Mayor tells the good and bad of leading Columbus for seven years

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s brightest day in office occurred when she visited second graders at a local school and helped a Mexican foster boy feel better about himself.

Her darkest day was when four elected officials sued the Columbus Consolidated Government over budget issues, she said Friday during her last State of the City Address.

Tomlinson, in her final year of office, told both stories during an interview-style presentation hosted by the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. She sat on a set with the city’s new logo, “Columbus Georgia: We do amazing,” as a backdrop. Brian Anderson, the chamber’s president and CEO, served as moderator. Attendees received colorful handouts with charts highlighting the mayor’s accomplishments.

Telling the story of her darkest moment, she recalled the day in November of 2014 when attorneys — representing former Sheriff John Darr, former Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce, Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop — held what she described as “a bombastic press conference.”

When local media showed up for her response, a Ledger-Enquirer photographer took a photo of her that still hangs in her office. She said her eyes reflect how she was feeling.

“I remember exactly what I was thinking at that time,” she said. “I was thinking that this was going to be such a divisive, such a wasteful, long, long trip, and I was literally, physically nauseous; and that it was going to the very root of the things that citizens care about, which is: Are we good stewards of the taxpayers’ money?”

“... But in the end we were vindicated,” she continued. “And now we’re back on course.”

In addition to reflecting on such moments, the mayor emphasized what she considered achievements over the past seven years, such as neighborhood revitalization and the expansion of bike trails and other amenities that have made the city more appealing to millennials.

When it came to crime, the most controversial issue of her tenure, she said the overall crime rate had dropped to the lowest level in 33 years. She said there has been a 39 percent decrease in Part I crimes since 2009, when the city reported 15,812.

Yet, she acknowledged a significant increase in the number of murders from 2016 to 2017, which jumped from 24 to 35, according to Columbus Police Department statistics.

Rapes are up 13 percent and aggravated assaults up 2 percent, according to a news release issued Friday afternoon by her office. Robberies are down by 20 percent.

“A reduction in crime rate does not mean there is no crime in Columbus, or that there is not serious crime in Columbus,” the mayor said in the release. “What it does mean is that we are making significant strides to reduce crime overall and that those reductions are being sustained over the long-term. We are particularly encouraged to see decreases in property crimes and in violent crimes. That being said, we still have a great deal of work ahead of us.”

At the luncheon, she said some leaders have been irresponsible with how they’ve talked about crime on social media. She asked the audience to familiarize themselves with information in the handouts provided so they could be better informed when discussing the issue.

When Anderson asked if it was tough being a female leader, Tomlinson said gender issues still exist.

“I will say that I never experienced gender discrimination as a professional; one, because I worked in a law firm and the men knew better,” she said jokingly. “But, I have to say, that you would not believe the things that come out of people’s mouths when you hold public office.

“I hate to say this, but I feel bad for (Police) Chief Boren because I think he takes a lot of water sometimes because it’s a female Public Safety Director that some folk don’t want to believe is presiding over a time in which crime has fallen 39 percent,” she said. “And that’s fine with me. Look, I can handle it. I got into this business because I have a super thick skin. I guess it’s genetic.

“... But I think you just need to think about that a little bit,” she said. “Why is it so hard to hear from a female leader certain information that if a male colleague said it, you wouldn’t have any problem with it?”

At the same time, people became more accustomed to seeing a woman mayor, she said, and she believes many young women and girls have been inspired.

Tomlinson also acknowledged many of the challenges she has faced overseeing the city’s budget due to the Great Recession, low city revenues, a sequester threat, along with draw-downs at Fort Benning.

“The effect in Columbus was just incredibly long,” she said of the recession. “And of course, the council, just before I got in, did what every single council in the world should have done, which was rely on the rainy day fund because, ‘How long can a recession last, right?’”

She said councilors were “prudently, and dutifully using that savings account to get us through those bumpy years.” But in 2014, the city was faced with “a brick wall” and there were no more savings.

“A lot of people don’t realize this, but since I came into office, our revenues have decreased 4.3 percent,” she said. “And so, we had to get smart.”

To address the issue, Tomlinson said the city reformed its pension program under her leadership. The changes have saved the city $18 million to date and are expected to save $55 million in the first 10 years, she said. Officials also got innovative about health care, starting a health and wellness center, reducing costs from $27 million to $23 million a year. Such measures helped the city avert laying off 120 people, she said.

Asked whether she was bullish about the city’s financial future, the mayor expressed optimism.

“Yeah, I think there’s a little bit of breathing room,” she said. “You can see in some of the charts that we’re finally seeing an uptick in our property tax digest, so that’s a good trend. We’re finally upticking in our sales tax; that looks good.

“And we are very lean; we’re very efficient,” she said. “We have a proactive executive staff. ... I think maybe for the future the tough political challenge will be not to revert to ...old habits of funding things that maybe we shouldn’t have been funding and keeping on with pension reform and so forth to continue reaping those benefits. We are so ready to jump into this future.”

Anderson asked Tomlinson what she considered her transformational legacy as the first non-Baby Boomer mayor of the consolidated government, and she mentioned her efforts to bring Columbus into the 21st century.

“When I was running in 2010, the city was on the cusp of a really transformational time, in and of itself, regardless of who the next mayor was going to be,” she said. “But I do think, bringing to it, sort of this generational bridge, from the Baby Boomers to the GenX generation, brought a certain amount of energy and excitement at the right time for this city.”

Tomlinson said the city was transitioning to a minority-majority city at time, which posed a significant challenge.

“... If you don’t have leadership with deep bona fides in all cultures and communities throughout your community, that can be a very unstable, very volatile time,” she said. “So I think we needed somebody who not only had that bona fides, but also was very communicative, who spent a lot of time in all of those areas, and realized and honored that the city was making this huge transformation.”

She said the city also was becoming a much more sophisticated economy, transitioning from a mill manufacturing and financial sector town to a more creative environment.

“And so, you needed a mayor that would boldly embrace things like Creative South and say, ‘You’re not anti-establishment; you’re exactly what we want in Columbus,’” she said. “You know the cultural arts development in Columbus, everything from Najee Dorsey to Bo Bartlett; not just having CSU and all the generous sponsors that supported those various artists, but saying the mayor supports this too. So I think that sort of energy really added to that transformation.”

When Anderson asked, what she thinks people might talk about years from now regarding her accomplishments, Tomlinson didn’t hesitate.

“Well, I know what’s going to be talked about as a major accomplishment is going to be the high-speed rail from the Columbus Airport to the Atlanta Airport,” she said. “Now, that may be 10, 20 years from now, but somebody had to get that ball rolling.”

Tomlinson said the city has been meeting with federal and state officials about the project, and it’s definitely going to happen.

“The Columbus to Atlanta high-speed passenger rail is probably one of the top three to five most viable passenger rail lines in the country,” she said. “... And when and if that happens - and I’m going to say when it happens — our airport is going to become the low-cost, carrier hub for the southeastern region of the United States.

“ ... At that point we’re going to be catapulting ourselves into a completely different economic environment than we have ever been,” she said. “We’re not talking hundreds of jobs, Brian. We’re talking thousands of jobs at that point. ... So, remember me when.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter