County Council challengers want to see stricter county spending, new perspectives

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comMay 5, 2014 

Candidates for three Beaufort County Council seats debated a handful of issues with incumbent Councilmen Stu Rodman and Jerry Stewart on May 5, 2014, at the Colleton River Plantation Dye Clubhouse in greater Bluffton.

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Three Beaufort County Council challengers say that leaders need to be doing more with less, instead of growing the county's reserve fund, taking on more debt and proposing 1 percent sales taxes.

The challengers tackled those issues together with current County Council members for the first time Monday night at a forum for the candidates. Three council seats are up for election this year.

The Greater Bluffton Republican Club hosted the forum at the Colleton River Plantation Dye Clubhouse in greater Bluffton to shed light on issues facing Republican candidates in the June 10 primary election, group president Joe Iaco said.

"We're just trying to help people make decisions," he said. "Let's ask some real questions, draw some distinctions, then let people decide."

The challengers at Monday's forum included Hilton Head Island attorney Lauren Martel, history professor Stephen Bacon and former school board member Jim Bequette.

Incumbent councilmen Stu Rodman, who will defend his Hilton Head seat against Martel, and Jerry Stewart, who will defend his Sun City seat against Bacon, also attended. Council Chairman Paul Sommerville, who will defend his seat against Bequette, was invited but unable to attend, Iaco said.

Each of the candidates addressed issues posed by Republican Club members:

  • The amount of county debt: Bacon, Bequette and Martel all agreed the county needs to reduce its debt and limit borrowing. However, Rodman and Stewart contend the county is in good credit standing with its current borrowing.

    "When I look at the amount of debt per person in this county, I'm appalled," Bequette said.

    "That's something we need to learn from history -- (debt) makes you very vulnerable," Martel said.

  • 1 percent capital sales tax: Bequette, Martel, Rodman and Stewart all agreed that if the projects proposed for a sales tax referendum are critical to county safety or health, they would consider supporting the tax. Bacon disagrees.

    "No, as simple as it gets," Bacon said, "I will not increase taxes on anybody, period."

  • The county's reserve fund policy: Bacon, Bequette and Martel contend that the county's policy to strive for $30 million, or about 30 percent of its budget, in its reserve fund is too high. Each would rather see a policy closer to 20 percent or below. Rodman and Stewart, who helped craft and approve the county's reserve policy earlier this year, say it's prudent to have that much cash on hand in case of an emergency, such as a hurricane.
Monday's forum also included Republican primary candidates for county auditor, Beaufort County School Board member Jim Beckert and businessman George Wright.

Both emphasized using technology to improve the efficiency of the auditor's office, which audits tax bills issued by the county.

Deputy county treasurer Maria Walls -- who is running unopposed for the county treasurer seat on the Republican ticket -- announced that county treasurer Doug Henderson has endorsed Wright for the auditor's position. County Councilman Rick Caporale, a former school board member, announced he will endorse Beckert for the position.

Incumbents in three other County Council seats up for re-election have each filed to run again and are unopposed. They are Republicans Steve Fobes and Rick Caporale of Hilton Head Island, and Republican Tabor Vaux of Bluffton.

Democrat Laura Von Harten will face Independence Party candidate Brian MacDermant in November.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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