Editor's note: This is another in an ongoing series of stories on the municipal elections. Links to other stories are on the bottom of this page.
Richmond Hill city council hopefuls talked issues ranging from taxes and traffic to the city’s proposed Tax Allocation Districts Thursday night at Love’s Seafood during a fast-paced forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia, the environmental advocacy group One Hundred Miles and the Bryan County News.
Candidates attending were Post 2 hopeful David T. London, Post 4 incumbent Les Fussell and Post 4 challengers Chakiris “Chuck” Moss and Steve Scholar.
Coastal Electric Cooperative Vice President Mark Bolton moderated while Paul Thurston – wearing a referee’s shirt – ran the clock.
Candidates were limited to one minute to introduce themselves and then answer questions submitted from residents to the LWVCGA.
Candidates were not shown the questions in advance. Three candidates did not attend – Post 2 candidate Robbie Ward, who accompanied his daughter on a college trip; Post 3 candidate Mark Ott, who said he had to prepare for a business trip; and Post 3 incubment Bill Donahue, who did not give a reason for his decision not to participate.
London, a West Point grad and combat veteran who retired as a lieutenant colonel and deputy commander of the Savannah District of the Corps of Engineers, said he loves to serve and has always been a volunteer.
“I was in 15-20 clubs in high school,” he said, adding he wants the city to take care of older neighborhoods while also looking to add more amenities and help grow the city. “I’m just looking for a wonderful opportunity to serve.”
Fussell, a Garden City native who spent 21 years in the Air Force before becoming a project manager at Gulfstream, said when his family moved to Richmond Hill in 1993 it became home.
“I enjoy serving this city, I’ve done it a long time,” he said. “When we made this city our home it was a wonderful city, and it’s never lost its charm.”
He also praised the city’s diverse population.
“We need to involve everybody, we need to embrace everybody and we need to provide services for everybody,” Fussell said.
Moss, an ordained minister and counselor, said he’s running for residents.
“It’s about what you desire and you need,” he said, promising quarterly public forums if he’s elected.
“You need to see me, and I need to see you,” Moss said.
Scholar, who is retired Air Force and a former editor and publisher of what was then called the Richmond Hill-Bryan County news, said he wants to be on city council because he’s already worked on staff as the city’s planning and zoning director.
“The buck stops with city council and I want the buck to stop with me,” he said.
Candidates were first asked whether they’d support raising taxes to improve services or provide amenities.
That, Bolton said, was perhaps the hardest question of the night.
All said they were against raising property taxes.
London said he believes the city can provide services and amenities such as an aquatic center and multipurpose recreation center without raising taxes.
“We can do that with SPLOST (special local option sales tax) dollars, by teaming with the board of education and the county. If we do it in a smart fashion and keep costs down, I believe we can put facilities in without raising taxes.”
Fussell said the city and county are working on getting an ambulance stationed within the city limits. And, he too pointed to SPLOST funds as a way to fund projects while noting that most SPLOST revenue comes from the city’s I-95 interchanges, rather than residents.
Moss said he believes the city can find revenue through business growth and fund improvements through working with the county and other governments.
“I’d look at and meet with those partners across the board and find out how to better management our money together,” he said.
Scholar also pointed to SPLOST as well as grants as a way to fund projects, saying 80 percent of the city’s sales tax revenue is generated by people “transiting through our community.”
The former planning and zoning director also said he helped bring more than $3 million in grants to Richmond Hill and believes that’s an important source of revenue.
Candidates were then asked about a potential water and sewer authority to run such services in all of South Bryan.
“I’d only support it if it didn’t negate anything our residents already have,” Fussell said, adding “If there’s an authority, it would have to be done in a manner in which all the cities benefited and all of the citizens benefited.”
Moss said he’d have to do an analysis first, and “if you do go for an authority make sure it will benefit citizens and not raise taxes or raise water and sewer costs.”
He also said water bills went up substantially last year “without sufficient notice,” so he believes the city needs to “make sure we’re clear when we have to raise prices for anything. We need to let folks know what’s happening.”
Scholar said he’s not opposed to a combined water and sewer authority as long as all its members are treated equally. He wants to “make sure there’s no 800 pound elephant in the room,” were it to be considered.
“I do believe as we continue to pump water out of the lower Floridan acquifer water will be an issue,” Scholar added, saying he believes the city should focus on conservation efforts.
And, “if there isn’t any tax savings I’d be opposed to (a water sewer authority),” he said.
