Republican commissioners candidates focused on Sides
By Jessie Burchette
Republican candidates for county commissioner are talking about schools, taxes, jobs, annexation and farmland preservation.
All support funding schools at the state average, which will be $1,565 per student for the coming year. Some say average funding is not good enough, but won’t directly commit to a tax increase to hike school funding.
All of the candidates refused to take a no-tax-increase pledge at at GOP forum.
All of the candidates oppose involuntary annexation and support the county’s effort to get a moratorium and to change the state annexation laws.
But much of the focus in the eight-candidates race is on Jim Sides, the lone incumbent seeking re-election.
His fellow Republicans aren’t shy about directing barbs at Sides, a staunch conservative who repeatedly cites his reliance on his Christianity in making decisions.
Almost three decades ago, a young Sides and Jim Cohen won seats on the Board of Commissioners in 1980, creating an uproar with their conservative views and actions.
Sides served one term and turned his focus to supporting his family.
Twenty-four years later, Sides won his second term after winning the GOP nomination in a run-off primary.
Two years later, his public support of Democratic candidate Tina Hall got him in hot water with members of the party’s executive committee. They tried to oust both Sides and Arnold Chamberlain, current chairman of the Board of Commissioners for perceived support of a Democrat.
The effort to oust the two failed.
Sides’ opposition to giving incentives ó tax rebates ó to business or industry to locate in Rowan has been roundly criticized by Republicans and Democrats.
While Sides has become perhaps the biggest supporter of developing the airport as a way to attract business and industry, he has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe it’s the function of county government to create jobs. And he has repeatedly said he will never vote for an incentive.
Other candidates disagree.
“It bothers me that any county commissioner says it’s not their responsibility to bring jobs to the county,” said Von Coolidge Poston, a downtown Salisbury merchant.
Carl Ford, a candidate and political ally of Sides, has reversed course and says he will support incentives if it’s a good deal for the county.
Sides has also drawn flack for using his religious beliefs as his guide in casting some votes, including forcing the biker rally Smoke Out to move elsewhere by prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages on county property. That’s riled the Rowan Fair Association and its supporters.
Some of his other efforts have gone largely unnoticed or drawn faint praise. Shortly after joining the board, he discovered the county wasn’t getting various federal housing funds to help rehab and winterize homes for the elderly and those with low incomes.
Sides insisted the county get its share, and the county is now participating in multiple federal programs that have brought hundreds of thousands of dollars into the county, money which previously went elsewhere.
While annexation opponents are delighted with Sides and the county’s stance, six of the GOP candidates ó all except Ford ó have soundly criticized Sides and the current board of commissioners for hiring an Asheville law firm to fight Salisbury’s proposed annexation of the N.C. 150 neighborhood. The city dropped the plan.
When a prominent Salisbury businessman reportedly said he would spend $100,000 to get Sides off the board of commissioners, Sides welcomed the challenge, suggesting that it would be a business boost for the radio stations, newspaper and print shops.
“I think most people in Rowan County know me and the job I’ve done. I’ve made a lot of people mad, but I hope I’ve made enough people happy to send me back,” Sides said last week.
So far in the campaign, there hasn’t been any heavy spending. Instead, candidates are relying on the old-fashioned and less expensive methods of campaigning, talking with groups, working crowds wherever they find them and putting up signs.
The race has six first-time candidates ó Ken Deal, Mike Miller, Patty Overcash, Donna Peeler, Poston and Harry Rivera ó who are working to get their names and messages out.
Overcash, 48, of Landis is well-know in PTA circles across the county. She’s served as president of the county PTA council for 10 years or more. She’s a staunch supporter of schools and education and would like to put more money into the classrooms.
She favors increasing funding to schools, but doesn’t want to hike taxes, especially in the current economic times. Her husband, L.A., served on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education.
She says she is concerned about senior citizens and would like to find ways to ease their tax burden.
She admits that she doesn’t have a lot of answers but is willing to work hard and do her best if elected.
Miller, 44, of China Grove, works with the schools, Rowan Chamber of Commerce, Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission and other agencies through his marketing and public relations business in Salisbury.
