This is the second in The Planet's recaps of last week's Dade County marathon political debates, staged on May 14 by local station KWN and hosted by the Dade County Public Library, available to the public only through livestream and video broadcast because of the COVID-19 social distancing rules.
As always, let us focus first on the local races. In this election, the District 3 county commission seat held since 2009 by Robert Goff is challenged by Jerry Henegar, who stepped down from the Trenton City Commission to make the run. Goff, who won his commission seat at the same time as Ted Rumley took the county executive slot, has always been Rumley's faithful lieutenant and second-in-command. Jerry Henegar's run against Goff can be seen as the same kind of challenge to business-as-usual at the commission as posed by Phillip Hartline's run in 2018 against another Old Guard faithful, Scottie Pittman. Hartline won handily.
At the May 14 debate, Goff, invited by moderator Chris Goforth to list his accomplishments, began by mentioning the tumults Dade has been through during his tenure--tornadoes, floods, now this pandemic "We have been able to weather that storm," he said. He pointed out he had always put many more hours into the job than he was required to. "I've been more than a part-time commissioner," he said.
Henegar, who has been serving on the Trenton City Commission since 2016 as fire/utility commissioner, was able to list among his own accomplishments assessing and beginning what promises to be massive renovations to Trenton's decaying sewer system. He also mentioned his role in managing to keep the city out of another potentially stinky situation, the Lookout Creek reservoir project, which many have condemned as throwing county money into, ahem, the lake. When the reservoir deal was announced in 2017, Trenton was listed as a partner along with Dade County and the Dade Water Authority, but the city pulled back as the issue blew up in the county commission's face and mushroomed until it had effectively reshaped the governance of the water authority.
Asked about what should be the next step for the reservoir plan, Goff stood by Plan A--"I was for the reservation then and I'm for it now"--except for one detail: "It's going to be about water, not about recreation," added Goff.
When the reservoir land purchase was originally put--without argument or even much discussion--on the commission's June 2017 consent agenda, it was presented with descriptions of Dade Countians paddling their canoes enjoyably on the new lake's placid surface. But now the focus was water: Water supply was, Goff argued, has been an important part of Dade's formal comprehensive plans for the future for decades. And the next step for the reservoir, said Goff, is now up to the water board.
"Well, we own the land, so we might as well go on with the next step now," said Henegar, answering the same question. (Amid some controversy, the water board borrowed $400,000 to pay the balance of the reservoir land's half-million-dollar price tag.) Henegar said he didn't know why Dade hadn't looked for a secondary water source instead. Now he's seen no plans so far for the project's future, said Henegar. "We're leasing it back to the guy we bought it from," he said. But whatever step 2 turns out to be, he suggested, why not let county residents get some use out of the property in the meantime? "Let's turn the land back over to the citizens," he said.
The candidates were also asked about their stance on Sunday alcohol sales, a referendum question on the June 9 primary ballot. "My personal opinion is not what this seat is," answered Henegar. "I don't drink but it's up to what the citizens want to do."
"We voted to put it on the ballot," said Goff, referring to the commission's consent earlier this year to District 2 Commissioner Phillip Hartline's request to let the voters decide the issue. If the measure goes through the referendum process, said Goff, "Then the people have spoken."
A straightforward enough answer, perhaps, except that the last time the people spoke, it wasn't quite so simple. After Dade voted overwhelmingly in 2016 to allow liquor by the drink, Goff famously told voters all they had voted for was giving the commission authority to issue licenses. "That don't mean we ever, if I understand it right, have to issue a license," he said in December 2016.
Goff the next year told citizens appearing at a commission meeting on behalf of a local restaurateur who wanted to serve beer with his pizza, "We have to represent the ones who voted no." The restaurateur had been stymied by a seating capacity requirement in Dade's new alcohol ordinance that seemed, weirdly, to require anyone serving booze to be prepared to serve a lot of it--Goff had addressed the commission in 2016, even before the referendum passed, on the importance of drafting restrictions to prevent small "honkey-tonks" from taking root in Dade.
Goff may or may not have been echoing his 2017 sentiment when he said at the debate: "You have to know which people you're going to be the voice of." But which people those are, precisely, in this particular issue remains obscure--presumably not not the ones who vote or attend meetings.
Ec Dev, Et Cetera
Asked about economic development, Henegar said: "Right now I don't feel we have a plan of where we want to go."
