Retiring Councilman Ben Allen got a super send-off Monday from friends and family at Bravo! Restaurant in Highland Village. A crowd containing personalities such as secretary of state candidate Delbert Hosemann, fellow council members, Ward 1 residents—and even Gov. Haley Barbour—showered gratitude upon the former councilman for more than 10 years of service.
Four Ward 1 residents have qualified to run for Allen's $25,000-a-year seat. The candidates include New Hope Baptist membership care and visitation director Lenard Jenkins, radio talk-show host David Archie, former state prosecutor Jeff Weill Sr. and real-estate developer John Ditto. Voters will decide the winner in an Aug. 14 special election, held strictly in Ward 1.
Allen abruptly abandoned his post as councilman, as well as the presidency of the council, for health issues in June. His doctor demanded that he "do a lot of relaxing, really, really fast," Allen said, which, to the councilman, included walking away from his stressful role in city government.
The 56-year-old leaves a ward in transition. Ward 1 is one of the more wealthy and educated in the city, and contains the largest proportion of high-end businesses and homeowners. The ward is one of the chief revenue generators for the city, in terms of money from property and sales tax, and plays a large role in city politics with one of the biggest voting populations in the city.
The ward is changing, however. Ward 1 is the most obvious of city districts impacted by suburban flight. A stroll down Ridgewood Rd., Kaywood Dr., Plantation Blvd. or most any randomly chosen street will reveal an abnormally high percentage of "For Sale" signs. Many of the people selling their homes have been there since the 1970s or 1980s or even longer. Many are white.
Joseph Langston, a resident of Fairfield Circle for more than five years, has purchased a new home in Brandon, with his wife, Kim Langston. Joseph Langston works as an area manager at the Nissan plant. Their home in north Jackson is reasonably close to the Canton car plant, but they're willing to forsake the convenience of the location for a 30- to 45-minute commute from a suburb on the other side of the city.
"What's my biggest motivation? The school district," Langston said. "Casey (Elementary) is a great school, but we just needed something more. I don't get caught up in the hype about how Jackson is all that bad, because it's not necessarily all that bad. It's just maybe you got some wrong people in key positions."
Langston would not elaborate on the "wrong people". His wife, Kim, also complained of rising crime in the area, and feared a drop in property value, despite a handsome home appraisal last year prior to putting their home on the market.
Joseph Langston added that the city's schools and rising crime weren't the sole reason for the move. The Langston's family is growing, with a new baby in the house, and they need a bigger home. They did not consider a new home in Jackson, however.
Not White Flight Any More
Exiting Councilman Allen admitted that his ward is a place in transition, despite all his efforts.
"A lot of the flight is driven by our school system," Allen admits. "(Say,) you've got a couple that are 36 years old, they live in that area, they got a combined income of $65,000, and the kids want to go to middle or high school, but my ward does not have a middle school or a high school. They don't want to travel all the way to Murrah or Callaway. The next thing they could do is either move to another community or put their kids in a private school. Well, they can't afford private schools, so they move."
The issue of schools was clearly a concern during the last election, when 62 percent of Ward 1 voters approved the $150 million Jackson Public Schools bond proposal for school construction and repair—a startling percentage considering how many Ward 1 parents send their students to private schools.
"They understand the value of having a strong public-school infrastructure. That explains why they're now supporting it, as opposed to 15 years ago, when we tried to do it, when they really didn't understand how important the school system was to the success of the city," said JPS Board Vice President Jonathan Larkin, who lives in Ward 1.
"I think there may have been a few residual issues back during the 1990s relating to the desegregation of schools in the 1970s, and as you get further along in the generations, you get a lot of that going away and more people are learning the value of the school system to the overall community."
"In northeast Jackson, I don't think it's a white flight issue anymore," Larkin said. "To be honest, I think it's more a money issue. Middle-class people don't want to live in the city of Jackson. They prefer to live in the surrounding counties, thinking their property value will stay stable longer."