He believes the county needs to create a strategic plan for growth, finding ways to attract business and jobs. He would seek to improve schools through increased funding.
Miller said schools must be able to prepare students for jobs of the future ó jobs that don’t yet exist.
If nominated and elected to the board, Miller said his business would have to cease work for various county-funded departments or boards to avoid a conflict of interest. “I actually give more money to county agencies than I receive,” said Miller.
Peeler, 60, of Rockwell, has spent years working in the party’s organization and helping get others elected.
She contends that the county commissioners need to have a more business-friendly reputation and also wants to recruit more retail business, pointing to the potential increase in sales tax.
Poston, 56, co-owner of Salisbury Antiques and Collectibles, often talks about the potential for new industry and business. “We’re sitting on a gold mine,” Poston said. “We must bring more jobs.”
Deal, 55, of China Grove has worked for the county for 22 years. As director of administration, he’s effectively the deputy county manager. He plans to retire on Dec. 1, which is the date he would take office, if elected.
Running for office while working for the county has raised some questions.
An opinion from the the Institute of Government found no conflict. Under the federal Hatch Act, Deal would not be able to run if his job was tied to federal funds. The opinion by David Joyce noted that in one county, a building inspector ran for office and won a seat and was able to keep his job.
While Deal is ready to retire, he still wants to do public service work. “After 30 years in public works, I can give them the quality service they deserve. I can help make government effective and efficient.”
He said last week that he has gone through at least 18 budget processes while working for the county. And he’s seen nearly two dozen different people serve as county commissioners during his tenure.
At a candidate forum, Deal talked about the county government as a big business with 750 employees and a $130 million annual budget. “There’s a lot of needs and not a lot of money,” he said.
Rivera, 47, a native of Puerto Rico, has lived in Rowan County since 1992 when he came to work for Freightliner. He talks about falling in love with the county and hopes to see his grandchildren live and prosper here.
Salisbury’s attempt to annex his neighborhood along N.C. 150 spurred him to join the political fray. Although the annexation effort has been dropped, Rivera is convinced he can make a difference.
A veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm while serving in the U.S. Navy, Rivera is troubleshooter and expediter for Freightliner. He believes he can use those skills to improve county government.
“People need to start helping people instead of hiding behind bureaucratic laws. We’re seeing an overcrowded jail, schools not being properly funded,” Rivera said. “Maybe I can make a difference.”
Along with the six newcomers and the incumbent is a candidate who has run nearly a half dozen times ó and he keeps getting closer to a seat on the board of commissioners.
In 2002, Ford finally won a spot on the Republican ballot. But he lost out to Hall, the Democratic candidate who is a friend and political ally.
This time, Ford is hopeful that he’ll go all the way. He’s tweaked his stance some, for the first time agreeing to support some incentives.
Ford, a friend and supporter of Sides, also differs on the issue of jobs. Ford believes commissioners do have a responsibility to help bring jobs to the county and puts creation of jobs as his top priority.
Ford also joins all other candidates, except Sides, in supporting a referendum to allow voters to decide on a one-quarter local option sales tax that could net $2.6 million annually.
The tax that would generate revenue equal to about 2 cents on the property tax rate.
Rivera takes it a step further, suggesting he would campaign for approval of the additional tax with the provision that 50 percent of the money generated would go for a county scholarship program to send high school graduates to colleges or trade schools. “This would give kids a reason to stay in school,” Rivera said.
Sides is the only candidate who said he would not vote to put either the sales tax or 0.4 percent land transfer issue on the ballot. That tax could generate around $2 million a year.
Deal, Miller, Overcash, Poston and Rivera all favor putting both the land transfer tax and the sales tax on the ballot to let voters decide.
Ford and Peeler oppose putting the land transfer tax on the ballot.
The election is Tuesday, May 6. Polls open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m.
Voters may cast ballots early at one stop sites, including the Elections Office at 130 W. Innes St., and also at the East and South library branches. Early voting ends Saturday.
A second primary, if needed, will be June 24.
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