In commissioners race, challenger questions board’s negativity

Published 12:05 am Sunday, February 21, 2016

By Josh Bergeron

Are Rowan County Commissioners on the right track?

That may be the most significant question in the 2016 Rowan County Commissioners race.

The race pits Republican challenger Johnny Love against one-term Republican incumbents Mike Caskey and Craig Pierce. When voters cast ballots in March, two of the three candidates will advance to November’s general election, where two more candidates await.

For their part, Caskey and Pierce say they’d like to continue working toward achieving Rowan’s economic development agenda, which includes a county-owned water and sewer system as a top-priority project. In fact, Pierce said completing a county-owned water and sewer system is his main reason for seeking re-election.

“What we are proposing is the most affordable solution to address the problem of not having proper infrastructure for large corporations or businesses,” Pierce said.

Pierce proposed the water and sewer system idea in 2014. The system is intended to serve business customers rather than residents. County commissioners last year approved proceeding with a small portion of the project. However, they haven’t begun installing lines for a county-owned system.

Caskey first mentioned economic development, including a county-owned water and sewer system, when asked about his reason for seeking re-election. Caskey also mentioned increasing pay for teachers, keeping school resource officers and improving public safety in Rowan as central parts of the reason he’s running.

When asked about various issues in Rowan County, Love seemed to agree with Pierce and Caskey on most things. He said attitudes on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners have improved since Greg Edds, Jim Greene and Judy Klusman were elected.

“I feel like in the last two years things have started to improve,” Love said. “There’s still lots of negativity on the board and that needs to change around. People need to work towards the greater good and the entire board is not doing that.”

Love wouldn’t say whether his statement applies to any specific commissioner.

“If people look back at how each individual commissioner has voted in the past four years, they will be able to decide that for themselves,” he said.

In preparation for the March 15 primary election, the Salisbury Post asked commissioner candidates about current and future issues that could affect Rowan, including: the former Salisbury Mall, or West End Plaza, and economic development.

Mike Caskey

Caskey is a 43-year-old police officer in Charlotte. He lives in Enochville and is seeking a second term on the Board of Commissioners. He previously served on the Rowan-Salisbury school board.

Caskey said he likes the progress made by county commissioners in the previous three years, and “wants to see the things we’ve started continue.”

When asked about the former Salisbury Mall, or West End Plaza, Caskey said commissioners made the right decision by purchasing and keeping the facility.

“I think that actually having the plaza will allow us to extend the life of the courthouse downtown,” he said. “By having the plaza, we’ll be able to keep what we’ve got downtown longer.”

County commissioners have already begun moving the Board of Elections and Veterans Services to the facility. The next proposed move would involve the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and possibly probations moving to a facility on East Innes Street that currently houses Health and Social Services. Then, Health and Social Services would move to the West End Plaza.

A number of Rowan residents were upset about the purchase of the former Salisbury Mall in the period immediately following commissioners 2013 purchase. According to Caskey, commissioners didn’t properly communicate their plans.

When asked about a county-owned water and sewer system, Caskey said he supports the plan commissioners have approved — spend several million dollars to install water lines for economic development in the Dukeville community before moving elsewhere in Rowan. Commissioners haven’t discussed whether the county would help Dukeville residents with contaminated well water.

Caskey said the county’s intent isn’t to force existing residents to hook onto the water system, regardless of the location in Rowan. Caskey said new residential developments may want to hook onto county-owned lines.

One part of Rowan’s economic development plans will likely be offering some incoming companies tax breaks, or incentives, for bringing business to Rowan. When asked about giving tax breaks, Caskey said they’ve become so common that most companies ask for them.

He said “no one really likes incentives,” but most large-scale projects ask and receive them.

“I think they’ve become so common that a company just has a checklist and that’s one of them,” he said.

Johnny Love

Love is a 48-year-old Faith resident who works for the sheriff’s office. He also helps run his family’s business and serves as the Rowan County Fair manager. In 2014, he fell just shy of advancing past the county commissioners’ Republican primary.

Love said economic development is one of the most important things for Rowan County. He said it would be easier to attract businesses to Rowan County if attitudes would change.

“In the past two years, with Jim, Greg and Judy, the commissioners have been attempting to turn things around, but I think there’s still some things holding them back,” Love said.

Negativity is a point Love mentioned multiple times.

“All of the current commissioners are fine people, but we need people, out of the ones that are running now, that are willing to be a team player,” he said. “We need people that are willing to make Rowan County a better place.”

He said county commissioners also have to work in a positive manner with municipal governments in Rowan.

The West End Plaza is one of few areas where Love disagrees with incumbents.

“It’s definitely not on my list of priorities,” he said. “I guess the question now is how much money and how much time has been allocated to that now.”

Love said county government owns property in a number of locations. It may be a better choice, he said, to build new space for county offices rather than rehabilitate an old building.

“Most of the time, in my experience, it’s just as cheap to build whatever you want than to try to go in and refurbish a building,” Love said.

When asked about economic development, he said a county-owned water and sewer system would be beneficial for business.

“If you look around at the counties around us who have already put up sewer and water systems, they are building quicker,” Love said. “It’s going to be an expensive project. In the long run, it’s only going to bring more jobs and more industry to the county.”

Love said tax incentives are a prerequisite for some companies.

“As much as people do not like them, companies may decide not to come if we don’t offer them,” Love said. “We’re going to have to play ball.”

Craig Pierce

Pierce is a 60-year-old business owner and one-term incumbent. He owns Pierce Interiors and Pierce Construction. He lives north of the Franklin community, near the Rowan-Davie line.

Pierce has said his primary reason for seeking re-election is to complete a county-owned water and sewer system. Currently, it’s expensive for developers to build neighborhoods outside of municipalities, Pierce said. Houses outside of major municipalities require septic systems. When building a neighborhood with septic systems, Pierce said development can quickly become cost-prohibitive.

In addition to attracting industrial prospects, Pierce said county-owned water and sewer may result in residential growth.

Pierce said he hopes the county’s water system in four years would be fully operational near the Dukeville community.

When asked about incentives, Pierce said Rowan County needs to be more selective about what it offers to incoming companies.

“I don’t think we are being as prudent as we should with the taxpayer dollars,” he said. “You don’t have to always give them everything to get them to come.”

Pierce recently expressed opposition to a speculative project in Granite Quarry’s industrial park. The project provides incentives for a local developer to construct spec buildings. Pierce said the deal wasn’t legal because the company hadn’t specified that jobs were coming with the speculative buildings.

Pierce said Rowan County needed to provide office space years ago for Veterans Services and the Board of Elections. The West End Plaza, he said, provides office space at an affordable cost for county government.

“Hopefully, down the road, we can do more things like expand DSS and Health, which are already busting at the seams,” Pierce said.

By moving Social Services and Health out and the Sheriff’s Office in, Pierce said county government would free up space at the courthouse.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.