Finances dominate races for Twiggs County Commission chairmanship

Improving Twiggs County’s financial situation is on the to-do list for the four men vying for chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

Incumbent Chairman Ray Bennett is facing opposition in the Democratic primary from former Probate Court Judge Ken Fowler, while political newcomers Glen Christopher and Shayne Thompson are facing off in the Republican primary.

Here’s a look at each race:

Democratic primary

Bennett, elected chairman in 2001, said his priorities are continuing to grow the county’s tax base, improve infrastructure and recover debt.

“It’s been an extremely trying time for other smaller communities like ours,” he said. “We’ve all had to tighten the belt many, many times to get through these trying times.”

Bennett said the county has experienced a $120 million decline in its tax base since 2001 from losses and draw downs in both the kaolin and timber industries. With input from the state, he said, the county has an economic development plan and things are turning around.

“It’s a team effort. We’ve begun that, and I think the success is demonstrated by the recent announcement of 250 more jobs for the county,” Bennett said of the planned expansion at Academy Sports.

He also said the county’s 2011 audit shows that its assets are at $19 million -- up from $8.5 million when he became chairman in 2001.

“That’s water infrastructure, sewage infrastructure, building improvements and equipment improvements,” Bennett said.

He also said that through help from OneGeorgia, the county has received $7 million in grant assistance.

“A community does not compete and receive those grants unless you’ve got your house in order and are doing business as you should,” Bennett said.

The county is bidding out an expansion of the sewer system around the industrial park and an expansion of the water system in the Dry Branch and Antioch Church Road areas.

“My interest is in serving the community, and it shows when you don’t have a personal agenda and you have the teamwork, you’re going to accomplish things,” Bennett said. “Our potential is unlimited if we’ll keep focus and keep working.”

Bennett is being challenged by Fowler, who said Bennett is the one responsible for the county’s financial situation.

“The citizens of Twiggs County face the worst financial conditions in the history of the county through the failures of this administration,” Fowler said in a provided statement. “My first goal is to establish a viable budget that will move the county forward.”

Fowler wrote that he would “stop wasteful spending and cut the frills out of the budget.” He wrote the county was in good financial shape until Bennett took office.

“In less than a year in office he was standing at the banks (sic) door borrowing money,” he wrote.

“This money cost the taxpayers enormous interest that could have been spent for other more necessary uses instead.”

In a follow-up interview, Fowler said he would request a complete audit of what revenue comes into the county and what is going out.

“My priorities are to stop waste, control spending, maintain or reduce property taxes, and create a transparent Government treating all citizens fair and with respect,” Fowler wrote. “They own the County, the Chairman doesn’t.”

Fowler said he didn’t have specific cuts in mind.

“I’m not going to promise anybody anything,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do until I get in and look at the complete situation.”

Fowler said he brings his business experience to the table.

“In order to be successful in business, you must come to an understanding that you can’t spend money that you don’t have,” he wrote. “A good leader must be honest and possess integrity having the courage to make the hard calls while treating everyone fairly.”

Fowler previously served as Probate Court judge, but he was removed from office in 2010 by the Georgia Supreme Court following an investigation that alleged he was verbally abusive to defendants, among other things.

“Some city folks felt that I had failed to keep up with the modern times in my vocabulary, and it cost me my job,” Fowler wrote in a statement.

Republican primary

Christopher said he was inspired to run after his property taxes doubled in 2010.

“I’m joining the race to get my taxes and everyone else’s lowered,” he said. “But before we get to that point, I have to deal with the budget and lower spending.”

He said the county’s finances have been in decline since Bennett took office in 2000.

“Within 18 months the county was borrowing money to provide payments of the budgeted day-to-day financial obligations,” Christopher wrote in an e-mail.

He also took issue with the county’s continued use of tax anticipation notes, a loan to governments based on revenue it expects to receive in the future.

Christopher said taxes have continued to increase but property owners have received nothing in return.

“The roads are still not paved, the Park and Recreation Department doesn’t have necessary funds and no steps have been taken to create new residential development,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We’ve needed a water system in higher populated areas like Dry Branch for years to help with fire prevention and safety, along with reduce insurance premiums. The real question is, ‘Can we afford it?’”

If elected, he said he would scrutinize everything in the budget.

“Where cuts could be made, they would be made,” Christopher said. “It’s a group effort, it’s a team effort. But cuts definitely need to be made.”

He said he would like to see more events where families could spend time together, adding that the county also lacks public lakes and fishing areas.

“That sort of thing needs to be revitalized in Twiggs County,” Christopher said. “That’s what makes a strong local government -- strong families You just want to make Twiggs County a good place to live.”

Thompson, a small business owner, said he was running to improve the county for future generations.

“The big reason I’m running is for the kids,” he said. “In Twiggs County, the kids have nothing to do.”

Thompson said the county is spending millions on other things “but can’t seem to put together parks and recreation.”

“We’ve got one playground behind the courthouse with a fence around it and the gate is usually locked,” Thompson said.

He said children end up seeking out recreational programs in neighboring counties.

“We’ve got too much talent in this county for it to go to waste in other counties,” Thompson said.

“The kids are the future of Twiggs County and if they’re already leaving the county, we’re not going to have a future.”

Thompson would also focus on adding small businesses to the county and not just landing large industry.

“I’d rather see 100 small businesses ... for the stability and future of the county,” Thompson said. “If a small business goes under, you’ve still got 99.”

Thompson said he’d also like to see the county do more to utilize the Ocmulgee River for both recreation and economic development.

“We’ve got a large selection of river property in Twiggs County, but there’s nothing there,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a pretty river down here and we’ve got people coming down it all the time.”

Thompson said he would bring an open-minded attitude to the commission.

“I’m not close-minded,” he said. “I’m open to new ideas. There is more than one way to do anything. If you listen to the people in the county, they’ll pretty much tell you want they need and want.”