Candidates for Forsyth County commission spoke on issues of finances, taxes, ethics and more in their campaign season’s first debate.
Organized by the Forsyth County Tea Party, the Monday night event packed the commissioners’ meeting room.
Districts 2, 4 and 5 have seats up for election this year. With all announced candidates Republicans, the July 31 primary could decide the winners. Qualifying is set for May 23-25.
The race for the northern District 4 post has attracted five candidates, including incumbent Patrick Bell and challengers Tim Hubbard, Charles Meagher, Cindy Jones Mills and Bill Mulrooney.
Incumbent Jim Boff and John Derucki will vie for the seat representing District 5, which covers much of eastern Forsyth.
In south Forsyth, incumbent Brian Tam faces challenger Dennis Brown for District 2. Tam was the lone candidate absent from the debate.
Reached Tuesday, Tam said he had a scheduling conflict that involved an issue related to his constituents.
Tea party chairman Steve Voshall moderated the proceedings Monday, asking questions the candidates had not seen.
The first asked for the commission hopefuls’ thoughts on the county’s financial health.
Bell noted the county’s AAA bond rating, $20 million reduction in budget expenses in the past four years and reserves meeting policy.
“It’s not gloom and doom,” he said. “We are in a great position.”
His challengers saw a need to further cut expenses, such as Meagher’s comment that the county doesn’t have a taxing problem, but rather “a spending problem.”
Hubbard called for budget reductions “across the board” to match what residents are facing in this economy.
Mills commented that the county needs to consider operating expenses before spending bond funds on capital projects.
Mulrooney pointed to the county’s bonds, which total about $270 million, as a source of concern for increasing debt.
“We have to be careful that we’re not tempted to finance these [capital projects] and generate debt with them,” he said. “Let the revenue come in before we pay for these things.”
On the issue of property taxes, candidates unanimously stated they had plans to keep the millage rate low.
Boff said the commission didn’t raise it last year, and with property values down, actually took a drop.
Derucki said the rate is too high, after taking an increase in 2010.
“It’s showing a pattern of increasing,” he said. “And I think as a county commissioner, you have to do everything you can to get it to roll back.”
Brown said the millage rate may be the region’s lowest, but other areas don’t have revenue from sales taxes.
“We need to look at the total tax rate per capita,” he said, “and do everything we can to keep from raising taxes.”
Candidates also gave their thoughts on ethics and how commissioners should negotiate and find solutions.
The county’s water contracts with the city of Cumming took center stage for examples of commission relations.
Forsyth does not have a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw water from Lake Lanier as does the city. The county buys most of its untreated water from Cumming, as well as some treated water.
With no other immediate options for water, Forsyth hopes to renegotiate terms with the city. The current contracts expire May 26.
Boff noted that he was in favor of creating a committee to keep those negotiations open.
Derucki said the recent visits of two groups of two commissioners each to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division were not a good idea.
Breaking up into pairs to discuss the county’s water permits doesn’t present the right stage for negotiations, Derucki said.
Brown also said a united front on an important issue such as water supply shows leadership.
“We need to do a better job of working to find solutions,” Brown said. “There’s a strong perception that the board’s not working together and there’s special interests at work.”
A question on the proposed equestrian center at the county’s Lanierland property focused on District 4, where the site is located.
Hubbard, Meagher, Mills and Mulrooney opposed Forsyth entering an industry that they said is filled by the private sector.
Meagher added that the center didn’t go through the proper channels to be included in the park’s plan, since it went straight to the commissioners for consideration.
Bell said the issue has become “a political ploy” and noted the commission is still in the stages of gathering information.
He said the center should be “revenue neutral” if the county decides to operate it or form a public-private partnership.
The Forsyth County Tea Party will hold its third debate of the season on May 21, for which candidates for state House and the 9th U.S. Congressional District will be invited.