- City Services
2021 State of the City of Semmes Address
First let me say what an honor and a pleasure it is standing here as your Mayor to give the City of Semmes Address.
Before I address you as Mayor, I would like to introduce you to some of my staff. They are the backbone for keeping our city ran like a well-oiled machine. If you work for the City of Semmes please stand now. These people standing are the forefront of what Semmes is all about. Their accomplishments and vision for Semmes to bring it into a brighter and secure City makes my job easy and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
Now let me introduce you to our City Council who also plays a huge part in moving the City of Semmes forward. With their vision for Semmes being in alignment with my own, it creates an environment and atmosphere of cohesiveness. It’s easier when we all work together for one common goal and that’s to see Semmes prosper and become the best Municipality in the State of Alabama. Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem- Helen Joyce; Council Member Jason Herring; Council Member Lee Lawshe; Council Member Tony Ebright, and Council Member Charles Watts. This Council and I have been extremely proactive this past year. In fact, with the help of our City Clerk, Debbie Hanbury and our Legal Counsel, Jacob Fuller, this Council has either amended, passed, or created 31 New Ordinances and 102 New Resolutions since November 1st of 2020.
The City of Semmes was incorporated by a small group of people in order to stop annexation efforts from the City of Mobile. They wanted the tax dollars that were spent in Semmes to be invested in Semmes. You see, my vision is in line with the same group that wanted Semmes to become a Municipality but goes 1 step forward. This year was a focus on a vision for the future of our community. This year we set a precedence and a goal to achieve during my administration as Mayor. We stopped just focusing on the day-to-day operations but started focusing on the year after year vision. Where will Semmes be in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years and even where do we want Semmes to be in 50 years. To help accomplish our vision, I instituted Advisory Committees to the Mayor to help to decide a way forward and to meet the needs of our community. These committees consist of citizen volunteers and chaired by our Council Members. The committees are as follows:
1. Finance Committee- Brandon Van Hook
2. Public Safety- Helen Joyce
3. Parks and Recreation- Tony Ebright
4. Public Works and Semmes Beautification-Jason Herring
5. Historic Preservation- Lee Lawshe
6. Economic Development/ Annexation- Brandon Van Hook
My number one focus during the creation of this vision was meeting needs of our community and what better way to having community members help make the decisions in moving us forward. I simplified the needs of our community into the three basic core groups every municipality should focus on. Number one being Public Safety, Number 2-Infrastructure and Services and Number 3- Economic Development.
Let’s start with Public Safety.
My vision for Public Safety in Semmes is to have a community that is proud to live and invest in a safe environment.
Many advancements have been made in public safety this year. With the assistance of the Public Safety Advisory Committee, our biggest advancement, being the formation of the City of Semmes Police Department. For the past 10 years the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office has partnered with the City of Semmes for most services of a police department. In 2020, I ran on a campaign to officially create and maintain a Semmes Police Department. Sheriff Cochran and his team at the Sheriff’s Office has been and continues to be a great asset to the Semmes Community. With a growing municipality it was time for us to take ahold of our own crime and to take on the responsibilities and ownership of being a Municipality. Semmes will continue to work hand in hand with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office and we will forever be grateful for the partnership that was created. In March of 2021 the City Council unanimously voted to approve an Ordinance for the creation of the Semmes Police Department and in June of 2021, I appointed Chief Todd Freind as the first Police Chief for the City of Semmes and was shortly afterwards affirmed by the City Council.
It has been a fantastic year for Semmes Fire and Rescue under the leadership of Chief Kevin Brooks. This past year the City Council passed a resolution for the purchase of a new Pumper Truck for the Department. This truck will be built to the exact specifications of a committee that Chief Brooks put together. With some of our fire equipment and facilities being outdated, supplying the necessary equipment, supplies and facilities is and will always be my main emphasis. We have also purchased traffic signals for all stations warning traffic of outgoing and incoming fire engines and hope to have installed in the coming weeks.
