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Posted: May 26, 2009 12:26 p.m.

Commissioners weigh in on automated call

Sponsor of calls unknown

Newton County residents received automated phone calls Wednesday night opposing any millage rate increases and accusing Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan and commissioners J.C. Henderson, Nancy Schulz and Earnest Simmons of wasting money on selfish, special interest projects.

The phone call goes on to support the stands of commissioners Mort Ewing and Tim Fleming and urges residents to call all of the commissioners to make their views known.

The sponsor of the automated calls has not been identified. Henderson said the phone call's message sounded like propaganda from the Republican Party and Schulz said she thought the message was an example of fear-mongering.

"It does seem like a scare tactic. It doesn't look like they examined all of the facts and the process we've been through," Schulz said. "It's fear mongering. It doesn't get anybody anywhere; it doesn't solve problems. When talking about this budget, we're talking about people's lives, whether those paying taxes or those working for the government. Nobody takes this lightly."

On Friday, Morgan said the automated call was political not productive.

"My feelings are the person who initiated the call is trying to manipulate the Board of Commissioners budget decisions by resorting to political games," Morgan said. "If she or he were truly a concerned citizen, why wouldn’t they identify themselves? Why hide behind a Michigan based company? Why instruct people to call Jackie Smith instead of their district commissioner? This was merely a political tactic to stir the pot and divide the Board of Commissioners."

Newton County GOP Chairman Ester Fleming said the local Republican Party was not involved. He said he supports the message because he does not want property taxes to be increased, but he stressed that the local GOP did not organize or pay for the phone calls. He added that the party could not afford the cost of the automated phone message.

"We had nothing to do with it," Fleming said. "That being said, I agreed 100 percent with the call. I heard the recording and I agree with it. I don't understand a tax increase in the economic times we're going through. Had the board made all the cuts they could, that would have been another issue, but the pet projects (of the commissioners) bother me."

The phone call is from the phone number (231) 732-2611, a number that has been leased out to a client by Michigan-based Lucre Communications Inc. A Lucre representative said the client chose to be unlisted and that Lucre could not give out the information without a subpoena. The call is from an automated female voice and is 1 minute and 21 seconds long.

Ewing and Tim Fleming said they had nothing to do with the call and thought it was a little harsh, but they both received several calls of support from across the county about their stand against a property tax increase.

Tim Fleming said he was surprised to hear the call, but he agreed with the general point of the message, because he has been against any form of property tax increase.

"Automated phone calls are definitely a way to get a message out there, but they can be rather expensive," Tim Fleming said. "I think the majority of people in this county don't support a property tax increase. I think the call informed a lot of people who didn't know it was going on. A lot of people outside the city who don't get the paper had no clue this was going on. I'm glad people are getting involved about calling me and other commissioners."

Ewing said he wasn't surprised about the phone call, because of how upset people are about the proposed millage rate increase.

"It didn't surprise me at all. I'm not a negative person and I don't like to be negative about people, but you have to keep in mind that people are upset about the commission considering a tax increase," Ewing said. "My position has been quite clear since day one that I don't want to have a tax increase. Newton County is in business to provide services not to provide jobs. We have to match our income with our expenses."

Elizabeth Christian, 1st Vice Chair of the Newton County GOP, said the local party sent out an e-mail about the property tax issue, but she reiterated that as far she knew, no one in the party had sponsored the phone message.

Christian said that the Republican Party will hold a meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. at White Hall on Monticello Street. Ester Fleming said the party will discuss the property tax issue and they are expecting more than 60 people to attend.

All commissioners said residents should call or e-mail their thoughts about the property tax issue.

"My mind is not made up, and I'm not rubber stamping anything," Henderson said. "People need to call me and talk to me and tell me want they want me to do. That's how we've always worked in the 4th district."


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