Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Forum brings mayoral candidates together

Incumbent Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe and challenger Jerome Fitzgerald disagreed on the majority of questions posed during a candidates forum held Oct. 23 at the Visitors Center.
Sponsored by the Herald & Tribune, the event was moderated by Associate Editor John Kiener who used inquiries submitted by community members.
“This is a great demonstration of a group of residents who are active and seeking to know more about the candidates,” he said to the large turnout last week.
Wolfe is running for a fourth term as town leader. “I consider myself one of the biggest cheerleaders for Jonesborough,” he said of his commitment to the mayor’s role. “A homebuilder is what I do for a living, and the mentality of a homebuilder is to get the job done.”
Fitzgerald is seeking a return to elected office, having served as an alderman for 16 years. “I decided to run for mayor two months ago,” he said. “I took three years off, got restless, and I’m ready to serve again.”
This is his second attempt at besting Wolfe and if elected, Fitzgerald said he would show leadership and put people first. “Win, lose, I’m still going to be the same Jerome.”
Kiener said the largest number of questions was related to the town’s limited shopping and dining options during the evening hours. In addition to recruiting new stores and restaurants, the candidates were asked for ideas on what could be done to encourage existing businesses to stay open later.
“I’ve heard that for years, but I think it’s up to the owners,” Fitzgerald said. “They just have to stay open.”
Wolfe said it is the role of government to serve as the facilitator. “What we’re doing is bringing about drivers of activity,” he said, referencing the International Storytelling Center, the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre and the Historic Jackson Theatre.
According to Wolfe, a combination of efforts is needed to bring a wider audience to Jonesborough at different times. “It’s not a silver bullet,” he said, then noted a trip he made to try to recruit a restaurant to town.
“You have to be a mayor who is aggressive, and I’m the man to do that.”
Kiener said the second most-requested question was the status of the Jonesborough water system, which at one time suffered more than 60 percent water loss from the time the treated water left the plant until it reached the customers.
Fitzgerald, a 14-year veteran of the town water department, said he has been gone for a while, but thought the water (loss) problems had been fixed. “From what I know, it’s really improved,” he said.
Wolfe said the town is close to being in compliance with the state-mandated maximum level on water loss. “We are down to 3 percent in two zones,” he said, adding a grant application is being put together to seek funding to address the remaining three zones.
Regarding the construction status of the new senior center, Wolfe said it is reasonable to expect the building to be completed next year. After negotiating a bid that came in much higher than estimated and experiencing delays due to bad weather, the project is moving forward. “I’d say to seniors, hang on, we appreciate your patience, and it will be worth it,” he promised.
Fitzgerald said he would have chosen a different location that could have saved the town money. “I’m for the senior center, but I would have looked at other avenues.”
Candidates also were asked what they would do, as mayor, to ensure the arts and funding for the arts continue to be a priority in Jonesborough.
Fitzgerald said it is a matter of getting people involved. “I don’t see it ever being a problem with funding,” he said.
Wolfe said a number of activities have been created in the last six years under his leadership, and the town needs to continue aggressively promoting itself so it will become known as a place that welcomes and fosters the arts. “Actions speak louder than words,” he said.
Another topic was the state of the town’s finances and whether it owes too much.
“It depends on who you ask,” Wolfe said, pointing to the improved bond rating from Standard and Poor’s as an indication of the town’s financial health.
He noted the higher rating is a result of the town’s being prudent in its spending and using resources such as grants and inmate labor for projects.
“Can I tell you today the town is spending money wisely? Absolutely,” Wolfe said.
Fitzgerald criticized the town’s $23 million debt. “As mayor, something I’m going to do is start paying down the debt,” he said, adding the amount could result in a tax increase for the town’s citizens. “If you do one job at a time, you can save money.”
According to Wolfe, part of the debt is the result of a decision, made when Fitzgerald was an alderman, to borrow $12 million on an interest-only note with accelerated payments that cost the town $4 million in interest with no reduction of the principal.
“Part of leadership is knowing a good deal,” Wolfe said, adding the town will pay off 30 percent of its debt in the next five years.
Fitzgerald agreed the plan did not work out as expected, but said the decision was made during a time Jonesborough was experiencing multiple changes in town administrators and mayors. “It probably was a mistake, but those guys are gone, and we have to start over,” he said.
In closing, Fitzgerald said he just wants to be everybody’s mayor. “No matter who you are, what you do or where you’re from, I will help you,” he said. “I think getting in the middle is what I’m made of, and I’m there for you.”
Wolfe said he shared the sentiments, but administering the town’s budget is a big operation that should be centered around customer service to benefit its residents.
“The old builder in me shapes the plan, but the motive is a love of Jonesborough,” he said.