January 27, 1998
by Edmund Tsang
The following interview was conducted in the mayor's office on January 15.
Q: In the last several years the City has made a number of significant improvement
in its infrastructure. Last year a new baseball stadium was built and improvement was made to Ladd
Stadium. A few years back we had the Government Plaza Complex. How's the city debt service?
A: Our debt service is modest as compared to our peers. If you look at Mobile's debt, it's around $720 per capita. If you go to Birmingham you'll find around $1,700, and I think Huntsville is in the $1,600 per capita range. The feeling that we are heavily in debt here in Mobile is not true. Mobile didn't really do anything for three or four decades; that's why we didn't have any debt because we weren't building anything or doing anything. You know yourself if you buy a car or a home, you are going into debt, but you don't look at that debt as something negative. You'd say, "I'm finally able to buy a house." The debt structure is part of your success. Mobile right now is doing exceptionally well from a number of standpoints, including economically. First of all, our revenues are growing very well so the pie is getting bigger and it's easier to pay the debt back. From the standpoint of economic development, job creation and investment, Times magazine lists us among one of the top 15 cities in the country. If you look at downtown redevelopment, we are developing quickly into a competitive mid-range city in the tourism industry. We have excellent infrastructure.
Q: If you go downtown on weekends, you do find lots of people taking advantage
of the things downtown.
A: The Omnimax is coming on board this year. We've already raised the money for a new City Museum. Right now we are trying to raise money for a maritime museum, and I have people in my office yesterday talking about developing the water front. From those perspectives, and the perspective of sports, recreation, entertainment, art and culture, we have made some serious advances all the way from the Bay Bears to hockey to BayFest and First Night Mobile. There are several things we are going to do this year. We want to double the size of our library system; we are going to build a modern library system, using more electronics and becoming more convenient for the people of Mobile to use. Parents shouldn't have to go down to the library and spend three hours with their kids trying to find what they are looking for when we have this thing called the Internet. We are going to double the size of our art museum. We want these facilities to be much more interactive with the schools. We are doing a lot of things that are going to make our art museum and library more accessible to our schools. That's visible, measurable progress for people to feel good about. What I'm trying to dedicate my third term to is something that's harder to manage and more complex.
Q: Which brings me to my next question. You said you want to devote your next
term to children and young people, and family...
Q: What about those people who said the duties of city government is police and
garbage collection. It's not the role of city government to be doing the sort of things that are dear
to your heart.
A: Well, if you have adequate police protection and we do; we hired an extra 200 policemen since 1990 and we are fixing to have another 30 policemen here in the coming months. We have an excellent garbage service. Yet we have high rates of kids that are dropping out of school, and unemployed kids and too much youth crime. So I believe the thinking people are saying, "It's not working now. The parents are not taking care of it. With our high divorce rates and the problems we are having with teenagers today, somebody has to be responsible." I feel like they elected me to do what has to be done in order to make our community a good place to live; to try and get our community better organized and put together a youth provider network like I've seen in other cities and to try to get our public schools funded so it will have a better learning environment. If you look at crime prevention techniques and rehabilitation of our kids, these are real things that a government can do. And that doesn't get inside your home. What we are trying to do is to take care of kids after they are on the streets, try to find them employment to give them a productive life. So I take exception to the thought that city government shouldn't be involved. I'm not talking about government spending a great deal of money; I am talking about being organized and being focused when it comes to targeting initiatives that can make our kids better cared for.
Q: Do you mean the city government serving as the clearinghouse for programs
A: I think the idea of a clearinghouse is good, but more than that I think it should be the center of organization, strategic planning, coordinating, bringing everybody to the table, and making an inventory of what the community has available for kids and finding out what are the gaps. We are going to do a needs assessment soon for our at-risk teenagers. It's going to tell us a little more specifically what we might and could do to make a difference. We took a group of 20 community leaders to Boston to see what they are doing, and I am fascinated at what I learned from the trip. They have target-policing aimed at youths and domestic violence. They brought the whole community together in a youth provider network to share database, and when you put a kid in that network, the entire network looks at the kid in a holistic fashion. Right now, a kid may go to the juvenile court if he has a record , but the school system might not know about it. And when the police picked the kid up, they don't have his DHR (Department of Human Resources) record and everything is kinda scattered about. We are going to put into a database every youth who has been arrested over three times, and they are going to be in our get-serious files. We are going to focus on those kids and try to contain the number that are in that group. Meanwhile, we are going to help all the other kids who aren't in trouble yet, get them in an earlier age and see if we could pull them through high schools and get them graduated and employed.
