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May 14, 2014

Candidates zero in on budget, crime as main issues this election season

TIFTON — Candidates spoke to the issues Tuesday night in a Candidate Forum, sponsored by the Tifton-Tift County Chamber of Commerce, moderated by Chris Beckham, communications director for the Chamber. Each candidate was given two minutes to discuss each question presented, as well as two minutes each for opening and closing remarks.

Issues discussed included crime, education, roads, budget and the future of Tift County.

Taking the stage first were the candidates for the District 4 school board seat, Keith Barr, Richard Golden and Mark Bennett. Budget was at the top of the discussion, as Tift County Schools has faced budget cuts in recent years, and has been forced to do more with less.

"Budget and finance is a big thing in the school system. I think we need to have a longer-range planning on how to spend the different pots of money. Maybe you've seen some of the things in the paper the superintendent's putting out that we've been cut…you and I can't worry about what happened 10 years ago. The school system can't worry about what happened 10 years ago. That budget is built every year. I think we need to get a budget built from what revenue is going to come in that year, and don't worry about what happened in the past," Golden said.

Barr commented that he feels the school board has made some "pretty good decisions in the past six or seven years."

"You've got to focus on every penny. You have to analyze every expense, you have to analyze every position, and you have to make sure that every dollar you spend really impacts the classroom," he said.

Bennett agreed that working with a reduced budget is possible, and that it can be done while making sure students still excel.

"It comes down to the small things. You have to analyze everything and find those things you can eliminate. It comes down to the very small things like turning the lights off at night. Enough small things will eventually add up to a large amount of money," he said.

Common Core is a hot topic in educational circles, and the candidates each expressed their opinions. Bennett feels there is no "perfect situation."

"You just have to choose what is best," he said.

Barr feels the controversy about Common Core is justified, and said, "Any time our teachers and our parents think there's a problem with the way we're educating our children, yes, it's absolutely warranted. I don't think in Tift County we have a unified voice on it."

County Commissioner Sherry Miley, District 4, faced off with opponent Stan Stalnaker, and each spoke on the issues they feel are most pressing in their district.

"One problem that I think affects everyone in this room is our roadway system. What we need to do is we need to be able to maintain and plan for the future with regard to our roadway infrastructure. Why do I think it's a challenge? Simply because of the cost and the time frame it takes to complete one of those projects," Stalnaker said.

Miley agreed.

"A lot of what Stan said is right on the money. In District 4 we have a lot of dirt roads. Most of the calls I get are about roads. We do have an excellent roads department. Tift County has some of the better roads in any county you can go into. We use SPLOST dollars to work on our roads – we do not use tax dollars to work on our roads. We make sure that money is there before we spend it. We don't spend what we don't have. I think our roads are good, but there will always be work to be done," she said.

Both candidates discussed what they'd like to see change in the next 10 years in Tift County, and they agreed that growth is crucial.

"I would like to see our industrial park booming and I would like to see business and industry pop up all over Tift County," Stalnaker said.

"I think we need to see growth, it's what we need to work for. The proof is in the pudding. We are financially better off than we've been in 20 years. Tift County pays its bills and we have money in the bank. Probably eight or nine years ago, we didn't have that. We had a deficit. One way Tift County can improve what we're doing is we need to work with the city, become more partners with the city, so we will become the model city and county in the state," Miley added.

The candidates also spoke to keeping the millage rate down, and agreed that the county needs to continue to "live within our means," and "don't spend what we don't have."

District 6 County Commission incumbent Mike Jones and challenger Greg Wood were asked the same questions. Jones also addressed the roads issue, pointing to the recent rains, and the challenges that resulted.

"We all know what's happened in the past few months, and the phones have been busy. So it is something that is constant. We truly do have a great Roads Department. We've spent about $15 million on road projects since 2007. Of that, what did it cost taxpayers? It cost you about $7 million. Because of our resources we have, because of going to Atlanta and other places to get federal and matching dollars, and by doing in-kind work ourselves, we paved those roads for about 50 cents on the dollar. That's pretty good bang for the buck," he said.

Wood pointed to another issue faced in District 6: the need for jobs.

"Countywide, we need jobs. We need to get industry back in here, also in the industrial park. And we also need to go after ag jobs. There's ag industry we could pull in here to play off of our great agricultural capabilities we have in this county," he said.

Wood also said he'd like to see industry increase.

"Over the last 10 years,  a lot industry has left our county. I would like to see us bring all of that back. We've got a lot of things to promote. We have an awesome infrastructure. We have 82 and 75, we have a good work force, and we have a great industrial park. The retail wages are not what industry wages are," he said.

Jones said we need to think about the future of our community, and that we must have a vision. He also encouraged listeners to roll up their sleeves and do something themselves.

As for the budget, Jones pointed out that the millage rate in the county hasn't changed.

"When was the last time the millage rate was changed for Tift County residents? It's been over a decade. Think about that. Is that a record to be proud of? I guarantee it is," he said.

Wood said the county can't afford to be complacent.

"You can't get into a lull and expect that to continue. You've got to work to make it continue. One thing you can always do is look at the budget. The other thing i would continue to do is continue the special local option sales tax. This money directly helps offset the need to increase the millage rate," he said.

Patty Veazey and Herby Benson are each running for the State Court judge spot, and each spoke to the biggest crime issues currently faced in Tift County.

"I believe you will find drugs and alcohol are the common denominator behind the major criminal problems that we have. A common denominator behind that is lack of education," she said, commenting that there are many people on the streets with nothing to do, and these are the ones burglarizing cars and breaking into homes. "In the State Court we only handle misdemeanors. The beauty of that is that the people that are coming into your courtroom are not hardened yet. Most of them are first-time offenders, and you can catch them before they get on the hamster wheel and become the hardened felon. One of the things I'd like to do through sentencing is mandate education and substance abuse treatment," she said.

Benson pointed to the growing problem of shootings in Tifton and Tift County.

"Those are the crimes that concern me that we have to face every day. I think in the state court the best thing we can do to combat that would have to be some unity. The state court has to work with the superior court, with the municipal court, with the city and county government in order to combat it. I think by working together we can have the most accurate knowledge to combat the problem," he said.

Greg Kirk and Tifton native Bryce Johnson are each running for the state District 13 Senate seat being vacated by a retiring Sen. John Crosby.  Among the issues the two candidates discussed during the forum were transportation, education, health care and retail jobs. One of the biggest issues is bringing jobs to South Georgia, and the candidates spoke to their plans to make that happen.

"The big thing is that the state has to have tax policies that don't discourage small businesses and corporations from doing what they need to do. We need to look at our tax burden, especially on small businesses. We need an advocate in Atlanta in the economic development department. We need to bring some of those jobs to South Georgia as well," Johnson said.

Kirk agreed that jobs creation is paramount.

"We have got to create jobs. I'm not a cheerleader that stands on the sidelines with pom palms. I've been in the game. I know what it takes to run a business. I'm going to sit across the table from people who are looking to move business and say hey, here's why you need to come here. We do have a great transportation system. We do have a great rail system. There's a lot we have to offer in South Georgia," he said.

The Candidate Forum is currently airing in its entirety on The Fun Channel.

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