About 200 participants attended the candidates' forum hosted by the Rockdale County NAACP and Progressive Club held at Epiphany Lutheran on Sept. 15 to hear directly from a wide range of local candidates running for office in November.
Candidates attending included:
Fourth Congressional District, Republican Liz Carter
Georgana Sinkfield, Democratic candidate for Secretary of State
Public Service Commission, Libertarian Jim Sendelbach
State Senate District 43, Republican Diana Williams
State House District 92, Democrat Pam Stephenson (unopposed)
State House District 93, Democrat Dee Dawkins-Haigler (unopposed)
State House District 94, Republican Steven Conner, Democrat Dar'shun Kendrick
State House District 25, Democrat Pam Dickerson and Republican Rodney Upton
Rockdale County Board of Commissioners Post 2, Democrat Courtney Dillard and Republican JaNice Van Ness
Rockdale County Board of Education, Post 1 candidates Jim McBrayer, Jimmy Norfleet, Theresa Schroder-Langley, Darrell Stephens
Below is the transcript for the Board of Commissioners Post 2 responses to questions from the audience. Former Georgia Perimeter College President Jaquelyn Belcher served as moderator.
Courtney Dillard: Good evening everyone. Thank you for being here. Thanks to the NAACP. I'm running for Rockdale County Commissioner Post 2, and I would love to have your vote.
We're organizing our campaign around three issues, and they are repairing the economic foundations in our community, and our youth. Developing youth development programs that not only deal with our youth after school but also on the weekends.
I think there are three things in our community that we cannot go without on a day to day basis. They are keeping God in our community, making sure His presence is near, but also making sure we handle money from a governmental standpoint that not only deals with it from a today standpoint but also deals with it from a future standpoint, so we don't leave our children with a local burden that causes them to lose their minds. I think our children are also important. I think we also have to make sure we willingly give them more attention. How do we do that. I think we can do that by standing up as leaders in our community. Typically children only see our fire chiefs and police officers come to their schools. I think we need to begin to challenge our business leaders, politicians, to make sure they are visible in our schools and that they are willing to reach out and grab a child. We have a number of parents in this community that are single. Several mothers that are single. It's high time we begin to call our men in the community to gather and make sure we all have the responsibility of carrying the burden for our county.
So ladies and gentlemen, again, we're organizing our campaign around repairing the economic foundations, making sure we concentrate on why we are losing in the commercial sector, why we are in a decline in our industrial sector, and making sure we understand this in a way that allows us to focus in on the type of jobs we need to bring in our county. We need to change our perspective of what Rockdale County looks like. My name is Courtney Dillard, I want your vote. I ‘m going to run with passion and I'm going to make sure you see me in the community working for your vote day in and day out.
JaNice Van Ness: As many of you know, I'm your representative on the Board of Commissioners, and I serve county-wide. I've worked hard over the last three years to serve all the needs of our residents. I get phone calls, I get emails, and I meet with people face to face on a regular basis. When you call the county office, it rings right to my cell phone and I'm very responsive to what your needs are. I work closely with department heads and chief of staff and the other two county commissioners to really resolve those issues and find resolution. During my service on the Board of Commissioners, we've worked to expand the opportunities to all residents in the county through expanded Library services, we've expanded the programs at J.P. Carr, we've renovated a million dollar gymnasium project for the youth in the community, we've renovated the health department. And we've been a great help to so many people at the senior services center, who've been able to expand the programs there; up to 150 additional seniors have been able to take part in the programs.
I've also worked hard to balance the tax digest, I've also worked closely with development authority members, by serving on the economic development council. I've also been working with our planning and zoning department of the county, and we passed an ordinance for creating a new position called a business development director. So when you want to start a business in Rockdale County, we've now streamlined the process and taken out a lot of the headaches. We have someone who knows the county very, very well and she can actually facilitate a lot of the things that before were so burdensome people would look at other counties. So I think that says great things for us moving forward. We do have a tiered incentive program we worked on with the economic development office that's been extremely good. It's just that a lot of those projects take many years. I've also worked to pass the unified development ordinance. We had a lot of people coming in building a lot of apartment complexes and subdivisions. The unified development ordinance actually allowed us to create more structure and unification in the community, and I think that's been a big help to the companies that were coming in and tearing down homes, like at Harvest Mill on 138, and trees and putting homes very close together. We've had a lot of citizen complaints and we worked to remedy those for residents in the community.
