July 8, 2008

Long-range view says immigration will impact city

By ASHLEY TOMPKINS - Tribune City Editor
Tuesday, July 8, 2008 11:19 AM CDT

Immigration reform is a top concern City of Mount Pleasant leaders are taking into consideration during ongoing planning sessions when it comes to its 2008-2009 fiscal budget.

The issue was identified as the top national social change that could impact the city in the next five to 10 years.

In the past, city budget workshops and department sessions have focused on numbers in how much was needed to purchase a new vehicle, or to cover gas purchases in a department over a year's time n but this year, Mount Pleasant City Manager Courtney Sharp chose to change things up.

He asked department heads to concentrate more on the big picture the city could face in five to 10 years.

Among his questions was what national social changes could press or impact Mount Pleasant's future the most?

Immigration reform stood out as the top issue.

"The workshop was meant to look at the overall picture. This month, we're just now starting to get into the numbers of the budget," Sharp said. He's begun meeting with department heads, figuring out ways to help work issues identified in the workshop into the actual budget.

Among those ideas is the need to sit down with area businesses and educate administrators on what tools are available when it comes to hiring immigrants.

"Businesses aren't going to sit down and say they are purposefully hiring illegal immigrants, but there are things they can do," pointed out Mount Pleasant Police Chief Jay Burch. "We have to send them this message when were taking reports of identity theft and that sort of thing."

He said business owners have to understand that when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents come to raid businesses in the city, searching for illegal immigrants, it could possibly hurt their business.

Mayor Jerry Boatner suggested more employers turn to the E-Verify program, an online system operated by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration that allows participating employers to check the work status of new hires online by comparing information from an employee's I-9 form against Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security databases.

"Without a doubt, we need workers, but they need to be legitimate workers," Boatner said. Councilman Gene Erwin added it is also important to reach out to the Hispanic community and make it more inclusive.

Sharp said the city hasn't decided how exactly to allocate budget funds to prepare for immigration reform; perhaps one way is by adding officers to the Mount Pleasant Police Department.

As Burch pointed out, there are laws on the table now - which have not been passed - that would require local law enforcement to get involved in verifying immigrants' legal status.

"I hate to say this, but if that passes, that's going to double the size of the police department and the citizens and the taxpayers are going to take the hit on that," Burch said. "There's not enough people working now to do anything like that."

It was also suggested the city's library could expand more services to Spanish-speaking clients and perhaps offer language classes.

Other trends most likely to impact the city in coming years are energy and crime and drugs.

As gas prices continue to increase across the nation, state and Mount Pleasant, they affect retail sales in the community, the cost to industries that are paying to ship their products, and the cost of labor coming into town.

Sharp has said the city is on budget when it comes to its own use of gas for the city's fleet, but did note the staff will have to look at increasing the line item or possibly looking at purchasing some hybrid vehicles if prices continue to escalate.

One important goal, many agreed, is to ensure Mount Pleasant stays in the regulated market when it comes to electric service.

The city, along with the rest of East Texas, enjoys some of the lowest electric rates in the state thanks to being regulated. If service were opened to retail competition, by way of deregulation, rates would increase.

There's also a concern of natural and commercial resources as well as inflation impacting families at the gas pump and at the grocery store.

Mount Pleasant enjoys a low crime rate, Burch, said, but the issue is still in the back of people's minds when they're relocating a family or business to the area.

"Those of us who live here, it's a quality of life issue. Unfortunately, it's something that is never going to go away, but hopefully, we can always a lid on it," he said.

Sharp said it's important to look at the big picture when preparing a budget.

The workshop didn't focus just on social change.

City leaders also identified strengths for the community as well, areas that Sharp said it's important to focus.

The city's industrial base and primary employment was listed as the top strength, with several saying it was a "no brainer" and the industry is the city's "bread and butter."

Charlie Smith, executive director of the Mount Pleasant Industrial Foundation, said it's important to protect and enhance the industrial base. Other city strengths included low crime rate, the quality of schools, the airport and community leadership.

There's been no public discussion on the city's overall budget amount or what tax rate might be proposed. City staff will spend July hammering out the budget's details and getting elbow-deep in numbers before it presents the budget to the council next month.

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Should the Texas State Legislature pass immigration enforcement laws in 2009?