Commission chair candidates address public Commission strife

Matthew Strother

April 23, 2014

The two Republican candidates for Troup County Commission participated in a question-and-answer forum Tuesday, with one of the top issues addressed being the recent public division among the County Commission.

Candidate Frank Kirby said Troup County is near and dear to his heart and he wasn’t sure what to think after recent events with the County Commission. He said the commission needs to come together no matter how the members feel about each other behind closed doors. No matter what disagreements they may have personally, they need to show unity in the public eye so that people can get behind them.

Kirby said there recently was a large business looking at locating in Troup County, and worried the recent public disagreements in the County Commission would steer the business away. He said he wants to be able to “sell” Troup County, attracting businesses and people.

Candidate Patrick Crews also addressed the issue later in the forum after the candidates were posed a question about the recent public Commission debates.

“It is painful for me to see what Troup County’s been through the last several of months that played out, for sure,” Crews said. “But these are grown men on the board working to represent their district. I feel like each commissioner feels like he is doing his best job to represent citizens that voted for him and put him in office.”

Crews said as chairman, he would have to work with the commissioners, and nothing gets done on the Commission without a majority vote. He said he would make sure to sit with the commissioners and try to address the problems among them and address the issues, and said it would be a it would be a challenge, but he’s always worked to get people to a middle ground where they can make decisions. He said finding middle ground is not giving up on principles, but working to accomplish things together.

“I think it’s all about compromise,” Kirby said. “We had so many, over the years, heated discussions between captains, majors, me, the chief deputy, lieutenants, sergeants, but we always had those heated discussions behind closed doors. When we came out, it was as one unit, like a family, and we were always together. I don’t care what you think of each other and what you disagree on or agree on … If you want to disagree, or agree, have a meeting behind closed doors somewhere, don’t come out and have a heated, loud discussion where surrounding people and surrounding cities can see that.”

Addressing a question about the county manager style of government, Kirby said he supported it. He said someone needs to be in charge of running the day-to-day operations of the county every day.

Crews also supported it, saying that as chairman he would not be part of the day-to-day operations of the county. He said the commission is tasked with hiring someone competent for that job, but may have to call the manager in to talk about certain issues.

Addressing previous comments by Kirby, Crews said people he has spoken with all have said they don’t want a property tax increase. He said Kirby had proposed to raise public safety workers’ pay by 3.5 percent – a figure Kirby later denied, saying only that public safety officials were grossly underpaid and he wants to look at making pay more competitive – would cost the county an additional $260,000, and then that would mean looking at increasing the cost of other employees’ salaries as well.

Crews said he supported a survey of wage and benefits for county employees to see which need a raise, but wouldn’t support a flat percentage raise across the board.

He also addressed Kirby’s previous proposal to open the convenience centers seven days per week. Crews said the initial move to reduce the days convenience centers were open saved the county $111,000, and when he asked county officials what it would cost the county to open them seven days per week, he was told it would cost $802,000 total, and with the proposed salary increase, would bump the additional costs up to $1.3 million, a .7 millage increase.

Bill Gilmore, attending the meeting, later questioned Crews on the $802,000 figure, since the county had said closing the centers saved $111,000. Crews said it was the amount given to him by the county based on salaries, inmate costs, tipping fees and other related expenses to open all centers seven days per week.

Responding to a question about Tax Allocation Districts, or TAD, both candidates supported the idea of using the districts to help attract more businesses. Kirby said he would like to see a TAD “improvised” at the airport to add hangars for some businesses looking to locate there, like UPS or FedEx.

A followup question asked the candidates if they would support TAD as a policy for all businesses or expand its use.

Kirby said he would support using TAD on large businesses to help attract them to the county, but it wouldn’t be feasible to use on every business, because the government runs on taxes.

Crews also said he also wouldn’t support TAD on every business, but many businesses now look for incentives to locate in a community.

State Sen. Mike Crane, moderator, asked how the candidates would sell Troup County competing with not only surrounding Georgia counties, but Alabama.

Crews noted that a lot of people were disappointed when Kia came that it didn’t bring busloads of people with it, but said he believed that there are lots of local assets – like the lake, colleges and hospital – that need to be capitalized on. He said there are education needs and poverty is a problem, but building on existing assets can help sell the community.

Kirby asked why if LaGrange and Troup County are so attractive, there were only 100 building permits issued, compared to 800 in Coweta County and 900 issues in Lee County, Ala. He said it’s obvious the county is doing something wrong and needs to change to get people to live here.

“If we attract people to live here and build their houses, we will get the businesses,” Kirby said. “… But it’s quite obvious right now that we’re not getting people here.”

Kirby said Kia is great, but his only problem with it is that most of the people that came to work at the plant don’t live in LaGrange, repeating that there needs to be ways to attract people to live in the area.

Crews said that the biggest problem he heard from hiring company for Kia was that 25 percent of applicants fail the drug test. Although those aren’t all Troup County residents, Crews said there is a major drug problem in the community that everyone pays a price for and needs to be addressed.

“I’m glad Kia is here, they’ve written checks and donated to the schools and different organizations, including some, like the dental clinic, that I’ve been involved in,” Crews said. “I think it’s great to have something like Kia in our community.”

Crane asked how the candidates would propose to use private businesses for doing work like paving that has been handled by local government.

Crews said he is for free enterprise and if a company wants to contract with the county at a good price and is up to the standard of work, he would be open to working with them. He noted the county can also look at creative ways to bring in more revenue.

Kirby said he was in support of using local businesses for any work, like paving or repair of county assets. He said even though inmates may cost less to do work like paving, he speaks from personal experience that they don’t do as good a job as a private contractor, and said the county government should go out of its way to do business with Troup County merchants.

Crews said that people have criticized the government for not tightening its belt when they were feeling the economic crunch. He said with his background in private business, the first thing he would do is ask each department head to try and cut 3 percent from their budgets.

Crane asked if the candidates are in favor of the special-purpose, local-option sales tax – SPLOST – and what projects they would support.

Crews said he agrees with the SPLOST because people vote on whether they want it, and it collects tax revenue people coming from out of town as well. He said he hears complaints from people about what projects have been funded under SPLOST, and said he would propose more ways to gain residents’ inputs on projects.

Kirby said he agrees with SPLOST as well, but that people should decide what to do with it, “100 percent … because there are a lot of people not happy with what we’ve done with our SPLOST.” He said a vote by the commission based on residents’ input may be a better way to determine what SPLOST projects to fund.

Crane said there is currently a proposal in the General Assembly for widening what the SPLOST can be used for, since it currently can only be used for capital improvement projects.

Kirby said he would support that, because it could be used to pay salaries and otherwise supplement the county’s general fund.

Crews said he would like to study the matter further before making a decision, noting certain people have favored eliminating property taxes for sales taxes, which he said is a great idea in concept, but can have an effect on the tax base because sales tax is less predictable than property tax.

Crane asked whether the candidates would be in favor of a tax increase, including SPLOST.

Crews said he stuck by using SPLOST as long as there is residents’ input. He said no one wants an increase in property tax, but said there are ways to creatively increase revenues, noting that firefighters told him there is an opportunity to charge a driver’s insurance company when the fire department responds to a wreck on the interstate.

Kirby said he supported SPLOST, but not property tax increases. He addressed Crews’ idea of the fire department charging insurance companies, but said that would cost residents to whose homes firefighters respond as well, so said he would not support it because it would be another fee for residents.

Crews said he supports looking at salaries and benefits, but also returning a sense of pride to county workers. He said the recent public problems with the County Commission have splashed issues with employees on the front page of the news, demoralizing employees.