If successful against three challengers in next month’s municipal elections, incumbent District 5 Councilman Joel Daves hopes to see the city continue to properly manage its finances.
Daves, who has served as chairman of the council’s finance committee for a number of years, said it’s important the good financial stewardship remains a part of the municipal government long after the current members of the council are no longer serving.
“I think the biggest accomplishment over the last eight years is the turnaround in the city’s financial position,” he said.
Eight years ago, when Daves, Mayor Sandy Stimpson and other members of the council took office for the first time, Daves said, the city was facing a mountain of debt, deferred maintenance and unfunded liability within the police and firefighter pension. In those eight years since, Stimpson and the council have worked together to reduce the $300 million in debt by more than $100 million, have the pension fund nearly solvent and have amassed more than $60 million in rainy day funds, Daves said.
“I’m not trying to take credit myself, but for the city to do anything it has to be in a strong financial position,” he said. “It’s got to have a solid financial position.”
The strength of a solid financial situation was proven, Daves said, as COVID-19 ravaged municipal budgets all over the country, but Mobile was better equipped to weather the storm.
“When COVID hit and other cities were laying off workers and shutting down services, we didn’t have to do that,” he said. “You can’t spend resources when everything is going great.”
Since taking office in 2013, Daves said the city has spent some $20 million on infrastructure improvements in District 5.
“That’s orders of magnitude more than we’ve ever spent in District 5 during that same time frame,” he said. “A lot more needs to be done.”
Daves voted in favor of the tax increase that initially funded the capital improvement program (CIP). At first, he didn’t want to see the funding split evenly among the seven council districts; however, his thinking on the issue has evolved.
The District 5 councilman now thinks the splitting up of $21 million in revenue from the sales tax increase will help the city in the long run. He believes the CIP will make councilors in the future averse to spending capital resources for operations, which the city had done prior to the current mayor and council, Daves said.
“In a public setting, there’s always going to be a tendency for operational expenses to grow,” Daves said. “What then happens over time is operational expenses start to eat what was going to capital. With the arrangement we have now, there’s going to be a resistance to the siphoning off of money to operations.”
As for projects Daves wants to see completed in a third term in office, he mentioned the planned widening of McGregor Avenue between Dauphin Street and Airport Boulevard. Daves also wants to see even more improvements to Public Safety Memorial Park, including a splash pad and restroom facilities. Also, he said, there’s a plan to sync the traffic lights on Dauphin Street between Sage and McGregor avenues, which is meant to help with traffic congestion in the area, similar to when the lights were synchronized on Airport Boulevard.
After those projects are completed, Daves said, more drainage projects will be planned.
“We have an ancient drainage system on the east side,” he said.
Daves has been consistently against Amtrak’s plan to bring passenger rail back to the Port City. While the council has approved $3 million in operational funding for the rail system’s planned route from Mobile to New Orleans, the money came with conditions Daves said simply haven’t been met. He said Amtrak did not complete a modeling study to determine the impacts on freight rail or the costs to mitigate those impacts. The Southern Rail Commission hasn’t yet found money for a station, Daves said, and Amtrak hasn’t agreed to fund needed infrastructure improvements.
“I’m not against passenger rail,” he said. “I’m against passenger rail at too high a price. The port provides 50,000 direct and indirect jobs and I’m not going to support anything that negatively impacts the port.”
As for the other costs, Daves said he is against Amtrak because too much of the ticket price is subsidized by taxpayers. He once called Amtrak “a joy ride for the affluent.”
“Passengers end up paying for about 10 percent of the ticket price,” he said. “I’m not saying passengers should have to pay the entire price of the ticket, but they should pay more than 10 percent.”
Daves is hopeful the city can continue its current fiscal discipline long after current officeholders are gone. The restraint has led to more raises for city employees, Daves said.
“When we got in here our employees had not received the raises they deserved in years,” he said. “Salaries were lower than other cities. We were way off base.”
On that front, Daves said he would be “very supportive” of another salary study to see where pay for employees in Mobile ranks now.
Another issue for Daves is the increasing balkanization of the city’s council districts. Daves supports taking a more inclusive approach.
“Everybody who lives in the city of Mobile needs to feel they have an equal share in the city’s successes and an equal share in the failures,” Daves said. “If something is good for District 5 but bad for the city, then ultimately it’s bad for District 5.”
The final issue Daves sees having a big impact on the city is a drain of population to nearby municipalities. A remedy for that, Daves said, is annexation. He voted in favor of allowing a referendum to bring in 13,000 West Mobile residents into the city and still supports it.
“The numbers that showed the city would be in a better scenario than before the annexation were more credible than the numbers showing otherwise,” he said. “It’s such an important issue.”
Daves faces challengers Rodney Toomer, Welicia Wright and Tex Copeland in the Aug. 24 municipal elections.
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