Richmond Hill City Council candidates weighed in on issues ranging from growth and traffic to public safety and quality of life during a roughly two-hour forum held Tuesday night at Richmond Hill High School.
The event, hosted by the Richmond Hill-Bryan County Chamber of Commerce, is the first of two forums for city council candidates.
A second forum is set for Oct. 17 at Loves Seafood. It is sponsored by the League of Women Voters, One Hundred Miles and the Bryan County News.
Tuesday night’s forum attracted perhaps 100 residents to the school’s cafeteria, where a meet and greet and then a brief explanation of Tax Allocation Districts was followed by a question and answer session moderated by Tom Allmon, a member of the Chamber’s Board of Directors. All seven candidates attended – Post 2 hopefuls David T. London and Robbie Ward; Post 3 incumbent Bill Donahue and challenger Mark Ott; and Post 4 incumbent Les Fussell and challengers Chakris “Chuck” Moss and Steve Scholar.
Both Donahue and Fussell were appointed earlier this year to fill seats vacated by candidates who left the city. Voters can vote for one candidate for each post, essentially making each of the seats at-large. The night started with candidates introducing themselves to the audience.
Of the six, only Ward, a businessman, is a lifelong resident of the city. Both London and Ott are military academy graduates – London attended West Point and retired as a lieutenant colonel, and Ott, who served as a navigator on B-52s, the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Fussell and Scholar are retired Air Force NCOs and settled in Richmond Hill in the 1990s, and Moss works as manager for the Army’s substance abuse program on Fort Stewart and Hunter Airfield and moved here in 2002.
Each of the candidates touted their ties to the community, especially through having children attending local schools, and in some cases, through their church or government service. The News will run profiles on each candidate in upcoming issues. Readers can also see video of the event on the RHBCC’s Facebook page.
After introductions, the six men got the opportunity to answer five questions, starting with their position on proposed Tax Allocation Districts.
That’s because a question on November’s ballot will ask city voters to approve a measure allowing Richmond Hill to establish the TADs, which are defined areas where property taxes above a certain threshold are used to fund infrastructure or pay back the costs of private development.
Since the city began discussing TADs in May, two areas mentioned as potential TADs are the new interchange at I-95 and the Highway 17 interchange.
Officials have said the TADs would not raise taxes on current residents or property outside the districts. All the candidates Tuesday were in favor of having TADs as an option, or “another tool in the tool box,” as several said. But all said TADs should only be used when and where necessary, and their use is restricted to no more than 10 percent of the city’s tax digest, according to Fussell.
Candidates were then asked to list their top three goals, should they get elected.
Donahue went first, listing improvements such as drainage and roads in various older neighborhoods, better traffic control and enhancements to recreation.
Ott said he wants to see a plan in place dealing with growth and have that plan better conveyed to residents. He also wants more investment in fire and police, and another look taken at the city’s fire fee. Working on road safety, particularly around the schools, is also an issue for Ott, he said.
Ward, who started an auto body repair business in Richmond Hill and grew it to more than a dozen shops with 200 employees in Georgia and Florida, said his first goal is to look at the city’s recently passed fire fee.
Ward wants to spread payments out over 12 months for seniors while also addressing what he said were inequities in the way it’s assessed.
Ward also wants to look at water and sewer rates, which he said are too high. And he wants to work with the Bryan County Board of Education to have more resource officers in Richmond Hill and county schools.
Ward, like other candidates, also referenced a recent series of car break ins and incidents of vandalism in various subdivisions and said he wants to hire more police officers.
Fussell, a Gulfstream manager and also a local business owner and a longtime planning and zoning commissioner for the city, listed an aquatic center as a goal, along with recruiting clean industry to the Belfast Commerce Center and looking into investing in vocational training, perhaps with Savannah Tech as a partner.
Moss, whose son is a former RHHS basketball standout now at Virginia Tech as a graduate assistant, said roads are his top priority, while improving the relationship with the military is also important. He also wants to see more retail shopping opportunities for residents.
London, now a JROTC instructor at Groves and a band booster, said he wants to see flooding and drainage issues in the older neighborhoods such as The Bottom addressed. He also wants to see better communication with residents. And, London is a proponent of both an aquatic center and a multi-sports complex in Richmond Hill.
“We’ve got a swim team the same size as the one in Augusta, and we need a bigger facility,” he said, noting there’s a similar problem finding places to play for indoor sports such as volleyball and basketball.
Scholar said managing growth is his top priority. A former Air Force journalist who also was publisher and editor of the Richmond Hill-Bryan County News, Scholar worked for the city as planning and zoning director for years and is now chairman of the county planning commission. He said he wants to the city to look at impact fees on new development as a way to fund infrastructure.
“If they want to be a part of it, they need to pay a fee,” he said.
Scholar also wants to look at ways to grow jobs and keep young people from leaving.
