On Monday night, three former Peachtree City mayors locked horns in the single debate marking the 2014 county commission race.
With the recent redistricting shifting, a swath of Peachtree City has been carved out to make up the bulk of the new District 3.
Right out of the gate, candidates handed out pointed references to their competition in a forum that bounced from discussion of the Fayette County Development Authority, what do they feel are duties that would be most important for Fayette residents, their position on switching from the Atlanta Regional Commission to the Three Rivers Commission, current issues with the county’s stormwater problems, and, ultimately, their stance on district voting.
“For seven years I’ve stressed the need for good paying office and industrial jobs,” noted Don Haddix. “In contrast, Harold Logsdon has pursued retail - Wilshire rezoning, Southern Pines annexation and rezoning, the Horse Farm annexation and rezoning, a traffic light at Line Creek and Hwy. 54 - all for the purposes of building more retail and another traffic light to cause more congestion on 54 that we do not need.
“As for Steve Brown, I’m really not sure what his focus is on development because he gets involved in everything. I believe that when you handle problems, you have to handle them correctly. The water department problem is a long known problem, but it was not handled until there was a crisis. They said it was unknown and the issues were hidden. That’s not true, because I had filed a lot of issues with the county. And when there was still bad water coming out of the tap, they were telling people to go ahead and drink the water, it was safe. Water problems are legal issues, not public service issues.”
Haddix went on to point out that the county’s stormwater infrastructure problems had not been handled properly, calling the proposed Core Infrastructure Special Local Option Sales Tax defeated in the November General Election was “total confusion and unwarranted.” Haddix also took issue with the $1.4 million the county had spent on the unfunded bypass project.
“That’s just like the $850,000 spent in Peachtree City on an unfunded golf cart project.”
Haddix put Logsdon in the center of the tennis center ‘fiasco,’ when he bailed out that issue and “sunk the city for $1.5 million. To this very day, the taxpayers are still paying that.”
Haddix also said that, at the time, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said the matter needed to be investigated.
“Also conduct like forming a partnership with the city manager - that’s just not right folks. You don’t do that. And Harold Logsdon is a close friend and supporter of Jack Smith, former county commission chairman. We don’t need to go back to that thinking. And Steve Brown is four more years of what we went through. I think we can do better. I’m a fiscal conservative, who stands up for his constituents, and not special interests.”
Current county commission chairman Steve Brown said that “2013 signaled significant changes in the way business is handled at the county level. We’ve seen an economic momentum like you’ve never seen and it is going to continue. You’ve seen a change in the way business is handled and there is an openness and transparency like there has never been before in Fayette County. You’ve got a college campus starting in the center of the county. It’s something I’ve been working on since 2002 when I was mayor of Peachtree City. It was 2002 when we brought the first Clayton State satellite to the tennis center now it’s starting to bud in the center of the county.”
Brown said that the interchange at interstate 85 and highway 74 is “a reality” whose improvements will happen as they have already been budgeted and scheduled for 2015.
“We’ve made tough decisions. Don was right about the water. We have completely dismantled the system we had, we put in new personnel and we’ve put millions of dollars into it and have hired the best engineering firm in the world who are doing marvelous things for the system. The 2013 county commission has been accountable to the voters. You will have one of the best systems in the state when we are finished.”
As far as the county’s stormwater problems go, Brown agreed that there were decades of repair that needed to be done, specifically on three major dams in the county.
“One is ready to go, really. And it’s going to cause a loss of life and/or property if we dont’ do something about it. We have invested millions of dollars going after those problems.
“The board of commissioners, at our first meeting in January, gave a list of our values and our beliefs, starting with the Golden Rule, saying we want to treat you the way we want to be treated. We mounted that on a wall; we didn’t hide it in a book someplace. We challenge our citizens each and every meeting to see that we live up to that.”
Brown called the county cooperation with Fayetteville over the Pinewood annexation and rezoning “an award winning collaboration.”
Former mayor Harold Logsdon said the county was on the threshold of “enormous opportunities but needs the right person in office to effectively address these opportunities.
