Tensions between city, county become election issue
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series about candidates for Salisbury City Council.
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — The relationship between the city and county has become an election issue among candidates for Salisbury City Council.
Several candidates say they’re concerned about a recent dispute between Interim City Manager Doug Paris and County Manager Gary Page over 911 dispatch consolidation and what it says about the city-county relationship.
Challengers Blake Jarman, Rip Kersey, Benjamin Lynch and Dale Stephens are running against incumbents Mayor Susan Kluttz, Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell and councilmen William “Pete” Kennedy, Paul Woodson and Brian Miller.
All five council seats are up for grabs, and traditionally the highest vote-getter is chosen mayor by the other council members.
The ongoing 911 disagreement between Paris and Page played out through emails, public meetings and articles and advertisements in the Salisbury Post.
Several candidates say that’s not the way to do business. Others say they’re staying out of it.
“It’s very sad,” Kersey said. “They’ve got to take the egos off and put them aside, and let’s start acting like the people’s needs are primary.”
Jarman said the city-county relationship has been “horrible” for more than 20 years and the recent dispute is an embarrassment to Salisbury. He called on Paris to “control his outbursts” and said council members must treat county commissioners with respect.
“It is time to end this chaos,” Jarman said. “Salisbury citizens will not put up with this any longer.”
Kluttz, however, said the city and county have a good working relationship and pointed to past accomplishments like an extra-territorial jurisdiction compromise, a sign ordinance amendment that benefitted the county’s industrial park, a landmark water agreement and a reading program for children.
The disagreement between Paris and Page, she said, is a personal matter.
“It’s something they need to work out themselves,” she said.
From an outsider’s perspective, Lynch said, the city-county relationship is shallow.
“It’s quite sad, frankly, when the flagship partnership between the county and city is the summer reading program,” Lynch said.
Growth and economic development depend on a good partnership between the city and county, and the current dysfunctional relationship gives potential new industries pause, Kersey said.
The strong relationship forged by cities and counties in western North Carolina helped land Google, Facebook and Fiserve, he said.
“They have been incredibly successful in attracting businesses,” Kersey said. “They work with each other.”
Miller, who encouraged the city to focus on its relationship with the county when he was elected, said the new city-county tourism partnership has been recognized as a model in the state. The city also worked with the county to improve the development process to help local businesses expand or locate here, he said.
Miller agreed the two boards need to communicate more to avoid disputes like the one over 911 consolidation.
“I would’ve loved to be part of a small committee where folks from the county and city sat down and understood, what are the obstacles,” he said.
Lynch said he decided on his own to sit down with Page recently to discuss the 911 dispute. He urged city leaders to walk three blocks to the county building and do the same.
“We don’t need to have this sniping back and forth,” Lynch said.
Someone with the city should attend county board meetings and vice versa, he said. One-fourth of Rowan’s sales tax revenue is generated in Salisbury.
“We need them as much as they need us,” Lynch said.
The 911 dispute is a symptom of the poor city-county relationship, Blackwell said. Building a relationship of compromise and trust is vital, she said, and city and county elected officials should resume quarterly lunches.
“We have to know each other,” Blackwell said. “We don’t have to agree, but sitting down and talking together can help build bridges.”
Woodson proposed monthly lunches for the city and county managers.
“They need to hash these things out before they get aired in public,” he said. “They can take turns paying.”
Kluttz also called for regular, casual meetings between county commissioners and council members to improve communication. Her father served as both mayor and county board chairman, Kluttz said, and working more closely with the county was one reason she ran for office in 1997.
Kennedy said he’s proud of city-county partnerships to promote reading, consolidate animal control and some 911 services, provide water and sewer in the county and create the airport enterprise zone. He said he did not want to comment on Paris and Page’s personal disagreement.
Stephens, whose property was involuntarily annexed into the city, said City Council members put on airs.
“They act liked a bunch of spoiled brats,” he said. “We need a good, strong city and county cooperating hand-in-hand to make it work.”
The key to the city-county relationship is compromise, Stephens said, and leaders need to stop squabbling through email and talk face-to-face.
“My grandpappy told me when you deal with a man, you look him eye-to-eye,” Stephens said. “Then you can tell if he’s lying.”
In recent days, Paris and Page have met in person, along with Kluttz and Chad Mitchell, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. The group will meet again in the coming months to discuss ways the county and city can work together on 911 dispatch issues.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, incumbents praised Paris for the way he has handled several issues since being named interim city manager, including 911 consolidation.
Priorities for City Council candidates vary from attracting jobs to hiring the next city manager to Fibrant, the city’s new fiber optic utility. Fibrant tops the priority list for Miller, Kluttz, Lynch and Kersey, and a story in Thursday’s Post will take a closer look at why the issue is important and where all the candidates stand.
If re-elected, Woodson said his top priority would be to stabilize the budget. In today’s economy, the city needs to work on existing projects like finding a developer for the Empire Hotel, keeping downtown strong and promoting Fibrant, he said.
