Six Columbia County candidates on the ballot in the May 20 election met Monday evening at a public forum in Evans.
Voters and supporters packed the government complex auditorium to hear the candidates answer questions from the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce and The Columbia County News-Times on issues concerning the county’s booming growth.
In the Commission Chairman race, incumbent Ron Cross was happy to stand on his record of leadership during the past 12 years, which he called an “unparalleled time of growth and success.” He said during his administration, he has stuck to a promise he made in 2002 not to increase property taxes. Cross said he will continue to hold to that commitment.
“While I am in office there will not be a property tax increase in Columbia County,” he said.
His opponent, Jim Bartley, a builder and political activist, said he thought the county had taken on too much debt, and it was his desire to reduce that debt.
“Everyone else has been going in the other direction, and we have doubled our debt,” he said.
Cross countered that some debt wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and that the county’s general obligation bond debt, which affects property taxes had not increased while he has been in office.
The two also sparred over problems that have arisen with construction code violations and the counties response to correct those issues. Bartley cited a period of poor county oversite in which county inspectors were lax in enforcing codes. Bartley said the county was spending millions to correct issues, such as poorly constructed subdivision roads.
Cross said there had been some problems, but not that many considering the amount of construction that occurs in the county. He said the county was being “proactive” in addressing these construction and development issues.
He also said traffic problems that Bartley cited were part of growing pains that will be addressed by planned road construction projects.
“I think overall, our growth has been well managed,” Cross said.
Growth was also the main subject discussed by candidates in the District 1 commission race.
Doug Duncan, a vice president with Augusta staffing firm MAU Inc., said he was committed to keeping property taxes low and promoting the growth of retail businesses to boost the county’s sales tax revenues.
Duncan said continuing the county’s track record of conservative fiscal policies will only benefit the expected influx of new residents in coming years.
He said people moving from other states will be accustomed to a higher tax burden. His own experience living in Ohio makes him certain of that.
“I have seen the dark side and this ain’t it,” he said.
His opponent, Hafeez Chaudhry, a Martinez businessman and retired Savannah River Site engineer, said he wanted to ensure the residents of District 1 were not burdened with more than their fair share of taxes, while getting the services they needed.
He said, as an immigrant who has found success in here, he was “poster child” for new residents.
“I’m living proof that Columbia County has been successful in integrating new citizens into this community,” he said.
In the race for the District 3 school board seat, challenger Staten Heard, said his experience as a logistics executive for General Motors and EZ-GO Textron, would benefit the county in dealing with the problems it will face with coming growth in the school system.
Heard said he was concerned about the county exceeding state standards for class size because it was detrimental for student achievement. Heard acknowledged that the county was taking steps to reduce class size, but it was an important enough issue that it should be corrected across the board, even if it meant taking on debt.
When is comes to managing school budgets, “I think class size should be off the table,” he said.
Incumbent Mike Sleeper pointed out that the county was forced into increasing class sizes by more than $80 million in state budget cuts over the past five years.
He said he and the other board members have made a commitment to reducing class sizes as soon a financially possible.
Sleeper said with additional state and local funding this school year, the county will be able to hire almost 50 more teachers for next year. That, along with his proposal to create a seven-period day for high schools, should go a long way toward fixing the problem, he said.
Sleeper said the board has a good plan in place to handle the county’s continued growth.
“We have been making the right decisions for many years,” he said.