By REBECCA HAZEN
Incumbents and challengers for Districts 1 and 2 Dade County Commissioners spoke about their stances on local issues on Tuesday, April 26, during a political debate, sponsored by the Dade County Republican Party.
District 1 County Commissioner incumbent Lamar Lowery is running against challenger Chris Wade, and District 2 County Commissioner incumbent Phillip Hartline is running against challenger Patrick Hickey.
Chris Goforth moderated the debate and asked each candidate the same questions.
Question 1: One of the main responsibilities of the County Commissioner is to vote on the budget and the millage rate. Are there any of these departments that you feel do not get enough funding, and are there any that you feel receive too much funding?
Lowery: “We have a very efficient county. We’ve got one of the lowest millage rates in the state. Yes, there’s always a need for more money in every department, but we have to work with what we’ve got to work with. We go over the budget, line item by line item, with every department.”
Hartline: “All of the departments are underfunded, but we have learned to make do with what we’ve got. They’ve learned how to cut their budgets. Just last week, a company was trying to put out fliers. In house, they designed them themselves, and saved us $700. I don’t want to have to raise millage, so we do what we can with the budget that we’ve got.
Wade: “The thing that we have to take into consideration, are we tracking what those departments are doing? What return on investment are we getting for what we’re investing into those departments? One of the first things I learned about business is, if you’re not tracking it, how can you possibly fix it?”
Hickey: “I think that just about every department ends up being not funded enough because something always comes up. I feel like we could have more money going into these departments but that also means that we would have to raise taxes. The best thing to do for that is to find these big industries that can come here, where people would have good-paying jobs, where once they bring all this money in, we would be able to ease the taxes off the people.”
Question 2: It’s been widely publicized that the Dade County Water Authority would prefer not to continue with the reservoir in the co-owned property off Sells Lane. The county appears to be moving ahead and taking over sole ownership and permitting the area for a reservoir. What are your feelings in the county moving ahead?
Lowery: “I want it known that me and Phillip, neither one of us were on the board when it was bought. Right know we don’t even know if the water board is going to be allowed to hand the loan to Dade County because they got the loan with GEFA. There just weren’t enough studies done on it. The way the water board handled it was uncalled for. It caused a lot of distrust in the county.”
Hartline: “I went to Atlanta about two years ago and they said there was plenty of grant money out there to build this reservoir, but I haven’t seen any. Do we need more water? Yes. Do I think the reservoir will hold enough water to help? No, I don’t. Until we have some further information saying it would work or they can prove to me that the numbers would work, or we can get grants to help build it, I would prefer to sell it.”
Wade: “We haven’t had a true feasibility study that shows exactly the way it needs to be done, if it can be done, and why did we pay that much money for a piece of property that’s in a flood plain? We’ve got to determine, should we sell this at a loss, it is able to be done, or how are we going to turn this property over?”
Hickey: “We probably do need to sell it. I don’t think there’s been enough work done to it over the past four years it’s been talked about. I think we’ve wasted more money trying to prove why we need the land, rather than just moving ahead with the project they said they wanted to go ahead and fund. It’s been a mess ever since it’s been first discussed. Lamar and Phillip are getting the rough end of it.”
Question 3: The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for transportation is once again being talked about to appear on the November ballet. The T-SPLOST would produce a one-cent sales tax to the county to be used for roads, bridges, and transportation issues. T-SPLOST failed in the county once before. Are you in favor of T-SPLOST returning to the ballot?
Lowery: “We get LMIG money, (Local Maintenance Improvement Grant) from the state. The state tells us how much money they’re going to give us for paving. Then we need to either match it by 30 percent or do another 30 percent of paving on top of that. We have 243 miles of paved roads in Dade County. We’re averaging doing 45 miles a year. So, in 10 years, there are going to be a lot of roads that need paving. And that doesn’t count when the roads are falling off the side of the mountain. We have no choice but to fix that. Yes, I am for the one percent. It is up to the citizens.”
Hartline: “There’s roughly 300 miles of roads in the county. $70,000 per mile is what it costs the county if we do the labor ourselves to pave. It costs $5,000 a mile to put for stripes on the road. The problem with T-SPLOST is it needs to be presented correctly, and it needs to be used what it is said for, and that’s roads, bridges, and culverts.”
Wade: “What a lot of people aren’t taking into consideration currently is Georgia suspending the gas tax. Well, that’s what funds your roads. I have a feeling that if we don’t go froward and at least put it on the ballot to see if the people wanted to do it this time around, we’re going to be hurting ourselves. I wouldn’t be in favor of doing the tax most of the time, but when you look at this situation that we’re facing, that is a major concern.
Hickey: “T-SPLOST is a good thing for the county as long as it’s used for what it’s intended to be used for. I think County Road 6 was $1.1 million that we had to get it fixed. I think we should keep T-SPLOST on there because with all of the rain that we’ve been getting, and all the weather changes that we’ve had, it would be a good use for the county.
Question 4: Can you give us your top three issues that you would like to see be the matter of focus in the coming years?
Lowery: “We have a comprehensive plan that we have to do to be able to apply for grants. It will probably be presented in the next commission meeting, what the citizens have said, ‘this is what we need,’ and infrastructure is one of the higher things on the list, because we’ve lost some companies. We recently just lost a big company because we don’t have the sewage capacity. Sewer is one of the things that was top on the list.”
Hartline: “Infrastructure, second would still be infrastructure, and the third would be cost of living, meaning our millage rate for our property taxes. We want industry, we want businesses to come in. We have sewer in the city, and very little in the county. In the next four years, I’d like to shoot for more infrastructure, and maybe have a different location of where we do our economic development instead of in the city. I’d like to lower the millage rate at least a mill or two. I hate for someone to lose their home that’s worth their whole lives just because they can’t afford to pay their property taxes.”
Wade: “It’s not the issues I want going forward. It’s the issues that the people want. We forget what we’re dealing with. We are dealing with providing the essential services that we guaranteed to the people that we would provide to them. And then, trying to make their lives better by giving them more opportunity and advancement. Part of that is looking at what industries do we have coming into the county. Do we have the infrastructure to bring more industries into the county? What partnerships do we need to develop to get there?”
Hickey: “All my top three would be industry, and then making it cheaper on everybody else. We can have as many Dollar Generals as we want, but that’s not going to help bring in more money into the county to be able to lower the taxes, so people don’t have to pay as much. We need some industries to come in that have better paying jobs and for people to be able to buy land out here.”
Question 5: What is your personal stance on zoning and land use management in Dade County?
Lowery: “My personal preference is I don’t want zoning. It starts out as a good thing but then it turns into where you could be told that you can’t have a pickup truck sitting outside your house, your grass is too high, and you can’t build that barn on the side of your house. We’ve been making do with land use management, and so far, have been fairly successful at it. I’m not making that decision for the people though. If you want zoning, then organize.”
Hartline: “If you don’t think we’ve got zoning, you’re sadly mistaken. Land use management is zoning. It is pick and choose zoning. If we pass zoning, it needs to be a two-year process. I think there ought to be multiple meetings and a plan in place. As far as telling everybody what to do on their property, that’s not how I’d want it to start out.”
Wade: One of the things that I was disappointed about the land use permit when it was passed was the fact that there were certain things entered into that after the committee came up with what they wanted to be on there. When it was asked, ‘Where did this come from?’ The commission said, ‘I don’t know.’ They gave us no reason. If someone wants to protect their land value and they wanted to enter into an HOA, there is nothing stopping them. But trying to tell farmers that they can’t farm is unacceptable in a rural community.”
Hickey: “When it comes to somebody telling me what I can and cannot have on my property, I will let them know that they can start paying my taxes. When it comes to businesses, I do think there does need to be areas where you can build and where you can’t build certain businesses. For businesses, there does need to be zoning.”
