Paul Eich told an audience at Good Life Cafe Thursday that if elected mayor he will seek to bring the city together, control spending and maintain openness in local government — items he thinks have been absent recently.
Eich also addressed his presence as a newcomer to Mount Airy, which some observers consider an obstacle for his candidacy, but which he views as a plus.
“I do have an advantage coming in from the outside,” said Eich, who moved here about two years ago from Charlotte.
“I haven’t lived here all my life, so I don’t have all these biases built up,” the candidate explained to the group gathered at the downtown cafe. Eich added that while “knowing people” can be an asset, it’s also advantageous not to have “all these links and conflicts of interest.”
He was speaking as part of a regular Thursday morning series in which each of the four mayoral candidates is airing his or her qualifications and views to interested citizens, and responding to their questions. So far, Eich, Deborah Cochran and Teresa Lewis have appeared at the cafe, with Gene Clark scheduled to do so next Thursday at 10 a.m.
When asked by N.A. Barnes Thursday why people should vote for him, Eich replied, “I think I bring a background of experience that the others don’t have.”
Eich holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another master’s degree from MIT in management. He counts his analytical and organizational qualities, along with experience owning a successful heating and air-conditioning business in Charlotte for 15 years, as attributes for leading the city of Mount Airy.
And at age 65, Eich also is the oldest of the four candidates, “but I will not hold their inexperience against them,” he joked during the gathering.
As a retiree, the mayor hopeful further believes he can devote more time to the role of mayor than the other candidates who have jobs, even though the top position at City Hall is considered part-time.
“There’s a lot of work involved in this part-time job, to do it right,” he said. “The mayor is paid, but it’s close to a volunteer job,” Eich added of the relatively small salary it includes.
Since coming to Mount Airy, Eich has regularly attended city council meetings and said he’s worked hard to educate himself about local affairs. He frequently comments on issues during public-comment periods at the meetings, especially spending-related matters.
“One of the biggest concerns I have is trying to bring the city together as one,” the candidate said. He said there is now a fragmentation among its residents, specifically citing Mount Airy’s latest annexation of the Cross Creek community.
“It was handled badly,” he said of that takeover occurring in June 2008 — but only after a court battle between the municipality and residents opposed to the move. Pointing out that Cross Creek residents don’t believe they’re a part of Mount Airy, “many of them are unhappy,” he said.
“We’ve got to bring them together.”
In advocating more openness in city government, Eich said, “We’ve got to get more citizens to come (to the meetings) and see what’s going on.
“I want to make sure all the voices are heard — out in the open, not in closed sessions.”
Budgetary issues frequently were mentioned Thursday by the candidate. “We have to get our taxes under control,” he said in reference to a recent study indicating that Mount Airy citizens have a higher tax burden than those in comparable municipalities.
In response to a question from city resident Mac Willis about the city’s debt load, Eich said Mount Airy now owes nearly $21 million as a result of infrastructure additions stemming from recent annexations. The related debt service to pay down that sum equates to 37 percent of the city’s annual expenditures for water and sewer services.
He took issue with a recent statement by the present mayor, Jack Loftis — who is stepping down later this year —that the city has the capacity for further debt to finance additional infrastructure projects.
Eich explained that a municipality in North Carolina may borrow an amount of up to 8 percent of its tax base — which would be $80 million in Mount Airy’s case. But just as consumers avoid maxing out credit cards, a city doesn’t want to hit the limit on borrowing.
“So when someone says it can be afforded, hold on to your wallet,” Eich said.
“That’s the trouble with our economy right now — everybody’s borrowing.”
Eich believes Mount Airy should fund basic services regarding public safety, sanitation, streets and reliable and affordable utilities, “but I don’t think we should pay for the other things.” A written statement listing his goals, issued Thursday by his campaign, shows that Eich supports “non-essential” services being performed by the private sector or otherwise funded through user fees.
Privatization of services also needs to be considered, according to the candidate’s platform.
Eich’s chief fiscal goal is establishing a city budget that “reflects the new economy.”
The candidate, who has suggested in the past that the municipality should trim its personnel expenses, also addressed that issue Thursday. Though city employees haven’t received raises in two years, Eich said the most recent studies show their pay levels to be “about normal” compared to other municipalities.
However, he said salaries aren’t the only factor. “Their benefits as a city employee are significantly higher than the private sector,” he said. While many older Mount Airy residents are surviving on Social Security payments, municipal workers enjoy perks such as being on the state retirement system that ensures healthy pensions.
“That’s getting to be a real scarce commodity in the private sector,” Eich said, calling the city’s retirement plan “extremely generous.”
The question, he added, is whether such perks are needed to maintain employees. “I haven’t heard of anyone leaving — except for retirements,” he said of local municipal workers. “So maybe we need to squeeze that down a little.”
In response to a question from cafe owner Burke Robertson about what Eich envisions as the role of the mayor, the candidate responded, “The mayor is a catalyst.”
Eich added that he believes the top city official should be a consensus builder, but “I don’t think it’s necessary that we all think alike” or agree on everything.
While the mayor doesn’t actually vote on legislation, except in a tie among council members, he or she can play a vital role in getting “the right information” to those officials in helping them make choices, he explained.
Then once action is taken, the mayor should get behind that decision to make it part of city policy, Eich said.
The mayor also can have a big part in helping to recruit new industry, staying in touch with state and federal representatives on issues affecting the municipality and working with county officials on joint projects such as water agreements.
“I’m not afraid to deal with an individual citizen or the head of a corporation,” Eich said. “I’ll represent you — I will not kowtow.”
In responding to another question from Robertson seeking Eich’s vision for the future, the candidate said he wants to see Mount Airy maintain its vibrancy and openness to new businesses and residents while keeping its down-home appeal.
“I’m concerned that if Mount Airy gets much bigger, it will lose some of its quaint charm,” Eich said.
He said this community has much to offer, including a closeness to the mountains along with a strong tourism and retail presence. Something he would like to see are more nighttime musical venues and other attractions in town that would supply “all-day-long and year-round” offerings.
“We need to come to common solutions,” Eich said of his overall goals if elected mayor. “That’s what I’ll attempt to do.”
“I think I’ve got something to offer.”
Contact Tom Joyce at email@example.com or at 719-1924.