Race and money took center stage at a Tuesday forum for the five candidates for Augusta mayor.
While the remaining four candidates cited military experience, working both sides of the aisle or being involved in multiracial groups, candidate Lori Myles called it “a sad day” that the first question candidates were asked was how they’ll “deal with race” as mayor of Augusta.
Rather than answer, Myles reflected back on a childhood as the interracial grandchild of a prominent Iowa farmer and the stepdaughter of a man who “made us a family” irrespective of skin color.
From there, most of the questions submitted at the Tuesday forum, held at Williams Memorial CME church, dealt with city finances and how to improve them.
Asked if they’d support the commission raising property taxes, the candidates’ positions varied.
Commissioner Alvin Mason said no, he hadn’t voted for a tax increase during his two terms on the commission, nor had the city raised taxes during that time, and nor would he consider a tax increase before slashing the city budget.
Sen. Hardie Davis said Augusta ought to consider “the 1,000-pound elephant” that is “historically suppressed tax rates” that do little to attract new residents, but later said if elected mayor he’ll establish an intergovernmental affairs department to study services still not consolidated and “break down silos” of inefficiency.
Helen Blocker-Adams, an entrepreneur and motivational speaker, said she wouldn’t want to increase taxes, although budget cuts equal service cuts in the city government.
Residents wouldn’t be so opposed to a tax increase “if the government was honest,” she said.
Myles said yes, if Augusta is running an $8 million deficit, “we are going to have to look at raising taxes,” but not as a “bad thing.” Rather, it would be “an investment in our community.”
Retired restaurateur Charles Cummings reiterated his campaign focus on transit. Steering guests in Augusta’s 7,000 hotel rooms to public transit to get around the city would generate millions, he said.
During the forum, Mason repeated his campaign platform items of enforcing city codes against negligent landlords, including those downtown, and lowering the downtown levee to increase development.
Davis cited the benefits of state-created Enterprise and Opportunity zones to Harrisburg and the Laney-Walker district.
Blocker-Adams said Augusta was too fond of the “flavor of the month” and ought to focus on existing assets and issues.
A final question dealt with privatizing city services versus letting career city employees go.
“If I was a department head, I’d probably be as gray-haired as our president right now,” said Blocker-Adams, who said she favors outsourcing services but not at the expense of longtime employees.
Davis said the government, despite the 1996 Consolidation Act, hadn’t truly merged city and county, posing “opportunities” for public-private partnerships to create savings, though not at the outsourced transit department or golf course, whose release to private management companies he called “debacles.”
Cummings said McDonald Transit was merely “doing the job” it was contracted to do, while longtime city employees do sometimes “abuse the system” and “need to be looked at.”
Mason cited his job in Information Technology contract procurement at Fort Gordon and the numerous contracted services the city relies on.
“You can’t do business without contracts,” he noted, while the question remains “where do you outsource, and where do you not?” Mason said a recent cause of the city’s troubles – “bad contracts” – was gone, with the December termination of former administrator Fred Russell.