Six candidates running for seats on the Aiken County Council addressed infrastructure needs, working to accommodate growth in the county, overcrowding at the Aiken County Courthouse and gun violence Monday evening.
Incumbent District Five Councilman Sandy Haskell, his primary challenger Kurt Mueller, District 1 candidates Ron Felder and Melinda Starnes, and District 2 candidates Russ “Tony” Ferrara and Mike Kellems participated in a political forum held by the Aiken Standard.
District 1 includes the largely rural eastern part of Aiken County and the questions to Felder and Starnes focused on infrastructure improvements.
The first question asked about bringing broadband to more homes in the district.
Felder said that Aiken Electric Cooperative had received money to bring broadband to rural areas in the county. He said this would help a lot of areas in his district. He said he would like to work with Dominion Energy to bring broadband to other areas in the district.
Starnes also mentioned the funding for Aiken Electric Cooperative. She also said she would like to partner with other companies. Starnes said she would like to see the internet go in faster.
The second question asked about general infrastructure and service improvements.
Starnes said she would like to see more EMS facilities for better response times and property protection. She said she would like to see water improvements to connect more homes to water.
Felder said the people he had spoken to would like to see more personnel at EMS stations. He added he would work with the other council members to make sure the district isn’t the stepchild of the district.
Moderator John Boyette, executive editor of the newspaper, began each session of county council candidates by asking what they would do to work with Sheriff Mike Hunt to secure the schools in Aiken County.
Felder said it was important to make sure the sheriff’s office had the funding to do its job even if it meant raising taxes. He also said he wanted to support the officers of the department.
Starnes said funding was important even if it meant tax increases. She also said she wanted to see officers supported and not be questioned about every move they make.
He also asked each candidate what they would do to address overcrowding and storage issues at the Aiken County Courthouse.
Felder said the courthouse was a big concern and added there have been some discussions about building a new facility. “But, we cannot go broke building new facilities everywhere,” he said. “We can’t continue to put the burden on taxpayers during this hard time of inflation.” He said he would like to work to build a new facility within the current budget.
Starnes said she would like to take a look at the issue, see what the needs and look at what can be done during the current period of inflation. She also said it was important to make sure that staffing was at an adequate level.
District 2 includes some of the southern Aiken suburbs and the municipalities of Jackson and New Ellenton.
One of the questions Boyette asked was about addressing growth pains in south Aiken .
Ferrara said he would like to see more traffic lights and turn lanes on S.C. Highway 19. He also said he would like to see Aiken County receive more funding from the state’s plutonium settlement, particularly the communities of New Ellenton and Jackson.
Kellems also mentioned additional traffic lights and turn lanes.
The other question Boyette asked was about improving economic development opportunities in New Ellenton and Jackson.
Kellems said he would like to partner with the municipalities to increase opportunities. He also said it would be nice to have more businesses in those towns.
Ferrara said he wanted to do two things: implement dual taxation agreements with Jackson and New Ellenton and create a lobbying group for the Savannah River Site to attract more missions and opportunities at the site.
On the sheriff’s office’s protection of schools, Ferrara said the sheriff’s office was receiving one-third of the county’s general fund and that he would not be voting to raise property taxes in the county.
Kellems said he wanted to meet with the sheriff and figure out why the sheriff’s office can’t keep a full staff and make sure that officers aren’t overworked. He added he was endorsed by the sheriff.
On the courthouse, Kellems said he would like to see some of the funding for a new courthouse included in the county’s next penny sales tax
Ferrara said the issue could be addressed in the next budget of the county council after discussions between the clerk of court and the county administrator.
District 5 includes the growth heavy part of northern Aiken County between Aiken and North Augusta including Interstate 20’s Exit 5.
One of the questions focused on accommodating the rapid growth in the area. The other asked about litter. The district includes Interstate 20 and receives quite a bit of litter that needs to be cleaned constantly.
Haskell said the county was working with the department of transportation and that the county was also maintaining its own roads. He also said the council was working with the legislative delegation. He also said the county was working to improve the Horse Creek Wastewater Treatment plant and other infrastructure.
“There’s no magic solution to litter or traffic,” Mueller said. “It’s a long-term solution. As far as traffic is concerned, the only thing I know how to do is work alongside the SCDOT.”
Mueller said educating people to prevent litter was important but added he felt the sheriff’s office had more important crimes to investigate.
On schools, Mueller said he would also want to meet with the sheriff and the community to see what the needs are and then work to prioritize, implement and execute those needs.
Haskell said he felt the county, the sheriff’s office and the school board should work together to determine needs and how to fund those needs.
On the courthouse, Haskell said the courthouse had been discussed in executive sessions. He added the council was looking at several options including office space, the federal courthouse and a new judicial center next to the government center. Haskell called the latter option a very expensive proposition. He also said the council was working to redo some of the storage at the facility.
Mueller said his first instinct was to ask if the stored materials could be digitized. He then said he would meet with the affected people, then work to prioritize, implement and execute what was needed.
Video of the forum is available at AikenStandard.com.
The primary is scheduled for June 14.
In each election, the candidates participating in the forum are the only candidates filed to run for the seats so it is very likely that the winner of the primary will win the Nov. 8 general election.