SALISBURY — Only four candidates turned out for the first for City Council election forum Tuesday, where much of the discussion centered on Rowan County commissioners.
Mayor Paul Woodson, Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell, Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy and challenger William Peoples participated in the forum sponsored by the Rowan County Senior Democrats.
Council members Karen Alexander and Brian Miller and challenger Blake Jarman had to work during the forum, which was held at 1 p.m. Challenger Dale Stephens did not attend. Challenger Rick Honeycutt said he is registered as unaffiliated and didn’t want to participate in a Democratic event.
Challenger Tom Speaks has withdrawn from the City Council race, saying he doesn’t have time to serve.
Geoffrey and Dottie Hoy were co-moderators, asking questions posed by the audience.
• City-county relationship?
Kennedy repeated his offer to extend the olive branch and meet with county commissioners at any time to discuss common initiatives. He said he’s had positive interactions with commissioners individually, but sometimes when they are in a group, “things change.”
Woodson said the city pays about 40 percent of the taxes in Rowan County. He said while the city and county have worked together on a number of project, “when it comes to our downtown, that seems to be the problem.”
Peoples said the county has been against the city since the school systems merged more than 20 years ago. He said the relationship is marred by personal agendas and lack of trust.
“There is a certain mentality that says whatever we’re for, they’re against,” Peoples said.
• Downtown school central office?
The project is stalled, and city officials say county officials want to derail it. County officials deny interfering.
“We’re doing all we can,” Blackwell said, who named education as one of her top priorities.
Woodson said he’s trying to raise private money to build the $7.3 million central office, but county commissioners would need to approve a long-term lease, which the city had hoped to avoid.
“We are not giving up,” Woodson said.
The county and city stand to gain between $300,000 and $350,000 a year in new property tax revenue if private investors build the central office and redevelop the Empire Hotel, Woodson said. The projects could help the county avoid a tax increase next year, he said.
Peoples said the central office debate exemplifies the infighting between the city and county.
“The only way this thing can come out on top is if you go and vote out some of that county commission,” Peoples told the audience. “The city’s hands are tied. It’s going to take good citizens from the community to say we are tired of this mess.”
• Most critical problem?
It’s unemployment, Blackwell said. When people are out of work, the crime rate goes up and home ownership and property taxes go down, which means less money in city coffers, she said.
Young residents without an education are not employable, she said. “It all boils down to jobs and education.”
Peoples also named jobs, along with crime and lack of youth activities.
The city should assign two police officers in the West End neighborhood and build a skate park, he said.
“If you would build a skate park here, that would help bring in tourist dollars, and that would help put Salisbury on the map,” Peoples said.
Considering the city launched the high-speed broadband utility in the middle of a recession, “we have made tremendous strides,” Woodson said.
After losing millions of dollars a year, Fibrant is now breaking even, he said. The utility is still focused on serving homes and small businesses because installing the fiber-optic network in apartment buildings and large businesses would cost too much, he said.
“Ten years from now, people will say, ‘Wow, that was a smart move,’” Woodson said.
Fibrant was “a good venture to a certain degree but not planned very good,” he said.
Not serving apartment complexes left out many potential subscribers, he said, adding that Fibrant’s price tag still isn’t competitive with private providers.
Blackwell said the city was right to launch Fibrant, which she said should have 3,000 customers by June 2014. The utility is considering adding a “lesser technology” that will allow installations in apartment buildings, she said.
“We are working with our new director to implement those changes to get more bang for our buck,” Blackwell said.
• Salisbury Mall?
Kennedy said he supports Rowan County’s interest in buying the mall and pointed to the city’s purchase years ago of dilapidated Towne Mall, which Salisbury sold to a developer and now hosts regional and national retailers.
Peoples said if the city can’t come up with the money for the downtown central office, commissioners should put the facility at the mall.
While commissioners should consider buying the mall, they should keep it on the tax rolls, she said. The school system needs to recruit young teachers with an impressive building, not a rehabilitated mall, Blackwell said, adding it would be a “technological nightmare.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.