May 3, 2013 11:30:14 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
For Columbus council and mayoral hopefuls squaring off in Tuesday's primary, Thursday night's forum was one last chance to distinguish themselves in front of voters.
Each candidate in the election was on hand at the Hunt Museum and Cultural Center to field questions from moderator LaMonica Peters of WCBI and audience members. The event was sponsored by the Northeast Mississippi Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.
One of the topics to emerge was the decline in home ownership, particularly in inner city areas, and how it would be addressed. Ward 2 candidate Susan Mackay said there were areas in east Columbus where companies have gone out of business and there is no hope to bring in replacement businesses into those sites. A solution to this, she said, would be to tear down the old facilities and replace them with residences.
"That's another way we can get our tax base up ... is to create more housing in the city limits, and part of that, too, may be expanding the city limits by annexation and helping to create more homes so we can share the burden of the tax rate," Mackay said. "It is important for us to work with people who are having problems with their homes. There are grants and different things that are available to help them to improve their living standards."
"I think in order to entice people to live here in the city, we've got to not only give them homes, but we've got to give them affordable homes," Ward 2 incumbent Joseph Mickens added. "I think if we can set some land aside and we can turn that into some nice homes anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000, I know they say the city is going south and not east and west but if we can build some homes out there and keep building within the city so people can come together and see nice homes and they don't feel like they have to go somewhere else to live."
Ward 4 incumbent Fred Stewart said he would be in favor of working with contractors to help establish finance plans for homeowners whose residences are in poor condition.
"Instead of pushing (houses) down and making an empty lot, come up with some kind of loan that would help secure and remodel and keep them in the house," Stewart said.
"Some of the houses can be saved and we can come up with a program that once we build their house or get it contracted out we can put lower income people who just have bad credit and find out a way they can buy it," Turner said.
Webber said not all residents are homeowners, however.
"I don't think you can stem the tide with the housing situation in Columbus. Apparently, Caledonia and New Hope are more desirable places to live and build homes. Also, your tax base is high in the city of Columbus," challenger Maurice Webber said. "I would be open to any suggestion in approving the home ownership in Columbus. But, let's face it: Everybody is not a homeowner."
Incumbent Ward 4 councilman Kabir Karriem said holding landlords accountable is also essential.
"When you have deteriorating neighborhoods, you have to have policies in place for landlords to keep their property up," Karriem said. "That's part of the problem. There are properties in Columbus that have not been taken care of by landlords. "
Ward 4 candidate Kenneth McFarland said a more aggressive lending policy would also help.
"I think the city should take a greater interest," McFarland said. "We know there's money out there to be borrowed through the city because they're not letting everybody borrow the money. If the city would get in the middle of that, you can borrow money for a little of nothing now, and actually help homeowners get that money so they can renovate their homes."
Ward 6 candidate Whirllie Byrd said as long as a neighborhood has something attractive to visitors, such as parks, property values there will remain stable and those visitors may consider returning to the area and moving there.
"I would work with the city planner to ensure that we're all in compliance as far as homes that need to be torn down or refurbished and if there's any type of city grant available perhaps we could use that," Byrd said. "I'm in Ward 6 and I face some of the problems of the other wards, but it's still a city problem, but I will be glad to work with the other council members to improve the level of housing."
Ward 6 incumbent favors an incentive program.
"I think the city will need to look at an incentive tax program when a new person comes in and purchases or builds a home inside the city limits, the city reduces their taxes for a period of, say, 10 years by maybe 20 percent," Gavin said. "This would be a little incentive to move back, purchase a home and become a taxpayer. That would mean the city would lose some dollars in property taxes, but what would be lost would be gained by that person living here every day in sales tax."
Mayoral candidates Bo Jarrett, Glenn Lautzenhiser and incumbent Robert Smith were asked about their plans for public transportation in the city. Jarrett said if the city has one it needs to be economically and environmentally friendly. Lautzenhiser and Smith referenced the city's discussions with Indiana-based company Lawrence Transit.
"I think a public transportation system has to be economical for people to use," Jarrett said. "It would have to be a system that is made to be a green system that would cut down emissions, like an electric system that you wouldn't be burning gas and creating more pollution."
"I think we have to see how (Lawrence Transit) is going to work," Lautzenhiser said. "I think what the mayor and city council need to do is to look at it and when it is implemented, and if it's working well, that's one thing, but if it's not working well, see if anything can be done. Let's see how this system works and we'll evaluated it on an ongoing basis."
Incumbent mayor said the bus service question should be answered soon.
"Hopefully within the next two months, we will know whether or not we have a public transportation here. It would be good for the citizens of the city of Columbus," Smith said, adding that he and officials from the Mississippi University for Women and East Mississippi Community College had tentative partnership agreements regarding the service if it is implemented. "The council has already decided where the pick-up and drop-off points would be so at the present time it's not going the city any money besides in-kind services."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.