Editor’s note: The Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum featured several segments, including uncontested races and contested races in which only one of the candidates attended the forum. Coverage of these will be in the Wednesday edition of the Citizen Tribune. Video coverage of the forum is available online at www.citizentribune.com.
Several contested races for seats on the Hamblen County Commission were involved in Monday night’s Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum at Walters State Community College.
District 2 County Commissioner Nancy Phillips faced off against her competitor, Taylor Ward.
Phillips said her proudest moment as a Hamblen County resident was when she was elected 12 years ago.
“The last 12 years I have worked with other elected officials, supported the business community, our law enforcement and our schools to help maintain the high quality of life for the citizens of Hamblen County,” Phillips said. “It is vital that we keep our tax rate low and we manage county business through conservative and common sense approaches.”
Phillips said through those practices Hamblen County currently has the largest general fund balance in history while keeping debt low.
“I have, and will, continue to support pro-business environment,” Phillips said. “In the past 18 months 900 new jobs have been announced by existing industry. Four new retail developments are currently under way. We have implemented a paving program, which has allowed funding for paving projects to keep our streets safe.”
Phillips said she will continue to support and fund the school system and other important county institutions.
“Tourism continues to grow in Hamblen County, which showcase our lakes, our parks and our heritage,” Phillips said. “I will continue to support a strong infrastructure by properly funding our volunteer fire departments, library, E911, health department and parks. There are many large issues now facing Hamblen County Government in the next four years and the Justice Project is one of them, bringing new business to Hamblen County is one and our paving is one.”
Ward said he is a strong believer in supporting the school system, as he has close experience with the issues.
“Our three children graduated from Morristown East High School, two of my grandchildren graduated from Morristown West, five still go there, two are on the way and it’s no wonder I support the Hamblen County school system,” he said. “I’m seeking this office because of the large number of people, neighbors and voters that have asked me to run. Secondly, I truly feel I can be of service to my community. After all I’ve been in sales and service most of my life.”
Ward said his ability to communicate is his one of his greatest strengths.
“My ability to communicate with others without compromising my principles is my strong point and it’s also an asset with a commissioner’s post,” Ward said. “The most critical issue that I see today is lack of manufacturing jobs. Less than 20 years ago we were the fifth largest (furniture) manufacturing capital in the entire United States. Factory jobs pay more, while bringing more new residents into the county. Simply put more jobs equal more people.
“More people, more homes, more homes, more taxes. We must put the emphasis back on industry.”
The pair was then asked to talk about funding for the road department and if the department was adequately funded to do the job required.
Phillips said the department needed more funding but to be fully funded would take millions, which is not possible.
“Four years ago we began to increase the funding. The problem that we have with funding the road department is that in the past the road department was funded with our gas tax,” Phillips said. “Due to the type of engines that are driven now and other state requirements our gas tax has actually dropped. So we’re struggling with the ability to fund the roads the way they need to be funded. The optimal level of funding, the way asphalt is priced now, would be in the millions.”
Ward said the road department was a situation where you answer the question as it is needed.
“Obviously we’ve got to do better with the roads to attract more industry,” Ward said. “That’s one of the things they look at. It is essential to draw new industry.”
Wayne NeSmith, County Commissioner for District 4, was one of the few in Monday’s candidate forum to go negative, claiming his opponent John Smyth has “liberal” backing.
“I’ve never been afraid to ask the tough questions. I believe that the reason my opponent was recruited by a liberal group was because I have asked the tough questions,” said NeSmith, who was appointed to his seat after State Rep. Tilman Goins stepped down. “I don’t use the county insurance. But my opponent has an insurance business and on his Facebook he supports Obamacare because it supports him.”
Smyth dismissed the incumbent’s attack, noting he has run an insurance company for 33 years, but NeSmith has a basic misunderstanding of insurance companies’ relationship to Obamacare.
