauman Drive is nearing the end of its engineering and design phase. Archeological and environmental impact studies should commence soon. ALDOT told me that the public should begin to see work on this project in late 2018 and that construction would last about 2 years. While this will be a major inconvenience, not expanding the Circle while money is available is simply not an option.

Brannon Stand Road & Fortner Street Intersection

You should begin to see work on the widening of this intersection by November of 2017. This project will not take very long to complete once it begins and is long overdue.

Brannon Stand Road & Highway 84 West

ALDOT currently has no plans to improve traffic flow along Brannon Stand Road through this intersection. I told them that traffic often backs up tremendously along Brannon Stand Road and needs addressing. They plan to conduct a traffic study to see what, if anything, could be done to improve traffic flow along Brannon Stand without slowing down traffic along Highway 84.

W.G. Bond Road and Highway 84

Traffic turning off of Highway 84 West onto W.G. Bond Road tends to cause slowdowns with the westbound traffic, especially during the afternoon rush hour. ALDOT plans to install a turning lane to improve safety and traffic flow in the near future.

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

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.

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