Politics & Government

Mayor looks to change city for next generation: ‘We’re building their Columbus, not my Columbus’

Columbus Mayor B.H. “Skip” Henderson III says there haven’t been too many surprises during his first six months in office.

That’s probably because he spent the previous 21 years as District 10 at-large councilor. Henderson was first elected to the 10-member council in 1996 and won five at-large elections over two decades of service.

In the May 2018 primary, Henderson snagged 56.4% of the vote and was sworn in Jan. 7 as Columbus’ 70th mayor.

Getting used to the speed of daily issues and demand for quick resolution has been the biggest learning curve, he said.

“There are some long hours but I anticipated that, and frankly I enjoy it,” Henderson said Monday.

During the past few months he’s created a series of ‘how to’ videos explaining city services, passed the 2020 budget with salary increases and $1 million to fight blight, and formed the Mayor’s Re-Entry Commission to fight recidivism.

Henderson sat down with reporter Allie Dean and talked about his expectations, plans for the Government Center, budgeting priorities and building Columbus for future generations.

Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.

Q: If you had one or two words to sum up your first six months, what would they be?

A: My wife would tell you I can’t do anything in one or two words. But I would say “collaborative.” We’ve tried very hard to create new relationships and really strengthen some of the existing relationships with the mayor’s office and with the city.

Q: One of the first things you had to accomplish was presenting the 2020 budget. What was that process like?

A: We started in January, and even though I had some experience as a budget chair, it was really a completely different exercise. But we’re actually starting this year’s budget process in August. I think starting in the late third and early fourth quarter is essential to being able to strategize on where you want to go with the budget.

I had about three priorities in that first budget and I was able to meet them. First, I was able to deliver to council a budget balanced without using fund balance. Second, I wanted to do something for the people who take care of the people of Columbus, the employees. And we did, we were able to give a net 2% pay increase.

And the third thing we wanted to do was come up with some way to make a large impact on this community. So we put $1 million in the demolition budget. That was important to me, to do something that will have an impact on crime, poverty, all those things.

Q: The fate of the Government Center has attracted a lot of attention. Where are your office and the city manager’s office in that process?

A: I view our job as to try to make sure we give good information to council so they can make a decision. We went through some public hearings, we’re actually bringing someone to do a presentation of how Atlanta has approached some of these larger initiatives at the next council meeting, just so council has some idea of what one successful path is to major construction. We’ve never built anything, I don’t think, the size and with as big a price tag as we’re likely to see with the Government Center. We hope to whittle it down to two options and see if we can’t get something moving pretty quickly on that. It’s going to be a long process anyway, whichever route we take. I would like to get that process nailed down in July.

Q: Do you still want to use a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to pay for it?

A: I was pretty outspoken from the get-go that I think that’s the best way to do it. Council has indicated that they are unanimously interested in asking the public for a continuation of the SPLOST that’s already on there now. There is an (Education) SPLOST that rolls off, and when that rolls off this one would start. If we issue debt, then the only people that are going to bear the burden of paying it back are property owners in Muscogee County. But a SPLOST would enable us to hold our contribution down to anywhere from 60 to 70%, depending on whose numbers you believe on how much folks outside of the county contribute to it.

Q: Let’s talk critical vacancies: The police department has over 90 vacancies, the sheriff has over 30 vacancies and the fire department is down about a dozen people. Where do you think these critical staffing vacancies stem from and what is your plan to address it?

A: To me the fire department vacancies are the real litmus test, because I remember just 10 years ago, they’d have two vacancies and have 500 people apply for a firefighter position. Obviously we need to try to get the pay to a level where people can earn a living, and make a living without working part time jobs. But I think that we also have to try to make sure the environment that they’re working is attractive to the younger folks that are looking for jobs right now. Right now you’ve got people coming right out of school earning $60,000 a year at a tech center or doing programming or database management, so I think it’s altered the talent pool that’s available out there. We’re constantly looking for ways to try to improve that.

Q: Something else you’ve been vocal about is crime.

A: Yes, everybody constantly wants to know what we’re doing about crime. Our approach has been three-pronged: enforcement, obviously; young people; and recidivism. We formed the Mayor’s Re-Entry Commission that is focused on reintegrating released felons back into society. We were able to get the Passport to Columbus expanded tremendously. We’re also trying to bring back the old summer youth work program. We didn’t get the funding this year but the funding is already identified for next year. We’re hoping this will give young people up to age 18 some more positive options.

Q: The continued closure of the Psalmond Road and Shirley Winston pools has been a hot button issue this summer. What’s the holdup on a solution?

A: The problem we have right now from a finance standpoint is that just to find out what’s wrong with them it would cost anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 a pool just to check it out, then you have to go about the repair work. So if you’re going to put that kind of money in it we’re going to do our due diligence, we’re going to look and determine whether they should be completely rebuilt, whether we should go to splash pads or something in between. Because if you spend $3 million a year for pool operations and they’re open nine weeks. . .But we also have to listen to what the public wants.

Q: What’s one area where you see opportunity for growth in Columbus?

A: One of the things I think we have a tremendous opportunity with is bringing in and engaging with younger people, millennials. We’re building their Columbus, not my Columbus. It seems like over the last several years I’ve seen the young arts scene just completely explode and we’re getting these young, very bright individuals that are engaging now and taking an active role. One of the things we’ve always talked about in Columbus, it’s kind of our secret sauce, is the public-private partnership deal. Right now we should be looking and identifying who’s next man, next woman up, who’s going to replace these individuals who’ve been leaders in this community for so long. Something else I think the younger individuals can do is help guide us on how they want to be communicated to. We do a pretty good job, but we’ve got to get better at telling our story. When people come to Columbus they’re amazed at what they see, because they had no idea.

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Allie Dean is the Columbus city government and accountability reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer, and also writes about new restaurants, developments and issues important to readers in the Chattahoochee Valley. She’s a graduate of the University of Georgia.