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Article 32

November 01. 2006 1:00PM

School construction and jobs are on forefront of commissioners' race

The Dispatch

The eight candidates in the general county commissioners' race agree on a number of points: that Davidson County needs to bring in jobs that pay a decent living wage; that property taxes should be low; that the county needs to build more schools for its booming student population; and the list goes on.

The question of how those goals are to be accomplished is more complicated and goes to the heart of why county citizens will place their faith in one candidate over another. To that end, The Dispatch sat down with the eight commissioners' candidates - four Democrats and four Republicans, three of them incumbents running for second terms - to talk about the issues facing Davidson County. Those issues encompass economic recruitment, education and the place of local government in social issues like the recent marriage resolution controversy, which would formally declare the county's support for an amendment to the N.C. Constitution defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. That issue was confronted only weeks ago by the Thomasville City Council and last year by the commissioners themselves.

Watson Gregg (D)

The 66-year-old former county Democratic Party chairman from central Davidson spoke candidly about the county's school construction problems, calling the $71 million bond package passed by voters in 2005 "a Band-Aid on a gaping wound." To him, it's symptomatic of a larger problem.

"We contribute the least (amount of money) per student of any system in the state," Gregg said, something he calls "unacceptable." He said there is a need to supply the next generation of the county's workforce with sufficient training in technology, saying the jobs available to local workers are limited to "menial labor or hi-tech" positions.

If elected, he said he would make running sewer to the proposed 1,000-acre industrial park in Linwood a priority. He said the county could pay for that project by introducing a 1 percent fee on every real estate transfer that takes place in the county, a measure he said would give the county several million dollars in yearly revenues.

"We've got to do something for our people," he said of the industrial park project.

Gregg, if elected, will be 70 at the end of his first term, a fact that prompts him to insist he will serve only four years if elected.

He declined to discuss the social issues the county had taken up in the past year, including the same-sex marriage resolution, saying candidates "shouldn't try to embarrass each other."

Billy Joe Kepley (R)

A former four-term commissioner, Kepley is running to retake the seat he lost when he finished fourth in the race for three spots on the Republican ticket in the 2004 primary.

Kepley, a lifelong conservationist, touts himself as "the first man to preach tourism," which he said he was doing 20 years ago. It's part and parcel of Kepley's world view, which he said is tempered by his training as an engineer.

"They taught us to plan for 20 years (ahead), and I can't get that out of my blood," he said.

He repeatedly called tourism "free money," saying it was income that required no incentives and no additional education spending and that has the added benefit of creating jobs.

Kepley believes large industry, while important to the local economy, is "not as big an economic boost as it sounds like it should be."

"Davidson County is built on small business. We've looked so hard at large industry" that we've lost sight of the local, small business, he said.

Kepley counts himself among the candidates who advocate extending sewer service to the whole county but on a limited basis. The current board, he said, has a habit of overextending the capabilities of sewer and said it should be serving schools and industries, not subdivisions.

"The commissioners have opened the gates, flooding North Davidson with dense housing, students and schools," said the Welcome resident.

Kepley was not on the board when McClure introduced his marriage resolution but voiced his opposition to religion in government.

"We do not want a religious government," he said, clarifying, "I want Christian people in government, but I don't want a government that is structured on religion. ... there should be a clean break there. I don't want the government coming into my faith or my home."

Randall Lanier (D)

After his previous three unsuccessful bids for a seat on the board, Lanier said he's adjusted his strategy for his fourth run.

"I learned a valuable lesson," he quipped. "Don't run in Davidson County on a presidential election year."

Lanier, who spent the years between 2000 and 2004 as county Democratic chairman, would like to see the county focus on recruiting manufacturing and distribution industries.

He praised the training programs available at Davidson County Community College, saying he wouldn't change anything about the way the county's workforce is being trained.

He offered high praise, as well, for fellow Democrat Max Walser, an incumbent commissioner he called a "visionary" on the issues facing school construction.

"If Max gets elected, I hope I'm there to move his agenda forward," he said.

Lanier is one of many candidates who consider economic incentives a necessity, though not a desirable aspect of the recruiting process. At the same time, he expressed faith in the work of the Davidson County Economic Development Commission and Davidson Vision.

Incentives should "always be tied to investment and employment," Lanier said.

Lanier called controversial issues like the marriage resolution "political footballs" and said they were introduced at election time to fire up emotion. Resolutions on social issues, he said, "don't really have any teeth," since those matters are determined by the state Legislature. "I really don't think that particular issue has any place in the commissioners' meeting room," he said.

Kenny Moore (R)

One of two former commissioners vying to rejoin the board, Moore served between 1986 and 1994 before choosing not to run again in favor of a position with the Piedmont Triad Partnership.

"I'm a better commissioner now for the 12 years I was out of office," Moore said. The candidate, once a classmate of Davidson County EDC Executive Director Steve Googe, is running on his background in economic development, something he said sets him apart from every other county commissioner candidate in North Carolina.

"I think it's time for Davidson County to think big and dream about what could be," Moore said, adding that he wants go into a "full-court press" to bring a Toyota plant to the county.

