April 20, 2017 11:08:41 AM
Candidates at the third and final Starkville-Oktibbeha Voter Education Initiative forum agreed members of the next board of aldermen will face a multitude of challenges for a city in the midst of rapid change.
Implementing the city's comprehensive plan, which gained narrow approval on a 4-3 vote in December, will be chief among those issues. The plan sets guidelines for future zoning and land use meant to spur residential growth and economic development. It also sets in motion city officials rewriting development codes -- ranging from zoning and streets to signs and sidewalks -- that by state law must now fit within the parameters of the plan.
Five candidates from three wards attended Wednesday's forum, including incumbent Democrat Jason Walker and Republican challenger Pete Ledlow for the Ward 4; Democrats Patrick Miller and Kayla Gilmore in Ward 5 and incumbent Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn.
Chase Neal, a Republican running for Ward 5 and Margaret Moore, a Democrat running in Ward 7, refused to attend, according to forum organizers. Roben W. Dawkins, a pilot for Mississippi State University and a Republican running in Ward 7, could not attend due to an unexpected flight delay.
Vaughn, speaking on the comprehensive plan, said the next board of aldermen will have to wrestle with deciding where to promote growth as it weighs rezoning and code changes, particularly whether it will be on the east side of Starkville, near Mississippi State University, or the west side of the city.
"Which direction do we go? That's the main thing," Vaughn said. "Do we go east, or do we go west?"
Ledlow said he was happy to see the city's zoning and codes, which he said are out of date, facing an update under the new comprehensive plan.
"I think that it should also make it more appealing for big business and industry to come, to strengthen our tax base," he said. "I don't think we should give our tax money away. We have to be frugal to that and not turn it over to the common citizen to have to pay for this and pay that."
Walker said revamping the codes could allow the city to make development processes more efficient. He also said, noting improvements such as Kroger's upgraded parking lot with its recent renovation on Highway 12, the plan presents a chance for the city to set higher standards to continue attracting residential and commercial projects.
"The real meat of what's going to happen next is the actual zoning and the policy that comes with it," Walker said. "There's no question that we are always trying to strike a balance between what we expect a developer to do and what the quality of life is in return for the citizens of Starkville and we should continue to strive for that."
Candidates also discussed how they might make room in a tight budget to address infrastructure and personnel wage needs.
Gilmore said she had concerns about the city training firefighters and police, who she said often leave Starkville to work elsewhere. She noted that by paying them more it could actually help with budgetary issues because the city wouldn't have to keep spending money to train new responders.
"We train them here and then they go away," Gilmore said. "I'd rather have quality firefighters in the system, within the department and (Fire Chief Charles Yarbrough) is doing a fine job helping to keep it moving. Policing is the same -- I would still rather have quality police instead of having a shortage. We should find the money, cut some of the things we have allocated in this budget and make sure we have great public safety."
Miller also expressed concern about employee turnover. He said aldermen should work with department heads during the budget planning process to find where operating costs could be cut.
"We can't send these folks out for training and then have them here for three to five years, pay for that, pay their salaries and have them quickly turn over and leave our city," he said. "We have to make a proper investment. We have to keep up with and be competitive with salaries here in the Golden Triangle and really the rest of the state of Mississippi."
At the beginning of Wednesday' forum, unopposed Ward 3 incumbent David Little spoke for about five minutes about his vision for the city, also hitting on the comprehensive plan and the need for the city allocating "$750,000 to $1 million" each year to improve and maintain infrastructure.
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