COVINGTON -- The final forum of the primary election season took place Thursday night. The Governmental Affairs Committee of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce hosted the event at the Newton County Library.
It was a poor showing for the District 2 Board of Commissioners race, with incumbent Earnest Simmons, a Democrat, the only candidate attending. Democrat challenger Lanier Sims and Republican Rickie Corley were absent. District 4 candidates J.C. Henderson, the incumbent, and Kenneth Hardeman, both Democrats, were present.
Candidates were given a prepared question from the moderator and then asked several questions posed in writing from the audience. The following is a summary of questions and responses.
Q: How do you see the roles between the Newton County Chamber and Board of Commissioners in regard to future economic development efforts for Newton County?
Simmons said the Chamber is the cheerleader and facilitator for bringing businesses to the community while the BOC's role is bridge building between county government and the commercial sector. The BOC recently made a $120,000 investment in the Chamber to use for economic development, proof of its strong belief in the organization, he said.
"We stand behind you and we're ready as a board to pass any incentives" to foster economic development, he said.
Henderson said the role of both bodies is to help grow small businesses, adding that there aren't enough in the county. He said if the county offers incentives for businesses or industry to locate here, they should be required to provide jobs to locals.
"Our role is creating jobs for the citizens of Newton County and keeping them right here at home," he said.
Hardeman said the roles are to partner with businesses and industry. The Chamber's job is to sell what Newton County has to offer, while the county's job is to make sure there is effective planning to preserve quality of life.
"We need to work together to sell Newton County for the good things we have," he said.
Q: If it's necessary to maintain the newly reduced level of service, are you prepared to raise taxes?
"I am a proponent of looking at the budget line by line and looking at every single income source we have coming in," Simmons said.
But he added that he won't compromise the safety of his district, which encompasses almost 18,000 acres and has a population of between 15,000 and 18,000.
"If services are affected that affect their lives every single day, I'm going to bite the bullet. That's going to be my last option, but I'm not going to put my district at risk under no circumstances," he said. He added that the millage rate can always be lowered when revenues rise again.
"I think if we watch our dollars and cents as we should -- and I'm giving my personal take on it, we haven't -- then we should be all right," Henderson said.
He said the county needs another source of income and he favors privatizing the landfill and any other services that can be privatized to prevent a tax increase
"I am never a proponent of raising taxes, but the reality is, if we want to maintain services as they are, we have to do something," Hardeman said.
He added that he is a conservative when it comes to spending and would look at the budget to make sure there is no unnecessary spending. "Only when it's necessary do we need to raise taxes," he said.
Q: What are the three major concerns facing the Board of Commissioners?
For Simmons, the answer is transportation; attracting new businesses to help balance the tax digest and take the burden off citizens; and "balancing the old and new." He said 47,000 people have moved into Newton County in the past decade and the county must meet needs arising from growth while still preserving a small town feel, open space and the water supply.
Henderson's top three concerns are service provided by the Sheriff's Office and Fire Department and providing safe and secure places for children, such as parks and recreation facilities.
The jail is currently overcrowded and, "We can no longer pay to jail somebody; it costs just as much to send them to college. We need to think outside the box and work with kids to keep them out of jail," he said.
Hardeman identified the top three concerns as public safety, retail and economic development; and keeping the public aware of what's going on in government.
Q: In the past few years, Newton County has been represented negatively in the media. What will you do to raise the opinion of our county?
Simmons said a free press is a constitutional right, but, "We can write in and tell the paper what's going on good in the county. Everybody in this room has the obligation to say what's good about this county," he said.
Hardeman said he would meet with constituents to make sure they are informed about their government, but added that, "If what we do portrays negatively, we're in control of that. We need to bite the bullet and make changes."
He said there is more good than bad in the county and commissioners can focus on the good and spread a positive message.
Henderson said what gets reported is often second-hand information. He said he wants commission meetings televised so citizens don't have to rely on the newspaper.
Q: Many perceive the current Board of Commissioners as guilty of personal and partisan politics. How might this impact efforts toward economic development?
"You expect five different people from five different regions to disagree; that's going to happen at your jobs, in your families. We disagree but that doesn't mean it's partisan politics," Simmons said.
He added that the board has balanced the budget every year that he's been a member, proof that they're not engaging in partisan politics. He also noted that he's managed to secure $12 million in investments in his district under both a Republican and Democrat majority.
"I'm not partisan. I just happen to be a Democrat," Hardeman said, getting a laugh from the crowd. "When you tell citizens their services are going to be cut, they don't care if you're a Democrat, Republican or Independent."
He said partisan politics come into play when you show favor due to party affiliation, but he doesn't think the districts have been getting different levels of service. Party affiliation is based on certain ideals, but, "When it comes down to the nuts and bolts, all of us want the same things," he said.
Henderson said that "Everybody is not always going to agree on everything," and the best he can do is ask his constituents and God for guidance and then make a decision.
"We have our disagreements but we always manage at the end of the day to shake hands and go out smiling," he said.
The Primary Election takes place Tuesday, July 20. Early voting is currently under way at the Newton County Board of Elections office, located in the Administration Building at 1113 Usher St.