Two very different candidates face off in City Council race
By BRUCE ALSOBROOK, News-Telegram Managing Editor
May 9, 2008 - Sulphur Springs voters will go to the polls Saturday to choose one of two very different candidates to represent them for the next three years on the City Council.
The incumbent, Yolanda Porter-Williams, who is currently serving as mayor and finishing her first term on the council, is a Sulphur Springs native, relatively young, an African-American and finishing her college degree. She's proud of the advancements the city has made during her first three years, especially downtown redevelopment, and foresees continued improvement. She says she'd like to see taxes go down, but not if it means sacrificing progress.
Her challenger is Charles Oxford, who was born and raised in Mineola and lived in various places in the U.S. before retiring and returning to Texas about 18 months ago. Oxford does not approve of some of the downtown measures and feels the city has not done enough to improve its standing in recent years. He is also a vocal opponent of fluoridation of the water, believes people feel shut out believes the city can essentially replace its property tax with a sales tax and do just as much.
Votes will be cast in the race from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday in the conference room of the Sulphur Springs Independent School District Administration Building, 630 Connally St.
Yolanda Porter-Williams ran three years ago on a promise to listen to people's complaints and concerns. She said she's surprised she hasn't heard more feedback than she has, but also said there's one overriding issue the provokes the most comments: The condition of city streets.
It's an issue she agrees needs to be addressed, but at the same time, notes that the city's staff has been doggedly addressing the problem with what money was available for a dozen years.
"We've been working on it, we're still working on it, and we'll continue to work on it," she said, referencing the Capital Improvements Plan that she voted to increase funding for two years ago.
One area she's especially excited about is the direction of the revitalization of downtown Sulphur Springs.
A revitalized downtown with new businesses, restaurants and family entertainment will benefit all citizens of Sulphur Springs, she believes, and attract new residents and held the local economic development corporation bring new industries with higher paying jobs to the area. It would also bring increased sales tax revenues.
She said it may seem to some that recent improvements and future plans for downtown only benefit a few. But Williams counters that it is the city's government's responsibility to also provide a "business-friendly" environment, as well as an infrastructure -- like water and sewer systems, roads and sidewalks -- that spur economic development.
She also points out that one of the plans for downtown -- a farmers market -- can help all residents, given the increased costs of transporting food to market and the current emphasis on the environment.
She's also a proponent of the plans for a grant program to help buisnesses renovate their downtown facades. Not only will it help improve downtown aesthetically, it can play a major role in maintaining and renovating historic buildings.
She's also proud of the city's new skate park, which she said is indicative of the types of opportunities the city should provide for young people.
"I supported that, and I want to see us give young people more things to do," she said.
"We've got the Boys and Girls Club, but we need to do even more. We still have a lot of youths who say, 'Aw, that stuff's not for me.' Well, you don't know until you've tried, and we've got to get them more involved."
Williams also said she's fielded questions critical of her voting -- or rather lack of it -- as mayor, but she's following a long-standing tradition of not voting unless there is a tie.
There was one exception earlier this year, when Bulkley Trucking was attemtping to secure a zoning change that would allow the company to build a new base of operations and move from Martin Springs into the city limits. Residents living near Bulkley's proposed site had protested the change, and Williams cast a tying vote that temporarily killed the measure. When the issue came up again at the next council meeting, however, she did not oppose it.
Williams says now that she didn't have the full understanding of why the residents were opposing Bulkley's plan, and she didn't want to make a mistake that couldn't be undone.
"Once I was able to go out there and see what Mr. Bulkley was trying to do, then I was able to support it," she said.
"I love being being on the City Council. I has been a good learning experience," she said. "I never would have thought that I'd be doing something like this, but God works on you for a reason."
Charles Oxford was born and raised in Mineola, then entered the corporate world after working his way through North Texas State University, graduating in 1960. He says he started at Citgo Oil before "Uncle Sam decided he couldn't defend our country without me" and spent two years in the Army, mostly in El Paso. After being honorably discharged, he signed on with Eastman Kodak, where he says he rose to vice president level before retiring in 1983. He also dabbled in commercial development during that time, holding interests in two Denton shopping centers and building Northgate Plaza at the crossroads of U.S. Highway 69 and State Highway 37 in Mineola.
