Six county commission candidates, two of whom will be on the primary ballot on August 14, fielded a host of questions during a forum held at the high school on July 28 before a crowd of more than 100 civic-minded constituents.
Lucy and David Hudson traveled from Olustee to attend the more than two-hour forum, which also included candidates for school board and sheriff [see related article on school board forum here].
The couple said prior to the start they wanted to become more informed voters and hoped to hear more about the candidate’s budget priorities.
“We have so little money in the county budget and so many things that need to be done, how are they going to set the priorities?” Mr. Hudson asked rhetorically. “It’s going to be very, very hard.”
Soon after delivering their opening statements, the candidate were asked about the county’s budget woes.
Despite substantial spending cuts, the county has needed millions of dollars in reserves to balance the budget in recent years. The candidates were asked by forum moderator and The Press’ publisher Jim McGauley how they would favor balancing future budgets, and specifically what spending they would cut, how much they would raise taxes, or whether they would continue to deplete reserves.
On stage were incumbent Republican Michael Crews, his primary opponent James Croft, incumbent Democrats Gordon Crews and Mark Hartley, and their respective GOP challengers in the general election November 6, Eddie Davis, Jr. and Leonard Davis.
None on the panel advocated raising taxes, nor did they identify specific spending cuts.
Instead, sitting commissioners cited their record of reducing the budget while continuing to pave roads and maintain existing levels of service. The aspiring commissioners, on the other hand, knocked the budgeting process and called for further cuts.
Mr. Croft said the process “needs to be revamped.” The former county commissioner, who served four years on the board in the 1980s, said he was more involved in budget details than board members are today. He wants to conduct public workshops with department heads to review their spending “line-by-line.”
“I think that is one way that you can make a determination of where there is waste, if any,” said the Olustee evangelist and occasional radio broadcaster.
Eddie Davis, who owns a port-o-let business, intends to manage the county’s finances as he does his family’s or his business’.
“When you’re out of money, stop spending, start selling off stuff, whatever you have to do … ,” he said. “Cut to the bone.”
Taking aim at Mr. Croft’s comments, Commissioner Michael Crews said that he meets with department directors, the county manager and constitutional officers to review their budgets. He said it’s helped cut spending by about $5 million since the 2009-10 fiscal year.
“You see the fruits of that hard work when you meet with those folks individually and manage the budget the right way, not micro-manage it,” said Michael Crews, a former deputy and the security director at Northeast Florida State Hospital.
Fellow commissioner and the board’s current chairman Gordon Crews also defended the budget process and pointed to the board’s history of avoiding tax rate increases and protecting services.
“I’m a property taxpayer, just like everybody … But services cost money,” he said.
Mark Hartley, also an incumbent, opposed using more reserves in favor of additional cuts, but acknowledged the need to continue to provide services as well.
“People expect services,” said the high school history teacher.
Beyond the budget tensions caused by the shrinking tax base in recent years, the candidates were asked for the stances on a handful high-profile issues like proposed plans for sand mining and a medical waste incinerator.
All of the candidates expressed their distaste for the incinerator project and expressed support for environmentally-friendly projects that can bring more jobs to the area. But only Mr. Hartley and the commission hopefuls said they would not support the sand mines, either.
“The first thing I’d like to say is I would never do anything that I know would hurt Baker County,” said Gordon Crews when addressing the mining plans. “Do I want to hear all the information before I make my decision? Absolutely.”
He and Michael Crews said they intend to review the results of independent study of the mining plans, expected for completion August 10, before taking a position.
The commission candidates were also asked for their positions on the Sunday liquor sales ban, the recent closing of Barber Road and the proposed special assessment for emergency medial services, or EMS.
All six in the group said they were in favor of retaining the prohibition on Sunday sales, but Michael Crews said he would support a referendum on the ban as well.
“It’s about freedom and the people playing their role in the process,” said the first-term commissioner.
The incumbents voted for closing Barber Road to through traffic earlier this year and they all stood by their decision last weekend, citing safety concerns from the narrow bridge over Turkey Creek.
“That road was designed for horse and buggy, not 5000 trips a day,” said Gordon Crews.
Those hoping to replace them, however; all said they would vote to reopen the thoroughfare. “I have a real problem closing roads in our county without going to the full extent to solve the problem,” Mr. Croft said.
His opponent, Michael Crews, countered that more right-of-way would be necessary to make the road safe, but property owners will not give up the land and he’s not willing to support the county taking it through imminent domain.
There was also a clear difference between the two camps on the proposed EMS assessment, which the county has shelved for the current budget cycle.
Sitting commissioners endorsed the plan, which couples the $135 fee with comparable property tax reduction, while the their challengers did not.
“It would work because you’d get a discount on your taxes,” explained Mark Hartley. “That would even out the assessment and it would help us fund rescue, which we all use and all need and it would make it fair, rather than having a certain group paying for it.”
Today EMS operates with an estimated $400,000 deficit that’s made up by money from the county’s general fund, which is fed in part by property taxes.
Mr. Croft said he doesn’t fully understand the plan, and therefore, could not vote for it. Eddie Davis feared taxpayers would pay more under the proposal and Leonard Davis said he’d rather see the county attempt to collect on unpaid EMS bills.
“There are some people that don’t pay a dime in property taxes,” responded Gordon Crews, “but they have the same right as the rest of us to dial 9-1-1 and expect a rescue unit to show up at their house and provide the same service … To me, [the assessment] is more fair.”