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Record of improvements vs new skills: County commissioner candidates discuss vision, ideas for county

SALISBURY — Incumbent Republican candidates for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners are focusing on their record of improvements since 2012, while their lone challenger is looking to bring a different set of skills to the board.

Lee Withers, former mayor of China Grove, is challenging incumbents Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey in the primary on March 3 for two open seats. Early voting is underway. All three candidates agree collaboration with local school officials and the retention and skills of young people in the area are among the most important issues.

Commissioners have some role in the Rowan-Salisbury School System since they allocate funds to the school board. Chief among funding questions of late has been the amount or lack thereof that commissioners have been able to allocate for capital projects, to which the board voted to allocate a total of $75 million for the fiscal year, 2019-2020, and next, 2020-2021.

Pierce and Withers said working closely with the school board is ideal.

Pierce echoed his remarks from a candidate forum that took place at Trinity Oaks on Feb. 4. He said schools need to provide a long-term plan, perhaps 25 years, so future school boards and commissioners can anticipate the needed funds ahead of time to “avoid the state they’re in now.”

Withers, who represented China Grove in some of those “hard conversations to be had,” said commissioners “can’t just say, ‘here’s a check,’ and step back and not support” the school board, especially in times when the community may not support school board decisions.

Caskey and Withers both agree that consolidating students from one old school building to another isn’t a good idea. Caskey said he’d rather the board work with school officials to tackle problems such as maintenance needs for decades-old buildings and the enrollment drop over the past decade.

If the boards decided to consolidate, Withers said, they should “truly consolidate” and build a new structure for students. He added that he’s for such a measure if it makes the necessary improvements for students.

Ensuring young people graduate with a skillset and stay in the area is another key issue for candidates. Withers credits himself with beginning that conversation and said he wants to continue to be part of promoting it.

Withers recalled his time as mayor and working with a developer who wanted to have a major facility with smaller buildings available to train and teach skills. However, Withers said, the developer didn’t recognize Rowan County as being a place focused on such, and asked him to “show me where y’all are training a workforce for biotech and manufacturing.”

Withers said he called Greg Edds, the county commissioners chairman, to acknowledge companies like Food Lion need manager trainees and accountants, for example, and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, which needs more nursing students. He added that the board of commissioners should communicate more and collaborate with local employers to retain the county’s workforce or local students.

Caskey cites a need for more housing in the county, which could serve as a draw for people to stay in Rowan County. Caskey said developers are currently looking to expand and those in other counties are looking to be part of Rowan’s growth.

Pierce said he believes the process of training students should start in high school.

“A lot has to depend on what companies are here and how active the school system is in training these students,” Pierce said.

At the recent candidate forum, each noted that a commissioner has particular issues they’re more passionate about and past experience to offer.

Caskey, a current member of the U.S. Army Reserves, has a public safety background as a police officer in Charlotte. He credits the board with improvements to local Emergency Medical Services, including a new station in Rockwell and the repurposing of part of Cleveland Elementary for an EMS station. He also said the board has helped to reduce local paramedic shifts from 24 hours to 12 hours, revamped local rescue squads and added positions to local sheriff’s departments. Veteran services is another area Caskey said he focuses on and another he says the current board has helped to expand.

He is a past member of the Rowan-Salisbury School Board, the Rowan County Planning Board and the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. Currently, he serves on the Rescue Squad Board, the Rowan Public Library Board, Enochville Volunteer Fire Department Board and the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center Board.

Caskey wants to do more for law enforcement officers, like investing more funding into off-duty activities for officers and generating enough funds over time to hire police officers for elementary schools.

Both Caskey and Pierce are campaigning on their record of improvements. Caskey said the board, over the past seven years, has worked well with other agencies to improve the economy and overall quality of the county. Pierce, who has served on the board since 2012 with Caskey, echoed those sentiments.

“The board we have is working well with each other and getting things accomplished,” Pierce said.

Pierce, who is retired after owning a construction business for years, has served as a member of the Rowan County Planning Board and chairman of the Airport Advisory Board. The quality of animal services was a key issue when he joined the board. And, Pierce said, he worked with the Rowan County Animal Shelter to stop the euthanization of animals with a gas chamber. He cites such activities as a major determining factor in Chewy.com’s ultimate decision to locate a fulfillment center near Salisbury.

Pierce said Rowan was an entirely different county when he joined the board, adding that the economy was in a “downward spiral.”

Caskey said he’s “been a good servant for the community,” and that it’s been an honor to serve the citizens.

Challenger Withers said his past 12 years of municipal experience can bring new insight, experience and talents to the board. He served as China Grove’s mayor from 2015-19. Before serving as mayor, Withers was a China Grove town councilman for eight years. He also owns 3C’s Consulting firm and was previously a regional sales manager for Husqvarna, which makes outdoor power products.

Withers said he sees areas in the county that need “help and encouragement.” In particular, Withers said “more people at the table” are needed when looking at all the ways economic development can affect communities. For example, at the recent candidate forum, Withers said people often build their communities around things like schools. Those considerations should go into all key decisions, he said.

“I hope that, if elected, I will be able to be a bit more of a wider voice for Rowan County,” Withers said.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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