We sat down with all three candidates for Warner Robins mayor. Candidates Joe Musselwhite, Chuck Shaheen, and Randy Toms were each asked the same two questions.
Their answers are below in alphabetical order:
Question 1: There's been a lot of talk about developing a downtown and keeping millennials in the city of Warner Robins or drawing them back after college. What tangible things will you do during your four years, besides maintaining the TAD (Tax Allocation District), to make sure downtown Warner Robins looks different than it does now? Meaning, the area of Watson Boulevard closest to robins Air Force Base.
Musselwhite: "Well, we got to have things for millennials to do. We have SPLOST money available for an amphitheater, we need to get it built. We need to have street parties in Warner Robins like other cities close to us do. We need to, we need to enhance and improve our civic center. We need to fix the acoustics in it where we can have events there. You know, not just musical events, but all kinds of events. We need to encourage more young people to go to Central Georgia Technical College and get training where they can work on Robins Air Force Base or other jobs in the Middle Georgia area. As you said, we’ve got to clean up Warner Robins. We’ve got to make it more presentable, we got to get things for young people to do here. Young people are attracted to things they wish to do. And unfortunately, right now we don’t have a lot of things for people to do for enjoyment. But I think we can create that in the future. SPLOST money will be collected on October 1, 2018 for the next SPLOST. There’s money available there for the enhancement of the old downtown Warner Robins. We need shops. We got Macon College here, I was a big part of it coming here. I was working with the City when they agreed to come to Warner Robins. We agreed to make available areas that are compatible to college students, that hasn’t been done yet. That needs to be done. Things of this nature can really help millennials want to stay in Warner Robins."
Shaheen: "Well, we’re bringing in high speed internet into the downtown area. When I was the mayor we also spent $150,000 renovating the sidewalks and putting in new streetlights, but technically this needs to be turned over to the Redevelopment Board, the RDA Board. That’s how we built the Law Enforcement Center, so if you really want to get this done, turn it over to Randy Mead, the Board that he’s a member of, Gary Lee works well with him and we can put lofts down there, bring college students back downtown, but I think that age group really starts you’ve got to touch them with—It really, you start these at the 8th grade, because you want them to be educated in math and science, go to college, and the goal is to get them to come back to Warner Robins. Right now, we don’t have any goals to get students to come back to Warner Robins, to get millennials to come back to Warner Robins, to live and work and play here. So, I’m excited. I think that is definitely the future of Warner Robins."
Toms: "I’m going to work with our Economic Development Department, as well as the Economic—Warner Robins Economic Development Authority to try to draw in new businesses. I’m going to travel where I need to to entice developers. I’m going to work with—to start with, local developers to try to encourage them and there are several that are interested in developing in that area for BRAC reasons and reasons for Robins Air Force Base so there are already interested developers on the local level. I’m going to work with them and see if they’re interested in purchasing some of the property that maybe we acquire as time goes on to turn around and resell back to them so that they can develop that area. I’m going to work closely with them to make sure that they stay within the guidelines of what it’s all supposed to look like down there and how it’s supposed to develop as time goes on. So, that we can control that development. And try to entice developers to do what they’ve been saying they’re interested in doing and that’s coming down there and developing that area. Commercial Circle all the way down to Armed Forces Blvd. and stretching out. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to build a downtown area and I know there’s been interest in it on a local level as well as interest on it on a statewide level. So, I’m excited about the opportunities, I’m going to work with all parties to try to develop the best product possible for a real downtown in Warner Robins."
Question 2: This year, Mayor and Council voted to readjust the salaries of every city employee to fix other issues regarding retention. But, that decision was costly and and spent $1.6 million out of reserve funds. That expenditure also added five new police officer positions. But, because it is salaries that will be a yearly cost and the City's Chief Financial Officer has told us repeatedly they will not be able to afford after this fiscal year. As mayor, what will you do to find the money to pay for that going forward? Please remember mayors alone do not have the authority to raise lower or keep taxes steady.
Musselwhite: "We paid a million dollars in consulting fees in the last four years. The City has. If you divide 40,000 into a million, the answer’s 25. 25 policemen. You can employ 25 policemen with the amount of money they’ve spent on consulting fees. We’ve got to get our priorities in order. I will spend the money wisely; I won’t pay for a consultant knowing that I need policemen. I’ll use the money we have available to put more policemen on the street. The Chief Financial Officer did tell them that they can’t balance next year’s budget and they have taken money out of the reserves and things of that nature. That’s not paper money, the fact is that in real money, they spent $21.2 million out of reserves and unobligated funds. 14 of it was out of Enterprise Funds, and 7.2 out of the City’s emergency funds. We’ve got to stop doing this, we’ve got to get our priorities where they need to be, we’ve got to put police on the street and protect our citizens."
