The race to replace Baker’s retiring mayor, Harold Rideau, is down to two candidates, forcing voters to decide between two Democrats with close ties to the Mayor’s Office who hold different views of the city’s financial situation.
Former Baker Mayor Leroy Davis and the current Mayor’s Office administrator, Darnell “DA-1” Waites, made the runoff after the March 5 primary, when councilwoman Joyce Burges and candidate Carlon “Frank” Simpson were eliminated.
Davis asserts Baker is in serious financial trouble, but by cutting spending and recruiting a host of businesses, he can save the city. Waites said his work with Rideau already has set up Baker for economic success, but he needs more time to see it through.
Rideau, who endorsed Waites, has been mayor of Baker since 2004, when he took over from Davis. The runoff is scheduled April 9.
While Waites said he’s had the advantage of being deeply involved in the city for the last three years, Davis, who was mayor from 2001 to 2004, said his more distant vantage point allows him to see the bigger picture.
Davis, 71, believes significant financial problems plague Baker and wants to focus first and foremost on the city’s money management, adding he would like to hire a CPA to train the city’s finance workers.
Davis said the city’s reserve funds have been significantly depleted since he was in office. While Rideau said the funds were used to address major infrastructure issues such as leaky roofs and damaged pipes, Davis said he will meet those obligations in the future by cutting spending.
Neither candidate has plans to introduce higher taxes or increased fees, but Davis was adamant these hikes are not an option.
With a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois, Davis promises to bring in a new string of businesses, saying he reeled in establishments like Wal-Mart, Wendy’s and others when he was mayor.
In addition, Davis said, he will invite professionals in the real estate industry to figure out how to get occupants for vacant houses and make way for the possibility of a new subdivision, starting with a housing fair.
“The last subdivision developed in Baker was under my administration, Parc Chaleur Subdivision,” Davis said. “It had affordable housing.”
He also plans to create advisory councils for youth and adult residents of no more than 11 people each to get their opinions on issues in the community.
Davis works as an adjunct professor of economics at Southern University’s business school and Upper Iowa University. He said his experience in economic development, including working with community and business leaders in Jamaica, Kenya and Haiti to build up those countries’ economies, makes him the right man for the job.
“I am the best choice,” Davis said. “In fact, I am the only choice that they have.”
Waites, 55, said his experience over the last three years has shown he is the best option to unify what has been considered by some a divided city.
“We don’t need recycled leadership,” Waites said. “We need to move forward. I can bring the city together. I’m a unifier.”
Waites said, as he had in the past, that Baker’s financial problems aren’t dire. He said Baker has had some procedural problems in how money is managed, while also experiencing turnover in the management of city finances, noting the city has had three different auditors the last three years. These problems could be fixed, though, he said.
“Moneywise, we’re OK,” Waites said. “It’s not where I want to be, but we’re going to be okay.”
Waites, president of the Baker Chamber of Commerce, said three years ago the city was in financial trouble largely due to city workers’ high compensation, which he said accounted for about 70 percent of the budget at the time. He said spending has been cut, though, and many top-paid employees retired.
“As we hire new people, they won’t have those salaries,” Waites said.
To build up the city, Waites said he’d like to continue the Rideau administration’s progress in growing retail business in Baker, pointing to the recently built Greenwood Shopping Center as an example.
Waites stressed the importance of working relationships with officials inside and outside of the city, adding that former East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Councilman Mike Walker has been especially helpful.
“We have turned the ship around,” Waites said. “I just want to move it forward.”
Outside economic development, Waites said he’d like to bring life back into the city by creating more after-school programs for children and enhancing local festivals.
A retired combat veteran of 27 years originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Waites has lived in Baker for 16 years.
“I feel like it’s my time to do my part for my city.”
Follow Danielle Maddox Kinchen on Twitter, @Dani_Maddox4.