Editor's Note: For more coverage on the forum, see Friday's Citizen, which will feature candidates for Ga. House District 95.
COVINGTON -- Candidates for Board of Commissioners Districts 2 and 4 faced each other at a forum held by the Newton County Voters League on Tuesday night at the historic courthouse.
They fielded questions posed by a three-member panel and also answered inquiries from the audience. The Democratic candidates for District 2 -- incumbent Earnest Simmons and Lanier Sims -- were on hand. Republican candidate Rickie Corley was absent. The candidates for District 4 -- incumbent J.C. Henderson and Kenneth Hardeman, both Democrats, attended. The following is a summary of questions and responses.
Q: How will you balance the budget with reduced revenues?
Simmons said commissioners have succeeded in balancing last year's and this year's budgets with reduced revenues and will continue to "tighten our belts." He said borrowing money may be necessary in the future.
Sims responded that he would look at the budget line by line and cut anything that's not needed.
Henderson said the county needs to be more conservative with taxpayer dollars. He said "we spend and spend" and then have to lay off employees when it's time to balance the budget.
Hardeman said he has managed large budgets working in the hospitality industry and is experienced in finding waste. He said consolidation of services may be needed. He also proposed a "bright idea award" or some type of incentive to encourage county employees to come up with ways to save money.
Q: How will you work to improve public safety?
Simmons said he has pushed to have a satellite sheriff's office in west Newton, but was defeated by one vote. Those plans are on the back burner due to the economy, but he said he would revisit the idea. He also said he has created anonymous tip lines for district "hot spots" for residents to report crime.
Sims said he supports a satellite precinct located near the District 2 and 3 boundaries and would work to beef up community watch programs.
Henderson said public safety is his top priority. He noted that he was successful years ago in forming a community partnership to demolish a crime hot spot known as Dot's Bottoms Up and converting the site into the Clark Street Park.
Hardeman said public safety would also be a priority and he would work to ensure people could feel safe walking into their place of business or home.
Q: Why are you the best person for the job?
Simmons pointed to his track record during his first term on the commission, including lobbying for a sheriff's precinct and getting numerous traffic signals placed at intersections throughout the district. "Almost $12 million has been put back into District 2. That's something on record that you can track," he said.
Sims said he has more than 14 years experience as a business owner dealing with employees and budgets. He said he will attend community meetings and stay after to talk with citizens. "I will be there for you," he said.
Henderson said he's been on the board for 14 years and listens to the people. He said he changed his position to support the rollback millage rate after the residents of his district overwhelmingly indicated support. "I went to the people and they gave me direction."
Hardeman said he is a lifelong resident of the county involved in many volunteer and community activities, with professional experience managing budgets. He said he would view his position as a public service.
Q: What initiatives will you put in place to support change in the district during the next four years?
Sims said he would initiate seminars at the new branch library to teach residents life skills such as resume writing and would work to increase public safety by increasing patrols.
Simmons said his record speaks for itself and he will continue to work on initiatives such as Denny Dobbs Park, where he hopes to have regular community activities.
"You don't need to be commissioner to have seminars. You can have seminars right now," he said.
Henderson said he would be committed to watching spending of taxpayer money and being more conservative.
Hardeman said he would push for more community involvement and make constituents aware of available services and issues and get their input.
Q: What is your vision for your district?
Simmons said completion of Denny Dobbs Park and providing more recreation and park space are his priorities. He also vowed to continue to work with the state to get approval for the widening of Salem Road.
Sims responded that his vision is to get more businesses, restaurants and jobs. He said many people moved to Newton County to find affordable housing, but now that's available everywhere and the county must find a way to continue attracting residential and commercial growth. He also said he supports implementation of the county's 2050 build out plan.
Henderson said his vision is to provide more activities for children to keep them out of jail, adding that taxpayers pay more to house an inmate than to educate a child.
Hardeman said he fully supports the 2050 build out plan and said the county needs to work to implement it and prepare infrastructure at today's costs. "If we wait, it will be astronomically out of this world," he said.
Q: How will you attract new businesses?
Simmons said the four-county park, Stanton Springs, will serve to attract new industries and business and said there have been a lot of inquiries about the site. He said the board stands ready to pass incentives to attract economic development.
Sims said in the past the county has not been business-friendly and that needs to change. He said he will work closely with the Chamber of Commerce and will also focus on public safety, because businesses won't move into areas with a high crime rate.
Henderson said the county needs to attract businesses that will hire locals. "If they want to locate here, we need to make sure they will hire Newton County people and not bring people with them," he said. He also said he voted for the second Wal-Mart on Salem Road several years ago, despite some opposition, because he knew it would bring hundreds of jobs to the county.
Hardeman said infrastructure improvement, partnerships with the school system and recreation commission will ensure the county has a qualify of life that is attractive to commercial and retail developers.