By Callie Hietala
Five candidates gathered Tuesday at the Morning Star Holy Church on Stoney Mountain Road for the annual Candidate Forum ahead of election day on November 2.
The Rev. Tyler Millner welcomed the group, saying the forum was an opportunity for candidates to speak as well as to listen and answer questions from the public.
Eric Bowling, Garrett Dillard, and Eric Phillips – all candidates for the Iriswood District seat on the Henry County Board of Supervisors – attended as did Ben Gravely, who is unopposed in his reelection bid for the Iriswood District post on the Henry County School Board. Ray Reynolds, who is seeking the Collinsville District seat on the school board, also attended.
Held just days before the Commission of Local Government (CLG) was to share its widely anticipated recommendations on Martinsville’s reversion process, discussion often returned to the topic. Despite varying viewpoints on reversion, each supervisor candidate advocated for a harmonious relationship between city and county residents.
Bowling, who told the audience he entered the race because he sees a lot of division between the county and city, and he wants to make a difference. While he is not in favor of reversion, “we have to try to pull together, regardless of how reversion comes out.”
Had he been on the board at the time, Bowling said he would have tried to work with the city to examine combining services, particularly school systems, to try and avoid the reversion process altogether.
If elected, Bowling said he hopes to use his preexisting relationships with some of the current city council members to bridge the gap between city and county.
“Let’s proactively look for ways to consolidate services instead of waiting until we’ve got a gun pointed at us,” he said.
Bowling said he does not support taking legal action to stop the process because it would cost taxpayers resources, time, and money. Rather, he hopes the county can “move proactively forward” once they learn the findings of the CLG.
Garrett Dillard got into the race because he sees a great deal of potential in the businesses, schools, and people of the county, and he wants to help release that potential.
“If we invest in people, those other (problems) will take care of themselves,” he said.
Noting that his personal thoughts on reversion are irrelevant because the county cannot stop the process nor could it have initiated it, Dillard said that moving forward, he wants to make everyone feel like they are part of a unified Martinsville-Henry County.
“To build one community, you have to get people invested in their community. If I’m invested in something, I want to see it succeed,” Dillard said, and told voters “I’m beginning to feel like (reversion) is a scare tactic,” with candidates threatening increased taxes and predicting increased tensions between the two localities.
“Let’s highlight the positives. There are other ways to fund whatever happens with reversion other than raising taxes,” he said, including funds currently in reserve and money saved by merging duplicative services and positions. “Let’s look at the whole picture.”
While higher taxes and a tense city/county relationship are possibilities, they are not certainties, he said. “Let’s make everybody feel inclusive and let’s not make it a them versus us situation,” Dillard said, and added if reversion moves forward, “we have to make the best of it . . . we have to make it work for us and make our community better.”
Phillips said he decided to run specifically because of reversion and the influx of large amounts of COVID-19 money into the county through the American Rescue Plan, the CARES Act, and other programs. He believes his background in business and finance will help the county spend that money wisely.
He said that, while he appreciated Dillard’s positive spin, “reality is not being negative.”
Phillips said that given the opportunity, he would have unequivocally voted against reversion, and he still believes the county should try to delay the process as long as possible.
“To say that we’re going to see a tax increase is a truth . . . you can ask anyone with any knowledge of the county’s finances,” he said. “I do agree (with Dillard) that in the end, we’re just going to have to make the best of it, and we will, but there are going to be some very tough and difficult financial and other decisions that you can’t hope and change your way out of.”
Phillips said that not dealing with the reality of the situation is not helpful.
“I don’t view (reversion) in an adversarial way, but I do view it with my eyes open,” he said, and added that annexation is an inherently adversarial process.
“If I can come take your land without your approval, that’s not a good thing,” he said.
Phillips would have preferred to fight Martinsville’s reversion in court. Though he hears the arguments that a legal battle would have been costly to the county, “how much more expensive is it going to be . . . for the county when (the city) takes our tax base and starts annexing all the way down to Dutch Inn in Collinsville and all the way past the racetrack in Ridgeway? That’s going to be expensive too,” he said, and speculated annexation likely will be more expensive than a legal fight.
Gravely, who is unopposed, said he attended the forum because he wanted to participate in the democratic process.
The county school board has not “made any decision whatsoever when it comes to the schools (in the city),” he said, adding the board, like everyone else, are waiting for a decision from the CLG.
“I’ve been asked a number of times about the difference between the kids in the city and those of the county,” he said. “The only difference are the names. Kids are kids, regardless of where they are. Kids in the city expect a quality education just like those in the county and it’s our duty to make sure that occurs.”
If and when the time comes to consolidate school systems, Gravely said he would ensure the community is involved in the process. Based on his conversations with Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer, she also is wants to include the community.
Reynolds said he hadn’t considered getting into the race until he was approached and told he could be an asset to the board. He said he wanted to follow in the footsteps of people like Gravely and Strayer.
“I know what it’s like to be left behind,” he said, “I know what it’s like to have trouble learning.”
He said that the quality of the schools in the county, which ranks next to last among school districts in per-pupil funding, is crucial to the economic development of the area.
“As long as our schools are last, and nobody puts them first,” it will be difficult to attract large companies to the county, he said. “Education is what gets you out of poverty.”
As a student, Reynolds said he received free lunches and free books because of his family’s financial situation.
He opted not to join reversion the discussion, other than to say that he has been in favor of consolidating schools from the beginning.