Tuesday evening Woodstock Town Hall was packed with residents who came to hear their community leaders speak about the state of things. The first – likely to be annual – State of the Community Address for communities in the north end of Bibb County sounded off successfully, with passionate, thoughtful, and forward-looking comments by speakers.
Hosted by the Town of Woodstock, speakers included Woodstock Mayor Jeff Dodson, West Blocton Mayor Daniel Sims, Probate Judge Stephanie Kemmer, County Commissioners for the northern areas James Kelly and Keefe Burt, Board of Education representatives for the northern areas Morris Moody and Billie Daily, Green Pond Water Board President Tyler Bostic, and Kathy Hall, who represented Green Pond Fire Department in the place of an under-the-weather Board President and a Deputy Chief who was working that night. Complete audio from all speakers can be found at the end of this article.
Much like the State of the Union Address we are all used to the President giving every February, this State of the Community gathering focused on economic development, achievements in the past year, and topics of attention going forward. Education and schools held sway over much of the night, given recent resolutions at the county level, as well as rumors and stirrings on Facebook about the activities of the Bibb County Board of Education.
First up for the night was Mayor Jeff Dodson of Woodstock, who lead off with the good news of a “best ever” financial audit for fiscal year 2019, as well as strong economic growth thanks to many parties involved throughout the county. He also spoke of the new development at interstate exit 100, which is expected to bring large gains in sales tax revenue to Woodstock.
Roads quickly became a recurring theme of the night as well, as Dodson asked, “Who has good roads where they live?” In response, only one man raised his hand. Turns out, he lives on the newly repaved Coldwater Road. The Mayor said roughly $49,000 from the new state-wide gas tax is expected to come in to the municipality to help with roads projects in the upcoming year.
Of the year to come, he listed events such as the Special Olympics, the Child Advocacy Center’s Pinwheel Garden, and the Wildflower Walk for Suicide Awareness. The Alabama Suicide Prevention and Resources Coalition (ASPARC) main office is in Woodstock. According to Dodson’s statements, there are 31 counties in Alabama that are above the national average rate of suicide, with Bibb County ranking 9th of those counties.
Also mentioned were a community cleanup to help remove litter from the roadsides on April 25, and the Woodstock Music Festival scheduled for September 26.
The Woodstock Community Library held spotlight from the Mayor as he mentioned the great educational opportunities going on there, with computers and internet access enabling test prep in 40 subjects, live career counseling, GED testing, as well as home-school resources and more.
After his opening speech, Mayor Dodson also closed out the night with an impassioned statement regarding the county school system’s distribution of funds, and the need for a new high school building in West Blocton.
Following Dodson, West Blocton Mayor Daniel Sims took the podium for his “bedroom community.” Sims said that while there is major growth and new development all around them, West Blocton is focused on the hometown experience for their residents, with new recreational renovations for kids, the Farmers’ Market that is heading into its second year, and new home renovations throughout the town.
Sims said when he took office, his first day brought a startling reality to light: West Blocton could either pay its bills that month, or pay its employee payroll, but not both. What began as a bad situation with issues such as the sewer system losing over $100,000 per year, and in the interim the only grocery store in town closing its doors and removing one of the top five sales tax generators from contributing to revenues, has turned in a positive direction with much hard work of all involved, including many volunteers. For the first time in decades, according to Mayor Sims, West Blocton is in the black, and “moving in the right direction.”
After Mayor Sims, Kathy Hall of the Green Pond Fire Department spoke of high points in the past year such as the department receiving two FEMA grants for $128,000 and $265,000 respectively, which have allowed for the purchase of new self contained breathing apparatus and a new pumper truck (currently being built). Hall added that Chief Laney will be stepping down as of February 29, with Deputy Chief Hall to fill in as interim Chief for 90 days. There is also a vacancy on the GPFD Board of Directors and those interested are encouraged to contact the department.
Hall also spoke at length regarding the contentious issue of EMS transport services and the department’s conflicts with AmServ in Bibb and NorthStar in Tuscaloosa counties, as well as the impact on department finances. She elaborated on what many see as deficiencies in emergency services to the county’s northern communities and spoke of support from the local communities and volunteers.
Following Hall, Tyler Bostic – President of the Green Pond Water Board – briefly summarized recent activity in running new water mains and the possibility being considered of adding new wells in the coming year, as currently there are only two water sources for the community. He added that the Water Board is financially sound.
Probate Judge Stephanie Kemmer began by expressing her enthusiasm for the State of the Community meeting being a “great idea.” She reminded everyone of the upcoming election on March 3, as well as the runoff on March 31. She thanked poll workers as well as polling stations for all of their support in tending to election processes.
Kemmer shed light on the new Star ID requirements, and described what how they will be used. The also thanked the Town of Woodstock for providing office space for a Probate annex. She and others encouraged everyone to fill out their 2020 census cards, so that the county does not miss out of available federal and state funds that are distributed based on population.
