Forsyth County commission candidates debated by district for the first time this campaign season during an event organized by the local Republican Party.
The Tuesday night debate in the commissioners meeting room had a crowd that fluctuated by district, with the five candidates in northern 4 drawing the biggest group.
Two candidates each in Districts 2 and 5 also took turns fielding questions and rebutting each other’s points.
All candidates who have qualified to run are Republicans, so the July 31 primary likely decide the winners. Voting is conducted by district.
Local party Chairman Ethan Underwood, who moderated the debate, said the group does not nominate candidates before the primary.
Rather, the party hopes to “provide information to the public to help them make the best choice,” he said.
“All the questions are candidate neutral and the intent is to flesh out information,” Underwood said.
Bringing business to the county took center stage in the debate for the five candidates in Forsyth’s northern district.
All announced candidates were present, including incumbent Patrick Bell and challengers Tim Hubbard, Charles Meagher, Cindy Jones Mills and Bill Mulrooney.
The group agreed that attracting business would grow the county’s tax digest and reduce the burden on homeowners. But the candidates differed on how best to achieve that goal.
Bell said he’s been focused on the issue during his first term, citing examples such as the creation of an opportunity zone in the Hammond’s Crossing area and his proposal to phase out the inventory tax.
Mulrooney and Hubbard also called for the elimination of the inventory tax, which Mulrooney said was “basic Reaganomics.”
Meagher and Mills, however, expressed concern that cutting the tax could cause the school board to raise property taxes to meet that shortfall.
“I am for the elimination of the tax as soon as a plan is put together that shows how that tax will be not on the homeowners to fund the 70 percent of the proceeds to help our schools stay in business,” Meagher said.
As other questions were posed, Meagher continued to debate the issue with Bell, who said he thinks the school board can find the money if the tax were to be phased out, and that isn’t his concern as a commissioner.
Other ideas for spurring business growth included Mills’ Fast Forward Forsyth program, which would seek to reduce redundancies in the unified development code to streamline the process of development.
Bell countered that he has already worked on this.
Mills then said that District 4 has had no new property zonings in the past four years.
“I would like to see that changed,” she said. “I would like to have people come by working with businesses.”
Hubbard focused on cutting the county’s spending and saving money for infrastructure when growth happens.
“Then, when that time comes, we should be ready to move forward instead of waiting until we get there and wanting the county to vote a 1 percent sales tax to do that,” he said.
Meagher proposed advertising local amenities and schools to businesses, as well as the existing tax incentives.
Mulrooney pointed to the large corporations in Atlanta that could be enticed to move here.
“We have to get out of this mind-set that we are simply a bedroom community,” he said.
Incumbent Brian Tam and opponent Dennis Brown spoke on planning for growth in the county’s southernmost district.
A third qualified candidate, Scott Padis, was not present.
Transportation, recreation and development were some of the top issues the two candidates debated.
Tam pointed to new roads and amenities he has helped bring to fruition in his two terms, including the green space parks about to open in the next weeks.
“When you put recreation into densely populated areas, it helps people’s property values increase,” Tam said. “That’s one of the reasons why our tax digest has remained so stable.”
Brown agreed that parks are great for the community, but he said the county has paid too much for the properties.
Tam said the county paid appraised value or less, to which Brown responded that depends on the appraiser.
For transportation issues, Tam said District 2 is the fastest growing in the county and revenue from the 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, helps keep ahead of them.
Brown said the county should create a reserve for these projects to spend when it’s needed, rather than projecting with a sales tax.
“Just because we have money doesn’t mean we need to spend it right then,” he said.
For future development, Brown pointed to the importance of balancing growth and avoiding past mistakes of neighboring boom counties.
“People move to Forsyth County for a different quality of life,” he said. “We absolutely are going to grow. It just depends on how we manage it.”
He cautioned that “special interest groups” could be influencing zonings and other developments in the district.
Tam replied that his only special interest group is homeowners in south Forsyth, noting that he has struck compromises with residents and developers during his tenure.
A question about improving relations with the city of Cumming led to an exchange on leadership qualities, with Tam saying he meets with the mayor a few times a months.
Brown emphasized creating a united front.
“We have an opportunity to take this county government back from the city of Cumming,” he said, “because right now I feel like the tail is wagging the dog.”
Incumbent Jim Boff and challenger John Derucki agree that Forsyth County is a great place, but each has different ideas on how to improve.
Boff said he views himself as someone “who sees things the way a homeowner does.”
“I always ask, ‘How will this affect the homeowner first?’” he said.
Derucki hopes to broaden the county’s tax base to relieve homeowners by drawing in more business.
He pointed to the red tape developers have to go through, such as getting permits at multiple locations rather than consolidating that process.
“When they can’t come to the county and get that done efficiently, they’re going to go somewhere else,” he said.
In planning for future development, Boff said the county should emphasize “reasonable conformance” with the standards of the unified development code.
Derucki agreed, but added that the code needs to be updated and improved “so we ultimately get the community we all love and cherish.”
He noted his concern about the county’s millions in long-term debt, and recommended setting up a reserve for infrastructure to reduce the interest payments for infrastructure.
Boff also hopes to pay down debt, but disagreed that the amount is dangerous for the county’s future.
“If we’re in such bad shape, it’s hard to justify our AAA [bond] rating,” he said.
He asked voters to consider that he has the time and experience to continue representing the county and his district.
Derucki pointed to his leadership and background in business and the military, but ended by telling people to just get out and vote.
“I’m amazed at what I get to inform people about. Who their district commissioner is. What does a district commissioner do?” he said. “It’s important that you vote.”
District 5 covers much of eastern Forsyth.