May 3, 2009
Tim Pratt -
STARKVILLE — With the city of Starkville growing each and every year, many are calling the upcoming municipal election one of the most important in community history.
The city’s cracked and crumbling infrastructure is on the minds of many residents, while others are concerned about bringing more jobs to the area. Still others are concerned with the way the city has grown over the years and are calling on elected officials to manage the community’s development instead of allowing sprawl and unchecked construction.
Nearly two dozen candidates have stepped up to the plate this election season to run for seats on the city’s Board of Aldermen and to help form the policies that will govern residents and builders for years to come. Four additional candidates have entered the race for mayor.
Incumbent Mayor Dan Camp is running for a second term in City Hall and will face fellow Democrats Matt Cox and Parker Wiseman Tuesday in the primary election. The winner of the Democratic primary will face the lone Republican in the race, Marnita Henderson, June 2 during the general election.
In his four years as mayor, Camp has been instrumental in a number of projects that have reshaped the city, including the $3 million bond issue for infrastructure improvements recently passed by the Board of Aldermen. Camp pushed for a $12 million plan, which called for $3 million worth of improvements in each of the next four years, but the Board ultimately passed the $3 million plan with an option to issue up to $3 million more for improvements in 2010.
Camp also introduced sweep accounts to the city’s budget, which he estimates has earned the city several hundred thousand dollars over the past four years. The sweep account process transfers city funds into an interest-bearing account at the end of each work day, then transfers the funds back to the city’s primary account the following morning.
Among other initiatives Camp spearheaded was a refined health insurance policy for city employees, which he predicts over the next two or three years will save the city $200,000 to $300,000 a year.
Under Camp’s watch, the city also instituted a No Smoking ordinance. The city also passed a sustainability policy last summer, which, among other things, requires all new city-owned building more than 3,000-square-feet meet standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.
The city also passed a curbside recycling program under Camp’s tutelage.
Camp sees the city heading in an upward direction, but says there is room for improvement.
“I don’t think we’re all that we can be yet,” Camp said. “I feel like we have great potential. We have a lot of things we can continue and I think we can probably begin to set a sense of direction for a new police facility.”
Camp pushed for a new justice complex during his campaign for mayor four years ago and the issue ultimately came up for a referendum, which barely failed. Camp still wants to see the city build a new police station and City Hall.
Like Cox and Wiseman, Camp wants to see continued economic development in the city and improved infrastructure. He is in favor of a long-term infrastructure plan.
One criticism of Camp has been his relationship with Board of Aldermen members and city residents in general. Some have described his demeanor as “gruff” and “grumpy.”
But Camp says what some people consider grumpy is just his way of “getting the job done.”
“Probably two-thirds of the people who voted for me (four years ago) don’t like me,” Camp said. “But I think they respect my leadership abilities. ... I feel like the proof is there with what we’ve done the last four years.”
Matt Cox currently serves as Ward 5 alderman, but is giving up his seat to run for mayor. Although the mayor doesn’t have a vote when the time comes to weigh in on ordinances, he does have the power to veto decisions made by the Board of Aldermen.
Cox realizes he would play a different role in city government if elected mayor, but feels he has the personality to fit the position.
“What I see that we need as a community is a mayor who is going to bring together not only the Board of Aldermen, but the community, as well,” Cox said. “One of the things that I think gets lost about Starkville is we have a very diverse population with very different ideas about what their priorities are. We have million dollar homes, but we also have public housing. We have town and gown issues. We have black and white issues. As a community, it seems like many times the political leadership works to divide this population of the community and I want to bring people together and have us work toward a common goal.”
Cox says he already has worked to unify two opposing sides when the city passed the smoking ban.
“What we decided to do was have that be very inclusive and bring in people, specifically bringing in the stakeholders,” Cox said. “We had the restaurants and the bars sit at the same table as health activists. We had the students who were a big part of the business equation of our community. We all sat together at the table and came up with this ordinance from scratch and I led that process. We not only came out with the first comprehensive no-smoking ordinance for an incorporated city in the state of Mississippi, but it’s been the most successful. We’ve had no legal challenges and we’ve written one citation in three years.”
Cox wants to focus on improving quality of life issues in the city, including infrastructure work, strong schools and recreation opportunities, such as bicycle lanes and parks. He proposed a tax increase last fall, which passed, and the funds were earmarked for infrastructure improvements.
Coupled with the $3 million bond issue and other funds, the city will spend more than $4 million on infrastructure improvements this year.
“People really are willing to pay more if you tell them exactly what it’s going for,” Cox said of the tax increase. “If they really know what they’re getting and they get a return on their tax dollars, they’re willing to make that investment.”
“I’m not going to sit by and listen to the same old answers that say, ‘We don’t have the money for that,’” Cox added.
As a small business owner — he buys old houses and renovates them — Cox also says it’s important to bring other businesses to the community and increase the tax base.
Parker Wiseman was born and raised in Starkville and says he first thought about running for political office when he was a student at Starkville High School. He went on to earn a degree in political science from Mississippi State University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina.
Wiseman then went to the University of Mississippi where he earned his law degree. He now practices law in Starkville.
Wiseman wants to focus on business growth and comprehensive planning. He compared Starkville to Oxford, which are similar in size and are both home to major universities.
Oxford has outpaced Starkville in business growth over the last four years by nearly 3-to-1, Wiseman said. In 2003, Starkville had 63 more businesses paying sales tax than Oxford. By 2008, those numbers had changed drastically as Oxford had 28 more businesses paying sales tax than Starkville, he said.
“What you see if you look at these two communities with virtually the same resources is you see one that is stagnant and one that is exploding,” Wiseman said. “When you talk about economic development in Starkville, you have to think first about the tremendous assets that we have. One of the things that chaps me a little bit is we are not doing anything to go out there and aggressively utilize what we’ve got that makes us an economic draw.”
When the Mississippi Development Authority talks to companies looking to open up in the state, the group often looks at Starkville as a possible location. Wiseman says the city needs to work coope