Below are my written responses to questions I was asked to answer from a group called “The Georgia Moderate”. I appreciated the opportunity to respond to these questions. The issues we face and the opportunities we have are not simple ones with simple solutions, so this is rather long.
Ten Questions with Chatham County Commission Chairman Candidate Jason Buelterman
The Georgia Moderate reached out to Chatham County Commission Chairman Candidate Jason Buelterman via social media late on Tuesday 6/30/20. We asked him the following ten (10) questions. He responded on 07/04/20 with the following answers. Neither, the questions nor the answers have been edited except the questions have been underlined and the answers placed in bold. Our intent is to offer a forum for candidates to answer non-partisan questions in an honest format allowing citizens to decide on candidates regardless of party. Jason Buelterman is running for Chair of the Chatham County Commission. He is the former Mayor of a City within Chatham County, Tybee Island. The current Chair cannot run based on limited terms and the General Election will be held in November. The Georgia Moderate is a volunteer organization with no budget, no paid staff and no special interest.
Obviously we do not have an editor or graphic design team.
Compared to other States, Georgia has a disproportionate county to population ratio with 159 counties against a State population of 10,500,000. Chatham County has eight municipalities to serve a population of just under 300,000. As Chairman, how will you actively work with the municipalities for an efficient distribution of government?
ANSWER: The primary reason I decided to run for this seat was the need for increased collaboration. I saw this firsthand as the mayor of one of those 8 municipalities for 14 years. While the County’s finances have been managed well the last 8 years, there is a need for increased leadership from the County. This is a particularly pressing issue for our County because we have so many cities in addition to a special service district. I would meet regularly with elected leaders of the other cities to establish open lines of communication, develop priorities that we all want to work on together, ensure that we collaborate when emergencies occur and avoid unnecessary battles over issues like the distribution formula for LOST and SPLOST.
As one of only a few Constitutional officers in Chatham County, would you execute that authority differently from previous Chairmen?
ANSWER: Chairman Scott has done a good job in many respects. But I would bring my own leadership style and underlying beliefs to the job. These include but are not limited to the following:
- The public, especially at the local level, deserves consistent and detailed communication from local government especially in times of emergencies (hurricanes, etc)
- The public also deserves and ought to expect a clearly articulated long term vision from its local leaders, detailed plans of action for carrying out this vision (including a capital improvement plan), and regular status updates on the progress of these plans
- Consensus should be developed amongst the governing body (in this case the other County Commissioners) as to plans and priorities. All 8 commissioners have a unique perspective and ought to have a seat at the table when it comes to making major decisions. By establishing a good working relationship with each Commissioner and ensuring that each Commissioner is valued and respected, we can make progress on our shared priorities.
- When working with other governments at the local, state and federal level, it is critically important to develop and sustain positive working relationships with key office-holders and their top staff. For example, regardless of the political party of the two Senators representing our State, efforts should be made by the Chair of the Commission to meet with both of them and their staff in DC at least once a year, to go into the meetings with a clear and concise agenda based on what the County needs from the Federal government, and to follow up promptly and consistently to ensure that those needs are being addressed. It is critically important to have elected leadership that knows how to effectively and aggressively advocate for their constituents so that we can maximize our return on investment from the tax dollars we send to the state and federal government. This was one of my top priorities as Mayor on Tybee.
QUESTION # 3:
The unincorporated citizens of Chatham County have previously voiced their concerns over
representation and service.
- How would you represent those citizens?
ANSWER: By ensuring that they are treated fairly and equitably.
- What do you feel are the pressing issues for the unincorporated citizens?
ANSWER: First off, the special service district or SSD is the County’s terminology for the areas of the County that fall outside of any of the 8 municipalities. The most pressing issue the SSD faces is that it is not being treated fairly from a budgetary perspective. For example, as Mayor on Tybee, I could count on using funds from franchise fees to provide services to the citizens. These would be from, for example, Comcast for use of City-owned right of way for cable lines. The SSD does not benefit from these fees nor does it receive funds from the Local Option Sales Tax (LOST). This leaves the SSD continually starved for resources to make needed improvements and upgrades. One concrete example of a need the SSD has is improved water lines and fire suppression systems. Much of the County’s outlying areas in the SSD lack sufficient capacity to provide fire hydrants for businesses and homeowners. This in turn makes it more difficult to fight fires and leads to lower ISO ratings and higher insurance premiums. This issue ought to be addressed but in order to do so financial resources are needed. The unfair distribution of LOST and franchise fees are two places where, over time, policies could be changed to address this need and others in the SSD.
QUESTION # 4:
Tropical weather is a constant threat to Chatham County.
- What are your plans for hurricane preparedness?
- What role does the Chairman of the County Commission play in hurricane preparation and response?
ANSWER: As the elected official leading the county, there must be constant vigilance on this issue. Preparation for hurricanes must be ongoing and continual. Communication systems must keep up with new technology. It cannot be emphasized enough how critically important it is to have hands-on leader when tropical weather threatens our community. The County Chairman exercises significant power and authority during emergency situations and must communicate with the public and with other local leadership.
