Commission candidates discuss COVID-19, other topics

Candidates for the District 3 seat on the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday praised the drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination clinics that have been hosted by the county and others. But they said the county could be even more proactive in battling the pandemic.

The candidates spoke at the Edwards Park Community Center in Varnell at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area. About 45 people attended the event, which was streamed on the League's Facebook page.

Five candidates will be on the March 16 ballot to fill the unexpired term of the late Roger Crossen, which ends on Dec. 31, 2022. Early voting starts Monday at the county courthouse.

"I think the commissioners have done a great job," said Chad “Bubba” Young, an insurance agent and former University of Georgia football player. "They have partnered with the city of Dalton to open a drive-thru vaccination clinic (at the Dalton Convention Center). They are hosting drive-thru COVID testing here at Edwards Park."

Young and the other candidates expressed support for expanded vaccination and testing efforts, bringing those services to other locations if possible.

"We have been relying on people to come to us," said Shannon Bearfield, a U.S. Air Force combat veteran who works in a medical lab. "We need to go out to them."

Jonathan Bagley, director of procurement for chemical company Polyventive in Calhoun, said the county should look toward working with schools and other organizations to get more information on COVID-19, vaccines and testing to county residents.

Shane Day, global sales director for Tiarco Chemical, said on weekends Edwards Park "has some of the largest gatherings in the county." He suggested that the health department could set up a booth with educational material there. He also suggested working with churches and major employers to bring testing and vaccinations to their members and employees.

John Thomas, a realtor and former member of the Whitfield County Board of Education, said governments and civic organizations in Whitfield County have always been good about working together and that will be the key to fighting the pandemic.

League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area representatives did not ask the candidates about the use of masks to prevent or reduce the spread of COVID-19. County commissioners last spring required masks in county buildings but allowed that requirement to expire. Commissioners voted again in December to require masks in county buildings but voted to overturn that requirement at their January meeting.

The candidates discussed the need for expanding and improving infrastructure in the county to promote economic growth and raise the standard of living.

"As a realtor, one of the first questions we hear now (from homebuyers) is 'Do you have high-speed internet?'" said Thomas. "I can tell you we are going to fall behind if we don't catch up to other counties when it comes to internet."

Bagley agreed that commissioners need to work with Dalton Utilities and others to expand high-speed internet to parts of the county that don't have it.

"COVID-19 has really exposed that need," he said. "There are more people working at home, children studying at home, and they need high-speed internet."

All of the candidates said they'd like to see sewer expanded into more parts of the county.

A four-year, $66 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) approved by voters last year contains $4.9 million for sewer expansion to the Carbondale interchange, the Connector 3 interchange and north along Cleveland Highway to about Frontier Trail to encourage economic development in those areas.

"That project needs to continue to help attract retail and commercial spaces out into the county, where we need that development," said Day.

The candidates were asked about a referendum on the March 16 ballot that would give commissioners the power to create tax allocation districts (TADs). A tax allocation district is based on the idea that development in an area will increase property values. In effect, the taxes a local government can collect for general purposes inside a district are frozen at what the property was worth when the district was created. Taxes collected on additional value are dedicated to pay for infrastructure, land, buildings, public artwork or other amenities to attract a developer or developers to that area. That “extra” money does not go into general revenue.

"I am 100% in favor of TADs," said Day. "It will be project by project. Commissioners will set up guidelines and developers will have to abide by them."

Thomas said he supports TADs with some caution.

"I'm still being educated on it (TADs)," he said. "It sounds fine and dandy, but you've got to find a fair balance. The whole purpose is to get more development. There is a tremendous need for $250,000 up to $400,000 homes. I promise you. The old adage is if you build them they will come, and they will. But we've got to be really careful how we decide who gets these TADs. I am in favor of TADs, but we have to be really careful and really selective."

Bearfield also expressed cautious support for TADs.

"I support TADs but only as long as we can maintain full and complete transparency," she said. "We need affordable housing, too. I'd like to see a TAD used to support affordable housing."

Bagley said "used carefully, TADs can really benefit Whitfield County," saying they could not only jumpstart housing development but bring retail and restaurants to the unincorporated parts of the county.

"We've got to set rules — this is what we want, this is what you have to do," said Young. "But I support TADs, mainly because we've lost two pieces of property to (the city of Dalton) because the city has TADs."

Last year, Hammond Creek Capital asked the city to annex 91.745 acres on the north Dalton bypass in the area around Pleasant Grove Drive into the city. The company plans a mixed residential/commercial development on the property, with some 200 new housing units. That request was approved.

And POAL Partners and Mauer Dalton asked the city to annex Market Street Shoppes into the city, while Venture Partners asked for the annexation of the former site of the Dairy Queen on Market Street into the city. Those requests were also approved. The city plans a new access road and other improvements to make that area more attractive to customers and approved a $20 million bond that will help finance that project as well as an aquatics center and stormwater control efforts.

Dalton voters in 2014 gave the City Council the authority to create TADs, and the council has since created four. One covers the downtown business district. Another covers the Dalton Mall and the area near it. The third covers West Walnut Avenue from Interstate 75 to Dug Gap Road. And the fourth covers the area around the planned Hammond Creek development.

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