Democrats focused on economy, maintaining jobs
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 UNC-Greensboro.
Phillips is a newcomer to Rowan County, opting to open his law practice in Salisbury last year after serving in the Marine Corps.
Coltrain, the retired superintendent of the Piedmont Research Station on Sherrills Ford Road, 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 reputation across the state in recruitment of industry and 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 incentives 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.
Bringing more business and industry to the county, along with supporting the Rowan-Salisbury Schools are the dominant themes for the Democratic candidates.
All candidates say the worsening economy is topic No. 1 when they’re out and about 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 the 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 that 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 do anything 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 also discounts the idea of recruiting retail businesses, saying retail will come when disposable income rises.
Among the five candidates, Walton takes a differing view on the schools, education and what’s needed.
A career educator with 40 years in the county and merged Rowan-Salisbury Schools, Walton avoids buzzwords and catch phrases. During a recent forum at Catawba College, other Democrats lamented the dropout rate and the graduation rate, suggesting more programs and more funding will solve the problem.
“Some kids don’t value education,” said Walton. “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, suggesting it shows a lack of creativity by teachers. “Creative programs … 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.
Coltrain said the schools need to offer the highest quality of education, but he also calls for accountability and efficiency. “If the efficiency and accountability is there, I would entertain increasing funding,” he said. Coltrain said he would favor a bond referendum 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. He cited parking problems as a major reason to build elsewhere.
Lyerly and Julian praise Dr. Judy Grissom, superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
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 that if elected, he will ask a question at every commissioners meeting: “Are we supporting education in the county?”
All of the Democratic candidates said they would be willing to let voters decide on whether to add a one-quarter cent local option sales tax, which could net an additional $2.6 million annually or a four-tenths of a percent land transfer tax, which could net around $2 million annually. The General Assembly approved legislation last year to allow counties to add the revenue sources by approval of the voters.
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 give them the chance to vote.
While most of the candidates draw on their Rowan County roots and ties to the communities, Phillips is asking voters to trust his judgment and experience, shaped and molded by his years in the Marines.
During the Catawba forum, Phillips said there’s no manual in the Marines that tells 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 wants to take his commitment to serve his country another step by serving his adopted county.
Phillips cites his leadership skills and a fresh perspective. “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.
The Democratic primary is May 6. Voters will select two nominees for the November ballot.