Whomever is elected to serve as mayor of Mobile will immediately be faced with a number of issues, including crime, annexation and what to do with the Civic Center.
Lagniappe asked the 2021 mayoral candidates their solutions to these problems in a number of platforms. Candidate Donavette Ely could not be reached for comment.
Incumbent Mayor Sandy Stimpson said he believes the next term could offer a great opportunity to once again push for annexation. In 2019, Stimpson wanted the City Council to approve an annexation referendum that would’ve allowed about 13,000 residents in an unincorporated area of West Mobile to vote on whether to come into the city. The referendum failed to garner the five-vote supermajority it needed from the council to move forward.
“Absolutely we’ll try it and knowing what we know today I think we’re teed up and have a better shot at making it happen this time,” he said in a Lagniappe podcast. “You know, if you look at the annexations that have happened in Mobile in the past, it has been all about helping to grow the city, but it’s really been about growing the revenues of the city from a tax standpoint and out in the police jurisdiction right now, the percent increase in the growth of taxes, that’s where it is.”
Municipal Judge Karlos Finley told Lagniappe on the podcast that the time is not right for annexation, given the city’s struggles with blight and infrastructure issues.
“We’ve got to fix what we have before we start adding geography to our city,” he said. “So, at some point I’m all about and all for annexing new properties, but not right now. We’ve got way too much work to do inside of our boundaries.”
Michael Young, a Mobile native who owns a cleaning company, said the annexation debate should be left up to all residents, not just those impacted but who live outside the city.
“That needs to be left up to the citizens in the areas we’re looking to annex, as well as the ones already in the city,” he said. “I think that should be left up to a vote of the people.”
The 2019 annexation vote was strictly along racial lines, with the four White councilors voting in favor of extending the city’s borders and the three Black councilors, including mayoral candidate Fred Richardson, voting against it.
Richardson, who did not participate in the podcast series, has previously said the city could not afford to annex those particular residents into the city because there wasn’t retail locations included.
However, Stimpson refuted this, saying that annexation would “unequivocally” bring revenue into the city, even when adjusting the sales tax revenues in the area down to a more normal year than 2020. He also said the city lost out on revenue related to the American Rescue Plan and other grants because it couldn’t reach the 200,000 population threshold by the deadline for the 2020 census. The city received $58 million in ARP funding, which the council has approved to use for affordable housing and other needs.
“Nobody ever had a clue there would be an ARP plan and that they would be distributing the kind of money, but easily I can say it has cost us somewhere between conservatively $100 million and $150 million in the last couple or three years because we didn’t have annexation,” Stimpson said.
Finley seemed to doubt the revenue numbers Stimpson mentioned.
“Where’s the research to back that up?” He said. “There’s no documents to say that was going to happen.”
Finley also compared increasing population to gain federal grant opportunities to “welfare mothers,” that some in politics have accused of having more children to receive more federal money.
“It’s the same thing,” he said. “We’re going to have some more babies so that the federal government will give us more money. No, that is not healthy growth.”
Both Finley and Richardson want to refurbish the Civic Center. Finley said the city needs to be “creative” when it comes to renovating it.
“Look, we’ve all been in there (and) we’ve smelled the mildew when we go in; it’s in the carpeting, all that stuff has got to be stripped out,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that you can do. “Let’s make it the kind of building that folks and shows would love to come to and have.”
While Stimpson’s office has not been shy about the fact the administration had previously pushed to tear down the current area structure and replace it with an open-air concept through the Cordish Companies, Stimpson has reversed course a bit and is looking to bring the issue back up to citizens, especially after the struggles so many had during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a lot of people who’ve paid their dues in terms of trying to keep their businesses open, trying to keep the city open and so I think we probably need to hit the reset button to listen again to what the community wants,” he said. “There was a lot of buy-in last time, but I’m not so sure that minds haven’t changed.”
Young said he would want to get an accounting of the money involved in either tearing down the structure, or refurbishing it. He would share that information with the public through a city dashboard. Young said he is in favor of the city maintaining a Civic Center in the future.
As Mobile’s homicide rate rises in 2021, candidates were asked how best to deal with it.
Richardson has previously said as mayor he would provide each beat with a dedicated officer and the residents in a particular beat would have that officer’s phone number and could report issues directly to the officer most familiar with where they live.
Young said he wants to take a more holistic approach and deal with a cause of crime: mental health. He said he would work to ensure Mobile County followed in the footsteps of Jefferson and Baldwin counties and developed a mental health court diversion program.
“A lot of our crime comes back to mental health issues,” he said. “You’ve got drug and alcohol related and all the other mental health diagnoses, but when somebody commits a crime, especially a non-violent crime, they’re going through the court system and being put in jail. That’s not a place for anyone with a mental health issue.”
While Stimpson touted programs the city has begun, like the Second Chance or Else program, designed to help those previously incarcerated, he lamented the “break down of the family” as a root cause of a rise in crime being seen all over the country.
Finley put the blame for the rise in the homicide rate on Stimpson and his move seven years ago to cut city funding from non-profits, like the Boys and Girls Clubs, which provided programming to deal with conflict resolution, or make children feel like someone cares for them.
Editor’s Note: Lagniappe has been covering the Mobile municipal election for months. To find interviews with the mayoral and council candidates, the podcasts referenced in this report and much more election coverage, please visit www.lagniappemobile.com/series/election2021.
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