About 70 people filled the Riceboro Youth Center on Sunday evening to learn more about the candidates for Riceboro City Council and mayor.
The candidates fielded several written questions from the audience that touched on a number of topics such as water service, economic development and whether they support the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which Liberty County voters rejected renewing last year and which county officials are proposing be put on the ballot in 2016. All the mayoral candidates said they do support SPLOST.
Here are some highlights of the mayoral candidates’ responses during the forum, which was jointly sponsored by the East Liberty County Citizens Forum and the Liberty County Branch of the NAACP.
Water service is a touchy subject in Riceboro. Mayor Bill Austin, who is seeking a third-consecutive term, listed it as his top issue. He said the city can use only 500,000 gallons of water a day, and SNF Chemtall is Riceboro’s biggest water user.
“The people in Riceboro has never suffered for water,” he said. “But we need it in order to grow Chemtall. OK, that’s an industry … that supplies a lot of people in our community and a lot of people in the neighboring communities, like Long County and also Ludowici.”
Candidate Joe Harris said the issue heard most about as he talked to people throughout the city was water and sewage. Complaints he heard included “lime or rot coming up in the spigot,” water turning black after church, not enough water to take a shower at night and the water’s smell.
“It is my concern, again, for the people, that they get the adequate answers — solutions to the problems that we have,” he said. “And right now, the water, sewage — although it’s good, we have a lot of downfall for, and we would like answers for.”
Former mayor Gregory Richardson agreed that water is a major concern. He pointed out that a water system is complex and needs constant maintenance. As for black water after church, Richardson pointed out that unlike homes, churches don’t use water every day, so the water can get stale in its lines.
“You have to make sure your equipment is running, that you have spare,” he said. “And the citizens, some of them don’t know it. There are issues that arise, and there is some down time when you might have to change out the ejector pump or the chlorine, change out the well pump, what have you.”
In response to a question about how to improve Riceboro’s economy, Harris said he has been discussing with the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce how the city can attract more businesses. He said the city has not worked enough with the county, so it doesn’t have a voice when county officials discuss economic development. He pointed to Midway, which he said had to work with other entities to get the McDonald’s on East Oglethorpe Highway by the Interstate 95 interchange.
“We can work with county entities,” Harris said. “That’s why I believe it’s important that we’re at the table when there’s county meetings and retreats, that we express what Riceboro can do for them and what they also can do for Riceboro. Our ideas need to be known.”
Richardson first said it’s important that the city generates enough revenue to keep those employed who are and that the infrastructure — roads, water and sewer — are maintained. And he proposed a business incubator because outside businesses may not be attracted to Riceboro because of its small population.
“(Businesses) survey by traffic, they survey by population. And if there’s not enough population or traffic, what have you, or even you don’t have water and sewage, they’re not going to locate in your city,” he said. “I’m looking for a way to put a building up where small businesses, or business, period — it will be affordable for them.”
Austin agreed that a top priority is keeping the businesses Riceboro does have and working on infrastructure, meaning, for example, that the city is “going to supply Chemtall all the water they need.” The city has a plan to build a facility that will have a capacity of 1.5 million gallons of water a day, which he said will help future development.
“It’s already been put through the Liberty County Development Authority to put 4,000 houses down towards I-95, and you have Plum Creek, which also has gotten a plan to put 7,000 houses down there,” Austin said. “We want to be in a position, OK, to really take advantage of those businesses with our infrastructure, and I think we’re doing the right thing.”
In emphasizing his support for SPLOST, Richardson listed several Riceboro projects the 1 percent sales tax helped fund over the last several years.
“SPLOST played a vital role. It was part of money used to help put this structure up that we are in currently,” he said, referring to the Youth Center. “It helped with the resurfacing of the roads in our city. It also helped us to get a new fire engine because the money is allocated for fire, recreation, roads. And it was critical in helping. And I would like for that, I hope the citizens will go back next time it’s on the table and vote it in.”
Harris said that while he supports SPLOST, he hopes more information will be given about it.
“The SPLOST helps us to keep our infrastructure, our building up and running, help us as a community to be successful, have good roadways and etc. So I do support it,” he said. “I am a proponent of providing our constituents, our voters more information about what the SPLOST can do for us. And I will be a proponent at the table negotiating, talking with the county as to how we can obtain and have a better probability of obtaining funds for our particular city of Riceboro.”
Austin said he supports SPLOST and so do Riceboro residents.
“With the last initiative, the city of Riceboro passed the referendum for SPLOST; it was some of the other communities that did not,” he said. “We do support SPLOST, even though we are relegated to a very minor part of that SPLOST, apparently because of our population. We’re only 1.29 percent of the population of the county. When they get ready to start distributing funds, usually they take that under consideration.”