Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks has a lot on his plate, but that’s not that unusual.
In his first term as leader of the largest municipality in the county, he’s witnessed the effect of Mother Nature’s fury while trying to stay on top of the day-to-day number crunching and long-term planning. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also the ultimate supervisor of a staff of about 300 city employees.
A former city councilman and city council president, Marks took over for former Mayor Dan Williams when Williams was elected to serve as a state representative. After 14 months on the job, he plans to seek re-election in August.
“We’re going to run for another term,” he said. “We’re having fun.”
In looking back at 2011, Marks said the issue that sticks out most in his mind is the city’s response to the devastating April 27 tornadoes. He was in a dentist’s chair at 11:30 a.m. that morning as a wall cloud moved over the city but did not spawn a tornado.
“I was just sitting there and things just got really dark,” he said, still grateful the city did not receive a direct strike.
Southern and eastern Limestone County weren’t so lucky. Four people were killed, subdivisions were destroyed and power was knocked out to most of the county. Marks said he was proud of the city’s emergency response to those outside the city limits.
“We can always talk about buildings and those things, but when people are hurting and the community is hurting, you have to take care of those folks,” he said. “I would say we pulled together our relief efforts quicker than any other community in the state.”
He recently attending a meeting where he learned more about the devastating impact on towns across the state, including Phil Campbell and Cordova, both of which were destroyed by the tornadoes.
“Cordova lost everything; they don’t even have a grocery store,” he said. “Thank God that tornado missed us.
The recent retirements of Police Chief Wayne Harper and Fire Chief Danny Southard left holes in two of the city’s most important positions.
On Monday, the city made the decision to hire Capt. Floyd Johnson as chief. The City Council elected not to open up the position to external applicants.
“We had talked before about our goals and I think he’ll do a really good job,” Marks said.
The City Council also voted Monday to revamp the qualifications for fire chief to include new requirements like knowledge of budgets and a college degree.
Marks said the council members will likely opt to advertise the positions internally and externally, but the decision will be ultimately up to them.
A new library
The building of a new public library has been an issue of importance to the City Council since Marks was a councilman. The idea to build out the old Kroger building on South Jefferson Street was first brought to the council by the late Harvey Craig, who worked to bring the project to fruitition.
Marks said it would be one of the biggest joint projects this year, as it features involvement from the city, county and library board and library foundation. He said there is about $1.5 million in a capital account and fundraising continues to be successful.
“I think we’ll see some work done there in 30 to 45 days,” he said, adding that a construction manager contract is being finalized. A construction manager has not yet been named, however.
A contract with CMH Architects is “on the table,” he said, and being reviewed by a city attorney.
“When we get both of those (contracts) finalized and sort out the scope of work, we’ll be ready to start work,” Marks said.
A new City Hall is another project that should see construction begin this year. The interior of the old facility, located at the corner of Hobbs and Marion street, is being gutted and demolished by a combination of city employees and trustees from the county jail.
Marks said he hopes to also receive help from community groups who want to help with the project. Construction of a new two-story facility will likely begin in the fall.
“There’s no doubt about why there’s a need for a new City Hall,” he said. “There were mold issues that created an unsafe environment.”
Marks said construction of the new municipal building should take about two years to complete.
Athens has allocated a total of $2.2 million toward the City Hall project, though about $1.65 million will be dedicated to the demolition, design and construction of the new municipal center. City Hall staff has operated out of the Athens Utilities building on Wilkinson Street since October.
Marks said one issue that will help distinguish Athens from other cities is a reliance on green technology and conservation.
He has previously spoken about his desire to use compressed natural gas to power city vehicles as opposed to gasoline. He said he plans to approach the City Council about purchasing a CNG-powered garbage truck at a cost of $250,000, and he hopes they’ll be amenable to the request.
“The advantage is not relying on overseas oil,” he said. “We’ll be spending less money (on gasoline) and we could expand that to meter reading trucks and there are some cities experimenting with police cars.”