BLOUNTVILLE — Three men are seeking the GOP nomination in the May 6 Republican primary to become the party's candidate for Sullivan County highway commissioner.
They are: Jim Belgeri, Dwight King and Bobbie Manning.
The Times-News asked each to answer, in writing, six questions — limiting each answer to 200 words. These are their unedited responses.
1) Why do you want to be Highway Commissioner?
BELGERI: "When I moved to Sullivan County 35 years ago I was very impressed that a county of this size, then the 5th largest in the Tennessee, could have such a fine highway system. Every corner of this large county had good roads and there were virtually no gravel roads. This condition is quite unlike any county of this relative size in virtually any State in our nation. Our early highway commissioners are to be commended for this system! However, in the recent few years, we seem to have lost sight of the importance of this resource and have wandered from the prime mission of highway improvement and maintenance. Our excellent highway system has suffered as focus on road surface condition, ditches, and drainage has been lost. Recent highway commissioners have led this departure from mission. It is my desire to serve as Highway Commissioner in order to restore focus on the infrastructure and restore the highway system to its prior condition. As a part of this goal it is my intention to restore integrity to the position of Highway Commissioner."
KING: "I am seeking the office of Highway Commissioner because I believe it is critical that we restore strong leadership to the position. I feel that I have the experience as a leader to move the highway department in a new positive direction. The people of Sullivan County are not proud of all the constant controversy at the highway department and have shown a huge amount of support for me to enter this race. The taxpayers have voiced they want change and I believe I can bring a proven track record of honesty and integrity to the office. Another reason I decided to become a candidate is the fact the condition of our roads have deteriorated over the last few years. Good roads are essential for the safe passage of our children from home to school and back; citizens going to and from work; necessary day to day travels; and for emergency vehicles such as police and ambulance services. If given the opportunity, I would work to make our roads better, and therefore safer for our citizens. In turn, better roads mean better opportunity for economic growth for Sullivan County."
MANNING: "To help the Highway Department advance towards operating at peak efficiency, I have invested my experience and extensive background in roadway drainage, maintenance, construction and supervision. Most of all as Interim Highway Commissioner, I have strived to restore the taxpayer's confidence in the department and its employees, and will continue to do so. I will accomplish this by continuing to bring honesty and integrity back to the position through proven results.
I mostly want to be Highway Commissioner because I know I have the ability to control the budget and prevent future tax increases fueled by increased budget needs. This will be accomplished by continuing to make payroll and employee cost a smaller percentage of the departments overall budget and rededicating the saved money to paving more roads and preventative roadway maintenance.
2) What makes you the most qualified candidate for the job?
BELGERI: "I am the only candidate in memory who brings to this position a degree in engineering as well as professional registration. I am registered as a Professional Engineer (P.E.) in Tennessee and three surrounding states. My experience includes 43+ years of engineering practice throughout the Southeast U.S. One notable design effort is the design of rock slopes on I-26 between Clear Branch Road and Sam's Gap. I am also considered as a regional expert in the assessment and repair of limestone sinkholes and have authored several peer-reviewed papers on the subject. I have been given several awards for my work including the State's Engineer of the Year award (Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers — 1995) and the Distinguished Engineer of the Year (2001) award by the local chapter of the same organization. In addition to this technical excellence, I served my most recent employer for nearly 29 years in a variety of managerial positions, ranging from Senior Engineer; to Regional Manager (four office locations, 100+ employees); to Vice President and Director of Field Exploration. I am retired as a founding Director of the current company which now employs over 1000 employees in more than 25 locations in the eastern U.S. My experience includes managing and re-direction of troubled and under-performing organizations and I consider these some of my most rewarding managerial experiences."
KING: "I believe the combination of my education, work experience, being an elected Commissioner for seven years, and proven leadership qualifies me for the position of Highway Commissioner. My years at E.T.S.U. obtaining a B.S. degree in Industrial Technology laid the foundation for me to own a small business. The thirty three years spent running a business has given me the skills to manage people and equipment. A good portion of those years were spent constructing and maintaining roads. Many of the roads were built in rugged mountainous terrains and had to be capable of handling heavily loaded tractors and trailers. Here in Sullivan County we haven't built a road in over thirty years, just maintained them. Since I have owned and maintained different types of trucks, I feel that I am well qualified to manage the department's fleet of trucks. My seven years of serving as a County Commissioner has provided me the opportunity to know about county government operations. Day one, if elected, I will not have to spend time learning about county government, but I will know how it functions."
MANNING: "My detailed work history in roadway drainage, maintenance, construction and supervision makes me the ideal candidate for Highway Commissioner. Mostly I am the most qualified candidate because I am the only candidate who has actual hands on working experience as an employee of the Sullivan County Highway Department.
For over seven years, I have worked shoulder to shoulder with Highway Department. employees. I have a deep understanding of the department's budget and acknowledge we can make cuts in certain areas while making additions and improvements in other areas.
Furthermore, I have already proven I am willing to look past adversity and set aside politics to make difficult but necessary decisions to benefit taxpayers and be a better steward of their hard-earned tax dollars. We have already experienced positive results. In an effort to prevent future tax increases, we will continue working toward better and safer roads, without requesting an increase in funding.
3) What is the number one issue facing the SDHD and how will you address it in the coming four years if you are elected?
