In Landis, discussion focuses on utility rates, fiscal records
By Mark Wineka
LANDIS — Candidates for Landis mayor and the Landis Board of Aldermen definitely seem to fall into two camps.
One is populated with veteran board members — Dennis Brown, Tony Hilton and Roger Safrit — who say they have worked hard on addressing long-neglected infrastructure and returning the town to sound financial footing.
The other consists of challengers to the status quo. Mike Mahaley, Tommy Garver and Seth Moore say the board needs new blood — someone to address high utility rates and put the town in a position to grow.
“It’s time for a new direction,” says Mahaley, a former mayor.
But Brown says the direction Mahaley took the town in during his previous term as mayor was one toward financial ruin. “He nearly spent us into the ground,” says Brown, who is now mayor pro tem.. “I walked in and walked into a mess.”
In the Nov. 3 election, Brown and Mahaley are squaring off against each other in the Landis mayoral race. Incumbent Mayor James Furr is not seeking re-election. If Brown loses, he still has two years remaining on his term as an alderman.
In the aldermen’s race, the seats now held by Hilton and Safrit are up for election to new four-year terms. The two men chosen will join Dorland Abernathy on the board. Should Brown win election as mayor, the new board will have to choose a replacement to serve out Brown’s term as an alderman.
Here’s a capsule look at the candidates:
Brown is the most experienced person running for mayor or alderman. Since 1992, the only period the retired Kannapolis Fire captain was not a member of the board was from 2004-2008.
Brown served as mayor from 2009-2011, before losing to Furr in the 2011 election by two votes. He was then appointed to fill out Furr’s unexpired term as alderman, before winning election as an alderman in 2013.
Brown gives recent boards a lot of credit in addressing the town’s aging infrastructure — critical problems such as ancient pipes and low water pressure. He says those kinds of improvements have to continue, and “for so many years, the board just didn’t want to spend money on that.”
Brown says Mahaley’s one term as mayor left the town with low cash reserves, and it took a new board to restore the town’s finances to good standing. Overall, Brown says, he thinks he has been more dedicated to the town than Mahaley has over the past 20 years.
“This isn’t just a passing fancy for me,” Brown says.
Brown works several mornings and afternoons each week at China Grove Hardware. He and his wife, Karen, have three grown children and attend the Reformed Church in Landis.
Mahaley says once you’ve been mayor people tend to come up to you and say what’s on their minds. and their biggest complaint now is high power rates and water-sewer costs, he says.
Landis owns its own electric utility and buys its water from Kannapolis and, in smaller volumes, from Salisbury.
“The problem of it is the management,” Mahaley says. “I can’t explain to you why this board doesn’t pay attention to the power bills in Landis.”
On an average, Mahaley claims, Landis residents and businesses are paying 20 percent more for their power than Duke Energy customers. “If somebody doesn’t step up — we’re getting ready to have people moving out,” he says.
Mahaley promises he has several different plans for the town to work on, and he said he hopes voters elect new members to the board so a “new direction” occurs.
“I can promise you one thing — three people running for election won’t do it,” he says.
Mahaley says he has been self-employed his whole life, and the board could use someone with business experience. About his previous stint on the board, he says, “We got a lot done when I was mayor.”
“I am probably the most conservative person you know,” Mahaley adds. “I don’t think Jim Sides beats me, or if he does, just a little bit, if that tells you anything.”
Mahaley is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. He and his wife, Judy, have three children and nine grandchildren. The couple attend Blackwelder Baptist Church.
Hilton puts a high priority on finishing town infrastructure improvements the board has taken on because they had been put off roughly 50 years.
“Whenever you neglect something for such a long time, you have to fix it,” he says.
Significant upgrades have occurred in the water-sewer and electric utilities, Hilton says.
One burden Landis is dealing with is its ownership interest in the Catawba Nuclear Station, which essentially has left the town with “mortgage” payments well into the next decade. What looked like a great investment many years ago changed significantly after the problems at Three Mile Island and the added expenses for nuclear station owners after that, Hilton says.
