COVINGTON -- The four Republican candidates for the District 5 Board of Commissioners seat were grilled by members of their party at a forum hosted by the Newton County GOP at the Covington Woman's Club Thursday evening.
Questions posed by moderators and audience members spanned a broad range of topics from the budget to rails to trails to the proposed civic center.
Candidates were asked where the BOC should first focus applying additional revenues when the budget turns around.
Ronnie Dimsdale said his priorities would be roads, bridges and intersections; restoring paid days to county employees; and public safety, including the sheriff's office and fire department.
Jared Rutberg said top priority would be reducing property taxes, making sure the county has a surplus, restoring paid days to employees and funding public safety.
Levie Maddox said he'd take the approach of looking at needs before wants and would ask the county manager and department heads what they need. He'd also focus on restoring county employee paid days, boosting the fund balance and roads and infrastructure.
Wesley Dowdy took a different approach, saying his main focus would be economic development, because bringing new industry will bring jobs and increase the tax digest. In turn, that will allow the board to lower property taxes and allocate additional funding to public safety and infrastructure, he said.
Candidates were asked to state whether they believe local tax dollars should be used to fund a proposed rails to trails project involving the Norfolk Southern rail line.
Rutberg said no on the trails side "because right now we have many, many other fiscal issues we need to deal with." He said purchasing the right of way could be an opportunity for the county for utilities passage and leasing for fiber optics and he'd like to get more facts about that.
Dimsdale said that, "As long as the issue is as it is today, such a divisive issue that carries such passion with it, I think the county should not get involved in it at all on either side."
Maddox said no county dollars should be involved in such a project, adding that "there's no known true cost out there right now, what the current day investment would be, and it's completely unknown what the future impact would be. The District 5 people don't want this. It does not need to be on the table."
Dowdy said even if future costs can be nailed down, "government has no place investing in things like this. If it can be done and there's a return on the investment the private sector will do it every time."
Candidates were also asked whether they support the proposed civic center and where they think it should be located. Voters approved the 2005 SPLOST that allocated $5 million for the project, which so far has not gotten off the ground. The county has five years after the expiration of SPLOST 2005, which would be June 30, 2016, to complete the project or let the voters decide how to re-allocate those funds.
Dowdy said he does not support the project. "I don't believe it's a good investment, I don't care where it's located," he said. Dowdy said in his hometown of Rome, Ga. The Forum civic center loses about $400,000 a year. Dowdy works for a hospitality company that has been selected to build a hotel next to the site and run the operation "if we agree to only lose $200,000 for the taxpayers," he said. "I believe if it was a good idea, businessmen would be lining up around the corner to do it."
Rutberg said that the facility has already been approved by voters and should be located wherever it makes the most financial sense and "would be least expensive to build."
Dimsdale, who was on the BOC when the project was first discussed, said the intent was for the SPLOST money to be seed money and to attract a private investor to join in funding; a private investor was found but pulled out when the economy went south. Dimsdale said when the economy gets better, private industry will likely come around again. He said the facility should be located downtown, just as other important facilities are, such as the Administration Building, Judicial Center and Historic Courthouse. "Without the county investing in this area, the downtown city of Covington would look much, much different than it does today," he said, adding that the civic center needs to be downtown "to keep the vitality here and not send it out on the ByPass and not send it out several miles from town."
Maddox said he's had conversations with seven former or current mayors, council members, commissioners and department heads regarding the civic center. He said he likes an idea he heard from a department head that would place the facility on county-owned land but he was not specific as to the location. Maddox said he would rather the idea "flow up" to the county manager since one of his department heads generated the idea.
All but one candidate said they support T-SPLOST to get additional revenue for roads. Dimsdale called the idea "extremely bad for the county and extremely bad for the state." He said a crisis has been built up by advertising to convince voters if it is not approved, traffic will stop. "I'm a believer in spending what money you have and not going to the people and saying 'You vote to raise your taxes, I don't want to vote to raise your taxes.' Dimsdale said under former Gov. Roy Barnes, numerous road projects in south Georgia were bonded and loaded down the Department of Transportation budget. As those bonds are paid off, the DOT should get some relief and have more money to help counties fund road projects, he said.
Candidates were also asked, other than raising taxes, if they have any ideas for how to increase revenues.
Dowdy said economic development is key and that can be achieved through unification of local governments and incentives to draw new industry. He said he believes the county budget can be reduced even more and should be looked at line item by line item, adding that he's inspected debit card purchases by departments and found "ridiculous expenses" that appear to bypass the BOC altogether except for being reported in one lump sum.
Maddox said while the county is very much like a business, "It's not like Ginn Motor Company. The county can't come out with a new vehicle that everybody is going to buy and have a massive influx of dollars." Economic development is the way to go to raise revenue, he said, and that includes attracting industry, retail and restaurants and taking advantage of the "big splash" that's been created by Baxter International's plans to locate in Stanton Springs.
Dimsdale said he prefers to focus on using existing resources to cut expenses and increase income and maintain or improve levels of service. One way to do that is have someone in the county who is responsible for keeping track of travel expenses and getting the best deals on hotels and other expenses when employees and commissioners are out of town on county business, he said, adding there also needs to be a cap on daily expenses like meals.
Dimsdale also proposed incorporating the EMS into the fire department, which he said would improve service and save money. He also wants board members to be assigned as liaisans to departments and become more acquainted with spending needs of those departments and "that can bring more efficiency with the budget.'
Rutberg said he believes there's still fat that can be trimmed off the budget, including travel expenses and some items in the sheriff's department budget that could be trimmed at the administrative level. Rutberg said he caught heat for stating in news articles that he supports increasing funds to the Chamber of Commerce for economic development but "by the time it came around to the last forum, all six of us agreed with it."
"We have an economic development program that is working and has a lot more potential if we give additional funding. The return on investment is very clear," he said.
The General Primary is July 31. Democrats running in the District 5 race are Phil Johnson and Marcello Banes. Early voting is underway now in the meeting room across from the Board of Elections in the Newton County Administrative Building, located at 1113 Usher St.