Published 12:02 pm Thursday, July 9, 2020

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With the primary elections approaching, the Star-News asked candidates from the Covington County Commission District 2 runoff a series of questions on important issues regarding the county.

The candidates are Michael Smith and incumbent Joe Barton.

For many years, county commissioners had direct responsibility for the county-maintained roads in their districts. Now that the system has changed, describe your view of the role of the county commission.

Smith: The county commissioner is like the board of directors of the business, still help and be responsible for some of the road and work with Lynn Rawls. They are a board of directors that operate and run a business.

Barton: Well the majority of the time it’s just doing budgets, handling the finances of the county, establishing policies and procedures for the county to follow and working with other agencies. When I say the other departments because we are responsible for every department in the county. It’s a big job. You know, basically, that’s what we do. Of course, we work with the engineer’s office and the EMA and we all work together. That’s part of the process.

What experience do you have with developing and executing budgets and reading financial statements?

Smith: I owned my own business for over 13 years. I was the president, CEO, CFO. It gave me a lot of experience in budgeting, finances and understanding financials.

Barton: Currently I have 7 years of experience with that as serving as a commissioner, and before then I worked on a car dealership where we had the responsibility of keeping up with inventory, vehicles, costs, and taxes and all that so its been part of what I’ve done since I actually got out of college. I worked for a motor company and did part of the same thing.

What are your views on the county’s current level of public debt?

Smith: Without having the numbers in front of me, I cannot accurately assess that. However, I am not a proponent of borrowing money. Still, there are instances when you have to borrow money to make money and to keep the credit rating.

Barton: We don’t owe as much as we did. When we took office we owed $17 million and right now we’ve paid a little over $4 million of that off and continually we haven’t borrowed any money. So I think we’ve done a pretty good job of managing and paying as we go.

Are county taxes too high, about right or pleasantly low?

Smith: I think they are about right. We have a fair tax with what I have seen compared to other counties. They are about right.

Barton: According to people in Covington County they think they’re high, but according to the state we’re really low and I’m proud of that, to keep our taxes low, but it’s all because we spend our money wisely and budget wisely and try not to create any additional debt. We don’t want to be a burden and I pay taxes just like everybody else.

What do you see as the most pressing needs for infrastructure or capital projects in the county?

Smith: Better access with four-lanes to be able to get the products in and out. Having four-lane roads will help with that.

Barton: Certainly roads and bridges. We have over 600 miles of just dirt roads and I don’t even remember the number of bridges. I think we are the fourth or fifth in the state for the number of bridges. We have several 3-ton bridges which limits access for our county equipment, and also for farm equipment, logging industry and everybody so we have to reroute a lot of things just because of those bridges. The life expectancy of those bridges is coming to an end and we have got to do something but the cost is just astronomical. We face the same thing in Pigeon Creek on the Pigeon Creek Lloyd Mill project. If we are able, we’re going to put a road through there that will save almost $2 and a half to $3 million.

What do you think should be done with the Arena?

Smith: Marketing will be great to let people know what is available. Not just for rodeos. Show what can be done at our arena.

Barton: Well, currently we’re managing it ourselves and it’s done really well since we’ve taken it over. We have some events coming, two this month coming up. We’re going to have to do some finetuning, some renovations, upgrading on lights and stuff. It needs to be used for more than just rodeos and arena things. We can have some smaller concerts and I wish some of the churches would use it for lock-ins and things like that, I think it’s a good facility for that. We have discussed putting it into some type of evacuation shelter that will have to get FEMA approval and will have to meet certain standards, but to do that because we are on the evacuation route, would be a really good thing to help the people that need to get out of harm’s way, and animals, too. Also, Bureau of Land management. They’re going to have a pick-up point to pick up wild horse adoption. It will be the end of August. That’s a big deal. Using Covington county as a pick-up point where people will come from different states. It’s a great thing for our county.

If new resources were available, what one area of county services would you feel most needs additional resources? Also, is there one area that you feel gets too much money/resources?

Smith: Competitive pay for our employees to ensure they are taken care of and to improve our infrastructure. As far as one is getting too much resources or money, I would have to study the budget to know for sure.

Barton: It’d have to be the road department. There’s just so much to be done and so many miles. With the weather conditions it’s always either too dry to maintain the roads or too wet and we have a lot of low area roads that flood and school buses can’t get through, mail can’t get through, people can’t get through. Prestwood Bridge Road is the highest maintenance road in our county. It floods and we can’t control that, the water has got to go somewhere and it’s been a big issue. That’s one area that I would love to see to improve that road. It’s all cost-effective. To keep costs down, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Do it right.

Well, the cost of incarceration is certainly expensive. We’ve got a $1.2 million budget for the jail, the medical costs for the jail, and for the taxpayers to have to pay for what people who are incarcerated. We’re paying for their problem. We pay because if you do something wrong, I have to pay for it. You pay your own way. We’ve got some work

release programs but I think we need to work on something to make the jails more efficient as far as expenses go.

What are the factors on which you will base your decision as a county commissioner?

Smith: My years of business experience, which is understanding the budgets and finances, and understanding economic development to help the county continue to grow.

Barton: I always try to talk to people and I talk to my fellow commissioners because I want to see what impact whatever decision we make has on people. As far as paving roads or something like that, I want people to get the most bang for their buck. We work with the engineer’s office on the density of the population on a road. If we’ve paved a road with five or six houses on it, we need to pave a road that’s got 30 houses on it. I want people to get their money’s worth. It’s all about being fair and being equal.

What are your views on open data and transparency of information? What kinds of information should be made public?

Smith: I think we should be open and transparent for the public to understand what the commissioner are doing. Personnel issues are definitely closed. Right now, it is hard to see what the county commission is doing. We want to make sure that we don’t release details prematurely that could harm any new potential industry.

Barton: I’m all for it. I’m an open book. I say if you want to know, ask Joe. If I don’t know, I’ll find out. Everything we do is public knowledge. We put ourselves out there and we’re under scrutiny and under a microscope every day. It’s what we do.

All of it. It’s your money, I work for you just like you work for the paper. If you have a question, you better have the right answer. I don’t have anything to hide from anybody.

What’s the biggest issue facing the county in the next four years?

Smith: The debt, finances and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis and its effect on the economy.

Barton: Well, if we get through this pandemic without a big economic crisis on our hands, which we have been really fortunate so far, I think it’s a joint effort with economic development. I say the best thing to do is to figure out a way to capitalize on some of the beach traffic we have. There are dollars coming through every day. The traffic jam on 55 and 84, that’s a safety issue. If you take a lot of things into consideration, it’s a question that requires a lot of answers. You’ve got safety factors, you’ve gotta have our good schools, we’ve gotta have good infrastructure, we’ve gotta have all of this to attract the people to come and stay here. We have an excellent area for retired people. We’ve recreational facilities, golf courses, a good hospital, good education system, we have activities for them to do and they could join several volunteer organizations. There’s a lot for people here if they’d just stop and do it. The cost of living here is certainly less than the cost of living in Florida. When the real estate market peaked there, a lot of people moved here. A lot of them are still here and they love it. They’re moving here every day and it’s good for the real estate. It’s good for all of us.

Next Tue., July 14 is the day of the election.