I would like to ask for your vote Nov. 2. Please consider my campaign and go to my website, janicevanness.com. If you would like to contact me, my phone number is on all the campaign literature as well as calling the county office.
Question (for both): Rockdale youth have very limited programs. What are you plans to give more youth programs in Rockdale?
JV: I actually am not aware there's been a concern about a lack of programs in Rockdale County. We have a lot of individual organizations, such as Rockdale Youth Soccer Association, Rockdale Youth Baseball Association, Rockdale Youth Football Association, we have a lot of track teams. We have a host of organizations that have come out of citizen interest. The RYSA, their club is the largest it's ever been. Even in the downturn in the economy, the parents are valuing the importance of sports and programs. All those programs, I am aware they all have scholarship programs in place. That's important to me, that all families benefit in the community. I will say there are a lot of other programming things that go through the Boys and Girls Club.
Recently the county ahs been able to have a non profit program in the JP Carr gymnasium. They have about 200 youth that are at risk youth that have been using that facility. The county's been interested in working with them so we can promote development programs in that capacity. Unfortunately in this recession, we don't have the money to really put into those programs ourselves.
CD: One of the things I think will be very, very important about creating opportunity to help our youth develop, one of the things it think will be developing a website for all the parents and all the youth to find out all the opportunities for the youth actually being placed out there so all the citizens can find out what is going on.
I've been coaching basketball a little over 15 years in the community. One of the things I find is that because of the diversity of our population, you have some parents, some kids that understand what's going on because their parents are always searching and seeking for things for their kids to do. There's another set of population, because their parents work all the time, they don't know what's going on in the community. Once again, we're working on a youth development program, we're getting ready to do a big promotion towards the end of the month where we're getting ready to do a technology park. We got some sponsors to give away some computers and iPods to students in high schools as a means of encouraging them to understand that the community, the citizens, the government, the leadership is involved in making sure the students are aware of what's going on. There's a number of things we can do. There's a lot of programs. There's also a lot of programs that have problems getting funding today.
So what we have to do is go into our home owner's associations and begin to talk about what we can do collectively as leaders to help these presidents of our home owner's associations and begin to talk about what we can do collectively as leaders to help these presidents of the homeowner's association understand that we are wanting to help you determine how we can best serve the community where the youth is concerned.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to talk to you more about that. Our slogan is Rockdale going forward. We love to talk more about various opportunities that we have about the youth going forward and youth development.
JV: One of the ordinances I proposed and passed, is for nonprofits to register in Rockdale County. There's a small administrative fee of $10 per year. The motive behind that is because we need to know who's in our community, as well as looking at opportunities to use that focus and energy and grant writing. Getting everyone on the same thing and working against each other, we now can have a more unified voice and opportunities for grant writing. We're excited to see what that's going to bring over the next year. I think we're going to see bigger and better opportunities, and hopefully, this registry will also eliminate a lot of fraud that's been going on in the community with nonprofits.
As far as online registration, I think that's something that's a good idea, we can always make it easier for parents. I'm a working parent, and I have three children, so its always a challenge to me. As a concerned parent who takes responsibility... the county can make that simple adjustment
CD: Please understand, there is a large part of our population that don't have parents looking for opportunities. I want to put a call out to the leaders in this community. Me and my wife, we've been here. We moved here 18 years ago. We have to start talking to ou neighbors and finding out.. where the disparagement is. If not... me and my wife we've been here for 18 years.
What I'm afraid of is, if we don't begin to focus on our youth, we're going to lose not only the youth but we'll begin to see a downturn in the quality of life in our community.
You don't want Rockdale County to look like DeKalb County. I don't have anything against DeKalb County, but what I'm saying is you don't want that to happen.
