PORTERDALE -- Six candidates vying for three seats on the Porterdale City Council in the Nov. 8 municipal elections spoke before voters Tuesday night in a candidates forum at the Porterdale Mill Lofts.
Candidates for the Post 1, Post 2 and Post 3 seats, which are all elected at-large, each gave a 5-minute opening statement followed by a Q&A session.
Robert Foxworth, who is seeking re-election to the Post 1 seat for a third term, told residents that he has served on two committees that determined the project list for Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendums. In addition, Foxworth said he helped pass the resolution allowing construction of the Porterdale Mill Lofts, pursued the K-9 program for the Police Department, served as a volunteer fireman in the city, and worked toward getting more affordable health benefits for city employees, among other accomplishments.
Foxworth, who owns a tree service, said that he has provided services free of charge when needed to help the city and has spearheaded efforts to raise money to pay for fireworks for the city's Fourth of July celebration.
"My service and commitment is to the people of Porterdale, and my objectives are to be as involved as I can in the rebound of the economy, economic growth, and prosperity for our citizens and businesses," Foxworth said.
Anita Rainey, a political newcomer challenging Foxworth for the Post 1 seat, said she moved to Porterdale in 2010 because she was drawn to the town.
"I put roots down, I purchased a home here," she said.
Rainey said she is excited about Porterdale's recently completed comprehensive land use plan and looks forward to implementing the plan.
"As a first step to that we have established an Urban Redevelopment Committee and are looking into writing a plan to aid the problem areas in Porterdale and figure out what to do to accomplish our goal of bettering Porterdale in that area."
Rainey said the comprehensive plan will work hand-in-hand with the county's 2050 buildout plan. She acknowledged that Porterdale has some infrastructure issues that will have to be addressed and said she looks forward to "learning more about that and becoming involved with the acquisition of funds to accomplish that."
Rainey also said she supports the efforts of the Yellow River Conservation and Preservation Group and strongly supports the K-9 program of the Porterdale Police Department.
During the Q&A session, Foxworth was taken to task for spending city money to attend the Georgia Municipal Association Convention in Savannah for several previous years. One resident pointed out that it cost the city nearly $1,000 last year for Foxworth to attend the convention and training session.
Foxworth responded that last year the city paid his hotel room and training fees, and he paid all other expenses. He said that the training is necessary for elected officials. "You can't sit on this council for four years or eight years, working with the budget, without a financial background," he said, adding that if he didn't attend the convention in Savannah he would seek GMA training elsewhere.
Rainey, when asked to respond on the issue, said she thought the training could be cut in hard times.
"I think that probably after several years of the same sort of training in GMA, you probably don't get much deeper with additional classes," she said. "Personally, I would not go, but I do have a background in finance so I feel qualified without the training."
In response to a question about the future of Porter Memorial Gymnasium, which burned in 2005, Rainey said she is not opposed to rebuilding the gym, but is concerned about the amount of time that has passed.
"We need to look at an alternative for our kids to have an area that they can use," Rainey said. "What is the gymnasium for -- is it for the preservation of memories or for the recreation of the community?"
Foxworth said he supported reconstruction of the gym, but was aware that that funding was hard to come by.
"It's a touch-and-go situation about what to do with it," he said. " ... hopefully, we will get to that day when we can rebuild the gym."
Post 2 incumbent Linda Finger told residents she's made some enemies in the past four years, but she's also made changes in the city.
Finger mentioned her formation of the CARE Committee, a nonprofit group that aids Porterdale residents in need.
Finger also addressed the interpersonal conflicts among members of the City Council.
"The bickering on the City Council has got to stop," she said. "Some division would be normal. We will not always agree, but too much is destructive. We are not effective as it stands."
Finger also said that annexation will be vital to the future of Porterdale, and the city is often viewed as too difficult to work with by businesses looking to locate in the town.
She reminded residents that she promised when elected four years ago that she would not vote for a tax increase or a rate hike.
"I have kept my word," she said.
"When budget crunches come, as they have and they will again, rate hikes should be the last place to look, not the first. That's the easy way out," she said.
Post 2 challenger Darlene Savage, a native of Porterdale, said she is chairman of the board of directors of Rainbow Covenant Ministries and volunteers with the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter. She said she supports the CARE program begun by her opponent and acknowledged that Porterdale and its residents are struggling.
