As citizens start casting early votes this week, local candidates have made another pitch on why they should be elected.
The Madison County Chamber of Commerce and the Madison County Farm Bureau hosted a political forum July 16 for the six local candidates in the upcoming Aug. 11 Republican runoffs. Early voting started July 20 at the Madison County Board of Elections and Registration Office and will continue through Aug. 7.
Incumbent county commission chairman John Scarborough and challenger Todd Higdon are facing off for the BOC chairman’s seat. The winner of the primary will be sworn in for a four-year term in January, since there is no Democratic challenger on the November ballot. Terry Chandler and Grant Gillespie are seeking the BOC District 2 Republican nomination. The winner of that primary will face Democrat Conolus Scott in November. Robert Leverett and Tripp Strickland are vying for the Republican House District 33 nomination. The winner of that primary will face Democrat Kerry Dornell Hamm in November.
Former Madison County School Superintendent Allen McCannon moderated the online forum, which was streamed on the Chamber Facebook page and held at the Farm Bureau office.
THE CHAIRMAN’S RACE
Both candidates talked about their time leading local governments — Scarborough as BOC chairman and Higdon as the eight-year mayor of Danielsville.
Scarborough said he helped lead the county government into good shape financially. He noted that the commissioners had to raise the millage rate shortly he took office, but that it was necessary to bring financial stability.
“Not a popular move,” he said. “But again today, I can truthfully say it’s a countywide effort that has placed us on solid footing.”
And the chairman said he sees a potential rollback of the mill rate in his second term.
“Four years ago, we increased it out of necessity,” he said. “Now perhaps it’s time to look at rolling that rate back.”
Higdon said he helped bring Danielsville into the 21st century.
“Most of the people that have been around the city saw a city transformed from retroactive to proactive,” he said.
If elected, Higdon said he will focus on improving relations between local cities and the county government. He noted the close ties he has with local mayors and other leaders.
“I plan to unite the cities and county for our future work base,” said Higdon.
He said Scarborough was in a bad situation when he took office and did need to raise taxes.
“He did have to raise the millage rate,” said Higdon. “I wouldn’t agree with rolling it back. That’s what got us in the pickle the first time. I would just leave it alone. The economy itself will drive your tax base.”
The candidates were asked about protecting the local agriculture base.
“The best I can offer is my commitment to stay out of their way,” said Scarborough. “We have so many talented agribusiness individuals that require only the opportunity to operate and flourish. The challenge or the task has been to draw complementing businesses that capitalize on their efforts and capabilities.”
Higdon said farming and industrial growth can co-exist if growth is centered around cities.
“Farming and industrial can survive together when you form a good partnership with your cities,” he said. “Cities are cities for a reason. Cities are to be built thick as thieves.”
He said cities must thrive and lead the county along.
“But in order for cities to survive and/or to be able to bring in new businesses to the county, they have to have help,” he said.
Both candidates addressed the need to improve the county’s commercial tax base to lessen the tax burden on property owners.
“We cannot grow any further than what we are today without expanding our water systems and sewer systems,” said Higdon. “…So you have to expand our infrastructure moving forward at a higher rate than what we are right now.”
Scarborough said he is confident in the job the industrial authority is doing to improve infrastructure in the county. He said Georgia Renewable Power has had pros and cons, “but it certainly has been a catalyst for expansion.” He noted that the new Hwy. 72 bypass is a “major benefit for business and industry.” And he said a primary infrastructure need is broadband Internet services in Madison County. He said the county and cities need to pull together to make things happen.
“There can be no doubt that Madison County can answer the call for growth and expansion if cities and county can pull together,” he said. “…There can be no doubt that Madison County can answer the call for growth and expansion if cities and county can pull together.”
The candidates were asked to share the top concerns they’ve heard from residents while campaigning.
Higdon said people want to know about taxes and “what are we getting for our taxes?” He talked about roads.
“We don’t have a bad road department,” said Higdon. “I’m not planning to revamp but restructure the day-to-day job duties of the road department.”
He said he also wants to address the issue of private drives.
“If you build your house on half of a mile of dirt road and you’re the only one on it, you have a private drive,” said Higdon. “But if there’s multiple taxpayers on that dirt road, it is a county road at that point. We will maintain those roads.”
