District 5 candidates take campaign to heart of Buckhead
By Tara DeRock Mahoney
Senior Staff Writer
Approximately 60 people gathered in the chill of the Buckhead fire station last Thursday to listen to a moderated debate between the four candidates for District Five County Commissioner.
Thomas Bell, Sammy Cathey, Betty Straw Brown and Joyce Thomas accepted questions from the audience via the moderator, Morgan County Citizen Publisher Patrick Yost. Each candidate had the opportunity to answer each question posed by residents. The forum was sponsored by the Citizen and the Madison–Morgan Chamber of Commerce.
In opening statements, each campaigner gave a brief summary of his or her major positions.
“I chose to run because of my conviction that our life, liberty and happiness should be the focus at all levels of government,” said Bell. “It's important that we look at where we're headed in this country and in this county.”
Thomas told voters that her campaign motto is “Only the Best for Morgan County.” Thomas identified herself as a fiscal conservative, a supporter of ecologically sound industry, and a supporter of the local library and hospital.
“Improving the quality of life for our citizens—that, to me, is what a county commissioner is all about,” said Thomas.
Cathey said that two of his primary concerns were the upholding of zoning laws and the importance of water in the county.
“I think Morgan County needs to be in the water business,” he told the crowd. “We need to get the ball rolling.” He also promised to set up an e-mail list of interested constituents, if elected. “I'll send you a monthly e-mail, telling you what was voted on, how I voted, and why,” said Cathey.
Brown, the daughter of a Kansan wheat farmer and a resident of Morgan County since 2002, explained that her background as a small business owner and CPA are what make her the candidate to vote for.
“We need people who know about finance, about business, about law—and I think I bring all that to the table,” said Brown. She also said that she would be an advocate for everyone in her district.
Questions from the audience touched upon such topics as a county-wide water system, the candidates ability to represent all of Buckhead's many demographic groups, the conservation-use program, and the local hospital.
Regarding a water system, Brown and Cathey both advocated immediately beginning the process by which the county might obtain its own water-drawing permits from area water sources.
“Right now, Madison more or less controls the water, and in that, they are controlling where the growth goes,” said Brown. Bell also seemed to be in favor of county autonomy when it comes to water, although he said that he would not support a system that required citizens to give up their wells. He was also against the county footing the bill for any system.
“The cost of a water system should be on the backs of developers,” said Bell.
Thomas indicated that any type of water system for the county was bound to come at a high cost, and advocated getting more information before making decisions or determining positions.
Several candidate questions related to the ability of each of the candidates to represent all of Buckhead, those on the lake as well as those in town.
“There are many of us down there...that think that representation stops at the end of Bethany Road,” said resident Bill Ronay. “Are we going to be represented?”
Thomas said that she would be happy to tackle problems for constituents in every part of District Five.
“To me, being a county commissioner is listening to people and seeing what we can work out,” she said.
“Each person needs equal representation,” said Bell. “Accessibility and transparency are important to all the people of Morgan County.”
Brown pointed out that as a non-native, she is uniquely suited to serve all residents. “I don't have any bridges to burn,” she said. “I don't have any allegiances to people I grew up with, or any family here—my allegiance would be totally to the citizens [of District Five].”
Cathey's response was short and to the point. “You won't be ignored, I can promise you that.”
A question regarding the validity of the county's conservation-use tax-abatement program created a lively discussion.
“We need to look at the conservation-use program very closely,” said Bell. “The big tax break...passes the burden down to smaller home owners.”
Brown appeared to agree with Bell, to some degree. “All properties in the conservation-use program need to be reevaluated,” said Brown. “There are probably quite a few properties that should not be a part of that program.”
Cathey said that he counts himself as a supporter of the conservation-use program; otherwise, he said, much of the land in the county would be given over to residential development, which would be even more costly in terms of services the county must provide to residents. “These farms, if they break into subdivisions...they become tax-negative,” he said.
Asked if he personally, or anyone in his immediate family had any land in conservation-use, Cathey told a citizen that he, personally, did not and as far as his family was concerned it was “none of your business.”
Thomas said that her farm was in conservation-use. “It's the only way we could keep it,” she said. “The only way that farmers can support their land is through tax breaks.”
And Bell said that he did not personally have land in the conservation-use program, but he has family members that do. “If we didn't have the program, there'd be a lot of property available for development,” he said.
Regarding the hospital, each of the candidates had differing opinions. Cathey opined that if a regional hospital opened in Greensboro, Morgan Memorial will not survive. “The hospital will lose grants, state and federal monies,” said Cathey. “There are so many doctors [in the lake area]...they're not coming to Morgan County.”
Thomas opted for a “wait and see” approach to the hospital. “It's such an important thing to have in our community—it's quite literally a life-saver,” she said.
Bell said that he knew from previous experience as a Morgan County Commissioner that having only an emergency room in the county was not economically feasible. “I would be for the privatization of the hospital,” he said.
Brown was most vocal in her support of the hospital, pointing to its importance in the economic development of the county. “I think our hospital is doing a good job,” she said. “I know the county is supporting the hospital with $1 million a year, but I think that's a good use of tax dollars.”
In closing comments, Bell asserted that he would serve with “honesty and transparency;” Cathey promised commitment to the voters. “I hope I've earned your trust,” he said.
Brown reiterated her assertion that the county needs someone with business and finance skills to serve as a commissioner, and pledged to help the county “grow in a way that's beneficial to the people who are here now, as well as the people who are coming.”
Thomas, who is the widow of the late Chester Thomas, who served for seven years as a county commissioner until his sudden death last October (and whose remaining term the candidates are running for), said that her life with Chester had given her a good feel for what it meant to be a commissioner. “I truly feel that I've been in training for this job for seven years,” said Thomas.
District Five voters will head to the polls on February 5 to select their new commissioner.