City council candidates focus on EDC, qualifications

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK | News-Telegram Managing Editor

Apr. 26, 2007 - Taxes and the EDC were talking points for Sulphur Springs City Council candidates at a political forum Tuesday.

Three of the four people who filed to run for two seats on the City Council attended the forum sponsored by the Hopkins County Democratic Women, which holds the sessions each election year to help voters learn more about the candidates.

Both incumbent Freddie Taylor, who is seeking a second term as Place 5 councilman, and his opponent, Ronald Blount, attended, as did Gary Spraggins, candidate for the Place 4 seat held for the past 12 years by Larry Powers, who decided not to run for a fifth time. Spraggins' only opponent, Pat Murray, did not attend, nor did he offer a written statement that could have been read in his absence.

Spraggins and his wife, Deanna, have lived in Sulphur Springs for about 16 years, and raised their three sons here. Spraggins is the owner of Dairyland Automation, which provides irrigation and waste management systems for dairy farmers and others.

He has spent six years on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission.

"I believe Sulphur Springs is the best place in the world to live," he said. "I believe what we can do is continue to have the best place in the world to live."

He said he's been asked if he's a "fiscal conservative." His reply was that sometimes a city council must realize it has to spend money for the good of the city, while sometimes good intentions become bad ideas and "you have to pull it back."

He pledged he would work with citizens and city staff members to make the right choices.

"I believe we can come together and make the right decisions to continue to make Sulphur Springs the best place in the world to live," he concluded.

Freddie Taylor, currently mayor of Sulphur Springs, has worked with VF Outlet since 1995, the last seven years as store manager in Sulphur Springs. He and his wife, Rita, have five children, the oldest a senior in high school, the youngest in first grade.

He said he has "really enjoyed" being on the city council, and has taken advantage of the opportunities to attend conferences and workshops in Austin and elsewhere to broaden his education in how best to serve the citizens.

"I really believe in learning as much as I can to make the right decisions," he said, noting the council has not raised city property taxes, something he believes can continue because of the skills and abilities of the people in Sulphur Springs.

"You can have all the services and all the equipment in the world, but if you don't surround yourself with great associates and great staff, it means nothing," he said. "We look forward to trying to continue to make Sulphur Springs the best city it can be."

Ronnie Blount said he is "a lifelong resident, essentially." He and his wife, Linda, have a daughter, Courtney.

He believes he has "the same intentions and the same hopes and aspirations for this city that most of you do."

He said he has concerns, however, beginning with his belief that "government at all levels is too large, intrusive and expensive." He said that on the local level, that means "keeping a lid on taxes," especially because he is convinced that any hoped-for property tax relief from the Texas Legislature will die in some committee.

He said is also concerned about the interpretation of the building code in Sulphur Springs. He said small businesses are "the heart and soul of any city," and that anytime the building code can be interpreted to ease the burdens of local business, "we must do what we can."

Finally, he said he is concerned about the state of the downtown area, citing cities of similar size, such as Mineola and McKinney, that have revitalived their downtowns.

"Our downtown is something we should do everything we can to make it as beautiful as possible," he said.

Following the candidates' remarks, they fielded general questions from the audience, the first whether or not the Sulphur Springs/Hopkins County Economic Development Corporation needed a new office building.

The EDC received approval from the City Council in February to build new offices off of Interstate 30 behind the NetData and Owens Country Sausage buildings. Projected cost is just under $282,000.

Tuesday's questioner also wondered if it would make more sense for the EDC to move its offices to the spec building the agency built in 2000 as a home for potential businesses. It has lain vacant ever since.

"That was one of the things I questioned at the council meeting," said Taylor.

He also said the Hopkins County Chamber of Commerce, which currently rents office space to the EDC, presented a proposal that would save the economic develompment agency about $30,000 by reducing rents.

"I have not heard a response back," said Taylor, who serves on the Chamber's board of directors.

Spraggins said he was going to meet with EDC Executive Vice President Roger Feagley this week, saying many people had asked the candidate if a new EDC building is "a wise move."

Spraggins' bigger concern, however, is how effective the EDC, which received more than $1.34 million in sales tax money last year, has been at its mission of attracting businesses and industries to the area.

"Where are the measurable results of what the EDC is doing?" Spraggins asked. "Is it worthwhile [of the half-cent sales tax] to keep it going?"

Blount, however, indicated support for the new office space. He said it was his understanding that half of the new EDC building would be used to allow the EDC to work with area colleges for "certain high-tech possibilities."

Later, another question was posed about changing the legal structure of the EDC to allow the money it collects to be used for community development projects. Currently, EDC funds can only be used for projects that bring jobs to the area. All three candidates indicated they liked the idea of more flexibility in the use of the EDC money.

The candidates were also asked if they would support "removing flouridation from the water" and support a recycling program in the city.

Blount declined to address flouridation, but said he didn't have much faith in the practicality of recycling programs.

"Most recycling programs have proven to be feel-good measures without much benefit," he said.

Spraggins, who also didn't have much to say about flouridation, said he thinks some recycling could be accomplished, but oftentimes it can cost more than any benefit it provides.

Taylor said he's "not opposed to looking at flouridation," and said he thinks there is some good in recycling.

"It depends on the program and if it is a cost benefit to the city," he said.

The final question asked the candidates to evaluate the performance of Marc Maxwell, who has been the city manager since 1995.

"The horror stories you hear [about city managers in other cities] is ridiculous," Taylor said. "There have been a lot of positive things under Marc's leadership.

"I really think the city has benefited greatly from Marc," he said, adding Maxwell could have left long ago for a lot more money in a bigger city. "We're getting a lot of bang for the buck."

Blount said he's never met Maxwell, but added the people he's talked to who have known and worked with the city manager "tell me he is an asset to the community."

Spraggins, whose six years on the planning and zoning commission have allowed him to interact with Maxwell, said the city manager also has the respect of city employees

"The respect they have for him and the way he delegates, I do believe that he is an asset for our community," Spraggins said.

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