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Albany City Commission OKs ceremonial street renaming to honor candy plant

Mars Chocolate North America is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Albany

Mack Phillips and Michele Coney with Mars Chocolate North America address the Albany City Commission Tuesday morning concerning the commemorative renaming of a portion of Oakridge Drive to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary in Albany. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Mack Phillips and Michele Coney with Mars Chocolate North America address the Albany City Commission Tuesday morning concerning the commemorative renaming of a portion of Oakridge Drive to celebrate the company's 50th anniversary in Albany. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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City of Albany state lobbyist Rufus Montgomery, president of the Cascon Group, updates the Albany City Commission on legislative matters during the commission’s work session Tuesday. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — The Albany City Commission, gratefully accepting a “bribe” of peanut bars manufactured at the local Mars Chocolate North America plant, showed its appreciation Tuesday morning by tentatively voting to ceremonially rename a portion of Oakridge Drive in recognition of the candy manufacturer’s 50th anniversary in Albany.

Mars Albany plant officials Mack Phillips and Michele Coney were on hand at the commission’s work session to request the renaming, which would be ceremonial only and would not impact addresses on the one-block stretch between Slappey Boulevard and Westtown Road. That stretch of Oakridge will be renamed Mars Chocolate Boulevard.

“I’m here to say that our company’s future is bright in Albany, and we would love to grow,” Phillips said. “It’s also important to point out that 90 percent of the peanuts we roast at our plant are from here in Georgia.

“We have a great relationship with the city of Albany, and while I’ve only been here 11 months, I can say from being at a number of our plants that you will not find a better work force than we have at this site.”

With interim City Manager Tom Berry at his first work session with the commission, the board discussed a process whereby it will begin a search for a permanent city manager to fill the position. Ward I Commissioner Jon Howard pushed to move immediately forward with the process, which had been suspended by the commission when Berry was named to the position on an interim basis, but Ward VI’s Tommie Postell cautioned against haste.

“Haste makes waste,” Postell said. “Let’s stay on the agenda that we’ve set.”

When Ward III Commissioner B.J. Fletcher asked Berry if he’d thought about a time frame for his stay with the city government, Berry said, “We have one of the most excellent management teams in place that you can find anywhere. I’m extremely pleased with what I’m finding here, and I’m willing to extend my stay as long as I’m wanted.”

Postell suggested, and the board voted 6-1, with Howard opposed, to put off discussion of the search process until “late November or December.”

After extensive discussion, the commission cast a unanimous non-binding vote to approve the city’s 2015 group insurance benefit plan. Human Resources Director Henry Cohen said the city’s group medical plan had increased $2.6 million more than projected in 2013, leading to a 17 percent increase in employee contributions. By contrast, Cohen said the 2014 plan is projected to come in $204,000 less than projected. Still, an expected 5.5 percent increase in costs would increase city rates by 3.8 percent.

Cohen and City CFO JoEllen Brophy said an increase in funding for the city’s wellness center offers proof that employees are utilizing the facility for primary care. The center has increased availability from 40 hours a week to 80. Asked about the increase in costs, Brophy said it would benefit the city through cost avoidance.

“As utilization of the health clinic increases,” she said, “claims costs will decrease. We’ll save money in the long run.”

Cohen said projected cost for the 2014 plan is at $13.2 million, but trending for the city’s 2015 plan indicates an expected increase of $729,000. Changes in the plan and cost savings from the wellness center, however, should cut that increase by $219,000.

Cohen said the projected cost for the 2015 plan is $13,970,145, $4,327,129 of which will be paid by employees. The city’s portion of the projected cost would be $9,643,016.

The commission also got an update from its state lobbyist at the meeting. Rufus Montgomery, president of the Cascon Group, said focus remains on acquiring funds for construction of the long-in-the-planning-stage Albany State University fine arts center. Montgomery noted that $1.4 million in design funding was included in the state’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget. He said another $678,990 in funding was secured for Darton State College for HVAC replacement.

Montgomery said he would be working to get a portion of the $20 million Downtown Renaissance Fund set aside in the budget for downtown revitalization. That funding is being managed by the state’s Department of Community Affairs.

In a discussion of future agenda items, Postell said he’d like a “morale report” on the Albany Police Department, noting that “a lot of the police officers just don’t give a damn.” Berry said an anonymous citywide survey is being prepared.

Votes cast at work sessions have to be ratified by commissioners at regular or called business meetings to become official action.