|By Billy Davis
While 15 candidates for alderman and mayor gave their one-minute answers Tuesday night, Batesville resident Tony Meyer was taking notes.
Meyer, 40, said he attended the city’s town hall forum to hear the Ward 1 candidates and to learn more about the mayoral candidates as well.
Asked by The Panolian if he had a "dog in the hunt" in the coming city elections, Meyer responded that he was still learning about the candidates and the issues facing the city.
"I moved here in July and am just learning my way around," Meyer said.
At the conclusion of the two-hour forum, Meyer had filled a notebook with notes about pressing issues, namely jobs and unemployment, and the city’s tight budget.
Meyer had also made his pick for mayor and for Ward 1 alderman.
The Ward 1 candidates are incumbent Bill Dugger and challenger Danny Jones.
The mayoral candidates are Democrats Jerry Autrey and Hudson Still, Republican Dr. Richard Corson, and independent Gary Kornegay.
The town-hall event was held at the TVEPA auditorium, where about 70 people watched the candidates field questions from The Panolian.
The Panolian publisher John Howell Sr. drew questions for the alderman candidates from a cigar box, addressing each question to each candidate. Each candidate had one minute to answer.
For the city’s mayoral candidates, Howell read questions aloud that were geared to each mayoral candidate, and the other candidates followed with their own comments on that subject.
Mayoral candidate Jerry Autrey, for example, was asked how he planned to pay for his proposed youth center.
"You’re putting me on the spot by asking how to pay for it," joked Autrey, who stood to answer questions during the forum.
Autrey suggested remodeling the former Wal-Mart store on Keating Road as a youth center and turn its auto center into a police substation.
The other mayoral candidates, meanwhile, said the youth center is a good idea but would likely be a low priority during a tight budget year.
"I haven’t even thought about it because, to be perfectly honest, that’s not something I deem feasible at this time," said Kornegay.
Corson said the youth center could be put on a wish list along with other projects, but it’s not a priority.
Hudson Still, the city’s current alderman-at-large, said he agreed with Corson and Kornegay that the youth center is a good idea but that other issues take priority.
The question addressed first to Kornegay, and then to the other candidates, questioned how their backgrounds would help them perform their duties as mayor.
Kornegay, 54, owns a CPA firm in Downtown Batesville.
Kornegay said he would hold the line on taxes while expanding city revenues through budget trimming and growth in jobs and housing.
"We don’t need to tax people just to fulfill our programs," Kornegay, said. "We have got to scrutinize our expenses and see where wastes are. We need to control spending as opposed to just creating revenue."
Still, who has served 20 years as alderman-at-large, said he has gained first-hand experience after working through the city’s budgets.
Still, 62, is a real estate broker and owns his own firm.
According to Corson, a retired OB/GYN, his medical experience would help him with "people problems" and financial problems if elected mayor.
"I have spent a lifetime solving problems with objectivity and logical thinking," said Corson, 73.
According to Autrey, 56, a long-time car dealer, he said the city should operate like a business.
"We’ve got to get a handle on our expenses by analyzing all departments," Autrey said. "If we do that, I believe we can generate some extra money to get some streets paved and maybe later on build a youth center."
Autrey also owns a floor mat manufacturing company.
The question posed to Still involved his announced plans to make the widening of Keating Road a priority.
The road is heavily traveled, Still explained, and is a favored route of drivers to and from South Panola High School, the Keating Grove subdivision, the city’s industrial park and Hwy. 35.
"And there are more homes being built and more apartments about to be built," said Hudson Still.
Kornegay disagreed with the priority, saying Tubbs Road is in "pitiful shape" and should be a priority.
Autrey said he would back any plans for street repair, whether along Tubbs, Keating Road or elsewhere.
"You’ve got to at least start somewhere," he said.
Corson finished up the question, saying the city must learn to balance its growth out east with demands in older parts of the city.
Keating Road is a State Aid road that was eventually annexed into the city limits, according to Warner McBride, whose engineering firm works for the city.
The city is allowed to work on Keating and is awaiting federal grant money to widen it, McBride said.
An Urban Renewal Program grant will pay for 80 percent of the work and the city will pay 20 percent, he said.
"Keating is part of a federal program that’s similar to the work performed on Tiger Drive and Pamela Street," McBride told The Panolian.
The question addressed to Corson involved his running for mayor as a Republican, making note that Kornegay is running as an independent while Autrey and Still are running as Democrats.
"What role should the party label play in this mayor’s race?" the question read.
Corson said the party labels "don’t mean very much" during local elections.
"It boils down to what you think of the individual, whether the individual in question can do what they say they can do," he said.
According to Autrey, the other candidates should have run as Democrats to save time and taxpayers’ money.
"I think all it does is prolong the election," Autrey said.
The mix of parties represented a "new era" for the city, said Still, who said he agreed with Autrey that the city should have a single election.
At least one audience member said the party labels matter.
After the forum, Panola County Republican Party chairman Ron Hood said he was disappointed about the candidates’ answers about their party labels. Elected officials on the local level are the building blocks for the state and national party, he said.
"Most people in Panola County don’t believe in anything (former Presidential candidate) John Kerry stood for, but they call themselves a Democrat," Hood said. "They’re helping him and don’t even know it."