The five candidates for three Mecklenburg County at-large commissioner seats debated education funding, job creation and taxes Tuesday morning at a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and WTVI PBS Charlotte.
With early voting starting Thursday and two weeks before the Nov. 4 election, Democratic incumbents Trevor Fuller and Pat Cotham debated fellow Democrat Ella Scarborough and Republicans Scott Carlisle and Emily Zuyus during the hourlong forum.
The first topic was about how to best attract jobs to the county, as well as ways to have sustainable development.
The two Republican candidates focused on lowering taxes.
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Carlisle, a commercial real estate assessor, said “taxes are too high to bring in more companies.” He added that the county needs to focus on attracting manufacturing jobs, positions that he said “created the middle class.”
Zuyus, who led a grass-roots effort to fix a botched county property revaluation, noted that a Forbes magazine survey ranked the Charlotte area highly in terms of job recruitment. But she added that Raleigh fared better in the survey, which she attributes to lower property taxes.
“I think the property tax rate is hurting (the economy),” Zuyus said. “People are moving out. Seniors are moving out.”
Scarborough has been out of politics since 2001, but she previously served on the Charlotte City Council for 10 years. She said when the county recruits businesses to come to Charlotte, it must ensure that a large number of new hires are locals.
“You can’t bring all of your people,” she said.
Fuller, the current chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, pushed for a quarter-cent general sales tax increase that’s on the November ballot. The money would be used for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employee raises, as well as Central Piedmont Community College, the Arts and Science Council and the library system.
“It's clear that prosperity in any community starts with the educational system,” he said. “This leads to people being able to get jobs.”
Cotham, a former board chairwoman, said it’s important for the county to work with educators such as CPCC.
“We need to work on helping people prepare for employment,” she said. “They often have the skills but don’t know how to connect.”
The candidates were also asked about whether they would support prekindergarten programs. All said they support the idea of more education for 4-year-olds, though they didn’t discuss specifics of how they would be funded.
Cotham said pre-K is “critical” and said the county should meet more with CMS to be a “better advocate” for the school system.
Fuller also called for more investment in STEM-related education, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
Scarborough said Charlotte must “put more money in education.”
Zuyus, who noted she is a CMS parent, said she would advocate for public schools and pre-K programs. Carlisle said the state must “continue to fund education.”
The proposed November sales tax increase was also discussed. It would raise the general sales tax to 7.5 percent.
Fuller acknowledged that funding education is a state responsibility but said “the state has not stepped up.”
“This gives us a chance to care for those who are closest to us,” he said.
Scarborough also wholeheartedly supported the proposed tax increase.
“If (education) is No. 1, we must put money in No. 1,” she said.
Zuyus said she supports schools and libraries but will not vote for the tax increase. She said there was no “long-term planning” involved with the tax and that there is “no guarantee” the money will go to education, the arts and libraries.
But she said if voters approve the increase, “I will fight tooth and nail to make sure it goes to schools.”
Carlisle took a similar position to Zuyus. He criticized the sales tax as regressive in that in “harms the poor and lower classes.” He said he thought that the state or county would over time use sales tax revenues to replace general fund dollars for education.
Cotham said she will support the tax increase but wasn’t as enthusiastic as Fuller or Scarborough in her support.
“I will vote for this,” she said. “It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a big conversation ... but it is what we have.”