Four want to be one of Rowan's two new commissioners

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 6, 2012

SALISBURY – Two seats will soon be open on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, and four candidates are lined up to fill them.
Democrat Raymond Coltrain has decided not to run for re-election, while Republican Carl Ford is now running unopposed in N.C. House District 76.
Vying to take their spots are two Democrats, Ralph Walton and former commissioner Leda Belk, and two Republicans, Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey.
The candidates agreed that one of the biggest issues facing Rowan County today is unemployment.
Walton, a retired educator and principal, said the county has to be willing to be creative and invest a little money to bring in more jobs.
“We cannot continue to be negative when someone comes up in front of the commission (asking for incentives),” Walton said. “We’ve got to get away from that and quit saying, ‘I’m glad you’re here, but.'”
He also suggested that the county begin a business incubator, which would help small businesses start and grow together until they can move out on their own.
Caskey, a patrol officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, said he hopes to work with the state to build an exit on Interstate 85 between China Grove and Kannapolis.
That would increase the value of the nearby land, bringing in more property tax revenue, and attract more businesses.
Caskey said he wants to encourage business development in southern Rowan County to keep more tax revenue here. As a resident of that area, he said he often drives into Cabarrus County to shop because it’s easier than going to Salisbury.
Pierce, owner of Pierce Interiors and Construction, said the county needs to examine its own ordinances and those of municipalities, to see if there are any restrictions that make it difficult for businesses to locate here.
“Are we business-friendly, or are we trying to hold onto insight that’s outdated?” Pierce said. “We need to move forward, realizing that for us to grow this community, it can’t maintain its bedroom-style economic patterns to develop growth.”
A trained workforce is important to recruit companies with high-paying jobs, Belk said.
“I see our community college doing all they can to reeducate our citizens for the jobs that are here now,” she said, “but we’ve got to move for the type of jobs that are going to be here in the next 20 years, and that’s going to be technology based.”
Belk, a retired educator and law enforcement officer, also said the county needs to actively seek out employers to bring them here. She emphasized making contacts at the state and national level.
Regional groups
Belk and Walton both said the county needs to rejoin to the Charlotte Regional Partnership and the Centralina Council of Governments.
“We need to be sitting at the regional tables,” said Belk, who served on the board from 2000 to 2004. “We need to know what other counties are doing to bring positive growth to the county and emulate and piggyback off of it.”
The county won’t know what opportunities and resources are available in these groups unless it stays connected, Walton said.
“We have to be involved,” he said. “When we’re not involved, we get left out and we don’t know what’s going on. … You cannot isolate yourself.”
Caskey said it’s a good idea to join regional organizations, but the county should be careful about groups that either don’t represent its interests or exert too much control.
“I don’t think there’s a problem being in a group,” Caskey said. “The problem is that groups start trying to push their will on all of the counties.”
Pierce said commissioners felt that these partnerships were one-sided, and they objected to the “exorbitant” salary and bonus paid to the head of the Charlotte Regional Partnership.
“I think all these groups need to be examined to see if we are being efficient with our monies based on what we get in return,” Pierce said. “I do not want to see Rowan County become isolated from all other counties. I also don’t want to see the county wasting money on partnerships that generate no revenue.”
School funding
As one of its legislative goals submitted to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the board said last month that it wants the state to examine how local funds given to schools are spent.
Originally, the goal was worded to give the county more control over how that money is spent.
Pierce said he agrees with that idea, and county commissioners should have the right to earmark certain discretionary funds.
Walton and Belk both disagreed.
“They want to micromanage the schools,” Walton said. “They certainly control how much money they give the schools. … But what they really want to do is decide where the money goes. That’s not what they’re legally supposed to do.”
That decision isn’t up to commissioners, Belk said. Once the money is allocated to the Board of Education, she said, that board is in charge of it.
Belk said she wouldn’t mind changes at the state level to remove some of the “strings” attached to its education funding.
Caskey, who has served on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education since 2010, said there needs to be more local control of funding somehow.
He said the school board’s duties include creating and passing a budget, but many times it’s required by the state to budget money for certain uses.
“I don’t think it functions well the way it’s set up by the state,” Caskey said. “I think they either need to go with more direction from the county or they need to give the school board more ability to do things.”
Central office
Bids for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools central office have come in higher than expected, school board members learned Wednesday.
The lowest bid was $7.4 million, but commissioners only approved $6 million, which the school system planned to borrow with the county’s help.
“The commissioners have already said what they’re willing to allow, and I think that’s where we should keep it,” Caskey said.
Belk agreed, but she said she hopes they’re not “shortsighted” and that they allow room for future expansion.
“They knew the dollars they had going in, and they need to make it work,” Belk said. “If they can’t make it work, then come back.”
Pierce said he thinks $6 million is “more than adequate” to provide a central office. He suggested locating the building somewhere other than downtown if there’s a cheaper site.
“If a project that you have doesn’t fit your budget, then you go and get a project that does fit your budget,” Pierce said.
Walton said he’s not sure without looking at the detailed proposal, but he wants to see if minor changes can be made to lower the cost.
He said it won’t be helpful to move to a place that’s smaller than what they’re going to need a few years down the road.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.