Friday, October 03, 2014

TOP STORY >> Students ask mayor ‘why’

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher dropped by Thursday to speak to a group of fifth graders about the fundamentals and importance of reading and understanding what school was all about, but it quickly turned into a question-and-answer session about the mayor’s re-election battle against former Police Chief Gary Sipes.

Here are some of the students’ questions and the mayor’s answers.

Xzavear: What qualifies you to be mayor?

Mayor: My heart. I have a passion and vision for this city, and I know the road map to get us there. I’ve been involved in the community for 42 years. I joined the Jacksonville Jaycees when I was 18 — the first 18-year-old to join. I got involved with the community right away. As a senior in high school and a member of the Jaycees, I was helping to build the “boys club,” as it was called back then. A week later I was walking door-to-door with a coffee can collecting money for Pathfinders, which was just getting started and didn’t have enough money to help the way it wanted to.

I know this town. Many residents have seen me grow up, and I’m like their son, grandson or brother.

Jessica: You must get yelled at a lot as mayor, why would you want more of that?

Mayor: First off, there is no perfect job. There are pitfalls and rewards. As mayor, I’m either first or last in line for a person who is upset and mad. One of my greatest satisfactions is to take that person who is so frustrated and being able to help them. Sometimes it’s a problem I can’t solve, but they’ll know I cared enough to try. I’m very empathetic and at one time thought that was a curse, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a true blessing.

I get criticized about caring too much. As a contractor, if a board needed three nails in, I put in 10 to make sure.

Ma’Shala: Sherwood’s gotten a lot of new businesses lately, where are ours?

Mayor: I don’t want to take anything away from Sherwood and its economic developer. They are doing a fine job. The basic principle is that retail follows rooftops and Cabot and Sherwood have exploded in recent years.

And those jobs are our jobs, too. Gone are the days when neighboring cities pitted against each other. We all work together to bring in businesses because people are willing to drive five, 10, 15 miles to work because a business in Sherwood doesn’t mean Sherwood gets all the jobs.

Jacksonville was one of the fastest growing cities in Arkansas in the 1960s and ‘70s and then it was like someone put a glass bowl called deseg over us. We have the No. 1 economic driver in the state in Little Rock Air Force Base. It pumped in nearly $900 million into the economy last year. But, when I took office, we were in a recession that rivaled that of 1929. In 2010, we lost base housing as the government was revamping homes and the contractor went bankrupt. Plus, the base did not replace all of its housing. It left about 70 acres of former housing empty for a future school. All that hurt.

One of the reasons I hired an economic consultant was that Jacksonville had a message, a story to tell, and we’ve told it over the past five years and developed strong relationships with retail developers.

In fact, I’m on the verge of announcing a major medical development (see page 1A) that has come about because of the networking and relationships we have developed.

Keijuan: Why are people mad about the shooting range?

Mayor: Not everyone is mad. The majority are happy. There is an area of housing hearing the noise, and they are upset. But it is the largest tourist attraction in the city. Two weekends ago, it had people visiting from six different states. It brings in people.

Sixty-three percent of my budget is from sales tax. These visitors help us maintain our level of service.

There is a lot of misinformation out there. My opponent claims there were no public hearings, but the public always has the opportunity to speak at council meetings and planning commission meetings.

I understand the frustration some residents have, but it’s one of the best things to happen in Jacksonville in a long while. It’s a good thing.

Let me tell you, every decision I make or the city makes is unpopular with somebody, and many of them are acting like “Monday morning quarterbacks.” We could all be 100 percent right if we could look back first.

Robbie: Why does Jacksonville need its own school district?

Mayor: We need local control. We can do a lot better job than the Pulaski County School District. It’s just too large to manage, and we were always like the black sheep of the family. I don’t think Jacksonville has voted for a millage for the county district because we knew the money would not be spent here.

Let me tell you something about Warren Dupree, my brothers and sisters went here more than 40 years ago. Some of our schools are 60 years old. We haven’t had a new school in the city in 40 years. As part of the county school district, we are considered a wealthy district, meaning the state only chips in about 5 percent to build a new school. Meanwhile in Cabot, considered not as wealthy, the state pays about 40 percent of the cost. As our own district, we would have a wealth index of about 50 to 55 percent, meaning the state would cover about half the construction cost of a new school. That will help us get new facilities quickly.

David: Is it hard being the mayor?

Mayor: Some days it is, some not. I’m a people pleaser and that adds to the ups and downs. I hate it when I have to tell a person I can’t help them. It hurts. Part of my job is to stay focused on the big picture and not get bogged down on distractions. It’s a balancing act between the big picture and day-to-day issues.

Caleb: How bad is the traffic going to get while the highway (Hwy. 67/167) is being worked on?

Mayor: That’s the easiest question you’ve all asked this morning. Bad, bad, bad. But you got to look beyond the pain to the finished project. It’s like having a baby, not that I’ve had one, but the labor pains will get you mad and tense, but once that baby comes, all is forgotten. It will be the same with the highway.

And I’m pushing for an interchange at Coffelt Crossing. The North Belt Loop will never get built. But the interchange, tied into current state and county highways, is very doable.

David: What comes first, your family or your being mayor?

My family, but the city is a close second. It’s been that way for 59 years, and I’m too old to change now. It’s a tragedy when a career comes first. Because my family is so important though I want them to live in a great city, and it’s my job to see that that happens.

Darion: Can you fix our potholes?

Mayor: No, they are actually on school property, and I would go to jail if I did something like that on private or non-city property. Potholes are a problem, and they do hurt the city. We don’t take any money out of our general revenue for our roads. That money comes from the gasoline tax. The only problem is that, even though we are driving more, we are buying less gas and collecting less tax for our roads.

Payton: What would you do if you aren’t the mayor anymore?

Mayor: I haven’t really thought about it. My life doesn’t center around being a mayor, but nothing has been more satisfying even though some efforts and ideas have not always been successful. I’m very spiritual and truly believe, if one door shuts, another will open.

Bianca: Is there anything else you want us to know about this election?

Mayor: That there is a big difference between the two candidates. I’ve got the heart, dreams, passion and goals for the city. I’ve got the experience — 30 years on the city council and five years as mayor.

The former police chief is complaining that there have been no employee raises, and that simply isn’t true. Our employees have had raises four out of the last five years and still provided a high quality of service with no layoffs. Now the department heads haven’t always gotten a raise, but they are still receiving a very good salary. The county has given no raises in the past five years.

My opponent is driving with the rear view mirror and I’m using the front windshield.