Despite differences in other key aspects, both candidates running to replace County Commissioner Jerry Carl believe in expanding access to broadband internet to rural areas of the county.
Democrat Jenny Arras and Republican Randall Dueitt believe rural access to broadband is important to the future of the county.
Arras said, “rural broadband is on my radar” as part of a larger infrastructure package that includes continuing the pay-as-you-go program. Arras also wants to see rural public transit in Mobile County.
The city’s Wave transit buses made stops in portions of the county, including Prichard, Eight Mile and Tillman’s Corner, until the Mobile City Council voted to cut the routes in April 2016. Any discussion of bringing rural routes back starts with a conversation with the city, Arras said.
“I think the first step is to talk with the city,” Arras said. “Why not work with what we have? There is a need.”
Arras, an English professor at the University of South Alabama, said her platform has three main planks: economic innovation, educational innovation and empowerment. Part of that challenge comes in preparing the county’s workforce for high-paying, high-tech jobs in the near future. This goal of a “modernized workforce” can be achieved, she said, by expanding technical training.
“It’s part of educational innovation,” she said. “It’s the job training I just talked about. It’s about lifting up and rebuilding the entire workforce so it’s more sustainable.”
The manufacturing jobs are important, she said, but there will be a need for a modernization of the workforce as well.
For southern Mobile County, Arras sees a need for better access to health care through a rural medical center with mental health capabilities.
When asked about the fire safety issue left after the city pulled resources from a large section of the police jurisdiction in the county, Arras called it a “complicated” issue. She said while annexation is a city issue, she’s in favor of letting the residents decide on both issues of growing the city and picking a fire service.
If elected, Arras would push to “humanize” problems like substance abuse, homelessness and mental health. This would include “in an ideal world” creating health response teams to take the lead instead of police when confronted with homeless individuals, or in cases of spousal abuse.
On a similar note, while growing some areas of the county’s lockup makes sense, Arras said she’s opposed to expanding Metro Jail as a way to cut down on overcrowding. She acknowledged part of the problem with overcrowding is caused by low-level or nonviolent offenders, who could be released to make room.
This is one area where Arras and Dueitt differ. An employee of Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, Dueitt believes the expansion is a positive step for the office.
“We need the space,” he said. “I’m sure there are a number of low-level offenders in the jail, but I believe if you do the crime, you do the time.”
However, Dueitt said he is willing to sit down and discuss prison reform as a way to reduce the jail’s population as well.
On the broadband internet issue, Dueitt said remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a need for better access to faster internet countywide. Better access could act as a recruitment tool for businesses, he said. Dueitt also believes better infrastructure would help.
“We have to make sure we’re competitive,” he said. “We need to make sure our roads and bridges are safe and secure.”
When it comes to competition for business, Dueitt believes in regionalism. He said a 10-year tax abatement shows a good-faith investment on the part of the county. However, if the same company wants to expand after that, it needs to make its own investment.
“We also need to be getting something out of the deal,” Dueitt said of the county. “How are we benefiting when compared to the level of incentives?”
As Cochran’s legislative liaison, Dueitt helped write legislation to allow cities to contract with their sheriffs’ offices for law enforcement help. He said he sees the fire issue the same way. Dueitt suggested working with the city to possibly pay for coverage in areas left with little to prevent them from having to put together a volunteer unit.
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