04/29/08 — 33 speak to voters at forum at Grange

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33 speak to voters at forum at Grange

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 29, 2008 1:46 PM

Speaking at the Grantham Grange's candidate forum Monday night, the issue of taxes was on the lips of several Wayne County Board of Commissioners candidates.

Some were advocating against the upcoming sales tax referendum; some argued in favor. Others pledged to not increase property taxes; others said circumstances would dictate their decisions.

But that was, said several of the nearly 75 people in attendance, exactly the kind of information they were looking to hear.

"I think they covered the issues pretty well," said Randy McCullen, husband of Democratic commissioner at-large candidate Sandra McCullen.

Taxes, though, was just one of the topics discussed by the 33 candidates, or their representatives, at the Grantham Volunteer Fire Department.

Topping almost everybody's list was government spending and education as Grantham Grange program director and moderator John Tart first asked each candidate to introduce him or herself and then proceeded to direct questions at each one.

"I will not be voting for a property tax," Mrs. McCullen said in response to a question about balancing property tax levels and the county's fund balance.

However, when asked if he would commit to making sure the commission funds the school system at the state average, Republican commissioner at-large candidate Hal Keck, declined to make the same pledge.

"Whatever it takes to give our children the best education we can, I'm in support of it," he said. "And if that means increasing taxes, I don't want to, but I'll consider it."

Attitudes to the sales tax were similarly split.

One Republican candidate for the District 3 commission seat, Frank Pearsall III, announced his opposition to the plan.

"I'm against the sales tax being increased unless the property tax is decreased," he said. "A lot of people just cannot afford another tax increase."

On the other hand, Chris Gurley, the second Democratic candidate for the county commission at-large seat, announced his support for the referendum.

"I'm not in favor of any increase in property tax," Gurley said. "The quarter-cent sales tax is the fairest tax out there. Four cents of property tax equals one-quarter of one penny of sales tax.

"And if the quarter-cent sales tax is going to lower our property tax rate, I'm in favor of it. Or if the quarter-cent sales tax will keep our property taxes at the same level, I'm be in favor of it."

And it was those discussions, said Ann Horne, wife Democratic commissioner at-large candidate Darrell Horne, that she found the most interesting.

"I wish everyone was asked that (sales tax) question," she said.

But they weren't the only ones taking some hard questions.

District Court judge candidates William Bland, Charlie Gaylor and Chris Rogerson were all asked to address what can be done to keep violent offenders -- like the man accused of murdering the UNC-Chapel Hill student president while on parole -- off the streets.

And all three answered that while they couldn't guarantee something like that would never happen, they would work to ensure that violent criminals were placed in jail when arrested, placed under the maximum bond, and then highly supervised while out on parole and probation.

Also chiming in on the issue -- even though they won't be on the ballot until November -- were the two Superior Court judge candidates.

Incumbent Jerry Braswell voiced his confidence that such a tragedy wouldn't happen in Wayne County because of the system they have developed in the courthouse to deal with such probation issues, while challenger Arnold Jones voiced his opinion that more reforms, specifically regarding the bonding process, are still needed to prevent such an occurrence.

Staying in the Wayne Courthouse, the register of deeds race also garnered a bit of attention when the candidates were asked if the office had the equipment and resources necessary to operate at a 21st century technical level.

Challenger Constance Coram responded that it did, but that the problem "is the lack of training."

Her opponent, incumbent Lois Mooring, however, pointed to her record of change and improvement in the office.

"We don't hear any complaints," she said.

Another race that won't be decided until November, but still featured several tough questions, was the contest for the school board at-large seat.

Specifically, both Ven Faulk and Eddie Radford were asked if they would support the construction of more community schools, such as a high school in the Grantham area.

And both men more or less answered that they would -- depending on its cost and effect on projects in the rest of the county -- though Faulk's response was slightly stronger in the affirmative.

But the highest-level race receiving attention was for the state Senate District 12 seat.

With three of the four candidates attending the forum, state spending was the topic that received the most discussion, though both Democratic candidates, Kay Carroll and Patricia Oliver also made pledges to improve education.

But Oliver also promised to rein in spending by the state Department of Transportation, and Carroll promised to support his counties if they were to ask for another local option sales tax to help reduce property tax burdens.

"If the county commissioners came to me and asked for that, I think as your representative, I have an obligation to fight for you," he said.

But it was Republican candidate David Rouzer who focused the most on spending in Raleigh -- especially after he was asked to explain how he would pay for any new initiatives.

"The government is growing at such a clip it's going to kill the private sector. I think government is the problem, not the solution," he said. "I have not campaigned one bit on expanding government programs."

Rather, he explained that he would prefer to cut spending, cut taxes, cut regulations, and eventually find enough savings through better management practices to suspend the state's gas tax.

So, overall, Tart said, it was a good forum, with the candidates seeming to speak openly and honestly.

"They answered the questions very well. I was very impressed with the number of candidates who were here and with the answers they gave," he said.

Also at the forum were representatives for gubernatorial candidates, Democrats Bev Perdue and Richard Moore, as well as Republican Fred Smith; Commissioner of Agriculture Democratic candidate Ronnie Ainsley, a representative for Commissioner of Agriculture Republican incumbent Steve Troxler; District Court 8 judge incumbent Tim Finan; state Senate District 5 Republican candidate Louis Pate, a representative for state Senate District 5 Democratic candidate Chuck Stone; state House District 11 Republican candidate Efton Sager, state House District 11 Democratic candidate Ronnie Griffin; and county commission District 4 Democratic candidate Denny Tart.

The non-partisan forum, which is an annual event for the Grantham Grange, was held as part of National Grange Month.