Good afternoon everyone. Thank you Mike for that introduction and thank you to Judge McClure for organizing this event. It is truly my pleasure and honor to address you today. I always look forward to giving a State of the City address. With so many projects moving forward and in various stages of development and completion, it is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the status our community. It’s a moment to take stock in our achievements, evaluate outstanding challenges, and cast a vision for the future.
This year, I have been thinking quite a bit about the future. On January 29th at 7:22pm, I began a new, and most likely the most challenging and rewarding adventure of my life. My wife, Abby gave birth to our son Mason. 10lbs 4 oz, 22 ½ inches, mom and baby are doing great. When I was holding Mason in my arms at the hospital, my thoughts would drift toward thinking about the community he will grow up in. How will his Lebanon be the same and different as ours today and how as community leaders do we continue making our community stronger every single day?
While I know it’s not the most thrilling part of my speech, I believe it is important that everyone understands the current financial status of the City. All great cities must be built on a strong financial base. Last year, I said that our City was on the strongest financial footing ever. This year, we are even stronger. Our cash reserves continue to grow. With strong cooperation with the City Council, we continue to craft balanced budgets that make investments in our community while still living within our means. I am pleased to announce that your City property tax rate will be decreasing in 2020. This will be the lowest City property tax rate since 2012. We accomplished this with vigilant oversight and smart financial management.
As equally important as a strong financial base, we must continue to address the physical foundation of our City, our infrastructure. The roads, bridges, sidewalks, wastewater lines and especially our water lines that every citizen and visitor to Lebanon expect to work. Despite it’s integral role in our daily existence, it is far too easy to overlook. People turn on a faucet and water comes out. They run the washing machine and give very little thought to the millions of dollars of underground pipes that are necessary to make this simple action possible. Unfortunately, we have seen too many examples around America of communities that have ignored their water and wastewater systems. As Mayor, I can promise you this is not something that is being overlooked. Lebanon Utilities continues to work hand in hand with the City to improve and replace the oldest and most challenging sections of our system. Whenever a large project is undertaken, we are sure to replace all the pipes under the ground as well as the visible road and sidewalks. In Mason’s future, I hope that he will never have to worry about the safety of his water.
Speaking of roads and sidewalks, 2020 will be a banner year for road resurfacing here in Lebanon. With the help of more than $800,000 from the State of Indiana as part of the Community Crossings Matching Grant Program, we will be investing nearly 2 million dollars into our road network. We will continue following the policy of replacing the worst roads first. This also includes installing ADA compliant sidewalk ramps making it easier for those with mobility challenges to get around their neighborhood. The 2019 sidewalk replacement program was the most popular it has ever been. The program went so well the City Council approved to fund a 50% increase mid-year. The funds were completely used by homeowners to “jump the line” and invest a portion of their own money replace their sidewalk. In 2020 this program will continue with the higher level of investment from the City. Homeowners see the value of a good sidewalk and are willing to invest alongside the City to make their block and neighborhood better. In 2020, the City has reached the highest level of investment in sidewalks ever. For the first time we have $250,000 budgeted designated for sidewalk installation and replacement. These funds will help fill in the gaps in our network and connect neighborhoods.
I read a fascinating statistic the other day. In 1969, 50% of school children walked to school. Today, that number is less than 15%. When I posed this same question locally, only 8% responded that their children or grandchildren walk to school. I don’t believe this number is a good reflection of our society nor is set in stone. I believe we can improve this number by making our streets safer and improving our sidewalks and trails. Over the next year, you will continue to see adjustments to our road network to make the design safer for pedestrians.
As part of the goal for improving our overall pedestrian and bicycle network, last year the City submitted an application to the Next Level Trails Grant Program. Our proposal would extend the Big 4 trail from Downtown south to and through Abner Longley Park connecting with the trail network along Hendricks drive near Stokes Elementary as well as replacing all the gravel with an asphalt trail between Lebanon and Thorntown. When complete, the Big 4 will serve as the backbone of our City’s trail network. We have already begun discussions of spurs and other connecting loops that will unite our entire community. We hope to hear back on the status of our proposal from the State soon. They said they would announce the winners in “Early 2020” so we believe an announcement is eminent. I can envision a day in the not so distant future where someone could travel all the way from Zionsville to Thorntown or even Lafayette on a dedicated trail. We are always looking for ways to improve connections between our neighborhoods, parks, and downtown. Trails improve property values and can serve as a catalyst for economic development.
