CONYERS -- Rockdale Board of Commissioners candidates for chairman and Post 1 commissioner took questions from moderators at last weekend's political forum, touching on topics ranging from the T-SPLOST referendum to employee pay raises.
The forum, held at Peek's Chapel Baptist Church on Old Salem Road, was the second one hosted by the Rockdale NAACP, the Citizen's Progressive Club and NewRock Legal Society.
David Shipp with the Rockdale County Republican Party and Stanley Williams with the Rockdale County Democratic Party moderated the forum.
• Board of Commissioners Chairman
Richard Oden was elected BOC Chairman in 2008 and is seeking reelection. He will face fellow Democrat Brian Jenkins in the July 31 primary election. The winner of that race will run against former BOC Post 1 Commissioner Jason Hill, a Republican, in the Nov. 6 General Election.
Jenkins did not attend Saturday's forum.
During the two-minute introductory period, Oden touted his successes during his first term, including closing a $5 million budget deficit, improving inefficiencies in the water department and reducing the number of foreclosed properties through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
"I took office at the best time in history," he said, suggesting things could only get better. "I have brought about transparency and have attempted to level the playing field."
Hill, who lost his reelection bid to Post 1 Commissioner Oz Nesbitt in 2008, disputed Oden's characterization of the state of the county at that time.
"I think what the chairman inherited was quite good," Hill said.
He said the county was in sound financial shape, beautification efforts were under way and steps had been taken to improve the water department, including implementing a rate increase.
"Let me set the record straight, there was no $5 million shortfall. We never spent more than we took in," Hill said.
The first question Shipp asked the two candidates was about their opinion of the upcoming referendum on July 31 that would impose a 1-percent sales tax for regional transportation projects.
"I'm not going to vote for T-SPLOST," Hill said.
He pointed out that he fully recognizes the traffic problems and believes that a sales tax is probably the best way to raise revenue to solve many of those issues.
"I'm not in favor of it because of the way it has been handled," Hill said. "We need to keep more local control."
Oden, who in the past has been a vocal proponent for the T-SPLOST, did not come down clearly on one side or the other. He described the process of bringing local projects to the Atlanta Regional Commission, which ultimately whittled all the transportation projects for the Atlanta region down to certain ones.
"We had three projects that were thrown out," Oden said. "There are some positives and some negatives."
In response to a question about protecting small businesses in the county, Oden said he has begun to focus economic development efforts along the Sigman Road corridor by offering a $3,500 tax incentive to new businesses that locate there.
Hill said he would look for ways to help business owners keep more of their money, such as reducing some fees. He also said Rockdale County could use existing SPLOST funds to improve the Ga. Highway 138 corridor, which would have an immediate impact on commercial growth.
• Board of Commissioners Post 1
Two Republicans and two Democrats are vying for the Post 1 seat on the BOC: Democratic voters on July 31 will choose between incumbent Oz Nesbitt and Jerry Shepperd; Republicans will vote for either Tom Harrison or Sam Smiley.
Smiley said he is running on a platform dictated by fiscal responsibility, pointing out that the millage rate has increased three times in the past few years. He said he would work to increase quality of life in Rockdale with minimal cost to the community.
Shepperd said beautification and clear planning would drive economic development. He said he has a plan that he will release in a few months.
Harrison said his experience on the Conyers-Rockdale Planning Commission and on the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, as well as his professional experience in the water and sewer industry qualify him for the post.
Nesbitt said he has worked over the past four years to provide leadership that serves the entire community and pledged to continue to move Rockdale "progressively forward."
Each of the candidates agreed to focus on public safety, but said all county employees deserved raises. Smiley pointed out that the current administration has given a "selective placement of raises" for some employees and has hired employees in certain departments, although none in public safety.
Harrison pledged that the first thing he would do upon taking office would be to figure out where to trim the county's budget to give all county employees a raise.
Nesbitt stressed that he led the charge on giving each county employee a $1,000 bonus earlier this year.
All candidates agreed that economic development is key to a healthy budget. Harrison, Nesbitt and Smiley said coordinating ordinances -- the sign ordinance, in particular -- with the city of Conyers would go far to encourage businesses to locate to Rockdale County. Harrison said improving infrastructure, such as water lines, is also important to attracting new businesses.
With that said, each of the four candidates voiced strong opposition to the upcoming T-SPLOST vote, saying it would not benefit Rockdale County.
Shepperd: "We don't need millions of extra tax dollars just to supply a wish list;
Smiley: "No, I do not support the T-SPLOST. We need projects that will actually benefit Rockdale County." He added that the 2010 SPLOST has $33 million earmarked for local transportation projects.
Nesbitt: "Absolutely not. ... Everywhere I go, door to door, storefront to storefront, barber shop to barber shop, I hear, 'We don't want it.'"
Harrison: "The way it is written, I do not support it. Rockdale County needs its own SPLOST to help our own roads. It would be unfair and ineffective for Rockdale County."