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Lee Commission candidates differ on issues

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG, Ga. -- One of the key issues that has developed in the often contentious battle between incumbent Ed Duffy and challenger Lester Leggette in the Lee County Commission District 3 Republican primary race is a recently completed restructuring of some $22 million in debt incurred by the county's Utilities Authority.

With the assistance of Trey Monroe, a vice president with Atlanta-based Merchant Capital, the Lee Commission -- after receiving a AA- bond rating from Standard & Poor's in New York -- refinanced the debt at a lower interest rate.

Duffy and Monroe have said the action saved Lee County taxpayers from having to pony up $7.7 million over the next seven years to make up for a projected budgetary shortfall, while Leggette has claimed the restructuring will end up costing taxpayers $7.3 million additional dollars over the extended life of the debt repayment.

"If we hadn't done the restructuring, the majority of the debt owed by the Utilities Authority would have been paid off by 2019-2020," Leggette said. "And that debt would have been paid by all the taxpayers in the county. Now, the debt has been shifted from the whole county to the 5,000 customers of the Utilities Authority.

"And it looks to me like the debt has been extended to 2032 and beyond. By the time my children -- or it may be my grandchildren -- end up paying off the loan, it will have gone from $22 million to $38 million. I would not have voted for that."

Duffy, meanwhile, has pointed to information provided by Monroe that refutes Leggette's claim.

"Due to declining housing starts and water conservation efforts mandated by the state, the Utilities Authority was faced with a shortfall of $1,100,000 in fiscal 2011 and every year after that, up to and including 2018," Monroe said. "That's $7.7 million over seven years.

"To cover the shortfall, the Authority could do one of two things: ask the county to raise the property taxes of every taxpayer (utilities customer or not) by approximately 10 percent, or if you are a utilities customer, raise your monthly fixed charge for both water AND sewer by 50 percent."

Duffy admitted to being puzzled over Leggette's contention that the Commission has been "fiscally irresponsible" during Duffy's four years on the Board.

"As I've visited the people in the subdivisions of the Palmyra District, the main concern is taxes," the current Commission chair said. "People are constantly saying to me, 'Please don't raise our taxes.' And I immediately inform them that we haven't done that in the four years I've been in office.

"I also inform them that we just balanced the Fiscal Year 2010-2011 budget in this down economy with no tax increase, no layoffs and no furloughs. Plus, the new budget includes funding to hire 19 new Public Safety employees."

Leggette, an anesthetist, has also expressed concern about the county's use of the Grand Island Club and the planned construction of a library branch/conference center off U.S. Highway 82.

The challenger, who previously served on the Utilities Authority but has never held elected office, said he opposed county ownership of the golf/tennis club earlier in the campaign, but he said that issue is moot. What he's advocating now is better usage of the facility.

"The time to ask whether or not the county should own Grand Island has passed," he said. "But what we don't need to do is keep trimming the fat to make it look like the club is making money. They've trimmed all the way into the muscle.

"The pool at Grand Island is in awful shape, and the tennis courts are only adequate. You're not going to sell family memberships without a pool, yet the pool out there has a few inches of standing water and is full of bullfrogs and mosquitoes."

Leggette also chided Duffy for "spending so much money at one development (Oakland) at the expense of all other developments." He said locating the library/conference center, which will get $2 million in state funding, in the Oakland development was a bad move.

"First of all, that location off (U.S. Highway) 82 is not a good location for a library," Leggette said. "No kids can get to it on that busy highway. And what's amazing is that (the Commission) picked that site and paid a substantial sum of money for it, even though there were other locations that had been offered to the county at no cost."

Duffy, meanwhile, said he's focused on the issues that matter most to Lee Countians: taxes, services and attracting retail businesses.

"The main priority in this county is not raising taxes while furnishing the citizens the services that protect their health, safety and welfare," the retired businessman said. "To reach those goals, it is incumbent upon this Board to stay the course. We have to stay on message, do everything in our power to acquire commercial development to increase the local-option sales tax money vital to our future growth.

"This county's population was 6,000 in 1980; now it's around 36,000.

By 2015, we're expecting 45,000, and by 2025 our population is projected to be around 60,000. We have to plan on investing in our infrastructure, but in that planning we must maintain the things that make us a quality-of-life community. We want our growth to be the right kind of growth."

Since no Lee County Democrat qualified for the Commission race, the winner of Tuesday's primary election will claim a four-year term as the Palmyra District's commissioner in January.