Tuscaloosa Mayor’s Race: Where Candidates Stand on Key Issues
The 2021 municipal election will be held Tuesday, and for those who still want to get more informed on candidates' platforms before heading to the polls, here's a short primer showing where your three mayoral candidates stand on key issues facing the City of Tuscaloosa.
Incumbent Mayor Walt Maddox and his two opponents, UA Professor Dr. Serena Fortenberry and pastor Martin Houston, a former Alabama football player, have all participated in a series of televised debates, answered questionnaires and participated in interviews on the Steve Shannon Morning Show with one of the Thread's sister stations 95.3 The Bear.
The answers below were pulled from different parts of all of the above in an attempt to paint a more comprehensive picture.
City Operating Budget
Mayor Maddox has talked extensively about his overseeing of the various city budgets, including the General Fund Operating, General Fund Reserve, Water/Sewer Operating and Reserve, and Elevate Tuscaloosa. He prides himself on the city's stellar AAA credit rating, which Tuscaloosa achieved and maintained despite the Great Recession in 2008, the catastrophic April 2011 tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortenberry advocates for transparency between the City and the taxpayers and said all of the city's budgets should become itemized and come with explanations, especially when funds designated to one budget are transferred to another.
Houston has said that he wants to ensure every dollar spent reaches its maximum value; He is also an advocate for transparency between the city and the taxpayers, and said he seeks to create a more rigid spending plan than either of the other candidates.
All three candidates are in full support of commercial developments in the city. In their answers to the Chamber questionnaire, each candidate said they would support bringing commercial air service to Tuscaloosa National Airport, and each said the lack thereof was a major roadblock to bringing larger corporations to Tuscaloosa.
Maddox said his work in partnership with the Chamber has seen favorable interest rates and lower construction prices in the area and new projects funded by the Tuscaloosa County Road Improvement Commission and Elevate Tuscaloosa. He said if re-elected, he hopes to implement a Elevate-funded rapid transit system downtown to many major venues to increase accessibility and safety.
Fortenberry said she seeks to expand outdoor dining options in the city and oversee stronger urban planning projects along secondary streets to spread the vibrancy of downtown Tuscaloosa into surrounding areas.
Martin Houston told the Chamber that the city needs to work more closely with local businesses and the downtown area to diversify the landscape and bring more family-centric options to the area, especially in terms of entertainment. He is also a strong proponent of bringing competitive high-paying jobs to the city.
"We need to be more active in leveraging the knowledge base of our institutions of higher learning to recruit, support and develop the businesses that can hire their best and brightest graduates right here in Tuscaloosa, rather than seeing them have to leave the city where they were trained to find jobs they want at competitive salaries," Houston said.
Crime in Tuscaloosa
Incumbent Mayor Walt Maddox cited a double-digit drop in Tuscaloosa's "Big 5" crimes since he took office even as the city's population has grown by 25,000. He also said nationwide calls for police reform, especially in the last year, have not gone unheard. Through his recently announced Project Unity, Maddox is seeking to build stronger trust between police officers and the community, with an emphasis in the West Tuscaloosa area. The city has eliminated the use of chokeholds, and has enacted a mandatory intra-departmental abuse reporting policy.
In the Chamber questionnaire, Fortenberry criticized Mayor Maddox's method of addressing crime in the city. She has said that downtown areas lack adequate parking and lighting and supported a multi-faceted plan that emphasizes crime prevention instead of reactionary policing. She said she hopes to introduce new education initiatives to steer youth away from falling into crime while also bolstering community policing initiatives and recruiting more patrol officers.
Houston commended Maddox's efforts to reduce crime and bolster the police force, and said if elected he would support an expansion of the mental health unit Maddox helped to create inside the police department. Houston also said he wants to enhance police recruitment and divert more resources to addressing poverty in the area, which inevitably leads to crime.
Maddox's Elevate Tuscaloosa plan launched in 2019, and increased the city's sales tax by 1 cent. The plan uses that new stream of revenue fund new projects and initiatives across the city.
"I've never been more excited in our city's history," Maddox said on the Steve Shannon Morning Show when he announced his re-election bid last fall. "We're financially as strong as you can be, we've got the resources and wherewithal, we've got the community buy-in, and from education to economic development to recreation -- if we're going to be that next-level city, we've got the plans and the resources to make it happen."
Fortenberry has been especially harsh on Maddox's Elevate Tuscaloosa plan. She has publicly opposed the initiative, saying it's simply a tax increase with little oversight over the revenue it generates, allowing the Mayor to shift money across various budgets and play favorites with certain businesses and organizations around the City.
She said she wants better accountability put in place and ensure funds raised are spent on fixing and expanding current infrastructure and not jumpstarting new projects.
"The mayor didn't educate taxpayers by providing data support for his projects," Fortenberry said. "There are no assurances for how and why these ever-changing projects will deliver returns for our city."
Martin Houston falls somewhere in the middle of his two opponents on the Elevate Tuscaloosa plan. He told 95.3 The Bear that he supports the initiative, but that he would take a different approach to allocating the funds the tax generates. Houston is the Senior Director of membership growth at Alabama One Credit Union, and said he wants to use those skills to train each of the city's department head to be conscientious about how their budgets are composed.
General Vision for Tuscaloosa
Walt Maddox said he believes the City will reap the benefits of what it has sewn under his leadership and that infrastructure will be reinforced and expanded, creating more residential growth and jobs. He said he hopes plans like Project Unity and Elevate Tuscaloosa will transform the city's education system, it's parks and recreations opportunities, its police force and more.
Serena Fortenberry said she was running partially on the promise that she wasn't a career politician and promised she would not serve more than two terms as mayor. In that time, she wants to lead a more efficiently-run city with well-maintained infrastructure and to preserve natural areas like Lake Tuscaloosa and the Black Warrior River.
Martin Houston has long said he hopes to transform Tuscaloosa from a good city into a great one. He said he hopes to lead a unified and diverse city that doesn't just brand itself as a 'college town,' and said under his leadership he wants to see lowered crime rates and high-performing schools.
The municipal election will take place Tuesday, March 2nd .