In what was voters’ first chance to see candidates for chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, the three men differed in opinion on the county’s finances and the viability of plans to build a reservoir in North Hall.
Former North Hall commissioner Steve Gailey, former sheriff Richard “Dick” Mecum and incumbent Chairman Tom Oliver are all running as Republicans in the July 31 election.
They participated in their first forum Tuesday, sponsored by the South Hall Republican Club at Spout Springs Library in Flowery Branch, at times targeting Oliver for stances he’s taken in his last two terms as chairman.
Answering a question about whether he would ever support a tax increase, Gailey said the county would have to have no money to fund the sheriff’s office for him to ever support raising the millage rate, including a millage rate roll-up, which is not legally considered a tax increase because it is revenue neutral.
“Taxation is not the way to pay for this, period,” Gailey said.
Oliver, in a budget proposal last year, supported a roll-up that he said would prevent massive reductions in service and help restore county contributions to employees’ retirement plans.
The proposal didn’t pass.
This year’s budget cuts county employees’ furlough days from 12 to three and is restoring some contributions to employees’ retirement plans.
Gailey said he was unsure whether the move was premature, saying he believed if the November elections went “the wrong way” for Republicans, then the economy could suffer.
But Oliver said he believed the county’s revenues were leveling out, and that the employee benefits needed to be restored to keep the county from losing employees.
“We’ve got to be careful not to lose any more public safety officers,” Oliver said.
But Mecum said the current commission had mismanaged taxpayers’ funds. He said the county overspent its budget by $11 million between 2007 and 2009.
Mecum also called the county’s debt “astronomical” — a claim that caused Oliver to say voters needed to consider whether his opponent could understand the county’s finances.
“The reckless spending that I see — you can go up to Washington, you can point to Barack Obama all you want to, but we’ve got it right here in Hall County,” Mecum said. “We’ve got an Obama-style liberalistic type of government that’s going on and that’s spinning us into a situation, and I’m telling you, it’s your money.”
Oliver responded that the county’s finances were in “great shape,” and that county auditors had confirmed it.
Both he and Gailey said the county’s debt was tied into retirement and low-interest loans from the state for sewer projects.
“We understand exactly what we’re doing,” Oliver said. “Our county’s in excellent shape, and I challenge you to bring any CPA you want and we’ll meet wherever you want to meet and the loser pays the fees.”
Mecum was also the only candidate not to express outright support for a proposal to build Glades Reservoir.
“We can’t have economic development in this county without having water and sewer and infrastructure in the ground,” said Gailey, who worked on the project as a commissioner.
Likewise, Oliver, who has been one of the reservoir’s biggest cheerleaders, said it was a “no brainer,” calling it “the way to the future.”
He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision whether to permit Glades would determine whether other local governments spent money on the permitting risk.
“If we don’t build Glades, we’re going to shut down Atlanta north of Macon,” Oliver said. “Because it is a critical engine. Because if we don’t get that permit, then the other municipalities will never have a chance to spend the money and go after that permit.”
Likewise, Gailey said that with uncertainty over Lake Lanier’s allocations, the county should continue seeking the permit.
But Mecum said the proposal was too shadowy to support.
“It’s really hard to tell or explain anything about Glades, because we don’t know anything about it. You the citizens don’t know much about it; nobody ever seems to know much about Glades,” Mecum said.
Mecum agreed that there was a possibility that the county would need more water in the future, but he said residents should know whether spending money on the new reservoir would be more beneficial than raising the level of Lanier.
“When I go in and look in Hall County and try to find out anything about it, there’s really nothing there. There’s no two-year projections, there’s no five-year projections, no 10 years, there’s no cost-benefit analysis. There is nothing,” Mecum said. “If you’re looking for transparency in government, you’re not going to find it here.”
In their discussion of Glades, Oliver and Mecum gave different estimates for the costs of building the reservoir.
Oliver’s estimate, at $25 million, was hundreds of millions below Mecum’s estimate of $400 million.
After the forum, Oliver said his estimate was based on costs to “build the bowl” alone, not to build infrastructure to move water.
In plans submitted to the corps, the county has said it would pull water from the Chattahoochee River and send it to Cedar Creek Reservoir, where it would be treated and distributed to customers.
But after Tuesday’s forum, Oliver said there is a chance commissioners might consider using Glades as a “flow augmentation” reservoir for Lake Lanier, releasing extra water from Glades’ dam for Gainesville water officials to withdraw from Lanier, which Oliver said would come at “little or no expanded expense.”
“The future will dictate how we distribute the water,” Oliver said after the forum.