Commissioner candidates spar at second forum
A crowd of close to 200 paid $25 for dinner and to hear the hopeful candidates discuss a wide range of issues on October 17 at the Ramada Plaza in Kill Devil Hills, with Realtor Mike Davenport of Sun Realty moderating.
Board of Commissioners Recap
Commissioner Richard Johnson, a Republican from the 1st district was unable to attend as he recovers from a car accident. 3rd District Commissioner Warren Judge, who is unopposed, was allowed to make comments but did not participate in the forum.
During introductions, Board of Commissioner candidates recited their qualifications. Second district aspirants Bob Muller (D) and Bob Woodard (R) recited their extensive history serving on town commissions and county boards. Both men lay equal claim to serving on town boards where taxes are low and budgets balanced.
Incumbents Allen Burrus (D) from Hatteras Island’s 4th District emphasized his hometown roots and three terms on the Board of Commissioners. Burrus focused on insuring road access to the entire county and lamented the challenges of the fishing industry.
His opponent, independent Kevin Conner focused on his desire to run for office in the face of a national economic crisis, fighting for access (beach and roads) and to remind visitors “Dare County is open for business”.
In District 1, Democrat Alfred Jackson noted his local roots and extensive job experience, ranging from driving fish trucks to law enforcement to small business owner.
In a prepared statement, Richard Johnson noted he had been elected to the office four times and held 16 years experience and pointed to the health of the county budget and our top notch school systems as some examples of his past contributions to present day Dare County.
Independent write-in candidate Sandy Semans Ross emphasized her vast journalistic experience, prior small business experience, her passion for open government, and an emphasis that “I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican. I am just Sandy” as she closed her introduction.
The first question posed to the Board candidates centered on the upcoming property tax re-evaluation and whether or not the candidates felt the county should set the new rate as “revenue-neutral” (the new rate would only collect the same revenues as the previous year’s budget) or if they felt a real tax increase above revenue-neutral was required.
Muller stated he felt more revenues were required, especially to provide salary increases for county employees, where salaries have been frozen for five years. Instead of raising taxes, he suggested the county raise their EMS fees to the maximum allowed under insurance and federal programs, raise fees on Dare Medflight, consolidate services between the county and the Board of Education (maintenance, landscaping, etc) and conduct performance metrics studies to find more efficiencies.
Woodard was more emphatic, feeling the revaluation was the first priority facing the county and stated he was against an additional increase in the tax rate above revenue-neutral. He suggested the county meet with citizens and business, urged citizens to participate, and together arrive at a desirable level of services required and how much would be needed in tax revenue to supply those services.
Burrus stated we needed to see what the evaluation revealed in terms of valuation vs. revenues and them meet with county departments to determine needs. He noted Dare County was in good financial shape and told the audience our bond and credit ratings were higher than virtually all North Carolina counties and even the state government.
Conner countered by pointing out Dare County leads the state in terms of per capita taxation as municipal taxes account for 10.5% of per capita income per household.
Jackson struck a middle ground, also cautioning we should wait to see what the actual re-evaluation reveals and then decide the level of services required. “We don’t want to stop progress or chase families out of the county” but “there is a lot we don’t yet know” until the final numbers are released.
Semans-Ross stated that 2013 will be one of the most challenging years ever for county government as early forecasts indicate the new property values would create a shortfall of $14.5 to $15 million under current tax rates; an amount equal to about 15% of the total county budget.
She also cited a need to raise salaries for county employees and in particular, sheriff deputies where the county spends $20,000 each for training only to see them leave to work in the municipalities where the pay is higher.
She advocated working with the real estate and business community to jump-start real estate sales and then conduct another re-evaluation in two or three years when property values rise.
The second question posed to the commissioners candidates asked them to assess the status of the local economy and what could be done to spur economic growth.
Conner kicked off this round and stressed economic diversity. He felt the economy was too reliant on tourism to fuel the economy and urged we explore ways to bring other industries ranging from avionics to energy to technology in order to supply full time jobs.
