Sebastian County Judge David Hudson and challenger Tim Dunn squared off in a League of Women Voters (LWV) candidate forum on Monday (Sept. 24) at Golden Corral Restaurant in Fort Smith.
The event highlighted key differences between the two candidates, who are set to face off in the Nov. 6 election for Sebastian County Judge, as Hudson (Republican) defended his record and Dunn (Democrat) said it was time for “a new vision.”
During the event, Hudson championed his 36 years of experience working for Sebastian County, pointing to a record that includes oversight of a $14.8 million new courts facility, a $4 million expansion of the county jail, and a $2 million renovation of the Sebastian County Courthouse originally constructed in 1937.
Most recently, Hudson helped pushed for a joint venture with the city of Fort Smith to construct an $8 million aquatics facility at Ben Geren Park as well as $1.25 million in new softball facilities.
These last two accomplishments depend largely on continuation of the 1% county sales tax enacted in 1994 and renewed in 2003, which Hudson called “the single most significant financial issue facing county government at this time,” and said that he would “follow the same allocation we’ve followed for the last 20 years” in how funds would be distributed countywide if voters chose another 10-year extension in 2013.
For Dunn, an auctioneer and local businessman, the argument was not whether the tax should be extended, but how the funds would be allocated.
“I think the most important thing for our county right now is the protection and safety and welfare of our people,” Dunn said. “We still have roads that are not paved with money in the bank, and I don’t know why. Our county police officers are underpaid and understaffed, and they’ve been that way for a long time. If I was a young man and wanted to be a police officer — say I was 23 years old and the county hired me, and then a year later, I could get a $10,000 raise just to go work for the city of Fort Smith, that’s what I would do, to take care of my family and to make more money. As far as our little fire department, it’s the same way. We’ve been on the beeper system for I-don’t-know-how-long, and I don’t think it works the way it should.”
To Dunn’s unpaved roads accusation, Hudson rebutted, “My opponent doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t understand the road system, and he doesn’t understand what a county road is and what a non-county road is. There are a number of roads in the county that are not in the county roads system, and if my opponent is wanting to pave those roads, he’s going to spend millions of taxpayer dollars for roads that were never developed with any standards. There are very few county roads that are not paved. Those that are not paved, there’s probably a specific reason.”
Hudson countered the issue of low pay for county law enforcement deputies by pointing out that a salary survey was launched in February 2012 and is still underway. Dunn went on the attack stating that the county should be “contacting Pulaski and Benton and Washington counties” to determine appropriate compensation instead of “spending $42,000 to $50,000 on something those counties already know.”
In November 2011, the quorum court voted against a pay increase for deputies to $29,050 annually from the current $24,000 salary, hesitant to act in the wake of survey results.
At that time, Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck said, “For a while we were losing more than 50% of our employees over the first year, and most of that was due to the combination of a lack of pay and the challenging nature of the job.”
Hollenbeck also pointed out a National Institute of Corrections (NIC) study that found the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office to be “understaffed and underpaid,” to which Dunn referred on Monday.
Hudson is hopeful the $43,000 survey will allow the county to rectify discrepancies, but points out that the quorum court will first have to allocate the funds, and that 2013 will see the county operating on a “tight budget.”
To that point, Hudson addressed Dunn’s 23-year old police officer hypothetical, pointing out that the city is operating “with a $200 million budget, while the county works within a budget” of $35 million to $40 million.
Dunn’s reference to the fire department concerned updates to the rural fire pager system, which the county undertook in April 2012 after faulty notification resulted in one Greenwood property burning to the ground. Ken Kennedy, president of DCS Radio Communication Inc., one of the companies responsible for the system, visited with Sebastian officials earlier in the year and recommended reprogramming for all 332 of the county’s pagers following the county’s move to a VHF simulcast system. Rural firefighters continue to operate under this system.
BEN GEREN WATER PARK
Dunn also hit Hudson on the aquatics facility set to open Memorial Day 2014, stating that he wasn’t “against having a water park,” but that “if we can’t at least break even,” bringing in private investors or considering full annexation to the city of Fort Smith should be considered.
“Number one is jobs,” Dunn said. “I don’t think we need to be doing water parks. We need jobs. That’s the most important thing.”
Dunn’s concerns for the aquatics facility stem from a report by Ballard King & Associates that predicts a first-year loss of $113,472 and a second-year loss of $82,318. While the report indicates that subsequent years would see those losses decrease, it does not foresee the park as ever operating in the black, at least not with the plan presented to voters in March 2012 and endorsed by Hudson.
Even with an estimated 117,000 annual visitors, the county and city would have to treat their joint effort as a loss-leader with current price points of $5 for adults and $2 for children of ages 5 and under, according to the report.
The next LWV candidate forum will take place on Oct. 8 at the Golden Corral and will feature Rep. Stephanie Malone, R-Fort Smith, and candidate Doris Tate (D), who are running for the House of Representatives District 77 position.