Do you support the half-cent sales tax for public transit and why or why not?
The current draft transit plan, I do not support. It’s my understanding that Triangle Transit is revamping the transit plan. There’s clearly a difference of opinion between the plan and some of the advocates as well as the business community – the Regional Transportation Alliance – on whether the effort is toward light rail or toward bus rapid transit. The methodology there is significant.
The cost of the plan is about $100 a household, so I feel like we need to spend a lot of time on this complex issue and make sure we have the best plan in place and it needs to be revamped and I think that’s what will be happening over the next year or so. But the current transit plan, I do not support. We need to keep having that community-wide discussion and we need to have a transit plan and one that people can support. But we can’t ignore over the last two years six different transportation experts have concluded that our area is simply too spread out to support expensive light rail. There’s a lot of work to be done on this complex issue.
Our board at our retreat set a goal for this year to plan for future mobility improvements. The specific goal was to support community discussion and the development of strategies that evaluate investment alternatives, mobility and governance. Again, put it in perspective, often time it’s painted as Republicans that are holding this back, probably, eight months ago one of our commissioners made a motion to move forward with the plan and with the tax and it failed for lack of a second. So this issue is far from being resolved and the quote I like to use, one of the Pablo Picasso’s quotes, “Our goals can only be reached through the vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There’s no other route to success.” We’re not there yet. So there’s a lot of work yet to be done.
It can’t be looked at as I think a lot of people like to look at it, in a silo that there are core functions of our county are education, human services and public safety like our sheriff, our EMS and our fire. So transit to be pulled out and prioritized above current critical core services is going to take, again, a lot of work to reach that consensus of just what level of transit. There are things Raleigh can do on its own without extracting dollars out of each and every single household in Wake County.
Do you support letting the tax go to a referendum?
Only after we got a plan. Only after that plan is looked at and that it makes sense and it’s reasonable and that it is vetted and it looks at all of the alternatives and it’s feasible and it has a governance factor. Once we develop that type of plan on what is reasonable and can improve mobility. Absolutely, I think the public should vote on it, but I’m not going to put forth a plan that I can’t support. I can’t support the current plan.
Wake County is expected to continue growing at a fast pace. What role do you think county government should take in managing that growth?
The county’s budget is approximately $970 million a year and the vast majority of that budget goes to education, K through 12. The second largest amount goes to human services. While we have a real low poverty rate at 12 percent, that means there’s 120,000 people out there that we are the safety net for. That’s why your local county governments matter and again, the core services. The next largest area makes sure that a rescue squad shows up, doesn’t matter the name on the side of the truck, there’s somebody there to help you when you’re in need. The core services of a county, I think a lot of times we are fortunate enough to be county wide and have the ability to convene people and organizations together and I think the county commissioners can be a convener.
I’ve been very fortunate in my almost 12 years as County Commissioner to be the president of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. By being active in that organization I was able to save us $50 million a year by doing the Medicaid swap. If I had not been leading and been at the table discussions, you don’t know necessarily what would have happened and at this point in time my peers have elected me to the executive committee of the National Association of Counties where I represent all of the southern states. So I think there’s an opportunity to convene, to lead on major issues. Our board was the first to get out, as an example, on the need to have a school bond and two boards agreed to that. Originally the school system wanted $2.2 billion. We got a reasonable number of $810 million and passed a successful school bond.
We run for a district, but represent the whole county, and we’re responsible for all 980,000 citizens or so, it gives us a unique opportunity to convene on a number of issues and recognizing the private sector, or our faith community or our nonprofits or our governments, they can’t do it all. We have to come together to solve some of these conflicts that are out there in a civil manner.
How much control do you think the County Commission should have over the school board?
They’re elected on their own. We pushed real hard last year on an issue that’s been out there for the longest time in trying to ensure the schools are built as efficiently and as least costly for our taxpayers and the school board approved. And we’ll approve an interlocal agreement that formalizes the county being at the table for deciding construction and maintenance for schools. It’s going to give our taxpayers further assurances that their hard earned money is being invested in a conservative and efficient manner. The other thing it’s going to do is it’s going to go a long way toward reducing that conflict where you have one body that’s constantly proposing items and one body that constantly has to pay for it. We have our professional staffs being formalized in an interlocal agreement, that’s going to help tremendously to reduce some of the conflict that exists, just because of the structure of relationships of school boards and county commissioners in North Carolina. It’s not just Wake County. It’s throughout North Carolina that that structure exists. This hopefully will go a long way in helping resolve those issues.
What’s the biggest issue facing your district?
In my opinion it’s education. We have the Knightdale 100, we’ve had the East Wake Education Foundation, and we have a number of our schools that their academics are not as strong as the rest of the county. We have a large proportion of young people that are not as fortunate. They can learn as well as anyone else, and they’re real strong, but a lot of our students have opted to magnet schools or go into Raleigh. There is a big challenge in terms of the academic excellence. The school system has been out specifically in Knightdale and has had a number of meetings over six months to come up with strategies, for example, there’s not even a magnet school in Knightdale school area. So getting and expecting academic excellence and ensuring the whole system has that, I see that’s the biggest issue. We have great transportation between the 64/264 bypass. It took me 19 years to get that done as the mayor of Knightdale. We have that. We have 540, we have the Little River Reservoir, we’ve got open space, we’ve got clean slate, we’ve got really hard working people in eastern Wake County, but we need to focus on that education so, again, we’ll have the total package for that quality of life. So I think the K through 12 education is the biggest issue facing our community.
Other than what you’ve already talked about, what is the main issue facing the county over the next couple years?
I’ll tell you what my three priorities are. The first one is, along with the school board and our partners, to develop a community-wide goal to increase academic excellence of our children. That, to me, is the number one priority as a county commissioner. Secondly, make sure Wake County continues to excel in our core mission of education, human services and public safety and maintain our triple A financial rating. And then thirdly, being ever mindful and good stewards of your hard earned tax dollars. We’ve been able to manage and keep a low tax of 53.4 cents compared to Mecklenburg County at 81 cents and this board of commissioners has been able to do that by prioritization through good economic times and not so good economic times. That is a challenge of making sure that the taxpayers are able as well.