Candidates for Calhoun County Commission talked about infrastructure, lodging tax and the possibility of more home rule in a wide-ranging debate Monday night in Anniston.
The roughly 80 people in the audience at Anniston City Meeting Center sometimes had to listen closely, as political newcomers and longtime commissioners alike talked their way carefully through the issues.
“Nobody’s for tax increases,” said District 3 commission candidate Scott Martin, a high school football coach who’s in his first run for commission, when asked about increasing the lodging tax.
“I’d leave it up to the Chamber of Commerce,” said former District 3 Commissioner Eli Henderson, who’s in the running again this year.
The county’s voters have a little more than a month to decide who’ll serve on the commission. Twelve candidates seek seats on the five-member board, but there’s a sharp partisan divide between the districts. In the Anniston-centric District 1, only Democrats are in the running; the other districts have only Republican candidates. Each race is likely to be decided in the June 5 primary.
Monday’s forum, organized by the Chamber of Commerce, Jacksonville State University, and The Anniston Star, confronted the candidates with questions submitted by the public.
Roads and bridges
Those questions often centered on roads and bridges. If state and federal infrastructure spending plans ever come to fruition, how would each candidate spend the money?
District 1 candidate David Reddick said he’d spend it widening roads in Hobson City, Central City and the Thankful community.
“Those roads are so narrow, those two-way streets, you can’t have two motorcycles pass each other,” Reddick said.
James Montgomery, also running in District 1, said the county needs to address issues beyond roads and bridges, such as affordable housing.
“I think the County Commission ought to offer more than just paving roads,” he said.
Candidates for two local district judgeships — one of them an incumbent judge — were no-shows at a debate at the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce office Thursday night.
Sitting District 1 Commissioner Fred Wilson said the city’s former Army base — where local officials have been trying to promote development — would be a top priority.
“The first thing I would do is develop Fort McClellan,” Wilson said.
Rural versus high-traffic roads
In District 2, there was debate about whether to repair rural roads first, or fix urban roads traveled by more people.
“We have, in my area, some pretty good roads,” said District 2 candidate Michael Chad Brown, who lives in Nances Creek. “In Chinch Creek, they need some repairs.”
District 2 candidate Danny Shears said he’d likely work first on roads around Choccolocco Park, where sports fields are attracting new tourists.
“I want to prioritize where the main traffic is,” he said.
Sitting District 2 Commissioner Tim Hodges said Shears had a point about addressing high-traffic areas. He said roads in the district have been well cared for under the current commission.
“Calhoun is probably in the top 10 counties for infrastructure,” he said.
In District 4, candidates also noted the rural/urban divide.
“A road in a subdivision costs a lot less than a road out in the county,” noted sitting Commissioner J.D. Hess, explaining county roads require more material in their construction. He said he follows the guidance of country engineers to determine which roads to pave next.
District 4 candidate Joe Dyar said he’d create a strategic plan.
“We’re going to pave everybody’s road that needs it,” Dyar said. “If you’re in Webster’s Chapel, if you’re in Alexandria, Weaver, Saks, they’re all equal.”
Terry Howell, also in the running in District 4, said he’d evaluate road projects on a case-by-case basis, though he believed some rural roads needed priority.
“There are some roads out in Cedar Springs and the outer part of that area that should be looked at first,” he said.
Candidates differed on whether to increase the county’s lodging tax, which pays for the county’s efforts to attract tourism. Reddick said that already-growing tourism should provide more money without raising the tax.
“We don’t need more taxes,” said Reddick. “We need more people coming here and giving us their money.”
Wilson, the sitting commissioner, said he too was opposed to an increase.
Montgomery said he was open to an increase if it would help tourism.
“Most of the time you’re taxing people from out of town,” he said.
Incumbent District 2 Commissioner Hodges said the county’s lodging tax is now lower than that of many other counties, and that there might be room to increase it. Brown said he didn’t believe in raising taxes. Shears said he believed revenue from the tax would increase on its own because of increased tourism at Choccolocco Park.
Taxes featured prominently in the candidates’ debate about “home rule,” the notion that counties should have more power than Alabama law has traditionally allowed. The Alabama Constitution gives counties power over little except paving roads, though lawmakers over the years have granted some counties some independent say over their own affairs.
Henderson, the District 3 candidate, said additional home rule might be part of the success of St. Clair County. Calhoun County’s western neighbor has seen sharp growth in recent years, while Calhoun County’s population has declined.
“I’d like to learn how they’re making it happen, because they’re making it happen,” he said.
Martin said he supported the current system, in part because it keeps counties from raising taxes.
“It keeps checks and balances on our government,” he said.
In the District 4 debate, Dyar said he supported some home rule, depending on the power being granted to the county. Howell said he liked the idea of keeping control of the county’s funds, at least, at the local level.
Incumbents and former commissioners in the debate insisted the point was moot. Whether counties wanted more power or not, they said, the Legislature wasn’t likely to hand that power over.
“We’ll make it without home rule,” Hess said, “but it’s a challenge.”