London said such an authority would “have to be of benefit to us,” in order for him to support it. He noted the cost of water and sewer did go up, though it also included trash and recycling.
Candidates were next asked whether they supported Richmond Hill’s ballot measure which, if voters approve, will allow the city to establish Tax Allocation Districts in certain areas to help fund infrastructure and improvements.
Moss said he’s in favor of the TADs.
“If you look at the I-95 and 17 corridor, there’s a great opportunity there to go in and do some land work to make it accessible for a contractor or business owner to come in and build on that property,” Moss said.
He used Chick-Fil-A as an example, adding that if the popular restaurant came in it would attract more business, which would add to SPLOST revenues.
Scholar said he also supports the TAD ballot measure and said it’s important for residents to understand its passage won’t lead to higher property taxes. “If you’re outside the TAD it’s not going to do that, the millage rate won’t go up, and no one’s personal property is going to be effected by it.”
He also said most projects will be funded through tax exempt bonds which means no risk to taxpayers.
London too is for TADs, and sees the 5,000 acres the city annexed in 2017 as a fitting place for such a district.
If there is a drawback, he said, it’s that a TAD “ties up tax revenue for 10-15 years, and we have to make sure we have money to expand our emergency services, expand our schools, and have money to expand our road maintenance. So we have to make sure we’re looking at that on the back end.”
Fussell said he’s already voted yes on the TAD ballot question, but added that the city can’t go it alone implementing such districts.
“Any time you assign a TAD the county has to be involved and also the school board,” he said. “And TADs can’t be greater than 10 percent of the entire tax digest. There are checks and balances on it. We have to be smart identifying areas and make sure we have real development. We need to ask how it benefits the citizens of the city.”
Candidates were asked how they’d handle growth, which has put a strain on city services and infrastructure.
Scholar, who called growth inevitable, said he wants the city to consider impact fees, with the money going into an enterprise fund to help fund services, projects and amenities such as the library.
“The city’s issuing about 200 permits a year (for homes,” he said. “If you charge each home, say $500, and the developer wouldn’t pay it, the homebuyer would, then that’s $100,000 that wouldn’t have to come out of our pockets. We could use that money to help build parks, help with infrastructure, use it to help fund our library and other services.”
London said with Savannah and the ports booming, the city’s rapid growth will continue. He said he’s a proponent of “safe and smart growth,” adding that TADs and efforts by the city’s public safety departments to keep pace with increasing population are examples of smart growth.
“The police department has added eight to 10 police cars the last few months, and the fire department hasn’t missed a single grant opportunity to make sure they can expand services and keep up,” London said.
Fussell, a longtime member of the planning and zoning commission who helped write the city’s recently passed development ordinances, said some of the growth the city is experiencing – particularly townhomes and apartments – “were the result of decisions made several years ago.”
He said the city’s unified development ordinance and comprehensive land use plan “now tell us exactly what can go in certain areas,” and “we have the right tools in place,” to manage growth.
Moss too said growth is going to continue to happen because “Richmond
Hill is such a lovely community.”
He said he wants city leaders to hold those working on projects such as the widening of Highway 144 accountable while also communicating better with the public on what’s happening.
“When you don’t know, you get frustrated. What we don’t do too well is communicate.”
Candidates were how they’d bring in more dining and shopping options.
London said he supports locally owned businesses, and recalled how Walmart ran some local businesses in his hometown out of business.
“I love Wallyworld,” he said. “But a regional manager or a national manger can’t make the same decision as someone that is local.”
Fussell said the city needs to take another look at what it charges to set up shop in Richmond Hill and work with development authorities, and “the TAD is another useful component of this.”
“I talked to one investor who said it’s just too expensive to open a business here,” Fussell said. “(Finding a solution) is not going to happen overnight. There are lots of things we need to do.”
Moss said the city council needs to work with the Chamber of
Commerce and do what’s necessary to “make it easier and more attractive for a
business to locate here.”
“We need to do it smart. Don’t bring in somebody’s competitor. Don’t bring in a Walmart if it’s going to put Ace Hardware out of business.”
That led to one of the few disagreements of the night, and it was tame.
“With all due respect, when Walmart opened on 17 (down at Highway 204), the big fear was that Ace would close and Richmond Hill Pharmacy would close,” Scholar said. “But they flourished because they were locally owned businesses.”
He said he believes fees assessed on new businesses are too high and suggested the city look at deferring some of the fees for six months or a year.
