Aiken County Council chairman candidates meet in forum

Aiken County Council chairman candidates Andrew Siders (from left), Gary Bunker and Chuck Smith talked to North Augusta voters during a forum at the city’s Community Center on Monday night.

There wasn’t a lot of disagreement among the candidates for Aiken County Council chairman Monday night.

 

All three support renewal of the Capital Project Sales Tax for a fourth time. They agreed that the county government could do a better job of communicating with the public school system, the University of South Carolina Aiken and Aiken Tech. Several times one of the candidates said he wanted to “echo” what an opponent had said.

But there were some variations in the details of how things should be done.

Gary Bunker, a former Aiken County councilman, said the county has a $5 million gap in its budget caused by non-recurring expenses, such as cleanup after the ice storm of 2014. Noting that the last budget used reserves, he said it wouldn’t take long to drain all $19 million.

“It took two decades to build,” he said. “We need to focus on putting costs and revenues in balance.”

Chuck Smith, who had home field advantage because he lives in North Augusta and the forum was held at the city’s Community Center, pointed out that there had only been two millage rate increases in the 17 years he’s served on council.

“One was for the Convocation Center in Aiken and one was a pay raise for employees,” he said. “We’ve done a great job of growing this county.”

Siders, who is serving as interim council chairman, named infrastructure upkeep as one of his top priorities and pointed out several times that it’s an economic issue when it comes to recruiting businesses and industries.

Asked to name their most significant contributions as members of the council, Smith said completing the Palmetto Parkway and helping persuade the Department of Energy to fund the MOX program, Bunker said holding the line on the millage rate during the Great Recession, and Siders said raising pay for county workers and spearheading a task force to reduce litter.

Smith and Bunker disagreed on whether the county should have participated in North Augusta’s Riverside Village at Hammond’s Ferry, with Bunker saying he would have voted against it if he had been on council when it came up. Smith said he stood by his support of the project and praised the use of Tax Increment Financing to help fund it.

A similar question was posed about whether non-binding voter referendums were desirable to help leaders shape their positions, and Bunker and Siders said they could be, but noted that government doesn’t function as a direct democracy, but a representative republic. Smith said voters elect leaders to vote on their behalf, and “If you don’t like what I’m doing you need to vote me out of office.”

In response to another question, Siders said he would like to see the county buy as many of the goods and services it needs within the county, “so we don’t have to go across the river.”

Bunker said not even the U.S. can buy everything it needs within its borders and, for example, there are no auto manufacturers in Aiken County.

“Just focus on getting the best value for the taxpayers,” he said.

Smith agreed, saying the free market is where the best deal is almost always found.

But Siders stuck to his guns, saying in his concluding statement: “My pie in sky is that we have an auto manufacturer here. Why not?”

The three candidates will meet in a primary election on Aug. 22.

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Reach James Folker at (706) 823-3338 or james.folker@augustachronicle.com.

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Wed, 11/22/2017 - 18:38

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