Taking place on a semi-snowy evening, with various crowd-goers mixing and mingling, there was quite a bit of activity going on at Tuesday night’s debate. There were plenty of sandwiches, cakes and cookies at the refreshment stands, as attendees got a chance to directly interact with candidates on the scene. A person in the crowd, Mark Hise, was a steadfast supporter of Leon Watkins, believing he has a “good background” through pushing for reform.
When FYN moderator Brian Pritchard encouraged everyone to reserve applause before and after the debate, the atmosphere became more subdued. Taking place at North Georgia Christian Academy’s brightly lit gymnasium, there were many people in attendance, which was a sign that more people are interested in the campaign season. The crowd makeup was mostly older, but there were also middle-aged and younger people there as well.
During the course of the debate, various issues came up, such as ISO ratings, a three percent raise for county employees, millage tax rates, whether or not the golf course of Gilmer should be privatized, and SPLOST funds. All four candidates vying for the open seat were in attendance: Joe Waldrop, Leon Watkins, Travis Crouch, and Mitchell Morgan.
Hosted by the Tea Party of Gilmer County, each candidate tried to prove their conservative credentials by espousing a philosophy of strict adherence to a budget, reducing debt, and drawing in business investment.
The personalities of the candidates, and their approach to governance, shined throughout the debate.
Out of all the candidates, Crouch took a more practical and reserved approach, consistently mentioning throughout the debate that he would not make any decisions until he saw all data, numbers and information on paper. Leon Watkins, a candidate who invoked his construction background, touched upon Gilmer’s dire need for a better water system, preferably a tri-county system, and a more efficient treatment of sewage. Watkins was also one to promote tourism, along with building the necessary infrastructure to attract businesses. Joe Waldrop was one candidate who stressed the need for tax breaks for businesses in order to draw in more jobs. Morgan was someone who highlighted his experience in the banking sector to bring a sound financial approach to the Post Two position. But one thing the candidates all agreed upon was encouraging more development and opportunities in Gilmer.
All candidates were in agreement about attracting tourism and fostering a healthy business atmosphere, and there was a general consensus on appointing an Economic Development Director to attract business and investment attention to Gilmer. However, one discussion that stood out was a slight disagreement between Travis Crouch and Mitchell Morgan over which agency would house this soon-to-be Director position. Morgan, someone who serves on the Economic Development Authority, believes the Director position should be housed within his organization. Crouch, invoking his service in the Chamber of Commerce, wants the position to be under the Chamber’s authority. With that being said, Morgan was conciliatory at the end of the debate, saying that the county needed a Director regardless of where the position was housed. Exactly where this future position will be housed is up for debate, but it was one of the more interesting highlights of the evening.
Another main area of interest was the issue of the Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating and whether or not taxes need to be raised to keep ratings afloat. The Insurance Service Office is a for-profit company that assesses risk in a particular area on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best score. If an insurance company sees a high score in a certain area, it could mean higher rates for homeowners. All of the candidates believed in sound budgeting and a fiscal approach to managing Gilmer fire stations. Gilmer opened two more stations to keep the rating from reaching 10. Since the two stations cost $250,000 to open and manage, the question was asked if the candidates would raise taxes to continue operating the stations. Crouch replied that safety is a concern, but would have to base judgment only by looking at the numbers. Watkins would rely on growth to open the stations, and Morgan would use disposable income to maintain operations. Waldrop wants better accountably for the fire equipment as well. When it comes to the larger issue of maintaining safety, the candidates believed that an examination of the budget, and smarter allocation of monies, would be necessary in improving the ISO.
Another topic that was discussed at both debates was SPLOST funds (or Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), an issue that also came up during the Commission Chair debate. All the candidates stressed checks and balances, abiding by state regulations, and more clarification on the books as answers. In particular, Morgan mentioned his desire to see the 2013 audit report to get a better assessment, and Waldrop would like to see an audit that would show information much sooner, in order to know where any money is headed. Watkins also believed in checks and balances, along with each commissioner signing off to ensure the money is in the right place. Crouch stressed checks and balances, abiding by state regulations, and clarifying the books as the best alternative.
SPLOST affects everyone in Gilmer, but it is safe to say that county workers were extra attentive when the issue of a three percent raise for county employees was discussed, especially since a cost of living raise has not been applied in seven years. Answers varied, with Watkins saying he wouldn’t give a raise, but would be open to bonuses for the year. Morgan is someone would like to say yes, but would need to have all the information before rendering a decision. Crouch believed all money needed to be in place to issue a three percent raise, and Waldrop took a similar stance.
Overall, all four candidates did a good job of making their stances known. Election Day is May 20, and early voting will take place from April 29 to May 16. FYN will be loading the full video shortly.