CONYERS -- The two Democratic candidates for chairman of the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners went head-to-head Tuesday night in a forum sponsored by the Rockdale-Newton County League of Women Voters at the Rockdale Auditorium in Olde Town.
The forum, which was open to candidates in contested races in the upcoming July 31 primary, allowed candidates a 1-minute introduction and a 2-minute closing. Each candidate was asked the same two questions, with 1 minute to answer each. Due to the number of candidates participating, questions from the audience were not allowed.
In addition to the chairman's race, candidates for sheriff, BOC Post 1, state House Districts 92, 90, 109, 113 and 114, and the Fourth Congressional District participated in the forum.
Each chairman candidate was asked to outline the greatest challenge facing Rockdale County and give their solution.
Incumbent Richard Oden didn't specify a challenge but pointed to efforts the county has made to improve the local economy and promote economic development, mentioning a decrease in unemployment since 2008 and the establishment of an opportunity zone where businesses that move into the zone are eligible for state tax credits for job creation. Oden said the county hopes to establish a technology corridor in the opportunity zone.
Brian Jenkins said that the upcoming referendum for a TSPLOST is the biggest challenge facing the community. The referendum is "asking Rockdale County to venture into a program for 10 years in which Rockdale County is going to spend $136.7 million and get back $98.2 million in return," Jenkins said. "In my view this is the biggest problem facing Rockdale County. There is absolutely no way as a leader that we should sit at a table and fight for less for Rockdale County."
Jenkins encouraged residents to vote against the TSPLOST.
Both candidates were also asked about the county's role in economic development.
Jenkins said developing infrastructure is key to promoting economic development, as well as examining antiquated county codes that stifle business.
Jenkins also said that pursuing federal grants may not be helpful to the county in the long run as it could be an indicator to potential businesses of a declining local economy.
"We cannot have people walking up and down (Highway) 138 with their pants down to their knees, with signs for dollar stores," Jenkins said. "When businesses come into a community, the first thing they look at is the amount of money (the community) gets from the federal government."
Jenkins said he would address infrastructure needs in his first year in office and then market Rockdale to business and industry.
Oden said improving transportation would be important to future economic development in Rockdale.
"No. 1, we have to move people," he said. "When you have people spending 45, 55 minutes on the interstate going to work -- that's a problem."
Oden said he supports the TSPLOST referendum as a way to relieve traffic congestion in the community and throughout the east metro, saying that the benefits far outweigh the expense.
Oden also said Rockdale is partnering with Georgia Piedmont Technical College to offer classes that will lead to a better-educated work force that will help to continue to decrease unemployment.
"We need to have a college in Rockdale County," he said.
In closing comments, Oden said Rockdale is a "much better place than it was 30 years ago," and asked voters to look at his record "department by department." He also reminded voters of the success of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program that rehabilitates houses in foreclosure and provides affordable housing options to residents.
Jenkins agreed that voters should look at his opponent's record, saying that reducing taxes and allowing residents to stay in their homes would have been a better option than the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.
"When you increase taxes, you are talking about people who are now juggling as to whether they can pay for their medication, juggling whether they can keep a roof over their heads," Jenkins said.
Jenkins drew a contrast between himself and his opponents -- Oden and Republican candidate Jason Hill.
"I say that as a community we have three competing narratives," Jenkins said. "We have one candidate on the other side who says we need to take Rockdale back ... take if back from whom?
"We have another candidate who says he represents only 51 percent of the county."
In contrast, Jenkins said he is a coalition-builder and will work for all residents of the community.
"Even members of the Republican Party are supporting my campaign," he said.