Three Johnston County commissioner districts will appear on this year’s ballot, but the only contest is in District 2, where incumbent Republican Ted Godwin faces a challenge from Democrat Wendy Ella May.
District 2 is made up of northeastern Johnston County, including Selma, Micro and Kenly, but the race will appear on all ballots. Johnston elects its commissioners from residency districts, but candidates run countywide. Running unopposed in November are Larry Wood, who looks to succeed retiring DeVan Barbour in District 4, and Keith Branch, who looks to take over for retiring District 6 Commissioner Tony Braswell.
Godwin, a retired banker, is completing his first term on the board, having won his seat in 2012. May, a retired emergency services worker, is making her first run for public office in Johnston County, though she made several unsuccessful bids for offices in New Jersey.
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One of the biggest chunks of the annual county budget goes to operating Johnston’s school system. The county has 42 schools, but at the rate Johnston is growing, many more appear on the way. On top of that, the Johnston school board recently commissioned a study that revealed $100 million in needed repairs at county schools.
Godwin said he sees no way around the needed maintenance costs for the county’s older schools, but he thinks Johnston can build new schools for less than it does now.
“I don’t know that we have a choice on the needs of our older schools; if a roof is leaking, you have to repair it, or you’re inviting a larger problem,” Godwin said. “But I know we can build schools cheaper than we are now. I’m not sure we need to be wrapped up in cosmetic things. Look at the health department building; it’s a plain brick building with plain windows. To me, a school should be pretty basic, it keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It doesn’t need to be the Taj Mahal.”
In terms of paying for them, Godwin doesn’t foresee any additional revenue streams for the county, so bond issues will remain the norm because taxes are high enough.
May said a growing Johnston County should expect more from its developers when approving subdivisions, either in cash or land donations for county schools.
“There should be a formula, if you’re building X number of homes on X number of acres, we can expect X number of students per school in that area,” May said. “We can look into the future, even if we don’t have a crystal ball. It’s simple smart-growth planning. We’re already 10 years behind; we need to be planning 20 years in the future. We know there needs to be a new school in the northern part of the county; there’s tremendous need in Micro and Pine Level for more schools.”
May also suggested the county could begin to repurpose its older schools and focus on building new ones with better, more efficient designs. She argued the maintenance costs of older schools are possibly holding the county back, suggesting that some could be repurposed to fill the need she sees for more vocational training.
“The older schools are becoming a drain on the county,” she said. “Look at most of the needs at these older schools – they’re spending a ton of money on roofs and HVAC systems. They’re older schools, built in a style that is not the best, most efficient style.”
Both candidates see issues with the current state of trash disposal in Johnston, where residents can either pay per ton or pay for a $100 decal that allows access to the landfill and solid waste convenience sites. May said the fees are too high and have gotten beyond the grasp of the average citizen. At this point, she said, the issue needs more study rather than a full makeover.
“We’re not making it any easier on county residents by restricting access to waste disposal,” May said.
Godwin said Johnston’s decal system is out of step with surrounding counties, and the inconvenience of it might actually lead to more trash ending up along roadways and in streams. He favors adding a fee to residents’ property tax bills, though ideally, he said, growth in the tax base could swell the county’s general fund to the point where it could support trash disposal.
“Then you don’t have to worry about decals and restricted access,” Godwin said. “This way the trash has a better opportunity of making it to the landfill and not our creeks and fields.”
The next jail
Johnston County’s jail and courthouse are busting at the seams, and one of the major decisions commissioners will likely make in the next couple of years is where to build a new law enforcement complex. Both candidates rejected the example set by Harnett County, which moved its courthouse out of downtown Lillington, but they differed on where to go from there.
Godwin said he’s yet to find the perfect location but would prefer keeping the jail and courthouse in the county seat of Smithfield. He concedes that downtown is pretty crowded and that the county needs a much larger jail than it has now.
“The jail needs to be in the right location, close to the courthouse, preferably on land we already own,” Godwin said, pointing to the area around the Agricultural Center as a possibility.
May believes the county should elevate its courthouse space, rather than look elsewhere, saying Johnston could build on top of its existing footprint. The jail, she said, could go anywhere.
“It’s hard enough to get to the courthouse, and you’ll make it that much harder if you move it out of town,” May said. “I think we should look into holding District Court in Clayton and Benson like we used to.”
Parks and rec
Historically, Johnston County has left parks and recreation to its towns and community organizations. With the size of the county’s population now and the expectations of newcomers, there has been talk of a county parks and recreation department. May said she is in favor of such a department, saying it could be bare bones, but that Johnston needs something. She said parks funding or land donations is another area where she would look to developers to contribute.
“No doubt there’s a need for a countywide parks and recreation system,” May said. “This is the 21st century, not the 18th century. It doesn’t need to be 1,000 people; it could be just one person. But we need to have something in place, something that unifies and unites all our communities together.”
Godwin thinks a standalone department for parks and recreation is unnecessary at this point, that towns and community groups have thus far successfully managed athletic programs and built adequate facilities. He said, though, that the county should chip in.
“I’m not sure we need a department, but we could look at facilitating existing programs through open-space funds,” Godwin said. “We need to support programs like Glendale-Chapel, which runs ball fields and soccer fields – support but maybe not take it over.”
Godwin said the county could play a large role in seeing Johnston connect its portion of the Mountains to the Sea Trail.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson
Educational background: North Johnston High School graduate, attended N.C. State University but joined the military before receiving a degree.
Professional background: retired banker, most recently with KS Bank.
Political experience: one-term incumbent commissioner for Johnston County District 2.
Family: married, three sons, four grandchildren.
Website: Ted Godwin for Johnston County Commissioner Facebook page.
Wendy Ella May
Educational background: doctorate from the International Bible College in Philadelphia.
Professional experience: retired emergency services worker, disabled veteran.
Political experience: First time seeking public office in North Carolina, previously staged several unsuccessful runs for office in New Jersey.
Family: one son, two grandchildren.
Website: www.electwemay2016.org; Wendy Ella May for Johnston County Commissioner Facebook page.