Mayor Will Joyce addressed the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce Friday to deliver his annual “State of the City” address. He noted that last year’s speech was very different. People weren’t able to gather due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the event was held over Zoom.
Searching for a theme for what the City of Stillwater has been dealing with and how city officials have approached things over the past year, Joyce turned to a sports metaphor, saying this year has been a lot about playing defense and trying to figure out how to turn defense into offense.
It’s been a challenging time.
“This year it’s felt like 90% of our lives have dealt with things outside of our control, stuff that has happened to us that we’ve had to figure out how to deal with, that we’ve had to figure out how to defend ourselves against, whether it’s a pandemic or any number of other things that have come up over the course of the year,” he said. “And we’ve been playing a lot of defense. From a city perspective, from a personal perspective, from a business perspective, many of us in this room feel like we’ve been just trying to keep our heads above water for not just the last year but the last 18 months.”
But getting so used to playing defense that you forget how to play offense is a danger for us and a danger for the City, Joyce said. It’s important to do more than put out fires or react to situations.
Joyce lauded city staff for the defense they played during a variety of challenging circumstances, from a freak ice storm that damaged trees and structures and caused power outages affecting almost half of Stillwater’s electric customers. Picking up 3,000 tons of tree limbs while dealing with normal trash routes was another example of performing under pressure.
That was followed by two weeks of below-zero temperatures that caused water system issues and led to power shortages that caused rolling blackouts in the central U.S.
“This town, I think, was served extremely well by the staff of the City of Stillwater, by the staff of the Stillwater Utilities Authority, and by the people who were out there in freezing weather keeping your lights on and keeping your water on,” he said.
But city staff hasn’t just been working defensively, he said.
Electric utility and finance staff worked with GRDA, the city’s power supplier, to deal with a wholesale power bill that passed on more than $7 million in increased costs from February’s cold snap without passing the whole cost on to customers.
City staff found a way to take half the money from savings in the general fund to pay right away then spread the rest out over 36 months of bills that will increase by a few dollars per month for most customers, Joyce said.
He pointed to the completion of Stillwater’s Water 2040 program which increased water pressure and built more capacity for southwest Stillwater as progress. Planning for upgrades to the water treatment plant and Kaw water line improvements to prepare for the next 50 years of water utility issues in Stillwater is also underway.
“Even with all of the unprecedented issues that they’ve had to deal with in the last year, they have continued to move forward, continued to be innovative and to be proactive for our community,” Joyce said.
The Stillwater Police Department responded proactively to civil unrest and tensions around public safety and policing by expanding its community outreach program which helped to relaunch Stillwater’s Juneteenth celebration this summer. SPD has also started a Crisis Intervention Team which works with mental health professionals to respond to many of the calls police handle that seem to be mental health issues more than crime issues, he said.
Stillwater has a new fire chief, Terry Essary, and has added a new ladder truck, he said. Stillwater Regional Airport is also getting a new piece of fire fighting apparatus.
COVID continues to be the most pressing defensive challenge, Joyce said.
He recognized Stillwater Emergency Management Director Rob Hill for his assistance in dealing with emergency planning, community health and hospital issues over the course of the pandemic. He has been instrumental in gathering data and finding money.
“Emergency Management has basically been on for 18 months,” Joyce said.
The City of Stillwater has responded proactively by partnering with the Chamber to distribute $500,000 in grants for small businesses to offset costs from the pandemic, he said. It also partnered with Our Daily Bread to give out $150,000 in grants for residents struggling to pay rent, mortgages and utilities due to COVID. They have partnered again and are in the process of distributing another $500,000 in federal funding for rent and utilities.
Registrations are being taken by the Chamber and Visit Stillwater through Sept. 30 for “Sleeves Up Stillwater” a drawing to award up to 20 cash prizes of $5,000 to people who show proof of residency and vaccination against COVID-19. That program is funded with $50,000 from City CARES Act funds and $50,000 from Stillwater Medical.
Joyce recognized the City of Stillwater’s finance department for their work while dealing with uncertainty around finances during the pandemic. He credited Deputy City Manager Melissa Reames and Finance Director Christy Cluck for their “sound, conservative fiscal policies”
Sales and use tax receipts have not suffered during the pandemic, he said. In fact, the City of Stillwater had it’s highest year of collections in history with $32.6 million in fiscal year 2021.
Some of that has to do with federal aid and some has to do with people staying close to home for shopping.
Things are starting to move in terms of economic development, Joyce reported.
Several large housing development are under construction.
Four local development projects have been approved for funding through a Tax Increment Financing incentive district and are underway, including a Stonecloud Brewery taproom at 10th Avenue and Husband Street and the repurposing of Boomer Lake Station.
Two more projects are just over the horizon, he said.