Barker: Customer service, sustainability key factors for Hattiesburg

Barker: Customer service, sustainability key factors for Hattiesburg
Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker discusses transition and factors for improving city

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker is spending his second week in office building his team.  Barker said the mayor can't run the city alone, so the first step is to work with City Council and put together the best leaders for the Hub City.

"I think when you look at Hattiesburg, everyone knows how much potential we have," Barker said.  "With two universities, two major medical centers, people who care about our city,  talented and creative people. We have a lot going for us."

At 35-years-old, Barker takes over the top position in Hattiesburg after the city was led by former mayor Johnny Dupree for 16 years.  The transition, what Barker says has been very smooth, started on election night.

"He (Dupree) was incredibly gracious with his phone call.  He wished me luck, he congratulated me and since then, we have had at least two meetings where we sat down for a considerable length of time," Barker said.  "I'm very grateful for the professionalism he showed not only during that time, but for his entire 16 years as the Hattiesburg Mayor."

A change in leadership at City Hall could also mean a change in leadership for many city departments.  Right now, all director positions for city departments, like Police, Fire and Public Works, are posted online for applications.  All current administration are allowed to apply.

"Our city employees have tremendous power to help someone have a good day or a bad day, they influence the impressions of our city," Barker said.  "They can make people feel really good or really bad about choosing to live here."

For Mayor Barker, customer service is key for improving the city.

"I think everyone realizes your street is not going to be paved overnight,  all those aging water lines will not be replaced," Barker said.  "But, they want a responsive city."

The response is more of a responsibility for local governments.  Barker says those responsibilities are public safety and quality of infrastructure.

There has been much debate over the quality of Hattiesburg's roads and how to fix that in the past years.  Barker said the answer will mean putting more money from the budget to infrastructure, while scaling back in other areas.

"Let me tell you this, I walked the campaign, I know where we need to start," Barker said.  "How do we make sure we are putting more of the pot of money that is already there into infrastructure and how do we be innovative with what we have, so that's what we'll be looking to do."

Barker said he can't stress enough how important it is to talk to residents to see what all neighborhoods need.

"We can depend on engineers and consultants to tell us what projects need to happen, but if we are not listening to the people, people are going to get overlooked," Barker said.

A major campaign promise for Barker was fixing the brown water issue some Hattiesburg neighborhoods have experienced.

"In 2017, you really shouldn't have to worry about the quality in your water," Barker said.  "It's a quality of life issue. It makes us less competitive of a city if you can't count on the quality and good water, used in everyday activity."

On the topic of finances, Barker says residents have "been hit pretty hard" already, so talk of a new sales tax does not seem likely.  According to the city's 2017 Fiscal Budget,  the final budget approve for the next fiscal year, beginning October 1, 2017, is $52,495,748.  The estimated total for the current fiscal year, ending on September 30, 2017, is listed as $54,638,683.

In June, WDAM 7 reported Hattiesburg lost its debt rating, which could mean the ability to borrow and repay money is thrown into question.  When asked about concern over finances,  Mayor Barker released this statement:

"We are evaluating all of our accounting, budgeting and audit processes so that we can establish a better foundation, fiscally. As a part of that, I have added Connie Everett to my administrative team as interim chief financial officer. As a former CFO for the city, she has both the institutional knowledge and ability to help us regain our financial footing."

When it comes to building the Hub City and it's tourism, Barker said he is sure his wife always "gets a little frustrated" when they are on vacation, because he's always taking notes and pictures of light poles to see what he can bring back to Hattiesburg.  Barker says he'd like to use tools from cities like Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana.

With census data showing a declining millennial population in Mississippi, Barker says those cities have done a good job at bringing young talent and keeping them there.

"For our sustainability and the sustainability of the neighborhoods, we need to be trying to connect these new graduates, those who want to stay here, with these new job opportunities," Barker said.  "So they don't just know about their career field, but also about life, like when is the right time to buy a house? Retaining that young talent."

Mayor Barker says he is working with his administration to host Town Hall Meetings.  He says they are currently in the process of scheduling the meetings in neighborhoods in Hattiesburg, with hopes that they begin by the first few weeks of August.

"No matter what day of the week, there is always something to do in Hattiesburg," Barker said.  "No matter where you go, you are always going to meet someone new. Whether you have lived here for 40 years or four weeks, you are accepted here."