Ten candidates for three contested Blount County offices spoke and answered questions Thursday night at a candidates’ forum sponsored by the West Blount Chamber of Commerce and the town of Hayden. The event unfolded to a packed house at the Hayden Community Center, moderated by attorney Greg Reid. Format was opening statement from each candidate, followed questions from the audience framed to be answered by all candidates for each office, followed by closing statement.
Offices represented were Blount County Schools Board of Education, District 1 ( Ken Benton and Rod Dabbs), Blount County Commission, District 1 (Allen Armstrong and James Foster), and Blount County Sheriff (Ron Chastain, Chase Ramsey, Mark Moon, Charlie Turner, Kevin Price, and James Chapman). Below are selected and highly condensed highlights of candidate comments. Not all comments are covered, since answers were repetitive when candidates generally agreed, as they did frequently, on answers to questions. Not all questions are covered.
District 1 school board (open and close)
Ken Benton (incumbent) – summarized his experience and connection to Hayden Schools. Described them as a strong B school on recent A-F report card, with some facility needs. Described impending new construction at elementary and primary schools and new contract with energy management company that will result in energy savings that will help pay for facilities updates and improvements.
Rod Dabbs – summarized his long interest in and efforts to represent the Hayden area on the school board, and appealed for listeners’ votes. Expressed his concern over school security, evoked his experience as a security consultant, and said there are ways of improving security of classrooms, buildings, and school environment, saying that Hayden Schools could and should lead the nation in school safety.
Q: What are you going to do to get more School Resource Officers (SROs) for Hayden’s school buildings?
Benton: Deferred to county and state to resolve funding question to increase number of SROs. Notes school buses are vulnerable to attack and also need protection.
Dabbs: Use more deputies to supplement SROs.
Q: What are you going to do to get drugs out of schools?
Benton: Drugs are not a major problem. Hayden has fewer drug problems and associated disciplinary problems than other schools in the district.
Dabbs: Drug possession is not aggressively prosecuted. Students think they are above the law. Prosecution should be strengthened.
Q: Couldn’t principals or coaches be used to help out with directing traffic, freeing SROs from that distraction to their main job of providing security?
Benton: Teachers need to teach – not direct traffic. Let community provide volunteers to help direct traffic.
Dabbs: Hayden schools use teachers now to help load car riders. That’s fine, but teachers on Ala 160 – that’s not the answer.
Q: What suggestions do you have to improve academic performance and reduce the dropout rate?
Benton: Hayden has the highest graduation rate in the county, and got Bs in the A-F report card. We’re in good shape in both areas.
Dabbs: In the past, it was up to parents to instill values at home of working hard and sticking to the job at hand. Parents must be encouraged to keep taking that responsibility.
District 1 commissioner (open and close)
Allen Armstrong (incumbent) – noted he has served two terms, being first elected in 2010. Said district has nearly 300 road miles he maintains and he has paved 77 roads during his time in office. Noted he took over management of landfill when it was costing $150,000 annually to operate, will cost only $65,000 this year, maybe even less by next year.
James Foster – Wants to maintain and repair all the roads in the district and county, not just a certain number of miles. Wants to work with all departments of the county to understand their needs, make sure they have what they need to operate effectively and serve the people.
Q: Explain the budget dispute between the county commission and the sheriff’s department.
Armstrong: Stated that the sheriff’s office failed to notify the commission of a $58,000 overrun for inmate medical care. Said the county doesn’t need both a chief deputy and an operations officer on the sheriff’s staff. Referred to a $315,000 amount in the sheriff’s budget that, without explaining in detail, he considers an excess amount the department had benefitted from improperly for multiple years.
Foster: Doesn’t know about budget cut because he hasn’t been in office. If elected, he will find out what’ going on and restore the sheriff’s budget, if appropriate.
Q: Where does the money for roads come from?
Armstrong: From state gas taxes. Plus, $50 on over $100,000 of ad valorem taxes (a small amount) go to roads.
Foster: Doesn’t know, hasn’t been a commissioner. Elect him and he’ll find out.
Q: Does Blount County have standards for home construction or building inspectors to insure new homes will be structurally sound?
Armstrong: County doesn’t need to be in the home building business; it’s up to citizens to find reputable builders to build their homes.
Foster: Citizens should talk to the district attorney (if they have problems with a building that is not sound).
Sheriff (open and close)
Ron Chastain: Works for Blount County Sheriff Department; has 24 years law enforcement experience. Will work with county commission to get more deputies for Hayden area. Has lived in Blount County 48 years, loves people; if elected, will do his best to give everybody the law enforcement service they deserve.
Chase Ramsey: Works as property and evidence technician for Tarrant Police Department, has bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Will run transparent department with respect to jail funds and pistol permit money. Feels he is best choice because he’s hard worker, honest, loves solving problems.
