Three women challenge Rockwell’s five incumbents

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 26, 2015

By Elizabeth Cook

ROCKWELL — Two years ago, Rockwell didn’t have enough candidates file to fill the town board and a write-in candidate won a seat with only 42 votes. This year the five incumbents face three challengers, bringing the slate to eight.

Instead of a sign of discontent, Mayor Beau Taylor looks upon the wealth of candidates as a good thing — increased civic participation.

“I was surprised but glad to see it,” said Taylor, 73. “I wish them all good luck.”

Mayor since 2003, Taylor is putting up campaign signs even though no one filed to run against him. “I want people to know I’m still interested in the job and want their support,” Taylor said.

The three challengers are all women and, with ages ranging from 45 to 54, they’re younger than the incumbents, whose ages go from 62 to 76.

Incumbents seeking re-election are Chuck Bowman, Bill Earnhardt, Bobby Moore, Chris Stiller and Charles Wingerson.

The challengers are Lori Bridges, Sondra Merrifield and Stephenie Walker. The board has not had a female member since Jeannie Misenheimer left the board in December 2009.

Rockwell is tied with Granite Quarry for the third-lowest municipal property tax rate in the county, at 42 cents per $100 valuation. Cleveland’s rate is 25 cents and Faith’s is 41. By comparison, Spencer’s rate is 65.5 and Salisbury’s is 66.

With five seats to fill, Rockwell voters get to choose from a field that ranges from a longtime incumbent concerned about holding the line on taxes, to a newcomer who believes the town needs to focus on armed protection for town board meetings. In alphabetical order, here they are:

Chuck Bowman

Bowman, 62, who works for Central Piedmont Fire Protection, has enjoyed his three terms on the board and would like to continue serving. He feels it’s his civic duty.

He is focussed on holding the line on taxes after recent increases to buy police cars and a fire truck; keeping finances in check is his No. 1 issue. He would like to see more long-range planning “instead of getting surprises.”

Surprisingly, he did not hear a lot of complaints from citizens about the increases. “I don’t like to raise taxes but sometimes it’s a necessary thing.”

Bowman says Rockwell seems stuck at the size it is, which is about 2,100 people. He’d like to see the town grow.

Previous boards talked about involuntary annexation, but that has fallen out of favor, he said. He would like to help make the town so attractive that people will want to be annexed to get the town’s water and sewer services, police and fire protection and trash pickup.

Bowman said he would love to see women on the board. He valued Jeannie Misenheimer’s input, he said.

The second-highest vote-getter in the 2013 election with 105 votes, Bowman said he’s been straight-up and tries to look at both sides of issues. He wants to keep taxes down, get more roads paved and work on downtown.

Lori Bridges

Challenger Bridges, 54, who works in accounting at Delhaize, brings a focus on gun rights and school prayer to the race — issues the town board does not usually deal with.

Shootings in the headlines have convinced Bridges the board needs to do more to secure town board meetings. Right now no guns are allowed in the town hall. Just as some churches have appointed members to carry guns, she would like to see a couple of aldermen or citizens chosen to carry weapons when the board meets.  Usually the police chief is at town board meetings. “If he’s not there, we need to have someone selected … Somebody else would be able to at least try to protect the board.”

Likewise, Bridges would like to see the town get behind efforts to get prayer in schools, as some churches are doing. “I’d love to see that happen. I think we’d have less violence in schools.”

Bridges and her husband have seven children who are all grown, and she wants to get more involved in the town. “Having a woman on the board will bring a lot of change.”

The town is growing fast, and local government is not keeping up, she said. The town needs more employees, she said, and could hold fundraisers to pay them.

She would like to see more family activities, and she’d like the town to be safer and cleaner.

Bill Earnhardt

First elected in 2013 with 90 votes, the 68-year-old Earnhardt decided to run again because two years was not a lot of time.

To him, the top issue is getting more businesses in Rockwell. Though he has no specific plans on how to make that happen, he suggests the town might retain some outside help or consultants to help with that.

