May 19, 2017 10:39:05 AM
Alex Holloway - [email protected]
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said he's proud of the Columbus' progress in his time on the council, but there's still work to do.
Box, a Republican who is seeking his third term on the council, spoke to the Columbus Exchange Club on Thursday. Charlotte Braxton Verdell, Box's Democratic challenger in the June 6 general election, had planned to attend but was unable due to a death in the family.
Box's talk covered a range of issues, from public safety and the recently created city-county drug task force to recreation. He spoke about infrastructure and the challenges it poses to the city.
Specifically, Box said the city has old clay pipes, which are starting to crumble. He said a study engineering firm Neel-Schaffer conducted in 2000 found, at the time, addressing all of the city's infrastructure needs -- road improvements and storm drainage improvements -- could cost more than $100 million. Now, nearly 20 years later, Box said he wouldn't be surprised if the cost had doubled.
He said cost is the biggest challenge to improving infrastructure. The city could do more, he said, but to do that, councilmen would have to raise taxes, which he said it has tried to avoid whenever possible.
"Columbus could pave every street, we could fix every pothole, we could fix all the infrastructure -- the crumbling pipes and all that -- we could build new parks if we could just raise your taxes," Box said. "That's where our money comes from. We don't get money from any other sources. Now we get some grant money that we've been able to leverage and do a lot of work with, but the only income we have to work with are sales tax and ad valorem.
"So if y'all want the Cadillac, we can give it to you, but your taxes are gonna go up," he added.
Thoughts on CMSD
Box also expressed concern about the Columbus Municipal School District, which he called a "problem" for Columbus. The district has maintained a D in Mississippi's public school accountability rating system for the last three years. Box, citing Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins, said the school district's poor rating is one of the biggest challenges in drawing development to the city.
He also spoke on the CMSD board's recent decision not to extend Superintendent Philip Hickman's contract. The board voted 3-2 against the extension on May 8.
"The school board voted not to extend his contract, which means at the end of this next school year he will not be rehired unless they have another vote," Box said. "I don't think they should, unless they show some improvement. They need to see that D move away and move down to at least a C, and hopefully it will."
Box defends letter
Box also, in response to a club member's question, mounted a defense of a campaign mailer that has stirred controversy for its racial connotations.
The councilman confirmed on Monday he sent the letter last week to up to 700 supporters.
"On June 6, 2017, Columbus will have one of the most important elections it has held in many years," the first line of the letter reads. "We have a rare opportunity to maintain the current racial make up of the council at 4-2. We may even be able to move it to 3-3 for the first time in recent history. If we don't go vote, we could wind up with 6-0 on the council and I think that will be disastrous for the city. We MUST get our voters out to the polls on June 6."
The letter appears to appeal to the council's racial composition, which includes four black councilmen and two white councilmen. Box has repeatedly denied that's the case. On Thursday, he blamed The Dispatch -- who first reported on the letter on Tuesday -- for making it seem like something he said it wasn't.
Box also said the "we" in his letter referred to Columbus' citizenry, rather than a specific group. He originally claimed "we" meant his Republican base.
"'We,' when I was talking about this, really means the people of Columbus," Box said. "I meant we do not need an all-black city council. We do not need an all-white city council. That's what I meant to say. I stand by that. We need racial diversity in city government. We need racial diversity on the council. We've had a 4-2 (black-white) split ever since I've been up there--it's worked pretty good."