James Chapman: Worked law enforcement in Marshall County and Boaz before coming to Oneonta Police Department in 1985. Worked his way up and served as Oneonta Chief for 19 years. Wants to rebuild sheriff’s department; has already done all functions of the job in smaller department, including budgeting and leadership. Citizens don’t need to elect someone who has to train on the job.
Mark Moon: Worked for Blount County Sheriff’s department for 12 years, currently as narcotics investigator. Military experience in National Guard with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Has served as a pastor for 20 years. Loves county, wants to protect those he loves – “would give my life for you.”
Charlie Turner: Worked narcotics for the Blount County Sheriff’s Department nine years; said he understands the plight of the western side of the county needing more deputies on duty; said he has a plan. “Get me in office so I can implement my plan,” he said.
Kevin Price: Born and raised in Blount County. Served in Air Force three years, as reserve deputy 15 years. Criminal justice degree, and working toward a law degree. Preparing for this job for years by getting education and training. Sheriff’s department coverage problems can be solved, but it won’t be easy. It’ll take the sheriff, commission, and community all working together to do it.
Q: West Blount is being neglected. Sheriff’s office doesn’t care. What will each of you do to fix it?
Chastain: Work with the commission to get more deputies on this side of the county; will come out himself to answer calls , if necessary.
Ramsey: Work on low departmental morale; get deputies better pay; overlap shifts to double the number of officers on duty in West Blount; use reserve and part-tine officers.
Chapman: There’s a shortage of manpower; address by reallocating people from other duties to this side of county; raise deputy pay; manage budget better, which he’s done before, to show county commission the sheriff’s department will be accountable.
Moon: Everybody wants more money for more deputies. Get more people, put them in brown uniforms and brown cars and put them on the road. Bring back swing shifts.
Turner: People who sit around and do nothing should be reassigned. Put him in office and he’ll handle it.
Price: West Blount is not the only area that feels left out. It’s that way everywhere. Specific ideas for putting more deputies on the road: don’t need a full-time process server, don’t need a full-time mechanic who’s a deputy; don’t need an operations officer. There’s three who could go on the road right now.
Q: All candidates have said they’ll work with the commission to get more money for more deputies. But what are you going to do to address the problems using just what you have now?
Consensus answer: Buy cheaper cars (Ramsey); Get more guys on road by paying them better – what they make today qualifies them for food stamps (Chapman); make deputies return sooner to their districts after assisting elsewhere – improve supervision (Moon); We have to have more tax revenues to have more deputies (Turner); This is county-wide problem – have to get with commission and others to decide on best way to allocate the money available (Price); Use the money we’re given, be accountable, and communicate clearly with the commission about citizen law enforcement needs.
Q: What about a jail or holding cell in West Blount to cut down on lost time transporting subjects across the county?
Consensus: Not feasible: huge liability, requires extra people, involves federal oversight/requirements, generates lawsuits, need to fix the one we’ve got first.
Q: There’s been talk of closing the West Blount sheriff’s substation. Do you favor it?
Consensus: All candidates favored keeping substation, making it better (improve computer access, have sheriff in that office occasionally, etc.). Chapman elaborated three options involving a choice for West Blount: (1) sheriff’s substation as presently configured, (2) deputies contracted by the Blount County Sheriff’s Department with the town of Hayden, (3) independent municipal police department supported by Hayden.
Q: How are citizens protected from sex offenders?
Consensus: An investigator in the sheriff’s department is assigned to monitor the addresses offenders are required by law to report, and to check their presence at that residence periodically; if the offender is no longer there, an effort is made to find them and re-arrest them for breaking the law, and they may be returned to jail. Mark Moon added this comment: “As much as we can’t stand them in our communities, we can’t just run them out. What we can do is share Jesus with them. He forgives all sins.”
Q: Not asked in so many words, but a matter discussed by candidates concerned sheriff’s deputies working wrecks.
Wrecks are generally worked by state troopers, but can be worked by sheriff’s department deputies, which the public generally favors because of the long delays that can be experienced while awaiting a state trooper to arrive from as far as a county away. Most candidates favored working wrecks, with some reservations expressed concerning wrecks involving injury or homicide, which state troopers are specially trained to handle because of legal and liability implications. Sheriff’s deputies cannot afford time involved in court appearances for those wrecks, Charlie Turner said. Others, including Chapman and Moon, noted that calls to the sheriff’s office for emergency assistance take priority over working wrecks.
Q: A general comment from a business owner deplored the long response time from deputies in cases of break-ins which are in progress when reported, but which are rarely responded to quickly enough to apprehend the suspects.
A stir of agreement from the audience greeted the observation.