Housing, COVID, Taxes: Everything that was up for mayoral debate on Thursday

See where candidates stand on infrastructure, policing and economic recovery.

Less than two weeks ahead of the municipal elections, three Tuscaloosa mayoral candidates faced off in an impassioned debate that sparked moments of contention over Tuscaloosa’s future. The hour-long debate, organized by the League of Women Voters of Greater Tuscaloosa (LWVGT), was aired on WVUA 23 on Thursday night.

Serena Fortenberry, a UA English professor, and Martin Houston, a local pastor and businessman, are newcomers to politics. Both candidates launched criticisms at Walt Maddox, the longtime incumbent, over his approaches to local infrastructure, urban development, the COVID-19 pandemic and community policing. 

Addressing housing problems

Fortenberry said student housing developments have gutted workforce housing within Tuscaloosa, especially in the area around 15th Street and Hackberry Lane. Impact fees, which are implemented by municipalities to regulate real estate developments, are too low to offset the infrastructure problems created by student housing, she said. 

“We have enacted a series of policies that have actually done us more harm than they’ve done good,” she said.

According to Maddox, the city’s zoning agreements have been in place since 2013 to stifle the proliferation of student housing, but the city council does not always abide by those agreements. Last October, the city council did, however, extend the student housing moratorium and approved an ordinance that barred multi-family and student housing megaplexes. 

In a pointed criticism of Maddox’s administration, Houston said the city does not properly plan housing developments. Houston stated he would treat the city like a body when prioritizing developments. 

“If you do not address where it’s bleeding, the entire body will suffer,” Houston said. “The West Side has been bleeding for a long time.”

Houston said that the city has failed to follow through with ensuring effective regulations on housing developments. 

“It’s one thing to be a critic, and it’s another thing to stand in the arena,” Maddox said, reminding listeners that the city has implemented density caps and eliminated the bonus height provision, which gives the city council more control over future projects.

Bouncing back from COVID-19

Maddox described his response to COVID-19 as timely and efficient. He said the city activated its incident command center in late February last year, a month before the city shut down, and coordinated with the DCH Health System, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the main UA campus to face the crisis head on. 

Late fees were canceled for city regulated utilities, and the city awarded $1.4 million through the city’s Restart Tuscaloosa initiative to more than 250 small businesses to help supplement lost revenue, according to Maddox.

Fortenberry said one of her campaign donors, Egan’s bar owner Mike McWhirter, was upset with Maddox’s COVID-19 response, and she called the executive order that closed Tuscaloosa bars capricious and arbitrary. 

“I don’t think it was proper to close our city last spring and summer without having a financial safety net in place for our small businesses,” she said.

The city needs to build a diversified economy and collaborate with Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority, the University and other local municipalities to help businesses recover from the aftermath of this decision, Fortenberry said. 

Scrutinizing Elevate Tuscaloosa

Fortenberry, a staunch opponent of Maddox’s Elevate Tuscaloosa initiative, called it a slush fund that raised taxes without holding a referendum vote. Elevate was approved in April 2019, and it seeks to use the added tax revenue to enhance local infrastructure, education, job creation and entertainment in the city. She said the 1% sales tax increase hurts the city’s poorest residents, and if elected, she would put it in front of the city council for a vote.

Maddox described the criticisms from Houston and Fortenberry as “good political talking points.” Without Elevate, Maddox said city residents would see increased garbage pickup fees and decreased funding for projects like the Pre-K initiative, summer learning and rapid transit. 

All candidates agreed on Tuscaloosa’s need for a commercial air service. Maddox said that this was not viable without the Elevate Tuscaloosa initiative. 

Houston, although an advocate for the projects funded by Elevate, claimed he would take a different approach to managing the budget. He questioned the city’s decision to take out $60 million dollars in municipal bonds during a pandemic and charged that Elevate money was being used to fund a riverside road project.

Maddox refuted Houston’s claim with clarification on the municipal bonds, telling him that “facts still matter.” He explained that the bonds were taken out at the advice of the city’s economic team, due to the historically low interest rates. Maddox justified the borrowing by explaining that many homeowners also took advantage of the low rates, which make loan repayment easier because the accrued interest is substantially lower.

Maddox also explained that the riverside road project Houston referenced was not fully funded by Elevate. Part of the $38.5 million project will be paid for by the Tuscaloosa County Road Improvement Commission, a decision made by the state legislature. The Elevate sales tax would provide only $16.5 million, according to Maddox, which would add improvements to Jack Warner Parkway and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. 

Reconfiguring police funding and strategy

Fortenberry described Maddox’s approach to crime in Tuscaloosa as reactionary and not sustainable. She said part of the policing problem is due in part to compensation and recruitment of new officers. 

Additionally, Fortenberry explained that streetscape improvements, such as lighting, are needed on campus and throughout the city. 

Following the social unrest of last summer, Maddox said he has worked to build trust between police officers and the community, particularly with West Tuscaloosa. Maddox explained that under his leadership, the city has established Project Unity, a plan that aims to enhance Tuscaloosa’s policing efforts. As a result, the city has eliminated the use of chokeholds, enacted mandatory reporting on police abuse and passed an unbiased policing policy.

On the issue of crime, Houston drilled down on poverty as the progenitor. He explained that he would enhance recruitment and training, bolster the mental health unit started under Maddox and work to bridge the relationship between the community and law enforcement.

Defending donations

Fortenberry painted a contrasting picture to other candidates who have received large donations from political action committees (PACs), according to campaign finance reports released in January.

“I really am a candidate who represents the people of Tuscaloosa,” she said. “I don’t represent big business. I don’t represent political interests. I represent ordinary people who are dissatisfied with the way their city is being managed currently.”

In a moment of contention, Houston addressed the issue of corporate and PAC donations and explained that he was not aware of his top donors. This approach, according to Houston, is also how he runs his church. 

“I have never seen anyone’s tithe or gift, so if you ask me who’s my biggest donor, I don’t know,” he said. “I wasn’t for sale before I got into the race, and I’m not for sale now.”

According to Maddox, his largest donation came from the Local 403 chapter of the International Association of Firefighters, a labor union PAC supporting firefighters and emergency workers. Recent filings show the organization gave a $10,000 contribution to his campaign.

Houston’s largest donations are from BIZPAC out of Montgomery, which, according to state records, is an organization that backs candidates who support business interests in Alabama. 

Fortenberry also received a donation from BIZPAC, and she received a donation from the Republican Women of Tuscaloosa PAC. Both groups made a one-time donation of $500 to her campaign, court filings reveal. Fortenberry said while she has received PAC donations, her largest donors are from Tuscaloosa residents. 

Reevaluating infrastructure

Tuscaloosa should focus on the recruitment of “knowledge-based” industries, like technology and pharmaceutical companies, to retain college graduates, according to Houston, but the city must first improve infrastructure to accommodate these industries. 

Houston said increasing cargo availability at Tuscaloosa’s airport could open the door to partnership with companies like Amazon and Google. 

Fortenberry pledged to do a comprehensive evaluation of all city infrastructure, if elected. She explained that she would work closely with the council members because of their access to constituents in their district, noting, however, that she is keenly aware of the infrastructure issues throughout the city. 

Maddox recounted the capital investments made into West Tuscaloosa, downtown Tuscaloosa, and North Tuscaloosa. He acknowledged the need for continued community development and rapid transit and said that the city should depend on the intellectual talent from UA and Stillman.

“We have shown at the City of Tuscaloosa our ability to deliver over 16 years, and that’s not going to stop in the next four years if I’m re-elected,” Maddox said.

Municipal elections will take place on March 2.