He praised the work of the current board of commissioners, although he expressed frustration that they have not done more to examine adequate facilities fees, which would be applied to areas of dense growth to ensure that public facilities like schools are sufficient to handle the increased population.

Moore said the marriage amendment was one that he "never could have envisioned" coming up during his eight years on the board but said he understood why it did.

"People do not feel the other two levels of government are listening to them," Moore said. He added that he's sympathetic to that, saying "county government is just an arm of state government."

Moore said he thinks the county has what it takes to become "the manufacturing and distribution hub of North Carolina for the 21st century."

Don Swink (D)

Now nearing the end of his fifth run for public office, Swink might have finally attained the name recognition that all eight candidates agree is crucial to succeeding in local politics.

He painted a populist self-portrait when asked what made him return to the commissioners' race.

"I feel like the people need somebody to stand up for them," he said.

The issue about which he feels most passionate is illegal immigration, which he said could be found at the root of many of the county's ills, from the comparative lack of good-paying jobs to the availability of drugs to school overcrowding.

"We need to deport (illegal immigrants) and send Raleigh a bill," he said. "We've got to draw a line somewhere."

Another aspect of "standing up for the people," as Swink sees it, is nurturing small businesses and offering incentives to supplement their expansion

"I believe we need to start dealing with existing small businesses, help them to grow and become more competitive," he said.

Illegal immigration is not the only issue from the national stage Swink would like to see local government take on: He said the commissioners have a "moral obligation" to oppose gay marriage.

In the future, he said, he'd like Davidson County to be known for "having the lowest tax base of any place in the state. I feel it could really be done."

Don Truell (R)

One of three incumbents seeking a second term, the former Thomasville mayor wants to help bring variety to the county's economic landscape.

"For so long, we've put all our concentration in furniture. We've got to diversify in some way," he said.

Truell scoffs at the opinion, voiced by several of his competitors, that the board needs to give economic incentives to companies already open in the county.

"We do," he said, but he argued that comparatively few local companies approach the board with requests for incentives packages.

And those incentives packages, he said, have simply become a fact of modern economic recruiting.

"Davidson County would still attract industry (without offering incentives), but it's industry that other counties don't want."

Truell said the number of local people on fixed incomes motivate him to keep the tax burden low.

He conceded, however, that tax increases were not out of the question, citing the $71.6 million school construction bond package approved by voters last year as an example.

Truell, along with former Commissioner Fred Sink, Sam Watford and Walser, opposed McClure's marriage resolution in 2005. "Over the past four years, I've seen we are blindsided by issues that have no business being on our agenda," he said.

In a second term, Truell said he wants to work on preserving the county's agricultural heritage while nurturing its industrial potential.

"This is a county that you can prosper in with industry," he said. "At the same time, it's a good place to retire."

Max Walser (D)

The former Davidson County Schools superintendent gained the distinction four years ago of being the lone Democrat to break onto an all-Republican board.

Four years later, Walser remains as adamant as ever that the commissioners need to explore alternate methods to fund the construction projects it set out with the bond referendum funds. Walser has said in the past that property taxes will not be sufficient to meet the continued growth of the county school system, which increases in population by roughly the size of a new elementary school each year.

"There is no end to this need," Walser said. "The Davidson County Board of Commissioners needs to be talking about it."

Walser also hopes to address another continuing need - that of bringing well-paying jobs to the county.

"My guess is we'll never be the kind of manufacturing center we were at one time," Walser said. In its place, he hopes to supplement manufacturing jobs with a variety of other industries. And size, he said, shouldn't dictate the industries the county considers.

"I'd rather see 10 small, good industries than one big one," he said.

Walser in the past has pushed for a vocational high school to train the next generation of county workers but conceded it is "not in the cards right now" when "there are not enough seats for an elementary school student to sit down."

He opposed the county's narrowly defeated marriage resolution.

"If you want to come down to Grace Episcopal Church, where I'm a member ... I'll debate this issue and debate it rigorously," Walser said. "We don't need to be sidetracked."

Sam Watford (R)

The third single-term commissioner campaigning for another four years on the board, Watford hopes to win re-election to see sewer service extended to the remainder of Davidson County. He forecasted the project's completion for 2010.

After the massive layoffs and factory closings over the past several years, Watford said he'd be reluctant to offer incentives to a furniture manufacturer, although he noted that Davidson County had always had a "hands-based" job market. Watford said he couldn't see the county moving too far afield from that type of labor.

Still, he voiced confidence in the Davidson County workforce.

"I think we're pretty well-qualified to do anything."

Like the majority of the candidates, he concedes that something must be done to help fund new schools to meet ever-increasing student numbers. But whatever the solution is, Watford said he's flatly opposed to borrowing money to accomplish it.

"I believe in taking the money you have and doing what you can," he said.

Watford reiterated his displeasure that social issues have begun appearing on county government agendas.

"There's a movement among politicians to use moral values for their own personal and political gain," he said. "It has absolutely no business in county government."

The Lexington Area Chamber of Commerce will sponsor a forum for commissioner candidates from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday in the Lexington Senior High School auditorium.

Glen Baity can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 227, or glen.baity@the-dispatch.com.

That's all for now.

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