COVINGTON - Residents had the chance to grill Board of Commissioners candidates on a variety of subjects, from recreation to the landfill to property taxes, at a Newton County Voter's League forum held Tuesday night at the Historic Courthouse.
Participating in the forum were District 1 Republican candidate Ann H. Wilson and Democratic candidate Willie J. Smith. Incumbent Mort Ewing and Democratic candidate Mark Patrick did not attend.
District 3 Republican candidates Keith Mitcham and Matthew Eason were joined by Democrats Jimmy Clark Jr., Victor Etefia, Nancy Schulz and Gabriel White. Democrat Andre Cooper did not participate.
Republican Ann H. Wilson said the county needs to step back, regroup and see what can be done to address growth. She said she'll focus on making sure future water needs are met and establishing recreation facilities throughout the county.
Democrat Willie J. Smith said he wants to reduce the minimum square footage on homes, evaluate whether Bear Creek reservoir is needed and work on getting more red lights and satellite recreation and community centers.
Republican Matthew Eason said his main focus will be on cutting costs. "I'm all about money. I love saving money. My wife calls me a cheapskate," he said, adding that as a project manager for the Coca-Cola Company, his job is to provide more services year after year for less money.
Opponent Keith Mitcham said more of his platform would be revealed during the question and answer session, but told the crowd he has a vested interest in the welfare of the county, as a lifelong resident and farmer with six generations of family members here.
Democrat Jimmy Clark Jr. said he wanted "to serve the great people of this county" by solving traffic problems through talking with officials from Rockdale County and the Georgia Department of Transportation. Clark said he also wants BOC meetings televised.
Victor Etefia pledged to find ways to repair damaged roads, provide more recreation, help families in danger of foreclosure and "respect the property rights of all residents."
Nancy Schulz opened by saying, "I'm not a politician, I'm a public servant." Schulz said she's spent many years volunteering with school PTOs and working as a nurse practitioner. Her platform is focused on balanced growth, safe neighborhoods, water resources and implementing the county's comprehensive plan.
Gabriel White said his main concern is the county's youth and providing kids and the elderly with a safe place to go. He said he'll also work to put up more traffic lights and widen roads. White said he's received numerous questions about liquor by the drink sales, but said he's not in favor because of the potential for increased crime and DUIs, unless voters approve it via referendum. "We're more worried about alcohol than we are our children," he said.
Frank Davis, with Newton County Citizens for Tax Relief, asked if candidates would support a property tax assessment freeze for all residents, with property only being reassessed if improvements are made to a property or it is sold.
Both Wilson and Smith said they would support a freeze on assessments.
White said he would support a freeze; Eason said he would also support it but only temporarily. Both Clark and Schulz said they would need to study the issue more before making a decision, while Mitcham said he would not support it at this time.
Bear Creek Reservoir
Dennis Taylor asked District 3 candidates whether they support the Bear Creek Reservoir project. All said yes, though some said the project needs to be reviewed to determine cost.
Clark said the county has already put too much money in the project to back out now.
"As a businessman, I believe if I invest money in a certain project, I should get a yield from it ... we haven't gotten any yield from it yet," he said.
Etefia said he is in favor of the project because the additional water will be needed in the future, especially during drought conditions.
Mitcham said he is also in support, but empathizes with citizens who will have land condemned to build the reservoir.
Schulz said the reservoir should have been built years ago. "The time has come and gone and I think we need to get on with it," she said.
Eason said he supports the project but believes all county projects, including the reservoir, need to be reviewed to determine if the county can afford them.
White said he supports the reservoir if the county can afford it. Later however, White said he wants to leave something for future generations and "I don't want to tell my kids, 'I left you a reservoir.' I want to say, 'I left you a youth center or for when you grow old, something for the elderly.'"
A resident living near the Newton County Landfill asked candidates if they would support moving the landfill to another location. Residents in the area have claimed methane gas emissions from the landfill are dangerous.
Smith said the issue needs to be looked at, though he added that he couldn't say whether he would support moving the landfill. "It has been there a long time. I wouldn't want it in my backyard," he said.
Eason said that while he does not support moving the landfill, the county could look into doing more recycling so that less garbage is dumped in the landfill and less methane gas is emitted. Eason said there are companies that will purchase recycled material from the county, adding that Coca-Cola has a recycling program that can even turn plastic bottles into T-shirts.
Mitcham said it would be "almost impossible to get permitted" for a new location, adding that no new permits have been issued in the last 15 or 20 years.
Etefia said that while he empathizes with citizens who live in the area, it would be too expensive to move the landfill.
Schulz said that she wants to be sensitive to residents in the area, adding that the county can work with residents and experts to reach a solution. "I'm not sure we can move the landfill, but there's a lot of technology to help make it a more palatable situation," she said.
Clark took a stronger stance on the issue, saying extensive testing should be done to make sure the methane gas is not affecting residents "even if it costs $100 million."
Candidates were asked their ideas on getting more recreation sites in the county.
Wilson said she believes all districts in the county should have equal access to recreational facilities, adding that residents are traveling to Rockdale County and other areas to meet those needs now.
Smith said a recreation site is needed in the Rocky Plains area. He said the county could take money it is spending on other projects, such as Bear Creek, and invest in recreation facilities.
"We have to do things very carefully in today's economy," Eason said. "I'm paying $5 for a gallon of milk. If we do something on the spur of the moment, we will pay out the nose."
Mitcham agreed that the county needs additional money, possibly through impact fees or attracting commercial growth to increase the tax base, to fund new parks. "It all comes down to a reality that you've got to pay for them. Ballfields do not pay for themselves," he said.
Etefia said the county could stipulate that developers help fund recreational facilities, while Clark said he would study solutions other counties have employed to fund recreation.
Schulz said she would like to see more public-private partnerships to create playgrounds and recreation spots so the burden does not fall solely on the taxpayers.
White said there are prime sites throughout the county that can be used for recreation. For example, he said the property where the new fire station is being built on Brown Bridge Road could have been used for a recreation center.
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.