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Aiken Standard holds political forum ahead of midterm elections

October 3, 2018

Scores of Aiken County residents and more than a dozen political candidates converged on the city of Aiken’s Municipal Building on Tuesday night for a lengthy political discussion hosted by the Aiken Standard.

The event, the 2018 Midterm Political Forum, featured candidates from county-, state- and federal-level races.

Aiken County Council Chairman Gary Bunker opened the forum with a speech supporting Capital Projects Sales Tax IV, a renewable tax that will be decided by the public come Nov. 6.

Candidates in contested races were asked a pair of district-relevant questions. Those running unopposed were given a time slot to speak.

State and federal candidates

When asked what could be done to attract more business and industry to Aiken County, state Rep. Bart Blackwell, R-Aiken, said a “pro-business environment,” installed and maintained at the state level, is crucial.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of growth in the state, particularly in terms of manufacturing,” Blackwell said, later zeroing in on Aiken County. “All of that was due to providing a good workforce, a good business environment, low taxes and necessary infrastructure to support that. We need to continue that going forward.”

Blackwell is the S.C. House District 81 incumbent.

When asked the same question, Blackwell’s challenger, Democrat Elise Fox, focused on cyber and defense growth throughout the county.

“I honestly believe that there is no reason why we can’t become the cyber triangle, much like there’s a research triangle in North Carolina,” Fox said. “Between Augusta, Aiken and Greenville, we just got to bring the people here. This is all entirely possible.”

Both Blackwell and Fox mentioned supporting the Savannah River Site well into the future. Both also stressed the importance of identifying and securing new missions for the site.

On the topic of the future of the Savannah River lock and dam, state Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, said more local input – attention, too – is needed.

“Government is in its way. The Corps of Engineers does not listen to us...” Hixon, the S.C. House District 83 incumbent, said. “Our lives and our livelihood depend on that river.”

David Weikle, Hixon’s Libertarian opponent, said the future of the lock and dam depends on “what’s best” for the community, which, he elaborated, will be determined by collaboration between local businesses, area residents, affected governments and the Corps of Engineers.

State Reps. Ronnie Young, R-North Augusta; Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken; and Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, also spoke at the forum.

While Young was asked two questions, related to growth of the greater Graniteville and Midland Valley areas, Clyburn and Taylor were given time to freely speak.

Clyburn focused on education and its impacts on the local workforce. Taylor discussed government transparency – “It’s important we tell folks what’s going on” – and his distracted driving legislation.

Sean Carrigan, a Democrat running to unseat U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., spoke after Taylor and answered two questions asked by the moderator, Aiken Standard Managing Editor Michael Harris.

In his first response, Carrigan reiterated the value of proper SRS funding and reformed contracting.

“I think what we need to do is we need to get serious about the Savannah River Site and protecting the citizens of Aiken from the harmful effects. This is nuclear material that we’re talking about,” Carrigan said. “We shouldn’t be playing with that, and we shouldn’t be playing with funding for that.”

In response to a second question, Carrigan said he’d work well with South Carolina’s congressional delegation.

“It’s real easy. The South Carolina delegation is filled with some great, marvelous people,” Carrigan said. “When I was in the Army for 28 years, our job was to accomplish missions. And we never asked, ‘Hey, are you Republican? You a Democrat?’”

Aiken County Council candidates

District 2 candidates Camille Furgiuele and Debra Larke offered different strategies when answering a question about how Aiken County Council could help major employers, including the Savannah River Site, retain jobs.

Furgiuele, a Republican who is the incumbent, said Aiken County Council should do “everything it can” to make the county a place where people want to live.

“Services are very important,” she continued. “One of my major priorities has always been emergency services. I think the government has to shine when there is an emergency.”

She added that “properly trained” first responders, “good equipment” and enough emergency personnel to meet the needs of the county are crucial.

Larke, a Democrat, said it should be a priority, at the county level, to assist major employers in the search for qualified local job candidates.

The Savannah River Site and Kimberly-Clark “have always been good stewards,” she said. “Anything we need to do to help them, I’m all for it. Let’s help them get the people they need in there.”

She added that Aiken Technical College is a valuable resource that provides training for workers.

“They are doing a lot of things to get people educated,” she said. “They are doing wonders, reaching out to people. They have different programs and mentorships.”

District 5 candidates Sandy Haskell and Juanita Hall identified the county’s ability to provide services as a key when asked about what should be done to deal with growth in the North Augusta area.

Offering an example, Haskell said, “The county needs to make sure they have additional ambulances available to meet the emergency needs of the area.”

He also mentioned another concern.

“I think we need to make sure that the infrastructure is in place – the water, the sewer and the roads,” said Haskell, who is the incumbent and a Republican.

