Mayor V.O. Smith was featured in the Spring issue of Our South Magazine.
Story by Joanna Holbert • Our South Magazine
Growing up as a young boy in rural Covington County Mississippi, V.O. Smith had no ambitions for holding public office. In fact, the path he created for himself after graduating from Lone Star High School was that of an ambitious man.
“I was more interested in business,” he said. In his early adult life, Smith owned and operated several businesses in the City of Collins. He owned a Sears catalog store, the Chicken Box restaurant, a discount bread store and a convenience store, “Smith’s Curb Mart.” “The Curb Mart was the first quick stop store in Collins,” he recalled.
It was during those days of operating the businesses that he was approached to run for office. “Several merchants came to me and asked me to run for alderman,” he said. After much consideration, Smith agreed to run for a seat on the board. He was elected to the Board of Alderman for the city in 1977. During his time on the board, Smith realized his love for helping others.
“I have always liked to help people,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to help them solve their problems.”
It was only a few short years later that he ran and was elected to the Mayor’s office. Now, 35 years later, Smith joins Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler of Madison as the two longest serving mayors in the State of Mississippi. It’s a position he has held because he has not forgotten his commitment to the residents and, today, still strives to help them solve their problems.
“In the early days, the city was very small and we had limited equipment,” he said. At the time, Collins only had one garbage truck, one dump truck, one backhoe and one tractor. “Now we have about 40 different types of equipment for the city,” Smith noted.
It was always the Mayor’s goal to keep spending down and protect the taxpayers of the city.
“We wanted to save the taxpayers’ money, and one of the ways we have done that over the years is by doing some of the work ourselves on projects that the city has taken on.”
With his eyes set on helping the city grow and prosper, Smith had to address current issues. “In those early days we had a lot of abandoned houses in the city limits,” he said. Smith learned early on that the way to help the city was by searching for grant monies that are available to municipalities.
“We submitted an application for a grant and received it,” he said, “and we were able to take down the abandoned houses.”
Infrastructure issues were also a concern for Smith during the early years. Serving as a volunteer fireman for 27 years for the city, his calling to serve was put to use.
“Early on, the rating for the fire department was at an eight,” he said. “The lower the number, the better the rating you have. In order for us to lower our rating, we had to face the challenges of our water.”
The city spent much time and energy working to improve the water lines and the city’s water pressure. They also added two new water tanks and fire trucks. “When we were able to do that, the department’s rating dropped to a five,” he said.
Today, the city enjoys excellent service from all departments.
“I acted as the police chief and the judge when I started out as Mayor,” Smith laughed. “I just made sure I thought before I answered as the judge!”
In those early days while he played dual roles, Smith as the police chief received phone calls day and night.
“There were a lot of nights that I would get called out,” he said.
Today, Smith still considers his telephone number a public number.
“I have it posted on the door of my office,” he said. “I am a 24-hour-a-day mayor.”
That ‘round the clock title is one he wear proudly. Often times Smith can be seen in the evenings up and down Main Street in Collins planting flowers, watering trees and maintaining the green spaces.
“I just enjoy it,” he said.
The beauty of the city’s Main Street is something in which Smith takes much pride.
“It took me several years to convince our Board of Aldermen that we needed to work on our Main Street,” he said. “I was finally able to convince the board to let me redo one block. It set the community on fire and the board agreed to doing two more blocks. That was a $530,000 project that took us two years to finish.”
When it comes to city projects, Smith gets to work alongside city crews doing whatever needs to be done to improve the city.
“My hobby is working,” he laughed. “I don’t hunt or fish or play golf. I like to go antiquing and travel to antique auctions.”
The Mayor, often times, can be found at his antique store on Main Street in Collins unloading his newest finds in the evening hours after tending to the city’s business.
“Every night after work, I go to work on my own projects,” he said. “I usually work until 8 or 9 at night.”
He owns a number of rental properties in the city and spends countless hours fixing and maintaining the properties.
“I was laughing with someone the other day when I told them that my relaxing time is when I’m painting a building,” he smiled.
Today, the City of Collins enjoys much growth. It boasts a larger, progressive police department under the direction of Chief Joey Ponder; a state of the art fire department under Chief John Pope; a solid, quality public works department under Director Bob Shoemake and an innovative online presence under the guidance of City Clerk Suzette Davis. Smith noted that he is proud of the fact that the police officers have body cameras and the city already has six video cameras in the police cars.
“We had eight men on the police department when I started, and now we are up to 18 with full and part time men. We have a good fleet of cars and everything in our department is up to date.”
As a longtime, small town mayor, Smith has been active in organizations throughout the state. He is the past president of the Mississippi Municipal League and now serves on the Board of Directors. He’s also the chairman of the Mississippi Service Company, a board on which he has served since 1989. The Mississippi Service Company is for insurance for Mississippi cities and towns, and Smith is the longest serving member on the board.
“Over the years, I’ve been able to see a lot of changes in our city,” he said. “I’m thankful for our longtime city employees who come to work each day. I’m also very appreciative to the voters of Collins for allowing me to serve them. Working over the years with 15 different aldermen has been something I have enjoyed. We could not have done anything in the City of Collins without their support.”
Today, Collins enjoys new growth and expanding and new businesses in the city.
“Our new Peoples Bank and Woolwine Ford dealership show growth in the city. We are proud to have these new businesses like the new Clayton Pharmacy, Taylor Place shopping center, McDonald’s and many others coming to Collins,” he said. “It saves our residents from having to go out of town to shop, and it helps our city too.”
Smith prides himself on the fact that in his 35 years as mayor, Collins has never seen an increase in the millage rate.
“We are at 11 mills just like we were then,” he said. “We run the city like a business and we watch our spending. We do most of our own work and stay within our means. We don’t spend it if we don’t have it.
“One thing I’ll say about our growth is that we couldn’t have done it without the grant money we have received,” said Smith. “We have received millions and millions of dollars in grant money. The City of Collins has probably received the most grant money of any city our size.”
Smith explained that part of the reason for Collins receiving the money is knowing where to go to get it.
“That’s one thing I think I have learned pretty well over the years,” he said. “I’ve learned where to go and who to talk to for us to find funds to do the things we have wanted to do in the city.”
Smith said the city works with grant writers out of Jackson. One of Smith’s favorite undertakings was the grant to restore the Collins Depot which now acts as a meeting place for weddings, receptions and special events. It’s complete with memorabillia from the old days in Collins. Although the funds are available, it doesn’t mean that they are quick to get.
“It took us 13 years to get the Civic Center,” he said.
The Collins Civic Center which opened just a few years ago was a project that Smith made his personal mission.
“We are very proud of the civic center,” he said. “We are even more proud of our new Senior Citizens Center which opened in December.”
Smith knew he wanted to open a Senior Citizens Center in the city for the senior adults.
“It was something we wanted to have as a place where seniors could go and enjoy a meal, play games, take a quilting class or exercise class and just enjoy spending time there,” Smith said.
The Senior Citizens Center was also built with grant funds which Smith was able to secure for the city. Other projects within the city have included restoration of the city’s eight ballparks, three walking trails, two tennis courts and other two playgrounds. He noted that he keeps in mind that the City of Collins should be a place where families enjoy living and working. That’s the way it has been for Smith, his wife Ada, and their children Neil, Lynn and Lana. Now he gets to enjoy spending time in the city he helped grow with his grandchildren.
“It’s our goal as a small town to do anything that will make the quality of life for all of our citizens better,” he said. “When our citizens are happy that’s the best part of the job.”