Gaston & Catawba

Candidates focus on the economy

From creating new jobs to meeting the needs of local schools, eight candidates for the Gaston Board of County Commissioners say the challenges will be many in tough economic times.

Four seats are open on the board, and three Republican incumbents – Joe Carpenter, Mickey Price and Allen Fraley – are running for re-election.

Republican Jack Brown of Gastonia Township isn't seeking re-election. Running for his seat are former Gaston County commissioner Donnie Loftis, a Republican, and Democrat Jennifer Davis, a member of the Gaston County school board.

The top four vote-getters win the election.Here's how the candidates stand on some of the issues:

Joe Carpenter

Three-term commissioner Carpenter, who lives in Crowders Mountain Township, said that with declining sales-tax revenue and property-tax values the board faces big challenges.

“But we can work through it,” said Carpenter, 72, a retired landscaping contractor. “It will take everybody keeping their heads screwed on straight.”

The board continues to look at ways of curtailing spending and delaying projects if needed.

Meanwhile, Carpenter said, plans are moving forward to build new schools through $175 million in bond money approved by voters last year.

Efforts continue to bring in more industry and “get people to working,” he said.

On the issue of countywide water and sewer, Carpenter said the recent drought has caused some commissioners to rethink how to approach the problem.

“We need to find more ways to store water,” he said, citing efforts in Cleveland County that include Kings Mountain's impoundment of Moss Lake.

Mickey Price

Republican incumbent Price, who lives in South Point Township, said the board should continue funding the Economic Development Commission to help attract more industry and jobs.

For Gaston, 2006 was a banner year with the arrival of the Dole Food Co.'s salad packaging plant in Bessemer City and National Gypsum's wallboard plant in Mount Holly, said Price, a former Belmont City Council member.

He wants to see the momentum continue and favors tax incentives for new industries along with funding to get water, sewer and roads into potential sites.

“New companies coming in want sites almost ready to be graded,” said Price, 59, who supervises 17 CVS Pharmacy stores. “It's easier to attract industry when a site is ready to go.”

He said the biggest challenge facing county commissioners will be paying off the $175 million in school bonds.

“We may have to do some special financing locally until the bond market comes back,” Price said.

Allen Fraley

First-term Republican incumbent Fraley of Cherryville Township said the top issue is how to keep governmental services at the level people are used to without increasing the tax rate.

With declining sales tax revenues and housing permits, the challenge will be finding money to maintain services, he said.

The board will be looking at ways to cut spending, but hopefully won't have to resort to a hiring freeze or layoffs.

Keeping the Economic Development Commission funded so it can continue recruiting new is a top priority, he said.

“We've been successful, but we've got to do better and work harder,” said Fraley, 47, a real estate broker. “We've got some tough times ahead. I don't see this job as being fun. Whoever gets it will have their hands full.”

Lewis Guignard Jr.

Guignard, a Libertarian candidate from Cherryville Township, said the main issue facing Gaston is uncontrolled growth spilling over from Mecklenburg County.

As a Mecklenburg native, Guignard said, he knows firsthand what can happen when waves of newcomers move in, putting increased demands on those who have lived in the area for many years – people “who need someone who cares about them.”

“I have no problem with growth,” said Guignard, 56, a trucking company sales representative. “But when you grow too fast without the infrastructure keeping up in a reasonable fashion, all you can do is raise taxes for such things as schools and parks and jails. It's a terrible burden on the people who've lived here previous to the newcomers.”

As a commissioner, Guignard said he'd work to ensure growth was reasonable and controlled.

Blake McLean

McLean, a Democrat from Crowders Mountain Township, said the county board needs to focus more on countywide water and sewer, especially in such areas as Cherryville and Mount Holly.

“We have to expand the project,” said McLean, 35, an auctioneer. “It will help residential and commercial growth, create jobs and help our economy.”

McLean wants to cut wasteful spending but favors increased funding for schools and a tax reduction for senior citizens.

“They (seniors) have worked hard for years in tough times,” he said. “They're still paying high property taxes in the county.”

Jennifer Davis

Davis has served on the Gaston County Board of Education for 12 years but decided to try for a seat on the county commission.

“I got to the point where I just felt as if our leadership was not adequately funding education,” said Davis, 61, a retired IBM employee who runs her own human-resource consulting business. “Economic development is falling behind as a result.”

Gaston County has the seventh-largest school district in North Carolina, Davis said, “but it would take $14 million to bring us to the average per pupil per year spending in the state. Not to the top but to the average. That's shameful.”

As a commissioner from Gastonia Township, Davis said she'd focus on school funding, technical programs to ensure a skilled workforce and helping make Gaston a magnet for new industry.

Donnie Loftis

Loftis, who served on the Gaston Board of County Commissioners from 2000 to 2004, is seeking another term because “I want to be more involved in the community.”

“I want to speak to the concerns of the average citizen,” said Loftis, 52, a CVS Pharmacy store manager.

Aggressively recruiting new business is a top priority, he said, along with focusing on the needs of existing businesses.

Also, Loftis said the county can get ahead by keeping up with what kinds of industries might be interested in coming to Gaston. One way of doing that could be regularly attending trade meetings to get a feel for the industrial climate.

“We need to plan for the future,” Loftis said.

Tommy Loudermilk

Loudermilk, a Democrat from South Point Township, said his top priorities are schools, taxes and economic development. He said taxes are the highest in 14 surrounding counties, excluding Mecklenburg, but that funding per student in schools is less than in those 14 counties.

“As far as economic development and creation of jobs, commissioners don't have priorities in order,” said Loudermilk, 61, a Belmont City Council member from 1983 to 1990 and former mayor pro tem. “They need to be more aggressive in recruiting more industry and businesses for Gaston to provide more job opportunities.”

Loudermilk, a retired administrator with UNC Greensboro, said Gaston has been hard hit by the current economic slowdown but that the textile industry here has been on the decline for 25 years.

“We need to have a proactive board to be a little more prepared,” he said. “We're in quite a hole, and it is going to take a while to get out of it. But it can be done with an aggressive approach and getting priorities in order. And it needs to be a collaborative effort between government, civic organizations and the general public.”