Elect 2012: Commission candidates talk schools, jobs, taxes
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY - The new central office for Rowan-Salisbury Schools dominated the discussion during Tuesday's candidate forums at Catawba College.
Moderator Michael Bitzer asked if the four county commissioner candidates would support a request from the school board for more money to build the system's central administrative office.
Earlier, he had asked candidates for the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education if they would make that a request.
The lowest bid for the downtown building came in at $7.4 million. That's $1.4 million more than the amount Rowan County Board of Commissioners approved and agreed to help finance.
Democrat Leda Belk agreed with Republicans Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey that the school board should stay within its $6 million budget.
Democrat Ralph Walton said he would want the school board to work with the architect to figure out if anything can be cut out or reduced. But he also said school staff badly needs to get out of the aging Long Street building and into a into a consolidated office that meets their needs.
"If we do not build this correctly now, it will never happen," Walton said. "We have argued 15 years over this yet."
Belk, a former commissioner, said school officials need to work with the architect to figure out how its true needs can be met within the original budget.
Caskey, who serves on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, said he thought the board had better options that would have saved money.
Pierce agreed. He said he would move the building to a site that isn't downtown, because the city of Salisbury's regulations are driving away businesses.
"If we're looking to use tax dollars wisely, we need to find another location that has the growth potential 20 years from now to be a viable property, and not locate it downtown in an area that's crumbling," he said. "I frankly can't see spending that kind of money on a location that will ultimately be a desolate area."
A Salisbury Post reader asked if the county commissioners should have more control over how local funds are spent by the school system.
Pierce said he thinks the county should have the right to earmark certain dollars for certain things within the school system. For example, he said, the county has designated $375,000 for classroom supplies, and the school board shouldn't use that to pay for other expenses.
Belk said she doesn't mind separate allocations such as that one, but people are elected to one board or the other for a reason. Commissioners and school board members should communicate better to ensure that funds are spent in the best way possible, she said.
Walton said he does not think the county should micromanage the school system. Instead, he said commissioners should trust the elected school board to make the best decisions it can.
Caskey said there needs to be more local control over how money is spent, but he's not sure whether it should be given to the school board or the county commissioners. State mandates often leave school board members' hands tied, he said.
One question from Bitzer raised the issue of jobs and the economy.
"Name a specific initiative that you would introduce within the first six months of taking office to aid in job creation here in Rowan County. How will you go about gaining support for that initiative?"
Walton said the first thing the commissioners can do is start being nicer and more positive. Then, he stressed being proactive about going out and finding businesses to locate here.
"We may never get another Freightliner, but we might get several companies to come in here that will employ several hundred people instead of 2,000 people," he said.
Pierce said he wants to sit down with the business community, RowanWorks Economic Development, the Chamber of Commerce and the local tourism development authorities to come up with ways to grow businesses that are already here.
"I think that that would be a much easier task than trying to knock that home run and bring that big corporation here, and then having to give it all away in tax incentives just to get them to locate here," he said.
Caskey said he'd focus on both new and existing businesses, starting by looking at the permitting process for construction.
"I would like for the county and municipalities like Salisbury to try to work together a little bit on streamlining the process of what it takes to start businesses here," he said.
Belk said she'd like the county to develop a plan that would allow RowanWorks Economic Development to offer companies incentives without going before commissioners for a vote
"More than all of that, we've got to start talking," she said. "We don't listen very well, folks, and we don't communicate well."
Another question from a Salisbury Post reader pointed out that two of the candidates will be sitting on the board for the next scheduled property revaluation in 2015.
"Would you be in favor of keeping the revaluation on schedule for 2015, or would you favor delaying the revaluation and going to a longer cycle?" the reader asked.
Caskey said he would be willing to extend the cycle from four to eight years, because that would mean fewer chances to raise property taxes.
"We're still in a very precarious situation with the economy right now," he said. "I think everyone's waiting to see what happens this election and what's going to happen in the next couple of years."
Walton said he doesn't see why the schedule should be changed. He and Belk both pointed out that tax rates are raised when values go down and lowered when values go up, because the county has to have a certain amount of money to operate.
"Sitting here right now today, I don't have a problem with a revaluation in 2015," Belk said. "If there's a downturn in the economy - and Lord, I don't know how that could happen - you'd have to look at it."
Pierce said he doesn't want to try to forecast what he'll do two years from now. He said he would have to look at economic conditions and consumer price increases to decide whether the revaluation is necessary.
Tuesday's forum was sponsored by Catawba College, the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce and the Salisbury Post. A second forum will follow Wednesday with state and Congressional candidates.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
Upcoming candidate forums
A second forum will be held tonight in the Tom Smith Auditorium at Catawba College with the following schedule:
• 6-6:45 p.m. — U.S. House of Representatives District 5
U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican seeking her fifth term in office, faces Democratic challenger Elisabeth Motsinger.
• 7-7:45 p.m. — N.C. House of Representatives District 77
N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican in his first term, is defending his seat against Bill Battermann, a Democrat.
• 8-8:45 p.m. — U.S. House of Representatives District 12
U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a Democrat, is running for an 11th term against Republican Jack Brosch.
Rufty-Holmes Senior Center
The Rowan County Council on Aging will hold a forum for county commissioner candidates at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25 at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center.
A moderator from the council will ask questions concerning issues of interest to older adults.