Focus: Vidalia mayoral candidates address election issues
Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 7, 2016
VIDALIA — Vidalia voters will head to the polls in March to elect a mayor.
Voters have two distinct candidates from which to choose — Mayor Hyram Copeland who has been in office since 1992 and Buz Craft who has never before been elected to office.
Voters have a responsibility to gather as much information as possible before casting a ballot, and many have been asking good questions. The Natchez Democrat polled the candidates with five questions, giving them three days to write out their own answers. Candidates were asked to answer each question in approximately 200 words.
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The answers you will read below and inside today’s edition are the candidates’ own words.
The election will be March 5.
1. If elected, what will be the top three priorities of your administration and what steps will you take in the first 100 days in office to accomplish them?
Hyram Copeland: I hope to continue working hand-in-hand with the people I have the privilege to represent. The citizens’ priorities are my priorities.
The top 3 priorities would be:
A. Continue economic development projects to promote growth and create jobs
B. Maintain and improve infrastructure to keep pace with a growing community
C. Continue efforts to improve employment opportunities, public services and public safety with a continued sense of a strong community
Buz Craft: 1. Financial accountability — The mayor has made the statement that the city has “clean audits.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have reviewed the past several years’ audits, and the findings are quite shocking. Auditors have noted, among other things, that budgets are being overspent, state statutes may be being violated, accounting principles are not being followed, and board members are not being given timely, accurate financial records for review.
2. Revitalization of our local business and residents’ spending capacity — Many small businesses and residents are struggling, and some businesses have closed down. Houses are for sale all over Vidalia. How is this so?
Over the last several years, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent in the pursuit of economic development, and we have very little to show for it. I believe the businesses and residents of Vidalia have been pushed aside.
Although the mayor often states the town is growing, the opposite is true. The 1992 census taken when the mayor was elected had Vidalia’s population at about 4,900. The last census showed a decline of almost 20 percent.
3. Listen to our voters — The voters’ voices have fallen on deaf ears. This was evident in the Square on Carter meetings. The mayor and almost all of the aldermen supported this effort after you said, ‘No!’ I will listen.
2. Do you support the “Square on Carter” project? Why? What changes, if any, would you make to the current proposal?
Copeland: Yes, I do, and I will always support projects that create growth and prosperity. As it stands, the Square on Carter only adds value to our town, which benefits every resident in terms of access to additional services, higher property values and a heightened sense of community.
Vidalia is one of the few towns in the Delta that is growing, and it’s because of the town’s initial investment in projects, which in turn enhance opportunity for private investment. This project was a result of numerous community meetings where community stakeholders addressed the future needs of Vidalia, and overall, the community was supportive of this proposed development. I support all 30 projects that were identified throughout that process. I listen to my constituents’ needs; I receive advice from my department heads and advisors before I make a decision. This project was no different.
I feel the current proposed plan is sufficient at its current stage in development. Based on our economic impact review of this project, we anticipate property and sales taxes generating millions of dollars annually. We project the increased property and sales tax revenue, sale of property, and Tax Increment Financing will pay any debt service for this proposed project.
Craft: I do not support the Square on Carter. This project is bad on every level that I can think of.
The purchase of the land would use taxpayer money and has been deemed by the Louisiana State Bond Commission as not legal and is speculative at best. This project does not need to go forward, especially since the mayor and board have refused to allow it to be voted on by the people of Vidalia.
The origins of ownership for this project were Hyram Copeland, our current mayor; Bryant Hammett, our City Engineer; HL Irvin, employee of Vidalia; and Mark Taunton. All except Hammett have supposedly been bought out of the deal. This, in my opinion, is still a conflict of interest because it involves a city engineer and was past business partners.
The mayor tried to push this project through without doing due diligence in getting the proper appraisals and was ready to tag us, the people of Vidalia, with an inflated value that raised many questions. Appraisals since have reduced the value by almost $1,700,000.
There is nothing I would change about this project. I would let it be private property that can be purchased by a private investor. If the project had merit, it would not need our struggling businesses and residents to pay for it.
3. Millions of dollars have been committed to the Vidalia port and industrial park. What can be done to ensure the success of these projects? How can the city work to protect the taxpayers’ investment?