Q: There are some young people who told us that there aren't enough things for
them to do here in Mobile?
A: There are a lot of things that they shouldn't do. They shouldn't be smoking, drinking, and using drugs and having illicit sex and getting AIDS and getting pregnant. A lot of them should be studying more and reading more, finding wholesome activities, and maybe simply sitting still and relaxing for a while or going for long walks, these kinds of things. You know, we shouldn't always be busy, busy, busy or finding that next level of the fastest rides or somethings like that to be happy. I think today we certainly have more than what we used to have. They can be in a hockey game or go to a Bay Bear game, and shortly, if we are lucky, we are going to have a soccer stadium. They can be at Bay Fest, First Night Mobile, and the Azalea Trail Run activities. If it all work out right, I want to develop a downtown that's a wonderful place to be, where they can be downtown walking along the water and meeting their friends in public places. I think we are heading in the right direction.
Q: Let me ask you about the upcoming tax referendum for the public schools. You
said earlier in the interview that you would like to see the schools funded properly. What can a
A: I think everything that's going to take our city to the next level, to be truly competitive, is tied up in our will to fund the public schools properly. We are investing in our youths when we fund our schools. I've been to schools where every desk is of a different size and it looks like the same desk when I was in school, and it makes me angry. There were tiles missing off the floor and the room was too warm. I was saying to myself, "How can a kid think that we care for them in this environment." So I think if we are going to be internationally competitive, if we are going to try to attract the aerospace and high tech industries, and if we are going to give our kids high-paying jobs and keep them in town, then we must make this next level of investment in funding our public schools. Otherwise we are going to be second-rate and we are not going to get those high-paying jobs.
Q: What could you do as the mayor?
A: I do what I've always done. Everywhere I go around town for the last nine years, I've been saying that funding our schools is critical, and I think I can certainly stand up and say I am going to vote for the tax referendum to fund the schools and to pay my portion of the tax. I will encourage other people to think about the big picture. Now, even if you don't have a child in school, you may have one breaking into your house who needs to be employed. So if you want the crime rates to go down or if you want high-paying jobs to come to Mobile so you yourself may get a high-paying job because we have high tech industries coming here, then funding the schools properly is going to help you and your quality of life. It's going to make us a better community to live in. So that's the kind of things I'm trying to do. Of course I am sitting in all the meetings trying to stay organized to support this initiative.
Q: Quite a few people have told me they don't think Mobilians are going to
support the tax referendum to fund the schools. Some years ago you said if people in the county
are not going to support the schools while people in the city have voted to support funding the
schools, you would consider having two separate school systems, one for the city and one for the
county. If the next referendum fails, would you take that action to have a separate school system
for the city?
A: That was not my message even though it was interpreted that way. My message was if the entire county is not going to come to an agreement on funding the schools, I believe the City of Mobile would agree to fund the school. My thought was if it came to that, the City of Mobile would simply raise the money and build the schools inside the city; not cut the system in half but to take care of our destiny. That's really a secondary thought to me because primarily what's on my mind is that I'm kind of a regional person, I care about the county and I care about the entire region. I am going to fight for and try to make the whole county grow. So those are my goals right now.
Q: My last question is sort of a lighter question. You have been reported to be
pumping iron and getting fit. Are you getting ready to run for office at the next level? Certainly the
Mobile daily was mentioning you as a potential candidate for Governor of Alabama when you were
elected mayor by a large majority.
A: I don't know if that's directly related to pumping iron. You know, I'm a third term mayor and I love my job. I think we are going to have more things accomplished during the next four years than we had done in the last eight. So I am very optimistic about the next four years, and I feel like this is the place for me right now. Beyond that, I've got strong feelings about our state government, what we need to be doing, and I think a lot of the attributes that make the City of Mobile successful -- of not being divisive politically, strategic planning and management, organizing and having a consensus goal, and just trying to fix problems -- these are the attributes that I have. I know a lot about state government, and I think we are not doing many things correctly at this moment. When the time comes and there is a call for me, I think it's something that I would be overjoyed to do. It would thrill me and challenge me, and it's something that interest me a great deal.