HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The three candidates running to be Hattiesburg's next mayor discussed issues facing the city on Wednesday night at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Incumbent Democratic Mayor Johnny DuPree, Independent Toby Barker and Independent Shawn O'Hara answered questions at the debate, which was hosted by The League of Women Voters Pine Belt, about prioritizing infrastructure repairs needed to water lines, roads and bridges and drainage, improving education and problems in the Hattiesburg Public School District and expanding city limits and services through annexation along Highway 98.
DuPree said he'd put improving water lines and water quality first, and has been working on grant-funded projects to do so for almost a decade.
"We have to go and ask people for money because we don't want to burden you with having to pay for that money," he said. "We have the experience and the track record of going and getting that money."
Barker agreed Hattiesburg should ask the state and federal governments to help fund projects, whether it's through grants or a 1 percent sales tax, but said there ways to find missing local revenue.
"Infrastructure is the bedrock of government services," Barker said. "That's one thing we expect from a local government. It determines economic viability. Businesses locate where there's good infrastructure. It also dictates quality of life. The first thing we have to do is prioritize that investment. We have to prioritize based on the revenue that we had, not the revenue we wish we had. What we have to do is, first, make sure that every commercial business that's tapping into a sewer line or a water line is actually paying their fair share because there's a lot of development on the (Highway) 98 corridor where that hasn't been fixed yet."
Barker said he wants to hold neighborhood town hall meetings to hear from residents, not just consultants and engineers, about problems they're having in their communities.
O'Hara's infrastructure improvement funding plan is more unconventional.
"As far as the bad roads and the 215 bridges that have been condemned or shut down, I told you, legalize marijuana," he said.
On education, Barker said the city and school system needs to focus on outcomes and be honest about challenges faced, so they aren't repeated. He success is centered around resources, leadership and community involvement.
"The centerpiece is we have to rally our community around our schools," Barker said. "We have to make people believe we can turn this thing around, and it is our duty because these kids are our future neighbors. They're our future workforce. We have to focus on them."
He's proposed a city-wide mentoring program where churches, retirees or other groups are physically present in schools on a regular basis, expanding access to pre-kindergarten using available state funds and expanding a summer jobs program.
O'Hara wants to provide students vouchers to promote school choice.
"We need to provide $8,000 school vouchers per child for school choice, so parents can send their children to the school of their choice rather than be forced to go to a failing school in the city of Hattiesburg," O'Hara said.
He also wants to integrate a program for free online college classes to help students receive college credit, and raise money to build parks, playgrounds and a computer lab in Palmer's Crossing to give students a place to go.
DuPree said the city already has several programs in place to educate children outside of the classroom, like Hattiesburg Reads which put books in restaurants, and ways for the community to be involved with students, like the Gang Resistance Education And Training or GREAT program and Excel by 5. He also wants to recruit more teachers and counselors who can help students pinpoint skills.
"We have to figure out what's best for our children, each child, not just one child," DuPree said.
Another topic discussed Wednesday that hasn't been talked about as much as infrastructure or education was stance on proposed annexation along Highway 98 annexation, and if the city's police and fire departments can handle the growth.
"Hattiesburg is not properly taking care of what they already have," O'Hara, who wants to consolidated county and city governments, said.
DuPree said with 40 percent of the city's revenue coming from sales tax, he's for commercial annexation, but doesn't want to take in rooftops the city can't handle.
"16 years ago I made my views plain on annexation," he said. "I do not want to annex rooftops, do not. Want to make sure we take care of what we have here before we start taking care of somebody else's house."
He said increasing a tax base to increase sales tax prevents ad valorem tax increases for residents. He also said police officers and fire fighters have had pay increases during his time in office. He also said a new fire station will be built to replace the one destroyed in January's tornado and placed in a more efficient location to better serve the public.
Barker agreed he commercial annexation is worth considering to generate more revenue, but said the city needs to do a cost-benefit analysis to see if it can keep up with the services it's promising to provide.
"If there are opportunities where we can bring in new sales tax dollars and also spur more commercial development, I think that's worth looking at," he said. "I will say though that we have a lot of challenges in our fire and and police departments. We know that we're understaffed by about 25 in each of those."
He said sometimes annexation can provide the money to help address pay, equipment and staffing issues for first responders, but thinks the city needs to be smarter about saving when annexing.
"When we go into an area and we expand, maybe we should start saving a little bit of the sales tax dollars those generate or the ad valorem taxes at least, so that we can pay for future infrastructure needs. Those things do tax our ability to service those areas, whether fire or police, but that's broader conversation about how do we recruit and fully staff both our police and fire departments."
The general election is on June 6.