Mayor Barker reflects on first year at city’s helmBy BUSTER WOLFE,
As Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker looks back on the accomplishments during his first year in office, he said the Hub City’s financial status will shape his administration’s future and the success of later administrations.
With the lack of City Hall audits since Fiscal Year 2016, Barker said the city has missed several golden opportunities for grants and funds to help Hattiesburg.
“The ongoing challenge for us over the next four years will be financial,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “When we took office, there had not been an audit completed since Fiscal Year 2014. We have finished the FY15 audit; we are in the last stages of FY16 audit. You will hear something about that in the coming days. We are in the long run for Fiscal Year 2017.”
The importance of completing the city audits is crucial, Barker said, after the city has been without borrowing power because of its low to nonexistent bond rating.
“I can’t overstate how important that audit is,” he said, “not just in terms of knowing our deficiencies are, the city has missed out on several significant grant opportunities because we did not have updated audits. We want to get to a place where that is never in question again. We want to move a stronger place financially, where we consistently have structurally balanced budgets with growing cash reserves. We just have a lot of work that will take time.”
With the move from the state Legislature to Hattiesburg City Hall, Barker said his time in state government has translated to his present job.
“I think coming from the Legislature teaches one how to effectively build coalitions,” he said. “I believe that every neighborhood has a stake in every other neighborhood across the city. We are trying to build a seamless city where the infrastructure, quality of life and public safety doesn’t change depending on what part of town you are in.
If we are going to get there, there has to be equity in investment throughout the city, and thus far, we have been able to accomplish that. I think we try very hard to make sure that we’re communicating with both the City Council and neighborhoods on the ground.”
Barker admitted that he does miss the Legislature, but he has been busy working across ward lines to improve the city’s relations and its physical problems.
“I think this first year has been a combination of trying to meet some immediate needs and make some immediate improvements while also building an administration to capacity and evaluating the talent that was already there,” he said. “And, we were putting together a vision for where we think the City of Hattiesburg could go for the next four years and beyond.”
The positive feedback from the recent Hattiesburg Public School District’s bond election boosted Barker’s support from city residents.
“One thing that I have tried to communicate to our citizens is that a new mayor and a new council alone will not solve all of our woes and take us where we want to go,” he said. “The people have as much a part of making Hattiesburg better and reaching Premier City status as I do. So, we ask them to take a step of faith with us on the Hattiesburg Public School District bond renewal with a 94 percent passage rate, which was the fourth-highest in the state’s history.”
Barker plans to seek more support on a plan to increase the infrastructure in the city park system and USM’s Reed Green Coliseum.
“At the end of this fall, we will ask them to take another step of faith with us on this parks and recreation and Southern Miss money,” he said. “But, we try to tell as well as talk. The communication with each other and with citizens has been one of the strengths in this first year, and so it’s been a real cornerstone of all our administration that you tend to overlook sometimes.”
A closer connection with higher education institutions has also paid dividends over the past 12 months for Hattiesburg and its employees, Barker said.
“I believe that all of our universities and community colleges are vital assets that we have to maximize,” he said, “so anytime that we can partner on a project with Southern Miss or William Carey or Pearl River Community College, then that is something we are trying to foster. Thus far, with the new transit routes going to each of those and particularly the partnership we have going with Southern Miss, they are also trying to work some continuing education and workforce training opportunities at all three.
“The more that you incorporate your educational institutions into the very fabric of your city, I think it assists you in not only improving quality of life and excitement, but also retaining young talent.”