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Judge-exec debate compares, contrasts, candidates for county’s highest office

Magistrate Eric Shelburne, left, and Tim Hutchins awaits the start of the Nelson County America First PAC candidate forum on Thursday, Sept. 22.

By JIM BROOKS
Nelson County Gazette / WBRT Radio

Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 — The candidates in the race for Nelson County judge-executive squared off Thursday evening at the Thomas Nelson High School auditorium in a forum sponsored by Nelson County American First PAC, led by Don Thrasher.

ERIC SHELBURNE

Local journalist Dennis George served as moderator of the event, which was well-covered by local media. Questions to the candidates were presented both by George and members of the audience.

The audience was a mix of candidate supporters, journalists, and supporters of Thrasher’s America First PAC, which is a splinter group of pro-Trump supporters.

In his opening remarks, Democrat Eric Shelburne stressed his public service, beginning with rising to the rank of Eagle Scout, continuing with this military service and later, his service as a City of Bardstown lineman. He currently serves as 5th District magistrate on Nelson Fiscal Court.

Republican Timi Hutchins highlighted his years operating Handy Food Mart — now celebrating its 50the anniversary — and operating a construction company. He said he his years of business experience and previous 17 years as District 4 magistrate made him the best candidate for judge-executive.
serving District 4.

TIM HUTCHINS

DEBATE’S MAGA MOMENT. The debate went smoothly until George asked a question regarding former President Trump and the 2020 election. When George mentioned that President Joe Biden won the election, the audience erupted in protest.

“No he didn’t!” one person said. Another audience member said “He cheated!”

The audience quieted down while George explained he was following the question guidelines the candidates agreed to before the debate.

George continued with his question — until he mentioned the Jan. 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. At that point, the crowd again erupted in shouts of disagreement.

The question asked if Hutchins agreed with what the former president’s statements about the election and insurrection.

“Let me answer this,” Hutchins told the crowd. “I’m a Donald Trump supporter. But I don’t always agree with his vocabulary and his statements.”

Hutchins called the Jan. 6 insurrection a “demonstration,” and that he couldn’t say for certain there was enough voter fraud to have changed the outcome of the election.

Journalist Dennis George, left and Don Thrasher open the candidate forum.

TOP ISSUE FACING THE COUNTY. When asked to identify the top issue facing the next fiscal court, Shelburne said that the lack of experience in the next court means that the members of fiscal court who have leadership experience will need to step up.

He said the county must retain its experienced employees, and pointed to his years working as a city employee that helped him learn how that is done.

Hutchins said he’s hired hundreds of employees over his business career, so he’s well-versed in employee retention. The largest issue the next court will face is dealing with inflation, which he laid at the feet of the policies of Democratic President Joe Biden and his administratiion.

LOSS OF DISTILLERY AD VALORUM TAX. When asked about how they would react if county government loses the ad valorum tax distilleries pay on whiskey aging in the county’s many bourbon warehouses, both candidates agreed that the loss of that revenue would be a hard hit on the county’s budget.

Hutchins was critical of the substantial tax breaks his opponent had agreed to in the form of Industrial Revenue Bonds that were granted to distilleries. Waving a large sheath of papers, he said the agreements allow the distilleries to avoid paying property taxes for 30 years, which he felt was excessive.

If the county lost its ad valorum tax revenue, Hutchins said the county would have to make sufficient cuts to live within its means. He said he would not raise taxes or enact new taxes to make up the difference.

Shelburne defended the Industrial Revenue Bonds fiscal court had approved as incentives necessary to attract distilleries to locate here or expand their exisiting operations.

“I don’t think the public is aware that it means the loss of $8 million to the county, and $1.2 million from the fiscal court budget,” he said.”It’s going to put us in a pinch, and we’ll have to look at ways to make cuts and maybe new streams of revenue.”

“At the end of the day, we have to raise revenue,” he said. “None of those options are pleasant because we’ll all have to pay.”

RECREATION CENTER. Both candidates agreed there was community support for multi-purpose sports facility that included a pool. But both had concerns about paying for a facility, as well as funding its continued operation.

Hutchins and Shelburne both suggested local partnerships between local governments, business and industry are probably needed to bring this project to fruition.

Hutchins said he wouldn’t support a facility if it meant raising taxes.

Shelburne said the idea of letting the people vote in a referrendum would provide input on what voters want to have — and what they may be willing to pay for.

He suggested that raising the restaurant tax might be a way to help pay for a facility.

“We’ve got to it done,” Shelburne said of a sports facility.

BUDGET: WHO NOT TO CUT. If the county had to cut its budget in the future, should the budget of any department be protected from cuts?

Both candidates pointed to the budget for emergency services — police, fire and EMS — as budgets that shouldn’t be cut.

Hutchins was critical of Shelburne for failing to take action when it was discovered that four deputy sheriff’s were underpaid. Shelburne and the court took no action despite the facts they knew the deputies were underpaid. He also said the sheriff’s public complaints to fiscal court about deputy pay should have been avoided, calling it “a black eye on the community.”

Shelburne said he was a strong supporter of law enforcement who has supported the sheriff’s office by voting for every pay increase, vehicle purchase, and equipment for the 17 deputes on the fiscal court payroll.

As far as addressing deputy pay, he said officers should be given incentives like pay increases for length of service, which should be built-in to the pay scale.

He was a supporter of the 7 percent raise all county employees received this year. “To say we havein’t tried to [improve deputy pay] is wrong,” he said.

Sheburne said he supported giving county workers a 10 percent raise this year, a measure that failed when two magistrates refused to support it.

PUBLIC INPUT @ MEETINGS. Both candidates said if elected judge-executive, they would bring public input back to fiscal court meetings.

“I think its important every voice is heard,” Shelburne said.

He said he would like to provide a sign-up sheet for individuals who wished to address fiscal cocurt.

Hutchins noted that the current fiscal court eliminated public comment during Shelburne’s tenure as magistrate and suggested the move dates back to a heated exchange between Sheburne and Don Thrasher in regard to the Pledge of Allegiance in August 2019.

PRIVITIZE EMS. When asked about privatizing the county-owned ambulance service, the candidates agreed that county ownership is the best way to insure quality service is provided to all parts of the county.

Hutchins said that a for-profit company couldn’t afford to provide the same level of service the county-owned EMS does.

“I would never privatize it08,” he said.

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