From fire stations to libraries to water and sewer debt, Effingham County commission candidates staked their positions and their claims to the three seats up for election this month.
The Effingham Chamber of Commerce sponsored a candidates’ forum Tuesday night in front of more than 200 people at the Effingham College and Career Academy. The three seats — Districts 2, 3 and 5 — will be decided in the May 20 Republican primary.
But the candidates tried to display their differences as well in the hour-long event, though they also found some common ground, particularly on library funding. The county used to split the library funding with the board of education.
“Library funding was an interesting situation,” said David Crawley, the District 5 challenger who also was county administrator for five years. “I think over time, there needs to be some cooperative relationships built with the cities, since both our libraries are located in cities, to help fund those facilities.”
Third District Commissioner Steve Mason noted the library offered its own budget cuts, but as commissioners have started to work on the fiscal year 2015 spending plan, there has been no contact with library officials about their requested increase in support.
“Yes, the library needs to be funded more,” Mason said. “This year, we had an increase in the digest and rather than funding the library we decided to do an across-the-board pay increase.”
Said Jamie Deloach, the 3rd District challenger: “We need to have the library, if we can, open on the weekends.”
Phil Kieffer, the 5th District incumbent, said his wife had taken their kids to the Rincon library earlier Tuesday and issued his support, adding commissioners have to try to find more funding for the library this year.
The Springfield branch is closed on the weekends, and the Rincon library is closed on Thursdays and Sundays. Second District Commissioner Vera Jones also backed more support for the library and added she was not aware the Springfield library was closed on the weekends.
Dusty Zeigler, Jones’ opponent who was county commission chairman when the county’s funding lessened, said there is room in the budget for the library.
“If that’s what the people want, then my goodness, get it done,” he said. “The important thing is for the commissioners to be more in touch with the library and be more familiar with the library’s programs so they can create synergies with the county’s activities and integrate the library’s activities with the schools. These are things I tried to emphasize and I was berated for, because people thought I was against the library. That’s not the case here, folks.”
Mason said the libraries offer needed services to county residents.
“We assume everyone has access to the Internet,” Mason said. “But there are many people who don’t. It’s important to a lot of people.”
The recently-approved deal between the county and Rincon for a fire station near Blue Jay and McCall roads also drew questions, as did the county’s overall fire strategy.
“The Rincon deal is one of the best and smartest things we have done in a long time,” said Jones. “It is the example most citizens have been screaming for forever, for the county and the municipalities to learn to start working together, and we’re finally starting to do that.”
Jones, along with Kieffer, said they did not support building a county fire station on Goshen Road Extension.
“I would not have spent $1.6 million for the Goshen fire station that I voted against, and it’s in my district,” Kieffer said. “I voted against it because it was not the right thing to do at that price. It includes an EMS substation, but even our own EMS department told us it’s not the (best) location to serve the county.”
Mason opposed the Rincon fire station agreement, primarily because he was not in favor of having the city annex 66 acres of land that are not next to the city limits.
“We could have built in a different location and gotten a better bang for our buck,” he said.
Mason also pushed for more fire coverage in the northern and western parts of the county, where some homeowners — whose houses are a class 10 in ISO ratings, which are a factor in insurance premiums — can’t get insurance coverage.
“Two years of our contract with Rincon would pay for a rural station in the north end of the county,” he said. “I would rather see us take care of the areas that can’t get insurance or have the higher ISOs.”
Deloach said the county needs to look at the timing and if it has the funds available.
“Any time we can lower the ISO, that is important for our citizens,” he said.
Zeigler said he was grateful there was discussion about a fire station in the Blue Jay/McCall road area. He lives there, and his house is rated at a 10 for ISO purposes.
“My insurance is very expensive right now,” he said. “It’s a good decision. Is it the best decision? I don’t know. The fire station could have been in a better place.”
Zeigler added the county should work to get lower ISO ratings for homeowners currently with a class 10 designation.
Crawley said the plan for establishing fire stations was set up in the short-term work program, as part of long-range planning when he was county administrator. The plan covered where stations would be built and how they would be funded.
“I don’t believe that plan has been followed over the last two years,” he said.
How to handle the county’s large debt on its water and sewer infrastructure also showed divisions among the candidates. The county has almost $26 million in loans with the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority.
Commissioners met recently with Trey Monroe of Merchant Capital to discuss issuing bonds to meet the debt, though they have not adopted that course of action.
“I think there are several things we need to look at,” said Deloach, who is the Rincon branch manager of the Coastal Bank. “We’re paying GEFA back. We need to make sure if we continue to go with GEFA, we need to make sure that’s the way to go. If we look at another option, there are fees that could be increased. If we stretch the term out, it’s the interest you’ll pay out and in turn, more money out of the taxpayers’ pocket.”
