Elections, debates dominate Natchez news

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 31, 2000

A few months before November’s election night tailspin, Natchez had its own close race.

A mayoral runoff between incumbent Larry L. &uot;Butch&uot; Brown and F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith was too close to call the night of May 16.

&uot;It’s not over yet,&uot; Smith said that night as he gathered with friends and family at his sister’s house.

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But in the end, when all of the affidavit and absentee ballots were counted, Smith beat eight-year incumbent Brown.

Smith went on to defeat independent Robert F. Costa in the general election in June, beginning a new administration after a long race that saw five contenders for the mayor’s office. Also running were Democrat John &uot;Pulleybone&uot; Pullen and independent Phillip &uot;Bucket&uot; West, who dropped out before the general election.

West was not the only early casualty in the elections.

Donnie Holloway, running for the city clerk spot vacated by retiring Frances Trosclair, easily won the general election after independent JoeAnn Hicks dropped out of the race. Holloway had already defeated Fredericka Todd in a Democratic runoff after both earned more votes than Billy Geoghegan. Democrat Peter Rinaldi dropped out of the race before the primary.

As for city aldermen, the incumbents kept their seats in all but one race. In Ward 2, James &uot;Ricky&uot; Gray beat incumbent George &uot;Shake&uot; Harden, who had held the seat for 15 years. Harden later contested the election, but his contest was denied by the Democratic Municipal Executive Committee.

Natchez’s downtown convention center, for which city officials broke ground in December, was among the top issues in the mayoral race, along with economic development and jobs.

During the campaign, Smith suggested the city consider merging the convention center with the existing Natchez Visitor Reception Center, a facility Pullen referred to as the &uot;world’s largest public restroom.&uot;

Brown defended both projects, pointing out that the visitor’s center was paid for without city money and that the convention center had been in the city’s long-range plans for several decades.

Now, Smith says he still believes the location of the convention center should have been researched more before placing it downtown, but has accepted the aldermen’s decision and wants to help make it a success.

&uot;There were a lot of things that were put into motion before I came into office,&uot; he said. &uot;I&uot;m going to try to make them work.&uot;

The convention center was just one of Smith’s main campaign issues which focused on economic development. The night of the runoff, he said he wanted to tackle problems with the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority first.

In fact, in the first few weeks of his administration, city aldermen and county supervisors met once again to try to hash out their differences over how many people should serve on the board of the economic development authority.

After months of proposals sent back and forth between the two boards, a five-member EDA board was finally agreed upon, with three appointments from the county and two from the city.

In December, the aldermen appointed Woody Allen and James West to the EDA board and the supervisors appointed Leon Crawford, Jack Dallas and Charles Yarbrough.

Local officials are now waiting for the Mississippi Legislature to approve the changes once it takes up local and private bills in the upcoming session.

Smith said the agreement reached between the city and the county on the EDA board is representative of the progress that has been made toward concensus – progress can be seen in other joint projects such as the rebuilding of Government Fleet Road.

&uot;They are not really different on their goals than we are,&uot; he said of the Adams County Board of Supervisors.

And if one goal stands out, it’s economic development, Smith said – a topic both city and county officials consider to be the year’s theme.

From the EDA board to a battle over budget cuts, almost all of the year’s top issues can be traced to the search for new economic dollars.

Smith said the convention center, supplemented by the newly-renovated city auditorium and refurbished community center, should be viewed as an investment that will prove its value once in operation.

&uot;From all indications, (the convention center complex) is going to pay big dividends in the future,&uot; he said.

Sue Stedman, Ward 3 alderwoman and public properties chairman, agrees. She said the economic impact of the convention center once fully up and running is estimated to be about $21 million per year.

&uot;I just can’t wait until we open the doors,&uot; she said.

The board of aldermen under former Mayor Brown approved the final site plans for the convention center in June, and the first phase of the construction – the placment of drilled foundational piers – was completed in August.

Bid proposals higher than expected delayed the awarding of the final 11 bid packages, which took place in November. With all contracts now in place, construction on the center is set to begin at any day, with a projected completion of spring 2001.

To help pay for the more than $12 million in bonds borrowed for the convention center complex in December 1999, Smith and the board of aldermen raised city ad valorem taxes in September for the first time in 15 years.

The increase of 4.199 mills was less than the proposed 7.428 mill increase first proposed by the board and passed only when Smith broke the tie vote between the aldermen.

Looking back on the 13 percent tax increase, Smith says without reservation it was the right thing to do.

&uot;It was something that had to be done. There were some tough decisions that had to be made,&uot; he said.

Smith said he never saw the smaller tax increase as a compromise, but a &uot;realistic view of what we had ahead of us.&uot;

Stedman, who voted for the full increase, said she is hopeful that with continued budget tightening and increases in sales tax revenues, another increase will not be necessary.

She also emphasized, as several aldermen did during the budgeting process, that the city needed a tax increase, if for nothing else, to keep up with the rising cost of running city government.

&uot;I think people need to realize they were getting a Cadillac on a Ford budget,&uot; she said.

Shortly following the tax increase, Smith announced plans to place a moratorium on city hiring and implement an across-the-board 10 percent budget cut in all city departments.

The moratorium is still in effect, but to keep from cutting personnel, Smith accepted smaller cutbacks from some city departments.

Even as sales tax revenues show a promising climb, Smith said the &uot;belt-tightening&uot; is as much in effect as ever.

&uot;I don’t know if there’s a week that goes by that we don’t look at ways to cut back,&uot; he said.

As the city focused on economic development within the city limits, the telecommunication industry fought to find a home in Natchez.

An application from Vanguard Towers LLC in July to build a telecommunication tower on Jeff Davis Boulevard forced the city to take a serious look at the rapid growth of telecommunication technology and how the city will accept it while protecting residents.

The board of aldermen eventually ruled in favor of the tower applicants in December, but a moratorium for new applications is in effect until the city can rework its ordinance.

City Attorney Walter Brown predicts the discussion over telecommunication towers to carry over well into 2001, as it will in many other communities across the nation.

With all the work ahead, Brown said the events that took place within city government during the year 2000 can be summed up as a culmination of decades of dreaming and planning.

&uot;It was an extremely good year for so many things,&uot; he said.

&uot;There were things that came together this year than have been worked on for several years.&uot;

Stedman agrees whole-heartedly. &uot;Look at all the things that have happened,&uot; she said, &uot;all the things that are moving this town in a forward direction.&uot;

Accomplishments aside, city officials said 2001 will prove a busy year as well, particularly with the EDA board cleared for success, the opening of the convention center and the extension of the Natchez Trace Parkway into city limits.

Brown said all indications are positive that a federal courthouse will locate in Memorial Hall, bringing high-paying jobs and new dollars into the city economy.

And with the bluff stabilization project scheduled for completion, &uot;it’s going to be a very busy year,&uot; he said.