At the close of an often-spirited mayoral election debate Monday night, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and challenger Colin Martin got more pointed toward each other in closing statements than voters have so far seen.
After fielding questions about economic development, crime and law enforcement, property and sales taxes, high speed rail, Fort Benning, recycling, homelessness and even potholes, the candidates swapped jabs during their closing statements.
Martin, strengthening some of his earliest campaign language, cited a continued lack of economic development in south Columbus, a lack of city department audits and police retention problems, among other things, saying it pointed to a lack of leadership.
“Writing a report, issuing a press release and saying you’ve done something isn’t leadership,” Martin said. “On the day I announced my candidacy, seven elected officials sat on the front row, not because of a fight over cutting the budget, but because Teresa Tomlinson has failed to lead. Government is a team effort. Leaders know you can get anything done if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
In her statement, Tomlinson pointed to pension reform, the Health and Wellness Center, Urban Service Districts, Redevelopment Districts, all of which were passed with unanimous support of Columbus Council.
“It is a difficult and arduous task to lead a great city like this one. But that is exactly what you’ve seen,” Tomlinson said. “And yes, there were some folks on the front row of Colin Martin’s opening, but there were more elected officials at my opening.”
Tomlinson pointed out that one of the officials at Martin’s opening was Councilor Glenn Davis, but that didn’t stand in the way of her doing her job.
“Two days after appearing in a picture at Colin Martin’s campaign kickoff, Councilor Davis called me and asked me to help him with his hotel, asked me to go to Washington D.C. with him for the city of Columbus, and I said yes without blinking an eye,” Tomlinson said.
Earlier in the debate, the candidates were asked about whether the city should pursue a high-speed rail connection to Atlanta.
Martin said that should be pushed down the priority list in favor of preparing for the inevitability of the next Base Realignment and Closure changes. “It’s an interesting idea, and I was part of the passenger rail commission, but I would like to see us focus on some more immediate needs first,” Martin said. “Fort Benning is the foundation of our economy. If it continues to shrink the way it has been we won’t have enough people to ride the train, the plane, or whatever. We’ve got to protect that asset.”
In her response, Tomlinson said that Fort Benning has been one of the biggest supporters of the study of high-speed rail concept.
“The garrison commander has attended almost every single one of our meetings and when he was not there, the assistant garrison commander was there,” Tomlinson said. “Because it is that important to Fort Benning’s mission, but also it also helps put us in a good position for the next round of BRAC, because we’d have that type of resource.”
The candidates also disagreed over the city’s controversial property tax assessment freeze.
“I’m for keeping the tax freeze in place so you don’t have to worry about it,” Martin said. “I’ve always thought it was a benefit, like a 30-year mortgage that you know is going to stay level the entire time you’re in the house. You know from day one what your taxes are going to be.”
Tomlinson pointed out that her proposal: a sunset on the tax, would allow people who enjoy the freeze to maintain it as long as they own their house. It would address, she said, the inequities inherent in the current system.
“Actually, we do have what is called a ‘welcome stranger tax” because of our property tax freeze,” Tomlinson said. “It wasn’t intended to be that way, but it’s something that’s grown out of it. It means that if you come to Columbus or even if you decide to downsize, you will be hit with much higher taxes because of the freeze.”
Crime has been a central point of the campaign, especially from Martin’s campaign. Tomlinson was asked how extensive is crime in Columbus and what is the mayor’s role in addressing it.
Tomlinson said it is not the issue that Martin is making it, because crime is down in Columbus statistically over the last several years, and she pointed to recently released FBI statistics that indicate that.
“Again, no crime is to be tolerated, but at the same time, our hard-working law enforcement officers, which I deal with regularly as public safety director, have been doing a great job at solving the crimes that we do have, locking up the people to get them off the street and making Columbus a safer city, and I’m very proud of that record,” Tomlinson said.
Martin said statistics don’t tell the whole story. He spoke of people who have lost loved ones to crime and people who hear gunshots in the night their neighborhoods, and cited a recent poll that indicated that many people in Columbus a concerned about crime.
“The crime statistics we hear about don’t include drug arrests, they don’t include misdemeanors. Those are all crimes that affect people,” Martin said. “We saw the results of the Gallup poll . Forty-nine percent are afraid to walk alone on our streets. That’s a problem.”