"I believe through teamwork, self-sacrifice and looking out for the interests of others, our city can recover," she said.
She also said she'd like to see changes that would allow the city to hire more staff and police officers. She said the streets should be "patrolled all day, every day."
Savage also referenced the time the City Council spends on drafting new ordinances.
"Instead of making new laws, we need to enforce the laws we already have on the books," she said, calling for stronger code enforcement to help control substandard rental properties.She said she also wants to instill pride in Porterdale residents.
"Porterdale should not be looked at as a slum or a charity," she said.
During the Q&A session, a resident pointed out that the city has had legal issues with Rainbow Covenant Ministries in the past, when the nonprofit was located in Porterdale. The resident asked how Savage would deal with this type of issue if it came up again.
"I have heard of some incidents that have happened with the church and the city," Savage said. " ... If anything does come up with the church, I would use my best judgment to side with the city or any way it should go," she said.
Finger said Savage's association with Rainbow Covenant was a concern since she feels it would be difficult to separate religious beliefs from service to the city.
Also during the Q&A session, Finger was asked if she had an alternative plan to raising taxes.
Finger said she would look toward cutting expenses such as GMA fees and attorney fees and apply for more grants.
"There are a lot of things that could generate money without raising taxes," Finger said. "And it's not a lot of money that we are talking about."
In response to the same question, Savage said she did not yet have enough experience to answer the question.
In response to the question about rebuilding the gym, Finger said she hoped the city would be able to acquire grants to help fund the reconstruction, noting that the integrity of the remaining structure has suffered in the past few years. She added that she would like to have contractors come in and explore the cost of just putting a roof on the gym.
Savage said a decision needs to be made whether or not to pursue the project. She said that the city should consider salvaging part of the gym for a new project.
"I would hate to see it not be rebuilt, but with the funding coming in like it is ... what little I have found out is it is a tremendous cost to rebuild it with the plans that the city has been looking at," she said. "But there does come a time when something needs to be done, and I think it needs to be done pretty soon."
Post 3 candidates Tim Savage and Terry Barnes, both political newcomers, are seeking election to fulfill the unexpired term of Arline Chapman, who resigned to run for mayor.
In his opening comments, Barnes said he grew up in Porterdale and has a vested interest in anything that goes on in the town. Barnes said he would like to see more commerce in the downtown district, including a grocery store. He said he'd also like to see development of the Porterdale Yellow River Park.
Barnes also said he is "100 percent" behind the effort to rebuild the historic gym and the Porterdale Police K-9 program.
He also said he would encourage Habitat for Humanity to purchase some of the rundown properties in Porterdale a rehabilitate them for needy residents.
Tim Savage said he would be prepared to make the necessary hard decisions if he is elected to the council. But he also said the council should be more accountable and show a return for the revenue spent.
"As a businessman, I know I don't like to invest my money without a return."
Revitalization of the downtown is a must, Tim Savage said, saying that events like the fireworks and Christmas parade draw people to Porterdale, but they don't stay and spend money. He used residents of the Porterdale Mill Lofts as an example, saying, "They live here, but they don't have any reason to spend their money (here)."
Developing the Porterdale Yellow River Park would be a good start toward giving people a reason to come to Porterdale and stay, he said.
"Right now we just have to focus on what we have, get aggressive and focus on creative ways to get our budget back in the black," he said.
During the Q&A session, an anonymous written question expressed concern that Barnes had not attended many City Council meetings.
"I'm brand new to this," Barnes said. "I've been to one meeting since I decided to run, but anything I put my heart into I do wholeheartedly."
In response to the same question, Tim Savage said that he began attending City Council meetings when he decided to host a festival in Porterdale and had to work with the council to get the necessary permits.
"Meetings are important," he said. "Mr. Barnes is a very respectable man. I don't think you should hold it against him that he hasn't attended many meetings."
In response to the question about the gym, Barnes said he supports the Friends of Porterdale's efforts to raise funds for the project, noting that they have $400,000 for a project estimated to cost $4 million.
"It's going to be an uphill battle," he said, adding "I'm not ready to throw the towel in yet, but it really looks bad as far as funding goes."
Savage said the city should explore every opportunity to rebuild the gym or take what they could from the structure and repurpose it for another project in order to keep the spirt of the gym alive.