Bringing money into the city was the primary topic of discussion among the mayoral candidates at a political forum Thursday at the University of South Mississippi, though one candidate expressed particular disdain for the current administration’s use of the city website.
The forum, held at USM’s Gulf Park campus, allowed residents to meet and hear from the mayoral candidates as the May 2 municipal primaries approach.
Last fall, after 13 years in office, Mayor Billy Skellie announced he would not seek another term, opening up the floodgates for six candidates to qualify. The candidates are Alderman-at-large Leonard Carrubba, Ward 4 Alderman Ronnie Hammons Jr., Ward 1 Alderman Gary Ponthieux, George Bass, and Kevin Nelson. All are Republicans. Lynda Giuffria also qualified but dropped out of the race last month.
The evening was dominated by talk of economic development, particularly regarding casinos. But a brief digression from Nelson, on the topic of public corruption, appeared to amuse the crowd.
Nelson said he is tired of corruption seeping into small-town governments on the Coast. He drew laughter from the packed auditorium when he frankly said the administration puts only “a bunch of crap” on the city website and nothing of real substance.
“We all have questions, and they don’t allow us to get any answers,” Nelson said. “I believe in honesty.”
When moderator Doug Walker asked him to cite proof of any instances of corruption in the city, Nelson said he “didn’t want to get into all that” at the moment.
Apart from his digression, Nelson said his priorities, if elected, would be reducing property-tax rates by 30 percent, renegotiating lower water rates for residents, attracting businesses and having an honest and transparent administration. He said he would support casino development.
Carrubba stood out from the pack as the lone voice wary of casinos coming into the city and taking a large slice of the town’s beachfront real estate — particularly the city harbor.
“What I’ve had in front of me is a casino in the harbor,” Carrubba said, referring to the prospective casino developments he has seen as an alderman, “and I can’t see losing our harbor for a casino. A lot of (casinos) don’t make it. I would hate to see something that size come into our harbor and not make it.”
Long Beach has wrestled with whether a casino would be a good thing for the city since gambling became legal in the state in 1990. Residents voted against casinos in at least three city and county referendums in the 1990s, but after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many had a change of heart. In a 2006 non-binding referendum, 54.7 percent of voters said they favored a casino across from the harbor.
Most recently, developers drew up plans for a casino-resort that would take up beachfront property, including the Long Beach Yacht Club. Those plans have not come to fruition.
However, Ponthieux said he would make sure everyone who comes to the city is welcomed, including any casinos looking for a place to set up shop.
“What can we do for you, not what can we do for ourselves,” he said. “I want to see the tax dollars. I want to see the jobs.”
Hammons said the city is strapped for sales-tax revenue, pointing out the school district is the city’s largest employer.
“Right now, the property taxes are what’s carrying the note, not the sales taxes,” he said. “All we need is some sales-tax revenue.”
Bass, Long Beach’s retired fire chief, said he wants to implement tax-abatement programs for residential development in addition to the more-common commercial tax abatement.
Bass said he would streamline the tax-abatement process. He criticized the city for having a sluggish clerical process, saying one developer has been waiting more than a year just for the city to process the same tax-abatement paperwork the city of Gulfport processed in one day.
Carrubba said he would create a marketing team that can pursue and attract investors for commercial development.
Municipal primaries will be May 2 in every Coast city except Waveland. Primary runoffs, if necessary will be May 16. The general election will be June 6.