Growth, schools discussed at Daphne mayor forum

By Guy Busby
Posted 8/12/20

DAPHNE – Planning and growth are among the issues facing Baldwin County’s largest city, the candidates for Daphne mayor said.

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Growth, schools discussed at Daphne mayor forum

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The Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce held an online forum Thursday, Aug. 6 for candidates seeking the office of Daphne mayor. Steven Carey, Robin LeJeune and Selena Vaughn took part in the discussion.

Michael Hobbs Sr., who had filed to run for the office, did not take part in the forum. On Monday, Daphne officials announced that Hobbs had dropped out of the race for mayor.

Municipal elections are scheduled for Aug. 25 across Baldwin County.

The three candidates cited their experience in business and the Daphne community. LeJeune has been on the City Council since 2012 and is currently council president. Vaughn is chair of the Daphne Utilities Board. Carey is chair of the Daphne Industrial Development Board.

During the forum, moderator Lee Webb asked candidates about the need for smart growth in Daphne.

LeJeune said residents and officials need to make sure that growth in areas such as along Alabama 181 does not affect existing communities, such as Olde Towne Daphne.

“We have a great problem in the growth and people wanting to move here, but we’ve got to make sure that we keep our charm and consistency, so we have a reason why people want to move here,” LeJeune said. “We’re going to empower our Planning Department to work with our developers, work with our county, work with our schools so we can handle that growth.”

He said growth does not stop at the city limits and Daphne must work with the county and other agencies to manage development.

“One of the issues we have is we have developers come in and say hey we want to be in the city, but then if we put too many restrictions or things on them, then they’ll say we’ll just stay in the county,” LeJeune said. “That’s where we have to work with our County Commission and also with our Planning Department, our Planning Commission to make sure that we can make it happen smartly and then protect our existing neighborhoods to keep that charm where people want to still come here.”

Vaughn said Daphne needs to plan ahead and consider the demands that growth places on city services.

“We also need to be trying to get ahead of stormwater control. We’ve invested so much time and money in storm-water control and stream restorations in the rest of our city and we need to be going ahead and planning and looking ahead at what we’ve going to need and applying for grants for that part of the city,” Vaughn said.

“One of the big issues, when you think that we had 213 new home permits granted in May and you think of how that translates into garbage service. Our public works is already straining and, I don’t know if we need more boots on the ground, but we’ve got to find a way to work smarter and help public works. It’s not just about finding a good recycling program, but we’ve really got to find a way to get ahead of the day-to-day. We are struggling just in our basic services now and that’s only going to increase.”

Carey said Daphne’s growth problem is a reflection of the region’s popularity.

“When you look at growth, we are a victim of our success -- the traffic that we see, the sprawl that’s occurring to the east,” he said. “Those are all a byproduct of a wonderful place to live and a everybody wants to come here.”

He said the city needs to update its long-range plan adopted in 2003.

“Right now, Daphne is approaching a $30-million budget, 30,000 people and 200 to 300 employees in our city,” Carey said. “We are no longer that small town. We want to hold onto our small-town charm, but we have to plan for the future and not just two or three or five years. We have to develop a plan that incorporates all the stakeholders, those that are concerned about redevelopment in downtown, those that want to preserve and connect our parks, all those stakeholders have to be involved in this plan and if we don’t do that, what we end up doing as a small city is we stumble into the future and we can’t stumble into the future.”

Candidates were also asked about working with the Baldwin County Board of Education to coordinate plans for growth.

Carey said the city needs to work with everyone affected by growth to develop plans.

“We have to have a plan that’s long-term and then when I mentioned earlier about bringing the stakeholders into play, those stakeholders do involve the builders and developers,” Carey said. “They involve the residents of those different subdivisions we have. They involve the guardians of Olde Towne Daphne. All those stakeholders that really are concerned about how we are going to grow. They need to be at the table.”

LeJeune said Daphne has worked with the school board and administration to plan for growth in the area and coordinate expansions such as the new Belforest Elementary School that will open this year.

“The growth of the schools is tremendous and it’s a lot of pressure on the city and it’s a lot of pressure on the Baldwin County school board and we will work together to make it work,” LeJeune said.

He said the city has been working on updating long-range plans in recent years.

“We have working progress on a comprehensive plan. The last couple of years, we have put money into the budget for this comprehensive plan,” LeJeune said. “Right now, we have $80,000 sitting there to work with the comprehensive plan. They use the census data, so we’re waiting for some of that data to come in.”

Vaughn said the quality of Daphne schools has drawn people to the region for decades and the city needs to work with the school system to continue that attraction.

“So many people moved here and Daphne grew from the fact that this is where you came for that level of education and I think people are still moving here today because of our schools and we certainly don’t want to let that slip and we would like to get ahead and be leaders in that end,” Vaughn said. “Everything the city can do to support the schools, they will. We’ve had studies done twice in the last 20 years that show us that participating in the existing school system is what we need to do as opposed to breaking away and I too feel like we need to keep the communication open and see what we can do to help the school system and whatever their problems are, let’s fix what’s broken there. I don’t think ever breaking away is what we need to do.”

Asked about a referendum to increase property taxes, all three candidates said they favored more support for education, but the choice on taxes is up Daphne voters. Fairhope and Spanish Fort residents voted in 2019 to increase property taxes by three mills with the money to support schools in those areas.

LeJeune said Daphne schools need support, but the decision on how to provide that assistance should be decided by residents.

“My kids have all gone there, graduated from Daphne and my son is currently there now, so I know that the need is there,” LeJeune said. “Now, it’s up to our citizens to make that decision. Is it something that they want to do and we hope that they will make that decision, but we can work a plan out that makes everyone happy, whether it’s a one mill, a two mill, whether it’s a five-year plan, but we need our schools to let us know what their needs are.”

Vaughn said citizens need to know how any money raised would be spent if the public is to support a proposal to increase taxes.

“One of the things that we have to do is really identify exactly how that money is going to be spent,” she said. “I think some of the many times in the past when it’s been voted down, a lot of citizens just didn’t feel like there was a lot of accountability and we do have a need and we definitely not only how much, but we need all the community input on how it should be spent and not just put it before them to vote yes or no.”

Carey said Daphne should take the lead in supporting schools in Baldwin County.

“I understand the value of a safe school environment with the proper resources and properly trained teachers to give our children that knowledge and become good citizens,” Carey said. “But I will tell you that as a city, I think we need to be a little bit bolder than what we have been. I think it’s time for us as Daphne, the largest city in Baldwin County, to really step out and really be that municipality that leads Baldwin County, that sets the example for other cities.”