He moved to Hot Springs after retiring, buyint one business and starting two more, retaining one util late 1999. He was elected to the Hot Springs Board of Directors (equivalent to a city council in Texas) and served from 1994 to 1999 before moving to the planned community of Hot Springs Village and serving on the board of directors there.
Since moving to Sulphur Springs, he said, he has been involved in his church, the Hopkins County Military Coalition, and the Hopkins County Beautification Committee. He also says he is a supporter of Northeast Texas Choral Society and Sulphur Springs Symphony League.
Oxford said he has walked to 3,400 front doors in preparation for the election and believes he has gleaned an understanding of people's concerns because of that.
Oxford said he is very concerned about the city's system of the council choosing a new mayor every year, saying the mayor should serve at least three years.
"I think the mayor needs to belong to the people, and I think you need that continuity for three years, since three years is what they [council members] serve," he said. "I think when you have a corporation looking at a town, they look at educational facilities, they look at the city itself. I would be a little nervous, if I were coming in, as a head of a corporation, and see that a mayor is tossed out at the end of every year, and somebody new with no experience at the job was going to be put in their place."
Oxford said he did not know if the city charter would have to be changed to allow that to happen. He said he hadn't been able to complete that research yet.
He also said there's "not a lot of opportunity for public input" to the council, which he believes account which accounts for people not voting.
"Citizens think they have no voice anymore, even if they voted, so why bother?" is the thinking, Oxford believes.
He's also critical of the city's Capital Improvements Plan method of putting a plant seal mix overlay on city streets. City officials have said in the past it is a preventative measure that helps extend the life of the streets at an efficient cost. Oxford said it only looks good for a few days and questioned its effectiveness.
"Do it right, or wait until you can," he said, adding the city needs to enforce its truck routes to protect some streets.
"We have some signs that clearly say 'No Trucks.' Either take the signs down or enforce it," he said.
Oxford also does not like the direction of the dowtown revitalization plan.
"I have serious reservations about downtown ... I do not think it is going the right way," he said.
"They have no plan. They only plan that they have mentioned has been restaurants."
He also opposes any programs that offer public money to private, for-profit companies, such as a facade grant program City Manager Marc Maxwell has proposed.
"I have a problem with any public funds used for private enterprise. ... It has no business being used for private profit," Oxford said.
Oxford says the city of Hot Springs began a revitalization effort for a blighted area similar to Sulphur Springs's downtown while he was on that city's governing board, and also, through a combination of bond issues and sales tax increases, built two new fire stations and an animal shelter. Additionally, he said, Hot Springs virtually eliminated its property taxes by using sales taxes.
"I am committed heart, body, mind and soul to listening to the residents and taxpayers of this city; to treat each with justice, reasonableness and equality, and to do everything possible to REDUCE the tax burden on homeowners," Oxford writes in a prepared statement. "I know a way. I just need to finish my research here -- in part to see if it is legal in Texas. We did it in Hot Springs and it was the single best thing we did for ALL -- that means including the city as well."
The sales tax in Sulphur Springs is currently a combined 8.25 percent, with the vast majority -- 6.75 percent -- going to the state. The sales tax rate in Hot Springs is 12.5 percent -- the city rate is 6.5 percent, while the state sales tax is 6 percent. Arkansas, unlike Texas, also has a tax on food -- 3 percent -- and a state sales tax, with six tax brackets of between 1 percent and 7 percent.
Texas law, however, doesn't appear to allow municipal taxes to rise that high. A provision in the tax code, for example, allows a municipal sales and use tax for street maintenance by a vote of the people, but that tax is capped at 1/4 of 1 percent. Under any circumstances, however, the city's total sales tax can't be more than 2 percent.
Even so, Oxford said he's got another plan if the law doesn't allow his idea.
"If it isn't, Ill start working on legislative officials" to get the law changed, he said.