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Local sorority chapter hosts candidate forum: Part 3

beth.alston@ americustimesrecorder.com

AMERICUS — The Omicron Alpha Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc., alongside several local pastors and lay leaders hosted a forum on Oct. 6 for local/area candidates whose names will appear on the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election.
Those present were the following:
For Georgia State Senate, 13th District — Ruenett Melton, D-Tifton. It was announced that incumbent Greg Kirk, R-Americus was attending a similar forum in Cordele that evening.
For Georgia House of Representatives, District 138 — Incumbent, Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, and challenger, Bill McGowan, D-Americus.
Sumter County Board of Commissioners, District 1 — Incumbent Clay Jones Sr. Opponent, Harvey Claiborne, R-Americus, was not in attendance.
Sumter County Coroner — Incumbent, Greg Hancock, D-Americus, and challenger, Scott Aldridge, R-Americus.
During the question and answer period, members of the audience wrote questions on cards and indicated which candidate they wanted to answer.
County Commissioner Clay Jones answered this question: What are your plans of getting all employees of the county raises?
“Right now the best we can do is … giving longevity raises,” he said.  “I think it’s five-, 10-, 15-year raises. Since I’ve been a commissioner, we’ve been trying to get … raises, but ever since … 2009, we’re just now getting back to the point … this year. You ‘re required to have a certain fund balance for the county, money in the bank. It’s like a mandate. We’re just now getting to that point, so you’ll just give us a little more time, a couple more years, we can get started. Now that the county’s back where they need to be, maybe we can pass that along to the employees.”
A question for candidates running on the state level dealt with the perception of “two Georgias.” How would you try to reconcile this perception with regards to the areas you represent versus the demands of the Atlanta constituents … and the state House and Senate?
Rhuenett Melton answered first.
“I had a conversation with someone … regarding these two Georgias — North Georgia and us down here … They don’t seem to care about us because if they did we wouldn’t keep having these problems that we have. … If we’re going to represent Georgia, we need to pull Georgia together and make it work for everybody. … Government needs to work for everybody. We just got to make sure they we make them know how we feel, what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to get it right. That they need to look at what we need down here. We’re taxpayers, too. We got the same dead presidents on our dollars that they have on theirs. So we got to make it work for us, too. I agree; there seem to be two Georgias and they don’t seem to care. That’s just the way it is. Because if we did we wouldn’t have all these problems that we do. But we’re trying to rectify that. I’m constantly talking to people in Atlanta, in North Georgia … raising all kind of hell about what we need done down here. I’m just going to keep fighting and fighting and fighting until somebody listens and let’s do something about it.”
Rep. Mike Cheokas also answered.
“ … We do have two Georgias. We have about 10 million in the state of Georgia; about half of that live in the Greater Metro area of Atlanta and the other half live in rural Georgia. The issues that both Atlanta and rural Georgia have are different. But I disagree in that they’re not being addressed. The leadership in the state House is from rural Georgia. The funding for programs such as the OneGeorgia Authority comes to rural Georgia. … The taxes in rural Georgia, we are the net beneficiary. We send about 75 cents up and we get a dollar back. Atlanta is literally the goose that laid the golden egg. … There are subdivisions up there that I drive by when I’m in Atlanta and they start at a half a million dollars. The money they pay their local governments is more than enough on their property taxes to find their schools. So we have equalization grants that come from come from the wealthier counties and come down to the less wealthy counties in rural Georgia.”
Melton interjected, out of order, “Like I said earlier, budgets are about priorities,” but the moderator stopped her from going further.
Bill McGowan answered: “ … The job as I see it is to represent this district — Sumter, Schley, Marion, and Chattahoochee — and put it on the map. Let them know we’re here. I’ve been a mayor. I’ve been a tax commissioner. I know a lot of these folks. I know how to talk and get things done. … When we’re talking about the leadership from rural Georgia, I don’t know if we’re talking about North Georgia or South Georgia here.”
McGowan said he has seen a release earlier that day where Cheokas, “our representative,” said there were 550,000 jobs that he’s attracted to Georgia.
“I didn’t see a time table … I guess in that last four or five years maybe. And I took the 159 counties and divided it … according to that, each county should have gotten about 3,500 jobs out of 550,000 jobs. Now I don’t think we can go through Sumter, Schley Marion and Chattahoochee and come near that number. This is where I’m going to work. I’m going to work to improve this district and getting jobs here. I’m not going to brag about 550,000 jobs that didn’t come here. I’d really like to see numbers for sure on that. You can throw numbers out any kind of way.”
The state candidates were also asked the following question: We know that Governor Deal did not extend the Affordable Health Care in Georgia. What is your position on the Affordable Health Care Act?
Cheokas was asked to answer first.
“… There’s a study committee in the Senate that met yesterday, actually about the Affordable Care Act, and there’s a lot of discussion about expanding the Affordable Care Act in the state of Georgia. The problem is … we can’t afford it.”
Cheokas then read from something published by the Associated Press, that last year “in more than a dozen states that expanded Medicaid had seen enrollments and costs surge beyond their expectations and a report to Congress over the summer, the Federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services said the cost of expansion was $6,366 per person in ’15, about 49 percent higher than anticipated. State Sen Charlie Bethel said that the expansion of Medicaid was the problem that the Federal government created and that the Federal government needs to repair. It shouldn’t be an issue for the state at this time.”