Scholar said his third goal is to continue working with Bryan County on services. Both governments, and the city of Pembroke, are currently in court-ordered mediation over services after Richmond Hill filed suit against Bryan County in August 2018. The lawsuit followed the county’s vote to equalize taxes on residents across the county, which resulted in a hike of about 1 mill for Richmond Hill residents.
Candidates were then asked to give their thoughts on the relationship between the Richmond Hill and Bryan County governments.
Ott, who works for Gulfstream, said he wants to see the city and county find ways to work together, citing a project to bury electrical lines along 144 that Ott said could’ve saved the city money had they worked with the county. He also questions the need to merge city and county fire services, noting the city’s ISO rating of 3 is lower than the county’s rating of 5. At the same time, Ott said he wants to improve the city’s relationship with Bryan County.
Fussell said finding a service delivery agreement with the county is a goal, noting the two governments have found common ground but are still not on the same page regarding some services, without specifying because much of the mediation has been behind closed doors. Fussell said the city and county have worked together on issues, however, including the new library site, donated by the city to Bryan County, which along with the state will fund the project. He’s not in favor of merging the city and county fire departments.
Donahue, a Ford Plantation resident who founded a number of companies and has served on various boards, including one to raise money for Memorial Hospital in Savannah, said he wants Richmond Hill and Bryan County to work together “wherever possible providing it benefits the citizens of Richmond Hill.”
He said the county needs to put an ambulance in city limits because residents pay for that service. “We want to work with the county, but we have an obligation to put our citizens first and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Scholar said he’s not opposed to a merger of city and county fire departments, so long as no firefighter loses his job, the city saves money and the ISO rating doesn’t go up. He characterized the city-county relationship as “decent,” though “there’s times it’s been in the toilet,” Scholar said.
He, too, said coming to an agreement on services is important.
Moss said he’ll support what makes sense for the city, adding there are two schools of thought surrounding a merger of city and county fire services, with each side saying their view makes sense. “It comes down to saving taxpayers money.”
Ward said the city should consider merging the departments “if it makes financial sense for everyone.” He also stressed that “city residents are county residents.”
London said service delivery negotiations aside, the city and county have worked together in a number of areas. “We do work well together,” he said.
Candidates were then asked to give their thoughts on growth and how to manage it.
Ward, who’s been involved with both the Chamber and the Downtown Development Authority, said he’ll continue to support the DDA and efforts to attract the type of growth residents want.
Moss said he wants to preserve the city’s small town feel while bringing in more shopping and dining opportunities for residents.
Fussell said during his time on the planning commission he helped put together the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, which he said in recent years has helped manage growth along lines envisioned by city leaders.
London said he wants to maintain the city’s small town feel, its neighborhoods and parks, while bringing in more opportunities. London cautioned against hurting local small businesses by bringing in bigger retailers, saying when a Walmart opened in his home town it lead to the closing of a number of smaller businesses.
“It made our city different,” he said.
Ott said the city’s growth – he cited stats he said showed two-thirds of Richmond Hill’s current residents have lived here less than 10 years – means the city needs to better communicate what it wants to preserve and how it wants to grow. He suggested neighborhood parties as a way to bring residents closer together.
Scholar said he helped start the city’s push to develop a historical district and ties to Henry Ford and is in favor of working to preserve the city’s character. He said impact fees are a way to help manage growth, reminding residents of the city’s old wastewater treatment plant and how rapid growth outpaced the plant’s ability to keep up, resulting in the necessity of building a plant that cost more than $25 million to build. An impact fee could’ve helped shift some of that cost to new development, Scholar said, noting he’ll “fight for (an impact fee) from day one.”
Donahue said smart growth has been “a subject we spend quite a bit of time on,” and referenced those in the audience to his website, which carries more information on the subject.
The last question of the night asked candidates to name the single biggest challenge the city is facing over the next six months.
Moss and Ott said growth and what comes with it, whether it’s the additional traffic or more crime. Ott, again citing a recent spate of vandalism and car break ins, noted Richmond Hill’s reputation as an affluent place means its residents are “a target,” for criminals.
Scholar said the safety of residents is the biggest single issue, and in addition to impact fees he’d be willing to pay additional taxes to fund more firefighters, first responders, police officers and school resource officers.
Ward, who started by praising his opponent, London, said growth and how it relates to public safety will be the Richmond Hill’s biggest challenge over the next year.
Fussell also said safety is the biggest issue, but he added that includes ensuring the city’s “significant population of older citizens,” are safe.
Donahue said the single biggest issue is coming to an agreement with Bryan County on service delivery. Otherwise, he said, the two sides could end up in court.
London said the challenge will be balancing continued growth with taking care of residents in older neighborhoods.
Kathryn Johnson, executive director of the RHBC Chamber, said the event went well.
“I would like to thank everyone for coming as we had a wonderful turnout,” Johnson said. “ I would also like to thank RHHS for going above and beyond as our host, all seven candidates for attending and doing such a wonderful job of informing the voters. “