Joe Allen has no harsh words for any of his opponents in the race for mayor of Macon-Bibb County.
He’s running a genial campaign, short on cash and relying on door-to-door contact. Allen, 63, won his recent elections with little money or advertising, and he hopes the same formula will make him the consolidated government’s first mayor.
He wants to be a “hands-on mayor,” he said, “even with our educational system.”
To that end, he said he would lobby state legislators to create another seat on the Bibb County school board for himself or another elected official designated by him.
Allen, a retired Macon-Bibb County firefighter who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, has spent 19 years in the District 4 seat on the Bibb County Commission, plus a year and a half on the Macon Water Authority board in between commission terms. He’s now the commission’s vice chairman.
First elected in 1989, he challenged Tommy Olmstead for the chairmanship in 2000 and lost. Two years later he won a seat on the Macon Water Authority board, then in 2004 recaptured his commission seat and has easily kept it since.
“I love the county commission. I love that,” said Allen, who is running against five other mayoral candidates on the Sept. 17 ballot.
He backed city-county consolidation and initially said he wouldn’t run for a term in the new government. But last September, he had a change of heart after the “snide remarks” made by other commissioners, criticizing his practice of contacting county employees directly about constituents’ service requests.
Allen said he would meet with other newly elected officials and groups of public employees after the election. He also would assemble an advisory panel of local businesspeople and work with them throughout his administration to give businesses more input in government.
Allen grew up on Calhoun Street near Mercer University and went to Lanier High School, which is now Central High School. He took classes at Macon State College -- now Middle Georgia State College -- but didn’t graduate.
As a commissioner, however, he took the required annual training from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government three weekends a year for 18 years, Allen said.
“I was the first certified county commissioner in Bibb County,” he said.
The consolidation legislation demands a 20 percent cut to the combined budgets of Macon and Bibb County, which add up to about $270 million. The budget doesn’t have to be cut in the first year, but each of the four years after that, officials are expected to cut about $13.5 million. Allen said he can manage that.
“I know for a fact there’s 5 percent we can cut out right away,” he said. “In the beginning, you’re not going to need two (chief administrative officers), you’re not going to need two finance directors. You’re not going to need assistant CAOs. You’re not going to need two engineers. You’re not going to need the sheriff and the police chief.”
The engineering departments unified in 2012, and the sheriff is legally designated to become the new chief law enforcement officer.
Allen expects many current employees will leave, some for jobs elsewhere, some through retirement. For those seeking other jobs, the new government should assist in their search, he said.
All county residents should have access to the same level of public services as city dwellers, Allen said; but he would recommend keeping costs down for services such as garbage collection by outsourcing them.
“It’s better to be served by outside than by your own people in that area,” he said.
The county contracts with Advanced Disposal for the service, while in the city a division of the Public Works Department collects trash and operates the landfill. Allen said he’s already talked to Advanced Disposal about taking over city operations and hiring current Public Works employees. Single-stream recycling countywide -- all recyclable materials put in one cart -- should be part of the service, he said.
In response to longstanding local struggles with a high urban crime rate, Allen said he would focus on civic cleanup and bringing in jobs to prevent the conditions that cause crime rather than tackling crime directly.
“It’s not really up to the mayor to do crime,” he said.
The economic development strategy Allen would use to create those needed jobs would be to give priority for incentives to existing small local businesses, especially in revitalizing downtown Macon, he said. Until now the major effort has been focused on bringing in major employers with big incentive packages, Allen said.
He acknowledged that tax-incentive districts already exist for smaller businesses in specific target areas, but he said officials should do more.
Macon has struggled to demolish hundreds of empty, run-down houses, a problem that’s sure to confront the new government. Asked what he’d do, Allen simply said, “tear ‘em down,” without specifying how to pay for it. City officials have said demolition costs average $7,500 per house.
In previous years the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department would burn down empty houses, he said. Though pollution regulations might frown on that now, he would like to try it again.
“Sometimes it’s better to say ‘I’m sorry’ and go ahead and do what you’ve got to do,” Allen said.
He also would seek to prevent people who might not maintain their homes from moving in or staying.
“If people will not take responsibility for houses, tear ’em down and make parks out of them,” Allen said. “Only put people in those homes that have good track records. It’s like taking a credit report and see(ing) what kind of people they are.”
The Macon Housing Authority turns down housing applicants with troubling records, he said, and banks won’t loan to people with bad credit. But Allen is unclear how Macon-Bibb government could prevent housing sales or rentals to those deemed undeserving.
Former District 3 Commissioner Elmo Richardson, who served eight years with Allen, said they were often allies on financial and engineering issues.
“I think he’s certainly been committed to serving,” Richardson said. “Joe is real compassionate. He wants to help people, and I guess that’s the reason he wants to serve on the commission is to help people.”
For all Allen’s dedication to public service, though, Richardson isn’t sure he would do well as mayor.
“He tried to do things for people that county government should not be doing,” Richardson said. “Joe’s a good guy. He really means well, is very sincere about what he does and what he believes. But city-county government ... can’t be all things to all people, and I think Joe has a tendency to kind of want to be that.”
Tom Wagoner, who ran unsuccessfully for the county commission chairmanship last year, gave Allen’s campaign $250. But that wasn’t an exclusive donation, Wagoner said.
“Joe is a friend of mine, the same way Robert Reichert’s a friend of mine and Charlie Bishop’s a friend of mine,” he said. Votes will split many ways in this race, and that could help Allen do surprisingly well, said Wagoner, who expects turnout to be low.
“If you talk to people about Joe Allen, they like him. And people have a tendency to vote for people they like,” he said.
Allen is the founder of the nonprofit Kids Yule Love and Seniors Yule Love organizations. Kids Yule Love has collected Christmas presents for needy children in Middle Georgia for 28 years, while the latter gathers items to help senior citizens in the area. Allen describes those charitable activities as his true calling, and he recently expanded his efforts to create God Yule Love, which gives children Bibles for Christmas. His years of charitable work and personal popularity may serve him better than fundraising, Wagoner said.
“As far as Joe is concerned, and I tell people this, you’ll not find a person in this community with a better heart,” he said.
One of Allen’s best points is that he’s unafraid to ask experts for help on anything he doesn’t understand, Wagoner said. That, coupled with his popularity, could make him a successful mayor, he said.
“Would it hurt to have a mayor who really cares about people? I don’t think it would,” Wagoner said. “Joe has much to offer in his way.”
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.