Council candidates discuss senior issues at final forum

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 28, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Wrapping up their fifth and final forum before the Nov. 8 election, candidates for Salisbury City Council expressed fondness for each other Thursday at the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center.
“When I started this effort, I assumed the good intentions of the people I would be running against,” challenger Rip Kersey said. “Now I don’t have to assume it. Now I know it.”
Several competitors have helped Kersey during the campaign, he said. “They didn’t need to do that.”
After a week of sitting shoulder to shoulder during five debates, incumbent Brian Miller said the candidates have become “like family.” While they may have different approaches and opinions, all the candidates have a good heart, good character and care about the community, Miller said.
At the forum sponsored by the Rowan Council on Aging, incumbent William “Pete” Kennedy sang the praises of Rufty-Holmes as one of the best senior centers in the state.
The city has worked to support the center, including renovating the ballfields and basketball courts across the street and adding a walking track and bus stop, he said. Kennedy has protected Rufty-Holmes from proposed cuts in the city budget, he said, and if re-elected would continue to partner with the center to help seniors and advocate for city resources.
“Rufty-Holmes has a tremendous, strong facility here,” he said. “We can’t duplicate this anywhere else in the city.”
Mayor Susan Kluttz said while Gov. Bev Perdue is encouraging communities to come up with strategies for aging populations, Salisbury did that 25 years ago.
“Salisbury is always ahead of other cities,” Kluttz said. “We always do things better than everyone else.”
The city donated the land for Rufty-Holmes, helps with the operating budget and provides a liaison from City Council for a “direct line” to the city, she said.
Answering a question from moderator Robin Perry about whether the city should hire more retired people, incumbent Paul Woodson said some of the best employees at his small business are seniors.
“I’m definitely for the city looking at it,” he said. “We hire them ourselves, and they are the best workers I’ve seen.”
Miller and Kennedy said the city is already hiring retired people with good results.
While challenger Dale Stephens advocated cutting the property tax rate and water rate for seniors, Woodson said he didn’t think that was realistic.
“We’re on such a tight budget,” Woodson said. “I don’t think we can cut the tax rate for seniors.”
The city in effect did cut taxes for everyone this year, Kennedy said, by setting the tax rate lower than revenue-neutral.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said she came up with seven creative solutions to lowering the tax rate, and City Council adopted four of them. Blackwell said while others talk about what services the county might take over for Salisbury to save costs, she wants to explore what services the city could take over for Rowan County, which would generate income and give Salisbury control over the level and quality of the service.
Challenger Ben Lynch said boosting economic development would help all residents, including seniors. While other communities are growing, Salisbury is not, Lynch said.
A member of the Salisbury Planning Board, Lynch said the board has met only six times in the past six months because so little development is occurring.
Salisbury has become a city of plans and maps that has limited the ability of industry to locate here, and there were “quite a few years where the city was not very business-friendly,” Lynch said.
The city needs to attract businesses that use large amounts of water to boost revenue for the Salisbury-Rowan Utilities, Lynch said. Kennedy advocated the same idea at another forum.
Kersey echoed the sentiment, saying the city needs to develop a culture and attitude of self-sufficiency. The city has looked to state and federal governments for help, but those sources of revenue will dry up, he said.
“We’re going to have to take care of each other,” Kersey said.
With many seniors on fixed incomes, growing the tax base in Salisbury is imperative to keep taxes low, Miller said. The city needs to identify and change regulations that prevent companies from expanding or locating in Salisbury, he said.
He started a business development roundtable made up of real estate brokers, developers and others to help identify what’s “broken” in city regulations, Miller said.
The process worked for a while, but developers stopped giving feedback because they feared retribution by city staff if they answered honestly, he said. Now, Miller is working with the Rowan Chamber of Commerce to solicit opinions from business leaders.
Miller asked how many in the audience subscribe to Fibrant, the city’s new broadband utility. About a half-dozen people raised their hand.
“If you want your property taxes low, we need more hands up,” he said.
Stephens said if elected, he would take advantage of seniors’ knowledge, age, skill and wisdom.
“City Council has neglected our most important natural resource, our people,” he said. “Especially our seniors.”
Challenger Blake Jarman was unable to attend the forum due to a work conflict.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.