Commission candidates speak out at final forum

COVINGTON - The following is a summary of responses given by Newton County commission candidates at a forum held Thursday at Turner Lake Complex. For more coverage on the forum, see Wednesday's Citizen.

With the current economic challenges, would you favor raising taxes, cutting services or some other method of maintaining a balanced budget?

District 1 Democrat Mark Patrick said cutting services will likely be necessary, and the county must evaluate which are most important - in his opinion, roads and public safety - before making any cuts. He said he believes the millage rate can remain the same if services are cut and revenues are generated through special purpose local option sales tax.

Republican incumbent Mort Ewing said the county has managed to maintain a balanced budget as long as he has been on the board and the economic downturn is already being addressed. The county is mandated by the state to offer certain services, and would have to look at those that are not required for cuts, Ewing said, adding that he would look at raising taxes as "an absolute last option."

District 3 Democratic candidate Nancy Schulz said she would look to department heads to come up with creative ways to cut costs before making cuts. She said she would not support cuts to public safety, adding that, "I would look at the revenue side as a last resort, but that's not something the people in my district want in any case."

Republican Keith Mitcham said he would also be in favor of letting department heads tighten their budgets before raising taxes or making cuts.

District 5 Republican candidate Tim Fleming said he opposes cuts to public safety and opposes raising taxes. "We need to go through the budget and see where we can cut the fat. There's always fat to be cut in local government," he said.

Democrat Randy Vinson also said he is opposed to raising taxes and would favor letting department heads come up with ways to save money in hopes of trimming the budget but offering the same level of services.

Do you favor putting an on-site, liquor-by-the-drink ordinance to a public referendum and if yes, when would you propose to do so?

District 1

Ewing said a liquor-by-the-drink referendum was on the ballot several years ago and failed by a large margin. He said he is generally opposed to having liquor-by-the-drink, but, if the majority of the board agreed it should be on the ballot, he would support holding a referendum.

"A referendum is a good way to feel the perspective of the citizens ... I would be all for putting it on the ballot," Patrick said.

District 3

Mitcham said he favors a referendum. "Let the people decide. That's the best way to do it. For commercial growth, some say it's a must."

Schulz, who annexed her business into the city of Porterdale in order to get liquor-by-the-drink, said it's something the people of District 3 want. However, she wants permitting limited to businesses within development nodes. As for when the referendum should happen, Schulz said the costs of holding a special election versus including it on the regular election ballot must be weighed.

District 5

Vinson said he would support a referendum but agreed with Schulz that permits should be limited to certain areas through zoning.

Fleming agreed that, "It's important to let citizens of the county decide what they want." He said he would not support holding a special election, which would cost the county thousands of dollars.

Do you believe building the Bear Creek Reservoir is critical to begin now or at some time better in the future and why?

District 1

Both candidates said they support the reservoir project, though they differed on the timeline.

Patrick said the reservoir should be pushed through as soon as possible. "We need to pursue every avenue to put the reservoir in; it should be a mandate from the people," he said.

Ewing said that Lake Varner is currently meeting water supply needs and, with the expansion of the Cornish Creek Treatment Plant, should continue to do so until for another 10 or more years. Bear Creek is not needed until the year 2018 or 2020, he said, but added that progress must continue every day for the reservoir to be ready by that time.

District 3

Schulz said the reservoir "should have been built 10 years ago."

"We desperately need to make sure our infrastructure is in place. That's the best way to promote and market the community - water is key," she said.

Mitcham, too, said he believes the reservoir is needed, but added, "If anybody has dealt with government, you know that government don't move too fast." He said efforts should be ongoing to get the reservoir built.

District 5

Fleming said the county needs "to move sooner rather than later" on the reservoir.

Vinson agreed that it should be built "as soon as possible, which isn't going to be tomorrow."

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