Republicans and Democrats running for the four open seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners size up the county’s fortunes like people who have just watched the same movie but disagree completely on what it’s about.
The Republicans – all incumbents – point to the county’s excellent credit rating, its national accolades and its constant population growth as signs that local leaders have been doing a great job and should stay the course.
The Democrats trying to unseat them cite the county’s low per-pupil spending and inaction on public transit and see a place whose leadership refuses to invest in the future, jeopardizing the high quality of life that has been Wake’s draw.
Voters will decide in a little more than a month which candidates’ vision aligns best with their own.
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While many residents may not realize it, the seven members of the board of commissioners have a profound influence on daily life in the county.
“The full range of services that we depend on so much – getting up in the morning, heading to the shower and expecting water to be there, sending the kids off to school, the folks who inspect your restaurants and make sure buildings are built to code – those are all local government functions,” said David Ammons, a professor of public administration and government at the University of North Carolina.
Setting the goals
While the board is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the Sheriff’s Office or the libraries, for instance, it directs the county manager and his staff, who are. In Wake County, commissioners essentially serve the same role as members of the board of directors at a $1 billion corporation, with the county manager in the role of chief executive.
“As that board makes determinations about what’s important for the county, that has a major impact on what programs get funded more generously and which ones are going to be a lower priority for funding and support,” Ammons said.
How any one member of the board feels – and votes – on issues can determine county policy, at least in the short run.
In the course of a four-year term on the board, a member may vote hundreds of times, on mostly routine matters that get unanimous approval. When there is philosophical disagreement among the members, it generally follows party lines. That’s happened recently, as board members have debated matters including:
• How much the county should contribute to public-school teacher pay.
• How to proceed with building schools since voters approved the sale of $810 million in bonds last year.
• Whether to expand the county’s bus system, build trains or light rail to reduce traffic congestion.
A new day?
Republicans have won most of those arguments since they took the majority on the board in 2010.
If even one of the four Republicans whose seat is open this year loses, Democrats will regain the majority and, according to the candidates, change the direction for the county.
If that happens, “It’s a new day for Wake County,” said Sig Hutchinson, a Democrat who runs a consulting and professional speaking business and is running against incumbent Joe Bryan for the board’s District 1 seat. “We will begin from Day 1 working with our school system, and bring it back to the nationally recognized status we once had.
“We’ll work with our regional and local partners to move forward on transit. And we’ll initiate quality-of-life issues such as working with the municipalities to leverage more money for parks, greenways and open space, and on water quality and quantity.”
Republican candidates say a Democratic takeover would bring change, but they predict it would be costly for taxpayers. They agree that a major goal for the board for the next year to five years should be improving the county’s school system, but they say teacher salaries are primarily the state’s responsibility. The county, they say, should focus on building and operating schools in the most efficient way possible.
While the board of commissioners and the school board have improved their relationship this year by having their staffs work together on school construction plans, Republican commissioners still would like to wrest control of that process out of the school board’s hands.
If they retain control of the board, Republicans say, they will make measured progress on school construction, explore transit options before committing tax money to build any new system, and foster growth by keeping taxes low.
“The last time I checked, Wake is competing quite well,” said Bryan, who hopes to be re-elected for a fourth board term. “We’re recognized as one of the best places to live nationally, we’re making those long-term investments, and we continue to have fiscal accountability.”
Republican candidates say their challengers are inexperienced and don’t appreciate the difficulty of financing the county’s competing needs.
“They’re all about just spending more money on every single service that’s out there,” said Bryan, an investment banker. “They think they’re going to wrangle it out of our billion-dollar budget. If the four of us Republicans haven’t been able to wrangle it out, I can’t imagine that these four are going to be able to do it.”
Phil Matthews, the board chairman, disputes Democrats’ claims that Republican leadership has put the county’s reputation at stake and threatened to slow growth. Raising the county’s property tax rate, currently 57.8 cents per $100 valuation, or adding a special sales-tax increase, would do that, he said.
“There would be those who would take a second look and really think about whether they wanted to come here,” said Matthews, who runs a light-and-sound business. “I don’t think we need that right now.”
School growth at issue
Democrat Matt Calabria, a business attorney running for Matthews’ District 2 seat, said under a return to Democratic leadership, residents would see “a renewed commitment to supporting the things that made Wake County a great place to be.” Calabria said the board would invest more in teacher pay to keep the county’s teachers from leaving for higher salaries elsewhere, “and engage in long-range planning to make sure we have the facilities we need to meet our state-mandated obligation to provide a seat for every child.”
Jessica Holmes, a Democrat trying to unseat Republican Rich Gianni in District 3, said investing in schools and teachers is a form of economic development because quality schools are a major reason businesses and families relocate to Wake County. Wake is the seventh-fastest-growing county in the U.S. with a population of more than 500,000 people, and the county isn’t building schools fast enough to keep up with the influx of students, Holmes said.
She and others criticize board leadership for opting for a lower-than-promised tax increase to pay for the bond issue during the budgeting process this year, saying the county had voters’ approval to be more aggressive in its construction and renovation plan.
“We’re building schools for the current capacity. Just a year or two after they open, they’re at or above capacity,” said Holmes, an education attorney.
GOP: Rein in spending
Gianni, a corporate chief financial officer who is defending the seat he took when Tony Gurley left the board in February, said the main philosophical difference between the slates of candidates is how deliberately they would spend the public’s money.
“Our job is to make sure the money we spend is for the right reason and the right things,” Gianni said. “Let’s not just throw money at a problem. Let’s think about how these investments help our children.”
Democrat John Burns, who is challenging Republican Paul Coble for the District 7 seat, said the board missed a chance this summer to approve a meaningful increase in the supplement the county pays to teachers, whose base salaries are paid mostly by the state. Despite pleas by Democratic board members to do more even if it meant approving a half-cent sales-tax increase to generate the revenue, the Republican-led board approved a one-time average increase of about $240 per year in the teachers’ supplement.
Burns, a business lawyer who has three children in Wake County schools, said that if Democrats don’t take over the reins, “We risk falling behind.” Burns said the county’s human capital, an educated workforce, is its economic development trump card. Without good schools, the quality of the employee pool could drop and new companies will be harder to recruit.
Coble, an insurance broker who has served two terms as a commissioner, says it isn’t true that the current board has failed to act on transit. Critics have said Coble’s opposition to county investment in trains and light rail has been the reason Wake did not begin work on the transit plan it received in 2011. In the meantime, Durham and Orange counties have approved sales-tax increases to pay for improved transit.
Timing key to transit
Coble said he and others saw flaws in the plan then, and with the changes in technology and driving habits that have occurred since, he’s more sure than ever that the county needs a better assessment of the kind of transit systems residents really would use.
Until the economy stabilizes, Coble said, greenways and sporting venues should be viewed as some of the luxuries the county can invest in only if basic services such as fire and rescue, law enforcement, and mental health care are fully funded.
“When you have a house fire, you don’t stop and think, ‘Well, if my house burns down, I’ll be able to see the greenway from here,’ ” Coble said. “There are some things that are just foundational, and those are the services that every citizen should expect to get, and they should expect to get them at a high level.”