COVINGTON -- All candidates in the crowded District 5 Newton Board of Commissioners race attended a forum Thursday evening hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and The Covington News.
Democrats in the race are Phil Johnson and Marcello Banes; Republicans are Ronnie Dimsdale, Wesley Dowdy, Levie Maddox and Jared Rutberg.
Questioning primarily centered on how candidates would support the Chamber in its quest to get more money for economic development. All six candidates said that if revenues from this year's budget come in greater than expected, they would vote to use excess revenue to fund economic development, assuming all other departments are in good shape. Maddox emphasized that there are employees that have lost time and money and that should be restored first.
Candidates were also in agreement that bringing industry to the county is the best way to increase revenue, assuming property values remain flat.
"Industry doesn't just magically wake up and say, 'You know what, I think I want to go to Newton County,'" Rutberg said. "We are competing against every county in the country and in the world. The economic development wing of the Chamber is the vehicle to support that." While it's difficult in these economic times to justify a funding increase anywhere, Rutberg said the Chamber has a proven track record.
Maddox said it's important to take advantage of the "splash" created by Baxter International's announcement that it will locate in Stanton Springs. Now is the time to bring in new business, retail, industrial and commercial, find out what money the Chamber needs to do that and protect the investment the community has already made.
Dowdy said cutting expenses is key to a successful budget but "we must drive revenue and the only way to do that is to attract new industry." Dowdy said he supports "giving the Chamber what they need in an accountable way," adding that the county commission needs to prioritize spending on public safety and improving infrastructure.
Dimsdale said state law requires the county to have a balanced budget each year and when revenues decrease, it's only natural that services will have to decline. Industrial development and commercial growth can counter that by providing additional revenue. "Sometimes people criticize a Walmart. A good Walmart will produce in excess of $1 million for the county each year. If you think about it, we can do some things with a million dollars."
Johnson said the county has two sources of income: property and sales tax, and attracting industry is paramount to creating a ripple effect to increase both of those and increase the per capita income. "An investment in the Chamber is a wise investment we need to make," he said. Johnson said there needs to be an effort to not only attract big industry but also smaller retail and restaurants, which will immediately impact the tax digest. He said the county needs to look at user fees and customer service to make the process of opening a business more user friendly. He recommended the creation of a comprehensive plan to attract retail and restaurants.
Banes pointed out that when the Chamber made a presentation requesting the county double the economic development budget, two commissioners were not present. "That's 40,000 citizens' voices that were not even heard," he said. "If we don't fund the Chamber, how are we going to get it done? Give the Chamber a chance. They are our sales representatives for Newton County."
Chamber President Hunter Hall noted that with so many candidates, there's likely to be a runoff, and asked each candidate why the public should vote for him as many as three times -- the primary, runoff, and general election -- to get him into office.
Rutberg said he has managed a $24 million budget while in the military, was a corporate project manager with Lithonia Lighting, and owns a local remodeling business that has survived the economic downturn and also owns two oil change businesses. He also said he has experience volunteering with more than 30 local non-profits.
"I didn't wake up and run for office so I could become involved; I'm running because I have been involved and I decided I could have a better impact on the inside," he said. Rutberg said he has experience working with a tight budget and taking businesses that are failing and making them succeed.
Maddox said he is a lifelong Newton resident who has managed budgets of $44 million and been responsible for 120 employees in sales and marketing. "This is what I chose. This is what I want to get into. I was not recruited by anyone." He added that, "My only absolute promise to the citizens of this county is to put the community's needs above myself."
Dowdy said he believes the current commission is doing a good job but "lacks solid, practical business leadership."
Dowdy said he's managed $164 million in assets and overseen $55 million hotel budgets and been entrusted with $50 million in private investments through his position as vice president of a company in the hospitality industry.
"This is what I do every day ... I know how to take money from the top line to the bottom line and bring money to the investor," he said.
Dimsdale, a former county commissioner, said when budgeting, there should be "no sacred cows on the table, everybody should be on the same level." Dimsdale said he wants to integrate the EMS into the fire service for more efficient operations. "I know people throughout the community as well as most anybody does. I spend a lot of time with people, I know the geography of the area, I know the history, and that gives me a good platform, a good solid base to be working for the betterment of the community."
Banes said he is a lifelong Newton citizen and small business owner and, "I love being part of progress. If I say I will vote for getting funds to economic development, I will be accountable for what I say." Banes said he is a local minister with experience listening to both sides of an issue and working to reach a resolution. "I believe we need people on the board who care about the citizens of Newton County. For too long we've had people on the board who've got their own agenda and want to do things for their own selves. We need people who care about the people of this county."
Johnson cited his experience as a state representative and county attorney and chair of a board of directors for First National Bank. "My age and my experience and my training have given me a unique ability to function well ... I decided to run because I think Newton County is at a crossroads," he said, citing Baxter, an abundance of water, attractiveness of the downtown and higher education opportunities. "None of those things guarantees success if we don't utilize them properly."
Prior to the start of the forum, Chamber President Hunter Hall addressed a rumor that the Chamber is supporting Jared Rutberg in the District 5 race, and is using Chamber staff and phones to make calls for Rutberg. Hall said that is against Chamber bylaws, as the Chamber is required to work with the BOC and City Council and supporting one candidate would be a conflict.
Hall said the rumor apparently started because Rutberg, a Chamber member, dropped by the office and mentioned he planned to run for office and asked a Chamber employee how to qualify. The employee informed him to contact the Republican Party and while Rutberg was present called GOP Chair Delia Fleming to notify her a candidate was coming to qualify.
"The Chamber has not, will not and cannot take a position in support of any candidate," Hall said.