“Yes, I sell a lot of health insurance but the commissions we make on it (the Affordable Care Act) is nothing,” Smyth said. “A lot of you folks in the audience have come to me. I help folks out. We’ve had folks have heart attacks and they could not get health insurance so I was just happy to be able to help them. That’s why I’m here.”
NeSmith painted himself as a fiscal conservative.
“I think keeping a consistent conservative record on voting on the county commission (is important) and to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ dollars and prioritize how tax dollars are spent,” NeSmith said. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do. One of the big issues facing the county is jobs.”
NeSmith said he dislikes wasteful spending and it was a complete mistake of the county commission to give away $100,000 of the tax payer’s money to a non profit foundation, referring to the deal in which the commission gave the MHHS Foundation $100,000 for an improved rate on jail inmate care. It was a deal that fellow commission Louis “Doe” Jarvis said would return an 18 percent investment.
Smyth said growing up in Hamblen County has allowed him to see the need for more industry and more businesses.
“I run a business, and I make smart business decisions every day,” Smyth said. “I think I would be able to make smart business decisions for Hamblen County. Some of the things I see that we need to work on are education.
“I think if we educate the work force, we’ll have more industry. More industry means more tax dollars. Which means some of these things we’re looking to try to do can happen. If we have a smart work force, maybe we won’t have so many people selling meth and in the jail system. I’ve a very conservative type person.”
The two contestants were asked about their stance on the future of the landfill and county recycling.
“I’ve been several times, they do have recycling program there,” NeSmith said. “I think what the landfill needs is more control over it and to watch where the tax dollars are going.”
Smyth responded by saying a good recycling program can prolong the life of the landfill.
“It’s going to continue to pile up,” Smyth said. “I think that we must do recycling and I think we should have incentives for our county residents to encourage recycling. I think recycling is a huge thing we need to be looking at more.”
District 8 County Commissioner Tim Dennison faced off against challenger Randy DeBord as the two focused on locating jobs into the area.
“I have a strong working relationship with local community leaders,” DeBord said. “I was the 2013 chairman of the Board of Directors for the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce.”
DeBord said bringing in more jobs is important to him, and he’s impressed with the progress he has seen, adding that small business drives the jobs market.
“We’ve got some major progress that has been made and I’m very impressed with where were going in the future,” DeBord said. “I feel that this community wants leaders who can work together and I feel confidant that I would be able to work well with community leaders as I did with the Chamber of Commerce. I will do my best to evaluate all the information if it pertains to a situation as I have done with my very own business. I would look for strategic investments…ways to reduce waste therefore keeping taxes low.”
DeBord said he is also committed to conserving natural resources through energy efficient sources such as solar panels—a plan he has influenced in his own facilities.
Dennison said he has three daughters, two of whom are currently attending Hamblen County schools, and he is very much for education.
“There are three things that I feel strong about. Safety is first,” Dennison said. “I’ve been in industry for over 20 years, and safety is first in those industries as well as it should be in our county. We need to make sure that our jails are safe and we have spent money to help make those jails safer as well as we need to make our roads more safe.
“So we need to fund those like we need to. I feel strong about education, being in industry I see what jobs are out there I see jobs that are lost I know what we need to do. We need to educate our kids to use different instruments that are used in industry. They need to have that opportunity.”
The pair was asked what they saw as the county’s role in creating jobs through commercial and industrial growth.
“First I would say government does not create jobs, small business creates jobs,” DeBord said. “And I think that we have to do everything that we can to not add additional regulations onto employers so that they can excel to level that they have the ability to, and so I would like to make sure that we didn’t raise any levels of requirements that would keep people from being able to employ others.”
Dennison referred to the use of TIFS recently used by the county to help partner with businesses and industry to facilitate development.
“In the past four years we’ve had four TIFS and I think we need to continue to support that effort as well as to make sure in spending our dollars efficiently, we need to make sure that there’s accountability. We have theses TIFS going on that we’re getting tax credits for and we need to make sure that they are accountable for those things so that we can improve even more.”
