Two financial minds will collide on Tuesday, Aug. 22, in the race for Mobile City Council District 5, as incumbent Joel Daves (pictured above) will appear on the ballot along with challenger Arianna McArthur.
Daves, chairman of the council’s finance committee, and McArthur, owner of a local financial services firm, both believe the city should continue its sound financial judgment moving forward.
Daves credits good budgeting and tough decisions for keeping the city in the black, despite flat revenues. He said the council and Mayor Sandy Stimpson have been able to refrain from pulling money out of other accounts to supplement the general fund. As a result, the city has been able to build up an acceptable reserve.
“The general fund, the operating account, is always the easiest to increase and the hardest to cut because if you start cutting, you’re taking money out of someone’s pocket,” Daves said. “So, there’s always going to be this tendency to prefer spending in the general fund to either continuing to fund properly the capital account, or maintaining the reserve. It takes guts for any municipal government to be disciplined in the general fund over time.”
The city now has a $20 million reserve, Daves said, the minimum threshold for bond rating agencies. Daves said when he took office in 2013 there was no reserve.
“I think they’d be more comfortable — I’d certainly be more comfortable with $30 million,” he said.McArthur, who grew up in District 5 and graduated from Davidson High School before moving on to Dillard University in New Orleans, moved back to Mobile after a stint with Ameriprise Financial in Minneapolis, Minnesota. McArthur gave Stimpson and the council credit for fiscal management, although she added the distribution of funds could be more equitable.
“As far as balancing the budget, even though I don’t agree with how they’ve allocated the money, I think they’ve been doing a good job at trying to get us back onto a good financial standing so we have a good credit rating, so that we’re able to borrow money, which is important [for the city] … ,” she said. “So, I think they have been doing a good job with that.”
Where Daves and McArthur disagree is in the way the council made the cuts to help the city regain its financial footing. One of those cuts involved moving more than $700,000 from a general fund transfer to the WAVE transit system to other areas, including two council accounts. The cuts resulted in a reduction of bus routes, mostly outside the city limits, and a reduction in operating hours for city buses.
McArthur called the situation “challenging,” acknowledging the city was footing the bill for many residents who live outside the city, but she felt there has to be a better way.
“I feel like if you’re going to take money from a public service you should put it in other public services and improving those,” McArthur said. “The transportation issue is something we want to tackle and I think it’s something that is going to be about building relationships, like I’ve talked about across agencies. I think it’s really going to be a matter of having those conversations and making people aware of how important it is we have a viable transportation system.”
Of the $700,000 cut from WAVE, $130,000 went into separate council accounts, including operations and discretionary. The majority of the money went to Visit Mobile while the rest was distributed to the Boys and Girls Clubs, Via! Health, Fitness and Enrichment Center and other nonprofits.
On the WAVE cut, Daves called it the correct decision. He said Mobile was spending more money on public transit than Montgomery or Huntsville, two similarly sized cities.
“We were providing public transportation services to other municipalities — to residents in other municipalities in the county. You know, this would be fine if we had loads of money, but we don’t and so, as I said just a few minutes ago, cutting expenditures in the general fund is always difficult because you’re always going to be taking it from someone,” he said.
Both candidates said they support the sales tax increase funding the capital improvement program, or CIP.
“We need that money to improve our infrastructure because we have infrastructure that’s currently in bad condition,” McArthur said. “We hadn’t invested in that at all prior to the current program. So, I think it’s definitely needed.”
However, for McArthur it comes down to proper allocation of the funds, which she said has been lacking under the current leadership.
“I would say the funds could be better allocated so that it’s equitable, so that it’s fair and so it’s creating the maximum benefit for the majority of people and not just the majority of District 5, but the entire city of Mobile,” she said.
Daves believes that as capital improvement projects mount, opposition to the roughly 20 percent tax increase renewal has mostly subsided.
“My feeling is that most of the people that objected to the renewal of the penny objected to it on the basis of it just being more money that went into a big, black hole, and that once we got out there and we started replacing the [police] cruisers and people could see the streets being repaved and the long-ignored drainage projects addressed and sidewalks being installed and repaired, I think all of the opposition — and there are still some people — but the vast majority of opposition to the renewal of the penny has evaporated,” he said.
It’s the smaller projects Daves said he’s most proud of having helped accomplish during his term in office. As an example, he used CIP money to repair a ditch that had collapsed on Bolton’s Branch.
McArthur is advocating for more community gardens and community centers in District 5, which would allow greater access for families with low-to-moderate income. Providing more diverse entertainment options and activities is also needed, she said.
Providing more opportunities for youth, not only in District 5 but also throughout the city, could have a positive impact on the crime rate, McArthur said. Education could also decrease the crime rate, she suggested. Meanwhile, Daves said any crime is unacceptable, but he trusts that Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste and Public Safety Director James Barber will continue to reduce crime, despite a spike in murders.