COVINGTON - Candidates for Newton County tax commissioner and District 5 for the Board of Commissioners faced questions from residents Monday night in the second round of forums sponsored by the Newton County Voter's League.
All three candidates for tax commissioner participated in the event at the Historic Courthouse - incumbent Barbara Dingler, a Republican, Doris Strickland, also a Republican, and Democrat Nicholas Day.
Participating for BOC District 5 were Democrat Randy Vinson and Republicans Tim Fleming and John Travis. Incumbent Monty Laster is not seeking re-election.
Democrat Randy Vinson told forum spectators he has lived in Newton County since 1994 and served as special projects coordinator and planning director for Newton County for several years, overseeing the construction of Turner Lake Park, the Newton County Judicial Annex, and the renovation of the Historic Courthouse, among other projects. Vinson said he also helped to develop the Comprehensive Land Use Plan in 1997 that was based on development by nodes in different areas of the county. "This is the type of development I would like to see Newton County encourage and promote for future development," Vinson said.
In view of current transportation challenges and the price of fuel, Vinson said it is important for the county to find an alternative to the automobile.
"We need to be looking at building mixed-use, compact communities again," he said.
Republican John Travis said he has five priorities he will pursue if elected: accountability and open government; fiscal responsibility; increasing the industrial and commercial tax base of the county; addressing the needs of all residents fairly; and providing protection for the community.
These challenges require elected officials to do "business as unusual" rather than business as usual, he said.
Republican Tim Fleming said he is seeking the District 5 post because he feels Newton County needs good government based on accountability and fiscal responsibility.
Fleming said rapid growth in the county demands professional management. He also said he would work to increase commercial and industrial growth and to bring more state funding to the county to address transportation problems.
Fleming said he would prioritize three or four of the county's many transportation needs and work to solve those first.
Democrat Nicholas Day told those at the forum that he believes the tax commissioner "should actually serve the electorate who elected him."
Day said his primary goal is to increase property tax exemptions for homeowners in Newton County, particularly for senior citizens, who he said should be exempt from school taxes. In the current economic climate, Day said property taxes can be a tremendous burden for those on a fixed income.
"You are looking at people who are giving up food or something just to keep their house," he said.
Incumbent Republican Barbara Dingler, who was first appointed to the office in January 1999 and then elected the following October, said she has accumulated a record of tax collections on real and personal property that exceeded 99 percent in 2006 and prior years.
Dingler said she has operated her office within budget with a staff of 15 full-time workers. "The job they do is to serve you, the people of Newton County," she said.
Dingler also said she has implemented an online auto registration and renewal system and will work to open a satellite office on the western side of the county.
Doris Strickland, a Republican candidate for tax commissioner, said she would not support a satellite office in western Newton County since it would not be fair to residents of other parts of the county.
Strickland pledged to show no favoritism to anyone either in or outside the office of tax commissioner and that she would be in the office every day or would be available by cell phone.
"First and foremost, my promise to you is that you, as taxpayers, will get your money's worth from me," Strickland said.
Dennis Horion, a community activist on behalf of abused children, asked candidates if they would agree to fund mental health treatment for all children in the community.
District 5 candidates Fleming and Travis said they would need more information about the issue before addressing the question. Vinson agreed that he needed more information, but added that he believes it is society's responsibility to keep people who are troubled from falling deeper into mental illness.
Randy Upton asked candidates what they would do to curb illegal immigration into the county.
Vinson said he would work to ensure the county is in compliance with all state and federal laws dealing with immigration enforcement.
Travis said he would approach the issue in the same manner as Vinson.
Fleming agreed, adding that the responsibility of enforcing immigration laws would fall under the umbrella of law enforcement.
As tax commissioner, Day said he could use his office to identify illegal immigrants at the time a car tag is purchased, since autos cannot be registered unless the owner has a valid Georgia driver's license.
Ann Wilson asked District 5 candidate Vinson to explain his support for smart growth principles. "Is it realistic to build communities all around the county?" she asked.
Vinson said development in nodes would encompass every type of housing in a mix of businesses, offices, schools and churches. If the county had begun development in this manner 20 years ago, Vinson said, the community would have used less land for development and saved more greenspace while accommodating the same amount of population growth.
The method of zoning has tended to isolate different types of housing in separate areas, which requires major roads to link them to necessary services, Vinson said. This has led to road networks that are choked by cars with nothing within walking distance of residential areas. Mixed-use development in nodes would mean that residents would not be so reliant on the automobile for everyday needs, he said.