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Meet the GOP candidates: Wooten urges turnout surge

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Tommy Wooten, a Pasquotank County Sheriff's deputy and candidate for Pasquotank Sheriff, speaks at a meet-and-greet event for local Republican candidates in the November election at The Villa restaurant in Elizabeth City, Tuesday evening.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Pasquotank County Republican candidates for sheriff, county commissioner and school board met with party members on Tuesday night, seeking their support not only in the voting booth, but on the campaign trail.

The candidates meeting with the Pasquotank GOP at The Villa restaurant in Elizabeth City included sheriff candidate Tommy Wooten, county commissioner candidates Sean Lavin and Josh Tunnell, and school board candidate Ron Payne.

Wooten, a sheriff's department sergeant facing off against Democrat Eddie Graham, a sergeant with the Elizabeth City Police Department, urged local Republicans to help get out the vote for the general election. There needs to be better voter turnout on Nov. 6 than during this year's May primary, he said.

“Seventeen-point-eight percent voter turnout is pathetic,” Wooten said, referring to overall voter turnout for the primary. “It's going to be hard to pull this off with 17.8 percent; yes I'm confident, (but) 17.8 percent is not good numbers for Pasquotank County when we have over 28,000 registered voters.”

Echoing his message during the primary campaign, Wooten reiterated his broad goals include strengthening community partnerships, youth mentoring, and fighting opioid abuse. He also shared a few specific proposals with his fellow Republicans.

For example, he said he supports putting school resource officers in every school at Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. SROs took on new importance this year following a deadly school shooting in Florida. Wooten said he’s estimated it would cost $700,000 to hire and equip those officers. After those start-up costs, the regular personnel expenses tied to the officers would cost the county another $300,000 a year, he said.

Wooten acknowledged it would be difficult for Pasquotank to find all that money in one year, so he proposed hiring the officers over several years.

Commenting on which ECPPS campuses should get SROs first, Wooten said he would have to study several factors to decide that, including a school's size, number of incidents, and distance from first responders.

To combat opioid abuse, Wooten proposed buying K-9s, instituting more training for deputies, and helping open a recovery house. Law enforcement can't end drug abuse solely by “arresting our way” out of the problem, he said.

Lavin, an operations manager at the aerostat company TCOM, said he's running for the Board of Commissioners to bring a “different perspective” to the board of commissioners. Lavin is squaring off against two-term Democratic Commissioner Joe Winslow in the Northern Outside district.

Lavin, who noted he has three children in Pasquotank's schools, said he's concerned about a “lack of growth and opportunity” for young people. He also said his work at TCOM has prepared him to oversee large budgets and complex operations like the county's.

“I'm used to large budgets; the county doesn't really scare me,” he said.

In a follow-up interview, Lavin said he gets along well with Winslow, but claims Winslow won’t “stand up” to other commissioners when they make bad decisions. Lavin expressed concern about the county spending in excess of $130,000 on legal fees for confidential talks with Sentara Healthcare, the operator of Sentara Albemarle Medical Center. The talks have gone on for a long time and allowed concerning rumors to swirl about Sentara's plans, he said.

Lavin offered support — in concept — for Pasquotank granting employees raises next year. County Manager Sparty Hammett recently said he's studying salaries because the county doesn't offer competitive wages in many positions. Hammett has made no specific recommendations yet, but granting countywide raises could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Lavin explained he supports making salaries competitive. People don't see the costs of employee turnover, like constantly rehiring and retraining workers. Keeping good employees saves money and boosts productivity, he said.

“One good employee may well be worth two bad ones,” he said.

Tunnell, a long-time property appraiser and first-time candidate, is running for one of two open at-large seats on the Board of Commissioners this November. Also seeking the seats are Barry Overman, a Republican candidate who didn’t attend Tuesday’s GOP meeting, and incumbent Democratic Commissioners Bill Sterritt and Charles Jordan.

Tunnell said he's running because he's concerned about how commissioners have managed the county, citing their decisions on taxes, debt, and real estate deals.

Specifically, Tunnell said the county needs to be saving up more money for its maintenance and repair projects. Those capital expenditures, such as for replacing school roofs or air-conditioning systems, are a major contributor to the county's debt.

Businesses, including his own, routinely set money aside for repairing facilities based on components' lifespan, Tunnell said. For example, if the county buys an air-conditioning system expected to last 20 years, it should set aside one-twentieth of a new system's cost every year, he said. Down the road, that will allow the county to avoid borrowing or raising taxes, he said.

Asked if the county should apply that approach to all its existing assets, Tunnell acknowledged it would be too costly to do so. The county will have to wean itself off of borrowing, he said.

Notably, the county does cover some maintenance projects without borrowing. It's also saving up for some future expenses, including countywide property revaluation and the closure of the county landfill.

Tunnell also expressed concerns with the county's real estate dealings, including its ownership of properties in other counties. Pasquotank owns those properties because of its ownership of the former Albemarle Hospital; the properties were purchased years ago for use as future medical facilities.

Asked about the county's efforts to sell lots in Moyock, Tunnell said he agreed with commissioners' handling of those properties so far, including reducing their asking prices based on the prices of surrounding, comparable properties.

Payne, a former principal at Northeastern High School and a registered Republican, is running for one of two Outside City seats on the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education. Also seeking the seats in the non-partisan race are George Archuleta and incumbent board Chairwoman Sharon Warden, both of whom are Democrats.

Payne told Pasquotank Republicans he wants to combat perceptions that ECPPS is not a good school district, and he criticized the current school board for providing “negative” leadership. He said his background in education makes him a better choice, citing improved test scores and graduation rates during his time at Northeastern.

Turning to the board's controversial decision to pay Cartner a $318,000 severance, Payne said he'd oppose such deals as a school board member.

“If a superintendent comes in and wants a contract like the superintendent we just had, we'll tell him goodbye,” Payne said.

Payne also criticized Cartner for driving good teachers from the district, and said he saw no evidence that one of Cartner's signature initiatives, the “Learning-Focused” instructional framework, improved school performance.

Payne also claimed he would bring a competitive spirit to the board, one aimed at students' best interests.

“I want (ECPPS) to be the best,” he said. “Competition drives me.”

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