ALBANY, Ga. -- Candidates seeking seats on the Dougherty County Commission fielded questions from a panel of local media representatives during an event sponsored and hosted by the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce Thursday.
Candidates Lonnie Smith and Richard Thomas made opening statements, answered three questions from representatives of local papers and television stations, and gave closing statements in front of an audience that included mostly chamber representatives with a few members of the general public.
District 2 County Commissioner John Hayes, whom Smith will challenge in the fall general election, issued a statement to those present through a family member saying he could not attend due to a previously scheduled work-related conflict and receiving late notice about the event from organizers.
Smith spoke first at the forum, saying in his opening statement that he generally believes the Commission is doing a good job, but that he believes increased efforts should be directed to recruiting and retaining jobs.
"Because of the lost jobs, people are moving to find work which causes us to lose our tax base, and that cuts into the county's revenues," Smith said. "It's all connected."
Smith was asked by the panel about furloughs, crime and what kinds of jobs he believed needed to be courted for Dougherty County to be successful.
He responded that next year's economic situation may be worse than it is currently and that furloughs may be part of the new norm. Smith also said he believes the key to fighting crime is to have police focus on problem neighborhoods, and that industrial and high-tech jobs could be integrated into training at places like Albany Technical College.
In his statement, which was read next, Hayes said that he has worked hard to try and keep the citizens of his district informed about the work the Commission is doing.
Specifically, he mentioned his quarterly listening sessions, to which he brings the county leadership -- including Administrator Richard Crowdis and various department heads -- to the people to hear their concerns and answer their questions.
If re-elected, Hayes said he intends to continue a push for appropriate fiscal discipline as the county continues to weather the economic recession and that he would continue to advocate for "ongoing development of infrastructure," in the county.
Hayes mentioned his position on public safety, specifically a street light initiative that has helped illuminate portions of the unincorporated areas, and said he would continue to push for improving safety at school zones and flashing signals.
The statement also mentioned Hayes' desire for ongoing community development through innovative projects and programs.
The race between Hayes and Smith is the only contested race among major-party candidates for the Dougherty County Commission that will be decided in the November general election.
Thomas said he would attack government waste by focusing on essential vs. non-essential programs and services, and on privatization of services.
When asked to point out an example of waste, Thomas spoke of what he called the abject poverty of East Albany, calling incumbent Commissioner Jack Stone's inaction as the city set up a Tax Allocation District which he says will funnel money from the new Wal-Mart site into downtown "reprehensible."
The Tax Allocation District which was adopted by the city, the County Commission and Dougherty School Board before being approved by voters, works by collecting taxes on improvements done to any property within the TAD and then using that money to improve other properties within the TAD.
The way the TAD is currently drawn, it incorporates much of the downtown area, parts of East Albany by the Flint River, before coming up Oglethorpe Boulevard and including property around the intersection of Clark Avenue and Cordele Road, including the Harveys Grocery Store Plaza and a pecan grove behind a truck stop on Clark.
"It's reprehensible to allow 20,000 people to live in abject poverty and to allow the TAD to encircle downtown, leapfrog 4 miles over the river and pick up Wal-Mart, only to have the funding to go back into downtown," Thomas said.
In response to a question about jobs, he said he believes that the days of big industry in Albany are gone, and that small businesses should be courted.
Asked about consolidation, Thomas said he believed that the voters should have an opportunity to vote on issues that directly affect them.
Stone, who had also had a conflict and couldn't attend the forum, went on the offensive against Thomas afterward, saying District 6 needs someone who understands the needs of that district and someone who can get them met.
"How can he sit there and call everyone on the Commission corrupt and then expect to be able to work with them if he gets elected?" Stone said during an interview after the forum. "If he's elected, nothing will get done in my district. No way, no how and not ever."
Stone said it was his ability to work with commissioners during his term in office that led to two EMS stations and a fire station being built in the district, roads being paved, and the extension of corridor Z.
As to the TAD issue, Stone accused Thomas of telling "half-truths" and said that any money that is collected through use of the TAD will ultimately go back to where it is collected to help develop the area.
"The people need to know what kind of man he is," Stone said. "How can he stand there and talk about waste when he got a hundred thousand dollars of their money by suing the county? With that and the poison-egg mess, do the people really want someone like that in office?"
Stone's references are to a lawsuit filed in 1999 against Stone and the rest of the Dougherty County Commission by Thomas and Elizabeth Klemann in which Thomas alleged the county came onto his property while attempting to clear land near Piney Woods Creek and killed the ecosystem by clearing the land without his authority.
The county, which initially denied the allegations in the suit, settled it in 2000.
The other issue involved the poisoning of chicken eggs by Thomas, who said he was trying to kill predators on Albelmarle Plantation. Thomas was subsequently charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor. He pleaded guilty in U.S. Magistrate Court in 2000 and was fined $500, which he paid.