Election 2008: Commissioner candidates agree annexation rules need changes
By Jessie Burchette
Taxes, education, incentives, education, the future of the fairground are all talking points for the three candidates actively seeking two seats on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
Republicans Jim Sides, the only incumbent, and Carl Ford join Democrat Raymond Coltrain in campaigning for the two seats available.
Laura Lyerly, a 29-year-old political newcomer, is the other Democratic candidate for commission, but she has not responded to calls or appeared publicly for weeks.
Although Sides and Ford make up the Republican ticket, Ford and Coltrain are more closely aligned on some issues, including incentives, land use and voting on a local option sales tax.
Ford and Sides line up closer on positions regarding alcohol on county property, keeping taxes low and education.
On issues like involuntary annexation, the vote is unanimous. Ford, Sides and Coltrain oppose forced annexation and call for a change in the state’s annexation laws.
All three candidates also agree any private agency or group receiving public dollars must be accountable and its records open. Commissioners are set to approve new regulations requiring agencies getting tax dollars to comply with state public records and meetings laws.
The policy initiative began after Rowan Jobs Initiative, a nonprofit group organized to market the county to site consultants, received $325,000 over four years. Jobs Initiative officials initially refused to provide commissioners detailed records on spending and other information.
In recent weeks, Jobs Initiative officials have permitted Sides and Commissioner Tina Hall to review those records under the those officials’ watchful eyes. Coltrain, who has received contributions from many of the Jobs Initiative directors, supports the accountability initiative.
He also praises the work of the organization, saying it has put private and public dollars to work for the county.
“If an agency or group is going to take public money, then the records should be public,” Ford said. “They don’t have to take the money.”
Sides is heading up the effort to develop the new accountability policy.
While Coltrain puts a new central administrative office as the top priority for the Rowan-Salisbury School System, Ford and Sides say the priority should be about improving education.
“The No. 1 need is to make sure students get a good education … It’s not about testing. The question is, ‘Are they learning?’ ” Ford said.
“We need somebody in the school administration that understands the problems, somebody who believes the No. 1 priority is to educate our children,” Sides said. “All we ever hear is buildings, buildings, buildings. Stop screaming about buildings. We’ve got buildings that are under utilized.”
Sides cited North Rowan High School, which could accommodate another 400 students.
On that topic, Ford says the redistricting process under way in the school system should done publicly to allow everyone to know what is going on.
Coltrain said the No. 1 need for the school system is a central administrative office, and he supports the current plan to buy and revamp the former Winn-Dixie building on Jake Alexander Boulevard.
Overall, Coltrain believes the school system is moving in the right direction.
Ford supports a central administrative office, comparing it to the county Department of Social Services. “When you’ve got four or five buildings, it takes away time.”
But Ford said the county should take on the project only if and when it is economically feasible.
The county is in the process of expanding and renovating the former mental health area of the Health Services Building on Faith Road to put all Social Services programs at one site.
Sides, while not opposed to a central office for the schools, isn’t happy with what he sees as a pell-mell rush to get a deal done before Dec. 1, when current Chairman Arnold Chamberlain leaves the board.
Sides would like to look at other options beyond the Winn-Dixie building, including possibly a new building on school-owned property.
Sides favors the county taking over building projects for the school system, which he maintains will save money.
The candidates all favor changes in the county fairground on Julian Road.
Coltrain is pleased with a new arrangement in which the Tourism Development Authority handles the leasing and the county maintains the grounds. But favors renewed talks with Salisbury officials about developing a multi-use facility.
Nearly a decade ago, Coltrain served on the committee which examined the future of the fairground and recommended a new complex to draw a variety of groups and events. At that time, the city was pursuing a downtown conference/convention center and wasn’t interested.
The current Board of Commissioners has said repeatedly the Julian Road fairground has much more value for retail or industrial development.
Sides is willing to sell other county property to the Fair Association, but he wants to separate the county from the fair and its operation.
Sides said a vendor who was evicted by the fair management because her prices were too low should ask the Attorney General’s office for a price-fixing investigation. Sides is willing to help the Fair Association buy property ó just not the current fairground.
Ford views the Julian Road property as a future key economic development site. He agrees the Fair Association should own the property for the fair.
Ford and Coltrain are closer on whether the county needs a land-use plan.
Both support approval of a plan for west Rowan but not the plan developed by the Land Use Steering Committee.
Coltrain and Ford, who have attended many of the land-use sessions, agree the committee went too far pushing farmland preservation ideas. Coltrain hopes commissioners will move to middle ground and adopt a modified plan.
Ford, who serves on the Rowan County Planning Board, joined in the majority vote to send a modified version to the commissioners.
“You have to have a land -use plan to get federal and state grants,” Ford said, adding the county still needs to review its zoning and conditional use permit process to deal with growth issues.
“We’ve wasted a lot of good people’s time and effort,” Sides said. He continues to oppose the land use planning process, saying individual property owners have the right to determine how their property is used.
Coltrain, whose career has been in agriculture, comes the closest of the candidates to supporting using tax money to preserve farmland.
But he is cautious and would bring in private organizations and limit use of tax monies for matching grants, not a “wholesale” program.
Sides and Ford oppose spending property tax dollars to preserve farmland. Ford, whose family still owns a farm, said he’s willing to help get grants and do fundraisers.
“We have the best farmland preservation program now,” Sides said, pointing to $700 million in value that is deferred each year under the present-use value program. Farmers pay taxes based on the use of the land ó crops or timberland ó much less than the “market value,” which means a much lower tax bill.
The biggest expense in the county budget is salaries and benefits for 750-plus employees. This year, commissioners approved a 4.1 percent cost-of-living increase and agreed to continue fully paid health insurance ó $600 a month for every full-time employee.
Commissioners continue to talk about the salary schedule, which doesn’t allow employees much upward movement. But fixing the schedule to stop losing employees to other counties and businesses will likely cost millions of dollars.
Coltrain wants to make sure employees are evaluated and paid based to their performance. He wants to better educate the public about the costs of services.
Ford describes the pay problem as people being at the top or the bottom, with few in between. “We need to close the big gap in between,” Ford said, and he said it can be done without raising taxes.
Ford also suggests new hires may need to pay a share of their health insurance, and Sides agrees the county can’t afford to the fully funded health insurance.
Sides noted many county employees are reaching retirement and will be eligible for free health insurance until they reach 65.
When the program was set up, officials did not set aside funding, and now the county could find itself obligated to pay millions of dollars as more employees retire, Sides said.