Long Beach mayoral candidates talk casino, corruption and schools

Candidates for mayor of Long Beach convene at the University of South Mississippi’s Gulf Park campus for a political forum on Thursday, April 6, 2017
Candidates for mayor of Long Beach convene at the University of South Mississippi’s Gulf Park campus for a political forum on Thursday, April 6, 2017 wmuller@sunherald.com

In Long Beach, it’s a battle between three aldermen, the former fire chief and a self-described political outsider, who all agree that economic development is the key to increasing the city’s prosperity. Just how to get there is the question, though.

The five Long Beach candidates are vying for the chance to replace current mayor Billy Skellie, who has served the city for the last 13 years. Skellie announced he would not seek re-election.

Alderman-at-large Leonard Carrubba, Ward 4 Alderman Ronnie Hammons Jr., Ward 1 Alderman Gary Ponthieux, retired fire chief George Bass and Kevin Nelson are squaring off against each other in the May 2 primary. All are running as Republicans.

Carrubba, Hammons and Ponthieux, the three aldermen, agree that they would not raise taxes, but differed slightly on how to increase economic development to pay for existing city services. All candidates support tax abatements on residential and commercial properties in varying forms.

Nelson is running as an outsider to city politics, and accused city leaders of corruption and nepotism.

Bass suggested the city has in large part failed at expanding economic development, and promised a new approach.

Residents speak out

Some Long Beach residents, meanwhile, offered their own hopes of the candidates on the Sun Herald’s Facebook Page.

Long Beach resident Jason Lindholm said residents have plenty of ballfields, but no access to them.

“At last count we have 11 ballfields with locks and gates around them and zero ballfields that a Dad can take his kids out to,” Lindholm said.

“The rec center is nice, but it’s hardly ever open. At some point you begin to ask yourself the question of what your tax dollars are paying for if everything is locked up.”

Long Beach resident Carlotta Lee Kennedy said the city needs more resources for both young and old residents. She also said the city needs to be held to account.

“All the elderly have is the senior center and absolutely nothing for our youth. We need our skating rink back and a bowling alley would be nice also a very nice park for the little ones. So so much corruption going on in this city. We need the truth told to us about where our money is being spent. Why does this city need to borrow money from the county to fix our roads? There should be plenty for that nothing's been done to help or improve this city. Nothing at all to show where our money's gone.”

Gary Ponthieux

Currently in his third term as alderman, Ponthieux has served the city for 12 years.

Ponthieux said his experience on the Harrison Council of Government, the city of Long Beach Planning Commission and the Harrison County Tourism Commission gives him a leg up on the other candidates on bringing businesses into the city.

Updating and modernizing school district buildings is a priority, he said, even floating the possibility of building a new high school if the city can lock a deal on getting a casino.

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.

“I’m hanging my hat on a development coming in for gaming. I feel very confident about it. I believe the city needs a strong mayor to tell the board this is what we need,” he said.

In a campaign video, Ponthieux vowed to not raise taxes and still find funding for city upkeep. He supported projects such as the city’s sports complex and senior citizen center. He said he plans to continue playing a key role in providing free music concerts and movies for residents.

“Being the mayor is not an easy job, but I can devote myself like I did after Katrina. We lost everything we had and I stayed through the whole ordeal. I helped the city get back on its feet.”

George Bass

George Bass, a fifth generation Long Beach resident, looks at the number of vacant commercial lots in the city and said he believes he can do better. He questioned the competency of the three alderman running.

“I know economic development is something you hear everyone talking about,” Bass said, “but in those eight years, we still have all that vacant area. There are over 300 vacant commercial properties in the city. Right now, we’re just a highway that takes us to Pass Christian,” Bass said.

“We need to do better.”

Bass proposed working with outside agencies such as the Mississippi Development Authority to get more businesses interested in Long Beach.

He also said a key to city growth is to get residents more involved in the political process.

“We have so many highly-educated people here in our city who have great ideas. It’s time to start getting them more involved.”

Economic growth will allow the city to reduce the high cost of living in the city, Bass said.

Bass, who served as Long Beach fire chief for 35 years, said he would institute an open-door policy for all city employees.

“I’d like to see a better open-door policy. My office would be the people’s office,” he said.