Question 6: There’s been a number of unfinished projects approved by voters in the recent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. For example, the historic courthouse renovations, and a proposed animal shelter. What are your views on these projects? Have they taken too long to be accomplished, and what would you do differently?
Lowery: “There’s always issues with money. There are certain priorities that have to be met first. Our law enforcement had to have their vehicles. Our volunteer fire departments had to have the equipment they need. The courthouse has been on the SPLOST tax for the third or fourth time. There has been slow and steady progress. The animal shelter is another thing that’s been on there. Last month we leveled the pad out. We’re getting the plans.”
Hartline: “There’s not as many projects left over that people think. If you’ve been at any of the commission meetings and watched, I told them I wouldn’t approve any more money on my part until they got a plan. They have a set of plans now and we have a direction. I want to see the courthouse project completed. Right now, we’re bringing in about $230,000 a month in SPLOST. You do the projects as the money comes in, but you have to prioritize. The animal shelter is a touchy subject for me. I believe once you build a building, then you need to fund it and your general budget goes up.”
Wade: “There are things that are going to come up in the county that you have no choice but to put projects on hold in order to meet emergency needs. A list of priorities, given to the community, and telling them, these are the projects we’re going to work on, in this order, is the proper way to handle that. Not to say, ‘Well we’ve got four projects going on here.’ Right now, we’re already entering another project that we have to do, as far as building a place for the elections office.”
Hickey: “I hate to see that the courthouse has not been completed, but stuff costs money. They have projects at the top of the list that has probably been there 10 years, and they are just now getting to them. People want to see animal control, the best thing for that is to go get your pet neutered until we can get something like that in the county. I think the county is doing a good job on projects getting done.”
Question 7: Do you feel the county is doing enough to fight against drugs, specifically fentanyl overdoses? If not, what would be your plans to increase funding, and if so, in what areas?
Lowery: “Our sheriff just said that fentanyl is increasing rapidly. It’s costing us big money when someone overdoses on fentanyl, especially if they die. They are sent to a crime lab to tell us what the fentanyl was laced with. It’s hitting us hard right here in Dade County. I don’t know what the answer is. We’ve got a good sheriff fighting it. Until what is going on at the border stops, I don’t know if it’s going to get better.”
Hartline: “It’s a community issue. If we fund anything, it needs to be education and awareness. The Sheriff does a great job to fight this, but it starts at home. It starts with us. As a community, we need to look after each other.”
Wade: “It’s not a drug problem, it’s a family problem. It’s how we raise our families, our kids. It’s how we were raised. I know this from personal experience. I have seen a man pass out in my home from a drug overdose and choke himself on the couch. I had to pull him off to save his life. You don’t solve this by constantly throwing money at it. You solve it by having things for people to do in this community. Having and building relationships with kids.”
Hickey: “Being a volunteer firefighter in the county, it’s not just fighting fires, it’s going to someone’s house for somebody that’s overdosed. You have to move on from one call to the next, and it never gets easier. Our Sheriff does an amazing job in the county as far as fighting it. If there is a way to get more money to fight stuff like this, I feel like we have the right person for the job.”
Question 8: Dade County is experiencing its lowest unemployment rate that it has seen in decades. The Industrial Park seems to be thriving as they constantly increase the need for new employees. Is the county doing enough economic development in your opinion? And if not, what would be your specific plan to increase economic development locally?
Lowery: “Our SPLOST just passed. There’s $1.2 million in there for infrastructure, land, development. Our Industrial Development guys feel like they need it. We support the Industrial Development Authority. Our water authority has also got money in that SPLOST to help with new improvements. They decide what they want to spend it on. As for tourism, people just don’t see it. We’ve got 400,000 people a year coming to Cloudland Canyon.
