April 30, 2013 10:28:41 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Grow the tax base responsibly? Absolutely. Explore options, including turn-key financial incentives, to attract major job creators? You bet. Support the city's 2 percent food and beverage tax's renewal? Definitely.
Six Starkville residents seeking spots on the incoming board of aldermen found themselves agreeing with each other more often than not Monday during a public candidates forum at the Greensboro Center.
Seven candidates - Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, a Democrat; two Republican Ward 3 opponents, incumbent Eric Parker and his challenger, David Little; Ward 4 candidates John Gaskin and Jason Walker, both Democrats; incoming Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard, a Republican; and Ward 7 candidate and former city alderman Janette Self, a Democrat - began the forum with brief opening statements before moving to the question-and-answer portion of the night.
Maynard, who is running unopposed, was not involved with the program after he delivered his minute-long statement.
Mutual economic agreement
A majority of Tuesday's question-and-answer session focused on economic development, job growth and quality-of-life issues.
When asked how the city can incentivize economic development in Starkville, each candidate agreed tax increment financing measures would be an on-the-table option if elected. Those financing packages pledge diverted tax revenues from within established TIF districts to finance debt service on associated projects, including infrastructure improvements. Those investments typically lead to higher property values, which in turn provide increased ad valorem collections.
Candidates highlighted the success with Middleton Court's redevelopment using TIF funds and a similar package to aid in The Mill's development.
"Financial support like TIF funding is one obvious way, but we can also make it easier to develop in existing areas. We've taken a major step (by) adopting ... form-based codes," Sistrunk said. "Another is improving transportation connections. That's something we hope to accomplish with (a recently approved Russell Street corridor transportation study). That should link the city and the university in a way that gives a real physical link that encourages redevelopment in that area."
The six candidates acknowledged Starkville's continued growth and the need to control it with smart zoning ordinances that do not hinder projects.
"Orderly development has the potential to distinguish Starkville from surrounding communities; it has the chance to give us identity," said Walker, a sitting member of the Starkville Planning and Zoning Commission. "What's going to separate you from your competition? It's not the fact they have a bypass or (not), but it's what does your bypass look like - what does your development look like? If you want to distinguish yourself between West Point and Columbus, you better not look like West Point and Columbus. Starkville has a great opportunity to brand ourselves to be the best community in the area."
When asked how the city can continue to attract great minds to Starkville, candidates said encouraging jobs and commercial opportunities would continue bringing in young professionals.
"First and foremost, we have to grow our economy and provide jobs, that way college graduates can stay here and can afford to live here. That's something we desperately need to do," Gaskin said. "We also have to focus on growing our amenities. The more households we get to Starkville ... the more demand for attractive, new commercial opportunities. Other amenities that other SEC college towns and towns our size have, we need to bring those types of investments into Starkville, and that will slowly start to increase demand for people."
All six candidates endorsed renewing the city's 2 percent food and beverage tax. The collection will be up for legislative renewal by the state in 2014. A portion of those funds return to the city, while the rest is spread between various organizations, including tourism and economic initiatives, Starkville Parks Commission and Mississippi State University student programs.
Five candidates suggested revisiting how those funds are reallocated - ranging from Parker's suggestion that MSU's portion could be capped in the future to Walker's call for those monies to help improve Starkville's quality of life with various capital improvement projects - while Self said she would look at the issue in the future before making a decision.
"I'll be well-informed on whatever decisions may come before us. Before I make an opinion or cast a vote, I'll enquire (as to) what is it you want and then confer with my fellow board members as to what we can do to ensure that the citizens of Starkville are given what they deserve," Self said of her decision-making processes later on in the event. "I am a very deep thinker, and I think before I make decisions."
City hall skirmish
The night's rules prohibited candidates from directly debating issues, but that did not stop both Little and Parker from establishing divergent ideologies on one of Starkville's biggest issues in the current term: municipal facilities.
When asked which policies established by the current administration he would change, Little addressed what he called "the elephant in the room:" the city's process of building a new city hall and renovating its police station.
Parker was the swing vote who joined three Democrats - Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey, Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas and Sistrunk - last year to secure a plan for updated municipal facilities without raising the city's millage rate.
"There have been many tough, controversial votes over the past four years, but I can honestly say in each one I have voted for what was best for the city of Starkville and Ward 3," Parker said during his opening remarks.
Little, when addressing the question, said transparency issues could be improved from board members and the mayor. The Mississippi Ethics Commission cited the city last year for not strictly following state open meetings laws. No penalties were issued - the MEC simply warned officials about their actions.
"I think (transparency) has been lacking on the board somewhat over the last 12-18 months. We should have transparency with all decisions made by the city," Little said. "Everyone I've talked to ... agrees we need a new city hall; everyone agrees we need a new police station. I do not disagree.
"I think it was run around the voters," he added in reference to a failed public bond referendum on a plan that would have raised taxes to construct new facilities. "I think we should have come up with a better approach to it, something the whole community could rally around and support."
"I truly believe every decision I made in last four years of the board was what I felt a majority of the constituents in my ward elected me to do. Of course on the most controversial decisions, the people that are against are always going to be the loudest. I think what a lot of people don't see are the other people that call me, email me and talk to me," Parker added toward the end of the event. "I'm proud of what I've accomplished over the last four years."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch