Monday night’s debate was the second in a series of forums sponsored by the Cherokee Republican Party leading up to the July 31 primary election and featuring local and state level races.
In addition to the District 2 county commission race, the District 2 Board of Education seat debate was conducted at Republican Headquarters on Towne Lake Parkway before a crowd of about 175.
State Rep. Calvin Hill, who is unopposed this election in his bid for re-election, also addressed the crowd during the event.
Republican Party leader Pete Castello was the moderator and a panel of journalists, including representatives from The Cherokee Tribune, WLJA Radio and the Cherokee Ledger News, were on hand to ask questions of the candidates.
County Commission challengers Raymond Gunnin, a retired firefighter, and Channing Ruskell, an attorney, flanked the incumbent as each argued their case to become the next county commissioner.
The two also offered their respective solutions for the Ball Ground Recycling lease agreement between operator Jimmy Bobo and the county commission that has Cherokee County taxpayers on the hook for up to $18.1 million in bonds.
“At my third Board of Commissioners meeting, the county attorney and several commissioners voted to support the Ball Ground Recycling move to stop the complaints,” Hubbard said. “Considering the vote now, it may not have been in the best interest of the taxpayers to assume that risk.
“I want to stress that despite what you have heard, nothing we did was illegal. This was an honest effort to do the right thing,” Hubbard said.
Ball Ground Recycling:
Hubbard said commissioners are working on “a number of avenues” to resolve the situation that he did not feel were appropriate to release publicly as of Monday night.
“We have discussed bringing in an alternate operator,” Hubbard said, adding he spoke with a man over the weekend who has operated the plant as well as another individual who told him of the pitfalls of leaving Ball Ground Recycling idle.
“There’s a lot of factors going into this and we are devoting an awful lot of time to it,” Hubbard said.
However, Bobo’s recent declaration of bankruptcy has stalled the process, Hubbard said.
“We’re going to be working in court either to get Mr. Bobo off the property or on the property and making payments. That’s the two choices we’ve got,” Hubbard said.
Ruskell said he is angry about the situation and the “tremendous burden” it has placed upon the county. He also said the meetings commissioners are having regarding the issue should be open to the public, because they are fiduciaries to the Resource Recovery Development Authority.
“They can’t meet with people clandestinely and have conversations … they can’t discuss because they are doing things in executive session,” Ruskell said.
Hubbard said he too would like to know how much money Bobo is bringing in but the operator’s financial records are not public.
“I have to abide by the law,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard also explained that matters involving property acquisition, impending litigation or personnel issues require the commission to meet in executive session.
“Until it’s resolved, those negotiations can remain quiet,” Hubbard said.
Gunnin said he doesn’t know how the county will get itself out of the financial burden but hopes to get a new operator into the facility.
“My fear is that if it comes out of SPLOST money it will kill some of the projects we have planned,” Gunnin said.
Hubbard also clarified that the commissioners never gave any money to Bobo, but Ruskell contended that the commission paid Bobo’s attorney fees and power bill, amounting to thousands and even millions of dollars.
“We have paid a lot of the bills to get Mr. Bobo in business,” Hubbard said. “At the time, it solved one of the worst problems we had — tractor-trailers loaded with stumps going across Blalock Road. We had daily reports, complaints about that.”
Cherokee County Aquatic Center:
Another issue that drew heated debate was the $18 million Cherokee County Aquatic Center now under construction by the county.
Ruskell threw cold water on the plan, saying the Aquatic Center was originally intended to host high school and college-level swimming and diving competitions.
“As it’s evolved, many of the aspects of the original plan have been dropped,” Ruskell said.
Ruskell said he’s concerned about how the commission plans to fund the project as the massive rock underneath the building is sending costs over budget and costing $300,000.
“We’ve dug ourselves a hole, so to speak,” Ruskell said.
The Aquatic Center, which is funded out of the $90 million bond referendum approved by voters, will include a 50-meter competition pool with spectator seating for 700. It can be configured into two 25-yard swim areas, and allows for high school and college competition under the present construction plans.
Hubbard said he’s been to about a dozen three-hour meetings on the Aquatic Center, and it was a specific decision not to include competition diving equipment that included input by local high school and competition diving coaches.
Hubbard said the amount to remove portions of the rock was already figured into the project’s budget from the beginning.
“We’re designing a facility that will be a legacy and I will be proud to have my name on it,” Hubbard said.
Gunnin said he thinks the county should move forward with the Aquatic Center while making sure to stay under budget.
“The citizens voted for it and that’s what we need to do,” Gunnin said.
Ruskell said it seems “almost inevitable” that the county will have to have a tax increase next year but he opposes tax increases.
“My opponent (Hubbard) over seven years has voted seven times to increase taxes,” Ruskell said.
Ruskell said his goal is to get spending under control and handle the Bobo Boondoggle so taxpayers are not stuck paying off the deficit for the next 30 years.
Hubbard refuted his opponent’s attacks, and said he has not voted that many times for tax increases but has voted to increase the millage rate.
“Since 2008, we have cut $10 million off our general fund, reduced our employee count (by) 130 and we are cutting spending,” Hubbard said, adding every household is paying the same amount in property taxes as they did when he took office in 2005.
“I don’t see how you call that a tax increase,” Hubbard said.
Ruskell said the commission’s minutes show he has voted for a tax increase six times, imposed a 1 mill tax increase to cover the Ball Ground Recycling bill and that the commission is using SPLOST funds to balance the budget.
Gunnin said his goal would be to always fight against raising taxes.
“It hits my pocketbook hard too and I don’t want that,” Gunnin said.
The proposed Transportation Improvement Act referendum also spurred debate among the candidates, with Hubbard pointing to the benefits, but saying he did not like its emphasis on transit.
Ruskell made it clear he was against the plan.
Cherokee County projects for the proposed Transportation SPLOST include widening Highway 140/Hickory Flat Highway between Interstate 575 and the Fulton County line and replacing the bridge on Bells Ferry Road over Lake Allatoona. Highway 140 will be widened from two to four lanes and will cost $190 million.
The bridge project is expected to cost about $7 million.
About $279 million of the tax is expected to be generated in Cherokee and $268.5 million of that will remain in the county.
None of the candidates came out in support of the statewide referendum.
Gunnin said a majority of people in the county appear to be against the TSPLOST.
“I think it’s probably a good program, but we’ve got a bad list of projects on it,” Gunnin said.
Hubbard said the TSPLOST would speed up the process of completing the two major Cherokee County projects but said he disapproved of others included on the list.
“That is a very, very high priority for me,” Hubbard said. “When I look at the overall TSPLOST, I don’t like how much of it is going towards transit.”
He said he moved out of Atlanta to Hickory Flat when he was younger and “never looked back.”
“I don’t like the idea that we’re having to support the city of Atlanta, but what are we going to do with those 68 percent of our people that drive down there to work?” Hubbard asked.
Ruskell called the TSPLOST a “bailout” for MARTA and said that he opposes it.
“We’ll be lucky if we ever see the improvements they’ve outlined for Cherokee County,” Ruskell said.