Then he added, “I think the School Board (for Aiken County) seems to be doing a good job as far a planning for the additional growth that is coming to the area.”

Hall, a Democrat, said how the county handles waste would be a concern in the future because of growth.

“I believe the major problems of growth in the North Augusta area are going to be the recycle centers,” she said. “The recycle centers need some attention. They need to be re-enhanced to accommodate the growth in that area, and I support that.”

Aiken County School Board

Candidates for Aiken County School Board District 2 Jason Crane and Levi Green, the incumbent, answered a question about how Aiken County Public Schools can partner with the Savannah River Site and other industries to advance science, technology, engineering and math education, or STEM. District 2 covers schools in towns in Area 5, including Beech Island, Jackson and New Ellenton.

Crane said the proximity of the Savannah River Site “definitely benefits the schools in District 2.”

“I think there’s a good positioning for all of the schools to partner deeper with the contractors and employers at the Savannah River Site, invite more of those professionals into the schools, do some mentoring and tutoring programs with those kids and show them that there is an excellent amount of opportunity particularly in STEM right here in Aiken County,” Crane said. “If you follow this education path, you can walk down the street when you’re old enough and have a job at the Savannah River Site as well as other good STEM opportunities that are around.”

Green said the Aiken County Public School District already partners with employees at the Savannah River Site to promote STEM education and will expand into cyber as cyber operations for the U.S. Army move to Fort Gordon in Augusta.

“With Silver Bluff sitting next to SRS, the engineers from all of those programs come into the high school, share information with our students and show them what the best practices are for engineering and technology,” Green said. “Most of all, what we’re excited about the Silver Bluff in District 2, it is now taking on the concept on cyber communication. So, it’s a cyber school already that we’ve put into the mix for Silver Bluff in District 2.”

Candidates for District 3 J. Wesley Hightower, the incumbent, and Brian Silas answered a question about growth in the Midland Valley area: The bond referendum addressed overcrowding at Midland Valley High. Looking forward, is the expansion of the school sufficient to meet expected, continued population growth and development in the area, and what challenges do you foresee?

A demographic study conducted by Aiken County Public Schools last fall determined that Midland Valley is one of the fastest growing areas in the county.

“Yes, the bond referendum will meet the capacity that we need, but considering how we are growing, we will continue to make expansions to Midland Valley to accommodate the growth that will occur in our area,” Hightower said. “We are prepared not to just stop here with what we have already planned for the immediate future. We also are looking long-term at things we need to do for future growth.”

Hightower said the school board is prepared to meeting any challenges that arise in his district, saying the board and the school district will look for the “best solution at the lowest possible price to take care of the issues that deal with any expansion at Midland Valley.”

Silas disagreed that adding classrooms and expanding Midland Valley High will be enough to address future growth.

“In short, to answer the question, no, I don’t think it’s sufficient,” he said. “While it may meet the current requirement, I think with the growth in the Midland Valley area we’ve got to have a bigger vision, a longer term vision to see beyond the now. Honestly, I think that should have been done five to seven years ago with decisions that were made by this board, recognizing growth that was happening in that area even then. I think we need to learn from that and have that vision now.”

Silas said “continued growth” is the challenge in District 3.

“Our area as a whole is growing, and the statistics were that growth is definitely from Midland Valley on toward North Augusta,” he said. “And it will continue with the cyber activity in Augusta. I think there will be some migration across the river, which we hope to take advantage of. The growth’s not going to stop. We better get ready for it.”

Dwight Smith and Tim Lintner are running for the District 6 seat, currently held by Cecil Atchley, who is not running for re-election. Lintner was not at the forum.

Smith answered a question about overcrowding in Area 3 schools in the Graniteville area: Aiken County Public Schools will open the new Graniteville Elementary in August 2019 to help alleviate overcrowding at Byrd Elementary. What other challenges do you see for schools in the Graniteville area with expected and continued growth and development especially along Bettis Academy Road?

Smith said the main issues for him in District 6 are adequate facilities and traffic.

“I see that area growing. I believe I heard last week that there’s going to be 500 additional houses built on Bettis Academy Road,” he said. “It is my feeling that we, as a district, are putting our resources into areas of the county that don’t have the need that we have there. Graniteville Elementary – the old Byrd Elementary School – is being renovated to take care some of the overcrowding that is going on at Byrd Elementary now. Will it be a fix-all? No. We’re going to have to look at that area and see what we can do to put more opportunities for kids and families so they can stay close to home at their schools.”

Smith said the School Board also needs to look at enrollment trends at the new Leavelle McCampbell Middle School, which opened in August 2017.

“Already, it is not handling the flow of students or the number of students that are being assigned there,” he said. “We may need to look at rezoning a little bit in that area, and we also are going to have to look at the traffic flow there as well.”

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