“I don’t think we need to tackle any new projects now,” Woodson said. “We need to make sure we have income and money to keep the projects on track that we’ve got going.”
The city used to gain 3 percent to 5 percent in revenue each year, he said, but “that’s just flat stopped.”
The council should focus on basic services like street paving, public safety and strong neighborhoods, Woodson said.
Stephens has three top priorities — get rid of debt, reduce water rates and bring jobs to the city. If elected, he said he would form a jobs commission and hire a recruiter to find companies willing to locate in Salisbury and hire people.
If re-elected, Miller said he would work to successfully implement the Fibrant business plan. Now that the broadband service has launched, the city needs to be more forthright about decisions regarding the utility, he said.
Miller said he would like to continue his focus on boosting tourism and strengthening downtown.
The city needs to share financial information on a more regular basis with council members and the public, Miller said. He and others in May requested quarterly financial reports and received the first one Tuesday.
Miller said he would continue to pursue ways to make Salisbury more business-friendly. The economy and unemployment rate are troubling, he said, and the city needs to remove barriers to development.
“We need to find common-sense solutions to things that can make the process work faster,” Miller said.
Lynch said his top priority would be to “right the Fibrant ship,” and he proposes appointing a board of directors to oversee the utility. If elected, he also would focus on better communication between the city and county.
Lynch said City Council members are inaccessible. With no direct phone numbers or email addresses on the city’s website, they can only be reached by going through a staff person, he said.
“I appreciate staff serving as gatekeepers, to a degree,” he said. “But people need to have direct access to their elected officials.”
Lynch also wants to move one council meeting to 7 p.m. so working people can attend. Currently, the council meets at 4 p.m. twice a month.
Other than city staffers, the meetings are poorly attended, Lynch said. Salisbury is the only municipality in Rowan County whose elected board doesn’t meet after work hours.
If re-elected, Kluttz said she will do everything she can to promote Fibrant and make the utility as transparent as possible. She also will focus on the search for the next city manager and said she would be an asset to the person tapped for the job.
“Fourteen years as mayor gives me the history of the decisions,” she said. “That’s as important as knowing what the decisions were.”
While the city can’t create jobs, it must provide the right environment for jobs, Kluttz said. She said she would continue working closely with state and federal officials to bring jobs to Salisbury, as well as promoting the city’s quality of life, including arts, downtown and historic preservation.
Kluttz said she would continue to focus on diversity efforts and public safety, including Project SAFE and gang prevention. Improving neighborhoods and the city’s new housing commission are also priorities for Kluttz, who praised the city for landing a grant to plan the transformation of the West End.
“The potential for that is tremendous,” she said. “That could change our entire city.”
If elected, Kersey said he would focus on Fibrant’s finances, pushing for a review and more transparency, as well as more efficiency throughout city government. He said his goal is to cut costs.
Building a partnership with the county for economic development also makes Kersey’s priority list.
“We need to go beyond the goal of attracting small businesses,” he said. “I love them and they are great, but they are fragile.”
Working with the county and regional partners, Salisbury should set its sights on landing a major company, Kersey said.
The city needs to refocus on drugs and gangs, he said. While Kluttz led the effort and should be applauded, the City Council has not kept these issues at the forefront, Kersey said.
If re-elected, Kennedy said his top priority would be hiring the next city manager. Developing and implementing initiatives to enable Fibrant to become a job-creating utility also rank high on Kennedy’s list.
Kennedy named public safety as a priority, as well.
“We have excellent police and fire departments, and I want to make sure we give them the necessary support,” he said.
Maintaining national accreditation is important, Kennedy said. He praised the police department’s reorganization and increased arrest rate, saying Chief Rory Collins has “bumped up effectiveness.”
Jarman’s top priority would be to bring the city out of debt. He also would focus on encouraging the community “to come together, to overcome, to live within their means and to work together so all citizens can be successful,” he said.
To strengthen what he called the damaged image of Salisbury, Jarman said he would hold a city-wide campaign including town hall meetings for not just the rich, but for the struggling, that would help people overcome obstacles and find prosperity, love and compassion.
City government should not force itself on people, Jarman said. He also said he would bring businesses to Salisbury and promote urban city life.
If re-elected Blackwell said her top priority would be “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Like the new incentive program she recommended that rewards companies for rehabilitating Salisbury’s vacant industrial buildings, Blackwell said she would “continue to seek out great models and creative ideas to attract jobs.”
Improving the quality of life is important, she said, and praised Collins’ new street crimes unit. Blackwell said she attends monthly SNAG meetings and would continue to support public safety efforts, including working with the city’s new housing commission to bolster neighborhoods and fight urban decay.
Maintaining service levels in a tight economy continues to be a priority, Blackwell said. After studying the proposed 2011-2012 budget, she said she came up with seven major cost-cutting ideas. The Council approved four and was able to lower the tax rate that had been proposed by the city manager, Blackwell said.
She said she would continue to meet with the owner of every new business in town and look for ideas from the business community to improve government efficiency.
“I feel strongly the city has to function more like a business,” Blackwell said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.