Democrats say commission needs change
By Jessie Burchette
Democratic candidates for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners are virtually unanimous in support of schools and the need to increase funding.
Most also say they would raise taxes to provide the money needed for schools.
The five candidates include two candidates who have run before ó Raymond Coltrain and Ralph Walton ó and three newcomers ó Laura Lyerly, Michael Phillips and Terry Julian.
Among the newcomers, Lyerly, at 29, is the youngest candidate in the Democratic or Republican field. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she is managing family property and working on a master’s degree in public affairs at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Phillips is a newcomer to Rowan County, opening his law practice in Salisbury last year after serving in the Marine Corps.
Coltrain, the retired superintendent of the Piedmont Research Station, is hoping a recent trend for Democrats continues.
In those elections, the top Democrat who narrowly lost in the November election has won in the next election. Leda Belk and Tina Hall both won on the second try. Coltrain lost in 2006 by 130 votes.
While the candidates have similar positions on key issues, Julian is most outspoken in what he sees as a need to put Democrats back in charge of county government to “restore pride and integrity at the commissioner level.”
Calling himself a “Blue Dog Democrat ó a fiscal conservative and moral populist,” Julian contends two decades of Republican rule have hurt the county, including its ability to recruit business. “We need to restore the county’s reputation as a great place to do business.”
During a recent forum, Julian took aim at incumbent Republican Jim Sides, who voted against all incentive packages, including Toyota Racing Development.
“Anybody that voted against Toyota has some kind of hang-up,” said Julian, who retired as transportation manager for Rowan County.
All the Democratic candidates say the worsening economy is topic No. 1 when they’re out talking to voters.
“The price of gas, the increase in the cost of living has eaten up what little bit of reserves people have,” Coltrain said.
Appointed by the current Board of Commissioners to serve on the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission, Coltrain said the current incentive policy is good, but he’s willing to go further.
The current policy offers tax rebates based on the amount of investment. The greater the investment, the greater the percentage of taxes rebated to a company.
Coltrain said he would consider tying it more to jobs, adding that he won’t close the door on any possibility that could bring good-paying jobs to the county.
Some candidates, including Lyerly, maintain the county should go further. During a forum, she wondered aloud if the county was aware of the potential layoff at Freightliner and if the county reached out to the company to try to prevent it.
Phillips said the county must focus on keeping jobs here as well as bringing in new jobs.
Both Phillips and Walton favor adjusting the incentive policy to tie the rebates more to jobs created than tax base.
But Walton cautions that the county “shouldn’t give away the farm” to bring in business. He discounts the idea of recruiting retail businesses, saying it will come when disposable income rises.
Among the five candidates, Walton takes a differing view on what’s needed in the schools.
A career educator with 40 years in the county and merged Rowan-Salisbury systems, Walton avoids buzzwords and catch phrases. During a recent forum at Catawba College, other Democrats lamented the dropout rate, suggesting more programs and more funding.
“Some kids don’t value education,” Walton said. “I don’t care how much money you throw, there will be dropouts. Some won’t listen.”
Phillips takes the opposite view. He said 380 students dropping out last year is unacceptable and it shows a lack of creativity by teachers. “Creative programs can keep kids in school.”
Both Phillips and Lyerly pointed to the ultimate cost to the community when those who drop out of school end up in the courts and jail system.
While all the Democratic candidates say they are willing to raise taxes to support education and build schools, Walton and Coltrain aren’t willing to sign a blank check.
“If the efficiency and accountability is there, I would entertain increasing funding,” Coltrain said. He also favors a bond referendum to let voters decide whether to fund a new central administrative office.
Coltrain is also a strong supporter of workforce development efforts ó getting students prepared for jobs.
Walton said he will support more money for schools if they can justify it. “Throwing money at things isn’t the answer,” he said. He supports building a new central office but doesn’t think it ought to be in downtown Salisbury, because of parking problems.
Lyerly and Julian praise Dr. Judy Grissom, superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury Schools System.
Julian’s wife, Patricia, has taught in the school system for more than 30 years. He contends that for every $1 the community invests in education, the return will be $10. At the Catawba forum, Julian promised if elected, he will ask a question at every commissioners meeting: “Are we supporting education in the county?”
All the Democratic candidates said they would be willing to let voters decide on whether to add a quarter-cent local option sales tax, which could net an additional $2.6 million annually, or a .4 percent land transfer tax, which could net around $2 million annually. The General Assembly approved legislation last year to allow counties to add taxes if voters approve.
Walton said he would favor the sales tax because it affects more people. Julian said people probably wouldn’t approve an additional tax, but he’s willing to let them vote.
While most of the candidates draw on their Rowan County roots, Phillips is asking voters to trust his judgment and experience, molded by years in the Marines.
During the Catawba forum, Phillips said there’s no manual in the Marines telling you how to deal with every situation. Instead, “you get it done,” he said.
A New Jersey native who grew up in Charleston, S.C., Phillips heard a lot about Rowan County and Salisbury from a college roommate. After a few visits, he decided Rowan is where he wants to work and live. And he to serve serve his adopted county.
“I’m not ingrained with the problems. I have a fresh perspective,” Phillips said. “That’s not a bad thing.”
Lyerly, who could become the youngest Democratic woman elected, focuses on the future. A Rowan native, she sees her potential role as building bridges among the communities and the municipalities. “This is a good county, a good community. It could be a whole lot better,” she said. “We don’t have to settle for average.”
She maintains the county can do better in many areas by finding more creative ways to spend tax dollars.
Democratic voters will select two commission nominees in Tuesday’s primary.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.