May 26—McAlester Mayor John Browne used the lyrics of a couple of iconic songs to bookend his State of the City Address.
"Listen to the first two lines as if it's The Beatles singing it and not me saying it," Browne said. He began his message with the first two lines of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" from The Beatles "Abbey Road" album to signify the state of the city as the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems it brought have shown signs of easing.
"I feel the ice is slowly melting...it seems like years since its been clear."
"This Beatles song pretty well sums up the state of our city through this most unusual past year," Browne said as he delivered his address before the McAlester City Council on Tuesday night at City Hall.
"We've battled through a year that saw the entire world suffer from a pandemic such as hasn't been experienced since the Spanish Flu of the early 1900s," Browne said. "We lost one of our own with the passing of Vice-Mayor James Brown due to this pandemic. In addition to the immediate hardships created by COVID-19 we were affected tangentially from it as well.
"Spirit Aeronautics announced they would be closing their plant, in part, due to decreased airline travel from COVID- 9 and also the Boeing 737 fiasco,"Browne continued. "We also lost, not COVID 19-related, National Oilwell, largely due to a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia over oil."
While the U.S. produces a lot of oil it is more expensive to produce in America, the mayor said.
"During this price war oil prices fell briefly into the negative, essentially paying to take it off their hands. As can be expected with prices at historic lows it was being bought up quickly. This led to a storage glut. A large part of National Oilwell's business is building rigs and all the things that go with them. As you can imagine with the price so cheap and storage facilities full no one was putting rigs on the ground. In short between the pandemic and international battles, of which we had no control over, it was a difficult year."
The city's response to the pandemic was to take a prudent approach to budgeting, Browne said.
"Many employees were furloughed; the city continued to pay the insurance for these employees and they were eligible for unemployment benefits. While this was a very difficult time for the employees, the city ultimately brought nearly all back as our economic outlook stabilized. Our employees are an amazing group of people that take great pride in our city and put forth above and beyond effort to keep our city running. I know I speak for the entire council by saying thank you for all you do."
On a brighter note, the city rebounded very well, the mayor said.
"Our sales tax collections and budget are comparable to pre-pandemic returns. The Shops at McAlester is moving right along and is looking at a February 2022 opening," Browne said of the highway retail center planned near the intersection of Fourteenth Street and U.S. Highway 69, also known as the George Nigh Expressway in McAlester.
Browne also addressed the ongoing construction on the highway.
"The bypass construction, while driving everyone crazy, is progressing. When completed, the bypass will be safer and easier to navigate from both the highway and from within the city."
Browne said the city is beginning to get back to normalcy.
"Organizations are starting to put events on downtown; some new restaurants are preparing to open on the bypass, and there is a sense of coming out of a pandemic hibernation and once again becoming a community.
"All things considered, the state of the city is we are in recovery mode from one of the most remarkable times in our history. We are moving forward."
Browne said some things not readily visible, such as improvements to the city's water treatment plant, with more than $1 million in repairs and upkeep, made by using the city's storm water fee, which despite an historic rainfall event kept many places from flooding.
He also referred to equipping the city's police officers with new cars and body cameras; plans to purchase a new fire engine, and purchase of a new Grade-All, or heavy equipment. "This, along with many other smaller improvements, puts our city back on track to continue to face the upcoming year with professionalism and determination to use our resources for the best outcome," the mayor said.
"This next year we will be working to put together a plan to address our ancient water infrastructure," Browne said.
"We have some pipes in the ground that have been there for approximately 100 years. Our water plant produces good water and our water towers are kept up-to-date with a maintenance contract; our problems lie in the fact that what leaves the plant and what arrives in the towers runs through very old pipes. We will be proposing a plan to spend approximately $ 30 million to make major improvements to our transmission lines. In addition to helping with water quality, this will also address some of the major water breaks we have had over the last few years. As with anything, this will take significant money which will have to be approved by the voters.
"In closing, we are coming back from one of the most unusual, unpredictable years imaginable but we have a tremendous number of people that believe in McAlester and work to see our city succeed. Together we will continue to work to make improvements that will add to our city."
Browne closed with a couple of lines paraphrased from the classic Frank Sinatra song, "New York, New York."
"To steal from an old song, These pandemic blues, they are melting away," said Browne. "We'll make a brand new start of it — in old McAlester."
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.