“Education ahs been one of our assets in the county. The superintendent and the board of education ensure that we have the highest possible education in the public schools but we can do more and look for new opportunities. Fayette is one of the largest communities in Georgia but doesn’t not have a technical college. Something else we can do better. With Pinewood Studios here in Fayette County, they’ve already kickstarted an era of higher education. Leaders need to come together, step forward and take advantage of this chance to have a direct impact on education at every possible opportunity. Over the next four years, we’re going to face major issues and our continued success will depend on planning and vision. Planning and visioning is the hub of the wheel that will drive us into the future. The spokes represent the issues and their connectivity will determine the viability of our county. These issues will be the impact of quality growth versus our desire to maintain a small town image. Addressing the needs of growing senior population. Attracting young professionals to this community by promoting live, work and play. Working with business and industry to provide skilled a workforce and building positive relationships with our cities and state. Successful communities select own path and you do that through strong, effective leadership.”
When questioned on their stance on district voting and whether they believed the new district map was severely gerrymandered, candidates werent’ hesitant to step up to the plate.
“Well, we voted to send it to the appellate court, so I think we’re opposed to it,” said Brown. “ The NAACP map is also heavily gerrymandered based on race. Case law says you can’t do that and we’re going to set a precedent in the United States if this goes through. I don’t know how it’s going to end up. There was a possible solution. My board gave me the approval to go and talk with the plaintiffs about a resolution. We were outright denied the ability to speak with them. We tried everything in our power. We weren’t told the case was going to land until it landed. I know the plaintiffs personally and I’m disappointed in the way this has turned out. I don’t see it doing anything to help this. I think it’s making things more contentious and I’m sad to see it. One of the plaintiffs said, in a letter to the newspaper, that it wasn’t about electing African Americans, but it was about electing who we wanted. That’s not what they said in their legal briefs. We think it’s about electing Democrats. And there is no constitutional protection for electing Democrats. You put your best ideas on the table, you fight the good fight and at the end of the day we’ll see. What we have now is a rift in our county and I hope we can heal it. We have a lot at stake.”
Logsdon said he thought the current county commission actually had the advantage of the advice of counsel on the appeal that he didn’t have access to.
“We gave to trust elected officials; they’ve decided to go forward with this appeal. I’ve been told that the attorneys for county are convinced that they will win on appeal. That they will prevail, much like Cynthia McKinney district that was thrown out on unlawful gerrymandering. This looks same way according to what I’ve been told by some attorneys. The cost isn’t going to be that much more going forward since we have spent it up front. They’re just making same argument to a group of judges. The percentage of cost will be small going foward. We’ve gotten in the fight whether wanted to not. When I’m elected, and get to sit down with the attorney and have advantage of the information the current commission has, then I can make an informed decision on that. Right now, the people talked to that our attorneys are convinced they can win this on appeal.”
Similarly, Haddix also pointed to a lack of information that is protected by attorney/client privilege.
“It’s hard to land on a definitive statement, so I’ll paint the best picture I can. I do not support preferential voting. I don’t support preferential treatment. I’ve lived in places where this has happened before. It’s never proved to be constructive. It’s always proved to be destructive. It divides the county, not unites it. To say yes or no to pursue it-- I don’t have the chance to review original pleadings or original case law. Without that, it would not be right to land on a definitive statement. I don’t like district voting. I never have. I wanted the county to be one district so anybody could run and everybody could vote.”
During the course of the only real debate the county commission candidates for Post 3 will see, three former mayors of Peachtree City - Steve Brown, Don Haddix and Harold Logsdon- bounced from topic to topic as questions arose throughout the event. In a previous edition, Fayette Newspapers has presented the commission candidates introductions of their platforms and their answers to questions on district voting. But those weren’t the only high octane questions being asked that night.
One of the topics of questions arose out of a recent public revelation that the county’s newest economic development engine, Pinewood Studios, would not realize tax income for the county on their property for years.
Residents wanted to know if candidates agreed with the county and board of education stance that they should not be kept in the dark when it came to tax abatement issues and what would they do if the Fayette County Development Authority did so.
Haddix noted that, in fact, by state statutes, the FCDA had done nothing wrong and they had a right to keep these discussions in executive session and that it was common practice for development authorities to do this.
