The two candidates for Effingham County Commission chairman share a number of the same goals, such as having the county government work collaboratively with Effingham’s municipalities and other local boards in the county’s best interests, establishing stronger ethical guidelines for county employees and officials, and bringing smart growth to the county.
However, one of them spoke more bluntly than the other at Tuesday’s candidate forum hosted by the Effingham Chamber of Commerce.
“Everybody wants to hear that you’re going to lower taxes. But I cannot see that in the short term,” said Republican businessman Wendall Kessler, who will face retired educator and Democrat Franklin Goldwire in the Nov. 6 election.
That comment concluded Kessler’s answer to the question of how to alleviate the tax burden on Effingham County homeowners. Goldwire responded to the question first, saying that recruiting more businesses to Effingham would give some relief to property owners.
“I believe (residential) tax payers are paying around 80 percent of the tax burden,” Goldwire said. “If we can bring in new commercial/industrial or other types of businesses, then we’ll be able to change that trend. But until that happens, we’ll continue to have the tax burden on citizens.”
However, Kessler contended that the property taxes he pays in Effingham are lower than the ones he pays in four other counties — Chatham, Bryan, Bulloch and White. He said his larger concern is the multiple lawsuits that have been filed against the county, mostly relating to water/sewer issues.
“In order to settle those litigations and get those behind us,” Kessler said, “it’s probably going to amount to us not being able to lower property taxes in the short term, because our debt that’s going to be created by those litigation settlements is probably going to require every penny.”
It was the first of two times Kessler brought up the millions of dollars in lawsuits the county is facing. He also discussed it when the candidates were asked if they would support strengthening the county’s ethics policies.
“Without ethics in government, you have no government, in my opinion,” he said. “A lot of this litigation as I understand with this county is about the county breaking its word. That’s unethical.”
Goldwire agreed that, “no question about it,” the county needs stronger policies for “making individuals responsible for their behavior or lack thereof or a broken promise. It is a way of keeping individuals accountable at all levels as to their behavior and conduct.”
Since water/sewer is the subject of lawsuits and makes up a large portion of the county’s budget, the candidates were asked what could be done to lower the cost of water and sewer services. Goldwire suggested collaboration between the county and municipalities.
“From what I understand, at least one or two of the cities are willing to create a joint effort that would lessen the burden on the county,” Goldwire said. “So it’s just a matter, in my belief, of getting the cities and the county government together to work out a plan to make that happen.”
Kessler pointed to the experience he and Goldwire both have serving on the Effingham County Board of Equalization, which hears appeals on property assessments by the Effingham County Board of Tax Assessors.
“This seems like a simple, quick fix,” Kessler said. “I’ve been involved in tax equalization issues in which I see in one municipality a property owner not being able to sell their property because they don’t have sewage available. When this county has a sewage system that has capacity, why can’t we work something out with the city of Guyton, the city of Rincon, the city of Springfield, whomever?”
At a time when the county commission has been mired in controversy, Kessler and Goldwire were asked about improving the public perception of the board. Kessler said the county commission must “present a unified front” not only to the people of Effingham County and neighboring communities, but also to state officials — since the county will count on the state’s help to fund necessary projects.
“I have been told that Effingham has become kind of a laughingstock. I don’t like that,” Kessler said. “Being on the outside looking in, I do not understand how we can have so much divisiveness, but I have been told that, once I get elected, it will all become clear. That scares me.”
Goldwire said the “first thing” he would do to address that would be to arrange for the board to receive training on problem solving and conflict resolution.
“There are certain professional expectations that are expected of elected officials,” he said, “and I’d like for us to follow the mission of our county commission which says that, through integrity, the commissioners are to provide a high level of government that provides health and safety and promotes a productive community.”