Mayoral candidates face off in Chamber candidates’ forum
By Beth Alston
AMERICUS — A well-numbered audience gather Tuesday in the auditorium in the Rosalynn Carter Health and Human Resources Complex on the Georgia Southwestern State University GSW) campus. Following a welcome from Rhett Simmons, board chairman of the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the event at GSW, he introduced Neal Weaver, GSW’s new president who gave a warm welcome. Kim Fuller of the Chamber’s Governmental Affairs Division, gave the invocation and led the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
Len Hicks served as moderator for the forum which had the following format. Each candidate was first given five minutes to speak, followed by two minutes.
Laura Lee Bernstein, Americus mayoral candidate, who won the draw, spoke first.
Bernstein first introduced herself. “I live here in Americus. I actually moved to Americus about seven years ago almost to the date from Atlanta. I made the decision to enter the race to become mayor for several reasons. One, I’ve worked and lived in this community. I began working here in the technical college system and then I also worked in our K-12 system, our local government, and higher education … As a result of that, I started to see some things that maybe need to change in Americus, things that are new and are different, things that are progressive, progressive action. I believe that we need to have transparent decision making here. I served as the chief administrative officer of the city of Americus for a little less than two years. During that time I saw so many things that I wished I could have helped to change but due to the position I was in, it was not appropriate and so my hands were tied but I got a good taste of what local politics is all about. I’m not a career politician, never been a politician. As you can tell from my background, I’ve been in education primarily most of my life. But I believe this community has a lot to offer. I believe this community just needs to step and do some progressive action. We need to make progressive decisions and need to be collaborative in our decision making.
“My platform includes first, setting a plan, a strategic vision, having goals that are attainable and goals that are realistic. I think that the mayor and council should be held accountable to make sure that those goals are met each and every year. I think there needs to be fiscal responsibility and fiscal accountability within the city, meaning that those goals should be funded by our budget and everything should be aligned with that strategic plan set forth between the mayor and council together. I think the planning in this needs to be collaborative, needs to include everyone at the planning table, not just one segment of the population. I think decisions need to be made for the entire city as a whole and not for individuals or … one segment of our population.
“We need to set the stage and environment for economic growth. The way to do that is to have a vision and a plan that everyone is aware of, that everyone is behind and we put forth all of our efforts including funding towards accomplishing those goals. Our accountability and the budget need to align directly with those goals. It need to be transparent … I believe that also with collaborative planning we have boards … authorities. These individuals are appointed often times by the city, by the local politicians, and we need to take a look at those and see — are we keeping the same people on the boards over and over again and therefore we’re not getting anywhere. … The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again with the same result. We haven’t seen results. I believe that’s because we’ve been all over the map when we take our planning and try to move it forward. We tend to plan for individuals instead of for our community.
… I’m able to provide strong decisive leadership as well. … Being that I am not originally from Americus but I have lived in the community; I’m collaborative because I’ve worked within all the different agencies and all the different areas of the community, including nonprofit and small business. I’ve made my home here with my family.
“I think we need to include the universities … we have two colleges that sit in Americus We need to be tapping a resource there. We need to have the students involved on our boards and authorities. We need them involved in our planning. We need to work together for us, for all of us, the entire community.”
Incumbent mayor, Barry Blount then spoke. After thanking the chamber and GSW, he introduced his wife Tami.
“My private sector experience is banking but first of all I want to go over some highlights we’ve achieved over the past four years. … Despite a decline in our tax digest and lower property tax revenues, we have kept the same millage rate, 10.32 mills, not only for the last four years but for the last six years, going back to 2011. That’s fiscal responsibility.
“But also, the city has increased spending in a number of critical areas the past four years to support economic development, jobs, education and quality of life issues. Let me touch on a few of those. We’ve increased the Humane Society funding by $31,750 to $70,000 which is a 45 percent increase over the last four years. The Boys & Girls Club, we’ve increased by $10,000 to $15,000 which is a 67 percent increase. The arts council, we’ve increased that from by $2,000 to $2,000 which is a one percent increase. Lake Blackshear Regional Library we’ve increased by $30,000 for a total of $80,000 which is a 37.5 percent increase. The airport authority we’ve increased by $2,000 to $17,000 which is a 12 percent increase. Payroll development authority we’ve increased by $40,000 to $40,000 which was a 100 percent increase. Tourism council we’ve increased by $29,310 to $177,619 which is a 16.5 percent increase. Main Street/DDA we’ve increased that spending by $114,409 to $202,459 which is a 57 percent increase. We funded the One Sumter Foundation $50,000 which is a $50,000 increase which is a 100 percent increase. So, the total funding increase over the last four years would be $324,469. That’s not only fiscal responsibility, that’s putting your money in programs that work for our city.
