Today the Ledger-Enquirer begins a weeklong series of Q&A articles with candidates in the May 20 local nonpartisan elections.
Each candidate vying for a Columbus Council or a Muscogee County School Board seat was asked to answer a series of questions.
First up is the race for mayor of Columbus, pitting incumbent Teresa Tomlinson against challenger Colin Martin.
Tomlinson is in the fourth year of her first term, having defeated Zeph Baker in a 2010 runoff. A native of Atlanta, Tomlinson came to Columbus at 29 after she had graduated from Emory University School of Law and took a job with Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison & Norwood. In 2006, she took a hiatus from practicing law to serve as executive director of Midtown Inc., then she ran for mayor in 2010, her first run for public office.
Martin is a native of Columbus, having grown up in Oakland Park and graduated from Pacelli High School. A University of Georgia graduate, Martin served in the U.S. Army National Guard and Reserve. The former vice president for governmental affairs for the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce now works as business manager for his wife's medical clinic. His only previous run for office was a loss to Glenn Davis in the 2002 election for the Columbus Council Post 2 seat.
Here are their answers to questions about a variety of issues in Columbus including crime and poverty:
1. Can the budget deficit be erased? If so, how?
Tomlinson: Absolutely. We are making great progress toward that goal. We reformed our Pension Plan to save $27 million over 15 years and our Worker's Compensation administration to save $235,000 annually. We are in the process of reforming our employee health care system to maintain value but reduce the cost to taxpayers by $4.5 million a year. By containing these costs, we have, for the first time since 2007, added back monies to our General Fund Reserve -- all without the loss of jobs or services. On the other side of the equation, we are reforming our Tax Assessor's Office to reap millions of dollars in efficiencies. Notably, we have had one of the best job performance records in the state and have unanimously passed targeted abatements and incentives to expand our tax base through growth. Columbus now has a population of 202,000 and is again the second largest city in Georgia.
Martin: Yes. With the continued growth of our industrial and commercial industries, we can broaden the base of taxpayers without increasing the burden on current taxpayers, particularly homeowners. The commercial and industrial businesses pay property taxes, occupational taxes, and may generate sales taxes, as well as create jobs for residents. We must also connect Columbus residents with jobs created in Columbus through training, especially employable skills, and by ensuring that public transportation is available to industrial parts where many new jobs are created.
2. Does Columbus have a crime problem?
Tomlinson: If there is one crime, there is a problem. We have experienced approximately 13,000 Part 1 crimes annually since 2011. That is 13,000 crimes too many, but less than the approximately 15,800 crimes a year we had in the 2008-2009 time frame prior to the implementation of the Other Local Option Sales Tax for Public Safety and Infrastructure. These last three years, our crime rate has been about 2,800 crimes a year less than the years prior to OLOST implementation. That means our investment is working. Now that crime has been reduced 15 percent or so, we have to lower it more. That is what we are working on with our Intelligence Based Policing Software, our Directed Patrols and our plan to reorganize the city into three patrolling zones for more concentrated policing. We also are implementing effective crime prevention programs and looking to others, such as the Cure Violence model.
Martin: Citizens that I have talked to consistently say that we do. Certainly, the trend is up in a number of Part 1 crimes, which are the most serious offenses. Murder is up 29 percent. Robbery is up 18 percent. In 2013, 646 more burglaries and 266 more motor vehicle thefts occurred over 2012. In 2008, voters decided to invest 70 percent of a permanent sales tax in public safety. We are not getting a return on that investment. Further, we need to admit that we have a gang problem. According to the police officers that I have spoken with, 11 gangs operate in Columbus. On March 31, a man was arraigned for criminal gang activity. The detective outlined his membership in a gang, his known associates, and the pattern of criminal activity that led to this charge. Now is the time to intervene on this activity before it gets worse.
3. Why can't the police department retain officers?
Tomlinson: Attracting, hiring and retaining proficient police officers is of the highest priority. About 50 percent of the officers we hire choose another path within the first two years. The chief and I realize that we need to move beyond the traditional job fairs and referrals to fill these important positions. We have received donated branding services to create our new "Join the Force for Good" campaign, which already is increasing applications. The Columbus Police Department has set up its own Facebook page and is advertising on social media through targeted marketing. Because of the demand for well-trained police officers, we have to transform the way we hire and retain officers. Our pay is competitive, but we need to look at longevity bonuses, as well as the hiring bonuses we already have in place. We can't be in the business of "hand-wringing," but must be in the business of solution making.
Martin: Police officers tell me that pay and retirement benefits are part of the problem. As public safety director, I will work with City Council and the public safety leadership to find a long-term solution to this problem. I will also treat public safety personnel -- in fact, all city employees -- with the dignity and respect they have earned. In an article in the April 6, 2014, edition of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police cited "bully tactics" as one reason that public safety morale is low. That will end when I am mayor. Our citizens have invested millions of dollars in public safety. Keeping officers longer than five years is critical to getting a return on that investment.
4. How big an issue is poverty and homelessness in Columbus? Can you narrow the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots"?
Tomlinson: We are on the verge of ending homelessness as we know it in Columbus, Ga. Through our 10-Year Plan and community partners, we have been able to develop a comprehensive solution that leads with the nationally successful "Housing First" strategy. We will now be able to house 150 of our chronically homeless through new programs and services for the supportive housing of veterans, the mentally ill and the addicted. We are developing a one-stop Opportunity Resource Center concept to address those individuals/families that can sustain long-term housing, but need guidance to get back on their feet. We also are addressing our city's poverty rate through initiatives that plan better communities. No longer can we afford to separate our families, neighborhoods and schools by income. Bringing mixed-income families in-town through increased quality of life, better planning and infrastructure investments helps balance our community resources and combat large swaths of poverty and blight.
Martin: Both issues are major issues for our city. Recruiting industry to Columbus, preparing our workforce for the jobs created, and providing public transportation to those jobs would go a long way toward alleviating poverty. The Muscogee County School District plays a major role, as well, by ensuring that students read at grade level by the end of third grade. The public, private and nonprofit sector all play a role in addressing poverty. I walked through a homeless encampment under the Veterans Parkway bridge between Third and Fifth avenues. I observed that this is truly a community and the people living there are resourceful. Those who serve our homeless population tell me that better coordination of the services provided would help us better serve this community. Both the service providers and members of the homeless community should have a voice in the process toward a solution.
5. Do you think it is a good idea to use taxpayer money to incentivize companies to attract and retain jobs in Columbus? Has this worked in the past?
Tomlinson: Columbus is one of a few communities that has a matrix to measure the expected return before investing in economic development. Much of the growth impact from incentives is measured in assumed new jobs, population growth and the resulting revenue spin-off. If this growth chooses to live beyond our county's borders, the impact of the incentive may be lessened. That's why I urge enhancing quality of life in conjunction with incentives. When you have a great city that offers a high quality of life, then companies and their employees want to be here and they require fewer incentives to be a part of the vibrancy. When we invest in ourselves through whitewater, the Fall Line Trace and infrastructure projects, we actually are making Columbus more competitive for economic development prospects. The more competitive we are, the fewer incentives are required to land big prospects.
Martin: We have seen a "race to the bottom" in states giving away more and more incentives to attract industry. At the same time, more Georgia cities and counties are chasing the economic incentives the state provides to companies. This creates a hyper-competitive environment. The economic development team at the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce uses a spreadsheet that determines whether the jobs a company creates will offset the incentives given. We must include strong claw-back provisions in any incentive contracts if the company fails to live up to its promise. We must also balance giving away incentives with investing in our workforce. If we have a well-trained workforce that is ready to employ, we will not need to give away as many incentives to attract businesses to Columbus.