For residents of Raleigh, Cary, Garner, Holly Springs or any of the other municipalities in Wake County, local government typically means the city or town council. Police? A local function. Water and sewer? Ditto. Parks? Same deal. Municipalities collect property taxes to support their own services.
But there is a higher level of local government that can have just as much impact on taxes, services and quality of life both for people who live within city or town limits and for those outside. The seven-member Wake County Board of Commissioners oversees and funds countywide programs in health and public safety. It makes land use and water supply decisions.
Most significantly, it allocates money for the public schools. To be a member of the board is to be in a position to have considerable, even dramatic, impact on the countys well-being and the prospects of its young people.
Not unexpectedly in a county where Republicans and Democrats tend to be pretty well matched, the board in recent years has been closely divided between the parties. The current lineup consists of four Republicans and three Democrats.
With staggered, four-year terms, only three of the seats are on next months ballot. And it turns out that the four Republican incumbents each get a bye their terms have another two years to go.
What that means is that even if the Democrats sweep the current races, the partisan split on the board will remain 4-3 in favor of the GOP. But you wont hear any of the candidates say this election doesnt matter. It matters in terms of making sure the county governments philosophy toward taxation and infrastructure is given the kind of scrutiny it deserves from board members willing to dissent from Republican wisdom. It matters in terms of which newcomers will take the countys political stage.
Of the three races, the outcome in one is settled. Democrat James West, the Raleigh City Council member appointed in 2010 to succeed Harold Webb when the ailing Webb stepped down, is unopposed in District 5.
The other two races are a study in contrasts on the Democratic side, featuring the boards senior member and a person making her first run for county office. They have strong Republican opponents, each of whom would mesh well with the conservatives who now control the board. Although the candidates are nominated from districts, voters throughout the county can vote in all commissioner races on the ballot.
CAROLINE SULLIVAN Another round of musical chairs has created an open seat here. Democrat Erv Portman, whod been serving on the Cary Town Council, was appointed last year to fill the vacancy created by Stan Norwalks resignation for health reasons. But Portman wants to move up to fill an open seat in the state Senate. The contest to succeed him has drawn two well-qualified candidates who offer voters a clear choice.
The Democrat is Caroline Sullivan of Raleigh, who brings the perspective of a parent actively involved with the public schools that her two children attend. That means she is especially sensitive to the Wake school districts needs for additional classrooms to keep pace with growth.
Since it is the commissioners who have the initial say on bond issues to finance school construction they set the amount of money to be borrowed and schedule referendums Sullivan shapes up as a strong advocate for moving ahead with school construction sooner rather than later.
Her Republican opponent is Dale Cooke of Holly Springs, a technology entrepreneur and executive who has been active in south Wake civic and political circles. Cooke praises the countys strong family atmosphere, excellent education system and conservative values. He has a business persons perspective on governing, with an emphasis on cost control and less regulation.
Regarding a bond issue for schools, Cooke wonders if construction expenses might instead be met with added tax revenue from economic growth. That seems to be more along the lines of wishful thinking than sound planning for enrollment increases that are virtually certain to occur.
Cooke looks as if hed be a solid member of the conservative majority on the commissioners board led by the current chairman, Paul Coble. His experience in the business world could prove valuable. But Sullivan has a better grasp of why the commissioners should take the larger view when it comes to the countys benefits from public investment. She has our editorial endorsement.
BETTY LOU WARD If Caroline Sullivan is still working her way up the county government learning curve, Betty Lou Ward would be a good person to help show her the ropes.
Ward, a Democrat, has been on the commissioners board for 24 years and has been a national leader in promoting county government effectiveness. In seeking a seventh term, she declares education funding to be the commissioners most important responsibility.
Her challenger is Paul Fitts, a mortgage lender whose focus is on economic development and keeping taxes low. Those are fine objectives, but Wakes attractiveness to business is closely aligned with the quality of its schools. It is the countys specific duty to make sure there are enough school buildings.
Fitts may have a point when he says there should be more of an effort to find vacant buildings that could be repurposed as schools. But he undercuts his argument with talk of palatial schools already in the system. Would palaces (not that Wake has any) be surrounded by fleets of mobile classrooms?
Although Fitts says he understands that government must have the resources to provide essential services, he says he opposes any form of tax increase during a down economy. Ward, while not campaigning for higher taxes, has long taken a more pragmatic approach toward meeting public needs in a county thats tightly run, with no fat on the budgetary bone. Our editorial endorsement goes to her again.