The race for three at-large seats on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners is filled with multiple storylines.
Among the three Democrats and two Republicans, incumbent Democrat Pat Cotham was the board’s chairwoman last year who led the effort to oust longtime County Manager Harry Jones, birthing a new direction for the county amid a year of tumult.
It was a year when state legislators forced the county to review its troubled 2011 revaluation and also forced commissioners to close the behavioral health agency that controlled $200 million in Medicaid money for mental health services.
On the county board, the Jones firing led to Cotham’s ousting as chair. She was replaced by Democrat Trevor Fuller – third among at-large candidates in the 2012 election.
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Fuller is running for a second term touting his leadership on a referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot to raise the local sales tax by a quarter-cent to primarily boost teacher pay – after Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools lost 1,000 teachers last year.
The two one-term incumbents face former longtime Charlotte City Council member Ella Scarborough, a Democrat and the council’s first female African-American, who is trying to make a political comeback after 13 years.
Republican Emily Zuyus emerged as a leader of jilted property owners who pushed state legislators to force the revaluation review and refunds for overtaxed properties.
The fifth candidate, Republican Scott Carlisle, is the only Charlotte native among the five. He’s urging an independent review to find wasteful spending so property taxes can be cut, not services.
Cotham’s legacy on the board likely will be her single-minded effort to remove Jones and bring change to the county. In 2012, she campaigned to restore trust to county government and felt that the culture that Jones had created stood in the way. She said he and his cadre of managers withheld information from commissioners and didn’t keep a tight enough watch over the revaluation and a social services department with problems.
Voters in 2012 gave the 63-year-old Cotham the most votes, and commissioners gave her the chairwoman’s seat. Soon, she began to build a coalition – which included the board’s three Republicans – to fire Jones. She supported the revaluation review and urged commissioners to review the county’s building code enforcements.
A former corporate recruiter, Cotham has been a stalwart in the county’s Democratic Party. Yet through all the change, she butted heads with leaders in her own party. Other Democrats on the board complained she got too cozy with Republicans and excluded them from conversations.
“I believe you all know I have a reputation for being courageous and standing by myself on issues,” Cotham said at a recent candidates forum. “Being a county commissioner can be easy if you rubber-stamp everything. But if you stand up for issues, stand up for people and do what’s right, it can be very difficult.
“I found out that I was braver than I thought.”
Fuller brought calm to the board. He’s shortened meetings and doesn’t let commissioners stray from issues.
Much of the difficult change came during Cotham’s tenure, so the constant bickering among board members has subsided, and the board is no longer taking shots at county staff.
Fuller, a Charlotte lawyer, used a “state of the county” speech in January to bemoan Mecklenburg’s “intractable” poverty and to call for Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members to invest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education to prepare students for high-skill jobs.
He said the county can do more to generate jobs.
Yet perhaps his boldest leadership came with the sales tax referendum. It came – out of nowhere, some critics complained – as state legislators offered proposals to lift the state from the bottom of teacher compensation but came to no decision until late in this year’s short session.
So Fuller and Vice Chairman Dumont Clarke quietly built a majority of five votes and put the referendum on the November ballot.
Fuller took most of the lumps from commissioners who felt excluded, and from some state legislators and the Charlotte Chamber for not consulting them before going public. As legislators attempted to derail the referendum in Raleigh, he remained steadfast that raising the sales tax was the only sustainable way to keep teacher pay in Mecklenburg competitive.
“I’ve asked anyone to bring us a better plan, and all the months we’ve been talking about this, all you’ve heard is crickets,” Fuller told a candidates forum. “I don’t want to pay more taxes, but if it’s about doing something for our teachers – and our children – I’m willing to make the sacrifice. I think most people are, too.”
Scarborough has been gone from politics since 2001, but voters still know her. She served on the City Council for 10 years. In 2001, she lost to now-Gov. Pat McCrory for Charlotte mayor, as she did in 1999. In 1998, she ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.
Now she wants back in because she believes the board lacks a voice “for ordinary people.”
She’s been critical of the board offering tax incentives to lure businesses to Mecklenburg. “When they come, they bring their own people,” said Scarborough, who teaches part time in Central Piedmont Community College’s Pathways to Careers program. “CPCC is training our people to get these jobs. Why train people if they’re not going to get the jobs?”
She said she’d work to require these companies to hire a certain percentage of Mecklenburg workers.
Scarborough grew up in Sumter, S.C., and at 16 in 1963 was jailed with 357 other blacks trying to enter a movie theater by the front door. Five years later, as a senior at S.C. State University in Orangeburg, she tried to help integrate the town’s only bowling alley. S.C. Highway Patrol officers fired into the growing crowd of black students after a trooper was hit in the head by a banister.
Three students were killed in what became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
“I’ve been around and seen a lot,” Scarborough said. “I’ve worked on issues on City Council that helped ordinary people, and I want to do it on county commission.”
Carlisle is making his first run for office but has been peripherally involved in politics as a former chairman of Mecklenburg County Young Republicans and campaign chair for the county’s Republican Party.
He’s lived in Charlotte most of his life, graduating from UNC Charlotte, and decided to become a candidate to give back. He believes Mecklenburg’s property tax rate is too high, saying enough wasteful spending by commissioners can be identified to bring the rate down and not cut services.
Carlisle, a commercial real estate assessor, is against the sales tax referendum. As a commissioner, he said, he’d push for an independent assessment of the county’s spending. “We would be able to streamline and run a more efficient government,” he said at a candidates forum. “We would use an outside source to see where we can save and use some of those savings to pay teachers.”
He said he’d push to use savings to lower the property tax rate to help lure more companies to Mecklenburg.
“One of the reasons why companies do not move to Charlotte, they cite our higher tax rate,” Carlisle said. “I want to bring manufacturing jobs back to Mecklenburg County. They are leaving China and South America. Now they’re beginning to come back to this country. We need to be ready.”
Zuyus had no political aspirations until the county overvalued her Myers Park home.
As a property owner revolt brewed, she became a measured voice prodding commissioners to review the revaluation and refund property owners who were overbilled.
When the board didn’t act, Zuyus and other protest leaders took their fight to Raleigh. They won, with legislators passing a law that required the county to review each parcel and refund overtaxed property owners or bill the undertaxed.
“We thought we could appeal and it would be resolved,” said Zuyus (pronounced ZOOyus), a Cheraw, S.C., native and former banker who with husband Joe owns a recruitment agency focusing on accountants. “When the county didn’t fix it, we knew we had a problem.
“Not all the commissioners were listening or were engaged. You elected them to represent you and here you have a major issue and they’re treating citizens unfairly.”
A mother of two CMS students, she’s met with school board members to learn about education issues. She’s concerned about the spreading poverty in Mecklenburg and that the county’s property tax rate is discouraging companies from relocating here.
“Citizens are moving outside the county because they can’t afford property taxes,” she said. “I believe that county government is inefficient and that we need to tighten our belts so we can lower property taxes. That, in turn, will make us more attractive to businesses.”