In the last forum before the Nov. 6 city elections, candidates for Covington city office debated the merits of investing in the Covington Municipal Airport and lowering the city's utility rates.
Held at Turner Lake Center Thursday evening, the forum was hosted by the Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce.
All six candidates running for Covington city office were present. They are: Mayoral candidates Kim Carter and Roger Tingler, Post 2 East Ward Candidates Mike Whatley and Bobby Sigman and Post 3 East Ward Candidates Keith Dalton and Ernie Smith.
Though candidates for Oxford City Council were invited to attend the forum as well, Hoyt Oliver, the incumbent candidate for the Council Post 3 seat, was the only one to attend.
While Carter said she would re-examine the city's budget to look for areas to cut out nonessential services in order to see if there was a way to lower the city's utility rates, Tingler said he was skeptical that there were enough nonessential areas which could be cut back to allow for a decrease in utility rates.
"Our taxes in Covington are subsidized from our utilities," Tingler said adding that because of its utility rates, the city hasn't had to raise its property tax mileage rates in eight years.
According to recent figures posted by the Georgia Public Service Commission, the city of Covington had some of the highest utility rates in the state during the month of June.
Out of 93 providers, the city's rates were the second most expensive in the state in the 2,000 kilowatt hours category. Out of 94 providers, the city's rates were also the second most expensive in the state in the 1,500 kWh category. Out of 89 providers, the city's rates were the seventh most expensive in the state in the 1,000 kWh category.
"We need to figure out the essentials," Carter said, "We cannot continue to support ourselves with these high utility rates."
If elected Carter said she would start from a "zero-sum" standpoint in looking at the city's budget for service areas to cut back on.
Sigman, in his comments, agreed with Carter, saying that something had to be done about the city's utility rates.
"We have to cut costs where costs can be cut."
Tingler, however, took exception to comments made by Sigman, alluding to the belief that the city council had not been responsible in setting the city's utility rates.
"Some of the facts are completely wrong," Tingler said, adding that he was deeply saddened by the accusation.
Tingler noted that while the city had high utility rates during the four months of summer, its rates during the eight other months of the year were in the lower 50th percentile.
In his comments, Dalton expressed great concern over the rising cost of living in the city and said he would like to see the city tighten its belt as well.
To fund the airport?
Carter and Tingler also disagreed on whether the development of the airport should be funded with proceeds from the sale of Covington Cable.
Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey has put forward a proposal to spend $5 million from the proceeds on purchasing 85 acres of land adjacent to the airport from the Newton County Industrial Development Authority and on running water and sewer lines to that acreage.
Carter said she was worried that the city council was rushing to vote on the proposal before the Nov. 6 elections. The next scheduled city council meeting is on Nov. 5.
Carter advocated waiting to develop the airport until a strategic economic development plan had been completed for the city.
"Why are we rushing?" Carter asked. "Let's get our arms around all of this."
Tingler however disagreed, saying the airport was a jewel waiting to be developed.
"This is the one big tool and the one big draw that I believe we have," he said.
In his comments, Smith said he was skeptical about developing the airport, adding that he was previously in favor of having the airport moved to the Stanton Springs Industrial Park.
Sigman also said he wanted to see more study done on the airport before it was funded further. He added that he didn't want to see UPS cargo planes flying over the city.
All Covington candidates were in agreement that there needed to be a mixture of industrial and commercial growth in the city with most commenting that they would like to see more commercial growth in the immediate future.
"Commercial growth is extremely important in a short-term and long-term viewpoint," Smith said. "Industrial is more long-term."
Smith added that industrial zoning in the city needs to be maintained "with the same vigor that it was applied."
Incumbent Mike Whatley noted that in order to encourage industries to locate to the city, they often need to be offered incentives, such as tax breaks, whereas commercial businesses will just come.
When asked if they could accomplish only one thing during their term, what would it be, the candidate's responses were wide-ranging.
Carter said she would work to bring more balanced growth to the city. Tingler said he would work to bring the city's diverse communities together. Smith said he would work to bring about greater cooperation between civic organizations, neighborhoods and local governments.
Dalton said he would work to lower the cost of living for city residents. Sigman said he would make sure that every call to the Covington City Hall was met with a prompt and helpful answer and Whatley said he would see to it that the city carried out the vision of its recently passed Comprehensive Plan.
The Oxford race
In contrast to comments made by candidates in Covington emphasizing the need for more commercial and industrial growth, Oliver said "We are a residential, educational and church (based) community."
Oliver said he was concerned that Covington and the county were not thinking about the desires of Oxford when they allowed industries to locate close to the boundaries of the small college town.
"The city and the county must take into account the nature of Oxford when you are placing industry and commercial," he said.
Oliver said he was excited about the future of Oxford, noting that the city was currently working on its own Comprehensive Plan which will guide it over the next 20 years.
Oliver said his years of experience in writing and implementing the city's ordinances would serve him well in seeing the city's Comprehensive Plan carried out in the future.