Commissioner Eddie Rowland speaks as Mike Bilderback, left, and Donny Mercer, right, look on. Chairman Greg Tapley did not attend. (Photo/Don Daniel)

About 50 Monroe County citizens came to a pavilion at Monroe County Recreation Department to hear what candidates for Monroe County Commission chairman and District 2 and Monroe County coroner had to say about what they can bring to the positions and what they see as issues in the county. The event, sponsored by The Reporter on the evening of Memorial Day, attracted a number of public officials who were not participants in the debate. Notably absent from the opportunity to interact with voters and respond to questions and concerns was Greg Tapley, Monroe County Commission chairman who is in in his first term and is seeking reelection. See Tapley’s statement in the Reporter.

This left candidate Mike Bilderback without the chance to compare himself directly to Tapley or to ask Tapley to clarify positions on which they differ; so District 2 candidates Eddie Rowland and Donny Mercer and Bilderback each responded to questions related to Board of Commissioners. 

 Independent candidate for District 1 commissioner LaMarcus Davis attended but didn’t participate in the debate because his name won’t appear on the ballot until he faces Larry Evans in the general election Nov. 3.

In his opening, Bilderback said it is clear that Monroe County will need leadership over the next four years that knows how to navigate the county through hard times, and he said as commissioner during the economic lows of 2008-09 he gained experience in doing that. He said he has been working hard over the last three months trying to get the message out that even while commissioners are bragging about what great shape the county is in financially with a $32 million budget, they debate borrowing money at every commission meeting and say they can’t find money for an energy savings program in the budget. 

In his opening statement Mercer said his vision for Monroe County includes an audit on each county department and a resulting action plan to get what each department truly needs to deliver services, as distinguished from what departments ‘want.’ Mercer said he has worked with budgets since 2005 and has experience cutting wasteful spending. He said the county should be one agency working for the good of the whole and not a bunch of independent departments. 

“You’ve got great employees who will do a great job,” said Mercer. “You just have to empower them to do it.”

Rowland said the preceding day was great because he was able to attend church in person and the next day would be great because he was headed to the beach. He invited anyone who wants to talk about the county and county services, especially in District 2, to call him. 

“I’m here to tell you Monroe County is in great shape,” said Rowland. “We’re going to improve the services you receive and not increase property taxes.”

Turning to questions submitted to the Reporter for the candidates, moderator Will Davis asked candidates why the commission doesn’t let Matt Walker hold events, including Sunday events, at his motocross facility in Culloden as he is holding successful events in other counties and such activities would bring revenue and excitement to the Culloden area.

Rowland said he discussed the matter a month ago and is willing to look at it. He said that although growth and revenue are needed in Culloden, the commissioners have to go by adopted codes. Bilderback said he was on BOC when the property was zoned to allow the motocross and the county compromised with those who lived near the facility and objected to the noise and disruption of motorcycles in their agrarian community. No events were allowed on Sunday to give neighbors a day of respite. Mercer said that while economic growth is needed, the commission has to look at how its decisions will affect people and at the rules it has put in place.

The next question asked why results from testing wells in Juliette haven’t been released publicly and how citizens can know whether to support spending $25 million to get water lines to Juliette without knowing how the tests on Juliette wells compare to other parts of the county. The question referred to the county dropping a contract with a Duke University professor who planned to test water and make his findings public. 

Bilderback said he supported the contract with the professor because he was impartial whereas even the EPD isn’t impartial in its testing and evaluation of results. 

“I’m angry with whoever turned him around,” said Bilderback. “We also need to survey who wants to tap on to new water lines.”

Rowland responded that the county cancelled the contract as a service to citizens of Juliette because the professor wouldn’t keep individual results confidential. He said there is a plan to expand water lines that should get water to almost all county residents in 10 years.

Mercer said Juliette needs clean water but that getting water to Juliette is the easy part compared to handling the long term cost. 

“With as much flushing as has to be done, we can end up poisoning ourselves,” said Mercer. “We have to do it in a cost effective way.”

The next question was whether candidates thought there should be a referendum for voters on whether to spend $25 million on water lines. Mercer said taxpayers should have a say, and Rowland said he’d never turn down a referendum, but was concerned because the county is dealing with people who think they’re dying from bad water. Bilderback said people deserve a say in what they’re going to pay for and that there is $6.8 million in the 2019 SPLOST that could be used for water line expansion before looking for more money.

Candidates were asked if they support a law suit against Georgia Power over the water issue. Mercer said he could see a lawsuit that would stay in the courts for several years and that he would need a lot more information before he can support a suit against Monroe County’s biggest taxpayer. Bilderback said he needs to know whether there is any contamination on county property and what current rules in the court system would affect the suit. Rowland said the county’s attorney has told him what he can and can’t say in reference to the possible lawsuit. Bilderback accused Rowland of shielding himself from the question, and Rowland replied that he knows how to do what the attorney tells him.