Next came Commissioner James Kelly, who had a different sort of approach to the evening, and explained in depth answers to the three most common questions he is asked as a County Commissioner: “Are you a road commissioner”; “When can you pave my road”; and “can you get me a load of gravel for my driveway?” His answers: No, I can’t, and no. He went into much detail regarding the differences of road commissioners (which only exist in a few counties now) versus the county commissioner and county engineer arrangement that we have here in Bibb. He also complimented County Engineer Jeff McKinney on doing a fine job with the resources he has available.
Kelly informed everyone that no matter how much they want their road paved, the hold up is money. It costs roughly $700,000 per mile to pave a normal road, which is why the three mile long Coldwater Road project cost just over $2 million. This versus $70,000 to tar and gravel a mile.
After Kelly delivered his exposition on road work and taxes, Commissioner Keefe Burt spoke about some issues he has recently found himself caught up in, namely the county sales tax issue and how it affects roads and schools. He began by concurring with Kelly that they are not road commissioners, and gave praise to the road department and County Engineer McKinney for what he is able to get done with the strict rules in place that dictate how tax monies are spent within the department.
Burt went on to describe how the sales tax is broken up, and gave retort to some of the social media bashing he has received since voting no to permanently extend the sales tax during the Commission’s vote in the fall. Burt said he in no way was against the schools receiving the money, he just didn’t see why (at the time) that it was an emergency to vote on something not set to run out for seven more years, and further to act on it without clear input from and a vote by the public – something that was done in 2007 when the tax was first put in place as a temporary 20-year sales tax increase to pay for specific projects in the Bibb School System.
His appeal to the public to understand that he was not against the schools getting the tax money, but he was against putting the tax through without a public vote. “I tried to get it on the ballot,” he said.
Commissioner Burt went on to say that he believes we must invest in our kids, and that investment must be in education – sports and extracurriculars “should be secondary.”
“School is for education. It’s not a football team with a school attached,” Burt said.
He then went on to question where the associated tax money is going to go, as the Board of Education is already looking to renew a bond and borrow an additional $11 million.
Burt also touched on the new Probate Office Courthouse Annex project that is costing the county $1.1 million, saying that in order to fix the old building and bring it up to code by the rules set in place would have cost $1.5 million. The whole new building for less money seemed like the better plan.
He added that his eight years as a County Commissioner have been eye-opening, and said, “The way government works is terrible.”
Twelve-year Board of Education member Morris Moody followed Burt, stating that his primary concern was that parents and the community need to take an interest in improving education in Bibb. “We are not against the other end of the county,” Moody said, “but, our kids deserve it, too.”
Moody elaborated that plans as he knows them mainly involve adding buildings to schools in the south end of the county. He told the tale of West Blocton’s two high schools, saying that the first was built by the federal government and the second (current) one was built by the state of Alabama to fulfill a promise made by then newly-elected Governor George Wallace. He added later that the Bibb County School System has never build a high school in West Blocton, and he believes this is how the sales tax money should be used.
Moody’s fellow Board of Education member Billie Daily then spoke briefly, saying, “I love the kids … and we try to know what to do,” but that often [she and Moody] do not know what’s happening. “We didn’t even know about that meeting” when BOE members brought school children to the County Commission Building in an attempt to sway the vote to make the sales tax permanent.
Rounding out the night after Daily, Mayor Dodson returned to the podium to speak his on mind about the school and tax issue. He does not want the bond renewed, saying he will not “sit down and chill” if it happens.
“We rank bottom of the state and the state ranks bottom of the country [in education],” Dodson breathed in a passionately serious tone, “And I’m tired of it.”
He ended the night with the default theme of the State of the Community meeting: “We are stronger together.”
**Note: Information regarding plans for school funding in a 5-Year plan issued by the State Board of Education show a new West Blocton High School slated for funding of $20,000,000 in year 2023. During this same time frame, the total for all of the Bibb County School System shows to be $28,605,000.
The audio tracks below include the full 1 hour 43 minutes of the evening, without adjustment (track 00), and the same track divided into individual speakers’ segments, with volume level adjustments. Not edited for content:
00 – State of the Community 2020 North Bibb – audio only -Full Length Uncut
01 – Welcome and Woostock Mayor Jeff Dodson
02 – West Blocton Mayor Daniel Sims
03 – Kathy Hall, Green Pond Fire Department
04 – Tyler Bostic, Green Pond Water Board President
05 – Probate Judge Stephanie Kemmer
06 – County Commissioner District 4, James Kelly
07 – County Commissioner District 1, Keefe Burt
08 – Morris Moody, Board of Education
09 – Billie Daily, Board of Education
10 – Closing Comments by Mayor Jeff Dodson