East Spencer candidates see challenges, opportunities
By Scott Jenkins
EAST SPENCER ó East Spencer voters will find themselves in unfamiliar territory Nov. 3: They won’t have the option of keeping their mayor.
For the first time in eight years, Erma Jefferies won’t be on the ballot. The four-term incumbent is not seeking re-election.
Running to succeed Jefferies are Barbara Mallett, the town’s current mayor pro tem, and John Cowan, a town planning board member who ran a write-in campaign for mayor in 2007.
Voters will also choose from five candidates running for three seats on the town’s Board of Aldermen.
Along with incumbents Phronice Johnson and John Rustin, challengers Rosa Burris, Tammy Corpening and Titus King have joined the race.
Mallett says her top priority would be to keep citizens informed of the challenges and opportunities, and to involve them in both.
“My main thing is to improve the image and the appearance of East Spencer,” she said. “If you change the image, you can change the mindset.”
She said the biggest obstacle to that image makeover is a lack of funding to carry it out. The town has taken a step in applying for federal grant money to help revitalize the Robin Circle neighborhood near the Paul Laurence Dunbar Center off South Long Street.
And that revitalization is part of what she sees as the town’s biggest opportunity. East Spencer has contracted with Goler Community Development Corp. of Winston-Salem to help the town map future development efforts, and Mallett says citizens should also be part of that.
Cowan said East Spencer residents have been left out, notably from discussions about why water bills remain high.
“I’m kind of puzzled, because our current administration told us that once the water project was completed that water rates would go down,” he said. “In fact, from the citizens I’ve talked to, and I’ve been around East Spencer, it’s been just the opposite. And when I’ve tried to get answers from the current administration, it seems like it’s all hush hush.”
He said getting a handle on why water bills are still high would be his top priority as mayor and is one of the town’s biggest challenges. The other is attracting business.
Cowan said making government work better with citizens is the town’s best chance to improve itself.
Board of Aldermen
Burris, a technology analyst for Wachovia, moved to East Spencer with her husband last year while running a soul food restaurant in Salisbury.
She said East Spencer has its share problems ó notably high water bills and vacant houses.
“I feel we should do something, come up with some type of plan, program or something to actually put into operation for getting these houses sold instead of rented out,” she said. “I feel if they would buy the house, they would put more pride in taking care of it.”
Filling those empty homes is part of the opportunity facing East Spencer, she said.
Corpening mounted an unsuccessful write-in campaign for mayor in 2007.
She said town officials must address water bills because “we have to get more people to want to live here, and with the high cost of water bills, I can’t imagine how we’re going to do that effectively, at least good, solid citizens that are really going to care about how they live and take care of their property.”
Corpening said she wants to take a look at the issues surrounding the water costs. Though the town increased rates 10 percent in its current budget ó in part passing along a smaller increase from water supplier Salisbury-Rowan Utilities ó East Spencer officials said they still expected bills to be smaller.
She said East Spencer also has opportunities to explore, including planned renovations at the Dunbar Center and an exit at Interstate 85 that can be used as a draw for businesses the town lacks, such as a bank and grocery store.
Johnson, an eight-year incumbent, said she still gets calls from residents with $300 water bills, so that’s the town’s biggest challenge.
“Once we got the water system pipes replenished, for some reason I thought water bills were going to do down. That’s not happened,” she said. “How we’re going to conquer it I don’t know … but there’s some unanswered questions that we’ve got to get to the bottom of.”
Along with water, Johnson called Spencer “a town who is really struggling financially. … My top priority right now is to work on having money in the general fund and not always spending all of it.”
King, who served on the Board of Aldermen from 2001 to 2005 and also mounted several unsuccessful bids for mayor, has criticized town government from the outside and the inside.
He said the biggest challenge facing East Spencer is getting town officials “to get together regardless of what their differences is and do the right thing for citizens and not do things for their own benefit and deal with the water … and quit selling folks out,” he said.
King called reducing water bills his highest priority, and he said that if he is elected, he will be one of only two aldermen who feel that way. The other, he said, is Carlton Ellis. “And other aldermen do not want to back him up,” he said.
At 84, Rustin has spent most of his life working for East Spencer. An alderman since 2001 and mayor from 1990 to 1991, Rustin worked for 21 years as a police officer for the town before becoming its police chief in the 1950s.
All that experience, he said, means he is “up to par” on the issues, including the cost of water. He said the town needs to “work out some deal with Salisbury” about how much it pays for water.
“We’re losing residents because of water bills,” he said. “… If I’m elected this time, I’ll get to the bottom of the action and know where we’re at.”
Rustin said the town’s biggest opportunity lies in redeveloping the area around the Dunbar Center, which Shady Grove Baptist Church has bought with plans to renovate for business, office and community uses.