Davis asked the candidates their views on expanding internet access in Monroe County, with both Forsyth Cable and Reynolds Cable having shown interest. Rowland said he watched a little boy in Culloden sitting on the steps with his mother’s phone trying to do his homework and has seen what his daughter, who teaches at Mary Persons, has had to go through trying to get assignments to and from her students for on-line learning.

“I wish I could wake up and everyone have fiber internet they can afford, but it doesn’t work that way,” said Rowland. “We decided two years ago to put up $700,000 to show we’re serious.” 

Mercer said that after alternative learning days every citizen in Monroe County knows the need for internet. He said his two daughters had to find hot spots to do homework assignments. He thinks the county needs to find a reliable company and support it. Whether the internet will be affordable for citizens is key. Bilderback said the county made a mistake privatizing another service in 2017 and should learn from that mistake. He said he was encourage listening to what Jim Bond of Forsyth Cable said he can do for the county with $14.5 million.

Davis asked candidates to discuss the large H & H Project which has evolved to include private land from Forsyth to Johnstonville Road and the city’s plans to annex the land in the project. Mercer said in spite of how critical it is to get jobs, he doesn’t think the H & H Project would be good for the county. He said it would be better to focus on filling the industrial properties the county and city already have. 

“H & H is a flawed project. It has grown to where it will totally change the area because it is so big,” said Bilderback. “The city is using annexation for economic development and that’s not what it’s meant for.”

He said the large project will change the nature of Monroe County like big developments changed Henry County.

Rowland said he lives two miles from the Five Below distribution center on Rumble Road and never notices it until he gets on I-75. He said citizens can learn to co-habitate with industry. 

“This is a private company doing something on private property,” said Rowland. “The county can’t do a whole lot about annexation.”

The next question was whether candidates support a referendum for a transportation tax on the ballot for the fourth time in eight years after voters rejected a TSPLOST the first three times.

“I don’t support any raise in taxes unless the county is as lean as it can be,” said Mercer. 

Bilderback said he believes in limited government and thinks Rowland made one of the best arguments he has heard in a commission meeting when he said the county needs to find other options than a TSPOST for fixing roads. Bilderback said constituents have made it clear they don’t want TSPLOST. 

Rowland said it’s an issue of bonding or pay as you go instead of incurring debt. “We can’t not fix our roads,” said Rowland. “But we’d have to defer everything else to catch up on roads.”

Davis asked candidates what the county should do about the Monroe-Bibb County line issue that already has cost Monroe County $3 million in attorney fees. Bilderback said he was on the BOC when the county line issue started. He said surveyor Terry Scarborough did an outstanding job surveying the line and the decision should have been clear, but Monroe County doesn’t have the political power at the state level.

“Had I known then that we have weak and impotent state officials, I never would have started it,” he said. “Four Secretaries of State have dodged the issues.”

Rowland said Bilderback is exactly right. He recalled the late Commissioner Jim Ham telling him it was like the landowner next to you putting his fence and cows on your property and your telling him he needed to move them back. Mercer said he thinks Monroe County is at the point it’s out of its hands. 

Davis invited candidates to ask each other questions and those in the audience to ask candidates questions. Bilderback said he would like to ask his opponent, Tapley, why the county put $6.3 million into the old Monroe County Hospital facility when it was valued at less than $2 million. Bilderback said it was a bank bailout by the county since the hospital had “pawned their deeds.” He said the county’s money would have been better spent building a new building. 

Rowland said 72 percent of voters in a referendum said the county should bail out Monroe County Hospital; so commissioners were mandated to do so.  Bilderback said only about 9 percent of voters cast ballots in that referendum, and Rowland said those who didn’t vote made the decision they didn’t care. 

In closing Rowland described a vision of the way he’d like Monroe County to be. He said he is working for those in District 2 and in the county and has taken over 90 calls in a day. He commended Mercer and Bilderback for putting themselves out as candidates.

Mercer said he would like the same vision for the county as Rowland described but that everyone will have to come together to make it happen, and the county will have to pay for it by creating jobs. He said the county has to be watchful to bring in the right businesses and industry. He said the county needs to encourage more young people to tap into the growing agriculture industry. 

Bilderback said this election is about what Monroe County will be like in 2021, 2022 and beyond. He said he would like to ask Tapley why he voted for commercial development with a hundred citizens begging him not to and about the conflict of interest in his ambulance business working for the county. Bilderback said the county needs to go back to an administrative form of government with commissioners more involved. He said the county manager form of government has caused bottlenecks.