Seymour residents can expect to see plenty of road and sewer work this year, but to improve the community for the future, sewer and trash rates likely will have to go up.
How much of an increase is needed will be determined by rate studies, Mayor Matt Nicholson said during his first State of the City address Monday night.
“I’m sorry, but it’s going to have to happen,” he said. “We can only do so much with what we’ve got.”
It has been 20 years since the city has increased what residents pay for sewer service, he said.
“Does anybody else have anything that has stayed the same price for 20 years?” he asked the audience. “I didn’t see any hands go up, so we’re going to have to have a serious conversation about this. It’s not a fun conversation.”
Nicholson pledged city officials will do their homework to present the community with the best option.
The same goes for trash rates. The city generates about 47,000 pounds of trash daily and roughly 1,300 pounds of recyclables. Residents who live in city limits pay $3 a month for trash and recycle collection.
“We’re constantly looking at ways we can do that job more efficiently, do it better,” he said.
Nicholson also plans to keep the public more informed and involved with what’s going on in the city through podcasts and a new Mayor’s Youth Council.
Those were just some of the topics he delved into as he talked about the past, present and future of the city to a full council chambers in the mayor’s annual address.
“My goal tonight is to make you realize what all we do have going on and seeing everything that the future holds for us,” he said.
Even though he has only been mayor for around 55 days, Nicholson had plenty of positive highlights from 2019 to hit on.
One area the city is making strides in is its finances. In 2019, Seymour underspent its general fund budget by $643,647, pushing its cash on hand to around $3 million.
Nicholson said his goal is to increase that amount to more than $3.5 million this year.
“Every year, we have to go six months between tax allotments, so the state will send us money in June and December, and we have to make it last in between,” he said.
Right now, the city has about 103 days of cash on hand. The lowest point was around 13 days back in 2012.
“So that’s a pretty big gain over the years,” he said. “One of my personal goals is we get that up to 180 days.”
To pay its bills before it receives tax money, the city often borrows from the sewer utility fund, but Nicholson said he wants to end that practice.
In talking about economic development, Nicholson said Jackson County’s industrial employment, most of which is based in Seymour, rose to 11,132 workers in 2019, and average manufacturing wages also increased to $58,022.
But the biggest piece, he said, is the $148 million in promised investment made in 2019. That investment is spread out over several different companies instead of just one company doing one major project, he said.
“Last year, we had several companies that are investing in us, and that’s what we want to see,” he said. “It’s a good sign for the future.”
In planning and zoning, the city saw seven new commercial buildings go up last year, including the new Huck’s gas station and convenience store on the west side. There also were five new industrial additions and 14 new commercial additions, totaling about $14 million in business investments.
But what really impresses Nicholson is the number of new home starts within city limits. That number increased to 27 last year, or just under $8 million in total residential investment.
“For the first time since 2006, residential building permits were higher in the city of Seymour than they were in the fringe,” he said. “That means we’re starting to fill in some of those vacant lots and we’re starting to get back to where people want to live in the city.”
But it’s still not enough as there continues to be a housing shortage in the city.
Nicholson proposed a neighborhood revitalization effort to eliminate blighted areas and add housing inventory.
“We need houses,” he said. “We have jobs. We have things to do, but we need to build houses. This is us trying to help that along.”
Nicholson also talked about the success of the city’s transit system and how ridership is up to more than 39,000. The city has four buses that run five days a week.
“That’s a lot of rides for such a small number of buses,” he said.
One-third of those rides are from senior citizens.
“That gives senior citizens a chance to enjoy their community,” he said. “They get to be able to be independent, stay going even after they’ve given up that driver’s license, so our transit system is doing a great job of helping our citizens stay a vital part of our community.”
Nicholson also addressed the work of the Seymour police and fire departments.
To illustrate the amount of illegal drugs police removed from the streets last year, Nicholson had each council member hold up a Ziploc bag full of rock candy. The amount equaled 6.41 pounds, he said. Most of that was methamphetamine with some heroin, fentanyl and marijuana included, too.
Nicholson said the city has to support first responders by investing in new equipment, training and leadership.
For the fire department, this year signals a year of growth as a new ladder truck is added and plans get underway to remodel Station 1 and build a new fire station on the west side.
“Now, those don’t sound like cheap projects to me, and they shouldn’t to you, either, because they’re not,” Nicholson said.
But thanks to proper planning and the city’s level of debt service, those project should not increase taxes, he added.
“As the police station payments fall off, we can issue a new bond, not change the tax rate at all, keep your bills the same and have the funding to be able to take care of the fire department’s projects,” he said. “We’re going to build a new building and do some remodeling without hitting your pocketbook.”
Also slated for renovations is city hall, which is in need of a new roof and HVAC system along with new flooring and lighting and the addition of solar panels.
“Realistically, city hall is on its last leg,” Nicholson said. “We’ve got a two-boiler system that’s down to one boiler. We’re going to have to do some major remodeling. As we’re looking at a project here at city hall, green energy will be a part of it.”
The one issue people want to complain the most about is the condition of city streets and alleys, but Seymour’s Department of Public Works is working diligently on those problem areas, Nicholson said.
In 2019, workers fixed 80 alleys and filled in roughly 5,000 potholes.
Nicholson said the city applies for grant money every year through the state’s Community Crossings Matching Grant program. That money goes to improve and maintain roads.
“It gives us a chance to get ahead,” he said. “We’re getting better. We’re figuring out how to fix those concrete roads, fix the asphalt roads, fix the composite roads and make our streets the best we can, but we’ve got to stay the course. We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Seymour has applied for another $1 million in CCMG funds, which it will match with $1 million from the Seymour Redevelopment Commission for a total of $2 million in road funding for 2020.
The city has seven federal aid projects in the works. They include the Burkart Boulevard southern bypass and railroad overpass. Phases 1 and 3 of those projects will begin this spring. Phase 2 will begin in 2021.
Also in the pipeline are the Fourth and O’Brien streets roundabout in 2022, Second Street reconstruction from Lasher Drive to Indianapolis Avenue in 2024, reconstruction of O’Brien Street in 2025 and reconstruction of U.S. 50 from Agrico Lane to U.S. 31, which also will begin this spring.
Councilman Jerry Hackney said Nicholson did a great job of explaining what’s going on in Seymour.
“There were things that people didn’t want to hear, such as the need to raise sewer rates and trash pickup rates,” Hackney said. “I’m happy that he gave the people a heads up on these. We know we are going to have some very expensive projects in the future. Seymour’s sewer rates are presently in the lower end when compared to cities our size.”
All in all, Hackney said so far, Nicholson is proving himself effective in serving the city as mayor.
“I feel that our mayor is doing a really good job for our city,” he said.
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To view Seymour Mayor Matt Nicholson’s State of the City address in its entirety, visit The Tribune’s Facebook page.