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Jonesboro candidates focused on finances, businesses

If you ask the 12 people seeking elected offices this year in the City of Jonesboro about the city’s most pressing issues, they will frequently mention three items: balancing the budget, addressing the town’s recently instituted property tax, and attracting new businesses.

Some candidates also say the city needs better communication between City Hall and residents, as well as more-defined plans for re-developing the city.

Voters in Jonesboro are being asked to pick a mayor and three council members in this year’s municipal elections. Mayoral candidates include current Mayor Luther Maddox, former Mayor Joy Day, and small business owner, John Templeman.

The people seeking the council seats include current Councilmen Wallace Norrington, Roger Grider and Bobby Wiggins, as well as former Councilmen Billy Powell and Rick Yonce, business owner Jack Bruce, pawn shop owner Wayne Day (not related to Joy Day), retired Clayton County Juvenile Court program coordinator, Suzanne Igler, and real estate broker, Randy Segner.

Early voting is already under way, but the official election day is Nov. 8. In addition to choosing a mayor and councilmembers, voters will also decide whether to allow Sunday alcohol sales inside the city limits. The top vote-getter in the mayor’s race will take the job, while the top three vote-getters in the council race will take seats on the council for the next four years.

This week, the candidates talked to a reporter about what they feel are the most pressing issues in Jonesboro, and what they would do if elected.

The Mayoral Candidates

• Luther Maddox, 70, has been part of Jonesboro’s government since 2001. He first served as a member of the city council, but defeated Joy Day in 2007, to become mayor. He said he grew up in Clayton County, has lived in the city, off-and-on, all of his life.

He said he has “a lot of things in place, that I want to see through to completion,” including the city’s Streetscape development, and efforts to balance the city’s budget. Maddox said he wants to get construction work on Streetscape’s second phase begun next year. He also said he wants to keep Jonesboro out of debt, and get the city to a point where its leaders do not have to take money from the town’s financial reserves to balance budgets. He said he would like to do that by limiting spending in the city.

“The most pressing issue facing the city is the economy,” Maddox said. “The city has limited control over what the economy does, but we have a responsibility to be fiscally responsible ... We have to keep the city solvent, and continue to provide city services to the citizens at the same time.”

• Joy Day, 63, was Jonesboro’s mayor for 12 years, and is a retired Clayton County Public Schools teacher and administrator. She said she has lived in Jonesboro since 1971.

Day said there are three areas she wants to focus on: Law enforcement, finances and communication between city leaders and residents. She explained that while the city has “great officers” in the police department, the department’s budget needs to be increased, so it has the tools to continue keeping residents safe. The former mayor also said she would work on developing “out of the box” ways to manage the city’s budget, as well as develop a new strategic plan, to guide future growth in the city, and update the town’s Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) plan.

She also said she would like to update the city’s web site, to make it a better source of information, bring back Jonesboro’s newsletter, and offer more activities that involve more residents.

“They [residents] need to feel like they are a part of the city,” she said. “We need to embrace every person who lives in this city, and treat them as very important parts of our community.”

• John Templeman, 52, is a political newcomer, although he regularly attends Jonesboro City Council meetings. He was born in Jonesboro, but moved to Fayette County, and lived there for 19 years. He said he moved back to Jonesboro 12 years ago. He still owns a property development business in Fayette County.

Templeman said he would take steps to cut expenses in the city, starting with cutting his mayoral salary by 25 percent. He also said he would roll back the recently re-instituted millage rate, as a first step in drawing new businesses to the city. He would also like to create a new business district, near the Harold R. Banke Justice Center, on Tara Boulevard, using the court facility as anchor to attract businesses, such as restaurants and gas stations. He added that he believes the city’s downtown area cannot be re-vitalized until the local economy improves. “That [the county courts] was a our anchor in downtown, and now that’s moved across Tara Boulevard,” Templeman said. “There’s no drawing card to downtown anymore, nothing to bring people to town. We’ve got to start a new area, to tie the old to the new.”

The City Council Candidates

• Roger Grider, 66, who has been on the city council for five years, echoed Templeman’s opposition to the property tax. Grider said, if re-elected, he would work to get enough votes on the council to roll the city’s millage rate back to zero mills, where it had been for several years, until the council raised it to 1.5 mills, this fall. Grider was one of the council members who voted against the tax.

He said the tax issue was the reason why he chose to run for re-election this year. He also said he wanted to keep the city’s homestead exemption at $60,000, despite a push from Maddox to have a referendum on lowering it to $30,000. Grider said rolling back the tax rate is the key to bringing in new businesses. “We have got to attract more businesses, and I don’t think we do that by adding more taxes on them,” he said. “That’s dual taxation, because everybody is already paying county property taxes.”

• Bobby Wiggins, 63, who has been on the council for 6 years, said the tax was needed to keep the city from having to continually dip into its reserves to balance its budget. “I just think we shouldn’t have rolled the millage rate back in the first place,” he said. “If it wasn’t set at zero, then maybe, it [the city’s financial situation] wouldn’t have gotten to where it is now.”

