A seat is up for grabs on the Surry County Board of Commissioners, and this week’s political forum gave candidates a chance to reach voters.
Van Tucker was appointed to the East district seat back in the winter to replace Paul Johnson. Tucker, 60, of Shoals is running in his first election against another first-time campaigner, Ronald Bowman, 64, of Pilot Mountain.
There might have been a second seat on the ballot, but Larry Johnson defeated all the Republican primary challengers for the Mount Airy seat in March and was unopposed on the Democratic side.
North Surry High School was the site of Thursday’s forum, hosted by The Mount Airy News and The Elkin Tribune.
Caleb Cooke, North Surry student government association president, welcomed the candidates and supporters.
“Schools are the centers of our communities,” said News editor John Peters in thanking North for hosting.
In his opening statement, Bowman said that he was the son of a sharecropper and didn’t have much growing up. As an adult, he went to work for the Mount Airy Police Department, then the Sheriff’s Department. Before announcing his candidacy, Bowman was recently retired from security for Northern Hospital of Surry County.
Tucker said he was glad for the forum because the people deserve to hear what candidates have to say. He was sworn in on Feb. 1 to a board that oversees 18 department heads and 500 employees. That is a lot to manage, he noted, but he has been getting up to speed.
Andy Winemiller, a political reporter with The News, then asked questions that each man answered.
• A school-needs report from 2014 lists capital improvements that could cost the county $200 million. There is a need for a larger jail, and some government buildings are aging. How does the county board address all these needs?
Tucker said the commissioners have talked a lot about that since he joined the board. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in need, yet the county only has a budget of $74 million for everything. Many of the school buildings are 50 years old or more. But, the board can only squeeze so much out of its tax base. The county has to look at a combination of answers including a possible sales tax and loans.
You can’t borrow your way out of debt, Bowman said. The only way to raise the tax base is to bring in more jobs, new businesses. The county has to get them here even if it takes offering incentives. Folks have to do what they have to do to get that tax base.
• In light of the problems with incentives for The Depot restaurant, what are the candidates’ feelings on economic development.
Bowman said he once had a landlord with a mule that didn’t want to work. The landlord would bribe him with sugar. If Surry can provide a company with the right things and right tools then it will come. This county has great workers and great access to major highways. The businesses need to be courted better.
Tucker said recruiting is a difficult situation globally. The county also must provide safe communities and educated students to entice companies here. Even with recruiting, there is no way to bring in enough tax base to cover $200 million in school needs without borrowing much of it. The county must look at all available options.
• Water and sewer projects have been a big concern in recent years, yet many areas are still in need of clean water. What are the candidates’ views?
Tucker said the county has been challenged with these issues before. It was quite a costly project to run lines out to I-77. That took getting borrowing from the state and Mount Airy and dipping into tax reserves. These kind of projects have to be examined on a case-by-case basis, then the board can scramble around to do what it feels is needed.
The county needs to have some assurances that customers will be there before shelling out the money, said Bowman. The board should have a plan in place or contracts that show a revenue stream before approval.
Winemiller then asked one question specific to each candidate.
• Addressing his stance on tax relief for seniors, Bowman said the county should look at providing some relief in a responsible way. Don’t take any assistance away from other county needs, though. If the county could increase its tax base, then the commissioners could afford to give seniors a break.
• Tucker was asked about his home healthcare company and any possible conflicts of interest with being on a county board.
Tucker said he is the founder, owner and operator of Senior Quality Care and has been doing business here since 1996. Before he decided to run for office, he reached out to the North Carolina Institute of Government to figure out any potential conflicts. He said his company meets every provision addressed in the Institute’s guidelines. He added that the county has never provided him with a single customer.
In closing, Tucker said he has been learning on the job for eight months now and feels ready to serve for four more years. He joked that he was glad to see someone else campaigning and volunteering to take a dose of this medicine.
Bowman said he believes he has some good ideas and wants to be there to check out other new ideas and meet new people.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.