LAURINBURG — The elephant in the room during this week’s Laurinburg/Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce Candidates Forum will soon be situated on 303 West Church Street.
No matter what was asked by the media or audience, all of the city’s problems seemed to circulate back to whether the city needs a new City Hall/police department.
All of eight city council candidates said that they would like to lower rates, crime, and create more jobs.
However, disagreements on the municipal project overshadowed many similarities among candidates — J.D. Willis and Mary Evans in District 1; Frank Evans, Drew Williamson, Brian Gainey and George Medlock in District 2; and Dee Hammond and James Garby, the at-large candidates. Roy Guinn did not attend.
Instead of spending the $9.1 million on the municipal building, the challengers — Mary Evans, Frank Evans, Garby and Gainey believe the city would be better off investing its money in infrastructure improvements, fighting crime, and lowering tax and utility rates.
Medlock said the City Hall is needed, but could have been done a much lower price and with local contractors.
The incumbents — Willis, Williamson and Hammond all argued that the current City Hall and police station is outdated and said that the city should not expect new businesses to invest in Laurinburg if the city is afraid to invest in itself.
The incumbents also argued that the construction of the building will not limit the ability to make infrastructure improvements, lower taxes and rates, and even think about ways to reduce crime, something all of their challengers agree with.
“Our water and sewer funds, we will be able to reduce the rate,” said Willis, who explained rate increases have been done to meet state requirements and shortfalls.
But Mary Evans, Franks Evans and Garby have said they will reduce water rates by 25 percent and electric rates by 5 percent on “day one” in office.
Garby cited a surplus of $4 million in the water sewer fund being the reason Laurinburg can afford the rate decrease. Hammond said she is not sure where the $4 million number came from but the amount is closer to $2 million according to a 2016 audit.
“We had a professional look at our rates and advise us what to do,” Hammond said. “We do not pull numbers out of the air to do that, we rely on those professionals to tell us what to do with our electric rates and water rates. Water rates have not been raised in years.”
Williamson agreed, saying that “any change to the water and utility rates is not a figure pulled out of thin air.”
But Frank Evans said he would like to see the funds sustain themselves, but not build up large surpluses.
“I would seek a break even mark of what it truly costs to maintain electricity and water rates plus five percent for maintenance fees,” he said. “If the city needs additional funds for a project that is upcoming, council, no matter who sits in the five seats along with the mayor, they have a right to explain these things to the public.”
The candidates were also asked about reducing the tax rate with the challengers saying that the city may need to foster a better working relationship with the county that could bring about a lower total rate.
Williamson and Hammond said the city does work with county and several joint ventures, but Willis cautioned about the Laurinburg council overstepping its bounds.
Medlock said a better answer to lowering taxes is better jobs.
“The important thing to remember about the tax issue is that people aren’t making enough money as they should be in this town,” Medlock said. “My answer is getting Laurinburg working again, get Laurinburg a decent pay, and get Laurinburg decent benefits. So that way it is not such a burden on the entire city or at least on the ones that are paying it.”
Williamson seemed to agree.
“As far as the tax rate is concerned … it is tough sometimes —even with the lowest tax rate in our region,” he said. “But another way to address that is to grow and to bring in business and industries so we have more revenue, more property taxes being paid, more sales taxes being paid, more revenues for the city and the county frankly to utilize so there is a little more play in the budgets so maybe they can look to address the tax rate.”
Gainey said he wanted to bring a more common sense approach to council.
“The newer candidates, we have an opportunity to offer new ideas and I feel a little more common sense and practical approaches to things could help,” Gainey said. “Like everybody else, I would enjoy lower utilities, lower taxes, lower crime, and the City Hall to me is not an answer to that.
“But the discourse between our citizens is what bothers me the most. There is a fracture in our people and I hope I can bring a degree of unity back to our city.”
Reach Nolan Gilmour at 910-506-3171