By Ian Berry Staff Writer
A dozen candidates seeking Hamilton County Commission seats discussed education and taxes at a forum Tuesday evening.
The forum, held at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, included two sets of candidates who will oppose each other in May 2 primaries: District 3 Republicans Terry Conley and Jim Coppinger, and District 7 Republicans Red Burrows and Larry Henry, who is the commission's chairman.
Mr. Coppinger said as a Chattanooga fire chief he gained experience in dealing with people. He said he would raise taxes only as a last resort. As commissioner he would work to promote accountability for the schools' performance, he said.
Mr. Conley, who owns a wrecker service, said he has a grasp of issues affecting the school system because he has several grandchildren in the system. He said he wants to work to get more funding from the state's Basic Education Program funding formula, but the county is providing enough money for the school district.
"I'm personally against tax increases," Mr. Conley said. "I don't think we need them."
The two are vying to replace Commissioner Charlotte Vandergriff, of Hixson, who is not seeking re-election. J. Al Smith, a retired minister, also is running as a Republican.
Citing his experience as a bread delivery man, Mr. Burrows said he wouldn't support any tax increase. He said he talks to many elderly people who are burdened with taxes and struggle to afford necessities such as food and gas.
"Of course, some of them aren't going to need gas," he said, because their cars "can't pass the emissions test."
Mr. Henry said the county's tax rate has gone down since he's been commissioner, although tax bills generally have risen because of property reappraisals.
He said he enjoys the long hours of a commissioner, working on everything from zoning to stormwater runoff to problems with children in school. He mentioned the BEP formula, and said under the formula Hamilton County suffers from its low cost of living.
"A lot of people think it's good," he said. "It's not good. That's why we don't get funding."
Also at the forum were three pairs of candidates who could face off in the county's Aug. 3 general election.
Brian Caldwell, a Republican seeking the District 4 seat, said that while "nobody here expects taxes to decrease," he had a problem with last year's 26 cent increase because it came the same year as a property reappraisal.
Mr. Caldwell, who works in the legal department at UnumProvident, said education has to be fully funded because it's critical to job creation.
His opponent, Democratic Commissioner Warren Mackey, said he would increase taxes only as a last resort. He also said low graduation rates and low test scores are a problem.
"Test scores continue to say to potential employers that you cannot find a suitable work force in Chattanooga," said Dr. Mackey, who was appointed in March to replace William Cotton on the commission.
Cynthia Coleman, who is challenging Democratic incumbent Greg Beck in the District 5 primary, stressed her experience as a social worker. She said her priorities include working with the school board, tax relief for seniors and "ensuring a living wage."
Bernie Miller, the only Republican running for District 5, said the main problem with the school system is parents aren't listened to. He said students get good grades from teachers, but do poorly on tests. Teachers don't talk to parents about such problems, he said.
John Bailes, a Democrat challenging Commissioner Curtis Adams in District 8, said he has spoken to voters who say they've never spoken to their commissioner. He stressed the connection between education and business growth, and better communication between the commission and the public. Mr. Adams, meanwhile, said he can't go into Ace Hardware without spending 90 minutes talking to constituents. He said he's supported significant education funding increases over the years.
"When it comes to supporting schools in Hamilton County, you're looking at the heavyweight champion," Mr. Adams said.
Other candidates who appeared were: Laura Oakley, who is challenging Commissioner Fred Skillern for the Republican nomination in District 1.
Joe Dumas, who is running as an independent for the District 2 seat held by Richard Casavant.
John Allen Brooks, who is challenging Commissioner Lou Miller in the District 6 Democratic primary, did not attend but was represented by Terry Lee, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
The forum was hosted by Democracy for Chattanooga and the Hamilton County Voters' Council.
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