Crawley warned that the bonds may not be the best option and could wind up being expensive.
“There is as much as $1 million in fees to borrow that money,” he said. “I couldn’t see doing that as this point in time.”
Zeigler pushed to continue with the GEFA loans.
“GEFA needs programs like this to work,” he said. “That’s the reason for their existence. GEFA will be more lenient than any other financing source. Is an outside funding source going to be as lenient if a default were to happen? GEFA would work with the county any way it could, even if it meant to skip payments.”
Zeigler continued that the county should not “make any slush fund approaches to paying any parts of the loan off.”
Jones said the county’s loans with GEFA do not comply with the law and blaming developers for the county’s water and sewer system and its incumbent debt was wrong.
“We did not have to have it,” she said. “In many cases, didn’t want it, asked to not even have it.”
Jones laid the blame on previous commissioners for the financial burden.
“The county devised a plan a long time ago to borrow, instead of doing things in phases,” she said. “The county did just the opposite of every planning manual known to man. They just went out and borrowed a bunch of money and they promised the taxpayers that no existing taxpayers would have to pay for it. At the same time, they were signing resolutions that were pledging the tax dollars of those taxpayers, knowing they didn’t have the users.”
She said refinancing is a start to addressing the debt, but the county also needs users on the system.
“We’ve got to look at other options,” Kieffer said. “We need users.”
Kieffer said defaulting on the loan is not an option and supported pursuing a bond issue.
Mason called for a public facilities authority, that would not have taxing power, to be set up.
“The way I see this is happening, for lack of a better term, is a company, and all the players become a stockholder,” he said. “Everyone has ownership in it. The county has lots of capacity; there are some cities that need capacity. It’s absolutely ludicrous for us to even be discussing building another treatment plant in this county.”
The county takes in about $180,000 a year in revenue from its water and sewer system. Its debt service payment each month for its loans is more than $200,000 a month.
“I’m not an accountant,” Mason said, “but I can tell you that’s not good.”
Crawley said the county’s debt stemmed from the Effingham Industrial Development Authority’s condemnation of the Research Forest Tract. There were plans for 6,000 homes on the more than 2,500 acres there.
“That’s why the county’s treatment plant is where it is,” he said. “That was the funding that was going to help pay for the system.”
The issue isn’t expenses but rather revenues, according to Crawley.
“We’re not getting enough in impact fees,” he said. “Refinancing alone just kicks the can down the road. The county needs to incentivize development along where it has infrastructure so it can get impact fees and it can get customers. That’s the real issue at hand — we need to put people on the infrastructure where we have it.”
Agreements on disagreements
Candidates also broached the subject of dissension and rancor among the current commissioners and its effect on the county’s public perception.
“First we need to identify what is the dissension,” Kieffer said. “We’ve got to know what we’re trying to work out. I’m all for sitting down to work through it.”
Jones cited her years on the school board and pointed out there were disagreements among the members, but they managed to work together.
“It can be done,” she said. “Politics, unfortunately, is politics. A lot of times, if you’re doing something, you make some people very happy and some people very angry. I stopped us having committee meetings that were unadvertised. Sometimes dissension is healthy, if it’s handled in a healthy way.”
Zeigler used an example from his career in professional football as to how people can and should overlook their differences. He also said disagreements can stir imagination and creativity in people.
“I played on teams where I didn’t like the guy next to me,” he said, “but we went to the Super Bowl anyway. But we put our differences aside and focused on what’s important. I did it for the last two years of my tour of duty as chairman. I wasn’t very friendly with the folks on the board, but we got it done.”
Deloach urged commissioners not to make any conflicts personal.
“There are six different opinions,” he said, “and from time to time, you are going to have disagreements. If you have a difference, you need to work it out professionally and keep open communication.”
Crawley, who was forced out of office last year, said there is nothing wrong with board members disagreeing in a meeting but still being able to go to lunch together afterward.
“I don’t see that anymore,” he lamented, “and I don’t know when politics in Effingham got so angry. I don’t know how you correct that. There needs to be some changes in people’s attitudes. We can disagree but respect each other enough to have a civil conversation.”
Mason said the current commissioners agree much more often than they disagree — but when there is a split, it’s on a major topic.
“There are times when you either agree with some people on this board, or you’re wrong,” he said.
Mason pointed to the Springfield City Council as a model for how elected boards can function.
“Their council has grabbed the wagon and pulled in the same direction and the Mars Theatre is a huge success,” he explained. “That’s an example of a board working together.”
If citizens are frustrated with the government, Mason said they can change things.
“The solution is the election,” he said.