Two of the three candidates vying for the District 1 seat on Columbus Council battled in a highly contested runoff in 2006 and the third is a longtime resident of the community.
Incumbent Councilor Jerry “Pops” Barnes faces opposition from former councilor Nathan Suber and newcomer Alfred L. Stewart in the Nov. 2 general election.
“I’m a councilor 24/7,” said Barnes, who defeated Suber in a runoff. “It gives me a good feeling to serve.”
For Suber, the race gives the outspoken challenger another chance to connect with voters, who failed to re-elect him almost four years ago. “I’ve got to be consistent,” Suber said.
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Stewart said he will use listening and communicating skills he acquired during 37 years as an educator to make a difference on the 10-member council. “I feel good about the campaign,” he said.
Here’s how the three candidates responded to four issues facing the Columbus Consolidated Government over the next four years:
Adding 100 police officers on the streets has made a difference in Columbus, even though the bigger force has stretched resources in the Muscogee County Jail, the courts and the city’s ability to provide pension benefits. “More people have told me they feel safe as they see more blue and whites,” Barnes said. He said he would need more information to consider more officers.
To increase revenue required to fund public safety, Barnes said the city could increase fines that people pay in courts for offenses.
Stewart said he supports the additional police on the street but doesn’t want more because of the resources they are requiring in other areas. If elected, he would talk to the police chief and try to get 10 of the 100 officers placed in each council district. “That police officer is not to be pulled out for any other duties,” Stewart said. “That way, he or she can get to know the district, the people and let them recognize when they see a stranger in the district.”
Suber said residents want to feel safe and see an abundance of officers on the streets. He doesn’t support adding more to public safety when millions in pension benefits have been lost already and there will be salary issues in the future. “Promises are being made,” Suber said. “I don’t see how you will be able to do this if you don’t have that much money.”
All the candidates agree the city’s budget must be balanced in the future but can’t rely on the reserve fund or fund balance. Council agreed to take $5.7 million from the reserve fund to balance its $280 million budget.
Barnes said the property tax freeze, which keeps taxes at the move-in value unless renovations are made, is hurting the city. At political forums, he said, some residents have suggested the city grandfather current property owners in under the freeze and lift the freeze to generate more revenue. “That is something that will bring in a lot of money,” he said.
With 28,000 soldiers and their families moving to Fort Benning as part of Base Realignment and Closure, Barnes said business activity should improve in the area.
Stewart said city officials should set aside money each year to meet future demands on the budget if money is not in the reserve fund. “It will be like a reserve, but it will be for reserve or whatever shortfall we have,” he said.
Suber noted the budget for the Office of Crime Prevention is $1 million this fiscal year and could go up to $2 million in the future. That was a promise from the mayor when the office was put together.
“We still have got to find money to balance the budget,” Suber said. “When I get into the budget session, I don’t have an answer for that. Once I talk to the city manager and look at it from council’s perspective, there’s got to be some cuts somewhere.”
The city is spending more than $32 million to build a city services center, natatorium and parking garage on Macon Road. Candidates support the project that was part of the 1999 sales tax .
Barnes said the new location for council chambers and other offices serving the public will make it more convenient. “One of the biggest things that hurt people is the parking,” Barnes said. “This makes it easier for everybody all the way around. That is a big blessing for people.”
Stewart said the services center will give more people access to government than the downtown location. “Everybody doesn’t have transportation to get downtown,” he said. “We already have transportation problems in our city anyway. Elderly people, after a certain hour, can’t get any place and some people don’t have the mobility.”
Residents spoke out for the change from downtown, Suber said. “Citizens were complaining it would be more convenient if you put us out here where it is more convenient,” Suber said.
Accountability in government
The city has internal auditor John Redmond, who first uncovered problems in the Parks and Recreation Department, but more oversight is needed at the department level, Barnes said. Bi-monthly meetings could be held to keep track of every department in the government.
As a retired military veteran, Barnes said such accountability problems aren’t possible in the military and the best practices of private business could be used in city government.
The mayor must lead efforts to control finances in departments. Monthly meetings could be held to check the status of each department, Stewart said. “You can get it before this thing gets out of hand,” he said.
Suber, who didn’t support the internal auditor’s position during his last year in office, said he still feels the same way. He pointed to more than 25 audits completed by the auditor that were kept from the council for months, violating the ordinance. It included one on a black fire battalion chief who found tacks in the tires of her city issued vehicle shortly after she was promoted.
In another investigation, council learned after the fact when $1.3 million was paid by a department manager for police equipment in violation of city policy, Suber said.
Employees in government are the best watchdog for the city, Suber said. “People need to have confidence in elected officials to do the right thing when nothing can happen,” he said. “Employees have to assist elected officials in ratting out, talking to someone they can trust. I was a person some employees felt they could call if you wanted to report something and it would not cause that employee to lose their job. That is having an open-door communication. As we have seen in the past, the internal auditor doesn’t handle all situations.”