“The unemployment rate in August 2013, in Sumter County was 11.3 percent. In August of 2017, it was 7 percent which is a decrease of 4.3 percent. I will talk about some things later that will probably reduce that in the near future.
“At the present time, we have 800 full-time and part-time jobs in the central business district. The number of business licenses in Americus have increased over the last four years by 30 percent. We have First Friday events downtown every month. We had the Hot Glass/Craft Beer Festival back in April which was a huge success and will be an ongoing event. We started the Bike Share program at GSW for GSW students so that’s been a very successful success. We’ve installed new playground equipment in Joyce Myers, Muckalee Park and North Jackson McGlamery Park to make them ADA compliant. We converted to the city manager form of government. We reduced the cost of city health insurance by over a half million dollars in the last four years and given them a wellness plan that includes biometric testing that helps to detect early health problems … We purchased 20 new police vehicles, equipped them with computers and dash cameras, increased our police officer salaries by 17 percent, purchased updated body cameras for every officer, and Part 1 and Part 2 crimes, which are the most serious crimes, are down 11.6 percent over the last four years.
“We privatized transit services which saved the city $75,000. We lowered the cost of ridership fees for citizens, provided better service. We now offer Saturday service for that and ridership is up 6 percent this year over last year. We signed a mutual aid agreement with the Sumter County Fire Department which will hopefully help give us a 1 ISO rating in the near future. We established the Sumter County land bank to help eliminate blighted and dilapidated properties.
“In the future I have the privilege of serving as a member of the Steering Committee of the College and Career Academy from which I think we will benefit greatly from that … at Americus-Sumter County High School. We will use for a spring board the last four years for the next four years.
“I also want to close with a major announcement today made by the PDA. We’ve got a new company coming to town. It’s called Lexington Pontoon Boats which will hold a job f air next Tuesday at South Georgia Tech. They will employ 80 new people. That’s progress, folks.”
Blount then took her two minutes.
“Let me tell you about some other things we’ve done over the last four years. We installed a wireless speaker system downtown which I think really adds to the shopping environment … We revitalizing South Jackson Street. The depot and some houses in that area … you’re going to see some renovations of property in the near future. We resurfaced over 6.83 miles over the last four years of city streets.
“The next four years. I talked about education. Next Site 360, that’s a recruitment firm which … One Sumter’s hired to utilize our demographic information to identity and recruit retail businesses to our community. It will also assist existing retailers to identifying new products and services that they can offer in our community which will hopefully be successful. … We’re going to have new retail stores locating and new manufacturing jobs. Manufacturing is coming back. We had another company that recently opened its doors about a month ago. They’re employing 50 people now. I rode by there Saturday afternoon and everybody was working on Saturday trying to catch up on some of the production they have … Enrollment at GSW is record enrollment. South Georgia Tech continues to increase its enrollment and I want to work with the people at GSW because I would really like to have a presence in downtown of GSW be in residential or classroom space in downtown. I think that is tantamount to the importance of our downtown and the success of GSW and South Georgia Tech.”
Bernstein then took her two minutes.
“Having served as the chief administrative officer for the city at one point, I can definitely speak to the budget because it’s something that I worked with very closely. First of all, the … value of the mill is continuing to trend down. That’s the way it’s been since I was there. It’s still continuing to trend down. The reason for the money being in the general fund now, the increase in that, is because of the transfers that are occurring from the water and sewer department, our entity funds, the transfers have become bigger to offset the fact that the general fund can’t sustain itself. That’s not fiscal responsibility. Because here’s what will happen. If we take the transfers from the enterprise fund, they get eliminated, and we have a major need within water and sewer like replacing a well, something along those lines, we’re not going to have the money there to do that because we’ve put it in the general fund to make all the additions that we’ve added to the city that the current mayor is referring to. That’s not fiscal responsibility. We’ve inflated the budget is what we’ve done so we can say that we have not raised your taxes. The value of the mill is still trending down regardless of how you look at that.
“I struggle with being able to say that things are going well when I am constantly approached as to why nothing’s any different. There may be a disconnect there between we think we’re doing something but I’m still hearing, ‘what are we doing? What have we done? We have we done the past four years, the past six years?’
“Speaking to Jackson Street … specifically Jackson Street was a SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) activity that I recommended to the mayor and council back we had our last SPLOST decision to come, and that’s because I could not get a list of SPLOST activities from the mayor and council at that time. That was an idea that I came up with and presented to them and recommended to them.
“I was also the one that suggested that we switch the form of government from chief administrative officer to city manager so that the job cannot be dangled in front of that individual at the whim of the seven folks sitting around the room. It prevented corruption from occurring.”
The moderator also recognized some elected officials from the audience who are running unopposed: city council member Lou Chase and city council member Charles Christmas.
Read Part 2 on Wednesday when District 5 contestants speak: incumbent council member Shirley Green Reese and Kelvin Pless.