Gaston & Catawba

Caldwell economy top issue

Democrats and Republicans vying to replace three incumbent Caldwell County commissioners agree on the central problems facing the county, and, in many cases, how to fix them.

But each side believes it's better suited to do the job.

Since the spring primary season, candidates have focused on economic issues, the obvious challenges facing a county long ravaged by factory closings.

Republican challengers running in a bloc defeated incumbent commissioners Faye Higgins and John Thuss in the GOP primary by criticizing their handling of county finances. Republican commissioner Herb Greene, whose seat is also up this year, didn't seek re-election.

Clay Bollinger, Rob Bratcher and Ben Griffin lambasted the current administration for a 22 percent property tax increase last year, saying sitting commissioners were spending too much. Republican voters chose them over Higgins, Thuss and three other GOP competitors.

Democratic candidates targeted the same themes. The party nominated Barbara Weiller, Randy Church and L.C. Coonse to face the Republicans in the general election.

The Republicans

Members of the GOP bloc distinguish themselves from the Democrats by pointing out their personal business experience. They said that's what the county needs to conservatively manage tax money in challenging economic conditions.

“It's one thing to say it. It's another thing to do it,” Bratcher said. “What separates our candidates, I think, is we have real-world business experience. None of us has had a job paid for by tax money. We've never been part of the bureaucracy. We need to make sure we don't continue with bureaucratic business as usual.”

Bratcher, 45, a textile director, said he'd request forecasts of economic trends so commissioners would know where finances stand before planning line-item spending, which he said should not change once the budget has been adopted, if possible.

He advocates a more diversified approach to attracting jobs and to the hiring of a full-time director for the county's Economic Development Commission, a business recruiter. He'd also boost the retail sector through special shopping events.

Bollinger, a 69-year-old retired businessman, said the county should market its strengths to compensate for its weaknesses, such as its property tax rate of 66 cents per $100 of value. That's much higher than surrounding Alexander, Burke and Catawba counties' rates, none of which is higher than 53.5 cents. “We've got one of the best community colleges in the nation for training people. We've also got incentives from the state because we're a depressed area.”

Like Bratcher, Bollinger would hire a full-time EDC director. He said he'd also work to stabilize the property tax rate. “I wish I could say we would absolutely control it and have no increase, but that would always be my goal.”

Griffin, 57, a home builder and real estate agent, also advocates controlled spending, saying he would make needs the priority before authorizing large projects, and then do them only as the county could afford it.

“The commissioners have become a spending club,” Griffin said. “At the end of the day, we end up in the hole.”

The Democrats

In addition to boosting the economy and controlling spending, the Democrats say they want to get the public more involved in county decision-making.

Coonse, a retired teacher, said few people attend commissioners' meetings. Part of the reason, he believes, is that half the meetings are in the mornings, when most people are working.

Coonse, 63, also cited closed-door meetings, including negotiations the county had with Google on the company's plans to build a data center in Lenoir.

“It defeats the purpose of democracy,” he said.

On the economic end, Coonse said he would ask the EDC to determine the best markets to target for jobs and request a budget flow chart to help commissioners and the public understand where tax money goes.

Weiller, 69, is the only candidate in this year's race who's served in a publicly elected office. She sat on Caldwell's school board for 14 years, ending in 1995.

Weiller, a retired banker, said she wants to get the public more involved in county government by reaching out to its town governments.

“I intend to be out in the community,” she said. “I think people have lost trust in their government. They felt like they had no voice.”

Weiller said she would work with county staff to control or reduce spending. “I don't think any candidate should promise a tax decrease,” she said. “But I do think we have the opportunity to give it serious thought.”

She also wants to work with other levels of government to market Caldwell to prospective businesses. “This is a beautiful county. We've got wonderful people here. I'd like for other people to find out how wonderful we are.”

Church, 46, a retired sheriff's deputy and co-owner with his wife of a pottery and scrapbook studio, said the county must hold spending in check while still providing basic services.

He said spending cuts may be necessary and that he would try to avoid waste by holding staff accountable for how the county spends tax money.

“The county and the economy are struggling,” Church said. “We've just got to make some common-sense decisions.”