Cheokas was also asked a similar question: Do you think Medicaid should be expanded in … districts where many don’t have health care?
He answered, “ … The Affordable Care Act did not build a single school, did not educate a single doctor. It is shifting monies from one area to the other and the doctors are opposed to it. Any of the young people who are forced to pay higher premiums for health care are opposed to it. … I can’t see that in our tight budget. Where are we going to come up with that money? Are we going to reduce the funding for education … for public safety … are we going to take away some of the money for prisons where we protect the public? Where does the money come from? We have a finite budget and that’s my question.”
McGowan responded, “ … a lot of numbers just got thrown out and there are a lot of numbers involved with it. Medicaid expansion is a good idea. There are billions of dollars that would come into this state and there is some matching funds  … We’ve got people out here that need health care and the trade’s pretty good … We’ve got all kinds of other states that are taking Medicaid expansions, but we’re standing on hard ground saying no. We’ve got folks that are trapped in the middle. They can’t get health care coverage. … Not all veterans are on … health care that are trapped and can’t get coverage. We’ve got to think about people in this process too. I don’t think enough exploration has been done on the money side of it because when that amount of money flows into Georgia, rural hospitals are allowed to stay open. Nurses and doctors are expanded. There’ll be more jobs in Georgia in that respect.”
Melton also answered. “I think what we need to do is to demand Governor Nathan Deal to expand Medicaid and stop this playing with people’s lives. … I haven’t met a doctor yet that told me they were against expanding Medicaid.  If we do this, we can stop closing down some of these rural hospitals. We’re losing … good doctors. We’re losing nurses. We’re losing jobs. If we have these hospitals available, we could offer more jobs. And just call it just what it is. Because Republicans did not want to work with the president Governor Nathan Deal didn’t receive the full package;  this is why we don’t have expanded Medicaid. The Federal government was going to pay 90 percent or 100 percent, and then in three years, 10 percent. We’re throwing out numbers again. But if we expand Medicaid we could save more lives. We could offer more jobs and it would be better for everybody. So let’s demand Nathan Deal to stop playing and let’s make government work for everybody and expand Medicaid.”
Another question was: What is your thought on Black Lives Matter and how do you intend to make race relations better in the state you serve and what are you doing now?
Melton responded first.
“ … If we look at what has happened all over the United States … with a lot of black lives, a lot of black men, we’re losing a lot. Who do you see out there protesting? You see black and white people together. You don’t just see black people out there; there are black and white people. Listen: all lives matter but the reason they’re saying black lives matter, all lives matter but make black lives matter, too. … I’m so glad that we have black and whites working together so we can make a difference. All lives matter. I want to make that perfectly clear. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, but let’s do it right. Let’s stop killing just a race of people because they’re black. But we don’t need to do this. We don’t need to take our country back three or four hundred years. We need to keep moving forward. We don’t need to let a little slogan like that put us in the situation that’s going to cause us to say we’re not moving forward because we are moving forward and if you look and see who is there protesting, there are black and white people protesting together.”
Cheokas responded. “I couldn’t agree with you more. Black lives matter. White lives matter. Hispanic lives matter. All lives matter. Our seniors matter. Our children matter. It’s an issue that we’re addressing at the state level. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed at the local level. Part of the problem is law enforcement … they need to be … trained on sensitivity to recognize that some people are not a threat. I commend the Americus Police Department. I commend the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department because of their position on this. We have black and white officers out there protecting the entire community. And that’s the way it should be. Each life that we lose unnecessarily takes away from the benefit or the betterment of this state. … All officers need to respectful of all citizens … It’s ashamed because we need to add another caveat to this. … The largest place that treats mental illness in the United States is the Los Angeles County jails. And that’s a problem.”
McGowan responded, “All lives matter … There’s got to be this community outreach I’ve seen from different churches. We’ve discussed these things. And that’s what it takes, discussing, understanding. As far as our police interacting  … they’ve got a tough job. They do a great job. I know they’re involved in some deeper thought on sensitivity … I’ve watched them. They go out there and talk to children and help folks. These are good people. We can’t put it all off on police. We gotta think about teachers, and the community as a whole working together on this thing, because … they’re there at the difficult time and we’ve got to stand with them and we’ve all got to work together to get along better.”
A question for Commissioner Jones was how much money is the county spending on lawsuits, and if the county didn’t have to spend money on lawsuits, could this money go towards raises for county employees?
He responded, “I couldn’t tell you how much we spend on lawsuits right now, not off the top of my head. … The county … has to defend. If we have accusations, if something comes up, we have to defend the county and it costs money. Sometimes all the lawyers … can’t represent so we have to go outside to get lawyers … specializing in certain law … It costs more money to do that.”

Part 4: More questions and answers and the wrap-up.