“Our rates have to reflect what we have to pay,” Hilton says. He emphasized the town only charges its customers enough to pay that “mortgage” and run the current system.
Hilton says a lot of misinformation has been put out during this election in terms of utility rates. He says Mahaley didn’t reduce water-sewer rates one penny while he was on the board. Meanwhile, Mahaley nearly “spent us broke,” leading to the Local Government Commission’s requiring monthly reports from Landis until the town’s fiscal house was in order again, Hilton says.
Hilton says Landis went to a town manager type of government after Mahaley’s term so the mayor could no longer have as much control.
A Vietnam combat veteran and retired risk manager for Rowan County, Hilton thinks his involvement in the community is important. He volunteers for Meals on Wheels, belongs to multiple veterans’ organizations, is a Mason and Shriner, belongs to Trinity Lutheran Church and is a member and past chairman of the Cabarrus-Rowan Metropolitan Planning Organization.
He and his wife, Christine, have two children and two grandchildren.
Garver says the only reason he is running for alderman is his concern over utility costs in Landis, especially electric rates.
“We have lost businesses in Landis due to the high cost of electricity,” Garver says. He adds his conversation with at least one Realtor has led him to conclude homes in Landis are harder to sell because of the power rates.
“If elected, I will explore all options to help reduce rates in Landis,” says Garver, running for office for the first time.
In his comparison of Duke Energy rates for an all-electric home to those in Landis, “we in Landis are paying 22 percent more than our neighbors — in my case, only one block away — who are served by Duke,” Garver says.
“So if my electric cost is $100, their bill will be $78.”
A retired vice president of sales for Carolina Products, a manufacturer of electrical switch gear, Garver says part of his job was analyzing electrical rates — a skill he thinks would help on the board.
“I have friends, relatives and renters threatening to move away,” he says.
Garver is active with Gideons International and is a member of First Baptist Church. He has lived in Landis eight years.
Moore also says utility rates are too high in Landis. He uses his parents, who live in Landis, as an example,
If they pay $255 a month in Landis, Duke Energy’s charge for the same amount of electricity used would have been $155, Moore says. He agrees that businesses are leaving because of the utility costs.
Moore says more has to be done to position the town for growth and he supports efforts to improve the town’s infrastructure and making water-sewer access available in areas where businesses could build.
Necessities have to come first, cosmetics second, Moore says. The 23-year-old thinks his age would help the board in communicating with residents through social media and in getting a younger generation involved in the town.
He says he hears a lot of his friends complain about having nothing to do in Landis. “I need to stay here and do stuff for my town,” Moore says he told himself, “make it a better place, improve it and not jump ship.”
A first-time candidate, More thinks he can be an innovative voice for Landis and its people. He says he believes everyone’s opinion counts.
Moore works as a specialist in anti-money laundering and global financial crimes for Bank of America in Charlotte. He is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he had a major in economics and also in peace, war and defense, focusing on national and international defense and security.
He was valedictorian of the Class of 2010 at South Rowan High, where he helps out as assistant wrestling coach. At Landis Baptist Church, he is an usher and sound and video technician.
Safrit is going for a third term on the town board, and he said he would like to continue efforts members have made as a team over the past eight years.
“When I first went on the board,” Safrit says, “the town was in bad shape financially. As a team, we pulled it completely out of the hole.”
As Hilton explained, too, Safrit says much of the town’s higher electric rates are tied to the debt owed on the town’s interest in the Catawba Nuclear Station.
“We’re doing the best we can to keep our rates as low as possible,” Safrit said. “… The difference between Duke and us is we have our own service people. We are able to get out quicker in case things happen. That in itself is a plus.”
Hilton says the town has “one fantastic staff.” “One person can’t do it,” he adds. “You have to work as a team, and that’s what this board has done. … We’re trying to bring this town out of the dark ages and bring money issues above board.”
Safrit notes the town’s work in making Lake Corriher a recreational spot for the public and its building up of the fire, police and public works departments.
A onetime cowboy, ranch foreman and still a master blacksmith, Safrit and his wife, Karen, have two grown children.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.