Earnhardt supported the approval of a solar farm in the town, even though some residents opposed it. He believes it will be very positive for the town.

Like most towns, Rockwell is trying to stretch its budget without increasing taxes further. The town board raised the tax rate in recent years to buy police cars and a new fire truck. Now, Earnhardt says, the board needs to make the most of the resources it has.

Why vote for him? “I try to be fair and impartial,” Earnhardt says.  “I would like to see the best interests of the people of Rockwell met.”

Sondra Merrifield

Challenger Merrifield, 52, is head custodian at Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Elementary School. She is running because she wants to help get more businesses back into the empty storefronts downtown and to see more family activities.

She and husband Kim have two sons, three daughters and six grandchildren. She has worked with Scouts and provided reading programs to preschoolers and senior citizens, she said.

Merrifield sent the Post her filing form and did not grant repeated requests for an interview.

Bobby Moore

Moore won a seat on the board two years ago as a write-in candidate with 42 votes. He said decided to run again in hopes of staying on the board to address two priorities: hiring more police officers and adding badly needed sidewalks to Division  and Gold Hill avenues.

Rockwell officers are working 12-hour shifts, Moore said. Even though the town does not have a lot of crime, he wants to beef up the staff.

Improving the local economy also concerns him. “We need more industry to broaden the tax base.”

Though he’s not giving an official endorsement, Moore  says he likes the current board.

“We got a good board and we work together good.”

Moore grew up in China Grove and worked for Duke Energy for 30 years. He served on the planning board for two years.

Chris Stiller

Stiller lost his bid as a challenger in 2011 but won election in 2013, coming in fourth with 84 votes.

Retired from Philip Morris, he now owns and operates Christopher Photography, which can be found on Facebook.

The Post made numerous attempts to contact Stiller by phone and email last week, but he was out of town.

Stephenie Walker

Challenger Walker, 45, works for IBM and made time in recent months to attend several town board meetings.

She and her two children moved from Atlanta to Rockwell in 2012. Her son is a fourth-grader at Rockwell Elementary and her daughter is eighth-grader at Erwin Middle School.

“I wanted to raise my kids in a smaller town and not the rat race that was Atlanta,” Walker said. “There has not been a month that has gone by that my daughter has not made the remark, ‘People are just nicer here, Mom.’ ”

She’s eager to be involved and bring a younger outlook to the town board. She believes her family’s involvement in the schools, the YMCA, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and other youth sports and activities gives her a different perspective — as does her gender. “A female perspective might be a nice change of pace for the town as well.”

Her basic platform is change. “I think a breath of fresh air would be helpful, as the current group has been there a while. A new voice is rarely a bad thing.”

Her No. 1 issue is youth and education. She’d like to foster a more youth-focused environment in the town with community events to attract young people.

“I think we should reach out and partner with the schools to see what we can do to help the administration, teachers and students.”

In 10 years, she’d like to see more families living in Rockwell and being involved in community activities. “I’d like to find ways to attract younger families to the area and reasons for kids to stick around the area once they graduate high school/college. A revitalization of downtown Rockwell and attracting quality businesses to the downtown area would also be healthy for the town.”

Charles Wingerson

Wingerson, 76, was the leading vote-getter in the 2013 election, with one  vote more than Bowman — 106. If he wins on Nov. 3, he’ll be serving his 10th term.

His No. 1 issue is holding the line on taxes, even though tax revenues are tight and and state funding has dried up. The board increased the rate to a “tax neutral” level this year, adjusting for revaluation, he said. “We try not to cut services.”

In 10 years, he’d like to see no vacant storefronts downtown. Ways to achieve that might include changing zoning classifications to allow a broader range of businesses, but only to a point, he said. “Not a sweepstakes parlor.”

Wingerson was chairman of the Salsibury-Rowan Community Action Agency board for several years and received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the state’s highest civilian honor, for that work. He also chaired the area’s Metropolitan Planning Organization that sets transportation project priorities.

Wingerson said people should vote for him because of his experience, his ability to work with people and his past record.