If viewers believed the two main candidates to be Mobile’s mayor, each had a hand in correcting the city’s financial structure and neither could be blamed for the condition of its public housing.
Incumbent Mayor Sandy Stimpson and former Mayor Sam Jones, one of the challengers in the Aug. 22 election, blamed each other for the shortcomings of the Mobile Housing Board of Commissioners during a televised debate Monday night on WPMI Local 15.
A report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General released in 2016 documented the board’s financial noncompliance and conflicts of interest dating back to 2011.
Because the board awarded a contract to Superior Masonry, which is owned by the half-brother of State Rep. Adline Clarke, a vice president for the board’s nonprofit arm, Mobile Development Enterprises, the board had to pay back millions in nonfederal funds to HUD.
Jones said during the debate he hadn’t read the report, but thought the commissioners at the time were doing a good job. He said he mostly reappointed former Mayor Mike Dow’s selections.
Stimpson accused Jones of “stacking the board” just before leaving office in 2013. Stimpson added that HUD visited his office shortly after he was sworn in to inform him Mobile had the third-worst Housing Board in the country.
In a rebuttal, Jones accused Stimpson of “stacking” the board with real estate agents — referencing Stimpson’s newest appointee, Reid Cummings — interested in selling board property to private developers. While not a real estate agent, Clarence Ball is listed as the registered agent at the low-income tax credit-funded Oleander Park Apartments, according to the Alabama Secretary of State’s website. Previous reporting in Lagniappe confirmed the apartments accept voucher applications through the Prichard Housing Board. Ball, who was chairman of MHB during Jones’ administration, was reappointed by Jones and currently employs the former mayor.
In a question to Jones, Stimpson touted his own financial accomplishments of building a reserve and giving multiple raises to city employees, including police officers and firefighters. He asked the former mayor if his election would result in a decline in the city’s revenue.
In response, Jones said all of the revenue the city enjoys under Stimpson was because of Jones. He touted two annexations that he said increased the tax base by $72 million. All told, Jones said he was responsible for some $236 million coming into city coffers.
Jones also knocked Stimpson for his initial veto of the three-year extension of the 20 percent sales tax increase that resulted in the capital improvement plan, or CIP. The former mayor said Stimpson had Councilman Joel Daves vote to override his veto so the tax extension would pass.
“Those comments are amusing,” Stimpson quipped.
Stimpson said he vetoed the tax increase at first because residents weren’t satisfied with it. He said they were told it would be used for things it wasn’t. Instead, he said, it went into the general fund budget.
In rebuttal, Jones said a council ordinance required that 25 percent of the tax increase went into the general fund.
Stimpson also hit Jones on the city’s bond rating because of a lack of reserves during Jones’ tenure as mayor. Jones said the city’s bond rating never changed after he left office.
Ratings agency Moody’s did review the city’s bond rating in early 2014, and while it ultimately remained the same, the bond rating agency downgraded the city’s outlook to “negative.” In a report, Moody’s said it had revised the outlook based on concerns over the city’s financial health in 2012 and 2013 during Jones’ time in office.
“The negative outlook reflects the rapid deterioration of general fund liquidity and reserves … as a result of sizable fund balance appropriations that were used to offset rising fixed costs, various expenditure overruns and fluctuation in sales tax revenues,” the report read.
Moody’s has since upgraded the city’s outlook to “stable,” while Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings advanced the city’s rating. In a statement provided by Stimpson, the company attributes the city’s strong financial performance to cost-saving measures adopted by all departments and better-than-budgeted revenues.
Jones said he doesn’t think the “rainy day fund” or reserve was at zero when he left office. He called the publicity of a shrunken reserve a “PR effort.” Stimpson said accountants hired by the city under Jones said there was no “rainy day fund.”
In a question to Stimpson, Jones asked the incumbent about his membership in the Comic Cowboys parading society. The controversial group that decorates Mardi Gras floats with abrasive cartoons made headlines in 2017 for displays many in the community felt were racist. Stimpson told Jones he joined the group before running for office and resigned once he saw the signs that ran in the actual parade on Fat Tuesday. Jones accused Stimpson of resigning only after local media reported he was a member.
Several media reports at the time referenced Stimpson’s public resignation as confirmation he was in the group. However, as Jones said in the debate, Stimpson admitted to seeing the signs beforehand at an unveiling party. At the time, Stimpson said he didn’t know if the ones he objected to were going to run in the parade. News of his resignation came almost a week after the initial reports of the offensive signs.
On the cuts in WAVE transit routes, Stimpson said he made a decision that was in the best interest of the city’s residents, as the cuts affected service in parts of the county. Jones said the cuts not only impacted residents of other cities and towns coming to work and spend money in the city, but was “demeaning” to those who are disabled or elderly.
Two other mayoral candidates were not invited to the debate. Anthony Thompson and Devonette Ely did not meet the thresholds put in place by WPMI to be considered for the debate. A candidate had to have 5 percent support and raise $5,000 in contributions in order to be included.
Thompson said he felt the thresholds were unfair to a candidate not running to raise money. He blamed a lack of media coverage on his lack of support in recent polls.
Thompson is running on a platform to “make Mobile healthier,” but he doesn’t necessarily mean in the physical sense.
Thompson said he supports BayFest and thinks there should be an independent committee to nominate police and fire chiefs. Without it, he said, the positions become more political.