The beginning of our new year & indeed, this new decade- poses a timely opportunity for us to look ahead, to consider our City’s future, while also reflecting back a bit for our residents to better understand why we plan the way we do. We continue to believe that our community is excellently postured to further raise the bar on our quality of life here for all of residents. Please indulge me for the next few minutes as I share our plans & vision, municipal department by department for 2020.
Our utility & public safety operations shall always be the core of our essential services. We enjoy excellent leadership from our two directors, Jerry Arnold on the public works side, & Amby Jenkins on the administration & finance side. We couldn’t do what we do without either of them.
Our Waste Collection Board launched its new toter system in 2018 & about 75% of our customers throughout Upshur County have now received their new toters. We’ve already realized greater efficiency, improved employee safety, & all residents & businesses alike are more fully accountable for the services provided to them which helps us all save money.
In collaboration with our streets & parks department, our City needs to prioritize construction of a new welding garage, tool building, & lockerroom at our Mud Lick Run facility. Jerry Arnold will share details in the months ahead, but we know that there will be a cost association of several hundred thousand dollars with this project that will be shared by Waste Collection & our General Fund. We need to continue to invest in & be good stewards of the physical plants of all of our facilities, but we have not been as attentive to waste collection & streets & parks’ facilities as we need to be. I note that there has not been a rate increase in waste collections here since 2011, & in this age to see the rates of any service remain the same for nine years is unheard of. We need to improve our reserve funds for Waste Collection emergencies. Jeff Wamsley’s guys continue to perform in exemplary fashion.
Our Water Board experienced a very busy 2019. We completed the decommissioning of the St. Joseph’s tank. The increase in our reserve water supply is all part of the anticipated, future growth in our community associated with the ever nearing completion of Corridor H. Our cooperative arrangement with Dominion Resources & the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project has resulted in the completion of $2.3 million worth of improvements to our water distribution system with all cost being borne entirely by ACP. Understand that these much needed improvements would have been undertaken in the future in-house with the cost borne entirely by our residents & businesses, so- completion of this project pushes us years ahead as our waterworks distribution system has been greatly enhanced without having to increase fees. Currently & as of January 1, Buckhannon ranks 37th out of the 366 PSC regulated water utilities in the state of West Virginia. That means we provide our water services among the most affordable communities in all of West Virginia & are at the 10.1% lowest rates in our entire state. To be clear, about 90% of the water providers in West Virginia charge more for their water than does Buckhannon. This data is available on the WV Public Service Commission website.
Our Harley A. Brown Memorial Water Plant work completed in 2019 was highly beneficial with nearly complete overhaul of the plant’s electrical system. We anticipate working closely with the Adrian Public Service District to realize additional improvements to the southern portion of our water distribution system. We will continue to insist that all of the outlying public service districts improve their maintenance programs with their own systems to minimize the potable water that ends up being dumped into the ground. I propose a water summit during which we will invite all public service districts to meet together to better determine how we can all work together to reduce potable water loss. The members of the Upshur County Commission are invited, particularly since they are responsible for the formation & oversight of all PSDs. All of our partnering PSDs are now providing meeting minutes to our City so that we may know of their needs & intentions. The leakage rates of some PSDs is untenable & we must all work together in becoming better stewards of our precious water. City engineer Jay Hollen is working to identify ways to increase our raw water storage that might double for some form of water recreation. Water Superintendent, Kelly Arnold’s staff is performing outstandingly. On the cusp of losing multiple class III & IV plant operators, we implemented a new compensation model to retain our operators. To preserve the integrity of our water system, we know we have to pay living & competitive wages & benefits.
On the whole, our waterworks system has never been better positioned than they are right now. By the way, Buckhannon’s water was judged to be the best or tied for the best tasting water in all of West Virginia for the past two years. Jay Hollen is evaluating another substantial water storage tank that would permit us to decommission both the Corhart & High School water storage tanks, while adding even more volume to our reserve water supply. About the first of March, we will partner with J.F. Allen on the south side of Route 33 West to extend water for future development along Corridor H. If you build it, they will come.
Our Sanitary Board continues to function in an exemplary manner. Opened in 1987 with a then 30-40 year life expectancy, engineer Sam Ludlow & Sanitary Superintendent Buck Samples now estimate that in 2020, our Samuel S. Ludlow Sewer Plant should endure for another 30-40 years given the excellent & persistent upgrades & maintenance of our existing physical plant operations all again undertaken in-house. Sam & Buck have a combined, City tenure of 75 years. Currently as of January 1, & following rate increases during the past two years, Buckhannon ranks 157th out of 319 PSC regulated sewer utilities in the state of West Virginia. That means our sewer services rank in the middle of the pack in affordability in West Virginia & are at the 49.3% lowest rates in our state. To be clear, more than half of all sewer providers in West Virginia charge more to treat their sewage than does Buckhannon. This data also is available on the WV PSC website. Similar to our water plant operators, we adopted a competitive compensation model for our sewer plant operators in 2019 to retain them.
Remember, during 2017, & after decades of discussion, all storm sewer operations were formally designated by this Council as being undertaken by our Sanitary Board. Our sewer staff has been engaged in extensive planning within & outside the corporate limits to improve our storm water system, & with passage of the one percent sales tax ordinance that was implemented yesterday- we anticipate great strides in further improving our storm water system as funding becomes available, with $200,000 of the new funds being allocated to storm water improvements. By the way, we’re building new sanitary sewer on both the north & south sides of Route 33 West beginning in March. Permitting is already underway.
I’d be remiss if I failed to note that both our water & sanitary sewer utility operations are now fully compliant with State mandates to maintain a 12.5% reserve fund based upon a State operational revenues’ formula. We’re now universally prepared for emergencies as they arise. Our Boards have been excellent stewards of our water & sewer funds.
In Streets & Parks, there are a number of projects identified for 2020. Many more paving & sidewalk projects are planned including near the City seal mural & extending north along Route 20, Kanawha, North Spring, & Florida streets. The several hundred feet of new sidewalk along Madison & Meade Streets enhances pedestrian access to downtown & Jawbone Park. The Gateway West project will start this spring & soon there’ll be an amazing mile of new sidewalk, period lighting, holiday banners, & complete streets from the first Buckhannon exit all the way to our College campus. In 2019 we realized completion of the State project improving 88 sidewalk intersect points downtown & all along Route 20/Kanawha Street. This has greatly enhanced ADA compliance throughout our community, & particularly in the highest pedestrian traffic areas. Our North Buckhannon area will soon realize important improvements including sidewalk projects along North Florida Street, First Street, & Morton Avenue. Sidewalks improve our community health making it more appealing to walk than drive, & we are constructing sidewalks that are accessible to everyone. We remain committed to realizing “complete streets.”
The North Buckhannon Park recently rededicated with ADA compliant parking & sidewalks & new playground equipment, realized more improvements during 2019 with new installation of fencing & security cameras. Jawbone Park realized new improvements last year with installation of a new sound system, new canopies along the Veterans’ Walk of Valor, & several more benches including our BEST bench. Our Fred Brooks Park, aka the Triangle Park also is receiving substantial upgrades.
Our Trader’s Alley/Milkman Lane project has been nearly completed & we hope to dedicate the Men in Black car, Pankow Cove, & other art installations this summer connecting our beautiful downtown to our primary community gathering spot in Jawbone Park. We’ll soon dedicate the new Green park in front of the City Seal mural. Our River Trail will be further enhanced with construction of a new pavilion located near the boat ramp & the dog park while our dog park continues to realize fun-filled & aesthetically appealing improvements. The dog park will continue to be developed by our excellent City crews with support funding coming from the volunteers comprising our Dog Park Committee. We look forward to at long last realizing our handicapped fishing pier. We will work with our cycling friends & seek to extend our river trail to our high school & beyond to Sago to our south & Pringle Tree Park to the north. We are working out details with WV Split Rail Fence to connect the dots between our downtown & the Wesleyan campus portion of our river trail. We resumed cemetery mowing in-house in 2017 saving our residents thousands of dollars annually while employing new seasonal workers. The sidewalk improvements along South Spring Street are spectacular. We also realized storm sewer improvements as part of the South Spring project improving storm water removal downtown.