In fact, Dade pays a full-time economic development director and a board of directors but there has been no economic development in the county since the new Vanguard plant was brought in five years ago amid cash handouts, tax credits and paving frenzies. The truck-trailer manufacturer has since been criticized for its low pay scale, which in the county executive debate former IDA Chairman Nathan Wooten hinted may have been deliberately negotiated so as not to rob other industrial park tenants of their employees. Goff acknowledged: "That is the way business is done. They [prospective new businesses] want free land" and other incentives. "You want to go after higher-paying, better-benefit jobs," he said, but pointed out Dade has put some of its economic development efforts into retaining the good employers it does have.
One sore point in the county as SPLOST, the one-cent special purpose local option sales tax, comes up for renewal in the upcoming election is why the big projects it is meant to pay for are never completed or, in some cases, even begun. Here Jerry Henegar as challenger could point out, "Well, I don't sit on that board yet so I don't know why they've not been finished."
Obviously, said Henegar, funding is an issue. "We don't budget correctly," he said.
Goff, whose committee assignment on the commission has been to monitor and report SPLOST, was able to speak authoritatively on SPLOST history. SPLOST collections had been going great guns back a few years ago, almost $300,000 in some months. "We started budgeting on that," he said, for the bigger projects.
Then abruptly collections started going south. "It dropped down to where we were fortunate to get $164,000 a month," said Goff. "The money was not coming in for those projects." Now, he said, SPLOST has picked back up.
But, he pointed out, flooding and other unforeseeable disasters have thrown the county's plans for a loop and will probably continue to going forward. Who knew a bridge was going to wash out or a road was going to fall off a mountain? "You don't budget for things like that," he said. "Those are things you've got to get fixed."
Asked what would happen if voters choose not to renew the SPLOST on which county government so heavily relies, Goff replied: "There will definitely be cuts." There in fact already have been, he said--the road department had gone in his tenure from over 17 to sometimes as low as nine people--but he didn't know whom or what to cut to make up for the $2-plus million SPLOST brings in. "You've still got to buy those sheriff's vehicles," he said, as well as the other services mandated by state and federal law. If SPLOST didn't pay for those needs, the county's only recourse would be to raise the property tax millage rate: "In the end, that would have to happen to some degree," he concluded
"Public safety and roads are the meat of the budget, said Henegar. The law requires counties to finance those needs, but: " We're not required to provide parks and rec," he said. Not a senior center, either, so maybe those things would have to be cut a little here and there. "Let's start with the really unnecessary stuff we have in our budget and cut those things," he said. "Once we make all of those cuts, we may not have another option but to raise the millage rate."
Asked about zoning, Goff said: "That has always been a thing in Dade County that would get you unelected." But things are changing now, he allowed: People died and left their farms to the next generation, who would rather build nice houses on the acreage than plow it. "They want to protect that investment," he said.
So maybe, he allowed, Dade needs some type of land-use rules, but: "I am not for all-out zoning." Zoning can start with three or four rules and turn into micromanaging manifestos. "It causes more lawsuits for counties than anything else," he said.
"Zoning has its place," said Henegar, but agreed: "Dade County's not ready for it." If it eventually does come, he concluded: "We've got plenty of time wo work out all the details."
In closing, Jerry Henegar said new businesses wouldn't come to Dade because it had low population, Dade had low population because it lacked housing, and Dade lacked housing because it lacked infrastructure like roads and sewer. All these issues, not to mention Highway 299, where traffic was becoming a testament to Chattanooga's growth, needed work. "If we do not start planning now, we will always be behind," said Henegar.
Besides that, Henegar promised if elected "to continue to fight for the citizens of Dade County" and to make decisions based on facts, not personal opinion. Vote for him and "Have your voice heard again," invited Henegar.
Goff in his own closing statement said he was now finishing his 12th year on the commission and: "All these great ideas have been in somebody's head but they've never brought them to the commission or the city council or whatever. They wait till it's time to run and say nobody else has ever done this."
He again listed the tornadoes and floods he's seen Dade through in his term and some of the commission's accomplishments during those years, including a good ambulance service and a fund balance somehow built back up despite the aofrementioned tornadoes and flood. "Finally we do have some reserves." he said. He reminded voters early voting had started and urged everyone to get out and vote.
The Planet will continue this series on Friday.