Commissioner candidates talk about senior issues

  • Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 7:41 p.m.

By Karissa Minn

kminn@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY - When answering questions about senior issues Thursday, county commissioner candidates talked a lot about schools and job creation.
Improving the county's economy and tax base, they said, will help bring in the money needed to pay for programs that seniors rely on.
The candidate forum at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, sponsored by the Rowan County Council on Aging, included Democrats Leda Belk and Ralph Walton and Republicans Mike Caskey and Craig Pierce.
The four are competing for two open seats on the board of commissioners.
To start, Bob Bruce, moderator and president of the Council on Aging, pointed out Rowan's growing older population in the past decade.
"The number of school-aged children grew by only 2 percent, while the number of citizens age 60-plus grew 20 percent," he said. "What do you think these numbers indicate for the changes taking place in our county, and should the county consider allocating more resources for seniors?"
Belk, Caskey and Pierce said this shows that Rowan's job market isn't attracting or keeping younger people and families.
"When our children graduate from college, they go somewhere else to live because they're not working here," Belk said.
She said many important services for seniors are not provided by the county but by nonprofit groups like Meals on Wheels, the local Civitan club and church groups. As the population of seniors expands, Belk said the county should focus on letting them know about the programs and resources that are available to help them.
Caskey said the county may not have enough money to put more funding toward senior services right now.
"I think we're lucky right now if we can hold where we're at," he said. "I think in the next few years, the economy is going to pick back up... and we'll have more revenues to pay for services."
Pierce added that advances in science and health care are also helping people to live longer, which increases the older population. He said the county should "continue to do all we can" for seniors.
Walton said if Rowan's younger population is going down, there are fewer people to support the county's economy and serve in nonprofit organizations. He encouraged promoting the county and getting more businesses and people to move to Rowan.

The candidates were then asked whether they would vote to make up for any state and federal cuts to senior programs or reduce services accordingly.
Programs that rely on this funding include a congregate nutrition program, transportation assistance, adult day care and in-home aid assistance and support for senior center operations.
Pierce said seniors have dutifully paid their taxes for years, and it's time for them to receive benefits from that. The key is to balance services with income, he said.
"I don't think we can do what we should for our taxpayers and cut costs any further," Pierce said. "But if we do, there are other areas we can cut besides seniors and their programs."
Walton said that from conversations with County Manager Gary Page, he learned that the next thing to be cut in the budget would likely be libraries and parks, not senior services. He stressed that the county needs to increase its tax base to avoid those cuts.
"If there are more elderly people in the county than there are younger people, then the tax money is not going to be there," he said. "We have to bring people in, and we have to bring business in. ... If you don't put gas in the tank, the motor won't run."
Belk said she's not in favor of cutting benefits for seniors, especially essentials like transportation services. There are other ways to find the funding, she said, including grants and generous donors in the community.
"I think we need to be lobbying our congressmen to let them know needs of seniors in our community," Belk said. "Let them know the hardships they're going to bring upon their constituents if they vote to cut funding for our seniors."
Caskey said he doesn't think the county can replace state or federal cuts. But he said he would want to hold the county's funding steady, and not drop it to match the cuts, as long as the county doesn't have to raise taxes to do it.

The next question dealt with the 2012 Health and Human Services Needs Assessment Report developed jointly by the United Way, Rowan Regional Medical Center, Rowan County and the city of Salisbury.
According to the report, the community's most pressing needs involved medical and dental care, employment and educational achievement. Candidates were asked what role county government should play in addressing those needs.
All of the candidates praised the current commissioners for approving a dental discount card program earlier this month.
Then, Pierce and Walton talked about strengthening the county's K-12 schools, while Caskey and Belk stressed higher education and vocational training.
Rowan's education system isn't educating children as well as it should, Pierce said, and that is keeping the county from attracting business and jobs. He said students should be able to read and write effectively when they graduate.
Walton agreed that the schools should get back to basics like spelling and writing, and stop teaching to tests that have been "dumbed down."
Caskey said the county needs to try to bring back some manufacturing jobs, and also to train its workforce for other jobs that may not require a college education.
He said combining high school education with on-the-job training could help students develop a trade and find employment.
Belk said early college can help students at risk for dropping out of high school. They graduate from high school, train for a skill and can get the education they need for a career.
"We can be inventive about things, but we've got to get out of the box we're stuck in," Belk said. "It's time for some open-minded thinking about what we can do with the money we do have."

Finally, commissioners were asked if they would try to make the county's various boards and commissions more representative of its population by asking for age, ethnicity, geography and other information on applications.
Caskey said he wouldn't want to appoint someone to a board based on their age, race, or any other factors besides their qualifications.
"I think maybe we could add more space to explain the experiences you have that qualify you," he said.
Walton and Belk both said they would love to increase senior representation on the boards, but another problem has to be solved first.
"This would be a good question if we had applicants that you had to decide between," Walton said. "But most of time when these things come up, do you know how many applications there are? None."
When Belk was one of the county commissioners, she said, they would have to call people and "beg them" to apply for board vacancies.
Pierce said he competed with several other applicants to serve on the planning board and the airport advisory board.
Part of the reason the county's other boards don't get many applicants, he said, is that people aren't aware of them. He encouraged everyone in the room to visit www.rowancounty.gov and look up all of the vacancies online.
"I think it's 30-some boards that we have," Pierce said. "I would tell anybody, especially people that are retired and have the time - we definitely need your education, we need your experience and we need your help."
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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