Scarborough said he’s heard about property taxes, roads, the Internet and clean air and water. But he said all things are connected to the county’s ability to pay for any endeavor.
“At the center is the ability and means for the county to address or fund these issues,” he said. “Our county finances are in good shape today and getting better each and every day. I hear people saying they want change, I ask what is it that you want changed? I appreciate and want change, too, I want to keep improving.”
Scarborough closed by saying he has over 20 years of leadership experience
“I’ve managed multimillion dollar projects and multimillion dollar budgets while leading people in various organizations,” he said. “I’ve done the same thing for this county for almost four years. We are financially solid with a bright outlook.”
He said the county is working its way through the coronavirus pandemic “mitigating the negative economic impact.”
“There’s been heartbreak and personal tragedy throughout the pandemic,” he said. “But I am proud of the county’s and the cities’ effort to minimize longterm economic damage.”
He added that every citizen and every county employee matters.
“We may not agree on everything, but I hope we agree on the prospect of making Madison County strong and proud,” said Scarobrough.
Higdon closed by saying that he will work with all of the various groups and leaders to make sure everyone is involved in county improvements.
“What I would like to see done and what I plan to do, I’m friends with every mayor in county and 95 percent of sheriff’s office, EMS, the volunteer fire departments know I’m going to stand behind them,” he said. “There has to be some changes made there also. And I have plans for that and I will take any questions on that. Call at any time.”
Higdon said he’s optimistic about Madison County’s future.
“We do have a brighter future, but a new direction has to come,” he said. “The IDA and the Chamber of Commerce have really stepped up their game over the past couple of years. The Chamber I’m very proud of, a more productive Chamber than I’ve seen in 20 years. They’ve done a phenomenal job.”
BOC DISTRICT 2 RACE
Gillespie and Chandler were both asked their opinion on how to diversify the local economy while also protecting agriculture.
Gillespie said he grew up on a farm and wants farming to remain the number one industry in the county.
“There are some places for some industry and small business to come,” said Gillespie. “But ultimately, I don’t want Madison County to turn into Jackson County or Oconee County where farms are being taken away for subdivisions and houses. I personally just don’t agree with that. I think there’s a way to keep it separated and keep our farmers protected and keep their business going.”
Chandler, a farmer, said he wants to see continued innovation in the ag sector in Madison County. He said the county needs to court ag-support industries.
“I’m particularly excited by the Chamber’s initiative in encouraging direct and local market opportunities,” said Chandler. “And from a county planning standpoint, and this is a tough one, but as far as a growth plan, we need to identify and define the regions in the county where production-scale agriculture needs to be and is welcome. We’re going to have to continue our efforts to educate all citizens with the vital economic role agriculture plays in Madison County.”
Chandler said a county can never be “as prepared for growth as we’d like to be,” but he said he wants to focus on “being proactive instead of reactive.” He favors impact fees for developers and solid planning for infrastructure needs.
Gillespie said he is “pretty much on the same page” as Chandler.
“We don’t need to overwhelm the county with housing and subdivisions,” he said. “We need infrastructure, businesses to help offset local taxes and welcome growth to the county.”
Both candidates agreed they need to work well with other leaders. Gillespie said he feels commissioners need to attend city meetings to know what is happening in the towns. Chandler said it’s vital to develop strong communication with community leaders.
“Not just the mayors,” he said. “Education, fire chiefs, sheriffs, all of the department heads in the county government. It’s vital to get us all on same page and moving together as a county.”
Chandler said citizens are concerned about property taxes. He said the county has the number two millage rate in the area.
“That puts us in an uncompetitive place when attracting businesses,” he said. “We also need to make sure we’re fair in appraisals and assessments.”
Gillespie said he gets a lot of questions about the Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) plant in Colbert, adding that he doesn’t favor the burning of creosote-treated crossties. He also said he wants to see an ag center finally built in Madison County.
Gillespie said he is “probably as far from a politician as you could get.” But he said he is a people person.
“I just feel like I’m able to talk to anybody in the county about any kind of problem,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Lanier so and so on the other side of Ila who has water issues coming across his yard. I treat everybody the same. It don’t matter to me if you make $10,000 or $10 million a year, I treat everybody the same. We need to have a listening ear and hear. You have to be able to listen and be concerned about any issues.”
