C. Jack Ellis was Macon’s mayor from 1999 to 2007, but his current campaign for mayor of the consolidated Macon-Bibb County government is taking him places he’s never had occasion to go before.
He has to appeal to voters outside the city limits in this race, and he plans to do that by making his case to one person at a time.
Though urban and rural residents may come from very different backgrounds, everyone wants to have good public services, safety and opportunities for their children, Ellis said. And providing those will require convincing people that what happens in other neighborhoods also affects them.
“We all should be able to see the big picture,” he said.
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Ellis, 67, couldn’t legally seek a third consecutive term as Macon mayor. But after sitting out a term, he ran again in 2011, narrowly losing a runoff to incumbent Mayor Robert Reichert.
The city’s fund balance was about $12 million when Ellis took office 14 years ago, but it plunged to a $4.4 million deficit in 2006 when the city acknowledged that some assets were heavily overvalued and that many interfund payments were uncollectible.
The balance rose slowly during Ellis’ remaining two years, but it didn’t cross into positive territory until about the time he left office.
Ellis names as accomplishments the renovation of downtown’s Terminal Station, redevelopment of Beall’s Hill and landing the Marriott City Center hotel.
The city won a $6.7 million federal grant in 2002 to buy and renovate Terminal Station. Renovations started under Ellis, but he and Reichert dispute whether they had come to a halt by 2007. Ellis has also disputed who should get credit for the Marriott, which opened under Reichert’s watch, nearly two years after Ellis had left office.
Ellis’ state financial disclosure form says he owns a rental house in Macon and has investments in Lowe’s and Ssese Habitat Resort, a small island hotel in Uganda.
His wife, Tishangi Bennett, is a professor at Strayer University in Atlanta. She is listed as owner of their home in Macon, their second home in Decatur -- the address for her company, Complete Business Solutions -- and another rental house in Decatur.
Ellis, who was Macon’s first black mayor, said in July 2011 that he supported city-county consolidation. But he opposed the 2012 legislation that voters approved, saying the required 20 percent budget cut would cause mass layoffs, big service cuts or tax increases. After it passed, however, Ellis said he wanted to help make consolidation work. Now he contends the new charter doesn’t actually require a 20 percent budget cut at all.
Ellis said he wouldn’t cut services or raise taxes, in part because there will be some savings from eliminating or demoting duplicate department heads. But Ellis agreed that alone won’t be enough. He said the reduction doesn’t have to be made if it’s “too painful” on the new government.
“There’s an ‘out clause’ that’s not ironclad that we have to,” Ellis said.
The consolidation bill’s only caveat is that the budget level mandated for each year can be exceeded by 25 percent in “extreme economic circumstances” or if there are great public safety needs.
Urban and rural residents all should have access to the same services, including public swimming pools, Ellis said, rapping his opponents Reichert and Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart for not having all pools in good repair and open by Memorial Day. Ellis said he would have spent reserve funds on that job and would do the same for other services.
He said the new government should build more recreation facilities, sidewalks and other features countywide, giving priority to areas that have gone lacking for years due to racism and poverty.
Public services, neighborhood quality and economic development are interrelated, Ellis said. Attracting new jobs requires partnerships, a team effort among entities with the same goals, he said, describing himself as a key player in projects such as Bass Pro Shops and the Kohl’s distribution center.
But the best strategy is to strengthen small businesses, which can help revitalize the city’s dilapidated neighborhoods, Ellis said. Redevelopment also requires partnership, he said, pointing to the renewal of the Beall’s Hill neighborhood.
In 2001, Macon got a $19.3 million federal HOPE VI grant to tear down the Oglethorpe Homes public housing units and fix up the surrounding area. Ellis said his connections in Washington secured the grant, but it took collaboration with the Macon Housing Authority and Mercer University to finish the job. The Tattnall Place project was completed in 2006.
The model should be copied in other Macon neighborhoods, mixing subsidized housing into neighborhoods with young professionals and older affluent people, Ellis said.
“That’s the new urbanism, is to disperse poverty, not to concentrate poverty,” he said.
The city should get more aggressive with code enforcement, but also help those who can’t afford repairs to their houses, said Ellis, who added that the city could place liens on the homes and get reimbursed when they’re later sold.
As in his 2011 campaign, Ellis says some areas with only a few remaining residents should be abandoned and demolished completely. The city could pay for moving a few homeowners to comparable houses elsewhere, saving in the long term on infrastructure and services, he said. For commercial development, Ellis said planners shouldn’t allow new areas to be built out until there’s infill development in places that already have infrastructure.
But lasting improvements require attention to crime, he said.
“You can’t have community development and economic development in a community, with small business thriving, with homeowners investing in their homes and their property, if you have too much crime, if they’re not safe,” Ellis said.
Under the new government, Bibb County Sheriff David Davis will be the chief law enforcement officer, and Ellis said he’d work with Davis as an equal.
“I don’t have the authority to hire and fire a police chief as I did before when I was mayor,” Ellis said. The new government’s role would be to focus on crime prevention, he said.
“You do that by having good parks and recreation programs. We do that by making sure we have good training programs, good after-school programs for children and working with families early on,” Ellis said.
Councilwoman Nancy White, who served on a committee in Ellis’ 1999 transition team, took office after a special election and was at City Hall during the last year and a half Ellis was there.
“That was truly the honeymoon,” White said. Ellis came into office with tremendous support from all parts of the community, she said.
But as the years ticked by, a steady stream of embarrassing personal and political episodes eroded Ellis’ support, White said.
The council united to put sharp curbs on Ellis’ spending powers, she said. That was prompted in part by his frequent expensive, high-profile trips abroad that didn’t seem directly related to his job, White said. In addition, the city faced “significant financial challenges,” sometimes struggling to make payroll, she said.
In 2007, Ellis announced his conversion to Islam. White said Ellis’ public prayers in City Hall to mark the end of Ramadan caused “a little bit of consternation.”
Then there was his statement of solidarity with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. By the end of Ellis’ second term, the uproar was almost continuous, White said.
“Probably a lightning rod is not what we need in the first couple years after a consolidated government (forms),” she said. “There’s going to be enough controversy inherent in the consolidation process.”
During a 2011 debate, Ellis refused to discuss his religious conversion beyond saying he was a member of Unionville Missionary Baptist Church. Also in 2011, he said his praise for the now-deceased Chavez was for charity work in Africa, not the conduct of Venezuela’s internal affairs.
Despite the controversies, White praised Ellis’ interpersonal skills.
“Jack Ellis is also very diplomatic, a very warm and engaging person,” she said. “He is persuasive, and those are good qualities I want to go on record as having recognized in him.”
Tina Dennard, who runs the Adopt-A-Role-Model program for young black men with single mothers, said Ellis became a role model in her program in 1992. His concern for youth, as well as senior citizens, is telling, she said.
“He is focused. He is compassionate. I feel that he listens,” Dennard said.
When she called him asking for help because people were dumping trash on property she sought to clean up, Ellis told the young men who were littering that they should be aiding her cleanup instead. He soon had them cutting grass on the lot, Dennard said.
Dennard believes that as mayor, Ellis would listen to everyone’s concerns and bring the community together.
“I’m thinking that he could actually make us one city,” Dennard said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.