He said he would look at possible FEMA grants and is also open to tax abatements to spur commercial and residential growth.

Leonard Carrubba

Voters elected Leonard Carrubba to the board of aldermen twice, and he served as mayor pro tempore for four years. Carrubba was selected to serve on the Governor's inaugural Oyster Council and served on the Long Beach Planning Commission for four years.

Carrubba offered a more sobering analysis of the casino development and promised to continue his efforts to make city government more transparent.

Carrubba helped to get the board to adopt the Robert Rules of Order, a way of governing a meeting that streamlines the process and gives all parties a say. In an effort to provide Long Beach residents better access to their city government, Carrubba also started recording all city meetings with his own equipment.

Having worked in the gaming industry for years, Carrubba said a casino would not be the wisest use of the city’s harbor.

“From what I’ve heard, the casino that is being talked about would be the size of the Scarlet Pearl (located in D’Iberville). It would take the harbor over and I honestly don’t think it’s the best way to use it,” he said.

“To me, casino isn’t a magic word,” Carrubba continued. “Many times, it doesn’t help a community,” he said, citing the effect of the closing of Margaritaville in Biloxi in 2014.

“Once you depend on the funding and it’s kicked out from under you. That’s not a good place to be,” he said.

Carrubba said he considers the harbor, the Long Beach School District, the University of Southern Mississippi at Gulf Park and the city’s industrial park as some of the most attractive elements of the city, and a way to attract outside developers. He said close cooperation with an economic developer or a marketing team could bring additional development to the city.

“We need to expand our marketing, increase our internet presence to get businesses to invest here,” he said.

One of his goals, according to his campaign page, is to get four-lane access off Interstate 10.

Ronnie Hammons Jr.

Ward 4 Alderman Ronnie Hammons Jr. said the city shouldn’t be picky about business opportunities. He cautioned against creating an unfriendly business environment, which he believes is an impression many have.

“We’ve turned good opportunities down. It’s been suggested we’re not business friendly. That’s why a lot of developers end up going elsewhere, I believe,” Hammons said.

Hammons said he would help alleviate unnecessary red tape and bureacracy between the city and potential developers.

Regarding the casino, Hammons said, “beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “It has to be a good deal for the city, but the longer it’s tied up, the better the chance it’ll never happen.”

Hammons said he has focused on getting development south of the tracks for the last eight years.

He said he’s focused on bringing in a sportsplex and getting sports fields for the city’s youth groups.

Hammons has his eye on expanding tourism in the city, beginning along the city’s beachfront. His philosophy is summed up with a phrase.

“I believe in Stop. Shop. And stay,” he said. “People need a reason to stop. Highway 90 is like our front door. We need to build it up to get people to stop. They then need a place to shop. Why don’t we build up around the university with businesses, make it a walking tour.”

Hammons noted the Long Beach Holiday Inn Express, the only hotel on the city’s beachfront, rarely has vacancies.

“We need another hotel. That’s the stay part,” he said.

Kevin Nelson

Nelson bills himself as the voice of the people and the only candidate in the election that will stand up against corruption.

He said the other candidates are out of touch with the public.

“They get elected and you never see them again. I’ve had six people with me at a town meeting and they don’t even recognize their own residents. I want the people back involved,” he said.

Nelson promised he wouldn’t seek any tax increases, largely because he believes they are too high to begin with. He promised lowering property taxes by as much as 30 percent.

“Water rates are ridiculous and so are property taxes. Seniors shouldn’t be paying those taxes. We need to renegotiate,” he said.

Nelson downplayed the possible casino development.

“Everyone is keyed into the casino. We need to get something more stable,” he said.

“I have a strong ability to move forward and I won’t wait for businesses to come see me, I’ll go see them,” he said.

Nelson, who served in the U.S. Navy, said he would push for a VA clinic in Long Beach, manufacturing jobs, housing subdivisions and a family-oriented resort on the beach.

Nelson also accused the other candidates of nepotism.

“George Bass hired (Mayor) Skellie’s son. Carrubba has cousins on the fire department. I’m not pushing this issue but these are questions people are asking me. They won’t tell you anything,” he said.

The primary election is May 2.

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory