Five compete for three East Spencer board seats
By Scott Jenkins
EAST SPENCER ó The five candidates running for three seats on the Board of Aldermen offer voters a variety: Two are incumbents, one is a former alderman, one ran as a write-in candidate for mayor in the last election and one is seeking public office for the first time.
There’s little difference, though, in what they see as East Spencer’s biggest challenge. Four say it’s high water bills that are squeezing residents, forcing some to move away and keeping others from moving in. One, however, says the problem is not just bad pipes, but bad government.
Along with incumbents John Rustin and Phronice Johnson, Rosa Burris, Tammy Corpening and former alderman Titus King seek a seat on the town board.
One of the people seeking the mayor’s office currently serves on the Board of Aldermen, so voters will have to choose at least one new occupant for three open seats. Here are the candidates and their views on challenges, opportunities and why voters should choose them:
A technology analyst for Wachovia, Burris moved to East Spencer with her husband last year while running a soul food restaurant in Salisbury.
She called East Spencer “a beautiful little town,” that has its share problems ó notably the 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. Other elements are tearing down vacant eyesores, enforcing existing regulations and encouraging residents to help clean up the community, “to let everyone in Rowan and the world know we can do it.”
Burris said she and her husband plan to open a restaurant in East Spencer and in addition to reducing residential water costs, her priority if elected would be to help attract more business. She also wants to use her knowledge of technology to help the town’s youth, and said her efforts won’t stop there.
“Whatever needs to be done, I’m willing to do it,” she said. “I’m willing to volunteer … to get out here and let’s fix our community up.”
A frequent visitor to town board meetings, 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, however, that 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.
“It almost brings me to tears to imagine where we can get to a time where we can spend our money here in East Spencer,” she said.
Also among her priorities as a board member would be to renovate the town’s park, build a community center and reopen the town pool.
Eight-year incumbent Johnson 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 said, she wants to get a handle on the budget.
“We are a town who is really struggling financially, and it seems that our budget is always depleted some way or another,” she said. “My top priority right now is to work on having money in the general fund and not always spending all of it.”
She said the town needs to find creative ways to take advantage of its biggest opportunity, the exit on Interstate 85. That could mean grants or tax incentives, she said.
“We just need someone to come in and develop it for us and bring in some entity that would want to invest in it,” she said. “… I don’t really know what we can offer companies or entities or whatever, but that’s the best thing to do.”
Johnson said she hadn’t planned to run again, but residents and other elected officials “thought that my voice needed to be heard for another four years.” They told her the town needs “what I can bring to the table, and that is experience and knowledge.”
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. And he’s not stopping now.
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, none of them,” he said.
King said other aldermen don’t want him back on the board “because King speaks out too much. But that’s what the system is designed for.”
He said without affordable water, people will keep leaving East Spencer, leaving more vacant houses and blight. He said before the town worries about attracting anyone else, it should focus on helping the ones who already live there. And he doesn’t see most current town leaders doing that.
“This is not about saving face. This is about being leaders … and doing the job you’re elected for,” he said. “And if they don’t want to do the job, get out.”
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 and have more discussions 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. East Spencer is working with a consultant on plans for the surrounding neighborhoods.
“That’s an opportunity that we’ve got right now,” Rustin said. “Upgrading the Dunbar Center will help the town upgrade the community.”
Rustin said his priorities if elected again would be “water and housing” and that his experience will help East Spencer improve in both areas.
“I’ve got the town at heart,” he said. “We’ve got so many people running, they’re running for the wrong reasons. … I’m not getting out there complaining about the town. I’m running for upgrading the town.”