Macon-Bibb mayoral candidates debate at Mercer

jgaines@macon.comSeptember 4, 2013 

Six candidates for Macon-Bibb County mayor debated Wednesday afternoon at Mercer University’s law school, most of them sounding now-familiar themes.

Bibb County Commission Vice Chairman Joe Allen, former Commission Chairman Charlie Bishop, businessman David Cousino, former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis, Commission Chairman Sam Hart and Mayor Robert Reichert took questions submitted by law students at the forum, which was organized by the university’s Democratic and Republican clubs. They were watched by about 30 students and a few faculty as they spoke about economic development, crime, poverty, budget cuts and government transparency.

All the candidates but Cousino agreed on the need for job-training programs and business incentives to develop the local economy. Cousino repeated his call to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers enhance the Ocmulgee riverfront to spur development, and he also pushed for a high-speed rail link. But he advocates a link from Macon to Savannah, not to Atlanta, as most rail plans call for.

In dealing with crime, Allen said Macon-Bibb needs to emulate other towns that involve churches in working with troubled youth. But he also said repeat offenders should be “banished” from the county.

Cousino said police should walk their neighborhood beats instead of driving, while Hart, Reichert and Ellis called for a combination of crime-prevention programs and support for law enforcement. Hart added a pitch for home-ownership.

Bishop said public safety should be the top budget priority, but that it’s not really the mayor’s job to tackle crime directly.

On the related subject of poverty, all agreed there’s a need to create jobs and give local residents the technical training needed to get them.

“Everybody can’t go to college, so let’s train people for those jobs that we can bring in,” Bishop said. But some candidates went further.

“We must disperse poverty, first of all,” Ellis said. By spreading poor families through more-affluent redevelopment areas, there’s a better chance of dealing with it, he said.

Cousino, meanwhile, blamed the prevalence of poverty on re-electing the same officials for years.

The consolidation charter requires cutting 20 percent from the combined city-county budget over the next five years. All six agreed that will be difficult to achieve, and most looked to attrition among the nearly 2,000 public employees to cover all or most of the needed cuts. Reichert noted that pay and benefits make up nearly 70 percent of the current budgets.

“You’re going to have to affect personnel,” he said, noting that the charter also urges keeping jobs for all current employees who want them.

Ellis said he would try to meet the goal, but he turned the question into an attack on Republican state legislators’ intransigence on implementing the federal Affordable Care Act.

Asked about the importance of transparency in the new government, all agreed that’s needed.

“I think those of us who lead have got to also remember that we serve,” Hart said.

Reichert said that easy access to public records is perhaps the most important factor, while Bishop said the current governments have lost public trust. He repeated his longtime assertion that officials have hidden under-funding of public pension systems, though analysts for the task force working on consolidation have said city and county plans are actually better funded than most local governments’ pensions systems.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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