Mayor Keith Gaskin on Tuesday outlined for Columbus Rotary Club initiatives his administration intends to pursue — including open communication, preparing an annual budget, reducing crime and lending a helping hand to education.
“I am here to tell you that we live in a fine community with a lot of fine people who want to get on board and do some really great things in Columbus,” he said. “Don’t listen to the naysayers that are out there — the ones that are squawking the loudest. Do we have problems that we need to face? Oh, absolutely. Well, are we going to do those? Yes, we are.”
Gaskin said he plans to do more to open the lines of communication between City Hall and the citizens by hosting a series of town hall meetings, probably starting during budget season in the fall. He said the dates for these meetings would be scheduled within the next couple of weeks.
These forums, he said, will provide citizens with an opportunity to become more informed not only about the budget process but how tax dollars may be spent.
“I think it’s critical because when the average citizen looks at the budget for the city, it’s very hard to really follow and understand where your money’s going, and it is your money,” he said. “We’re going to try to do some town hall meetings where we can kind of explain the process, let you understand how it works, how it goes from you know from City Hall, working with the different departments and getting feedback, how you determine the millage, how much you’re going to have and about all those things.”
Millage is used to determine property taxes. For example, a person who owns a home assessed at $100,000 without a Homestead exemption will pay $10 in taxes per mill.
Gaskin was sworn in July 1, and while he said he has begun evaluating the city’s finances, he told The Dispatch he does not yet know whether he will recommend a millage increase for Fiscal Year 2022, which begins Oct. 1.
Beginning July 21, Gaskin said he plans to hold press conferences the first and third Wednesday of each month as a followup to the previous evening’s city council meeting. The public and press are invited to attend and ask questions.
Gaskin said public safety is a big concern for the administration and city council. He’s met with Police Chief Fred Shelton and Lowndes County Sheriff Eddie Hawkins. He would like to recruit more police officers, detectives and see community-style policing so people in their communities can get to know the police officers.
“We’ve talked seriously about the issues that you’ve been facing in crime in the community,” he said. “I’ve asked them to please, let’s work together to try to solve these issues. Most of these people know each other and they’ve worked together for a long time. And so what I’ve asked them to do is let’s try to start with a fresh page and see what we can do because to me, public safety is a top priority. Obviously keeping the citizens of our community safe is critical, and it’s not something we should take lightly.”
Partnering with CMSD
Education is another top priority for Gaskin, a longtime education administrator before he was elected mayor. He has met with Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat, whom he described as “amazing and as impressive as I have heard.” While working on a long-term plan, Gaskin has met with school administrators, teachers and students as he spoke about the need for new programs to enhance academic success, perhaps reaching out to nonprofit groups for assistance.
“There’ve been a lot of individuals who have reached out to me about mentoring programs and things like that that could help because we’ve got to do things outside of the school system too,” he said. “There are some communities like ours that have students who have been two and three years behind of the grade level. They’ve worked with nonprofits where they hired tutors to work with these kids on a daily basis until they get them caught up.”
Gaskin noted how though Columbus is filled with strong educational institutions, there is much work that needs to be done to improve public schools.
“It’s always been baffling to me that our school system was lagging when right here in Columbus, we have a very fine and one of the best liberal arts schools in the country (Mississippi University for Women), the first public institution for women in the country,” Gaskin said. “We had the first public school in Mississippi in Columbus. We have the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus, and we have a good community college system near Columbus.
“Why in the world are we not thriving? It doesn’t make sense,” he continued. “And it’s not because good people haven’t tried to do that. There’s synergy between those groups, but there’s a heck of a lot more that we can do, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for not getting engaged in that and helping them. The people that lead these institutions can’t do it on their own. It’s the community that has to get behind them and doing it.”