LAURINBURG — Becoming a politician was never on James Garby Jr.’s bucket list.
But after purchasing a home and attending several meetings of the Laurinburg City Council, Garby said he was surprised by what he saw from leaders of the city where he decided to put down roots.
He said residents who spoke before city council rarely got a response or were ignored.
“The deciding factor for me to run was the City Hall project,” Garby said. “When I became the victim of city council’s blank stare, head shaking and smirking because I dared to speak out about it. I knew right then that their mind was made up, and they were not open to any type of compromise.”
Garby is a candidate for the at-large seat on council against incumbent Dee Hammond.
His platform includes lowering crime, utilities and taxes and improving the city’s infrastructure. Garby said he would also like to see council hold weekly meetings instead of once a month.
But his top issue is opposition to construction of a $9.1 million City Hall. He said the current council has misrepresented the project to the public.
“I am convinced that the City Hall project offers no benefit to our city,” Garby said. “We currently have less employees than we had four years ago, and there has been no growth to substantiate the need for extra space.”
He said heard a representative from Davenport and Company, an independent financial services firm, tell the city council that just because Laurinburg has the borrowing capacity does not mean the municipality should do so.
“The representative also stated that instead of borrowing this money, the city could lower the tax and utility rates,” Garby said. “Taxes might not get raised now, but there will be no choice in the future if … major issues arise.”
If elected, Garby said the project will be the first item he will want council to address.
“That is, if we get three new officials elected,” he said. “I plan to stop it, and hold BB&T accountable to the fact that there is no way they didn’t know that this was a controversial project. The penalty should not be much of an issue.”
The at-large challenger also believes the city can lower utility rates, as well as taxes.
“I am confident that the city has room to lower the current utility rates, especially since the city manager and current council are all but hiding the amount of operating cash we have in the enterprise funds,” he said. “I have yet to get a clear answer that does not contain figures from the 2016 audit.”
Garby said he wants to review the fund before giving a definitive figure for a rate cut.
“I will push for lower utility rates, on day one, and once I have the figures I will give my recommendation on how much and if we should do it in stages or all at once.”
Although Laurinburg’s tax rate appear competitive with surrounding cities, Garby believes the figure is misleading.
“The problem is that we are not getting a return on investment for our tax dollars,” he said. “Again, this is something that I am going to have to see on paper before giving a solid recommendation as to whether or not it can be lowered.”
Garby also plans to propose adjusting how the city manager and department heads are paid.
“I would be a proponent of performance-based pay,” he said. “We can set key performance indicators and have monthly reporting of the performance of each department, and hold them accountable for the results. If they put in the work, they could potentially earn more. If their performance lacks, so will their pay. This allows the cream to rise to the top within the organization and is a good accountability tool for under performance.”
Garby, who works in retail management, said that is how he has been paid “for many years.
“I am not sure of the legalities involved with applying this type of pay plan to a municipality, but it would be worth looking into,” he said.
Garby also wants to partner with other elected officials in the county to provide recreation; introduce technical and vocational training; hold weekly city council meetings; and provide the public with weekly updates and monthly from city’s departments.
He said he would also take a tougher stance on trying to reduce the county tax rate.
“I will keep the pressure on the county commissioners and school board to lower their ridiculous tax rate,” he said. “That is what is missing from our current leadership. They don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. I’m not doing this to make friends with the other governing boards. I am running because our citizens deserve quality representation.”
Garby said one of the biggest problem facing Laurinburg has been the current municipal elections. He singled out the work of the group, Citizens for Laurinburg’s Future, which has been critical of him and other challengers and the support they have gotten from Mayor Matthew Block.
“Our community is divided, people are saying and doing things that they normally would not do, and the incumbents are supported by an anonymous nonprofit organization that does nothing but spread hate and discontent disguised behind the title that they are for Laurinburg’s future,” he said. “We have to all find common ground here. Moving forward, we will see no progress if we cannot respect each other and collectively work toward common goals.
“How will we be able to fix the city’s crime problem if our leadership can’t even get along and at least act like adults? What kind of example are we setting for our children, employees and peers?
Garby said he has the background and skills needed to make a good council member.
“There will be a learning curve just as there was when the three incumbents first took their respective offices,” he said. “I feel once I am able to dive into the details of our budget and what the legalities are of the position, I will be able to truly demonstrate my extensive leadership and problem solving skills.”