Chandler said Madison County is at a crossroads.
“We have an opportunity to make positive strides and put ourselves in a good position to the future or be subject to overwhelming growth and drowned in it,” he said. “It’s important to be proactive and take the steps and make the difficult decisions to prepare this county to be what we want it to be for our children and grandchildren 50 years and 100 years from now.”
HOUSE DISTRICT 33 RACE
Both Leverett and Strickland were asked what they will do to help economic recovery efforts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Strickland said “the healthy population should be left to do as they need to do.”
“We’ve got people who have it,” he said. “We have people who have it but don’t know they have it. They’re asymptomatic. We have people who have it. They know they have it, but they don’t want anybody else to know they have it. Unless there’s a vaccine in the next little bit, we’ll get it. If you’re a healthy person, you don’t necessarily need to be afraid of it. We need to remember that this is an election year. And I’m tired of the fear mongering. We’ve got to hit this thing head on.”
Leverett said he’d like to see the state Department of Health buy testing kits and distribute them to local governments, adding that “I think local government knows better what needs to happen for their local communities.”
“We can distribute to the first responders to make sure they’re staying healthy and if they’re not they can self quarantine,” said Leverett. “We can distribute them to businesses that provide the economic engine for our communities so people can feel safe and confident in going back out. That’s what’s going to be key.”
He also said the Department of Agriculture and Department of Economic Development need to work together to protect the food supply chain.
“That’s crucial for all of us, especially preserving the farm income,” he said. “In this area we haven’t seen horror stories of people having to euthanize their livestock. But we need to do everything we can to make sure we don’t get in that situation. And preserve our economy, our way of life and our food supply.”
Leverett said he’s heard concerns from citizens on a number of issues, including keeping taxes low and spending money wisely. He said he’s also heard concerns about the power plant in Colbert and said the bill banning the burning of creosote-treated railroad ties was a “good first step.”
“My understanding is that’s not the only issue concerning that plant,” he said. “I think further action needs to be taken to mitigate the effects of that plant and the board of commissioners has indicated they do intend to take some action, but to the extent I can help, I’m certainly interested in it.”
Leverett also said he’ll work to find state resources to bring an ag center to Madison County.
Strickland said people are ready to get back to work, church and school, and to see some normalcy. He said he firmly supports agriculture, has 60 cows at his property and wants to see Madison County finally have an ag center.
“I’m not the biggest farmer but I understand it,” he said. “I know it’s vital to our economy, our way of life and to our culture. That goes a long way, just having a good understanding of it.”
He said the county has “had a long ride with the GRP plant.”
“Thank goodness we have creosote banned,” he said, adding that biosludge is another environmental issue facing the county.
Both candidates were asked about recent social unrest and how they can collaborate with others moving forward.
“There will be no collaboration with any terrorists, foreign or domestic,” said Strickland. “I’ll tell you that. I will not be held captive by a group of anarchists. We can have all kind of conversations about equality, but unless you’re ready to do your part as a human being, you have no seat at the table. We cannot erase our history. We cannot change the past. We’ve seen this before in Germany, Russia, Bosnia, Venezuela, the Middle East, al Qaeda, this country is turning toward socialism and it’s our history, it’s important, it’s not perfect, but it’s a mile marker.”
Strickland said he can work with anyone who “comes to the table with mutual respect.”
“There’s been a lot of caving to the center and to the left,” he said. “That’s not me. I’m pretty black and white. But I’m not polished and I’m not politically correct. But I can work with people and I know how to do that in a civil manner.”
Leverett said he agreed with Strickland.
“While I’m willing to sit and talk with any reasonable person, I don’t know that I can get there right now on some of the issues that seem to be presented,” he said. “There’s just a wide gap and I think if we can agree on a couple of major principles, we might be able to sit down and resolve some of those issues. I think it’s non negotiable, the idea of defunding the police is one of the worst ideas in the history of ideas. I can’t understand that at all. I’m all for trying to help our police. They do such a difficult and challenging job… You’re not going to make things better by burning down a Wendy’s. You’re not going to make things better by blocking traffic. But if you are willing to sit down respectfully and listen to the other side, that’s something I think we can do on the right and hopefully there are some people on the left willing to do that, too.”