BELGERI: "The number one issue facing the Sullivan County Highway Department is lack of leadership and an organizational structure and philosophy which barely worked in the 1950's. The current management philosophy is based on nepotism and political favoritism and it certainly does not serve this county well in the 21st century. I have met with many of the current department employees and am convinced that they would embrace a change in leadership and management philosophy. They will also respond with improved service to Sullivan County in an organization where advancement and compensation are based on performance. Likewise, fulfilling the mission of the Department should be based on real roadway needs and not on the location of homes of the political elite. A legitimate condition and needs assessment of the county's entire
900-mile road network is an urgent need. This assessment should form the basis of roadway rehabilitation work over the next decade."
KING: "The number one issue is the condition our roads are in today. I believe this is due to the fact our previous Highway Commissioners have not been aggressive enough in our paving schedules. In my opinion, some of the budget has been spent on unnecessary things instead of paving. As Highway Commissioner, I will make paving a number one priority. To pay for this extra paving, I would analyze the highway department's budget very carefully to find cost-saving measures. The money saved would be transferred to the asphalt account to be used in paving. As a commissioner, I found a way to transfer 1.2 million dollars in the highway budget from payroll to the asphalt account. I would also explore new ways of treating our roads that could preserve them for longer periods of time."
MANNING: "The number one issue facing the Highway Department is negative public perception due to past events. Even though government is designed to be controversial, controversy without positive results is detrimental and impedes progress. I plan to change the department's image by ensuring all employees engage and embrace the public for whom they work, and only work to benefit taxpayers by performing work that improves roadway conditions and safety. Answering citizen's calls, addressing roadway concerns, and acting in a professional and timely manner will be mandatory for all department employees. I am a strong leader, and I will lead by example. I will change the direction of the department's future and require those whom I lead to do the same.
4) What are your thoughts on the SCHD's current funding level? Is it enough? Too much?
BELGERI: "I believe that in real dollars the funding of the Sullivan County Highway Department is substantially below the level needed to fulfill the mission of maintaining Sullivan County's outstanding road system. However, through the use of newer technologies and roadway rehabilitation based on real needs substantial work toward the fulfillment of mission can occur. If the populace of Sullivan County demands more funding for the department I will ensure that such additional funding translates to quicker completion of the outcome of the condition and needs assessment survey. Throughout my 43-year career I have been given the responsibility for budgets. Early in my career project budgets were my focus. With greater responsibility organizational budgets were added. In all cases the objective was to have income exceed expenses (profit) and in that regard I have been very successful. I do not anticipate any problem in translating my financial management skill set from the private sector to the governmental sector."
KING: "I would leave it at its current funding level since the amount of taxes collected by Sullivan County has increased so slightly over the last few years. The highway department must live within its means unless you ask the citizens to pay more taxes, cut services or research potential opportunities from other funding sources such as grants."
MANNING: "I feel the department's current budget is sufficient. Something you have to remember is the department has not had an increase in budget funds allocated by the County Commission since 2008. We have gone a very long time without a budget increase despite higher cost for fuel, equipment, materials and labor. To prevent future increases we must continually study the budget and make cuts where applicable and whenever possible. To lessen the tax burden for Sullivan County taxpayers, I will work closely with state officials to secure grant money when available. We can maintain our current budget by working harder, working smarter, and controlling cost."
5) What about staffing? Does the SCHD have enough employees? Too many?
BELGERI: "In my opinion the employees of the Sullivan County Highway Department work very hard and expend much time in accomplishing the department's mission. The current staffing seems to me to be at a good level. During weather emergencies and other unusual event requiring departmental response the limited use of contracted services may be desirable and will be considered as a back-up to complete the departmental mission to the benefit of the citizens of Sullivan County."
KING: "In 2013, the Highway Department paved twenty more miles of road than in 2012 with thirty less employees. During these tough times, the Highway Department must develop the same behavior as its citizens are having to do which is "Do More with Less."
MANNING: "I feel that the department's number of employees is far less important than the quality of employees. Something I have learned in previous management and leadership roles is your most costly asset will always be your employees. However, your employees always be your most valuable asset. I feel, as over the next four years we will reduce the number of employees through retirement, retirement incentives and voluntary displacement. To take full advantage of this "natural" reduction in employees we must reward the current employees with higher pay and career advancement opportunities based upon work ethic and job performance. This will attract talented and qualified applicants, increase moral among existing employees, and help us accomplish our constant goal of doing more with less."
6) Are employees assigned to the correct tasks to make the department run as efficiently as possible?
BELGERI: "It is not clear to me at this time that all employees are assigned to correct tasks. Although I do not anticipate large changes in job assignments, it is my intention to spend the initial few weeks in a job-shadowing effort. The purpose of this effort will be to gain a fuller, first-hand understanding of job demands and employee strengths thereby ensuring that employees are in a position in which they can succeed for the citizens of Sullivan County. Organizational changes may also ensue to better manage this complex department which requires balancing of large groupings of manpower, machinery, and material."
KING: "There should be a job description and qualifications for each position at the Highway Department. A good leader could match each employee to fit the right job based upon education, skills, experience, attitude and work ethic. Expectations should be established and employees would be evaluated periodically."
MANNING: "As a whole the Highway Department employees are currently assigned to the correct tasks. With that being said, there is always room for improvement and the need to diversify. As Highway Commissioner, I will implement an annual internal audit system to effectively gauge employee's job performance and their ability to complete assigned tasks. As senior employees retire and positions become vacated through voluntary displacement we will examine the workload and specific job duties, to determine if the position should be filled. If it is determined the position is to be filled we will only do so out of necessity with the most qualified and motivated individuals."