WINGATE – Candidates running for the Union County Board of Commissioners recently discussed tensions between county leaders and Union County Public Schools, management of continued growth, trouble at the Department of Social Services and more at a forum hosted by the Union County League of Women Voters.
Four of the now eight candidates running for office – Clint Laster; Stony Rushing, a former commission; incumbent Jerry Simpson; and Richard Stone, a former commissioner – attended the Monday, April 14, forum at Wingate University. They will answer questions formulated by audience members, students from Wingate University and moderator Joseph Ellis, assistant professor of political science at Wingate.
Much of the discussion Monday night centered on the county’s deteriorated relationship with the current board of education, given the recent lawsuit and $91 million jury award favoring the school system over the county, and disagreements between the two sides regarding school redistricting. Filing for board of education seats opens June 27.
UCPS school board members sued the county after commissioners approved a budget that fell short of what UCPS hoped to receive for the 2013-14 fiscal year. A jury ordered the county pay UCPS $91 million – most of which would go to improve school system infrastructure – and the county has since appealed the ruling. The two parties have already begun discussions for the 2014-15 budget while waiting to see the results of the appeal.
“Let them stand up and be the ones to go to the residents and ask for the tax increase and stop hiding behind (the county),” Laster said about the school board’s requests for additional funding. The majority of the county’s budget is taken up by the school system, which currently does not have the authority to levy its own tax. A small handful of school districts in North Carolina have that authority, which must be granted by state leaders.
UCPS receives funding from the county and state government and does not have any influence over the amount each party allocates the schools. But some candidates said better communication and relationships would be the best way to move forward as the two groups seek what’s best for Union County students.
“In the 12 years that I was a commissioner we never had a problem like we have now because I communicated – I communicated – I communicated with the school board,” said Stone, who was a county commissioner from 1994 to 2006.
The board of education wasn’t the only topic of discussion on Monday night. Questions in regard to growth seen in Union County and how the county plans to manage and provide services in the future also were included. Although, not all candidates agree that Union County has seen a lot of growth in the past two years.
“Very few people are moving now, especially in this area,” Stone said.
According to a January news release from Union County, the county issued 511 single-family housing and residential permits in 2013, with municipalities issuing nearly 1,200. Indian Trail, Stallings, Monroe, Waxhaw and Weddington have given nearly 2,200 building permits since 2011, the release stated. Though that’s down from the explosion of growth seen in the 2010 census, towns are still struggling to catch up with infrastructure needs caused by the influx of new residents.
Current vice-chairman Simpson doesn’t believe it’s the county’s position to manage growth in the area, but only to provide the opportunity to allow growth to take place.
“The county’s job is not to say how, when and where the county grows, but to provide the infrastructure for it,” he said. School leaders have recently argued that the county’s unwillingness to provide infrastructure is what led to the recently approved UCPS redistricting.
Other candidates disagreed with Simpson’s stance on the county’s involvement in growth, saying the county has to manage growth and provide economic development and more jobs in order to continue moving the county in a positive direction.
The county’s recent events within the Department of Social Services also took the stage as candidates gave their thoughts on how to manage the maligned department. The Union County Sheriff’s Office said deputies found a young boy handcuffed to the porch of a Union County home with a dead rooster around his neck last year. The home belonged to a DSS official, which has led to changes in the county’s structure of DSS and the dismissal of the official.
Simpson said the county has been proactively investigating DSS since recent events were brought to light, while other candidates said there may not be much commissioners can do to stop rare, yet ugly, occurrences like what allegedly happened last year.
“Bad people do bad things, and the county commission can’t do anything to stop it. The role of the county commission is to stand behind law enforcement and find ways to stop abuse in DSS,” Rushing said.
The League of Women Voters will host another forum on Wednesday, April 23, at Cuthbertson High School, 1400 Cuthbertson Road in Waxhaw.
Candidates Lance Simpson; Kim Ormiston; Tracy Kuehler, a former commissioner; and Sherry Hodges, a current at-large board of education member, were not at the forum. Indian Trail Mayor Michael Alvarez has withdrawn his name from the race although he will still appear on the May 6 Republican primary ballot as it has already been printed, while Indian Trail Councilman Chris King, the lone Democratic Party representative to run, dropped out last month. Both Alvarez and King cited a need to focus on Indian Trail concerns as their reason for leaving.
With only Republicans left running for county commission, the May primary will likely decide who is elected to fill the three open seats. Otherwise, a write-in candidate would have to beat one of the three Republicans on the November ballot.
Union County Weekly has asked candidates to respond to a series of questions as part of our candidate survey. Results of that survey will run in a future issue.