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Water, Glades fate flow at GOP debate among Hall commission candidates
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Dwayne and Becky Smith listen during a debate for the three Hall County Board of Commissioners seats Tuesday night at the Hall County GOP headquarters before the Republican primary kicks off next week. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Water is life. In Hall County, it's also money.

Candidates for three seats on the Hall County Board of Commissioners went first-pitch swinging on the Glades Reservoir at a debate Tuesday night at Hall County Republican Headquarters in Gainesville.

The proposed 850-acre reservoir in North Hall has cost taxpayers about $16 million to date. The bleeding was put to a halt earlier this month when the county temporarily suspended its permitting application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the project.

But recouping the already substantial investment could go any number of ways.

The state still wants the reservoir to augment flow on the Chattahoochee River downstream of Lake Lanier. Former commissioner Steve Gailey, running for the chairman’s seat, said this fact could be a negotiating tool after the state reversed course from its initial support for Glades as a drinking supply reservoir.

“The water is going to be needed one day,” Gailey said.

It's clear each candidate wants Hall to be reimbursed if the state uses Glades as a bargaining chip in the “water wars” with Florida and Alabama.

But Richard Higgins, a former Hall school board member opposing Gailey, said he is more skeptical of the county's position. Higgins insisted the state would only pay the appraisal price on the land, and the county has massaged itself into a sort of “black hole” with its investment.

Gailey and Higgins are seeking the post now held by Richard Mecum, who is not seeking re-election.

The three contested seats are on the May 24 primary ballot. Early voting begins Monday.

Party faithful and local Republican officials, sweltering in the humid meeting hall, saw the candidates bring several issues to bear in the fight over Glades.

Incumbents Jeff Stowe and Billy Powell said they are seeking reimbursement and guaranteed water supply from the state if it takes over the project. Glades could also be a negotiating tool for lower water rates with Gainesville if the county can secure adequate drinking supply levels for area residents from the state.

Troy Phillips, Stowe's opponent in the District 4 race, said there was “little to nothing to show” for the Glades investment. It was an opening for Phillips, a Navy veteran, to tout his political brand at the local level, later extending his critique to include a proposed “rain tax” in the city of Gainesville to pay for stormwater infrastructure upgrades.

Phillips called the idea “liberal” and problematic for businesses.

Stowe said keeping property taxes low, which have been supported by impact fees and special purpose local option sales tax revenue, has kept the county without a need for such a tax.

But only Stowe and Powell expressed support for impact fees on new development, which help support corresponding growth in public safety and recreational services.

The other candidates said it's time to review or overhaul the fee schedule as an incentive to new and emerging businesses and homebuilders. Gailey said he was serving when impact fees emerged more than a decade ago, but now it’s time for them to go.

All the candidates have old roots in the area.

Eugene Moon, a longtime local businessman, challenged Powell four years ago. The two had a few rebuttals for each other in this new campaign, but each also took a hard line stance on Glades.

Moon said he wants the millions of dollars promised in the Governor’s Water Supply Program for the project.

Powell said the state has made its intentions on Glades known and that he is confident the county can be reimbursed.

Moon said it's also imperative that Hall not support a rain tax in Gainesville.

“It's plain-out taxation without representation,” he said.

Powell, however, warned that the water rate charged to Hall customers by Gainesville could increase if the city scraps its plans for a rain tax.

“By all means we will challenge that rate and do all we need to do to defend the citizens,” Powell said.