Grants have permitted us to make tremendous strides in the rehabilitation of our Colonial Theatre. We have now secured more than half of our funding for this four-phase project. We have a new floor that can sustain 200 tons, a new roof has been installed, the restored marquee is back up, the windows have been rehabbed, the stage & proscenium have been reinstalled, the HVAC, water & gas plumbing, & electrical systems are nearing completion. Our guys will be working on the balcony & lobby areas of our theatre. Buckhannon Community Theatre performed Dracula in October, & we are committed to additional BCT performances in the Colonial throughout 2020 including “Clue the Play” next October. This facility will be a crown jewel of our community when completed servicing our arts’ entities, but especially our youth. Soon we will need to consider the hire of a talented person to oversee theatre management & our Stockert arts programs. It is critical that we entertain the formation of a municipal arts commission to oversee planning & policy making for your Colonial Theatre.
Speaking of our youth, we continue to celebrate the Silver anniversary of our Stockert Youth & Community Center in 2020. We plan on breaking ground on our new multi-use complex in 2020 & many more fundraisings are planned as we try to edge closer to undertaking that vital project for the benefit of our kids. We have now raised about $180,000 with our renewed SYCC capital campaign during the past two years, & the total of our capital campaign is about $330,000. Dixie Green took over as our City horticulturist in October & her crew will continue to work their magic with our floral & landscaping program. The entrances to town are receiving some much needed sprucing up replete with new plantings & lighting. We realized community fruit orchards & vegetable gardens during the 2019 growing season. We’re going to further expand our wild flower program in 2020. Brad Hawkins’ guys simply amaze us. That said, we should consider expanding the ranks in Streets & Parks, & we believe that the hire of two new skilled positions would enhance our opportunity to expedite our successes.
Our Police Department welcomed a new member in 2019 with the hire of Colin Cope who completed his academy training first of November. Our officers are unanimously committed to CALEA accreditation & the CALEA committee has been very busy. We continue to develop holistic policies in addressing our drug epidemic. We reinstituted the Neighborhood Watch program in North Buckhannon. We continue to expand our VIPS’ program. Kudos go out to Matt Gregory’s excellent officers & staff for protecting our lives & property.
Our Fire Department will be working on its own IFAA accreditation efforts during 2020, & all of our members are performing very well under the leadership of Chief J.B. Kimble. The collaboration among our paid & volunteer fighters continues to establish Buckhannon as one of the best prepared fire departments in the state. Our guys need a new rescue/pumper truck soon, & the Council needs to prepare for ordering that new vehicle in 2020. This vehicle will permit us to retire three 1990s vehicles from our fire fleet. This new, fully equipped vehicle is expected to cost about $500,000. Thanks to all of our paid & volunteer firefighters for their selfless time & commitment to protecting our lives & property.
I will be appointing a fire finance committee to investigate a self-sustaining model for our fire department that will emulate the successes realized in our neighboring cities of Bridgeport & Elkins through our consideration of a first due fire fee. With 40%+ of all calls taking our City firefighters, trucks, & equipment outside of our corporate limits hundreds of times per year, the meager contribution from the county fire fee to our expanding protection for about 80% of the county’s population & the vast majority of total property value in Upshur County is simply unfair to be shouldered near exclusively by Buckhannon’s residents.
We still plan on completing the exterior improvements to the public safety complex with new lighting, reconfigured parking spaces, & landscaping. We dedicated the new Police Department Blue Wall in 2019 to compliment the Fire Department’s red wall dedicated during Friendly Way Day 2017. It remains very important for us to remember the foundations for today’s successes recognizing those who made it all possible. Our community scrapbook wall will come to be dedicated in the frequently used Community & Training room. In 2019, we added a few more tables & chairs for this much used room & an additional TV monitor. Since our bonds on the public safety complex are nearly paid for, I propose to Council that we retire the $3.00 monthly fee, but institute a $1.00 per month public safety complex maintenance fee, & a $1.00 per month Stockert facility maintenance fee.
Our Stockert Youth & Community Center continues to provide safe haven to so many of our children. We average more than 13,000 youth involvement hours every month at SYCC. To be clear, about 160,000 youth hours are now realized annually at Stockert. Michelle Harter has been a nice addition to Debora Brockleman’s staff. We simply have to realize our new building at Stockert.
Callie Cronin Sams has made us vastly better at information sharing, while she has aided us reaping many more grant awards than ever before. If we prove successful with our Abandoned Mines Land grant application, that $3.8 million dollar investment will be one of the biggest game-changers in Buckhannon’s history. What a terrific application Callie assembled on our City’s behalf- it’s the best I’ve ever read.