Ward 1 resident Jim Jenkins agreed with Larkin, explaining that his house is for sale due to the risk of plummeting property values.
"You invest so much in a home, but then for reasons out of your control, its value can drop because of crime, or school or just because of how clean the city is, or ain't," said Jenkins, who has not chosen a new home but speculates it will be in Rankin County. "You don't want to see your investment dry up."
Allen admitted that fear of falling property values is enough to chase off anyone. Nobody, as Allen describes, wants to invest in a $120,000 house and watch it turn into a $60,000 house because of bad neighbors or dilapidated housing. Allen said that the key to combating the issue is giving the city's code enforcement division the teeth it needs to watchdog equity-killing troublemakers.
"The council recently passed a very good landlord/tenant ordinance, but we do not, at the present time, have it funded enough for (Community Improvement Director) Joe Lewis to be able to hire the appropriate personnel for follow-up," Allen said, adding that both he and the council had anticipated the initial impossibility of funding the ordinance change.
Allen said he hoped the new council, with its new Ward 1 councilman, would consider realistically funding code enforcement during the new budget cycle.
"There's a system in place, and I don't think it would take 30 code-enforcement people to run it. In my own estimation, I think it would take at least two people per ward, but we've got to make sure that if these citations are written for unkempt yards and code violations that these cases will go before the proper environmental court and get follow-up," Allen said.
"Right now, what happens is that people get these court summonses and they ignore them, because they can. I'm not blaming anyone. This is a recognized problem. It's why we passed the renter's ordinance. It's why we hired Joe Lewis."
The council approved a rental-property ordinance last November that exacts stiff penalties from landlords who do not get their property inspected between occupant turnovers, or who leave their property unoccupied for long periods of time.
Mimicking ordinances in nearby Ridgeland and Madison, the ordinance forces landlords to keep their property up to city specifications and charges them between $100 and $1,000 for violations, depending on the number of violations the landlord accrues with the city. It also charges landlords a fee for home inspections between turnovers. The November ordinance does not preside over large apartment complexes.
All four candidates said they agreed with the intent of the new ordinance. Even John Ditto, whose family business owns rental property in both Jackson and Ridgeland, said he wholly backed the ordinance.
"I think that ordinance change was a good idea, though it would be impractical for large apartment complexes," Ditto said. "It's worked for Ridgeland, and I agree with it being used in Jackson. Code enforcement is a big issue with my ward."
Both Weill and Jenkins said they wanted to put a high priority on making sure ordinances like the November ordinance were enforceable, as did Archie.
But city codes will require teeth if they are to be effective—about 30 of them to be precise, according to Sonya Murphy, organizer for residents advocate group Mississippi Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
Allen said ordinances sitting inactive in a book weren't doing anybody any good.
"You can go up to Ridgewood Road, and you've got homes that are three-fourths finished, and they've been sitting there like that for months. The guy got maybe 80 percent finished with it and just walked away from it. ... It's awful. We've got a two-story building on the corner of Northside and Ridgewood. I remember that thing sitting there for six or seven years. The people in these neighborhoods are frustrated because it takes so long for the city to do anything about it," Allen said. He warned, though, that jump-starting any renewed vigor in code enforcement would require serious start-up dough.
"It would cost a lot of money to initially get it moving, but these issues should be revenue neutral if we're actually issuing fines to people and they're actually paying the fines to the city. That should offset the cost of the people hired to do the fines, once we get it working. It just stands to reason that if you put meter readers downtown on commission, I guarantee you'd see more tickets getting issued," Allen said.
Ditto said he would place a high priority on expanding code enforcement if that was what the city needed, while Weill said he would favor expanding personnel in code enforcement, but only if it could be done without raising taxes.
'Not Fear of Black People'
Allen said he had noticed, during his time as a councilman, that many code enforcement issues seem to hover around issues regarding rental property.
