Surplus revenue in the city topped $9.2 million to end Fiscal 2020, city leaders said this week.
Jasper Mayor David O’Mary and city clerk Kathy Chambless sat down with the Eagle earlier this week to discuss the financial success seen in the city over the past four years.
“I told people that if they’d elect me, I’d go to work for them,” said O’Mary, who was recently sworn in to begin his second term in office. “I think I’ve done that. And as long as I’m here, I’m going to work for the people.”
That work includes helping the city’s surplus revenue reach a level never seen before — currently sitting at $9,275,000.
In Fiscal 2016, the city’s surplus revenue sat at $1.4 million, Chambless said. In the four years since, that number has grown by $7.854 million.
Several things factor in to how that was achieved, but O’Mary is quick to give Chambless the lion’s share of credit for the financial success seen in the city.
“In 35 years, she’s seen about every variation of operation of this city that you can imagine,” he said.
O’Mary said the importance of having a substantial surplus revenue is critical to a city’s success. It plays a significant role in a city’s ability to attract new industry and retailers.
“There’s not a week goes by that Jasper doesn’t come on somebody’s radar,” O’Mary said. “(Surplus revenue) is a big contributor to that.”
O’Mary said in talking with mayors across the state, he’s learned that major industries and retailers closely look at a city’s financial standing
“Those retail and industrial prospects are not willing to come to your city and make substantial investments if you can’t run your city,” he said. “The fact that you run your city isn’t an automatic that you’ll get those businesses, but it is an automatic that they’re not coming if you can’t.”
“We stand proud with our financial statements and we think they demonstrate very clearly that we’re running our city right.” O’Mary said.
“What really puts this in perspective is that this city was founded in 1887. Four years ago, we had $1.4 million in reserve, and that’s the net accumulation of over 100 years,” O’Mary added. “Four years later, we’re at $9.2 million. Had we not spent $1 million-plus on capital projects — and we’re pleased that we did because it was things we needed to do — our reserves would be more than $10 million.”
Chambless said having financial reserves allows the city to move forward with many projects that require matching funds. That’s projects that wouldn’t be possible without the financial matches.
“If you don’t have those reserves, you can’t come up with the thousands of dollars it takes in matching funds,” Chambless said. “Without those matching funds, those projects don’t happen.”
The financial reserves have also allowed city employees to receive six pay raises in the past four years, O’Mary said. “Never before has that happened,” he said.
And that factors in to having city employees who take pride in their work.
“It’s had a tremendous impact on morale in this city,” he said. “We have 200 employees — and you won’t have all 200 happy — but I’d say 98 percent are happy.”
The big question is, how was it all possible?
“We’re not magicians. Expense management was a big part of it,” O’Mary said. “We’ve seen our economy grow. What you can’t quantify is this: had we done nothing, how much would our economy have grown? I’d argue day long that the better we do, the better our local economy is going to do.”
Chambless said the sales tax growth rate in July, August and September growth rate was almost 10 percent. “I’ve never seen that,” she said.
O’Mary said the state recommends municipalities hold no less than 10 percent of their annual receipts in reserve. Jasper’s annual receipts are near $26 million, he said.
“That means we’d need $2.6 million in reserve to satisfy the state recommendation,” he said. “Today, our reserves are at 3.5 times that.”
Four years ago, the city had six percent in reserves. “That’s a 40 percent deficiency,” O’Mary said.
“And I didn’t think we’d ever get to the 10 percent,” Chambless added.
Not a lot of city’s comparable in size to Jasper can claim reserves topping $9 million, O’Mary said.
“There’s not a lot of cities bigger than Jasper that can say that,” he said. “If you go to Huntsville, they’ll have a bigger number, but relative to what their annual receipts are, their multiples won’t be any better than Jasper’s are. Ours are about as good as you’ll find.”
Chambless said a representative of the Alabama League of Municipalities recently asked how Jasper was able to manage its financial success.
“They asked ’How are you able to manage this growth?’” Chambless said.
The city’s financial success is even more impressive considering the downturn in the economy caused by closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We saw a little dip, but really not that great of one in April and May,” Chambless said, “but when business opened up, we began to see a tremendous growth.”
And what does all this mean going forward?
“I think it greatly enhances the likelihood that we can grow from a retail and industrial perspective,” O’Mary said. “It will allow us to take advantage of opportunities that are unknown right now. You never really know what’s going to come on the table.
“It really allows us to weather whatever storm may come our way,” he added. “If we don’t have anything come up that’s beyond our control, I’m optimistic that we’ll continue to see improvement in the city.”
Success breeds success, he added.
“We need to be good stewards of this money because it didn’t fall out of the sky for us,” he said. “We never want to slip back to where we’ve been, because it’s not easy to get where we are.”
O’Mary also credits the city’s workforce with playing a big role in the success seen lately.
“They’ve bought in to what we’re doing,” he said. “I’ve always told them if they buy in, it’ll mean something to you. And it has meant something to them.”
An example is the streets department, where new equipment has made work easier, O’Mary said. “Four years ago we didn’t have enough equipment to do many projects.”
“What we’ve done is average an almost $2 million growth in reserves each year, and that’s something I’m extremely pleased about,” O’Mary said.
“It makes it easy to come to work knowing that we’re going to be able to pay any bill that comes through here and it not be an issue,” Chambless said.