We have to make sure that leadership in place that understands and put children as a focus in our community so we can begin to develop the community around the children. Once we do that, I begin we'll begin to shape the quality of life in our county that will be unlike any other county in the United States of America.
I believe we can develop a world class community in Rockdale County. And I'd like to have your support to do it because right now, that is the most important thing in our county.
Question (for Van Ness): You and your predecessor have taken a position of not looking out for the county, ignoring the concerns of taxpayers in other parts of the county. For example, beautification. You and your predecessor have voted for and passed legislation to spend millions of dollars along 20 south and ignored other parts of the county - north Rockdale and Highway 138.
JV: I would like to address that because there's some misinformation out there. The Federal money that came to this county is about $1 million, and it was a federal grant. If we did not spend it, we could not reallocate those funds to any other project. The million dollars allotted to us for beautification, down near Mellow Mushroom all the way up past the 138 interchange, that was money provided to us. It was spend it or lose it.
I know passionate and active members on the north side has been very active in keeping that side looking good. We are hoping that we'll get additional federal dollars.
At no time were we working with special interest groups. There are no special interest groups. There are funds we have a lobbying firm for and they work to get federal dollars.
CD: This poses a very interesting question. As the county commissioners, they have to be able to see the county as an overall... the position we're discussing here is the post 2 position and it's at large. It's not just a portion of the community. You have to be able to get your hands around a lot of things that are going on at the same time. I know what's going on with this idea of special interests, and I'm not even going to believe that that may be true. We have a responsibility to deal with the citizens on the top end of the community and bottom end of the community. The way that that's done is to focus in on what's called a comprehensive plan. We have the comprehensive plan, it's been updated, but we never had what's called the citizen input from a charette standpoint that allows the citizens of this county to be able to involve themselves in the planning process.
The reason there's so much contention and division with the county a lot of times is because we haven't had the opportunity to participate in, say we have the Salem corridor. Most of the business people on Salem Road don't even know it exists. So what I'm saying is, respective of the question, we have to make sure we as citizens put our hands around the entire community. That means talking to my friend here, who is part of the Conyers-Rockdale economic development council, which allows for the city of Conyers and Rockdale County to work together to solve these kinds of problems.
I spoke to the gentleman who runs the chamber of commerce, I asked when did the Conyers Rockdale Council, when did they meet last. He said, they haven't met in a long time.
(Light laughter, applause)
Question (for Dillard): If the citizens in this county vote you commissioner of the Post 2 district, will you continue to follow the path of the past and present commissioner of the Post 2 district of moving out (unclear sound) of the Post 2 district and leaning towards special interest groups or look out for the full county?
CD: A few years ago, we had a commissioner, Mr. Randy Poynter, we watched him from a commissioner standpoint how he did for us. I've kept up with Middlebrook and Wheeler and the other Post 1 and Post 2 people. I believe we have to understand, this is 2010. It's not 1999, it's not the year 2000. We have to cultivate partnerships with the people surrounding our region.
You will find in Rockdale County, on a daily basis, before 5 p.m. and after 5 p.m., that for every one person you find that is a resident of Rockdale County, you will find three or four people that are coming into our county and doing business. Sounds like we need to say thank you and begin to talk about partnerships and how we can develop this county in a way as we begin to move into 2010 and 2015. As we begin to move into 2020, we're not looking behind, we're looking forward, because that's what everybody wants to see. Everybody wants to see a digit. That's the only way we're going to have the confidence to know we are actually moving forward as a county.
If you're opposed to planning, if you're opposed to comprehensive plans, we need to start doing neighborhood elements which focus in on specific areas of our community and allow them to begin to talk about the things that they need, creating leadership and relationships so that the community can change. There's a number of people living in Rocdkale County that came down from different parts of the world. We have to make sure we understand what's going on in their life.
We have to make sure we concentrate on dealing with our leaders that are in place now, in terms of around the commission board and setting around and talking about how we can move our county forward and not about who was in place four years ago. It's all about going forward.