Our City Hall staff has never been stronger than it is right now, Barb, Teresa, Kathy, Billie, Holly, Alice, Shayla, Aimee, & Sue- we thank you. We thank City Attorney Tom O’Neill, who has stepped up our legal work with assistant City Attorney Matt Hymes’ tragic passing last April. Our municipal court judge, Helen Echard, does a super job for us. The talents & contributions of City architect, Bryson VanNostrand, are invaluable to our successes.
2019 saw our vibrant downtown continue to grow in leaps & bounds. The Innovation Center opened its doors during 2019 & we anticipate some big announcements soon regarding its occupancy. JesterLine has brought new virtual reality to our downtown. Pita My Heart & Mama Roma’s offers us even more choices in quality cuisine, & The Social Grill & Bar has reopened under new management. Developers from throughout the region continue to invest substantially in our downtown. Be prepared to learn about another huge building project downtown that will eclipse the size of the Innovation Center. In fact, we’ve realized approaching $20 million in new construction in our downtown during the past four years. We have virtually 100% store front occupancy on our Main Street. We still understand we’ll welcome Buteras’ reopening. Travis Foster has become an excellent partner in our downtown developments & we hear that there will be a substantial investment made in his primary building downtown in the months ahead. We’ll continue to partner with business big & small seeking to expand or establish their enterprises in beautiful downtown Buckhannon. These developments add jobs, expand our tax base, & increase those visiting our city who spend their dollars in droves in Buckhannon.
We’ll continue to work closely with our wonderful friends & former protectors, the members of our American Legion & VFW on various projects including plans to develop the Veterans’ Way loop on Kanawha Street & expand the Walk of Valor & Flags for the Fallen projects. By the way, we installed new flags at all of our City facilities during 2019 including flag poles at our Blue Wall, water & sewer plants, waste collection facility, & streets garage on Factory Street. We’ll partner again in 2020 with the WV Strawberry Festival to help stage the most successful festival in all of West Virginia. By the way, Gambill Amusements & the Turner family relocated their corporate headquarters to Buckhannon during 2019. What a terrific tribute to our town! Our Festival is the single most important event held each year in our community, & it’s an opportunity to show off what we do for the entire region.
We’ll continue to work closely with Create Buckhannon, ART26201, Buckhannon Community Theatre, & all arts related groups to expand public arts in all forms- visual & performing. Where would we be without Festival Fridays, art installations downtown, & BCT performances? Our primary partners will benefit from our collaboration- West Virginia Wesleyan College, St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Upshur County school system, the CVB, the Chamber of Commerce, & the Development Authority. We collaborated with our Board of Education to remove a distressed & dangerous structure adjacent to our Board office last summer while the Board of Ed. created 60 new, off-street parking spaces to alleviate parking issues along College Avenue. Similarly, Wesleyan added dozens of new off-street parking spaces through building razing projects. It’s still the prettiest campus in all of West Virginia. It is important that we continue to support our partners in their endeavors. This Council resolved to help realize school levy passage for the benefit of all of our children with our levy carrying 2 to 1 with City residents supporting the levy at a rate of about 3 to 1.
We contributed another $10,000 toward rebuilding South Spring Street to facilitate the UCDA’s Innovation Center, & our water department contributed about $6,000 toward a new booster station near the Weyerhauser plant for UCDA. Despite being a county entity, our City is remains the single biggest financial sponsor of our Development Authority. Our City affirmatively responded to requests for parking designation by our Parish House along Sedgwick Street, & lowering of the speed limit on Camden Avenue in front of the Child Development Center. The four-way stop signs at Madison & South Florida Street have added to pedestrian safety with the many activities occurring in Jawbone Park.
We need to renew our support for small business through our Facade Grants’ Program which we let lapse in 2019. We’ll continue to help clean up properties through our Good Neighbor grant program helping those who need it most. We need to budget resources to condemn & acquire distressed properties. Our new parking policy has been fully implemented & has helped spur activity in our downtown. We will continue to honor & support the Blessing Box & Little Free Library programs & the excellent volunteers that make those programs so successful & which distinguish Buckhannon from all other places. Speaking of volunteers, our Volunteer Center continues to flourish & we appreciate the good work of Gabby Sayger. Our second, now annual Community Unity & Kindness Day was a nice success in October, & we look forward to many more BEST awards, that is, Buckhannon’s Exemplary Service Testimonials during 2020. We’ve already recognized 15 individuals & groups. We need to continue to pause to give those much earned pats on the backs to those who make our City so terrific & inviting, warm & attractive.