Copeland: Projects such as the port are critical to the continued success of Vidalia. All of the grants received have been measured by rate of return or based on number of jobs created. We have engaged professionals to develop plans and specifications for projects. These projects undergo rigorous scrutiny at the state and federal levels. All projects are subject to the public bid laws of the state. Activity reports are required throughout the project to notify funding agencies of any problems or plan changes. Before final acceptance, an onsite review of the project is conducted by the engineers, funding agency, local sponsor and contractor. All these steps ensure success of the project and protect this investment.
The millions of dollars of funding come from federal and state sources, not local taxpayer dollars. These state and federal dollars will be spent on infrastructure projects somewhere in the country or state. I would prefer we receive those funds to improve our infrastructure and transportation opportunities, rather than another part of the state or country. We are committed to this investment, which will benefit residents for years to come. Vidalia is a city on the move, and we must continue moving forward.
Craft: I think it would be very important with any project to prepare a cost-benefit analysis. This would outline expense and income streams that can be used to see if there is a benefit to the providers.
The voters of Vidalia would be the providers in that if it doesn’t generate income to pay expenses, those losses would be paid by the people through higher utility rates, taxes and no hydro refunds.
I would like to have commitments from users before borrowing more money than we owe now. We are always told that they can’t discuss who these commitments are. I believe due diligence, transparency with the people and full disclosure of progress on these projects would be more supported by an informed public.
4. Has the City of Vidalia made decisions in recent years that are in the public interest in regards to rebates and royalties from the Sidney A. Murray Hydroelectric Station?
Copeland: Everything my office does and every decision made is always in the best public interest of the residents of Vidalia; part of my job is to improve the quality of life for all citizens of Vidalia, and I take it very seriously. The town abides by a local ordinance governing the use of funds from the hydroelectric plant; we were pleased to issue a rebate this past year. The next few years will provide even more opportunities to further improve the quality of life in Vidalia.
Craft: Our utility rates are up to almost 40-percent higher than areas outside city limits and are set by the mayor and board of aldermen.
The truth is unacceptable in light of the royalties we receive from the Sidney A Murray, Jr. Hydroelectric Station on a yearly basis. We received a small adjustment this year, not a check (in an election year) and in 2004 (coincidently, an election year also.)
The people of Vidalia should be outraged (as they are) that there have not been yearly rebates, as we have received millions in revenues in the last 11 years.
The mayor and board have decided to spend the money elsewhere and not give it back to the people of Vidalia.
Town Ordinance No. 588 specifically calls for the city to rebate up to 50 percent of any surplus funds from the hydro royalties on a yearly basis, as was promised to the people when the hydro plant was built.
This promise has been broken, and I will work diligently to get our utility rates down and give a rebate on electric bills. It was intended for the people to have a direct benefit from these funds, and if our city finances are handled properly, this can be accomplished.
5. What is the single biggest mistake you have made in your work life and what did you learn from it?
Copeland: Prior to running for mayor of Vidalia, I opened a video rental business across the river. I passed over the opportunity to franchise (this was before Blockbuster came along) and expand that business, which was a mistake. However, that missed occasion taught me to take advantage of present opportunities and to explore the marketplace.
That lesson has led me in some of the most pivotal decisions I’ve made while representing the people of Vidalia; because of that lesson, I have been able to move forward with long-term decisions to attract industry, provide services and keep Vidalia moving forward. Windows of opportunity do not stay open forever, and that video store taught me to keep moving forward and look for the best opportunity to serve.
Craft: I am a very positive person, and I do not count any of my work experiences as mistakes. I look at them as learning experiences that can only come with hard work and determination.
I participated in athletics all of my life and was a competitor and would like to think that I was a leader that people could believe in and trust.
As a banker I was able to help people all over the Miss-Lou.
When seen by many since I left banking, they ask, “What do you miss about the bank?” My reply is always, “The people.”
I told my wife, April, that I was excited to take on this endeavor because I feel like I can help the people again. I truly love Vidalia and stand as a proud partner with you as we put the people and businesses back as our focus. There is so much more that I will be sharing with our voters. There is very much to discuss.
God bless you all. Together we can believe in Vidalia again.