3 Wake commission seats before voters Nov. 6

Commissioners to face Wake school bond issues in first term

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comOctober 28, 2012 

In a season where political rhetoric is blistering walls from the courthouse to the White House, Wake County Board of Commissioners candidates have kept up a comparatively civil discourse.

Three seats are up for vote on the seven-member panel, which controls government for a Wake County population that will likely reach 1 million in a year or two. Betty Lou Ward, the Democratic incumbent in District 6, and her GOP opponent, Paul Fitts, even have mostly nice things to say about each other, although their visions differ along party lines.

In District 4, high-tech businessman Dale Cooke, a Republican, is squaring off against community volunteer and former political fundraiser Caroline Sullivan, a Democrat. District 5 Commissioner James West, appointed to fill the term of an ailing Harold Webb, is unopposed in a run for his first full term.

The Board of Commissioners hasn’t recently produced the kind of drama that has been seen at the Wake school board, but it could be viewed as the more powerful body because it must approve the schools’ local budget. The Board of Commissioners’ four-member GOP majority will almost certainly remain in power after Election Day, but if Democrats want to wrest control in 2014, they must retain the three seats they now occupy.

One of the key issues the board is likely to confront within its first term will be whether or when to ask voters to approve a bond issue for schools construction. The campaign season and turmoil on the school board have meant there’s been little progress on the planning that must accompany a bond issue. Under county procedures, the school board has to submit a proposal for the referendum for approval by the commissioners before it goes to voters.

“We have thousands and thousands of students that have arrived and it has been several years since we have had a bond issue for the schools,” said Ward, a 24-year incumbent. “We are going to have to have a bond issue.”

No so fast, said Fitts, a Wake County native and mortgage broker. There are empty buildings all over town that could be converted for use as schools without building new facilities from the ground up.

“Our kids need to learn, they need to be safe, they need to be in a climate-controlled area,” said Fitts, who waged an unsuccessful race for Raleigh City Council in 2011. “If we have to build a school from scratch, I have no problem with that.

“But there are so many empty facilities in Wake County. Nine times out of ten, the cost of renovating a facility is cheaper than building something from the ground up.”

Long-term needs for school construction could run as much as $2 billion, according to administration estimates, but there’s little appetite for the type of property tax increase it would take to fund bonds for the entire amount. Some Republican commissioners – the board’s majority – have said a succession of bond issues in the amounts of $300 million to $400 million would go down easier.

The tax debate

And candidate Cooke, in District 4, said in a campaign forum that the panel shouldn’t assume that a tax increase will be necessary. Enough growth from increased sales and property taxes should accompany growth to pay for the schools that way, he said.

Sullivan, Cooke’s opponent, is saying the county should be voting on more than whether to issue bonds for schools. She said it should also consider a sales tax increase for a transit project to be built in cooperation with Durham and Orange counties. Republican Commissioners’ Chairman Paul Coble has firmly opposed putting the sales tax for transit on the ballot, but both Sullivan and Ward favor letting the voters express their choices on the issues.

“I’m not coming at this as a partisan,” said Sullivan, who has raised the race’s largest campaign fund. “You have to act like adults and fix the problems that we have now.”

West, with no opponent on the ballot, has had the ability to speak plainly about what he sees as the likely need for a property tax increase to fund new school construction.

“The public school system is our most strategic investment for generations to come,” West said.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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