The future of Polk County was on the slate last week as economic development and the county’s budget were discussed at a virtual candidate forum.
Three of the five candidates looking to complete the unexpired term of former Polk County Commissioner Jennifer Hulsey were part of the event, which was sponsored by the Polk County Chamber of Commerce and streamed live on the group’s Facebook page.
Linda Liles, Glenn Robinson and Jody Bentley Smith answered questions submitted by residents with no in-person audience at the county commission chambers. Candidates Ricky Clark and Chris Roberson were not able to attend but were invited.
Liles was appointed to the commission to replace Hulsey after she resigned in March to qualify for the State House District 16 Republican primary against State Rep. Trey Kelley, which Kelley won. He will face Democratic challenger Lyndsay Arrendale in the Nov. 3 election.
A fair amount of time at the forum was spent discussing the county’s budget and the effects COVID-19 has had on it, as well as ways to increase county revenue and grow tourism and industry.
Liles said the commission worked hard to have a balanced budget for the next fiscal year, which was just passed by the board with a millage rate of 9.950, the lowest it has been in some time. It did mean the county is budgeted to transfer around $557,000 from its fund balance of more than $23 million.
Smith was concerned about what could happen next year after county departments were asked to cut 10% of their expenses as part of the budget.
“I cannot stress that enough. The employees have done that and will continue to do that. We need to know what’s gonna happen next year, and none of us have a crystal ball,” Smith said.
Robinson appreciated all of the work the commission did on the budget this year, especially in light of the pandemic causing interruptions to the economy, and said working to find ways to cut expenses is something that should be done every year to make up for the dip into the fund balance.
“We’ve got to do something to recoup that. Polk County is very limited in the ways it can get revenue these days, and until we get economic development going there is just no way other than raising taxes,” Robinson said.
Robinson also spoke about the possibility of using a special purpose, local option sales tax to build an agriculture education center on land owned by the county in the Fish Creek area to help grow the industry in Polk County and stimulate economic growth.
He said a feasibility study done by the University of Georgia showed having such a center could bring in between $750,000 to a million dollars in economic impact to the county with it used as an event space for weddings, gatherings, indoor farmers markets and even an on-site cannery.
Smith said there should be plans for the 513 the county owns along U.S. 278 between Rockmart and Cedartown that would increase tourism and quality of life.
“What could we possibly do with that to draw people to Polk County,” she said. “Could we have a park there? Could we have an outdoor venue there? What are our options with that piece of property that could add to the quality of life?”
Liles said she wants to promote tourism and more industry in Polk County.
“The commission has a good working relationship with the public and the Polk County Development Authority, and that’s the biggest thing is economic development,” Liles said. “Bringing in industry, which will bring in jobs, and that will improve our quality of life.”
A question about the management of the Polk County landfill on Grady Road was met with concern by all candidates, especially as it concerned the current contract with Waste Industries.
“My position is and always will be that we need to dump the dump,” Robinson said. “It’s not worth the $1.2 million or $1.5 million that we get every year from them to sacrifice the future of our ecology here in the county, our health and our land.”
Smith agreed the contract with the county was pro-Waste Industries and said she would like to see the landfill move towards more recycling, including using the gases emitted by the landfill for energy.
“It is very expensive to get out of this contract, and we have to weigh that option,” Smith said. “Is it what Polk County can afford? Where is our garbage going to go?”
Liles added that the county has taken Waste Industries to court and won, and is currently in litigation with them. She added that the management company is required to put 6 inches of dirt on top of the landfill every day to reduce the amount of odor and vultures.
Waste Industries has also brought in a new landfill manager to take over operations.