Longtime Hamblen County Commissioner Herbert Harville, a retired director of schools, squared off against Bo Shultz, a county road department employee, during Monday night’s forum as the two are battling for the District 10 Hamblen County Commission seat.
Harville said he is seeking reelection because there are some major issues he’d like to see addressed. Chief among those is the Hamblen County Jail.
Harville said it is not an option to do nothing, so he sees three options. First, he said, the jail could be refurbished. Second, a new jail could be built. Finally, an option he likes, is to refurbish an old industrial facility, like the one successfully done in Hawkins County with an old Wal-Mart building.
“If anyone’s been over in Hawkins County, you can see what a great job can be done with an old building,” he said.
Harville said the commission set aside 2 cents on the tax rate for school capital outlay projects, a move that paid off when the time came for renovations at the high school.
“Without that, we could not have done what we did at East High School,” he said.
Harville added that he is proud of the county’s door-to-door garbage and recycling pick up.
Harville’s opponent Bo Shultz said he’s a member of the Campaign for Liberty and is an active member of the parks and recreation department as a referee and coach.
Shultz said he can bring new ideas and a fresh outlook to the commission.
“I won’t be influenced by the buddy-buddy system,” he said. “I feel that some of our current commissioners haven’t necessarily been responsible with tax dollars.”
Shultz added that he would be accountable for every vote he takes and that he would take time for residents from all Hamblen County districts.
“The government should be working for the people, not the people for the government,” he said.
The pair’s random question involved the adequacy of school spending.
Harville, who was a math teacher before going into school administration, said he thinks the county can do more support financially, but that he’s proud of the jobs being done by Hamblen County teachers.
“Reading the papers recently, I read where the governor (Bill Haslam) is taking the raises back, I think that’s going to hurt morale in our school system,” Harville said. “I’m proud of the teachers that we have in Hamblen County and I think they do a great job.”
Shultz agreed that the school system is doing a good job, but fiscally could not support further funding for the schools.
“I think it’s funded fine for what they’re doing right now,” he said. “I don’t see where we can get the funds to fund it much more.”
District 12 saw two of three contestants running to fill Doyle Fullington’s seat face off Monday evening.
Randy Noe, who recently retired as Det. Captain at the Morristown Police Department and plans to practice law, said he was seeking election for several reasons.
“This is my home and I want to stand up for this county to be the best it can be,” Noe said. “I’ve followed God’s call in my life to serve others and after many years of progressive responsibilities, election to office would be another opportunity to serve.
“The insights of someone with my background in the public sector in local government would be new to the commission. I feel I can use my skills, knowledge and abilities, training and education to seek success for county endeavors.”
Noe said he felt the most critical issue facing Hamblen County is stewardship of its public dollars.
“County citizens should be encouraged that a deep recession was managed effectively,” Noe said. “Indications are that our tax rates have remained steady, our credit rating is good and funds in reserve exist.”
Hubert Davis, who has a financial background from his career at MAHLE, said he felt the most critical issue facing the county is the county jail.
“We can sit back and do nothing, (but) something has to be done,” Davis said. “We can be proactive, and start planning now or we can sit back and have it forced upon us. We can acquire land right now, 20 – 30 acres, away from downtown. It doesn’t need to be (downtown). The design of the jail is how you control your costs. With my background and experience in finance and budget and employee benefits I feel I can be an immediate benefit.”
The two men were asked about the deal the county made with the Morristown Hamblen Hospital System for $100,000 in return for inmate medical costs to be discounted at a higher rate.
“The discount was about 45 percent and Morristown Hamblen agreed to raise it to 50 percent. It seemed like a good deal at that time and the only way we’ll know is the future,” Davis said.
“As the hospital has been discussed being a non-profit hospital, it does rely on funding that doesn’t necessarily come from the patients’ bills,” Noe said. “Although it does bill the patients. But this supplement has a payback for the county. In the long term, we’ll know whether it will be sufficient.”