Economy, public transit debated at commissioners’ forum

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CORRECTION APPENDED: Democratic candidate Don Mial does not support impact fees. The original story said incumbent Lindy Brown was the only Democrat who opposed impact fees.

Job creation, tax incentives, education, transportation, and mental health care were addressed at a candidate forum Monday night. Republican Commissioner Tony Gurley’s appointment as chairman of the board of commissioners was also called into question.

Seven of eight county commissioner candidates, as well as NC House district 35 and NC Senate district 16 candidates participated at the forum sponsored by the University Park Homeowner’s Association.

Republican incumbent Paul Coble, who also did not attend September’s candidate forum, was the only county commissioner candidate to not attend.

“It’s the economy, stupid”

The board of education’s ideological battles may be the driving factor in voter turn-out this year. However, all the candidates agree that it doesn’t feel like Wake County has come out of a recession and the economy is the biggest issue which the County Commissioner’s mandate can address.

District 1 challenger Don Mial (D) says that three factors drive economic growth: “Transportation, education, and health and human services.” Mial asserts that if Wake County improves these services—which, without innovation, will almost certainly call for increased spending—economic growth will follow.

The Republican standpoint tends to invert that assertion. Economic growth and attracting new businesses, often through tax incentives, will ultimately yield more tax dollars to pay for growth and improvement of services.

Incumbent Republican Gurley said, “Growth paying for itself is a valid point.” When development was booming, he said, “Growth was paying for itself, but growth has stopped.”

Gurley said the county should earn more tax revenue by attracting more businesses.

Commissioner Lindy Brown (D), the most fiscally conservative of the Democratic candidates, also believes Wake County should not increase taxes. Brown says that increasing taxes while Wake’s citizens still feel as if they are in a recession is not going to work, a view shared by Republican candidates.

Challenger Jack Nichols (D) says impact fees could be a way to fund growth management, but “we must build consensus in the development community first or it will be a ‘no.’”

Chairman of the Board

Democrats currently hold a 4-3 majority on the board of commissioners. But this year, when electing its new chairman, the board was absent one majority member, Commissioner Harold Webb, who had suffered a stroke.

Some saw Gurley’s appointment as chairman as an underhanded move, since it took place in a 3-2 vote while Commissioner Betty Lou Ward (D) stepped out to use the bathroom.

At last night’s forum, Gurley said that he was proud of the way he was elected chairman and that the “democrats were confused” during the vote.  He said, “We had to vote on chairman before we could move forward and everybody knew the vote was coming up.”

Brown, the only Democrat up for re-election, defended herself saying, “I was not confused!”

With resentment still in the air, challenger Phil Matthews (R) yielded his remaining time on a question about transportation to Gurley, who said, “I was being generous in saying that you were confused.”

Transportation

The Republican candidates continue to see a half-cent sales tax for transportation as something our economy may not be ready for. “If the economy is right and you are ready, then we’ll vote on it,” said Commissioner Joe Bryan (R) in reference to a voter referendum on the possible tax to pay for public transit projects such as light rail and expanded train service.

The tax is similar to the one Charlotte used to build its light rail system.

When asked about the need for multi-modal transportation and expanded bike routes, Matthews, who is from Garner, said, “Right now roads and bus systems seem to be working best. We’re not at the point we need that.”

Mental Health Reform

All of the county commissioner candidates were asked to address the state of mental health care and how it might be fixed in their concluding remarks. However, no clear plan has emerged for reforming Wake County’s system.

All of the candidates agree that mental health care is currently a “disaster,” closing Dorothea Dix hospital is a bad idea, and that the county needs more beds for those with mental illness.

Challenger Steve Rao (D) said, “I have two friends with mental illnesses and it is a deeply personal issue for me. I will do everything in my power to improve our system.”

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