"When I refer to Ward 1 as a 'transitional neighborhood,' it's not a black-white thing. It's an own-versus-rent-type deal. It's not fear of black people driving out whites," Allen said. "The homeowner associations used to be as integrated as they could be. I think it's more the impact on rental housing. History proves that rental homes are not kept up as nice as people who own their homes. What happens is that when the neighborhood becomes more and more rental oriented, the value of the house goes down."
The four Ward 1 councilman candidates appear to be of the same mind.
"If you don't own it, you're not going to care much about it," Jenkins said. "I see a down trend in the upkeep of the community. If you go on the east side of the ward there's a lot of neglect. I don't want to say this about everybody, but if you rent a house out, most of the time the renter will not care as much about the property as their neighbors who own."
Ditto said he would work to encourage home-ownership, as opposed to building or home rental.
"I do feel that people who own property take more pride in property in general. We own multi-family property. You can't issue a blanket statement and say homeowners are better than renters, but I do believe that you're much better having home ownership than rental," said Ditto, who has recently renovated downtown property and filled it with tenants.
Weill went so far as to condemn the emergence of new apartment complexes in the city.
"I will fight apartment complexes that move into established neighborhoods because they degrade property values," Weill said.
Another issue that battered Allen during his time in office was the problem of the city's faltering police force. The city currently has about 420 police officers, about 200 short of the 600 advised by the 1999 Linder/Maple study. Allen said the shortfall in cops was having a rotten impact on property crime in his ward.
"A lot of the bad boys are coming to this part of the city because this is the place with the most businesses and probably the most easy victims. Property crime is proliferating," said Allen, himself the victim of a carjacking in 2003 and of an attempted business burglary that same year.
Crime in the city has steadily increased over the last two years, with violent crime logging in at a 40 percent increase over 2005, according to city crime statistics. The new city administration, under Mayor Frank Melton, stopped publishing the crime statistics last October when it became obvious that the trend wasn't dropping, but FBI Uniform Crime Reports cataloged the increase.
Allen said increasing the officer head count is one of the best ways to combat the dismal figures.
"Remember my office where I got carjacked and had my office broken into with an axe? Well, for the last two months, Sheriff (Malcolm) McMillin has had a deputy there 24/7, and there's been no crime in the Commerce Park area since then," Allen said. "None. Businesses there were getting slaughtered—Franklin Printers, Luvel Milk—but the law enforcement presence has eradicated crime there. Drive through there now, and you'll have a deputy sheriff on your butt immediately. If we have more police on the street there's no question that crime would go down."
Allen added that even a minimal increase makes a difference.
"JPD even parked a police car over there for a while. The car didn't even work. They just parked it there, and it stopped the crime in that area for a while," Allen said.
The four candidates said crime was the top issue of their campaigns, though their opinions wavered on whether or not the city could afford to increase officers.
Jenkins said the city could likely make do with the police staff that it had, so long as it was wise in distributing its resources.
"I understand that we're short about 200 officers, but my philosophy is that you just use what we got," Jenkins said. "We've got to find a better way of managing our police. They want that as much as we do."
His opponents say an improvement just won't happen without a rise in badges on the street, however.
Ditto, whose father is former Jackson Mayor Kane Ditto, refused to make what he called "uninformed" assumptions on how the city could pay for more officers without "first looking at the city budget."
One thing they do not waver on, though, is a tax increase, with none prepared to declare a willingness to consider a tax increase to fund the extra officers. Weill, in particular, said he was certain that the city already had the money to fund new police.
"We've already budgeted for more police than we have. We just need to make sure that they are in place, recruited and well-trained," Weill said, promising to make the endeavor, if elected as councilman.
Council power stops short of deciding policy, however, with redirecting city resources largely under the purview of the mayor. Weill said he could wield his power as a swing voter to encourage the mayor to be open to suggestions on more efficient budget spending.
