Five of the six Hilton Head Island mayoral candidates at a GOP gathering Monday told the crowd they would consider reducing the size of town government.
Only John Safay, who is leaving his council seat to run for mayor, disagreed. Another candidate, Councilman Bill Ferguson, did not attend the forum sponsored by the First Monday Republican Lunch Group at Aunt Chiladas Easy Street Cafe.
Ferguson said beforehand he would not attend because one of its organizers, Tom Hatfield, donated to and raised money for candidate Tom Crew's campaign.
"The moderator and organizer should have a neutral affiliation with all the candidates," Ferguson said.
Hatfield dismissed Ferguson's assertion, saying he treated everyone fairly.
For the first time in 15 years, voters will elect a new mayor in the Nov. 2 nonpartisan general election.
Seven candidates are vying to replace Mayor Tom Peeples, who is not seeking re-election: Ferguson; Safay; Crews, a local architect and member of the town Planning Commission; Jim Collett, former chairman of the town Board of Zoning Appeals; Councilman Drew Laughlin; Ed McCullough, former host at WHHI TV station; and Dave Myers, part owner of Kigre Inc.
Responding to a question of whether town staff and the town budget had become "bloated," each candidate, except Safay, said they support reducing the size of Town Hall.
Safay said such a reduction is unnecessary because Hilton Head has the highest bond rating of all the state's municipalities.
"We are a well-run government with adequate reserves and competent financial management," he said, adding the town implemented a salary freeze two years ago. In June, council approved a 1 percent merit raise for town employees.
"We also have a hiring freeze, with exception of firefighter, EMS and other high-priority positions," Safay said.
Town manager Steve Riley said when the staff evaluates every vacant position, sometimes choosing not to fill it and reducing hours and scope of work in others.
Riley said some staff members might have received salary increases during the past two years because of promotions, but most received a 1 percent hike this year and no raise last year.
The rest of the candidates said a hard look should be taken at reducing the community development department.
"We grew town government to deal with rapid growth and development that was threatening to take over. That's not happening now," Crews said.
Myers said the island is near "build-out," meaning less room for development should mean less need for staff to review construction plans.
McCullough and Collett said the town should downsize as much as possible.
Laughlin said he would like to limit the size and reach of town government and would reassess staffing needs if elected.