Chairman candidates, CCBOE headline Republican Women meeting

Cullman County Commission chairman candidate Wiley Kitchens addresses the crowd at Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Cullman County Republican Women. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – With only three weeks to go until the March 3 primary, all four Republican Cullman County Commission chairman candidates had an opportunity Tuesday evening at the Cullman County Republican Women meeting to address potential voters. There are no Democrats on the ballot, so, barring a run-off situation, the March 3 vote will determine the winner.

But before the candidates took to the podium, Cullman County Board of Education (CCBOE) Special Projects/ASAP Coordinator Dr. T.J. Franey, speaking on behalf of Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette, who could not attend, took a moment to address the assembled crowd about the propose 1-cent sales tax, which will also be on the ballot.

If passed, approximately 77% of the revenues (based on 2019 student figures) would go to Cullman County Schools for a collection of projects (, 21% to Cullman City Schools, and roughly 2% would go to the city system in Arab where, by agreement between that system and the CCBOE, a handful of students from extreme northeast Cullman County are allowed to attend.

According to Franey, for Cullman County Schools, the tax would be used for three things. The first would be for a new career tech center.

“Workforce is big and the demand for workers in our community continues to grow,” she said. “Several community members and business leaders got together and decided a feasibility study was needed concerning a new career tech academy. The feasibilities came back strongly supporting it. In fact, 94% supported the need for an updated state-of-the-art career academy.”

Safety and security would be the second focus. Many of the system’s schools are outdated and were built during a time when open school layouts were desired. New school buildings and upgrades to existing buildings are planned if the tax passes.

“There are different needs on each campus,” Franey said.

Finally, the money would fund student resource officer salaries.

“No administrative salaries, I know some people have asked, but there will be no administrative salaries from this tax,” insisted Franey.

Following Franey, guests heard from Catherine Byrne Edwards, daughter of U.S. Senate candidate Bradley Byrne. She chose to speak about her father as a person rather than a politician. She reflected on family, faith and her father insisting that she “always do the right thing, even when it made her uncomfortable.”

The four chairman candidates came next.

Jeff “Clem” Clemons, graduate of Cold Springs High School and resident of Jones Chapel, has served more than 32 years with the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office.

“If I’m elected chairman of the Cullman County Commission, I want to work with my fellow commissioners to cut the wasteful spending where we can utilize that money to improve our crumbling road systems in Cullman County,” he said. “I know it’s something that’s going to be hard to do because our roads have been neglected for so long.”

Clemons also promised to keep water rates low, be more transparent and make the commission “more available.”

Wiley Kitchens, former associate commissioner and chairman, said, “I’m not in this thing to make a change. The only reason that I got into this race was to make a difference.”

He spoke of his accomplishments during his time in office including Veterans Memorial Park at Sportsman Lake, the Cullman County DHR building, upgrading of the county water system and turning the county parks into self-funded entities.

He added, “I was a part of quite a few industries that was able to be brought in here with the chairman of the county commission and the commission itself with our industrial development. We worked with the City in order to bring these developments here.”

Kitchens addressed drug and alcohol abuse in Cullman County. His own wife and daughter were killed by a drunk driver.

“I know what it is first-hand to have a family member that is on drugs and alcohol. This is something that can be addressed,” he said. “I worked in a program for 17 years.”

He said he hopes to facilitate a large collaborative effort between law enforcement, local churches, civic leaders and judges to address the epidemic of drugs and alcohol.

As for roads, Kitchens explained, “It’s not something the chairman has control over with the exception of funding the road department. When I was first elected, we used to call them road commissioners, because they are totally responsible for the roads.”

He acknowledged, “We do have a road problem. It’s a big problem everywhere you go all over this county.”

Incumbent Chairman Kenneth Walker chose to address the school tax issue before discussing his bid for reelection.

He said, after asking for a show of hands from those in attendance who live in the city, “If this school tax doesn’t pass on the ballot, the City of Cullman is going to pay an extra 1% regardless…. They’re probably going to pass it without a vote.”

Several people in the crowd then spoke up about Mayor Woody Jacobs’ and the Cullman City Council’s denial of such a tax plan, despite the rumors being circulated.

Walker replied, “Of course he is. That’s the story that got all this tax increase talked about anyway. They were going to pass it. That’s when the county school board stepped up. So anyway, just something to think about.”

Walker then switched his focus toward the election, saying, “I am not here to apologize for the progress we have made in the Cullman County Commission. I have done what I have intended to do. I have promised that I would do to the best of my ability to do the job I can do. I think I have done that job. I have had the Cullman County Commission in the black for seven years and I intend to keep the Cullman County Commission in the black.”

He continued, “I am sorry that I am not a road commissioner. I am your chairman of the Cullman County Commission and I am over your finances. That’s what the chairman does.”

He explained the discrepancy between how much it costs to pave a mile of road, $70,000-$90,000, versus how much gas tax money, $2,300 a mile, the County receives.

He concluded by saying, “Other than the roads, Cullman County is in the best shape it’s ever been in. I know Mr. Wiley did a great job when he was chairman, but we have more revenue now and it’s in the best shape it’s ever been in in the history of the commission. I’m not patting myself on the back. It takes a lot of people to run a business as big as this is. I think we have the right people in the right jobs and we will continue to keep Cullman County on top.”

Wrapping up the evening was Philip Widner, who said he considers the county “fortunate” to have four candidates stepping up to serve. He praised his competition for a clean and positive campaign and urged everyone to keep it that way over the final three weeks.

“I am a former county engineer in Cullman County and then I went on to finish my career in Jackson County,” Widner said. “I’ve got over 26 years overseeing multi-million-dollar governmental departments, transportation, bridges, sanitation departments and public works departments. I’ve also got education experience in business management, government finance, tax laws and even county administration. I’ve kept my license current. I am also a licensed engineer in the state of Alabama.”

He spoke briefly on roads and his record in Jackson County before touching on other topics. He said he supports a five-person commission and also wants to make commission meetings more accessible to citizens.

“I want us to start looking at moving one of the meetings to the evening time,” he said, “so it’s more accessible to the people who work during the day so they don’t have to take off work, burn vacation or sick time, if they’ve got something they want to bring before the commission.”

Widner said he has funded his own campaign, explaining, “If you really want to improve something, you don’t mind investing your own money in it. That’s the way we felt. We really want to improve our county.”

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