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Posted: July 16, 2010 2:16 p.m.

Chamber hosts BOC candidates Q&A

The Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce held the Primary season's final political forum at the Covington Branch Library Thursday, playing host to 2010 Newton County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education candidates. Each set of candidates was asked one question by the chamber, followed by questions from the audience.

Below are the questions asked to the BOC candidates and their responses. District 2 challengers Democrat Lanier Sims and Republic Rickie Corley did not attend. To read the responses from the BOE candidates continue to check covnews.com.

Chamber Question: "How do you see the roles between the chamber and the BOC in regards to future economic development efforts for Newton County?"

Democratic incumbent Commissioner J.C. Henderson said he wants to ensure that industries that locate in Newton County hire local workers. He said when SKC came to the county in 1996 it brought a majority of its workers with it from other plants. He added that if anyone wants to get his thoughts on any issue they can call him on his cell phone at (770) 866-3621.

Democratic challenger Kenneth Hardeman had a three-fold vision for future economic development efforts: form partnerships between industry and business, help the chamber sell Newton County and plan for the future.

District 2 Democratic incumbent Earnest Simmons said the chamber's roles were to be a cheerleader for the county and a facilitator between business and the county. He said the role of the board of commissioners was to be a bridge builder to secure the businesses that are interested in the county. He said the county recently made a $120,000 investment in the chamber to say "We believe in you. We stand by you."

Question 2: "If it was necessary to maintain the current reduced level of services, would you be prepared to raise taxes?"

Henderson said in 2008 the county took about $1.5 million from the fund balance to balance the budget. He said at the time everyone said the situation was fine, but he said that wasn't true. He said people made fun of him for speaking in favor of spending and hiring freezes in early 2009, but he knew a downturn was coming. He believes if the county watches its dollars and cents it will be OK, but he added the county still needs another source of income. He said if the county privatized the landfill it could get a large influx of money like the city received when it sold its cable system.

Hardeman said he is never a proponent of raising taxes, but if the county wants to maintain its level of services, it may have to. He said if a business is not making enough money it has to raise prices. The county is providing services to people, and they have to pay for them, he said. However, he will also look at the budget forensically to see if more cuts can be made.

Simmons said if the county keeps laying off workers, services will be affected. He said if residents want to be assured at having a fast response when they call 911, they need to be willing to pay for that service. He said District 2 is one of the most heavily populated districts, and, if services are affected, they will affect his constituents every day. He said a millage rate increase will be the last resort, but he won't put his district at risk. He said once the digest starts growing, the BOC can always vote on the rollback rate to lower the millage rate.

Question 3: "What are the three major concerns facing the BOC?"

Simmons said his three most important concerns were improving transportation infrastructure to help his district's commuters, bringing in more businesses and industry to balance the tax digest and brining in more amenities while maintaining a small-town feel. He said the county was ready to approve any incentive packages necessary to draw industry, assuming the county would get its investment back over time.

Hardeman said maintaining safety for residents and businesses in a growing county, increasing the tax base to be able to provide more services to residents and keeping people in the loop about the decisions of government were his three concerns.

Henderson's three concerns were the needs of public safety, especially considering people were sleeping on the floor at the detention center, providing adequate county services to residents and providing community centers for children so they stay off the streets and out of trouble. He said the community can't continue to pay to house kids in hail, but instead needs to spend more money up front on recreation and tutoring.

Question 4: "Newton County is represented negatively, how will you raise opinions of the county?"

Hardeman said he would meet with his constituents to keep them aware of what the government is doing. He said he would make any necessary changes, but he has heard a lot of good things. He said Newton County is a bedroom community where people want to live, and the tax base still contains a lot of industry. He said the county needs to sell the best of what it has to offer, including the Main Street program, the chamber, the recreation commission and the school system.

Simmons said society needs a free press, but people can write to them and tell them the positive things happening in the county. He said everyone in the community has an obligation to say what's good about the county. He said you can't control the negative stories, but you can tell the positives ones, like The Center for Community Preservation and Planning, which he said is a great planning and facilitating organization.

Henderson said things are portrayed negatively because people here about them through second-hand info. He said he wants to have BOC meetings televised, so residents don't have to rely on the newspaper, but can know for themselves exactly what was said. He said all five commissioners will never be completely in agreement, but they can still go in one direction. He said Newton County has many great assets like Turner Lake Complex and Park and its library system.

Question 5: "The county wants to bring in jobs, but what about supporting entrepreneurs?"

Henderson said there has been a lot of talk about helping small businesses, but there needs to be action. He said people will say anything to get elected, but he urged residents to look at his record.

Hardeman said Georgia Perimeter College and DeKalb Technical College have resources for entrepreneurs, and he also suggested the county or chamber start a fund to help start businesses. He said the jobs of the future won't be plant jobs, but will be multi-million businesses run out of a small room. He said entrepreneurism allows people to stay home and avoid commuting and traffic. He said the chamber can help promote entrepreneurism.

Simmons everyone should join the chamber to network and gain its resources. He said although the county recently increased chamber funding from $54,000 to $120,500, he would in favor of increasing chamber funding even further. In December, the BOC voted on the raise, and Simmons and Henderson were both opposed to the increased funding because of the budget deficit.

Simmons said he would like to see additional funding be used to set up an incubator resource center to help entrepreneurs form start-up companies. He said the fund could provide infrastructure, similar to how the City of Covington purchased a $1 million building for the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter to rent.

Question 6: "The current BOC is guilty of partisan politics, how will you change this culture?"

Hardeman joked that he was not partisan, he just happened to be a Democrat. He said people don't care about political parties when the county is cutting services. He said the county's role is to provide basic services and that shouldn't be a partisan decision. He said each district should receive the same services, and, if elected, Hardeman would make sure his decisions were not partisan in nature.

Simmons said he disagreed with the nature of the question. He said when you have five different people the will have disagreements, but that doesn't mean the decisions are partisan. He said his constituents elected him for specific reasons, and those may not be the same things residents in other districts want. He said he has balanced three budgets during his time in office, and he felt those were not partisan decisions. He said the creation of Stanton Springs, the four-county industrial park, took the work of four counties. He said commissioner will argue, fuss and fight, but they can still pass budgets, make decisions and make things happen.

Henderson said everyone doesn't always agree. He said when he was first elected he would be able to increase recreational opportunities in the whole county, but he had to deal with budgets and other restraints. He said this year was the first time he's had to raise the millage rate in his 14 years on the board. He said the board voted down almost everything else. He said he voted for the tax increase because that's what his constituents wanted. He said the commissioners can have disagreements, but they can usually shake hands afterwards and grab a bite to eat.

Question 7: "As a board member, what is your role in the day-to-day operations of the county?"

Simmons said commissioners' roles are limited, but they still have a 24/7 job. He said the county has a full-time chairman to run the county. He spends much of his time helping citizens, even with such things as helping get people out of jail and helping with domestic disputes. He said he was not used to the 24/7 nature of the job but is growing into it, and added he would work free if it was up to him.

Henderson agreed his role as a commissioner was limited, but he had many other duties tacked onto him, such as liaison between the BOC and the recreation commission and the BOC and the recycling center vendor. He said the original part-time job has turned into a full-time, with people calling him anytime. He said he had several county employees call him to complain about getting laid off.

Hardeman said the day-to-day operations are carried out by the staff, and the commissioners' role is to set policy, and listen to constituents concerns and direct them to the proper resolution channels. If that existing channel doesn't work, then the board might need to set a new policy.

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