Taxes, property rights and employee morale capped the debate among Republican candidates for the Hall County Board of Commissioners on Thursday.
Shelly Echols, Scott Gibbs and George Thorndyke were in the hot seats on Thursday, May 17, as they faced questions from Republicans only days before the Tuesday primary in Hall County.
Gibbs, who represents District 3 covering North and East Hall, was the only incumbent present for the Hall County Republican Party forum, as District 1 Commissioner Kathy Cooper had a long-scheduled trip with her daughter, who just recently graduated from the University of Georgia. Cooper sent a statement in her stead, which was read aloud to a packed house at the forum at the GOP headquarters on Queen City Parkway.
Echols is challenging Gibbs for his District 1 seat, while Thorndyke is challenging Cooper in South Hall.
The two challengers have identified roughly similar lines of attack against the incumbents centering on the 2017 tax increase unanimously approved by commissioners, which often creates fertile ground for challengers in Republican contests.
But in North Hall, Echols critique of Gibbs has touched on turnover and morale of the more than 1,300 employees of the county and the concerns of county residents.
These issues and more were covered in a rapid forum at the Hall County Republican Party headquarters on Queen City Parkway in Gainesville, where moderators Craig Lutz and Matt Smith peppered candidates with questions ranging from whether they would make a no-new-taxes pledge to how they weighed property rights in zoning disputes.
A tax pledge
Only one candidate said he would make the pledge (and he’s already made such a pledge a pillar of his campaign): Thorndyke.
“There’s no reason that I would have to raise taxes on all of us. If there’s some special project or special need, we can take that out of the citizens as a (special purpose local option sales tax) initiative,” Thorndyke said. “If the citizens vote yes, the citizens voted themselves a new tax.”
Giving a flat “no” to the question, Gibbs said he wouldn’t agree to such a pledge on prudential grounds.
“We never know what we’re going to be faced with,” Gibbs said, noting that the county is constitutionally bound to carry out the laws of the state, which include programs and projects that require local funding.
Echols didn’t say one way or another whether she would sign the pledge and instead made a “promise that I am not in support of raising taxes. I promise that before I would ever vote to raise taxes I would do absolutely everything I could to keep that from happening.”
A related question touched on impact fees, which are paid by property developers and other land users to offset the costs of development to the county and its municipalities, which provide certain utilities and other services to property owners.
While Gibbs and Echols said they were opposed to impact fees and considered them another form of taxation, Thorndyke was solidly supportive of the fees and said they help manage development.
Zoning was one of the first issues brought up in the forum. Lutz asked the candidates how they figured property rights into zoning disputes that come before the commission — a contender for the most hotly debated county functions before commissioners.
Gibbs played the middle on property rights on Thursday, which tracks with his comments as a commissioner in the past year on the issue of vacation rentals on Lake Lanier.
“I think that people have a right to try to get the most value out of their property when they go to sell it — so long as it does not infringe upon their neighbor’s rights,” Gibbs said. “I think I know for a fact that when you’ve got 300 people sitting out in front of you with red shirts on because they don’t want a zoning to go through, you’ve got weigh what is best for the entire community and what is fair for every person in that room, not just the angry crowd.”
Echols was more strident on property rights, quoting former radio host Neal Boortz and saying, “No freedom is secure if your property rights are not secure.”
Echols said that idea was “very important to me” and that, while people should be good neighbors, “personal property rights trump the public interest all day every day.” The “public good” has to be taken into account, she said, but “property rights are always more important.”
Thorndyke, a former developer of commercial property in Gwinnett County, said “personal property rights do trump the wants and needs” of the community.
Echols has made turnover and morale problems at the county a major part of her campaign in District 3. On Thursday, she said the county had mishandled the people who show up for work every day.
“We’ve messed up,” she said. “We’ve really not done right by our employees.”
Echols said the county has the best group of employees in the area but serves as a training area for surrounding counties and governments (where employees go to work after getting their foot in the door in Hall) because they’re not fairly compensated. She said the county needs “radical change” and a “change in leadership” for its employees.
Gibbs dropped some news during the debate on Thursday.
“This year there’ll be more raises,” Gibbs said. “We are going to bump, we have a 401 plan, we’re going to up the percentage of that this year to try to be competitive with surrounding counties.”
The county budget for the upcoming 2019 fiscal year won’t be set until June.
On Wednesday, and unrelated to the debate, Hall County Finance Director Zach Propes said the county is “still in the process of finalizing the proposed budget and (has) plans to present the FY 2019 proposed budget in a special called meeting and public hearing of the Board of Commissioners on June 21. A second budget presentation and the millage rate adoption is planned for June 28.”
Thorndyke said he was partial to first responders in the county employ, from deputies to EMS and firefighters.
“One of the things I’d like to do is sit and look at the employees we have,” Thorndyke said. “Do we have too many employees? Do we have not enough employees?”
He said the county might need to clean house in some departments and add employees in other areas.
“There are ways to streamline the system so people get better service, and better service means we’re spending less dollars,” Thorndyke said.
The primary election is set for Tuesday.