Question (for Dillard): The county budget has been rolled back to 2007, but homes assessments are at 1997 levels. The county unemployed are at a 30 year high. How can you expect the county to fund such an out of touch budget?
CD: That's a good question, and that's one that i haven't come to grips with or got a chance to peek at some of the line items. As a developer, what I understand is the importance of not looking at the overall whole but to begin looking at the line items. Sometimes I'm at the Board of Commissioners meetings I see someone come to a conclusion, I say I wonder how they came to that conclusion. What kind of due diligence did they do to understand why that was done?
I guess the simple answer to your question is, to go back and examine it. Talk to Dan Ray. Spend some time with the Tax Commissioner. Spend some time with the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners. Spend some time with the Mayor Mills, and really discover what needs to be done to make sure we are deducing our budget as we need to deduce it, but also to increase the level of services and type of things the community needs to go forward. It's a heavy balance, but the only way you're going to be able to get there is to bring people like the Chairman, people like Dan Ray, people like the Mayor, and sit in leadership and discuss how it is we're going to move this community forward.
JV: I know exactly how that feels, because we've been doing that over the last couple of years.
I will say one of the most important things we've been doing as leaders in the community is to really work to balance our tax digest, which is the crux of the situation. Right now, it is out of balance, and we continue to aggressively recruit manufacturing and other retail and commercial businesses. That'll help get us to where we need to be. There's also some interesting pilot programs that are out there in a couple of communities. That would bring enhanced revenue into our community.
The pilot program is quite interesting. I think we'd be a great candidate in Rockdale County because of its small size. Everybody who has a business license would be matched up with everyone in the Ga. Dept. of Revenue sales tax database. What we would have now is more control overseeing who's actually paying sales tax in our community. Right now that's unchecked. The Department of has been so cut backs they're only polling 10 percent of the people that pay sales tax in the state. For us, that would work out favorably in Rockdale County, being the second smallest county in the state. I think we would be able to have enough manpower to see revenue enhancement instantly.
Working in collaboration with other employees and elected officials in Rockdale County can also be advantageous. Judge Nancy Bills has been gracious enough to come up with a great plan for expanding revenue in her court system by adding a night court system for traffic court, which would not only benefit our revenue enhancement but also help those trying to make ends meet and working a job 8 to 5 and don't have time to take off during the day to pay a traffic ticket. I think that was a great idea on her part. I think there's a lot of other ideas out there we can get from our citizens and employees.
Question (for both): Each of you has had an opportunity to develop more than one business. Have you developed all of your businesses in Rockdale County, or have you developed some outside Rockdale County, and if so, what made you make that decision?
CD: I have businesses that have served not only Rockdale County. I've worked as a consultant outside Georgia, in places like Las Vegas and Kansas City, Missouri. In 2006, I went to the city of Conyers and tried to find someone in economic development and came to find out we hadn't really developed in terms of a department that focuses on economic development. All that I could do was buy property, invest in property, because my real niche is structuring transactions, dealing with things that are complex. As a citizen, those opportunities don't really exist to do that, unless you start dealing with commissioners and going to the public hearing. But it's not always been available in our community. I did some things that were inside our community and some things that were outside. It was all based on the fact that you feed your family and you need to stay productive so you make sure you can continue to grow and be prosperous and your skill sets and things. I've done things here in the community and outside.
JV: I have owned a business in Peachtree City, an early childhood education center. I was there for about seven years and then I decided to get married and my husband and I decided to start a family and moved back to Rockdale County, which is what I've always called home. I have a very large family here. It's a natural progression to me to open an early childhood education center and a school in Rockdale County. It is very successful and we were fortunate enough to find a location across from Johnson Park which was in great need of remodeling. We remodeled that and that's one of our schools as well. We recently added another school in Newton County, and we renovated a former 84 lumber and added about 18,000 square feet. My experience in business extends about 20 years, so I'm very astute financially and have a lot of experience in management and leadership. I think those skills have served me well on the BOC. My comrade on the board of commissioners likes to say, I have an eagle eye for details.
My outside experience is something I can bring to the table. It sets me apart from the other commissioners. Thank you.