"In a city council that's divided 3-to-3, there will be some decisions where my input will be more than considered," Weill said. "They want my vote, but in order to get my vote, they're going to have to move some money around to put it where it needs to go."
Councilman Marshand Crisler warned against using a swing-vote status as a tool too often.
"I wouldn't recommend anybody putting themselves in a position to throw weight around as a swing voter. While you're swinging, I've learned it's too easy to hang yourself. The most you can do is vote your convictions and make sure it's in the best interest of the citizens. I'd suggest that to any candidate seeking office," Crisler said.
Digging in the pockets
The issue surrounding another tax or fee increase may still be sitting on the council's table at the beginning of the next budget cycle, however.
After two years of bitter wrangling between city administration and the council, Police Chief Shirlene Anderson finally produced a crime plan. As a testament to bad timing, however, the most vital component of that plan calls for a pay increase for police officers, even though the city council already approved a $2 million tax increase last year on the promise from the administration that the money would go to city paychecks and funding new police officers.
The prospect of a tax hike might crash the party regardless of whether or not the city can come to grips with code enforcement and police pay. The city is still facing a budget deficit of almost $4 million this year, and Chief Finance Officer Rick Hill told the Jackson Free Press that the city may have to tap its $7 million budget reserve fund to cover shortfalls.
"There's a possibility we might have to do that," Hill said. "I hate that, but there's a good chance we may have to. I can't say how much we might have to hit it. We're in the process of looking at that now."
Tapping the reserve fund will likely affect the city's credit rating, impacting the cost of bond projects. Spend your reserve fund, and the collective interest rate for the city goes up. The city barely dodged tapping its reserve fund last year, saved only by a mil increase, severe cuts to city services, and a $550,000 settlement with KGEN, LLC, regarding the purchase price of a coal plant near Highway 220.
"Because we passed a 2-mil tax increase last year, it'll be pretty tough to swallow if the public is asked to pay a tax increase unless they can see why the tax increase was called for-—other than just not having the budget balanced," Allen said.
Allen said the council had no way of knowing for sure if the last mil increase had gone to its intended destination.
"I just don't know," Allen said. "When I left, we'd only gotten one revised budget. You don't really know anything until you get your final budget three months after the fiscal year has ended. It's been hard to say how that money has been directed."
No candidate running in the Ward 1 election smiles on the idea of voting for a tax or fee increase.
"We really shouldn't raise it any more than it is," Ditto said. "It's put the city at a terrible disadvantage to our competitors."
Jenkins, who referred to the suburbs as "leeches," said the outer communities would not hesitate to pounce on Jackson's disadvantage.
Weill and Archie speculated that the city had waste in other parts of the budget that could be diverted.
"There's an army of city employees, and the problem is not on the revenue end. It's on the spending end, and I will, under no circumstances, advocate a tax increase," Weill said. "Once I get in there and look under the hood, I think there's a lot of wasted money that could be directed to things like public safety."
Councilman Leslie McLemore said he was unaware of any extra fat in city administration.
"We're not going to be in a position to shift a lot of things around unless we cut back, which would have to involve cutting back personnel. We have a very, very, very tight budget there," McLemore said. "We'll obviously have to get a handle on overtime, both fire and police, but that involves filling staff shortages in those departments."
Budget disagreements, among others, will likely factor heavily on many council decisions. Even though the council largely votes in accord on most agenda items, one or two issues occasionally make news because members vehemently squabble over them.
Can Everyone Get Along?
In the past two years, the council erupted over the mayor's decision to fire the city's prolific city lobbyists, Winston & Strawn, LLP, who earned $111 million for the city over almost 10 years, and to finance the roughly $70,000 salary of Melton's friend Marcus Ward.
Three council members—Frank Bluntson, Kenneth Stokes and Charles Tillman—vote in lockstep with the mayor on every vote. The three produced a vociferous bloc in decisions regarding the council's failed confirmation of some of Melton's department head nominees, including interim fire chief Todd Chandler and interim Parks and Recreation head Charles Melvin.
