Tax hikes designed to drive growth have caused a fair share of consternation in Phenix City in recent months, but that didn't stop one City Council candidate from wading into risky waters Monday when asked about means of generating new revenues.
"We need to continue growing and without taxation we cannot grow," declared Norman K. Cook, one of five candidates vying for the District 1 seat in the Aug. 28 municipal election. "I believe that sales tax is a great equalizer. I believe it's our duty to pay our fair share for everything in the city."
Council drew criticism last year for implementing a series of tax increases tied to a multimillion-dollar capital improvement project. The sales tax increased from 8 percent to 8.75, the lodging tax was bumped 2 percent and council also implemented an unpopular business license fee on owners of rental properties that has been dubbed the "renter's tax."
In light of the city's ambitions for economic development, council candidates were asked at a town hall meeting whether they would support additional tax increases or try to find other means of generating revenues to support new projects.
Keith Ingram, who also is running for the District 1 seat, said there are "other ways to get the numbers up without overtaxing the citizens" of Phenix City. "We pay more taxes than our sister cities," he said. "There's no reason that we can't operate like they do."
The tax topic was one of many that divided the candidates, who fielded questions that ranged from their take on Obamacare to the arts and an accident-prone lumberyard. For the second time in as many weeks, spectators filled the pews of the old Gaines Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church to hear from a crowded field of candidates.
Frankie Horace, a former Phenix City School Board member running for Arthur L. Sumbry Sr.'s District 3 seat, offered his thanks to the incumbents. "If it weren't for our present council, a lot of us would not be running," Horace said.
Gail Head, a retired educator, acknowledged she was outside her comfort zone and hadn't planned on running. She thinks District 2 needs a voice, but she punted an opportunity to differentiate herself from incumbent Michelle E. Walker, saying she'd leave it to the voters to decide "if I can do anything better."
Walker called on voters to think before they shop. "I find myself now -- since I know what taxes do in the community -- taking more time to decide where I shop at," she said. "I used to be quick to run over to Columbus until I found out how our revenue is taken into the city."
Steve Bailey, a District 1 candidate, spoke briefly of his father Don Bailey's tenure as mayor, and said his people skills made him the man to represent the city's north side. "If you can stay in business for 40 years selling used cars in a small town and keep an honest name and make people happy, you're capable of doing other things in life," Bailey said, promising to be available if elected.
Arthur Day, a candidate for District 3, said he'd try to eliminate disparities between the north and south sides of town, while Jim Cannon, a District 1 candidate, said he wouldn't mind seeing a museum to showcase the city's rich, if checkered, past.
"This city is moving whether you like it or not," said Sumbry, whose son Pontez Sumbry is running against him in District 3 but did not attend Monday's forum.
Mel Long, president of Citizens United for Revitalization and Economic Development, said the recent candidate forums have allowed residents to get to know the candidates a little better. "A lot of time they go to vote and don't know who the heck they're voting for," he said in a recent interview.
Many of the candidates will be back in action at 6:30 p.m. today at the Central High School auditorium, 2400 Dobbs Drive. Twenty of the 22 candidates are expected to attend tonight's forum, which is being hosted by the Concerned Citizens Committee.
Councilman Jimmy Wetzel, anticipating a "partisan ambush," said last week he wouldn't attend the forum, in part because the rules of the event had not been made clear to the candidates. But Wetzel had a change of heart after talking to several supporters and said he planned to attend.
Tom Corley, a founding member of the Concerned Citizens Committee, said candidates will have an opportunity to introduce themselves and then draw questions out of a hat specific to their district.
"If we attract 300 or so people I'll be extremely pleased," he said. "Nothing would be more rewarding if we could pack that auditorium."