Candidates for the District 4 seat on the Hall County Commission made their cases to voters Tuesday night at a question-and-answer forum at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center in Gainesville.
And it’s on the economy where incumbent Republican Jeff Stowe and Democrat Angela Thomas Middleton each vied for the attention of dozens in attendance.
“We’re stronger when we work together,” said Middleton, a retired teacher and basketball coach.
Middleton wants to expand workforce development programs as a way to grow the tax base and keep property rates low, she said.
But doing this will also require ensuring that affordable housing is available to new residents so that they can make local contributions.
It’s also critical given that Hall County has a growing retirement base that is exempt from school taxes, perhaps a product of the region’s emerging leadership in health care services, Middleton said.
Stowe opened with a nod to his history of service in the community dating back nearly 30 years, including on community nonprofit boards before it was “time to make a difference on the government level.”
And it’s in these partnerships and relationships, such as with the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce and Lanier Technical College, where the economic and social health of the community begins — something Stowe said he intends to tap as a commissioner.
From shifting demographics to changing industry demands, Hall County must strike a fine balance between the desires of an established community and the needs of a growing population.
Certain commitments could require compromise.
For example, Stowe said he will work to maintain the county’s low property tax rate (compared with other local governments in the state), but the appointment of a new Superior Court judge and subsequent funding necessary for remodeling a courthouse will blow a $2 million hole in a budget that has to be balanced.
Meeting this challenge is critical to retaining the state’s lowest area jobless rate, as well as recruiting new businesses to the region, Stowe said.
Keeping property taxes low is helped by special purpose local option sales taxes, a 1 percent sales tax that funds sewer, road and other infrastructure projects across the county, Stowe said.
He hopes to continue offsetting general fund costs through consumption taxes whenever possible.
Middleton, though supportive of SPLOST funds for community investments, said she is concerned that the language of the tax is vague and that money is sometimes used for unstated projects.
More transparency would reassure citizens and perhaps open new funding to underserved neighborhoods in District 4.
The district is on the cusp of getting a new park and community center adjacent to the Harrison Square public housing complex on the south side of Gainesville.
Stowe said he has been committed to opening the park since first elected in 2012.
Middleton said community input will be critical in developing the park right the first time, but disagreed with Stowe about the level of funding that could be acquired to develop the desired amenities.
Stowe said he doesn’t expect the size of the community center to mirror those located in East and North Hall because the expense would be too great.
“I’m a realist and I’m going to tell you what I think will really happen,” Stowe said.
Middleton said development of the park needs to go hand in hand with improving pedestrian access and safety on the south side, particularly across a busy bridge spanning Interstate 985.
When county voters head to the polls over the next three weeks, they will be asked whether they support funding a study to review the feasibility and cost of consolidating local municipal and county governments.
It’s an issue that seems to rear its head every few years or so, and county officials have typically supported such an endeavor despite the misgivings of local city officials.
Stowe said he has mixed feelings about consolidation but believes it can produce savings to taxpayers in the long run when duplicate services, such as overlapping public safety and administrative resources, are merged.
Middleton said consolidation could impact District 4 more than any other because it contains Gainesville’s diverse urban core.
“We need to at least try to merge some programs,” she said.
But that starts with improving relations between the county government and city officials, she said.
Talk of consolidation has routinely made for tense disputes between local governments.
“I’ve said over and over that it’s the cohesiveness” that needs working on, Middleton said.