Burrus stated he took a different view. “Tourism was his main focus and he pointed to the severe economic problems experience on Hatteras when Irene cut access to the island. “We did a little fishing but without tourism, we had nothing.”
He expressed continued concern over bridge and road access across the county and stated “I don’t need any more environmentalists telling me we don’t need a new Oregon Inlet bridge.”
Conner also called for repeal of the land transfer tax, which he said penalizes real estate purchases and increases the costs of development and housing.
Semans-Ross said “now was the time to sell Dare County” and she called on the county, real estate and business communities to go on the offensive given the “bargain-basement real estate prices” and the excellent school system here-a primary consideration for people considering where to live.
She also felt that if municipalities could coordinate better on building, zoning and other codes, “builders would not have to follow different rules and re-educate themselves on regulations” as they build across the county.
“If you can’t sell that to parents, you can’t sell. It’s time to stop whining and start selling Dare County”, she concluded.
Jackson noted tax revenue collection was stabilizing which indicated the economy was leveling. He expressed concern that fights over access, such as the Oregon Inlet bridge, Highway 12 in Hatteras, and keeping open both our important inlets-Oregon and Hatteras-were important to allow the economy to fully recover.
Woodard, who serves on the county Tourism Board felt the tourism industry was still the most important and he wants the county to do more to grow the “shoulder seasons”
He also felt the county was overregulated in terms of construction, development and environmental interference with infrastructure and development.
“We have tolerated too many rules and too many regulations” He proposed quarterly business meetings between county officials and “all of the business talent” we have in Dare County to find ways to spur growth.
Muller focused on long-term solutions which he stated have been avoided in discussions locally. “Technology jobs are OK, but we need tourism infrastructure; road access, beach access.”
He cited that all businesses were tied together under his “one county” theme and cited how a proposed 30% increase in homeowners insurance would have more impact than property tax increases.”
Humorously, he also recalled how one of the first casualties of the recession was Slammin’ Sammy’s, which saw a decline in business when it’s primary clientele, construction workers, no longer could afford to stop buy and drink beer.
Finally, he cited beach nourishment as a long term infrastructure issue that still needs to be addressed.
The final question posed to the board candidates asked, “What is the most pressing need” in both the county and their own district.
Jackson answered first on this round and emphasized the need for the county to educate voters on the entire property tax re-evaluation process—what is was about, what terms such as revenue neutral meant, and what the impacts might be “so voters could be better prepared” when their tax bills arrive.
For District 1 he noted the heavy reliance on commercial fishing (and regulations hurting them), the need to expand Highway 64 on the mainland, which is running into opposition from the federal government.
Semans-Ross highlighted the fact that she feels the needs of the mainland, Roanoke Island and Hatteras Island were quite different than those of the municipalities to the north. “In unincorporated Dare, the county is the only government we have.”
She also noted the impact of commercial fishing in all three communities, stating the multi-million dollar industry was “misunderstood by many” and important to our traditions and economic health.
She encouraged the development of secondary, year-round jobs for Hatteras, Roanoke Island and the mainland so that when recessions or natural disasters cut off access, the residents would have another source of income to help them stay afloat.
Finally, she emphasized the need to stabilize Oregon Inlet to help the entire fishing industry, and boatbuilding-another District 1 concern “that has taken a hit”” in the downturn and is dependent upon a stable inlet.
Muller took a different tact, citing wastewater/stormwater as a cornerstone. He stated that if we allow our water quality in the oceans and sound to deteriorate, tourism, recreational water sports, fishing and our environment in general would all suffer.
He proposed evaluating current systems, looking into clustering neighborhoods into high-tech wastewater treatment plants. While not an advocate of central sewerage, he stated that option should be discussed and explored.
Woodard also cited the need for the county to provide more information on the tax re-evaluation.
Secondly, he cited to need to continue efforts to stabilize our beaches with beach nourishment while also convincing legislators to allow other methods such as offshore reefs and terminal groins to be employed.
Burrus and Conner concluded the round by both agreeing access in all forms (roads, bridges, and beach access) were the most pressing issues for their district and the entire county.
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