Commission hopefuls debate economy, taxes, schools
By Jon Hawley
Monday, August 27, 2018
The economy, schools, taxes and other intertwined issues dominated a candidates forum featuring candidates for Pasquotank County commissioner last week.
Four of the six candidates for Pasquotank commissioner on the November ballot joined the forum, hosted by the Home Builders Association of Northeastern North Carolina and the Albemarle Area Association of Realtors.
The candidates included incumbent Democratic At-large Commissioner Bill Sterritt, who’s seeking a third term; Democratic At-large Commissioner Charles Jordan, who’s seeking his first term after being appointed to the board; incumbent Democratic Northern Outside Commissioner Joe Winslow, who’s seeking a fourth term; and Josh Tunnell, a Republican challenging Sterritt and Jordan for an at-large seat. Republicans Barry Overman, who’s also challenging for an at-large seat, and Sean Lavin, who’s challenging Winslow for his seat, did not attend the forum.
Forum moderator Lauren Spruill poised a number of economic and school-related questions to the candidates. She first asked how the candidates would address economic growth.
Sterritt, the first to answer, said it was important to encourage growth, but didn't give specifics on how to do so. He said that planning for growth is also important, discussing how the county decades ago had to build new schools as populations grew.
Tunnell called for encouraging growth by emphasizing the region's strengths, such as its farms, U.S. Coast Guard Base Elizabeth City and and its proximity to Tidewater Virginia, to attract businesses.
Winslow said Pasquotank has recovered some from the 2008 national recession, and he highlighted increased property development, particularly construction of the Amazon Wind Farm US East.
He also called turning U.S. Highway 17 into Interstate 87 the “number-one issue” for economic development in the area. Winslow has often argued for I-87 development to attract major businesses who need a quick, reliable route into Virginia.
“We need to do that, and we need to have it done now,” Winslow said.
He also touted Pasquotank's inclusion in the Port of Virginia's Foreign-Trade Zone, another magnet for some businesses.
Jordan said Pasquotank's schools are important to the area, not only for current residents but attracting new ones. He said the community needs to support schools, not just financially but through engaging with faculty and staff.
Jordan also stressed the importance of schools offering career and technical education to help students find jobs in well-paying trades, such as plumbing.
Spruill next asked the candidates how they'd keep taxes and fees low for homeowners.
Tunnell said the county needs to borrow less money and build up its reserves. That would allow it to handle costly projects without paying interest on loans or having to get more money from taxpayers, he argued.
Winslow said the county needs to maintain or lower its taxes and fees, but disagreed that the county borrows too much. It's not feasible to build up reserves to cover all expenses, Winslow said, citing annual school repairs that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars as one example.
Winslow also said the county is “paying off debt every year” and “is in good shape financially.”
Jordan said the county needs to “take a hard look” at its operations to find efficiencies and savings. He also said the county needs to seek grants to reduce local spending on projects.
Economic growth is also a solution, he noted. The county might be able to reduce taxes if more businesses and residents are paying them, he suggested.
Sterritt said commissioners simply need to say “no” to increased taxes. Sterritt said he's only voted once to raise taxes. He voted with other commissioners last year to raise the property tax rate by 1 cent, to 77 cents per $100 in valuation, to generate more money for schools.
Spruill also asked candidates about a major new provision of this year's state budget: allowing cities, and not just counties, to use their tax dollars toward public education. Published reports this summer explained lawmakers pushed for the change after communities in Mecklenburg County sought to apply city dollars to charter schools.
The change has raised concerns that state lawmakers could cut state dollars to schools — reasoning that cities can make up the difference — or that wealthy cities would spend more and worsen the divide between schools in rich and poor communities. Noting those concerns, Spruill asked commissioners how the budget change would affect local schools.
“I don't see the cities jumping in it; maybe the large cities … but I don't see the smaller cities doing that,” Winslow said. “I don't think that's going to be a problem in northeastern North Carolina.”
Spruill noted the concern is that urban communities' schools could now get even more resources, furthering disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.
Jordan said school funding is a county responsibility, but it would difficult to make up any cuts to state funding. He said the county needs to focus on trade education and put more people to work, which he believes would improve the economy and increase revenues for schools.
Sterritt said cities funding schools would be a “disaster,” warning that raising additional taxes for schools would burden the county's poor residents.
Tunnell agreed that reduced state funding would put the county in a “bad situation,” and said county commissioners should make state officials aware of the impacts of any funding cuts. He also reiterated the importance of trade education.