Some of you may be asking, why is Mayor Gentry so focused on these trails? I don’t ride a bike, why is this important to me? How many of you have children or grandchildren? When they grow older do you hope they pack their bags and move halfway across the country; or do you hope they choose to stay close to home? I believe that by investing in our trails and quality of life, we will be more likely to retain and attract youth to our community. Since the late 1970’s the number of 19 year olds opting out of earning a driver’s license has tripled from 8 to 23%. Walkability is key for attracting and retaining younger generations. 64% of college-educated Millennials choose first where they want to live and then look for a job. If we want Lebanon to continue to be an attractive place for people of my generation to raise a family, improving sidewalks and trails must be a priority. I hope that in Mason’s future Lebanon, he will be able to easily and safely walk or ride his bike to school, the park, and his friends’ houses.
From an economic development perspective, Lebanon continues to be as strong as ever. We are beginning to see great companies open their doors. Ken’s Foods is fully operational, DS Smith recently held their grand opening, and MonoSol has already begun production and will have their grand opening ceremony in the spring. Companies like this provide great jobs and opportunities that would not exist without them. I recently saw a post from a friend. I don’t think I can say this better than he can:
“As some of you may know I took a new job the first of October. Working in a factory is something I swore I would never do but the opportunity arose and I thought it was what was best for myself. I obtained an operator bid and a lot of training and work came along with that. I am very pleased to say as of today, I am an official casting operator for MonoSol. To any of my friends and or family that are looking for a great job, with excellent benefits and an even better company keep an eye on their website for openings.”
Seeing our citizens improving themselves and loving their new job is some the highest praise a local company can get. I am very proud that these companies are part of our community fabric. Their impact will continue to grow. From an economic development perspective our greatest challenge is our workforce, not that our workforce isn’t skilled or talented but that it isn’t large enough. Our December 2019 2.1% unemployment rate is the lowest is has been two decades. Improving the quality of life and local transportation options are key initiatives that will help us keep our local economy humming. Having world-class companies providing great jobs is another way to ensure our children and grandchildren will stay or return to Lebanon to raise their families.
Quality of life amenities like parks and a thriving downtown are critical but they are pointless if a community is not safe. Over the last four years, we have added additional Police Officers and a Crime Scene Investigator to accomplish the goal of making those that would break the law, uncomfortable in Lebanon. The efforts of Chief Morgan and his team are working; we are seeing lower crime rates in key categories. Our men and women in uniform are working hard every day to disrupt the black market of illegal drugs. Unfortunately, this is an unending task but we are making progress and working to keep our community safe. I am also extremely proud of that the a partnership between the City the Lebanon School Corporation, continues ensuring that there is a School Resource Officer in every Lebanon School keeping our most vulnerable citizens safe. The partnership between the City and LCSC has my fully support and believe that it should continue for many years to come. For 2020, I am announcing a new crime fighting initiative. We all know that evil thrives in dark places. In a partnership with the Lebanon Utilities, I am proposing that we “light the night” by doubling the number of streetlights in Lebanon. This increased street lighting will make it easier for our finest to prevent and fight crime.
We continue to add additional firefighters to our Fire Department. This addition increases the minimum staffing on an apparatus, which improves the response and capabilities of our department. I believe that Chief Batts and his team are some of the best Fire Administrators in the State. They are always working to improve our fire service every day. They put the safety of Lebanon’s citizens first. They don’t care about getting the credit or publicity and lead by example. That is exactly what you want from public safety professionals.
As you look around our City, you can see first hand that our Planning Department is extremely busy these days. It seems that everywhere you look shovels are in the ground. New businesses, restaurants, and importantly new residents are coming to Lebanon. In 2019, we issued 78 new home permits. This is a 229% increase from where we where three years. The growth that has been expected to come to Lebanon for a generation is beginning to happen. This growth will bring more restaurants, amenities, and opportunities. My goal is to ensure that we grow but at a responsible and sustainable rate. You may have heard of the term “NIMBY”. It stands for “Not in my backyard”. As our community changes, I challenge everyone to reject knee-jerk Nimby-ism. Come out from behind the computer screen and be part of the process. Engage with your neighbors serving on the Planning Commission and the professionals working in our Planning Department. Your concerns will not fall on deaf ears. I can’t say that you will get what you want but we are willing to have the discussion and be upfront and honest. I understand that some residents do not want Lebanon to change. I would contend that Lebanon has always been changing; maybe it just hasn’t been as noticeable. A community cannot be frozen in a time. It must reflect the people that live there. Every generation impacts a community as it adapts to fit their time. Change is the only constant.
As Mayor, I have always focused on putting people first. I want Lebanon to be a welcoming and vibrant community for people of all walks of life. There will always be challenges to face and problems to solve, but I am grateful for the confidence this community has placed in me to continue working on your behalf. I have always tired to look toward the future and ensure Lebanon is a place that my children will want to grow up and raise their own family. Mason joining my family has focused my passion. I know that I will not please everyone, but at the end of the day I am always working to put Lebanon first. Our Lebanon has a bright future ahead of it and I hope you are excited to be part of it. Thank you again for inviting me here today.