Stronger neighborhood associations.
The three candidates running for mayor of Muskegon Heights tackled a whirlwind of topics last Wednesday, Oct. 30, when they gathered at the Corinthians Baptist Church in Muskegon Heights for a debate that drew politicos and audience members from throughout the area.
Held the week before the Nov. 5 election and sponsored by 103.7 The Beat and M106-FM, the debate was moderated by Muskegon County Family Court Judge Gregory Pittman. It featured mayoral candidates Kim Sims, the current mayor of Muskegon Heights; Walter Watt Jr., a current councilman on the Muskegon Heights City Council; and Freddie Hamel, a political newcomer and the owner of Son’s and Sanford Hauling, Cleaning and Moving. Both Sims and Hamel are running as write-in candidates; Watt will be the only mayoral candidate on the Nov. 5 ballot.
For issues of length and clarity, we are publishing separate articles on each of the three debates.
What is the greatest challenge facing Muskegon Heights?
Watt, who was first elected to the Muskegon Heights City Council in 2017 and is a professional photographer and Central Michigan sales representative for the company Swedish Match, focused on reducing crime, redevelopment, education, and stabilizing neighborhoods as the top priorities for Muskegon Heights.
“We need to bring back young, middle-class individuals and families to our community,” he said. “Without middle-class incomes, we will not survive.”
The city must better support its education system in order to attract families to the area, Watt continued.
A priority of his includes “getting involved with the school system so we can bring that back,” Watt said.
“When they look at the number one reason people move into a community, they look at the public education system, and if it’s not good, you’ll lose that family,” he said.
Hamel, a retired employee of Gerber Baby Foods in Fremont, reported addressing violence as the top priority.
“We have to get these guns out of these young men’s hands,” Hamel said. “I had a nephew who was killed. I feel they need to be more motivated. We need more policemen. Us men have to be more involved in our sons’ lives.”
For Sims, “the greatest challenge is the lack of community, how we see ourselves in our own community.”
“I’d want to focus on bringing people together and forming community like we had once before,” said Sims, who has served as Muskegon Heights’ mayor since 2015 and was on the Muskegon Heights City Council for 12 years. She too owns Mahali, a community gathering space in Muskegon Heights.
“When I say that, I’m speaking of stronger neighborhood associations and giving the government back to the people, empowering our residents with voice and making sure they’re involved in every level of policy,” Sims continued.
The Muskegon Heights economy
After Judge Pittman asked candidates to “share with folks your general assessment of the health of the Muskegon Heights economy,” Sims said the city has a general fund balance of $1.2 million.
“It isn’t where we should be, and it’s so heavily weighted in one area,” Sims said. “We need to diversify our fund balance; it needs to come from more than our property taxes. We need to do a much better job of economic development, so if one piece of the city falls the rest won’t go with it.”
Watt disputed the $1.2 million figure and said that, after speaking with Muskegon Heights City Manager
Troy Bell and Muskegon Heights Finance Director Lori Doody, he believes the city is “on track to break even.” Sims noted that her $1.2 million figure is from the last audit; she said the city is currently undergoing an audit—which could explain the difference in information between herself and Watt.
When it comes to the city’s financial health, Watt added that, “we have to do a better job of bringing about new businesses in our community and bringing back our families to our community who will grow our tax base.”
Hamel asked to “pass” on the question.
Will there be budgetary reductions next year?
Watt said he did “not have the answer to that question” as to whether or not Muskegon Heights could face reductions in its budget next year, though he did say, “there may be things we have to deal with in terms of budget cuts.”
Sims said that if Watt’s information is correct about breaking event, “we absolutely will have to deal with budgetary constraints.”
Hamel did not answer the question.
Addressing absentee landlords
“Muskegon Heights has had issues with absentee landlords and substandard upkeep of properties,” Judge Pittman told the candidates. “What would you do to address absentee landlord issues and the upkeep of properties?”
Hamel said city officials must persevere when addressing problem landlords.
“As a landlord, you have to be held accountable,” he said. “It’s your responsibility to keep up the maintenance.”
If elected, Hamel said he “would address [the absenteeism], send them letters, have a meeting about the type of solution we can come up with.”
Sims emphasized the city has ordinances “able to address those issues.”
“We need to do a better job of what’s already there is enforced and followed through,” Sims said of the current ordinances.
Both renters and landlords must partner on the upkeep of a property, Sims emphasized.
“Our rental population exceeds our homeownership; we have to figure out how to live collectively,” she said. “We have to hold renters and landlords accountable for the upkeep of that property.”
The city must keep track of agreements between landlords and tenants regarding the upkeep of a property, Watt said.
“We have to start having landlords and tenants work together and figure out who’s responsible for the upkeep,” and they need to provide that information to the city, Watt said.
The growth of Muskegon Heights
After Judge Pittman asked the candidates if they feel “Muskegon Heights is not growing the same as areas around us,” Hamel said he sees “no motivation, no growth.”
To inspire growth, Hamel said he’d like to encourage more mentorship, both with programs and individuals, in the community.
“Minority men who are older, they have a lot of knowledge and it’s important to listen to them,” he said.
Watt said Muskegon Heights’ economy is not growing “as it should.” To address that Watt, said the community needs to take a hard look at crime in the city. Once it deals with crime, there will be an opportunity for financial growth, he said.
“We are viewed as a violent community,” Watt said. “You look at some statistics and data; it shows we are a violent community.”
To tackle the violence, Watt said he wants to sit down with the police chief to devise a plan to address the violence.
Sims said the city is not growing at the same pace as nearby communities.
“As a community, we haven’t come together and figured out what our niche is,” Sims said. “Thirty years ago, we were an industrial town, and we haven’t determined who we are now.”
A comprehensive economic plan is needed in the city in order to push for public-private partnerships, fight gentrification, participate in Muskegon County growth, and more, Sims said.
Candidates’ best assets
When asked what their best assets are, Watt said he’s “a strategic thinker” who can identify opportunities for the community, such as when “people are knocking on the door to redevelop the [Dr. Martin Luther] King School or the Strand Theatre.”
“We can’t continue to push business opportunities away for whatever reason,” Watt said. “…We’re a struggling community, and we must do better, but we must provide a vision for where we want to go.”
Sims said she understands “the difference between power and influence.”
“I have influence at the table, have the conversations that need to be had at the local, state and federal level,” Sims said. “We’re not begging to go to the table; people are asking us to be at the table.”
Hamel opted to not answer the question.
To find out more about the election on Tuesday, Nov. 5, including seeing a sample ballot, finding out where you vote, and more, you can click here. To follow Tuesday’s election results, you can go here.