VALDOSTA — Three candidates for the mayor's office were grilled on topics ranging from crime to city transit Sunday in a public debate.

Kevin J. Bussey, J.D. Rice and David Sumner faced questions from moderator Daren Neal, pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church, in front of a large audience at Serenity Christian Church on Lee Street. Candidates Scott James Matheson and Brooks D. Bivins did not attend.

Mayoral candidates square off

Terry Richards | The Valdosta Daily TimesJ.D. Rice, Kevin Bussey and David Sumner sit on the stage at Serenity Christian Church Sunday evening during a mayoral candidate debate. Candidates Scott James Matheson and Brooks Bivins did not attend the event.

The candidates seek the office that's been held by John Gayle for two terms. Gayle is not seeking reelection to a third term in the November elections.

After an invocation by the Rev. Floyd Rose, the questions began. Among those asked:

• How would you protect Valdosta from the possibility of recession?

Rice: The former fire chief said "nobody is recession-proof" and said the city would have to tighten its belt and trim non-essentials to maintain a balanced budget.

"The only two services that would be off the table (for cuts) would be police and fire, because they are vital life-saving services," he said.

Bussey: The Army veteran with experience in federal government said fighting a recession requires aiding residents in making a living.

Sumner: The insurance representative and former interim mayor stressed belt-tightening and the need for job creation.

• What will you do to help small emerging businesses?

Bussey: He said there is a "disconnect" between these businesses and groups meant to help small business operations. Bussey said what the mayor can do is help smooth out these relationships, acting as a liaison.

Sumner: He said, as an official metropolitan district, Valdosta is eligible for federal small business programs and funding just like bigger cities, but hasn't pursued them.

"North Georgia is booming, and we're having trouble competing with Moultrie and Tifton," he said.

Rice: He held up Brunswick "opportunity zones," which offer low-interest loans to startups, as a model. Rice also said the local industrial authority is "a joke" and bemoaned the red tape small firms face in Valdosta. He urged scrapping land development regulations which impede small businesses.

• Does Valdosta need a transit system, and if so, how would it be funded?

Rice: He backed a city transit system, saying three studies show it is needed.

"Funding is available without raising property taxes," Rice said. He suggested bumping up the hotel/motel tax and seeking federal funding to the tune of $1 million. He also mentioned getting revenue from transit advertising.

"We subsidize what we want," Rice said.

Bussey: He questioned whether Valdosta can afford public transit.

Focusing on Rice's suggestion that Valdosta can use its metro status to get $1 million in federal funds, Bussey said "there will never be a day when the federal government will give all that money out at once.

"What happens when we can't sustain this five years down the road?" he asked.

Sumner: He said the average Valdosta household has 2.2 cars. 

"A transit system would never be able to pay for itself," Sumner said.

He advised against taking away from important offices such as first responders to pay for any new projects.

If the city and its economy grows, transit may become more viable later, he said.

• How can fatal teen violence be prevented?

This question had special meaning at the mayoral debate, following as it did the death of Desiyunna Hill, 18, who was shot to death in late June while at a party at a North Lee Street event center, not far from the church where the debate was taking place.

Sumner: "When parents are doing drugs, what are their kids going to think?"

He said, as mayor, he could see to it that laws are properly enforced. Sumner said he wants a first-class, modern police department with up-to-date equipment and policies.

Rice: He said that "together as a community, we can do something ...  ignoring gangs, trying to pray them away, won't work."

Bussey: He said private commercial property owners and managers should be forced to provide adequate police and private security for any large events, and should be required to know what events are taking place on their property. Bussey said he backs a proposed city ordinance which would require these measures.

He said he met with Desiyunna Hill's family, who claimed they are not getting information from the police and that no elected official or mayoral candidate had talked to the family. Rice took exception to this statement, saying he had spoken with Hill's mother without mentioning his candidacy.

"I can't sit here and have my character destroyed," Rice said.

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.

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