ST. GEORGE – A new Washington County commissioner will be elected in 2016, bringing a third new face to the three-person commission within two years.
Alan Gardner, who has served on the County Commission for 20 years, is not seeking re-election; Commissioners Victor Iverson and Zachary Renstrom were both elected during the 2014 election cycle.
Four Republican candidates spoke to a small crowd of about 30 people Tuesday at the Dixie Alumni House, 684 E. 500 S., in St. George. The event was sponsored by the Dixie Republican Forum.
Candidates Greg Aldred, Gil Almquist, Dean Cox and Jimi Kestin were each given two minutes to answer questions formulated by event organizers about the role of county government; the proper relationship between county and federal government, especially concerning county land; government power versus individual rights; and county budgets, fiscal responsibility and taxes.
“Washington, D.C., is killing Washington, U.T.,” Almquist said, referring to federal overreach. The federal government has gotten larger and larger, and state and local officials need to be more savvy in opposing the trend, he said.
The powers of the federal government should be few, Cox said.
“The county has to stand up and fight back, and that’s what I will do,” he added.
Kestin said the federal government wants to bring the endangered California condor to Washington County, which already is home to the threatened desert tortoise which is under federal protection through the Endangered Species Act. Residents, he said, must take every legal means at their disposal to gain control of the land they live on.
“Your kids are way more important than condors,” he said. “We need somebody in that room who will not compromise when the pressure is turned up, that will not back down and roll over.”
Aldred agreed with Kestin, saying that locals can manage the land better than the federal government.
“The roads that we played on when we were kids, suddenly there’s fences there,” he said.
However, Aldred also reminded audience members that local governments receive money as compensation for federal land that is not taxable.
“You can’t have it both ways, you can’t accept the PILT money – Payment in Lieu of Taxes – and then want (to control) our own lands. This is something we really need to think about,” he said.
Taxes and spending
When asked by forum organizers for thoughts on taxes and fiscal responsibility, Almquist said every penny counts and it is important to be diligent and study every detail of the county budget.
“We have to be our best own auditors about your money,” Almquist said.
While there will always be more demand than money, it is the job of county commissioners to make sure money spent is “doing the most citizens the most good,” he added.
Cox said as the county administrator he helped the county through the recession by cutting costs and bringing a private business mentality to the financial management. The county had to respond quickly to the economic turndown that began in 2008 to keep the county in good financial shape and ride out the lean times.
“So I am willing to actually implement cost-cutting savings as mandated and when necessary,” said Cox. “Because it is your money and we must be fiscally responsible.”
Kestin said the candidates are fortunate to be running for office in a county that has been “fairly well run,” been fiscally responsible and managed the recession well.
Kestin has managed a range of budgets, he said, from very small businesses to multimillion dollar departments of large companies. The first thing to do, Kestin said, is to ask the question, ‘”Why is government involved in this?”
“The key to this is simple. We must be prudent in how we spend money, we must look for ways to reduce the tax burden on our residents. People always spend their money better than government,” Kestin said.
Aldred gave accolades to the existing county officials for doing a good job and said it’s important to ask questions such as, “Is it self-sustaining? What can we do to make sure that you get a return on it?”
Former St. George City Councilman Gil Almquist did not seek re-election last year, choosing instead to set his eyes on the Washington County Commission.
Almquist served nearly 25 years in municipal government with more than 16 years on the St. George City planning commission and eight years as a member of the St. George City Council.
Washington County Administrator Dean Cox announced his decision to run for the commission in October 2015. Cox has worked with and for the county in various capacities since the mid-1980s. First as a volunteer, then part-time and finally full-time as the county’s emergency services director. He accepted the position of county administrator in 2009.
Aldred, son of former Washington County Commissioner Gayle Aldred, who served from 1988 to 2002, is no stranger to political campaigns. He has sought public office numerous times and this year hopes to be the candidate who will replace outgoing Commissioner Alan Gardner.
Aldred has held leadership positions with the Dixie Republican Forum, Dixie Sunshiners, Hurricane Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Utah Home Builder’s Association Education Board. Aldred is a general contractor, involved in a merchant services business and solar power systems installations, and says he is the only candidate with a state license in alternative energy.
Kestin, a Washington County banker and pastor, is a well-known figure among the county’s business and faith communities through his service with the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, the St. George Exchange Club and St. George Interfaith Council and nonprofit groups. Kestin is also the senior pastor at the Solomon’s Porch Foursquare Fellowship in St. George.
The next step
The next step in the process of selecting a GOP candidate for the Washington County Commission will be the party’s caucus in March, where delegates will be selected for the county and state conventions, Dixie Republican Forum Treasurer John Olsen said. At the Washington County Republican convention in April, delegates will try to select a nominee for the general election in November. If the vote is close, a primary election could be held.
St. George News Reporter Mori Kessler contributed to this report.
Ed. note: Corrected for dates of caucus and convention.
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