Hartline: “The city is doing enough, but to go forward in the future, I think we need to develop more outside of the city. They stay focused on building more businesses in the city and we already have a massive traffic problem. The more businesses we put in, the worse it gets.”
Wade: “We are doing what we can for economic development in this county. I think we have done a fairly good job. Part of the problem is what our infrastructure will allow us to bring into the county. How do you tie that into what you want to do for the future? If we want to bring more things in, we can bring some more tourism in and advertise ourselves as the great community that we are.”
Hickey: “I think the biggest issue of getting industries to come into the county is there’s a lot of people that have lived on their land for years, and it’s passed through generations. They don’t want to lose that small town feeling. They’d probably rather see Trenton have gridlocks rather than making sure they don’t have a big industry in their backyard. It’s great to see a county of 16,000 people have an unemployment rate that low. We can do better, but we are moving in the right direction.”
Question 9: Dade County has experienced a loss in population in the census from 2010 to 2020. A lot of folks contribute this to the fact that we’ve not regained the population since the tornados, or that Dade Countians did not fill out the consensus required by the constitution. Knowing that a lot of funding flows back to the county based on population, how would you look at bringing additional population into the county?
Lowery: “That is a load of manure. We’re fixing to change our voting districts because there’s another thousand people that have come to Lookout Mountain. The problem was the people did not want to fill out the Census. It’s too government intrusive. People don’t trust it. The county has appealed it, and I think just about every county in Northwest Georgia has appealed it. The Census is not right, and it’s time to change the way they do it.”
Hartline: “I don’t think the Census is correct. We’ve had over 300 permits pulled last year in electrical inspections. We had over 40 pulled in the month of January, and probably about the same amount in February for new construction. I’ve lived here for 44 years; I can drive you on Sand Mountain and point out all the new houses that weren’t there then. I am 90 percent confident that they’re at least 5,000 people low on that.”
Wade: “I don’t disagree that a lot of people didn’t fill it out. I’m looking through Dade County and I see new housing being built, and so I believe our population at least has been maintaining. It has grown in maybe the last 20 years, but the last 10? No. It stays consistent. You’re not going to get people to fill out a form when they quit trusting their government.”
Hickey: “I think one of the things we could do is talk to the Lineman School about building their own housing for the students. At a place I lived in before, four or five houses around me housed the linemen. It’s a great school, a great program, they could probably help us out. That would free up more housing for people to move here without having to find property and build on it.”
Question 10: It has become increasingly more difficult to man our seven community fire departments, especially during the day. What are your feelings about moving toward a paid fire department within the county, and if you feel we need to move in that direction, how do you propose we fund it?
Lowery: “We are lucky to have the ones we’ve got, there’s no doubt. It actually costs money to be a volunteer fireman. It’s your gas that you use, it’s the wear and tear on your vehicle, it’s your time. We’ve looked at funding a fire department, but it’s $2 million that we don’t have. I’m not sure what the answer is.”
Hartline: “It’s not my feeling, it’s the citizens. It’s going to cost them. We have seven departments, and if we have one paid department, we will have one department because the other six will quit. We would have to put it on the ballot. There would have to be a rise in property taxes to make that happen.”
Wade: “From what I hear in commission meetings, getting people to volunteer is less of a problem. If we did end up having to go to a paid position to make sure that we have someone there full-time, we would have to look at that closely and see what the trends are. Are there people that can serve during the day?”
Hickey: “Being a volunteer firefighter, we would love to see paid fire departments, because it would mean that there are people there at the departments to be able to respond quickly. My in-laws, their house burned down to the ground in an hour and 45 minutes. I know everyone in every department, and I love them, but I know that if we did get a paid department, maybe the outcome would have been different. But that does mean we will have to raise taxes.”
To watch the full responses from the candidates, the debate can be watched online on Facebook on the Dade County, Georgia and KWN News Now Facebook pages.
Early voting is underway for the Georgia Primary Election. Election Day is Tuesday, May 24.