“Of course, once it’s done, it should be public record. And even thought it wasn’t illegal, the development authority should be consulting with the governing body that authorizes them, especially when it comes to an issue that could cause tax debt. Do I think it was handled correctly? No. It should have been handled differently. You want to give citizens a chance to see it.”
Haddix also noted that the commission’s stance about communication problems with the FCDA was accurate.
“We have to have a strong FCDA and I will do everything that I can to make it strong.”
Brown himself has been a critic of the same communication problems.
“The board of education and the board of commissioners should be included in that process. The development authority does have the ability, as a quasi statutory government through the state to create these abatements and bonds on their own without our permission. But we’re talking about hundreds of millions of tax dollars. We should be involved.”
Brown noted the current commission “demands accountability. We have stood for accountability and when you’re going to put that much money on the line, when it’s going to come out of the bottom line of the county board of commissioners and board of education, you had better include us in the discussion.”
Brown said that at a meeting with the FCDA leadership, the commission said that they wanted to be included in the discussion and that they wanted their own attorney to review whatever deal was brewing.
“Unfortunately, the deal happened and we found out about it after the fact. There were several other deals that happened that we didn’t know about. We can’t have a shadow institution working in the background handling hundreds of millions of tax dollars. We have a fiduciary responsibility to the county.”
Logsdon said that the board of commissioners was entitled to the information, but “the Peachtree City council knew about it. The Fayetteville council knew about it. I didn’t really know about it but I assumed what was going on. Pinewood has been in the works for months, if not years. “
Logsdon noted that if he were on the commission, he wouldn’t “be sitting there waiting for them to come tell us. I’ll be knocking on their door. I will find out. We won’t get blindsided.”
Candidates were also asked what they felt were the duties that citizens found most important.
“One of the things that is most important is looking out for those with the least protection. A lot orf senior citizens who reside in Fayette County have come to me and said ‘I have a problem with the county, I’ve been working on it for years, I can’t get it resolved.’ The county didn’t want to take the time to work with individuals and get something done and we’ve corrected a lot of those problems.”
Brown pointed to accountability of using county funds wisely.
“The West Fayetteville Bypass was a fraud,” he said, noting that current comments about the location of Pinewood Studios on the bypass weren’t valid and that commuters could get to Pinewood from Highway 74 to Sandy Creek Road.
“We killed phase three of that bypass because even the federal and state government wouldn’t give us money for that road, That’s how bad it was. Looking out for those things, being ethically conscious, give citizens the ability to say whatever they want to say, whenever they want to say it. And in this commission you do have that ability, like no other government in Fayette County.”
Logsdon believed that being “great stewards of taxpayer money” was important.
“Need to address the needs of a growing senior population. On top of that it’s important that we work to make this a dynamic community. Not one that is dying in place. We have to attract young professional here, young professionals with families that go in our schools. Our most important responsibility is the overall picture of the viability of this county.
“I’ve looked into it and there are a lot of things going on today that are not in the best interest of your taxpayer dollars.” Logsdon didn’t enumerate those items.
Brown said that, despite Logsdon’s generic comments to the contrary, the Fayetteville council “didn’t know about the tax abatements until after it was done. I invite you to go ask them. Also, if we’re going to cite financial impropriety, we should give an examples of where we think it has taken place.”
“It’s hard to put your finger on one issue,” said Haddix, ”so I’ll put my finger on the one thing that everything else revolves around. Money. Without money, no senior citizens, no roads, no cart paths, no landscaping. Nothing. You have to have money. What drives money? Jobs, so I’m right back to my old mantra of we need industrial and office jobs that pay good salaries and increase the tax base. More money coming in from jobs fills up retail space; retail space sells homes because of the increased amount of revenue; increase homes, increase amount people spend. It’s a circular thing that feeds on itself. It helps keep taxes down while at the same time you’re generating more revenue.
“The best dreams in the world are meaningless if you can’t pay for them.”
Another question had to do with the counties participation in the Atlanta Regional Commission.
“Is regional governance the best way to address regional issues like transportation and air quality?”
“I don’t know if you call what we have regional governance,” said Logsdon. “The don’t have the authority over any of us, but I’m a supporter of the ARC. The funnel the money through. They dictate a lot of what goes on in our region. Like air pollution- we have to follow the edicts they put out.”
Logsdon said he didn’t support leaving the ARC. “I believe we have to have and maintain local authority, You can’t have regional governance and make it work. I don’t think the ARC represents regional governance. It’s been there for years. The ARC and those commissions have been here for a long time and they serve us well.”
Haddix called the ARC a “mixed bag” and agreed there needed to be some kind of regional structure to allow for mutual planning and mutual aid and good engineering.
“But I have worked with the ARC in the past and there is a push on to regionalize and urbanize the whole area. They want Fayette County to be urbanized. There is rail and bus for here. There is control centralized within agencies or the ARC. That is regional government. I have no use for that and am totally opposed to it.
“The ARC is trying to outgrow its function of being an assistant and aid to the counties and become the controller of the counties. I know a lot of mayors and commissioners through the region and they’ve told me ‘we need a regional government and a regional mayor’. I’m not in love with the ARC, but I know we need some kind of regional structure in place to help counties get along with each other and have some agency to bring high, extensive engineering to all of us to help us with our needs.”
Brown said he was the leading spokesperson for the opposition during the TSPLOST battle two years ago.
“They were going to create a regional taxation arm and that meant you were going to pay the tax whether you wanted to or not. You were going to pay for projects in other counties, regardless of whether they were good projects or not.
“The problem with that is, once you get in it, you can never get out. The problem is there’s a lot of difference between what Gwinnett County thinks is a great idea and what Fayette County thinks is a great idea. If you want a homogenized, one-size-fits-all, which is what they were attempting to do... I don’t want to live like Gwinnett County.
“As long as we protect home rule, and we’re not forced into regional taxation to pay for other people’s projects, I’m okay with the ARC. We need to think about what the differences are. We need to think about what regional governance is. Half the people on the ARC board are citizen participants with no accountability to the citizens of any jurisdiction, but they make decisions that affect you.”
It was inevitable that the problems with the county’s stormwater infrastructure and the recent efforts to find funding sources and prioritize those efforts would come to a head at a debate. One resident wanted to know that, if new construction came back strong in Fayette County, would the commission consider using impact fees from that new construction to fund the stormwater program or at least minimize the cost to current residents.
“We don’t have a stormwater fund,” Brown pointed out. “We do have a stormwater utility, much like Peachtree City and Fayetteville does. It’s been that preferred method of working with it. If you have a lot of impervious surface, you pay more. That being said, we have 40 to 50 years of stormwater repairs in the unincorporated areas where we have done nothing and now when the road collapses and caves in, we have not money to fix it.”
Brown said the commission would begin fixing the various dams with problems in the county - thus far three major dams have been cited - which, if they broke, would cause loss of life and property.
“We’re going to spend millions of dollars and do those first and then work our way down the list. The problem is, some of those further down the list, are roads that are going to end up collapsing. We’ve got problems but we’re going to take care of those problems. We’re going to bond out as much as we can, and pay the rest with the stormwater fees.”
Logsdon noted that impact fees probably couldn’t address the county’s current stormwater needs.
“Peachtree City addressed the issue eight years ago and it served us well. It cost us more than I thought it would, but it’s a fact of life. We have infrastructure, we have roads and dams, we have culverts and everything is suffering from 50 years of buildup. I just don’t think impact fees are going to be enough. The impact fees would be too large and stifle any kind of development we might want.”
Logsdon noted that his problem with the stormwater utility was that salaries for staffers were taken out of the stormwater utility budget and put in the county’s general fund.
“That’s double taxation on Peachtree City so I’m anxious to look at the budget that comes out July 5 and see if they’ve corrected that problem.”
Haddix pointed out that impact fees weren’t a consistent source of income.
“We can’t have stormwater depending on impact fees. They vary all over. It’s not a good idea. The preferred method by the state and federal government is a stormwater utility. It’s a consistent, controlled amount of income. Do people like it? No. Are we going to escape the additional cost involved? No. Somebody is going to pay the stormwater. There is no getting away from it. Just ask people in Peachtree City what they think about their stormwater fee every year. It needs to be stabilized. Impact fees need to be a floating source of revenue to put in a PIP fund for future projects. We’ve learned that if you start depending on one time fees, you’re in trouble. They turn into big tax increases which Peachtree City is familiary with already.”