The 2008 Candidates' Forum sponsored by The Covington News, The Covington/Newton County Chamber of Commerce and the Newton County Farm Bureau featured 17 of the 18 candidates running for local and state offices in Newton County.
All audience seats were occupied during the event, which was held at the Turner Lake Complex, leaving standing room only. The event was moderated by Chamber President John Boothby and News Publisher Charles Hill Morris.
Arguing that her years as a real estate development banker and turnaround specialist have given her the necessary experience to run the day-to-day operations of the county as county chairman and to bring more economic growth to the county, Democratic challenger Kathy Morgan said under the past leadership of incumbent Republican Aaron Varner the county has seen more traffic, fewer jobs, a higher crime rate and a higher tax burden on homeowners.
"For nearly a decade we've experienced uncontrolled residential sprawl eroding the commercial and industrial tax base and a stagnant retail [sector] here in Newton County," Morgan said. "Our children suffer from crowded schools and a serious lack of recreational opportunities. To have growth and expansion without a plan for that to be balanced growth is a recipe for disaster."
Morgan criticized what she termed a "reactive government" for bringing about the residential sprawl, which now covers most of the eastern end of the county.
Varner, who is seeking his third four-year term, charged back that most of the zoning policies that allowed the sprawl to come into the county had been in place before he took office when Morgan's husband, Davis Morgan, was county chairman.
"In 2000 when I ran for this position, people were concerned for their quality of life," Varner said. "We've had a tremendous amount of growth. People want to come to Newton County to live."
Varner said his administration has done what it can to relieve the tax burden from homeowners by passing and defending in court the impact fee ordinance, which he said has so far raised $6.8 million for infrastructure improvements.
"We've done everything that we possibly can to make sure the burden on the tax payers has been relieved," he said.
Newton County Sheriff
Republican candidate Lt. Bill Watterson touted his work with the Newton County Sheriff's Office Criminal Investigations Unit.
"It's been one of my responsibilities to lead or be a major part of the 23 homicides we've had in Newton County," Watterson said. "We've solved 23 out of 23 homicides and that's an unheard of record."
Democratic candidate Lt. Ezell Brown responded back that in his 35 years with the sheriff's office, he could more than match Watterson's record of successful homicide cases.
"There is no other detective here in this county who has solved more homicides and major cases than myself other than perhaps Dale Reed," Brown said. "In a 50-mile radius around this county, I know every sheriff, every chief, because of my background."
Along with homicides, Watterson said burglaries, domestic violence and narcotics are the most pressing crimes facing the county. If elected sheriff, Watterson said he would change the missions of several departments in NCSO to "immediately start addressing those concerns."
Watterson ended with a plea for more help from the community in solving the county's crimes.
"Our community has got to help us. We can't do it by ourselves," he said. "If you give us the opportunity and stand up and tell us what you saw in your community, we'll make a difference, we'll put them in jail, I guarantee that."
Brown said he would work to bridge the gap between communities and law enforcement by building more trust, saying, "because of the diversity of this community, I believe that I am that person that can make those decisions."
"My career is behind me. I am not looking for a career. I am looking for leadership and stewardship. Give me four years. And if you do not like me in four years, vote me out," Brown said.
Board of Commissioners
All six of the candidates running for the three open seats on the Newton County Board of Commissioners were mostly in agreement on the substantive questions posed to them - alcohol by the drink, the Bear Creek Reservoir and whether to raise taxes or cut services - leaving voters to draw comparisons between each candidate's backgrounds.
The candidates came down strongly in favor of placing an alcohol by the drink referendum before county residents.
District 1 Commissioner Mort Ewing, a Republican who is running for his third term, said that while he was personally against the measure, he thought it should be up to the voters of the county to decide if alcohol should be sold for on-site premises consumption.
Randy Vinson, the Democratic candidate running for the District 5 seat, said he would support a referendum but would like to see it structured in such a way as to only allow the serving of alcohol in specially designated development nodes in the county.
Vinson's opponent, Republican Tim Fleming, said he would like to see the referendum scheduled alongside a regularly held election so as not to incur any additional taxpayer expense by holding a special election for the referendum.
All candidates were in agreement that the Bear Creek Reservoir should be built as soon as possible to ensure an adequate drinking water supply for county residents in the future.
"I think [the reservoir] should have been built 10 years ago. Water is key," said Nancy Schulz, the Democratic candidate running for the District 3 seat.
No candidate said they would favor raising the county's millage rate in order to balance the budget during the economic recession. Some candidates promised to never raise taxes while in office and others said they would so only as a last resort.
"You keep the millage rate the same. You never raise the millage rate," said Mark Patrick, Ewing's Democratic opponent. Patrick said he would even favor more property tax cuts for senior citizens.
Ewing said he would continue to work to ensure that the county government was living within its means, noting that as a commissioner there have been years where the board has cut as much as $5 million in department requests in order to balance the budget.
"I would not favor increasing ad valoreum taxes. It would be an absolute last option for me," Ewing said.
Schulz also agreed that raising taxes would be a last resort.
Keith Mitcham, the Republican candidate for District 3, said he would look to department heads to come up with creative ways to cut costs while maintaining a decent level of services.
"We're going to have to really look to them to work within their departments," Mitcham said.
Said Fleming, "I will be a friend to the taxpayer. I will oppose any tax increases."
Vinson said he was "totally opposed to raising taxes" and would look to trim the county's budget instead.