Tate is going up against challenger John Shearl in the primary for the Highlands seat.
There are a lot of similarities between Tate and Shearl. For starters, they’re both Republicans. They both own landscaping companies. Tate was an EMT, Shearl a volunteer firefighter.
But there are also major differences. And the differences present a defining choice for Macon County voters, and Republicans in particular. Shearl hails from the right side of the Republican Party, while Tate is a more moderate, mainstream Republican — a delineation that’s clear from the candidates’ voting record, platform positions and their respective backers.
“I’m very conservative,” said Shearl.
Macon County is conservative territory, in general.
The current board is Republican-heavy: it has four Republicans and just one Democrat. But the four Republicans have been consistantly divided on fiscal issues and spending.
Two more moderate Republicans — Tate and Chairman Kevin Corbin — have supported spending on myriad new initiatives over the past 18 months.
They include: a $3.8 million ballfield complex, $400,000 in new medical equipment for emergency responders, $145,000 for land for a new soccer field in Highlands, a $500,000 budget increase for schools, $290,000 for airport runway work and lighting and $750,000 annually in county employee raises.
The two more conservative Republicans on the board — Paul Higdon and Ron Haven — have voted against all of these spending measures. But the fiscally-conservative Republicans were in the minority.
Tate and Corbin currently hold the majority, forming a three-man voting bloc with the lone Democrat, Commissioner Ronnie Beale.
The county’s direction under this voting bloc is viewed by some as progressive and by others as irresponsible.
The dynamic on the board could flip should Shearl beat Tate, shifting the majority control to Higdon and Haven’s camp and a more conservative spending philosophy.
But Shearl doesn’t view the race or his campaign through the lens of the Republican divide — “whether that changes the 3 to 2, I have no idea” — but does categorize his opponent and the other offending commissioners as “excessive spenders.”
“They are living way outside the budget,” Shearl said.
The incumbent Tate defends his decisions. During the recent candidate forum in Franklin, he assured attendees he could stand behind his record.
“I don’t know of a thing I’ve voted for that’s wasteful,” Tate told them. “I can honestly tell you, every decision I’ve made so far, I’ve been able to sleep well at night — I’m proud of that.”
Later, Tate would elaborate. He pointed out that a large chunk of Macon’s budget was committed to schools and public safety.
“Those are your big guys, those are the places you look when you go to make cuts,” Tate said. “Those are areas that I’m not willing to make cuts in. Those areas are very important to me.”
The difference between these two candidates has not gone unnoticed. The Macon chapter of FreedomWorks, a political organization from the far-right end of the conservative spectrum, has advised voters to go for Shearl.
FreedomWorks wants to reverse what it considers a “left-leaning threesome majority on the commission,” according to an appeal to primary voters posted on its website. A vote for Shearl, the organization contends, would “begin moving the county back in the ‘right’ direction!”
Shearl quickly ticks off several recent board decisions that have irked him. It’s not just the spending that’s troubling, but that in many cases the county borrowed money for pay for the initiatives, instead of tapping into the county’s robust savings account. This is another key difference between Tate and Shearl.
In Tate’s world, Macon County has a “healthy fund balance.” In Shearl’s opinion, it has a “slush fund” that would best be returned to taxpayers. Macon’s fund balance, as a percentage of it’s overall budget, is among the largest in the state.
Higdon and Haven last year led an unsuccessful push to tap the fund balance in order to lower the property tax rate.
The candidates for Macon’s Highlands seat do agree on some things. They both view the coming property revaluations as the biggest issue facing the county. Property values have plummeted by about 30 percent on average, compared to the real estate values currently on the county’s tax rolls.
The county is required to periodically adjust its property tax values and bring them in line with the actual real estate market. Property values, in turn, dictate property taxes. So when the values come down, so does the amount the county collects.
The county has two choices: cut its budget to makeup the difference, or increase the tax rate to offset the drop in values.
“We’re obviously going to have a decrease in property valuation, which is going to mean an increase in our tax rate,” Tate said.
Shearl disagrees with that choice. He suggests that reining in “borrowing and spending” will help cushion the blow. Beyond that, he’d look at “some serious budget issues.”
“I’m not in favor of raising taxes,” Shearl said. “We’d have to seriously look at services and everything.”
Whoever wins in the May primary will face Democrat Michael Rogers in the general election. This candidate, coincidentally, also owns a landscaping business.
Meet the candidates, pick one
Three seats are up for grabs on the Macon County Board of Commissioners this year, but only one has a primary contest: two Republicans vying for one seat in the Highlands district.
Any Republican or unaffiliated voter in the county can vote in this primary race, even though it’s the Highlands district. Candidates must hail from that district, but the election is open to voters countywide.
Two commissioner seats are also up for election in Franklin, but all the candidates in that race — two Republicans, a Democrat, and Libertarian — automatically advance to the general election in the fall. A Democrat will join the mix for the Highlands seat come fall as well.
Here are the two Republicans facing off the primary:
Jim Tate, 42
Owner, Tate Landscaping Services
Tate graduated from the University of Georgia with a landscape architect degree. He lives with his wife and children in Highlands. The candidate has served on the Highlands zoning and planning boards, as well as Macon County’s planning board.
Political philosophy: “I feel like everybody needs to be responsible. [Use] simple, common sense.”
On Macon’s fund balance: “[My opponent] doesn’t like the fact that we have a big piggy bank.”
John Shearl, 45
Owner, J&J Lawn and Landscaping Services and Shearl Produce
Shearl is a retired firefighter. He lives with his wife and children in Highlands. The candidate currently serves on the Macon County Planning Board.
Political philosophy: “Limited growth in government, lower taxes and less regulation.”
On weathering economic uncertainty: “The government as a whole has to tighten their belts and stop this excessive spending. It’s going to take some tough decisions and very conservative-minded people to do this.”
On Macon’s fund balance: “In my opinion, that fund balance belongs to the taxpayers of Macon County.”