We will continue to partner with Matt Kerner & Opportunity House, Community Care, & Doug Spears’ entities to remove the stigma of addiction while creating a welcoming environment for those in recovery. We’ll partner in the annual HAHA, i.e., Hope And Help Assembly, followed by our Children’s Festival, TruckFest, Fall Fest, & all of our annual Halloween through Christmas fun. We would love to make Jawbone Park a true Winter Wonderland for the 2020 holidays. Festival Friday folks are already scheduling a full summer 2020 season. That new chicken bbq is the bomb! We’ll continue to collaborate with the River Festival group as they celebrate our community’s water supply late next summer, although we’ll miss our friend, April Keating.
Our reconstituted Planning Commission performed yeoman’s work to develop our 2025 comprehensive plan that was approved by Council in 2019. Special thanks to Curtis Wilkerson, Susan Aloi, Rich Clemens, Dean Everett, Catherine Cuppari, Jack Reger, Matt Kerner, Vincent Smith, & CJ Rylands. Our Diversity Appreciation Coalition will continue to perform important work to expand our all-inclusiveness as we will celebrate such events as the Lighting of our Menorah, Dr. Martin Luther King Day, & Black History Month in January & February. The Buckhannon Pride group will gather again in June. We’ll continue to recognize our history, & to tell our story & to recognize those who’ve brought positive attention & accolades to our B-U community. We recognized J.D. Hinkle, Jr., Charley Harper, & Jimmy Pankow in 2019, & soon we will add Jim Knorr, Garland West, Steve Coonts, Jayne Anne Phillips, Breece D’J Pancake, our State’s longest recognized poet laureate Irene McKinney, Earle “Greasy Neale,” Cliff Battles, Press Maravich, the Carter sisters, & others to our list of honorees.
We will do all these things while being cleaner, greener, & more sustainable than ever before. Jerry Arnold will be happy to discuss with you the differences between retention & detention ponds. We will do all these things while being more inclusive than ever before. We cannot as a community tolerate the actions of those who seek to divide us or to marginalize any of our residents. They must be rebuffed. Anyone- regardless as to their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, handicap, orientation, or familial status- who seeks to be part of our community’s successes is invited to participate with us & to offer their help & opinions in making our community even better. Our mission is not to be the best community around, our mission is simply to be the best community that WE can be.
I have no doubt that with our excellent staff of 85 fulltime employees that we shall take our community to another, higher level during 2020. Our outstanding employees make all of these things possible. We implemented pay raises for all fulltime employees during 2019. Our success as a City is attributed to our folks in the trenches who repair broken utility lines under the most trying of conditions, our first responders who answer the police & fire calls at all hours & under the most unpleasant of circumstances, our workers who are hanging off of the back of our garbage trucks whether it’s zero or 95 degrees, & the caretakers of our streets, public ways, & parks. We continue to recognize the value of those labors & we are committed to retaining our very talented & valuable work force.
During 2019 we formed the new Insurance Committee & Technology Committee, both of which were highly engaged, & whose work saved our City considerable funds. We thank all of their members for their constructive work.
I want to most sincerely thank my colleagues on this City Council who have steadfastly sponsored & supported initiatives to make our organization & community stronger. I would be remiss if I didn’t observe that new City Recorder, Randy Sanders, has taken to his job like a duck to water. Each of the seven of us maintain our pet passions & projects for our community, & that’s okay, too. Pam Bucklew favors the holidays with the Fourth of July festivities & winter holiday decorations. Mary Albaugh is about all things veterans. CJ Rylands favors Jawbone events, & our vibrant downtown. Dave Thomas helps oversee all things financial. Robbie Skinner has special affinity for our Fire Department. Randy Sanders has a 40 year connection with our Strawberry Festival.
In closing, please do not be deterred or unduly influenced by the few naysayers on social media, many of whom do not even reside in our corporate limits. These people constitute a small but omni-vocal minority of our residents & are not the voice of the vast majority of our people. WE… truly are- all in this together. May 2020 smile kindly & fondly upon our Buckhannon. It continues to be my great honor & privilege to be in this chair in the finest city in all of West Virginia.