City finances, infrastructure and crime were the three issues that dominated Thursday’s municipal candidate forum held at Lyceum at Lee.
Nine of the 14 contested candidates introduced themselves and answered questions submitted by citizens at the event, which was sponsored by The Dispatch, WCBI and Lyceum at Lee. Originally set for March 25, the event was rescheduled to Thursday due to the threat of severe weather.
Keith Gaskin, one of two independents running against incumbent Democratic Mayor Robert Smith, said Columbus can’t begin to adequately solve any of its other problems without good fiscal management. Smith did not attend the forum because he is still home recovering from a medical issue that hospitalized him Feb. 28. He has been away from work ever since.
“The finances have a direct impact on all the major issues that we face, whether it’s crime, whether it’s education, whether it’s potholes in the street,” Gaskin said. “All the issues that we deal with come down to a solid financial base in the city.”
Gaskin said the first thing he would do if elected is request an audit of city finances, which he promised would be made public to citizens.
Gaskin was far from the only candidate to bring up city finances. Kallie Phillips, an independent challenging Ward 1 Democratic Councilwoman Ethel Stewart, said she entered the race specifically to help solve the city’s financial issues and touted her nearly 20 years as a certified public accountant.
“I have run $400 million budgets, and I have never over-budgeted, even when dealing with foreign exchange rates,” said Phillips, who worked for PACCAR when it came to Columbus in 2010. “Our budget in the city of Columbus is something to be laughed at. It definitely needs attention and it definitely needs me to give it attention, as the only CPA candidate running for this election.”
The city operated at a deficit exceeding $800,000 in both Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018, plunging its general fund balance to $2.3 million and causing the city council to implement a hiring freeze and several other cost-cutting measures in 2019.
Former Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, who resigned in early 2019 for failing to alert the council to the deficit before November 2018, was arrested last year and pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $290,000 of the city’s funds.
Forum moderator Aundrea Self, a news anchor for WCBI, specifically asked each candidate whether they have any budgetary experience. Several candidates said they had managed finances for businesses, organizations or even their own families. Democrat Marty Turner, who formerly served as Ward 4 councilman from 2009 to 2017 and is trying to take back the same seat from sitting councilman Pierre Beard, pointed to his experience on the council.
“While I was on the council, I was on the budget committee,” Turner said. “We didn’t have a problem then because I looked at the docket of claims.”
Ward 3 Republican candidate Rusty Greene pointed to his experience as athletic director for Columbus Municipal School District, where he managed the budget for the entire athletics program.
“It was very detailed,” he said. “It took a lot of time, it took a lot of organization, so I feel like my
experience as an administrator in the school system gave me the background I have for the budget.”
Gavin, the only sitting council member to attend the forum, said he’s been on the city’s budget committee for eight of the 12 years he’s been on council. From things like unexpected problems with city vehicles to the rising cost of insurance for employees, there are many issues that can “slip through the cracks,” he said.
“These are things that you have to take into consideration,” Gavin said. “… It’s not like budgeting your own household. It’s close, and the same principles still apply, but there are a lot of factors that you have to factor in.”
Other candidates who attended the forum included independent mayoral candidate Montrell Coburn; Ward 3 Democratic candidate Sally Brown Tate; Ward 4 Democratic candidate Pat Fisher Douglas; and Ward 6 candidate Jacqueline DiCicco.
In addition to Smith, candidates who did not attend included Stewart and her Democratic challenger Tommy Jackson in Ward 1; independent candidate Kori Bridges in Ward 3; and Beard in Ward 4. Beard had initially planned to attend the forum when it was scheduled for March 25, but could not attend Thursday.
Infrastructure and crime
Greene, Tate, Gavin and DiCicco all named infrastructure issues — from drainage to street paving — as among the biggest challenges in their respective wards.
While Gavin pointed to a current paving project on Fifth Street North in front of Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, DiCicco suggested the city should hire “professionals not politicians” to assess which roads in the city need the most work and come up with a plan that prioritizes them. She also said the road in front of the hospital was in particular need of work.
“We need a comprehensive plan to pay as we go, and we need professionals and not politicians to assess the needs and prioritize what needs to be done first,” she said.
Tate said she already has citizens approaching her about infrastructure issues in Ward 3. She pointed to drainage issues on Taylor Street, which she said always floods when it rains, and potholes on Sheffield Road.
“I know that we want to take care of roads that are heavily traveled, but it’s not fair to taxpayers,” she said. “… They want to walk out and drive on their streets, on any streets in Ward 3, so we want to look at taking care of the whole ward, not just parts of the ward.”
Tate also pointed to crime and said citizens — and the city — must support Columbus Police Department and ensure it has the resources it needs to hire officers. Currently, CPD is budgeted for 64 officers, she pointed out, with only 51 in place, though more have been hired pending completion of training at the police academy in Pearl.
Turner and Douglas also pointed to crime as a major challenge concerning the residents in Ward 4, with Douglas pointing specifically to “guns, gambling and a lack of education.”
“The suspects, they run from my neighborhood to your neighborhood,” Douglas said. “So we have got to be one. We cannot say, ‘Well this is my section of town. You live over there.’ No, we are one Columbus.”
Turner said the biggest challenge in Ward 4 was poverty.
“Poverty leads to hopelessness,” he said. “Hopelessness leads to crime.”
He said much of the city’s crime is committed by teenagers and proposed coming up with programs to work with youth because “those are the people who can be saved and be rehabilitated and be successful citizens.”
Candidates also promised to bring the community together, with Douglas saying she encourages residents to “stay informed” through engagement with local media. Gavin suggested reinvigorating ward meetings with department heads where citizens could ask questions, and DiCicco said she wanted to partner with local schools to get members of the community tutoring students.
Coburn said he is a “visionary” who is running for mayor to “bring people together,” which he said would help with economic development in the city.
“The biggest challenge that we’re facing … was getting the citizens to think outside of the box and not resort to what always makes people feel comfortable,” he said.
A recording of the forum will air on MyMS Sunday at 11 a.m.
Primary elections in Wards 1, 4 and 6 will be held Tuesday. The general election is June 8.