Infrastructure, education and revenue were chief among the issues discussed by this year’s Hub City mayoral candidates during Wednesday’s debate at the Liberal Arts Building on the Southern Miss campus.
Each of the candidates running for mayor in the June 6 general election — Democratic incumbent Johnny DuPree and independent challengers Shawn O’Hara and Toby Barker — took turns fielding questions at the event, hosted by the League of Women Voters Pine Belt.
The first question posed at the debate regarded how candidates would prioritize several issues in the city, including sewer improvement and adequate drainage in neighborhoods, with a limited budget.
DuPree said as far as he’s concerned, water quality is one of the biggest issues the city is currently facing. The recent problem of discolored water, he said, is not a problem caused by any one person or group, and it’s something his administration has been working to fix for several years.
“We need to form partnerships,” he said. “We need to also be flexible with those partnerships, so that (the federal government) doesn’t force us with these timetables of when we have to do something and then fine us.
“Those are the kinds of things that we do to make sure that we leverage the money, and that we don’t charge you on these unfunded mandates that we have.”
O’Hara said he would “go for the money” and create new revenue for the area by recruiting and training with free scholarships 600,000 nursing students at Camp Shelby and 100 other locations over a 10-year period of time.
“This is a $42 billion project,” he said. “I believe the federal government, when they realize we’re going to be 500,000 nurses short in only a few years, will kick in $4.2 billion a year.
“Can you imagine 60,000 nursing students, five days a week, spending money in Hattiesburg and the surrounding areas?”
Barker, who currently serves in the Mississippi Legislature as the Republican representative for District 102 in central Hattiesburg, said infrastructure is the bedrock of government services, and should be the top thing residents expect from their local government. Barker said it determines economic viability — as businesses locate where there’s good infrastructure — and it can also determine quality of life.
“We have to prioritize based on the revenue that we have, not the revenue we wish we had,” he said. “I know the 1 percent sales tax has been proposed before, and I’m OK with that — I think people should be able to vote on it.
“But I don’t think we can bank on it, so what we have to do first is make sure that every commercial business that is tapping into sewer lines or water lines is paying their fair share. Because there’s a lot of development on the (U.S.) 98 corridor where that hasn’t been fixed yet.”
Another polarizing issue tackled at the debate was the concept of annexation, and how Hattiesburg could ensure proper fire and police protection if the city does expand its borders in the future.
Barker said any time there is an opportunity to expand the city’s sales tax base with commercial annexation, city leaders must consider that option very seriously. One thing he proposes before annexation, however, is a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether officials can maintain the services they promise to provide.
“That’s how a lot of our city budget is funded right now, is through sales tax, which came through annexation proposals,” Barker said. “I will say that people visit Hattiesburg — this is the economic engine of the city.
“And so allowing something to form on our western border that would primarily cut off our westward growth is not something that … I think is a good idea.”
O’Hara said his answer to annexation is to consolidate city and county government.
“Hattiesburg has not properly taken care of what they already have,” he said. “I don’t want to spend millions of dollars in legal fees trying to annex an area, and trying to steal tax money off people, who do not want to be inside the city of Hattiesburg.”
DuPree said he is against annexing residences, and is instead in favor of taking in the retail corridor.
“We want to make sure we take care of what we have here before we try to start taking care of somebody else’s house,” he said. “But (the retail corridor), 40 percent of our income — your income, that we do things with — comes from sales tax.
“And the sales tax revenue, we get back some $20 million a year. That’s why we don’t have to raise your taxes, because we leverage those sales tax dollars.”
Source: Hattiesburg American