Shaheen: "What you’re saying is that we spent $1.6 million of the taxpayer dollars and didn’t have a plan to pay it back. So, if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. That’s what we did. And, I think that’s why it became a little controversial. We believe in hiring the best employees and retaining them, but there were ways to retain and recruit with our pro-military package that it didn’t cost a lot of extra money. This is going to be definitely an area that we’re going to need to grow our economy. That’s why this Economic Development Board, when you bring in an industry you can sell more water, sewer, and natural gas with one industry than you can 500 homes. So, you don’t sustain your economy with rooftops, you sustain your economy with bringing in industry. That’s why this Economic Development Board that I voted for, Tim Thomas, Carolyn Robbins, and Clifford [Holmes] came up with this idea. We bought land in Peach County near the interstate. This is the opportunity to grow your city and to get the millennials to come back to Warner Robins and work. So, that Board is one of the reasons why I’m running again. Is because, it really opens up Warner Robins, it opens up our doors to bring in industries, so you can have a diversified economy, you can bring in jobs to create millennials to come back to Warner Robins, and you can sell more water, sewer, and natural gas. So, you want to win, win, win. But, raising taxes, and it’s been said, about raising taxes, business people when you run your City like a business you’re creating in finding other revenues, but a politician will throw money at your problem to try to solve the problem. I know that we can work together with the Council, work together with your department heads to lower our costs, but to grow our utilities our water, sewer, natural gas. My father had a high school degree, ran five businesses, his motto was don’t spend more than you make. So, let’s stay within our means. We have an excellent benefits package for employees for the City of Warner Robins. That’s one of the best recruiting tools that we have is our benefits package. We’ve got great healthcare and great retirement for the city of Warner Robins so you’ve got to have a balance between your budget and your tax dollars. I don’t see that right now. It’s just like we’re spending, spending, spending, that the money grows on trees. We’ve got to project—the budget has to be a projection five years down the road. That’s why I keep saying let’s go with a 21st century government, let’s have a vision for your finances. What I have learned, more than anything as a mayor, is if your institution is financially sound, then you can have a stable government and you have a good foundation to build on. That’s our focus, is making sure that our City of Warner Robins has a good reserve account, has good growth in our tax digest. The Council had concerns about this. For example, it was said that, ‘I think we’re going to be okay.’ We thought, what do you think? We thought that the tax digest was going to grow at 2.5%, if that happened we would be okay. But guess what? The tax digest only grew at 1.3%. So, you need to know these factors before you go out and spend the money. Now, we want to retain and recruit personnel. That is very important to serve the citizens of Warner Robins. But, you have to look at your benefits package. I think we fixed the problem, but going forward if we do not grow our City, there is no alternative. The best focus is to grow your City, increase your Enterprise Funds, which is your water, sewer, natural gas, and then to balance and have a stable economy and a stable budget."
Toms: "Right, I think obviously looking at raising taxes would be a last resort. I don’t think that that is necessary right now, I think that some of the things that we are doing, for example, one that I think has been a big deal I think that has been vastly overlooked, and that is through one of our consultants, no doubt, has been able to show us over at least the next three years how we can save what they believe to be a guaranteed $830,000 a year over the next three years. That’s a pretty big dent in the overall picture. I think that looking at ways we can save money, looking at contracts that we have to try to bring down the cost of things that we’re spending and bringing our spending back in line. I think that’s one of the big things, but also I think growing our city. I think the area of 96 is growing rapidly, we continue to annex property in, we continue to bring new businesses in, and not just businesses but residential areas so there’s a lot of growth going on in Warner Robins right now. We’ve had some issues over the years with foreclosures and things that set back the economy, so it causes growth to be a lot slower than you would want it to be, but we’re convinced over the next year or two you’re going to see that trend start to trend up. And start to see the revenue come back in from some of the hiccups we had through the economy over previous years, which in Houston County wasn’t that bad but you still feel it through the foreclosures and everything. So, through the combination of growth, and increasing the tax digest as we move along, through the process of natural annexation, which I think’s going to happen, it’s certainly as the area around the new Publix begins to grow and comes into the City of Warner Robins I think that’s going to cause some growth. It’s going to cause growth in the businesses themselves and some residential areas themselves, but it’s also going to cause some natural annexations from people that are already on our services that are going to come into the City as we grow into that area. So, I think the growth and the area of seriously looking at areas in every department where we can save money and not spend money that we don’t need to spend or maybe spend it in a wiser way, I think between those two ways we’re going to be able to pay for this adjustment. But I’ll tell you what we couldn’t afford to do. We couldn’t afford to let our police officers and our firefighters continue to leave at such a rapid pace, because of the pay scale inequities, the compression in the pay scale. So, I think that though it seems like that’s an awfully big mountain to climb, to reach that level where we can pay for this into the future. I think the danger was bigger if we didn’t adjust the pay scale because we were going to lose some quality people over time and I just don’t think our City, in the situation we’re in now trying to reduce the crime rate and trying to increase public safety as a whole, I don’t think we could afford to continue to kick that can down the road. So, it had to be addressed. I’m excited to have been a part of addressing that issue and I appreciate all the help. And now, I need help from every department in moving forward to find ways to save money and find ways to grow our revenue.
Early voting is underway in Warner Robins at City Hall on Watson Boulevard. The polling location is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00p.m. Monday through Friday.