Eight of the nine candidates in the race to take over the jobs of three retiring council members fielded questions from the staffs of the forum’s sponsors, the Cherokee Tribune and WLJA radio 101.1 FM.
As in the city of Woodstock, Canton voters choose one candidate from each ward, no matter which one they live in.
Sandy McGrew, Bob Reilly and Clint Weatherby, who are going after the Ward 1 seat being vacated by Bob Rush, were all in attendance Wednesday night, as were the candidates hoping to replace Bill Bryan in the Ward 2 seat, Ari Durham and Bill Grant. Farris Yawn, Molly Lewis and John Rust also came to try to pull in votes in the race to take over John Beresford’s Ward 3 seat, but the fourth candidate for that heavily contested seat, Thomas Sanders, didn’t attend.
During the more than hour-long discussion before about 75 residents and officials Wednesday night, the candidates touched on topics ranging from taxes, fire services and economic development.
Since the sitting Canton City Council considered and then balked at the idea of raising the property tax rate for fiscal 2014 by about 18 percent, what should be done to the millage rate has been a topic of conversation among residents.
When asked if Canton’s tax rate could stay the
same, all eight candidates indicated they wouldn’t exactly be favorable to raising taxes.
Ward 1 candidate McGrew, a retired school worker, said if there were to be a tax hike, it would have to be for a “dog-gone good reason.”
“We’ve been doing well on what we have so far,” she said. “This council has done the city well without an increase.”
Her opponents Weatherby and Reilly agreed there would have to be a good reason to raise taxes.
“I think $13 million to run 14 square miles is sufficient,” Reilly said.
Ward 2 candidates Durham and Grant also said the tax rate should stay the same.
“This is a no-brainer,” Durham said. “We want to do everything we can to keep the take rate low.”
A self-described “fiscal conservative,” Durham added the city should be more proactive in seeking grants from the state and federal governments to save money and keep taxes low.
Grant said he had looked through the fiscal 2014 budget and found where the city could cut some corners.
“I saw things in there that could be considered additional cuts, such as a street sweeper (for) $277,000,” Grant said. “I think the most critical thing is to really grow our tax base by attracting high-quality businesses and high-quality residential development.”
Ward 3 candidate Rust went a step further and said he supported a tax decrease.
Rust said the answer could be to outsource some services to save money.
“One of the places I think we can save money is take our cue from the school board and from the county in terms of outsourcing some of our services,” Rust said. “You can’t tell me that our budget can’t be massaged to save money.”
Weatherby also said he might support outsourcing.
“Private industry has a history of doing things as well, if not better, at a cheaper rate,” Weatherby said.
All eight candidates also said they were in favor of maintaining Canton’s senior tax exemption program.
Ward 3 candidate Lewis, who is a long time nurse, said it would be “ludicrous” to do away with it.
Of the topics discussed by the candidates Wednesday night, the one with the most-clear lines drawn might have been when they were asked what should happen with the city’s fire department, which many have suggested merging with that of Cherokee County.
For Ward 3 hopeful Lewis, consolidating with Cherokee County was something she didn’t support, “not now, not in any way.”
“These assets have been bought and paid for and they belong to the citizens of Canton,” said Lewis, whose husband is a city of Canton firefighter. “We don’t give away things that we’ve worked so hard for. We keep them.”
Durham was of the same mind.
“Here we are in less than three years about to celebrate the centennial of our fire department, or not,” Durham said. “I am not in support of giving away assets. It’s part of our heritage.”
Durham’s opponent, Grant, however, said there could be some sort of Canton-Cherokee hybrid fire department model to be looked at.
“It doesn’t have to be black or white,” Grant said.
Ward 3 candidate Yawn said he wanted Canton to keep its fire department, but also work with Cherokee.
“We would give up too much control (with consolidation),” Yawn said. “I think there are probably ways we could strengthen or modify our mutual aid agreements.”
His opponent, Rust, said he was open to the idea that consolidation might be the best option, though he won’t support it until he had all the facts.
“I don’t really care if I have a heart attack who shows up,” Rust said.
McGrew and Weatherby said they don’t have all the facts yet, either, but were willing to consider the options.
Their opponent, Reilly, said a merger might be the best way to go, at least temporarily.
“I think we need to have some kind of merge with Cherokee County so we can satisfy the safety needs and fire needs of our citizens,” Reilly said.
Then, maybe in the next five or six years, the city could build more stations in the city, he said.
With nearby cities like Woodstock seemingly booming with development, the City Council candidates said they were looking for similar growth for Canton.
But each of the candidates seemed to agree Canton isn’t exactly business friendly.
McGrew said she had talked to two people who were considering opening a business in Canton but chose elsewhere because the city wasn’t kind to business.
“Canton’s being watched,” McGrew said. “We need take care of this. People are wanting to come here.”
Code enforcement to keep the city looking good is another thing that needs to be addressed, she said.
Weatherby, a business owner, agreed there were things to be done.
“There are several issues that need to be addressed in terms of making the city user-friendly to those of us who own businesses and operate businesses,” he said.
Weatherby said areas like the Bluffs and south Canton present opportunities for business growth.
“But I also would love to see us take advantage of the existing space that we have that’s vacant,” he added.
Durham, a school administrator, said there several hindrances now being faced by new businesses wanting to open up shop in Canton.
“That just needs to be changed,” he said. “It has to be both at the council level and hopefully the mayor will welcome this also.”
Grant agreed, saying the city needed to “roll out the red carpet and reduce the red tape” for business.
Grant, who owns a design firm in downtown Canton, said the business license fees now charged by Canton are “out-of-line” when judged against other nearby cities. One way he said he planned to work on this was to start a “task force” of business owners and city officials and give them 90 days to streamline new business development processes.
Reilly said Canton should look at incentives for new businesses.
Yawn, who owns a bookstore downtown, said the City Council must be a good face to present to industry wanting to come into the city and that not just any type of business should be coveted.
“We need specialty stores, not just another Target, not just another gas station,” Yawn said. “We need something that makes Canton unique.”
Lewis also said the city of Canton needs to set itself apart from other cities.
“We have resources in our city that are unbelievable,” she said.
Rust said he recently endeavored to knock on the door of every business in Canton and found many owners felt disenfranchised in the city because they didn’t personally live in town.
To deal with that situation, he said he wanted to form a business advisory council with local business owners.
“Don’t tell me it’s been tried and it didn’t work,” he said. “It will work.”