The forum, sponsored by the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce and Columbia County News-Times, featured six candidates from locally contested races for the May 20 general primary.
First to speak were incumbent county Commission Chairman Ron Cross and opponent Jim Bartley, a local builder and political activist.
When asked how he would manage future business growth, Cross said through the addition of broadband internet and continuing to offer economic incentives.
“The big thing we do to help businesses is to keep taxes low,” said Cross, citing the ongoing fight to reduce property taxes.
If elected, Bartley said he would work with officials to help nurture small businesses in the county. He said he wants to change a current ordinance requiring businesses to obtain a permit before displaying a sign near the street, adding that smaller businesses aren’t as capable of purchasing advertising as bigger counterparts.
“Big-box retail is great, but small business is the backbone of Columbia County,” Bartley said.
Candidates for the District 1 commission seat, Hafeez Chaudhry, a Martinez businessman, and Doug Duncan, a vice president with Augusta staffing firm MAU Inc., both expressed the desire to work with commissioners to improve infrastructure and roadways in advance of the population boom expected to follow the opening of Army Cyber Command at Fort Gordon.
“The current Grovetown area that feeds into Fort Gordon is not enough to support the projected growth of the post over the next five years,” Chaudhry said. “Without proper planning, it will become a congested place.”
Duncan stated the need to expand sewer and waste water systems out toward Harlem and Appling.
“If a Starbucks wanted to come to Columbia County, it wouldn’t happen because we don’t have the waste water capacity,” he said. “There’s a solution in place; they’re extending sewer and water out to (Interstate 20) exit 183 out in Harlem and Appling. To me, that can’t happen fast enough.”
Mike Sleeper, the District 3 incumbent for county Board of Education, shared his ideas on how to reduce problems with class size, including adding a seventh period for high school students.
“Among other things, it will allow us to reduce class sizes for student populations in our core classes,” he said.
On the question of whether he supports the addition of a charter school in Columbia County, Sleeper’s opponent, retired logistics executive Staten Heard, said he favors the idea as long as public funding isn’t used.
“I feel that it should be funded privately under the control of its own administration,” he said. “If a charter school was funded publicly, it should fall under governance of the Columbia County school system to ensure excellence.”
Voter registration ended Monday. Early voting will begin April 28 and end May 16.