Mayoral candidates agree on needs, debate over details in pair of forums

Telegraph staffAugust 16, 2013 

At two political forums Thursday, many of the candidates for mayor of the new Macon-Bibb County consolidated government struck similar themes.

The candidates generally agreed that creating jobs, improving education, fighting crime and building community unity are the most important issues the new government will face come January, but they often differed on how to reach those goals.

The six candidates on the ballot for the Sept. 17 elections appeared at the Douglass Theatre in a morning debate sponsored by the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.

In the evening, Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen, former Bibb County Commission Chairman Charlie Bishop, local businessman David Cousino, former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis, Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart and Macon Mayor Robert Reichert were joined by local activist Anthony Harris, an official write-in candidate. That event at the Macon City Auditorium was sponsored by the local League of Women Voters.

“I think the most important thing that’s facing the new government is to make sure that we identify and elect a leader that can bring the community together,” Hart said.

Ellis said his record shows he can get things done, but the new mayor should leave the details to talented staff.

Meanwhile, Reichert said he wants to finish the work of consolidation.

“Business and industry is not going to come and locate in your community if they feel threatened by the political instability or financial instability,” he said, while Allen urged involvement from the general public and Bishop advocated a five-year financial plan to project the new government’s costs.

Harris said Macon should attract “big bands, all the time,” playing up its musical history to attract tourism, while Cousino pushed for a “one-stop location” for everything needed to set up a business in the area.

On the area’s most pressing economic needs, Ellis noted that poverty is a huge issue in Macon, affecting 48 percent of people younger than 18. He said the issue couldn’t be separated from education and jobs, and that Macon residents need to be trained to prepare for the workforce. Small businesses should be encouraged to move into declining neighborhoods with tax breaks and loans, Ellis said. He also urged working with the Muscogee Creek Nation “to bring casinos to our city.”

Hart linked jobs, education and crime, noting that the community needs to take care of the people who drop out of school as much as those who are in school now.

Reichert indirectly touted his Second Street redevelopment plan, calling for a “vibrant urban core” to provide a welcoming location for businesses that are unique to the region.

“I think being the hub city of the Middle Georgia region would be the single greatest thing we could do,” he said.

“Gracious alive, mayor, I agree with you,” Allen said. “But I want to go one step further.”

Businesses need incentives to return downtown, to serve residents of the many new apartments there, he said.

Harris said he’d seek to expand the local movie industry, while Cousino advocated riverboats on the Ocmulgee.

In an answer to a later question, Harris said the Creeks should be given a block or two of the city for an ethnic-themed community, like Chinatown or Little Italy in other cities.

Bishop and Hart both said a balance of education and crime control are needed to attract jobs.

In the morning debate, candidates were asked what they could do to protect Robins Air Force Base from job cutbacks or closure.

Reichert noted he has taken a regional approach to come up with ways to keep the base open, including pushing for clean air and clean water, as well as more regional employment centers in order to provide the things necessary to keep Robins open.

Hart said he would continue to work with the 21st Century Partnership, which has included work to solve Robins’ encroachment issues. He also noted that improved education in the region would help the base’s chances to stay open.

Asked what they’d cut from the new government’s budget, Allen said he’d consider privatizing services such as city garbage collection -- but only after consulting with employees.

“There are going to have to be some jobs that will be lost,” he said.

Harris said he’d give most of his pay as mayor back to the city, and he thinks many city workers are overpaid. He also denounced the city’s pursuit of grant money.

Bishop said firefighters and sheriff’s deputies actually will need more money, and he called again for financial projections. Along that same line, Ellis said many workers, including trash collectors, aren’t paid enough.

“The only people I say that will have any reason to lose their jobs are the ones that aren’t performing,” Ellis said.

Hart and Reichert said they’d both look for savings through technology and cutting service duplication, but Reichert added that if cuts are necessary he’d identify “core services” and cut nonessential programs first.

To deal with the many dilapidated and abandoned houses in the city, Bishop said he wants to use sales tax money as part of the process, and he criticized recent county purchases of properties that will become office space for the new government. He said buying the property for government use took those properties off the tax digest.

Ellis pointed to his administration’s work in rebuilding neighborhoods such as Oglethorpe Homes and Beall’s Hill, vowing to continue redevelopment in other parts of the city and county.

Hart said he wanted to continue to leverage public-private partnerships, such as the work local government has done with Mercer University in the College Hill Corridor area.

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