Hart, Wagoner offer contrast in Bibb County chairman’s race

rmanley@macon.comOctober 29, 2012 

About the only thing Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart and his Republican challenger Tom Wagoner see eye to eye on is just how crucial the coming year will be for the county’s future.

The election is for a one-year term that ends in January 2014, when the county consolidates with the cities of Macon and Payne City. Hart is encouraging voters to stay the course, citing his role as leader and peacemaker in ushering in three major achievements -- the passage by voters of consolidation and a $190 million special purpose local option sales tax, as well as finally negotiating a service delivery strategy with Macon that merged duplicated services.

Wagoner, however, says Hart has been “too passive,” and the county desperately needs stronger leadership to position itself for consolidation. He’s pledging to cut the county budget by $1 million before the merger.

“The problem with the county commission is you don’t have any leadership,” he said. “You don’t lead by being passive and soft.”

Hart contends his soft-spoken style is just what the county needs to “keep things moving forward.”

“We need somebody in there who got this thing started, so that the transition happens in a manner that benefits the county forever. Nothing needs to be lost in the transition,” Hart said.

“I’m not an in-your-face kind of person. There are ways you can get people to work together.

“A lot of times the other kind of leadership gets the headlines, but I get results.”

Neither man would commit to a run for the mayor’s position that would head up the consolidated government. Hart said he prefers “to chase one rabbit at a time,” while Wagoner said he is not interested in mayor but might consider a run for a commission seat in the new government.

Meanwhile, Wagoner said the county can’t settle for status quo during the next year, and he’s outlined an aggressive “365 Day Plan for Bibb County” that includes $800,000 to $1 million in cuts. The cuts would be easy to find, he said, pulling out a budget to point out exactly where the money would come from.

Wagoner owns Core Management Group, a Macon company that manages employee benefit and insurance plans. The county has budgeted about $1.5 million for its workman’s compensation coverage, which Wagoner says is about double what it should be. He also said he would cut the $280,000 insurance fee the county pays to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“There’s your $1 million,” he said. “Next item.”

Wagoner’s plan also calls for setting up an interim animal shelter while the new $3 million shelter is built and for televising all commission meetings. He’d also rescind a motion limiting speakers at meetings to 3 minutes.

His criticism of Hart’s leadership extends to such seemingly minor matters as setting agendas for the meetings. For example, he said, a September agenda included an item titled “Discussion of behavior of commissioner,” which led to open criticism of one board member in front of the media and department heads.

“That should never have been on the agenda. It’s things like that that disturb me,” Wagoner said. “Sam’s lacking in management skills, leadership skills.”

Hart points to the service delivery strategy as an example of his leadership. He noted that a tax equity study shifted $5 million of tax burden to the county, and the service delivery strategy -- in which the county took on recreation, engineering and animal control services -- remedied what had amounted to “double taxation” on city residents.

“Prior to my coming aboard, they had been hassling with a service delivery strategy for years and had not been able to do that,” he said.

The SPLOST includes funding for several projects that Hart says are vital to the county. One addresses safety, always a major concern with residents, he said, by amping up communication among first responders with a new 800-megahertz radio system. It also will build a new juvenile justice center.

“I’m very excited that we’ve been able to get that going because I think it’s going to alleviate some of the traffic going to our jails, which is a very expensive thing,” Hart said. “But more importantly it’s going to put people back into productive roles so that we can have them as prime candidates for better jobs.”

The SPLOST also includes $6 million for economic development and $6 million to address encroachment issues with Robins Air Force Base.

“That’s going to save hundreds of jobs for Bibb Countians and put us in position to get more missions for new jobs.”

Contrast in leadership styles

Hart points to consolidation as perhaps his biggest accomplishment as chairman.

“The thing that will have the most positive impact in this community going forward was we were able to do consolidation, something we haven’t been able to get done for 100 years. We were able to convince the community that it was in the best interest of our community going forward to speak with one voice, to be smaller, leaner and more efficient.”

Wagoner wants to look for money to extend the runway at Middle Georgia Regional Airport, which he says will boost economic prospects and should have been a SPLOST project. He also pledged to “do something” for county employees, who have not had a cost-of-living salary increase in four years.

“Every year, the county has raised health insurance costs. The county employees take home less pay than they did four years ago. You can’t do that. ... The greatest asset we have is people.”

Wagoner also vowed that within his first six months in office he would review all vending and consulting contracts. Though it’s not a county contract, he took issue with a possible conflict of interest with Hart’s tutoring business, S&V Educational Services, and its $178,000 contract with the Department of Family and Children Services. He also questioned the ethics of Hart’s company’s work with the Bibb County public schools.

Hart said there is no conflict with the programs, which serve at-risk children.

“None of that money comes from the coffers of Macon or Bibb County,” Hart said.

Wagoner, however, contends that although the local DFACS gets state and federal funding, the $850,000 it gets from the county creates a very gray area.

“Those funds are co-mingled,” Wagoner argued. “Either way you look at it, that was not ethical.”

Wagoner said that if elected, he will not drive a county car or accept the commission chairman’s pay. The county’s business, he said, will be run like a business.

“Businesses have go to the board room and talk about their budgets, but government never wants to have that conversation. It’s time for Bibb County and the county commissioners to have that conversation.”

Hart promises to lead without divisive politics.

“If you look at my leadership style, you see results and not the turmoil you see at other places. I’m more of a behind-the-scenes leader. You get the right people in place to get the job done,” he said.

“This community needs healing, and I think I can provide that.”

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