DOBSON — Schools and jobs were a frequent topic for the five candidates running for the Mount Airy District on the Surry County Board of Commissioners.
The Mount Airy News and Surry Central High School hosted a candidate forum Thursday night that was attended by more than 100 people.
There are five men running for one spot in the Republican primary for the Mount Airy District seat on the county board.
Incumbent Commissioner Jimmy Miller faces challenges from four newcomers to local politics. All five men had a chance to introduce themselves to the audience, field questions from moderators and give a conclusion over the course of about an hour.
The introductions were done in alphabetical order, then the order was rotated to ensure fairness to all.
Five other people running for public office are running unopposed. They gave three minutes on themselves and their campaign. For more coverage of those candidates, see the Saturday edition of The News.
Welcoming the candidates was Surry Central student body president Hugh Atkinson, who is also the son of Sheriff Graham Atkinson, and Sandy Hurley, publisher of The News.
Van Cooke said he graduated from East Surry and N.C. State and was looking to become an agriculture teacher when war broke out in the Middle East. He enlisted in the Navy and served for 21 years. Once he retired, he said he couldn’t think of a better place to live than Surry County so he bought a farm in the East district.
Bill Goins said the reason he is running for office is that he wants to make a difference and work to make Surry County a better place to live and work. In addition to 22 years as an educator, Goins said he has worked jobs in textiles and manufacturing. Over his career, he has pushed students to get as much education as possible, but now he wants to see the county offer more to get those college graduates to come back to stay.
Larry Johnson said he has been married for 42 years and has five children. He founded and retired from Johnson Granite. Over the years he has kept busy with church and community involvement, including the past 14 months in a commitment with a church food bank.
Jimmy Miller said he has served 28 years as a commissioner and has enjoyed every minute of it. Looking around him, he said he appreciates these gentlemen for giving their time to run for public office.
Allen Poindexter said he is a lifelong Surry County resident who wants more transparency on how the county spends tax money and wants to create an environment to draw more jobs.
The first question posed to all candidates was: what are the biggest issues facing the county, and how would each address them?
Cooke said the biggest would seem to be the challenge of coming up with $173 million for the three county school systems as mentioned in the 2013 Powell study. This is taking on a great deal of debt for a county the size of Surry, which he says already owes $40 million in school debt. He likened the situation to a couple with a combined income of $75,000 carrying credit card debt of $40,00, then adding another $173,000 of debt on top of that..
Goins said that job creation seems like the biggest issue. Work in economic development and providing good schools are a part of attracting jobs. He also said the board must find ways to meet schools needs.
Johnson said he doesn’t have one single issue in mind. “Surry County had a pretty good year last year,” he said. There are needs in education and business, but the current board already has provided a firm foundation, and he wants to build on that.
He pointed out that the $173 million figure came from just one study, and the board would have to be open-minded on meeting school needs.
While the forum was at Surry Central, Miller reminded everyone that the board has three school systems to worry about, and they all do a great job.
Addressing capital improvements will probably happen in stages, he said. A bond referendum and a sales tax have been mentioned, but a sales tax big enough to cover it all would be about four more cents on the dollar.
Poindexter said the biggest issue is creating an environment for job creation. He noted how many vacant buildings there are around the county that need to be filled.
The next question came from East Surry student Timothy Gosnell, part of the digital media class filming the forum for Surry Television. Gosnell shared moderating duties with News reporter Andy Winemiller, who covers the commissioners’ meetings.
The question was: What is your plan to pay for about $200 million in school capital improvements throughout the course of the next decade.
Goins said he has worked in four different schools, so he knows they need work and it will cost a great deal of money to do that work. There are many ways to raise funds such as bond referendums, sales taxes and property taxes.
Money could also be freed up by restructuring county debt, he said.
Johnson said expenses like this aren’t going to happen quickly. Like when he was first shopping for a home, sacrifices had to be made. The county board has to set aside money every year, earmarked for capital needs. And there might have to be a property tax increase.
Miller pointed out that the county has built new schools in the past decade and renovated others, so the county hasn’t been lax. He pointed out the air conditioning in Surry Central and the other two Surry County Schools high schools that have been done in recent years.
These kinds of needs will have to be broken down into four or five stages, and there has to be a way to fund it without hurting taxpayers. “We don’t want to take any more than we have to.”
