Forum brings out Covington candidates

COVINGTON - All the candidates running in contested races in Covington participated in a forum hosted by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday night, fielding questions about industrial and commercial growth, airport development and utility rates.

Meanwhile, Oxford City Council Post 3 incumbent Hoyt Oliver was the only contender in the Oxford races to show.

Highlights of the forum are included below:

Q: If you could accomplish only one goal during your term, what would that be?

Roger Tingler, mayor's race: Tingler said his goal would be to bring Covington's diverse community closer together. "We try to work with the county in every way we can and we work with the state government, but it's difficult sometimes to work within the community," he said.

Kim Carter, mayor's race: "If we could accomplish one thing, I think it would go back to our balanced growth," Carter said, adding that the concept incorporates the main components of her platform, including economic growth, the poverty rate and inclusion and access for all residents. "It really says, let's all be the best and most diverse community we can be. That takes us all working in tandem."

Mike Whatley, incumbent, Council Post 2, East Ward: Whatley said he would like to see implementation of the city's long-range plans, including the zoning ordinance, land-use plan and comprehensive plan, that are in the works. "If we did that, all this other stuff would fall into place," he said.

Bobby Sigman, Council Post 2, East Ward: "My goal would be that nobody would ever call City Hall and be turned down without an answer and they would get answered immediately," Sigman said.

Ernie Smith, Council Post 3, East Ward: Smith said fostering cooperation between governments, community organizations, neighborhoods and residents would be his top priority.

Keith Dalton, Post 3, East Ward: Dalton said the high cost of living is the primary concern he's heard from residents. "I'd like to see the city tighten it's belt," he said, adding that he would look at ways to cut costs but not reduce services.

Hoyt Oliver, Post 3, Oxford Council: First on Oliver's wish list would be "moving the Covington Municipal Airport to Stanton Springs," he said, but he acknowledged that was unrealistic. Another priority would be to "put in place a vision and plan for the future and zoning that goes with it so we would have an identifiable community ... that would provide for appropriate development of more housing ... while keeping Oxford forested and green and a livable community."

On utility rates

Carter: The city of Covington has the highest summertime utility rates in the state according, to the Georgia Public Service Commission, Carter said.

She said the city needs to operate from a "zero-based" budget, with the council re-evaluating priorities.

The city is taxing residents to the point where "they can't take it much longer," Carter added.

She said taxes and utility rates should be set according to what the city is really spending.

Tingler: While Tingler said he is concerned about high utility rates, they are needed to subsidize taxes, he said. "Utilities is a business. If you don't make a profit off a business, you ought not to be in it. Taxes are subsidized by utilities," he said, adding that utility revenues have made it possible for the city to maintain the same millage rate for the past eight years.

Q: Will development of the airport bring income to the city and how?

Tingler: A proponent of spending $5 million of cable TV revenues on airport development, Tingler said he believes "100 percent" that the airport will bring tax revenue to the city. One corporate jet will generate $98,000 per year in property taxes and won't put a burden on infrastructure or schools and will bring in high-paying jobs, he said.

Tingler said economic development professionals participating in a Developer's Day hosted by the Chamber earlier this week called the airport "a jewel in the rough."

"If we show in good faith that we're moving forward and we are a first class city, industry will follow," he said.

Carter: "I don't know," was Carter's answer on the impact of airport development, adding that the real answer to that question lies in developing a strategic economic development plan, which could include the airport.

Carter does not support Tingler's proposal to commit $5 million in cable TV revenues to the airport. "We don't have an economic development plan, we have high utility rates, we're in the middle of a budget session ... let's not haste and make waste on this one," she said.

Q: What's more important: industrial or commercial growth?

Tingler: Both are equally important, Tingler said, though he said he would put more emphasis on commercial development.

He said the city is "better off" than the county, with a tax base at 63 percent commercial and industrial and 32 percent residential. (The remaining 5 percent comes from personal property.)

"If I'm elected mayor, I will come to the Chamber a lot more often and kind of put pressure on you guys," to recruit more commercial development, he said.

Carter: "They have to work together. It's a handshake," Carter said of commercial versus industrial growth. Carter said the city needs a strategic economic development plan, along with staff devoted to recruiting commercial and industrial prospects.

Carter said her research shows that the city's tax base split is 70 percent commercial/industrial and 20 percent residential.

Retailers have sophisticated models to determine where they will locate, Carter said, including rooftop numbers and disposable income of residents.

While rooftops are increasing, the city's poverty level is still at 25 percent, she said.

Carter said there is a need for industries that offer higher paying jobs to address the poverty level, which could aid in attracting commercial growth.

Whatley: Commercial growth is more valuable to Covington right now, Whatley said.

"If you look at what's killed us in the past, it's commercial and retail dollars going to Rockdale County," he said.

Whatley said the annexation of property where the Wal-Mart Supercenter and Home Depot now sit was a benefit to the city.

"I'm not going to promote annexing in every situation, but if it brings quality retail and industry to the city, I'm all for it," he said.

Sigman: "I think they work hand-in-hand together," Sigman said, adding that the city needs to work for both. Industry brings good quality jobs, while commercial growth brings sales taxes, he said.

Smith: Commercial growth has more short-term benefit in the way of tax dollars, while industry brings long-term benefits in the way of jobs, Smith said. "Both are a very necessary component of a healthy community, and I wouldn't want to pick one above the other," he said, but added that industrial zoning must not be sacrificed for commercial development.

Dalton: Both are equally important, Dalton agreed. Both are needed to provide jobs for local residents, he said. He added that with more "decent paying" jobs in Covington, residents wouldn't have to commute and could save on fuel costs.

Oliver: "We have neither, but both are for the good of the whole community," Oliver said. However, Oliver said the city and county should be mindful of the impact these projects have on Oxford, adding that "one of the great detriments to the quality of life is the encroachment of industry to our west and east, put in close proximity to Oxford without consultation and regard for our quality of life."

The General Municipal Election will take place Nov. 6. Early voting gets under way Monday and runs through Friday.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.