The candidates for the District 6 seat on the Johnston County Board of Commissioners both have backgrounds in auditing and finance, experience they say will help the county afford the growth that’s coming.
Keith Branch, 51, of Wilson’s Mills is a Smithfield-Selma High School graduate who holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from N.C. State University. A husband and father of two, the two-term school board member owned an insurance agency for 17 years before selling it.
Before owning a small business, Branch was a fraud counselor with the state auditor’s office, and he says that experience taught him fiscal accountability. But Branch also serves on a school board that faces a $508,000 tab after allowing former superintendent Ed Croom to convert employment perks to pension-eligible pay.
Branch’s opponent also touts his experience in financial accountability. Darryl Mitchell was a tax auditor and manager at the Department of Revenue for more than 30 years. He now works in business development for ARCO Restoration, a company that helps homes and businesses recover after disasters.
Mitchell, who lives in Smithfield, is a 54-year-old husband and father of two. He began a degree in business administration at N.C. State University before finishing that degree, along with a minor in computer programming, at Atlantic Christian College, now Barton College.
Branch said he chose to run for county commissioner because he thought it important to have someone on the county board who grew up in the county and has his public- and private-sector experience.
“My experience gives me a good background in fiscal accountability in county government,” Branch said. “I started my Allstate agency from scratch and built a successful small business. I have a background in development and business, which is a priority for the county.”
In the auditor’s office, Branch said, he learned to look at things with fresh perspective. He understands internal financial controls, which he said would be helpful on the county board.
“I may have ideas and input that could possibly make things more efficient,” Branch said.
The school board member added that his experience there would allow him to be a bridge between the two boards.
“This is my eighth year,” Branch said of his school board tenure. “About 30-35 percent of the county’s budget is education, so it’s important to have someone with that background who understands how the budget works and things that go on through the system.”
Commissioner DeVan Barbour, a former school board member, isn’t seeking reelection. Branch said that could leave the county board without someone with school experience.
And for Branch, it’s important that the lines of communication between the two boards remain open – something he said he thinks he can accomplish.
“You want a go-between to build relationships,” he said. “I have relationships other people wouldn’t have ... I’ve proven I’m accessible. I think as a county commissioner, that’s the most important thing you can do for taxpayers – sometimes people just want someone to listen.”
Mitchell said he too would use a background in financial controls to the county’s advantage if elected.
“I will make wise budget decisions to keep taxes low,” he said. “Most families live on a budget and expect their representatives to do the same.”
Mitchell said it was important for elected leaders to be people “of faith and character.”
“Our leaders should be transparent, and they should listen to the people they serve,” he said. “God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason – to listen twice as much as we talk.”
Mitchell said he’s a problem solver with the right experience for the District 6 seat.
“I served almost 30 at the Department of Revenue, I was raised on a tobacco farm, and I have worked in the private sector,” he said. “I know how to solve problems. ... I want to bring fresh new leadership to Johnston County.”
Like Branch, Mitchell agreed that one of the biggest challenges facing the county is its growth.
“John Adams once said, ‘Every problem is an opportunity in disguise,’ ” Mitchell said. “Growth gave that opportunity to Johnston County. Smart growth is a way to embrace this opportunity.”
Mitchell said he had talked with several county leaders, and no matter what they discussed, it always led back to growth.
“Answers and priorities become much clearer when you listen to people who are facing these challenges every day,” he said.
The county must ensure it has adequate infrastructure and services to accommodate its growth, Mitchell said. That include schools, utilities, public safety and other needs, “all while spending within your means to prevent increased taxes,” he said.
“Growth is coming to all points of Johnston County, so let’s be smart about it by being proactive versus reactive,” he said.
For both candidates, education was a priority, especially supporting teachers.
Branch wants to see Johnston’s salary supplements climb to better compete with those in neighboring counties, especially Wake.
“I know several teachers from Johnston County who now work in Wake and went up $10,000,” Branch said. “That’s a big difference.”
“We must support our teachers with competitive pay and support them in the classroom,” Mitchell said, adding county commissioners must partner with parents, teachers and administrators “to continue finding better ways of achieving academic excellence” at all schools so none are left behind.
For more information on either candidate, find them on Facebook. For more on Mitchell, go to his website at www.darrylmitchell.org.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett