The Town of Garner, home to Wake County Board of Commissioners chair Phil Matthews, provides handy examples of issues at stake in coming elections, where Matthews and three fellow Republicans on the seven-member panel face challengers.
The core question for the Nov. 4 election: Have the Board of Commissioners’ low-tax policies spurred the growth that has Wake County’s economy expanding? Or have leaders failed to invest in transportation and schools so that the upturn can continue?
In terms of Garner, Matthews makes the case that the state of the county is reflected in development such as the tens of millions worth of projects pouring into White Oak Crossing, and construction of a new Garner high school. Democrats point to limited public transit options into Raleigh from Garner, and the growing town’s decades of being stuck with two crowded middle schools.
A quartet of Democratic challengers credit everyone but Matthews and the commissioners.
“Wake County continues to be a great place to be, but it continues to be a great place to be in spite of what the commission is doing, not because of it,” said Matt Calabria, 31, the Fuquay-Varina attorney challenging Matthews in District 2. “We are already seeing problems develop that are the product of their failed leadership.”
Calabria maintains that employers care more than about the area’s talent pool and investments in education and Research Triangle Park than about low taxes.
But Matthews, 64, warns that the challengers lack the current board’s business skills, and would cost taxpayers money while turning away businesses.
“The experience level isn’t there. It’s three attorneys and a motivational speaker. Nobody’s bringing anything to the table except it sounds like they want to raise taxes,” Matthews said.
A turn of any one seat would switch the majority and possibly the county’s priorities because all four Republicans in the seven-member board of commissioners face challenges in races with similar rhetoric and narratives.
Building enough schools?
A year ago, Cabela’s announced construction of its first North Carolina location in Garner. It will anchor tens of millions of dollars worth of development in the White Oak Crossing shopping center at U.S. 70 and I-40. Residential construction continues in Garner as it does in the rest of the county with an economy healthier than most in the nation. Generally speaking, Matthews said there’s nothing he’d change about the commission’s last four years.
“We do have low taxes and we’re business-friendly. There’s good examples of that working, with high-paying jobs coming in,” Matthews said. “One of the big things I really feel proud of has been working with municipalities and bringing in businesses, bringing in jobs.”
With growth, services also must expand, and the timing presents challenges. The new schools and transportation options take time to build and implement, and need funding before new residents pay their first tax bill.
Matthews, a two-term Garner town councilman voted out in 2007, believes the current trajectory sufficient. He expressed pride that in his four years the county has not raised taxes except on a voter-approved referendum.
And the county is building schools. Garner will get two of 16 brand new schools funded by that referendum: a high school and elementary school on the southern reaches of the towns’ limits, an area expected to see significant growth.
But a middle school planned for that area didn’t make the cut, and it wasn’t the only unfunded need. The school board projects it will need 24 more still-unfunded schools by 2020. Garner’s two middle schools each have several mobile class units and are near to over capacity.
Calabria and his fellow Democrats, who have been traveling and attending events as a team, don’t agree enough has been done.
“Schools in parts of the county are now getting so overcrowded that students are having to go farther to go to school, because our school construction hasn’t caught up with our growth need,” said Calabria, who attended public schools from kindergarten to UNC-Chapel Hill until he got a law degree from Duke. “They have had a substantial head start in getting this done, and they have squandered it.”
Sluggish on transit?
Calabria also hammers the GOP commissioners for dragging its feet on a transit plan. An extensive study in 2010 laid out a long-range plan; there’s been little concrete movement since. While Durham and Orange counties held successful referendums to fund enhanced transit and potentially a light-rail line linking Chapel Hill and Durham, the commissioners haven’t brought a proposed half-cent sales tax hike to a vote in Wake.
Again, the Town of Garner presents a case study. The town, like others along the proposed line including Raleigh, Cary and Morrisville, likes the idea of a commuter rail line proposed in the 2010 plan, one with two stops in Garner. The town believes that could help facilitate substantial investment in residential and retail, particularly near the proposed downtown station.
In the near term, the town also hopes for enhanced bus service called for by the plan.
This summer the commissioners ordered a fast-tracked study to determine whether and which expanded transit options could or should be funded by a sales tax increase. A referendum, because of a new state law, couldn’t happen until May 2016. Matthews attributes the delay to other higher priorities, mostly the school bond and hiring a new county manager.
Calabria and his compatriots say it’s a political move to appear active before an election. He called Matthews’ explanation a “walk-and-chew-gum excuse.”
Matthews generally dismisses trains as too expensive and inflexible for an area not dense enough yet to need them. To him, it’s the kind of investment that should scare voters from candidates whom he believes will not be good stewards of public dollars.
While Calabria has said the current commissioners lack vision and willingness to make needed long-term investments, he also said that doesn’t mean he and his new group would toss taxpayer money down the drain.
“Some of the Republican candidates have said things I agree with. All of us say we need a plan that meets our needs, should look for savings wherever appropriate,” he said. “The difference is that the incumbents will attack us for being financially irresponsible for saying the same things they are.”