VALDOSTA — Mayor candidates introduced themselves and outlined their plans to a crowd packed into the Country Inn & Suites conference room Monday night.

Hosted by the Lowndes County Democratic Party, Kevin J. Bussey, Scott James Matheson, J.D. Rice and David Sumner answered questions and each explained why he should be the next mayor of Valdosta. Five people qualified for mayor but candidate Brooks D. Bivins failed to attend the event.

Each of the mayoral candidates took answers from a moderator for about an hour. The event began at 7 p.m. and ended at about 9 p.m.

When asked what kept the candidates awake at night regarding the future of Valdosta, Rice said homelessness and the effect it has on children.

He said there are more than 100 homeless people in the city.

While Rice taught at Valdosta High School, he said he saw students come to class more worried about the security of their living situation than about learning. 

“These kids don’t have pencils or papers,” Rice said. “They’re worried about where they’re going to sleep, where they’re going to eat.”

Other South Georgia communities have built homes for people struggling, and Valdosta needs a mayor who will work with Valdosta City Council to provide for the most vulnerable, he said. 

Sumner said he is most concerned about the lack of jobs and opportunity in the city. He said these issues transcend racial lines and affect everyone.

He said city government must encourage growth and not hinder opportunity. He called for the city forging out-of-the-box partnerships to improve health care and spur industrial growth.

Sumner, who has served in the past as an interim mayor and as a City Council member, hit inexperienced leaders for failing to bring prosperity.

“When I’m elected, I’m going to work to create jobs,” Sumner said. “I’m going to improve your quality of life. There’s going to be prosperity back in this community, like it used to be. And we’re not going to raise your property tax.”

Matheson said many city issues keep him up at night, including the city millage rate.

He said the city is strapped for cash due to politics getting in the way of raising the millage rate to fund basic programs. He brought up a City Council meeting where the city faced a $900,000 short fall by accepting the rollback rate.

“They didn’t handle that right at all,” Matheson said. “They needed to increase (the millage rate) to offset that shortfall, and they needed to have that balanced budget. It’s a broken system when you have to balance a budget and then you get your tax digest a month and a half later.”

Matheson said he would kill two birds with one stone and address city transportation issues and its lack of jobs. He said he would subsidize ride-sharing businesses such as Uber and Lyft to people without a means of transportation.

For Bussey, worrying about jobs isn’t enough. He said a lack of unity and transparency is what keeps him up at night.

“What about our kids? What about you? What about the future generations?” Bussey said. “We’ve got to put the focus on more things than just the jobs. They’ll come, but we’ve got to sweep our front door first.”

He is concerned about a lack of transparency, such as how multi-million-dollar projects can be in the works but no one knows about them until the deal is already done.

He said Valdosta needs a change of mentality. He called for people to start uplifting one another instead of putting people down.

“Love cures everything,” Bussey said. “We’ve got to start loving one another. That’s how we change Valdosta.”

At the end of the event, each candidate was given a minute to wrap up and make a final statement.

Before the mayoral candidates forum, three of the four candidates for the at-large Valdosta City Council seat answered questions. Adrian J. Rivers, Jeremy L. Stone and Edgar “Nicky” Tooley attended the event. Incumbent Councilman Ben H. Norton, who qualified for reelection as a candidate, did not attend.

Dr. Debra Tann, who moderated the event, said there will be another debate held for candidates at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15, Serenity Church, 1619 N. Lee St.

Thomas Lynn is a government and education reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256

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