Mayoral candidates discuss city issues

Published 8:39 am Wednesday, April 21, 2010

FRANKLIN—The two men who want to serve as the mayor of the City of Franklin for the next two years stood before a small crowd at the Paul D. Camp Community College Regional Workforce Development Center on Tuesday night and fielded several questions during a public forum on how they would do the job.

Both incumbent Mayor Jim Councill and challenger James Riddick Sr. made it clear that they take the next two years seriously, as the city will have to go on without its benefactor of many years, International Paper Co.

“I propose to you a change, a new look,” Riddick said during his opening remarks. “We can no longer rely on the past. We must go forward. We need to become more conducive to courting businesses to come to our area. (IP) was a good corporate thing for us here, but they’re gone so we can no longer rely on IP. We have got to court somebody else to come in here and take care of our needs.”

Councill briefly touched on his accomplishments over the last 14 years as mayor, including the formation of an economic recovery task force with neighboring Southampton and Isle of Wight counties.

“Our city is facing the hugest challenge we’ve ever faced,” Councill said. “With the experienced leadership, time, vision and a commitment, we’ll see through this as well and we’ll come out with more diverse and exciting days to come. Our future is bright. I ask for your support so I can continue to assist in moving this city forward, that we might have bright days in the future as we remake who the City of Franklin is and as we interact with our two counties to be a better place to live, work and raise our children.”

On the issue of whether the candidates would commit city property tax revenue to hiring 10 additional police officers — a request that was made by Police Chief Phil Hardison — Riddick said he would do so only as a last resort. Councill said it was premature to consider the idea but supported a public forum to discuss it.

“We just went through a reassessment and we are between four and five percent down on our assessed values,” Councill said. “That will have a direct impact on our tax income. We have to study and analyze all of that before we can make any decisions on spending additional money.”

Asked if Franklin needs more low-income housing, Riddick said, “I’ve been throughout the City of Franklin and looked at a lot of the homes that are vacant. People have left the area. These are homes that need to be renovated (so we can) help people become homeowners and stop putting them in low-income housing for the rest of their lives. Who wants to rent for the rest of their lives?”

Council said the city has “an unusually high rental rate” and said the most recent statistics he saw indicated that 45 percent of all the dwellings in the city were rentals.

“That’s dangerous because the properties are not kept up as well, the tax base is not as good and the rest of the people (in the city) have to support that,” Councill said. “Adding more to that base now would be counterproductive to our long-term plan of making Franklin a fiscally sound place to live.”

Although the Southeastern Public Service Authority expires in 2018, the mayor said the city needs to be prepared to meet their obligations until that time.

“We have no choice but to live up to the contract that was entered into in 1985,” Councill said. “Beyond that we will have a number of options.” Those options included participating in a revamped SPSA or participating in a regional plan with Southampton, Isle of Wight and possibly the City of Suffolk.

Asked what he would do about SPSA, Riddick said he was “completely overwhelmed by this question.”

“At this time, I don’t have an answer nor the knowledge of what’s going to happen with that,” Riddick said. “But with the citizens (and City) Council members, we will explore that avenue and see what it takes to get us to that point that we’ve got somebody to take our garbage.”

During his closing remarks, Riddick promised to establish office hours “to be able to listen to your complaints, regardless of what they are, to work with you to get this city on the track that it needs to be on going forward, and to do what it takes to make this city a great community.”

The mayor called the effort to get IP to repurpose the Franklin mill the most important issue facing the city.

“We have a unique opportunity right at our doorstep to remake who we are,” Councill said in closing. “It’s very important to be able to continue with good, quality leadership, vision, (and with the) relationships that have been established over a long period of time, (who) can get to the right people and get the right things done.”