Poindexter said the county needs to cut out all the unnecessary spending. He said he just doesn’t see borrowing more money that his kids will have to pay back some day.
When asked by Gosnell for clarification on unnecessary spending, Poindexter asked if local law enforcement really needs these tactical vehicles that are being driven around.
Cooke said some long-range planning is necessary to prevent repairs and renovations from backing up, suggesting a 10-year, 20-year and 40-year construction plan.
While the county can set aside savings, the board also must look at pass-through funding from the state and federal governments, he said. Also, the county might have to address bonds because of how big the needs are for the three county high schools.
While he wasn’t sure what kind of interest rate a bond might have, Cooke noted that the county already is paying debt from previous school constructions at 5.8 percent. He suggested restructuring that debt for a better rate to free up money.
After Gosnell’s round of questioning, Winemiller joked, “And you guys thought I was going to ask the tough questions.”
Winemiller asked, “Explain how you would work in the area of economic development, while addressing the use of different economic development tools such as grants and tax incentives.”
Johnson said Surry has a a good foundation for economic development already, several businesses have been added over the years, such as Pittsburgh Glass. Sure, people want to see high-paying jobs come into the county, but more jobs in general are also needed.
Miller said Pittsburgh Glass was a good catch, and the county has been trying hard to get as much industry in here as possible. However, competition with neighboring states makes it hard. He said he is reluctant to give up tax money as financial incentives and never thought that was the way to be, but local governments have to play the game to find success.
Poindexter said he wouldn’t agree to any lump-sum payments as financial incentives, but he could see incentives to bring jobs here and incentives to keep those jobs here. He said he also would like to see more entities subcontracting with local companies rather than bringing in outsiders to keep work local.
Cooke said that incentives are just one tool in the toolbox and he doesn’t believe in free public money. If a company does accept public funds, then they should stick with their contractual agreements (an issue that has come up twice in the past few months with the current board). He also mentioned grants and pass-through funds from the Department of Commerce for incentives.
Goins said that grants have worked well for the county in the past. He wants to be sure that incentives remain fair and consistent between businesses with no favoritism. Schools also play a part by training students for jobs that people are looking for.
Readers of The News submitted questions for the candidates. Two were accepted for the forum.
First, if you weren’t running, for which of your opponents would you vote and why?
Miller, the current commissioner, laughed when he realized he was being asked first.
“Any one of these guys would do a fine job,” he said. “They have the right attitude. It’s a tough job, someone’s got to do it.” He said he was fortunate to have served such a long time.
Poindexter said if he couldn’t vote for himself, Miller has been a great service to his community and would get his vote. However, if something were to happen to Miller, then he believes the open seat should be determined by vote, not by appointment from the rest of the board.
Cooke pulled a coin out and flipped it. “That’s one of the hardest questions to ask a candidate.”
Cooke said the great thing about having five candidates for this one spot is that they all have their own unique backgrounds and experiences, so a voter can identify with one.
Looking around, he said three are businessmen, one is a school official, two of them are military veterans. He is glad voters have so many choices and wishes every race had five candidates.
Goins joked that since Cooke wanted to be a agriculture teacher, SCS might have a spot for him if he doesn’t win. He said he has worked with Miller in the past and has respect for him, so if he couldn’t vote for himself, he would choose Miller.
Johnson said he has known Miller for a long time and voted for him in each race. However, he feels like now is time for the board member to give up the spot.
The second reader question concerned a recent legal battle between the airport authority and a former tenant.
Nearly $200,000 has been appropriated for this lawsuit. Is this litigation a good use of taxpayer dollars?
Poindexter said, “No, this is not a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
Cooke said that if the EMS were to be sued, then the commissioners wouldn’t leave John Shelton out to dry. Local government owns the airport and has a responsibility to take care of its employees. He added that a judge dismissed this case on Dec. 9.
Goins said he agreed that the county should show its support for the airport.
Johnson said he was glad to see this case dismissed and loves a quick resolution. He would like to see more mediation before issues reach the courtroom.
Miller said, “We’ve done the right thing. We’ve been with them all along in the case.” He said he was pleased with the outcome of the case.
The next part of the forum featured two questions specifically targeted to each candidate. For further coverage of the forum, see Saturday’s edition of The News.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.