“Maybe we can find a way for them to pay them maybe not right up front when they’re opening their business, but once they’ve established themselves and have a little bit of cash flow,” Scholar said. “That way we wouldn’t be letting them not pay them, just not at the minute they’re trying to open a business.”
Candidates were asked to give their vision for the city as it continues to grow.
Fussell said he sees continued growth down Highway 144 and “there’s the opportunity there to provide services,” but “we have to have infrastructure such as roads before development.”
He also sees the new interchange at Exit 82 on I-95 as a “great asset for people in South Bryan.”
Moss said both infrastructure and smart growth are important, but he wants city to do a better job cultivating its relationship with the military.
“We don’t have as strong a relationship with them as we should. Richmond Hill is a great community, a great location.”
Scholar said he wants to see Richmond Hill be both a place where “you want to be,” as well as a place where children can find jobs after high school and stay. He said he’s also a proponent historic preservation to attract tourists – who eat, shop and stay in local motels – and working to make sure the city “looks the way we want it too as it continues to grow.”
London said he likes much of what is already happening, such as the widening of 144 and the site of the new library, but wants to see more communication – and more resources -- devoted to people who live in the city’s older neighborhoods.
“Some of them feel ignored, there’s a lot of flooding and drainage issues,” London said. “The city is doing a lot to repair those areas, but I don’t know if that’s being communicated.”
London noted some homes in older neighborhoods were “built too close to the ground and I’d like to see what we can do to help, maybe by talking to FEMA,” he said. “The people in those homes are in a situation bigger than they are, and I think we should do something to help them out.”
The next-to-last question gave candidates an opportunity to say what they’d personally done to make Richmond Hill a better place.
For Moss, who works with soldiers as head of the Army’s drug and alcohol program on Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield, it was building relationships with the military and promoting the city.
“I always brag about Richmond Hill,” he said.
Scholar said he’s on the YMCA Board of Directors and helped raise funds for scholarships so kids whose parents can’t afford to join can participate in programs. He also cited his work as chairman of the Bryan County Planning and Zoning Commission, saying that too has made the community a better place to live.
London said he’s a habitual volunteer for groups as disparate as the Cub Scouts to the Richmond Hill High School Band Boosters to JROTC – he teaches JROTC at Groves High School – to his church, Compassion Christian.
“Those are just some of the things I do,” London said. “I make sure I am part of the solution, always. I put my hand up and say what can I do to help.”
Fussell, who recently retired from Gulfstream, said his business supports sports teams at Richmond Hill High School and as a city councilman he looks for ways to help, including his work to help bring American Disabilities Act complaint playground equipment to J.F. Gregory Park.
The last question was about traffic, not surprising given the congestion facing residents. Given that both Highway 17 and 144 are state highways, and there’s sometimes confusion over whether roads are under city or county jurisdiction, the candidates were asked if they could work with other governments to address traffic issues, and also whether they were in favor of greenways, bikeways and walkways.
“Yes, yes and yes,” Scholar said, then touted his experience working for the city, county and school system.
“Roads are in some cases owned by the state and county, you just can’t go in and put up a traffic light,” Scholar said. “We have to work as a team to find what can be done to alleviate some of that congestion we all experience on a daily basis.”
London said the various governments already work together well, despite occasional differences, but communication between government and residents should improve.
Fussell said the city has a list of road improvement projects it puts together each year, and praised city workers for posting on social media information on issues impacting traffic. He said he’s also a proponent of bike lanes, greenways and walking trials.
“They’re key assets our city and contribute to the welfare and health of our citizens, and I always support that and will do everything I can with the DOT to make it happen,” he said.
Moss said the city needs to work with other governments on roads.
“The bottom line is let’s talk let’s get together and let’s get it done,” he said.
Wendy Bolton, who chaired the LWVCGA’s forum in Georgia, noted the nonpartisan group has a 99-year history of informing voters and working to increase turnout “without regard to political party.”
She also thanked the hosts, Fulton and Donna Love, whose “connection to our community runs deep and their support is always generous,” Bolton said.
Before the forum began her husband, Mark, thanked the candidates.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who choose to enter public service,” he said.
Rena Patton, a LWVCGA member from Richmond Hill, ended the night by thanking candidates, the Boltons, and those who came, adding that in the last election “there were only about 700 people or so who voted and chose the future of our community,” she said. “Go and be informed, and be active.”