It also is very important that local leaders work to mitigate hurricane damage. On Tybee, we built dunes, worked with GDOT to raise Highway 80, secured federal grant funds to help lift low-lying, flood prone homes and purchased lift stations to ensure our sewage treatment facilities can continue to function during power outages. The County absolutely ought to take a similarly aggressive approach to hurricane mitigation (and sea level rise).
QUESTION # 5:
Many areas of the Chatham suffer from no or low-pressure fire hydrants. These areas include Isle of Hope, West Chatham and Burnside.
- What solutions are economically feasible in the short-term and long-term?
ANSWER: I mentioned this earlier in another response but suffice it to say that this is a major issue. I watched our fire department fight a fire in unincorporated Chatham County without access to fire hydrants. Ultimately, the mosquito control helicopter had to scoop up water from the nearby tidal marshlands and hover over the home before dropping the water on the fire. This is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. But resources and leadership are needed to make it happen. This is a very heavy lift but I believe we need to start working on it so we can begin to move the needle….
- What would be your strategy for addressing the protection issue?
ANSWER: I would start by identifying the areas that lack adequate fire suppression infrastructure and determine the cost for addressing the problem. Addressing the lack of sewage treatment access would be something that would be looked at simultaneously. These issues are costly to resolve but we need to get begin investigating this. It will never be completely solved but we can, again, move the needle in the right direction.
Pandemic is a new threat; would you use any specific Executive Authority to address pandemic? If so, what actions would be within the authority of the Commission?
ANSWER: I can’t answer this question without the information that the Chairman would have access to and which, as a candidate, I don’t have access to presently. I do think the Chairman has an obligation to bring cities together to at least attempt to develop a unified strategy. The Chairman also should provide regular, detailed updates to the citizens. The current situation, in which the City of Savannah is doing one thing and the unincorporated areas and the other 7 cities are doing something different, creates a problem and a lot of confusion. A look at a map of the County with the borders of the 8 cities embedded onto it shows how confusing it is when Savannah does one thing and everyone else does something else. Regardless of who is Mayor of each city, the Chairman MUST have a relationship with them that will allow for coordination and collaboration.
Chatham County and her municipalities currently have an estimated eight fire departments and ten police departments.
- Is this an efficient use of resources?
- If not, what can be done to create higher efficiency and safety?
ANSWER: I think the de-merger of the Metro police was an example of a lack of collaboration between the County and the City of Savannah. It is one of the reasons I am running actually. However, the train has left the station on that issue and I am not advocating a re-merger. Most residents of the SSD seem very pleased with the new County police department. I do think, however, that residents in the SSD who are served by Chatham Emergency Services (CES) ought to have improved fire protection. Many people in the SSD that utilize CES for the fire protection (not all parts of the SSD use CES) don’t pay their annual fire subscription fee. This basically means that those who pay the fee are subsidizing those who don’t. This is unfair and needs to be addressed. Addressing it will allow for increased funding for CES. Additionally, we need to address the fact that the cities can use SPLOST for new fire trucks and equipment but the SSD does not seem to benefit from this funding source.
As Chairman, how would you handle the allocation of any future SPLOST funds?
ANSWER: This is one of the most important things the Chairman must manage. I could spend a lot of space here addressing this issue but will make it short–the Chairman must ensure that plans for SPLOST are developed with public maximum input, that expenditures of SPLOST funds are managed properly, that SPLOST projects are selected that provide the most benefit to the public and that SPLOST funds are distributed fairly and equitably to our 290,000 residents. The planning process for the next SPLOST ought to begin now, not a year before the referendum. I fully support SPLOST if it is managed properly. Projects that are funded by SPLOST would otherwise have to be funded with property tax dollars and a significant portion of SPLOST proceeds come from those who live outside Chatham County.
QUESTION # 9:
What would be your top five initiatives as Chairman?
ANSWER: ( i did 6–sorry)
- improved collaboration between the County and other organizations in the County
- increased lobbying on the part of the Chairman to ensure a better return on investment from the state and federal taxes we send to Atlanta and DC for needed projects so as to improve the quality of life for county residents while at the same time minimizing their property tax burden
- better planning and execution for improved transportation infrastructure (the Chairman also chairs the CORE-MPO which makes key decisions on the use of tax dollars for transportation projects in our County)
- significantly enhanced communication from the Chairman to the citizens–not only in emergency situations but as it pertains to the County government as a whole
- decreasing our high poverty rate by working with stakeholders to provide better opportunities for all who live in our community; and not just talking about it but establishing a measurable goal, developing plans for achieving this goal and regularly communicating our progress on our plans and goal
- developing a more robust capital improvement plan that focuses on improved transportation, upgraded water/sewer infrastructure, enhanced recreational facilities and sea level rise mitigation
QUESTION # 10:
Do you feel that any changes need to be made to the current structure or directive of the Chatham County Hospital Authority?
ANSWER: I can’t answer this as I don’t know enough about the issue at this time to answer in an intelligent, informed manner.