Four members of the council voted down Melton's two failed nominees—a rarity in Jackson government and a severe blow to Melton's ego—because of their lack of experience. The same four members, including Allen, decried Melton's subsequent attempt to illegally retain the failed nominees over their appointed departments after the council vote.
Allen said voting blocs on the council are par for the course.
"The council I went into had a voting bloc of Louis Armstrong, Kenneth Stokes, Robert Williams. Bo Brown was actually the swing vote. Then there was Chip (Reno), Margaret (Barrett-Simon) and me that were pretty much on the same sheet of paper. At that time, we did not have a lot of 4-3 (votes) back then. Then the FBI investigation came, and for two years the entire council stayed in a state of suspended animation."
The FBI investigation largely disbanded the Stokes voting bloc in 1999, with then-council President Armstrong pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery, and Williams convicted of trying to extort $150,000 from Time Warner Cable in a city cable contract vote.
Melton—who declared at a campaign forum in 2005 that he could not "sit next to a convicted felon"—put both felons back on the city payroll during his administration: Armstrong directing the city's housing department and Williams working in code enforcement. Williams was also a paid Melton campaign staffer.
The FBI is again probing the city this year, investigating the mayor's alleged attempt to extort a JPS board vote on the management of its $150 million bond package and matters pertaining to city contracts and disbursements, as well as constitutional violations regarding the mayor's illegal demolition of a home on Ridgeway Street and the mayor's attempt to close down a wood recycling plant on Mill Street.
Allen said his earlier years as a councilman were actually the most combative, claiming that most of the agenda item votes were "7-0, or 6-1, when somebody would make a symbolic no-vote on something," but explained that the new councilman is heading into a council that will force him to choose a side as one of his first acts.
The council voted in a 3-to-3 split last month on choosing a new council president, with the Stokes/Melton faction nominating Charles Tillman and the other three going with McLemore. Faced with a deadlock, the council agreed to suspend the vote until after the August 14 special election.
"I think it's unfortunate that they didn't elect a president prior to the election, but they didn't, and I'm sure they'll get through that," Allen said.
Ditto vows he will not be pigeonholed into choosing sides, as do the others.
"I have respect for everybody on the council. I think it's paramount the representative from Ward 1 build consensus with everyone, but as far as how I would vote on things, I would have to vote based on the merits of each item in hand. I still stick to my promise that I will not join any one particular faction," Ditto said.
Crisler said "that's a nice thing to aspire to," but opined that politics, and the rule of chance, dictates everybody into eventually migrating to one side or the other.
"Most of the time the council votes in agreement on issues, but every now and then there comes an issue that divides us, and the new candidate will probably learn, after only a few of these contentious votes, that he's gravitating in one direction. That's just the way it is. You will find people more in accord with your line of thinking than others on most issues, no matter who you are," Crisler said.
So, did any of these guys answer the question whether they would have stood there with the other three council members and ask Mayor Melton to resign as Ben Allen did?
Once again, all the other stuff is 'no duh' politics. Good schools, no taxes, yada, yada, yada... Yeah politics!
I don't expect them to say, I'm behind McLemore for Prez, I just think they are not doing us a service if they cannot directly and honestly answer any Melton issue questions.
Frankly, Pike, they all seemed hesitant to answer real questions, according to Adam. And if he can't get them to ...
That's why the endorsement of Ditto is lukewarm, if sincere.
I don't know if any of these guys is strong enough to stand up to Melton. Let's hope so.
In many ways Weill's were the most absurd.
I posted this on another thread already:
WAPT also announced that Allen has his own news segment called "Allen's Angle", I think. It's supposed to air every Monday or every other Monday, and he's going to give his view on city affairs.
I heard while shopping this morning that Ben Allen is considering a run for Pickering's seat. Anyone else?
Haven't heard that one. I don't think he will.