This year I also wanted to look into employee attraction and retention with the help of our Human Resource Coordinator, Olivia Zirlott, and our Department Heads. What are we doing different to attract and retain our staff? Not being a part of the Mobile Personnel Board allows for us to set our own policies, benefits, and procedures for all our staff members. We updated and increased our vacation policy, disaster pay, sick leave, and our staff was most impacted by the City of Semmes joining the Retirement Systems of Alabama with the assistance of Senator Jack Williams. We also looked into our classification plan for our staff and made increase adjustments in salary to every staff member for the city of Semmes and also created future staff positions as the city continues to grow and more needs of the community are being met. We know we are competing with other municipalities for staff but wanted to do our part to get close to what others were doing and I wanted our current staff to be taken care of and to get what they much deserve.
Covid-19 made a huge impact on the way we operate day to day. When I took office in November of 2020, Chief Brooks approached me about the Covid-19 Relief funds that had been allocated to the city that had not been used by the previous administration. I am happy to report that we were able to spend nearly $190,000 of the $250,000 that was approved in a 3-week period where about 95 percent of those funds went toward the advancement in public safety and our fight on Covid-19. This past year, we have had more calls than since Covid started back in March of 2020 and I am beyond proud of our Fire Department because every single call was answered by our fire fighters, even while assisting other departments in the mist of it all. We are truly blessed to have to what I would call the best fire department in the state of Alabama right here in Semmes. This year we also increased the amount of fire fighters per shift and promoted 4 of our own within our department.
This past year we also started making an investment to the facilities our Public Safety currently operate out of. This year, the City Council unanimously voted for the purchase of the Old Dollar General Building at the corner of McCrary Road and Lott Road for the creation of the first Semmes Public Safety Complex. As you heard in the video this site was chosen because of the visibility, accessibility and in achieving the goals of getting our call times down in this area. This building will house both our Police Officers and Fire Fighters and we look forward to starting this project this week. Many people don’t know, we were able to purchase this 8000 square foot building for $214,000 less than the asking price of $479,000. For this to be a state-of-the-art complex, we are investing a little over a million dollars in renovations. With everything, we will be coming in under 1.5 million which is half of what other municipalities are spending. But let’s be honest, money should never be a determining factor when it come to the health and welfare of the people of Semmes.
2022 will be an even bigger year in investment for our Public Safety and we hope to have more investments in fire stations and our police department fully up and operational by the end of 2022.
Moving on to Infrastructure and Community Services:
My vision for the City of Semmes regarding Infrastructure is one that meets the needs of all. Infrastructure is not just about Roads and accessibility it’s also about providing the best parks, community services, access to utilities for future growth and so much more. Under the Leadership of Jason Franklin, Director of Public Works, we have some of the best public works staff members. They are out there doing the job that no one else wants to be doing and they are doing an outstanding job keeping up with our streets, city properties, and Parks beyond our community’s expectations.
With the help of our Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee, Our first project this year was the expansion of the current splash pad and the installation of the outdoor fitness hub. As shown in the video, we doubled the size of the splash pad and installed an outdoor fitness hub for the use of the community. We had a grand opening and dedicated the Splash to the honor of Aubreigh Nicholas and her fight with DIPG by painting and designing the splash pad with lemons painted all along the flooring in support of her Lemon Face Challenge. We were honored to have her family, Senator Jack Williams, Commissioner Hudson, and City Council Members join us for this great event.
The outdoor fitness hub was opened the same day as the Splash Pad and is currently open to the public every day. This gives those who don’t like the traditional gym an opportunity to work out on their own time and outside in nature. We wanted this to also be an opportunity for parents with young children to work out while they play on the splash pad and/or the nearby playground. And as far as I know, we are the only municipal park with an outdoor fitness hub in Mobile County.
Events that the city host or sponsors have been a huge success this year. It plays a huge part on the vitality of our community. This year was a little different for us because of Covid. But once we started back with the events, the people of Semmes came out in groves. Many events have already been planned for this coming year and we look forward to adding new ones every year. This year under the direction of our events coordinator, Elizabeth Lovelady the City added the recent fall festival, which turned out to be the most attended event in Semmes History.
This year we have also contracted with GMC to create a master plan for our municipal park. This Park has been uncompleted for years and as a city we need to provide services to our community. What better way to finish out a municipal park for our citizens to enjoy? This Park will be built in stages and will offer walking paths, sports fields such as soccer, baseball, football, basketball, beach volleyball, and pickleball. The design also incorporates a small skate park, additional Playgrounds, dog park, and an event venue for outdoor concerts, church services, and much more.
Speaking of services, with the assistance of the Public Works Committee, a new service will be coming next year to our citizens within our corporate limits. Semmes will now be offering limb and debris removal once a month. This and other services will provide a tool for annexation. There is still plenty of opportunities for growth of our community, but we need to fill in the gaps of our corporate limits before we start growing outside of it. As a Municipality, we need to offer reasons for people to join our corporate limits through annexation. Right now, all they get is the right to vote in the Municipal election. We need to offer more because they deserve more. Our citizens have invested in Semmes for a longtime, some a lifetime, and now we start investing in them and with the help and organization of our City Panner, Jeffrey McKee, and the Annexation Advisory Committee we can achieve our plans and vision for annexation. Another Service we now offer is passports. Through the direction and implementation of our City Clerk, Mrs. Debbie Hanbury, and the help of our City Purchaser, Mrs. Monica Helton another Service the City of Semmes is now offering is the processing of passports. We are now the only City Clerk’s Office in the State of Alabama to process Passports. More services are in the pipeline in the future and I look forward to offering much more to our community.
Addition to the road plans listed in the video we are also opening the old McCrary Rd. as a westward bound turning lane onto Moffett Rd. just west of the current McCrary Road. This project will decrease the amount of traffic congestion at this intersection and will keep our school buses flowing better to improve route times.
Our main project this year is Semmes City Hall. The Semmes City Council was able to save the City of Semmes $3,000,000.00 in the cancelation of the old City Hall Project and the creation of a new city hall project. Through the efforts of my staff and I, we were able to create a new City Hall that meets all the fundamental needs for the citizens of Semmes in our new design. This design will create a one stop shop for our citizens, businesses, and developers. We were able to create a new project, design it, and start construction in less than a year. This will be a building our community will be proud to call their own and will meet the future need and growth of Semmes.
And now let’s talk Economic Development.
My vision for Semmes in Economic Development is to retain our small-town ambience but offer big town conveniences. We want our citizens to spend their money right here in Semmes. But to do that we have to find out where and what their money is going to. What are we not providing to our citizens inside of Semmes that other areas are? Another reason I ran for Mayor was because I wanted Semmes to be welcoming to new business. Growth is inevitable, but as Mayor I wanted to help control that growth and still keep our community standards that Semmes grew from.
The old days of knocking on a business’s door and asking them to come to Semmes is over. With the assistance of the Economic Development Committee, we contracted with Retail Strategies this past year to help in all areas of Economic development. Businesses that are growing and developing what to see they can make it financially in Semmes. Retail Strategies has put together a 70-page portfolio for Semmes. This portfolio is used as a selling tool to any future development. It shows businesses interested in Semmes, that the money is here but being used outside of our community in other businesses in other communities. This is called a GAP analysis. The report is so thorough, it will show you how many apples are being sold outside of Semmes within a 5- or 10-mile radius. Retail Strategies currently is out seeking businesses that will fit the needs of our community and ones that are a good fit in the direction we as a community wish to see it grow. We have had some major successes recently and hopefully we can announce in the coming months.
Rather it be a citizen, business, or developer we want to market our city and the history behind it, but we must have to necessary tools to do so. One major tool we created this past year was our Brand. To take on this task I created a committee of citizens consisting of many different backgrounds. We were not only able to create the brand, but we were able to create a story behind that brand. We all have our own story of Semmes, but we wanted to create a story that all backgrounds could agree on. And with the creation of the story of Semmes a new slogan was created “Make Life Beautiful”.
The Historic Value of our community plays a big part on how Semmes was created and how it molded Semmes in what it is today. We wanted to preserve just that. With the help of the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee, we were able to create a program through the Alabama Historic Commission for our historic plaques and markers program. We want our history showcased as we move our city forward. As of now we have been able to put a historic plaque on the 1902 Semmes School House and we look forward to placing plaques and markers on the Blackwell Estate and the Howell House in the near future.
A major part in my vision moving our city forward. I wanted to see Semmes have a Downtown, Central Hub for our community. A walkable area with connectivity to neighborhoods, retail, restaurants, and our Heritage Park. When creating the new City Hall, I noticed the property was oversized for just a City Hall. So, with the help of my staff, we have created a future vision for a downtown Semmes Area with the property we will not develop or use for our City Hall. Soon, we hope to work with developers to help us make this vision to come to life. We would like to attract these developers to do a long-term ground lease that would consist of little to no funding from the City of Semmes. This will still allow the City to continue to have a say so on what businesses will be in our Downtown area. But before this could happen, we had to have the proper steps in place. Now with the proper analysis, proper branding, zoning and our work with Retail Strategies we are now ready to seek and work with the right developers to make this vision happen.
In March of 2021, through the work of the Planning Commission and approval from the City Council, The City of Semmes passed it first ever Zoning Ordinance. The Planning Commission worked hard and tirelessly with SARPC in order to create a fair Zoning Ordinance for all our residents and businesses. The Zoning Ordinance was created not only for the protection of our property values but for the protection of our businesses. When I became Mayor, the first question a developer asked me was do you have zoning. That one question from a developer showed me the importance of zoning and what it meant in value to economic development. Businesses want to know they will be protected in value and their neighbors are in line with the same. Now it is my administration’s objective and goal to help inform the people of Semmes the importance of it and how it will only benefit them and their properties.
So, the one question everyone has on their mind, how are we paying for all this?
First let me say our finances are now and will continue to be in great shape. As a business owner I came in with a mindset to run the city as a business. Only difference is when it comes to operation that we are making money and spending money on the citizens of Semmes. With the help of our Finance Advisory Committee, For the first time in the 10 years since the city has been incorporated, we have put the city in debt. The City Council voted for us to enter into a Municipal Bond in the amount of $6.8 million dollars. The only good thing that came out of Covid is that money is cheap right now. We were able to get this municipal bond with a 1.8% interest rate with full intention on paying it off early. This Municipal Bond allows us to make an immediate impact on the areas I’ve covered. Public Safety, Infrastructure and Economic Development. We will pay off this municipal bond over the years and still put money away in our capital fund account.
I was elected as Mayor of Semmes to tackle these very areas I campaigned on. With more investments in these areas, the current rate of inflation, and no ad valorem tax, the City Council unanimously voted to increase our sales tax rate from 3% to 4%. Even with the tax increase, the City of Semmes still has the lowest sales tax rate in Mobile County, and we will continue to invest back into the community that has invested in us. Other than investments in infrastructure, public safety and economic development. This past budget we invested over $100,000 in several local nonprofit organizations in the Semmes Community including the Semmes Senior Center, Semmes Heritage Park, Head Start Center, Boys and Girls Club, Semmes Chamber of Commerce, and Mary G. Montgomery High School.
Under the direction of our Finance Director, Mary Calhoun and our finance department. I am happy to report that our 2020-2021 budgeted surplus was around $600,000 and we ended the year with a $1.5 million dollar surplus. Recently we approved the 2021-2022 budget and with just only 90 percent of our projected income, Semmes is budgeted to have almost $3 million dollars of surplus. This includes our Municipal Bond payment and all projects in the works already budgeted.
I would like to thank the Chamber of Commerce for hosting this event. I believe Transparency and communication is a must in creating successful term as Mayor. This year we have created more opportunities to get feedback from our citizens and our citizens to get information from the city as well. We have updated our website to allow the public to communicate their concerns with my administration. The process keeps them informed every step of the way. We also implemented a new City of Semmes App for your phones and/or tablets. Again, you can stay up to date with current events, get City information, and report concerns through the app. We also started a monthly virtual newsletter we send through email to keep our citizens informed. It is important we access every avenue of communication between the city and the people we work for.
Again, I couldn’t have done any of this without the help of my advisory committees, Staff members, The City Council and most important the support of my family and the support of people of Semmes. I truly am blessed to have my staff and their ability to help me achieve my goals. We had a great time putting our video together, I don’t think I have laughed so hard in a long time. In fact, I might have brought a few of the bloopers with me this morning, let’s check them out.
Thank you all for coming this morning and I look forward to the new direction that Semmes is going and as Mayor of our great city, I look forward in doing my part to make life beautiful right here in Semmes.
– Mayor Brandon Van Hook
To Contact Mayor Brandon Van Hook, please call City Hall at (251) 649-8811 to schedule an appointment during normal office hours. Inquiries will be answered upon returning to the office in order of priority.