Public safety remains firmly at the forefront of the conversation for leaders around Tuscaloosa County, top officials said Wednesday at the annual State of the Community panel.

The event is organized each year by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama and features the heads of the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport as well as the probate judge, who leads the county government.

The panel is hosted by a Chamber leader each year, and usually leads to candid conversation about how things stand in each community.

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, Northport City Administrator Glenda Webb and Judge Rob Robertson were on stage this year for a session moderated by Michele Coley, the chairwoman of the Chamber's Board of Directors this year.

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(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

The lunch discussion packed out the Bryant Conference Center Wednesday with hundreds of business leaders, other elected officials, nonprofit organizations and more.

Unsurprisingly, Maddox, Robertson and Webb all agreed that public safety remains the top priority of their respective governments.

Robertson talked in psychological terms about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, that right after they are fed and sheltered, residents of any community want to feel safe.

"Nothing else matters in a community if it's not safe, or the perception is that it's not safe," Robertson said.

Maddox needed to point no further than the city's resource allocation, as Tuscaloosa has recently OK'd a new, higher pay plan for police and firefighters, signing bonuses and multiple retention bonuses, created a new vehicle take-home policy, and committed to the extremely expensive switch to Retirement Systems of Alabama benefits for police and firefighters by 2026.

Between TPD and TFR, public safety expenses now account for more than 40 percent of the city's entire budget, Maddox said.

"We are making those investments because you deserve to be safe. You deserve to be safe in your home, you deserve to be safe in your business and that is going to be our first priority in the city of Tuscaloosa," Maddox said. "We're going to continue to do a lot with Elevate, we're going to do a lot with water and sewer, we're going to do a lot with our normal general fund services, but the thing in front of our city council today is making sure we have an environment that is safe for every single one of you."

Maddox noted that data shows crime is down in both the short term and the long term, but news coverage and social media may lead to a perception that the area is becoming less safe.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

The leaders also discussed State Senator Gerald Allen's proposal earlier this year to merge their three governments into one metro municipality. While none of the three leaders were willing to dismiss the idea outright, none seemed eager to endorse it.

"People in Samantha and Duncanville have different needs than people who live in Alberta or Forest Lake," Maddox said. "It's going to be impossible to bridge that rural-urban divide."

Webb, Maddox and Robertson pointed to areas where the governments already collaborate - the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit, the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force Unit, the Tuscaloosa County Road Improvement Commission, water and sewer services and much, much more.

"Collaboration is already there, and can it be refined? Absolutely," Webb said. "But know that we try to address community issues together rather than separately. We do have our individual issues, but most of them are the same."

After all, Robertson noted that any community or municipality that operates outside of the "default" county government became incorporated by a vote of its people, who wanted to embrace the risks and the benefits of independent governance.

Down the road, a major unification of incorporated areas - like a merger of Northport and Tuscaloosa - might merit discussion, Maddox said, but a long way down the road. Even then, just trying to figure out what to do with the school systems at play would be a logistics nightmare, he added.

On more miscellaneous fronts, Robertson touted the county's progress on several new facilities, as his government works to tear down and rebuild the county jail, bring online a new sheriff's office operations center and build up a mental health crisis center.

Webb talked about all the recreational projects underway in Northport and said steady progress is being made to plan and build their new sports complex by the Black Warrior River, the new waterpark on McFarland Boulevard and an outdoor adventure park off Rose Boulevard - although Webb said the city is committed to opening those facilities "no later than May 2025" although certain elements of all three will come online sooner than that.

Council president Jeff Hogg had previously said the water park would be open a year earlier, in May 2024.

"Just stand back and watch for news, announcements and invitations to join us," Webb said.

Maddox said he remains optimistic that the coming years will be some of the most exciting in Tuscaloosa's recent history.

"This community is moving in exciting ways, I hope we can all enjoy this journey together and we're doing it because Tuscaloosa doesn't know how to fail," Maddox said.

This year's State of the Community was presented by TTL, Inc. and hosted by the University of Alabama at the Bryant Conference Center.

For more coverage of all three governments and the communities they oversee, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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