January 24, 2013

Columbia Mayor Benjamin proposes firefighter raises, lists deeds and dreams

In his annual State of the City address Wednesday, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin paraded a seemingly endless stream of accomplishments in his first three years in office and laced them with future plans and visions for this election year.

“The state of our city is strong, and we’re proud of it!” exclaimed the first-term major during his 40-minute speech to an audience of some 400 at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

Benjamin said he has asked city manager Teresa Wilson to give the city’s 440 or so firefighters a 6.67 percent raise – an increase he called long overdue, saying firefighters are severely underpaid.

Although the State of the City is an annual affair, Benjamin’s speech was sure to be regarded by some as the opening salvo in his campaign to win re-election when voters go to the polls in November.

“The answer’s ‘Yes, I’m running,’” laughed an exuberant Benjamin, 43, after the speech.

As for listing accomplishments, Benjamin said, “Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of how much we’ve done together. Everyone’s stepping up to do things that aren’t easy but necessary. It’s important to highlight successes and at the same time, lay out a bold future.”

Benjamin’s speech, before a friendly audience largely made up of neighborhood leaders, city employees and government and business professionals who interact with the city, drew applause some 17 times.

Topics receiving the most applause included his mention of a successful city-supported ice skating rink downtown this winter, the revival of Main Street after utility giant SCANA pulled out three years ago, the City Roots urban farm, city-sponsored community gardens, lowering the number of homicides and sexual assaults, and the recent adoption of “Petey” the dog that marked the beginning of a program to euthanize fewer strays.

Most items in his speech were ones most people would agree on – steps the city has taken to protect and celebrate its history and make it safe, liveable and vibrant – attractive to people and businesses in numerous ways.

“Thirty months after taking office, we have 22 new businesses on Main Street, and Main Street is thriving,” he told the audience.

However, on a topic that could become a campaign issue, Benjamin heaped praise on Teresa Wilson, the 38-year-old relatively untested city manager whom he helped catapult to a $190,000 job as the city’s top manager, giving her a $70,000 raise in the process. Wilson has no finance background, no background in managing in other cities and has only been an assistant city manager and government affairs director in Columbia for 5 years and 11 months.

Nonetheless, Benjamin spoke glowingly of her, saying she has “impeccable qualifications ... and an uncommon talent for inspiring those around her to think creatively and achieve beyond themselves.”

Most observations on Benjamin’s speech were positive, such as that of council member Leona Plaugh, who said, “I thought it was inspiring.”

Council member Moe Baddourah, an occasional critic, avoided any criticism. “It’s the mayor’s day – let him have his day. He’s got the best interests of the city in mind.”

Richland 1 school board at-large member Susie Dibble noted that Benjamin listed numerous outstanding facets of city and Midlands life that made Columbia an attractive place to live and work. But she said she wished Benjamin had included examples of the city’s high-achieving public schools and their programs.

“Schools are such a natural part of what brings people here to live and work,” Dibble said. “A vibrant community has to have vibrant schools, and that’s directly tied into how economically attractive our city is.” She mentioned programs such as the International Baccalaureate at A.C. Flora High School and the single-gender program at Hand Middle School.

In his speech, Benjamin had mentioned education, but in a general sense, as well as speaking – in some of his more emotional tones of the evening – about the need to prepare children for the future.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are in a war for our children’s souls, for their future, and if we don’t engage them and challenge them, ... then we’re going to lose them,” Benjamin said.

A “new spirit of volunteerism” is needed in Columbia, with programs in which adults work with children, said Benjamin, introducing a 17-year-old youth named Paxton, a junior at Lower Richland High School, to the crowd and saying that he would be Paxton’s Big Brother and mentor.

Later, Benjamin said he didn’t mean to slight public schools but, “The reality is it’s not just schools that educate kids. The reality is that so many of our children are dealing with issues outside of school, and it’s our job as a community to look after them outside of school and make sure they don’t have to worry about safety and security and shelter and food.”

Other key Benjamin goals, some of which he elaborated on after his speech:

• Bringing a professional baseball team to Columbia in a private-public partnership is a high priority. A new stadium would possibly go in the Bull Street area.
• Putting more than 200 surveillance cameras – now common in entertainment districts – at major gateways into neighborhoods such as Shandon, Rosewood, Eau Claire, Hyatt Park and MLK-Lower Waverly to deter crime.
• Completing the Three Rivers Greenway from Gervais Street to USC’s baseball stadium.

Besides Dibble, among the crowd were University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides – accompanied by student body president Kenny Tracy – Fort Jackson commanding officer Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts, Historic Columbia Foundation executive director Robin Waites, Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce CEO Ike McLeese, EdVenture children’s museum CEO Catherine Horne, Richland County council member Jim Manning, state Rep. Mia McLeod, 5th Circuit Deputy Solicitor Dan Goldberg, River Alliance CEO Mike Dawson, environmental lawyer Bob Guild and Sistercare executive director Nancy Barton.

Benjamin also gave a key to the city to former city manager Steve Gantt, who retired earlier this month but is staying on as a consultant.

For the first time, this year’s speech featured a live sign-language interpreter. The Allen University Jazz Ensemble provided entertainment prior to the address.

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