Wiggins and Grider offered similar suggestions, however, for ways to attract new businesses to Jonesboro — offer financial incentives, such as breaks from business license fees, to new businesses. “I know we need the money, but we could offer tax breaks, or fee waivers to get businesses to move into the city,” he said. Wiggins also said he wanted to spend another term working to bring together the different factions in the city, so they could work together to improve Jonesboro.

Suzanne Igler, 65, an 11-year resident of Jonesboro, and a political newcomer, said she would like to focus on planned redevelopment of the city. She said she was a member of Jonesboro’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA), until it was dissolved by city leaders in late 2006, and she would like to work on getting the DDA re-instituted, “because it affords the city many opportunities for development.”

She also said she would like to continue meeting with residents after the election, while working to establish collaborations between the city and county agencies, including the school system, and beautification groups. “I think we need to make this a place that is children friendly, because they are the generation that is going to keep Jonesboro alive,” she said.

Wallace Norrington, 67, who has been on the city council for 20 years, said he wants to see Streetscape completed, which is one of the reasons why he is seeking re-election. He said Jonesboro’s 2012 budget is going to be one of the city’s most pressing, upcoming issues, “because the economy is so low.” He added that the council needs people with experience in city government to deal with the budget, and that cuts will need to be made in the next budget. “We’re going to have to look at all of the departments, to see if we have any fat that we can cut out,” he said.

Randy Segner, 59, said he was “not real confident in the budget that was put forth” last winter. He expressed skepticism in the projected expenses included in the city’s 2011 budget, echoing sentiments that have been expressed by Jonesboro City Councilmembers Clarence Mann and Joe Compton. Segner announced this week that his campaign has received an endorsement from Compton. He said he would like to create an ad hoc committee to look into ways to attract new businesses. He said he believes the city should leverage its ties to Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone With the Wind” to attract businesses, such as bed-and-breakfast inns and restaurants.

He admitted there are obstacles to building an industry around the book, in this day and age, though. “There was an opportunity to do that, and it kind of passed us by,” he said. “Hopefully, it can be rekindled.”

Billy Powell, 59, said the city needs to learn to “live within its financial means” and stop “unnecessary spending.” The former councilmember added that more people are needed on the council who feel spending cuts should be made before taxes are raised. “We need enough people wise enough to do away with wasteful spending,” he added. He served on the council for two years, before losing a re-election bid in 2009. The former city councilman said, if elected, he would like to maintain Jonesboro’s neighborhoods, and protect citizens.

“If you’ve got a good residential base, that will attract new businesses to the city,” he said. But, Powell added that the city council needs to take a stronger stand in dealing with the mayor, by being more willing to stand up to the city’s top elected official. “The mayor should not be allowed to think he, or she, is a king, or queen,” he said. “The council has been so weak in recent years, that it has allowed to the mayor to think that way.”

Rick Yonce, 52, also said cuts need to be made in the city’s expenses, rather than raising taxes, saying that “everybody is being taxed to death.” He said he has some ideas for cutting the budget, some of which “people will agree with,” but he declined to go into specifics about those ideas. “Any budget is going to have to be more cautious with how we spend money,” he said.

He did reveal, however, that he wants to see restrictions placed on the police department’s take-home vehicle policy, so officers are not allowed to take their car home, if they do not live near the city limits. “For them to drive their cars home [to locations outside Clayton County], and then have us pay for the gas is unreasonable,” said Yonce, who added that he supports Jonesboro’s police department.

Wayne Day, 61, said he would, if elected, work to support the police department’s efforts to combat crime, referring to the department as the city’s “most important asset.” He said Jonesboro is currently one of the safest cities in Clayton County, because of the department, and its officers, and he would like to provide more funding to the department. “My goal is to keep it [the city] safe, and it’s time for Christian values,” he said. “It’s time to be serious about government.” He added, however, that, like Powell, he feels the city should live within its financial means. Day said he would also like to initiate programs, such as the establishment of neighborhoods that cater to senior citizens, to put people into some of Jonesboro’s vacant homes. “I’m going to spend the next four years trying to turn around some of these empty houses that we have in our city,” he said.

Jack Bruce could not be reached for comment, although he and a reporter spent two days playing “phone tag” with each other. But, he explains his plans for what he’ll do as a council member on his web site, votejackbruce.com/.

On the web site, Bruce said he would use his experience as the chief executive officer of VSP, Inc., to “work diligently to assure that the city operates at peak performance” by working with other councilmembers to manage the city’s income and “use the money wisely, and eliminate any inefficiency.”

Meet The Candidates

City residents will get a chance to meet the candidates, and hear them talk about their plans for the city next week. One of Jonesboro’s residents, Sonja Sleeper, is planning to host a candidates’ forum/meet-and-greet event on Nov. 4, from 7 p.m., to 9 p.m., at the Jonesboro Fire House Museum and Community Center, located at 103 West Mill Street, in Jonesboro.

She said several candidates have agreed to attend.