Commissioners races could change Wake priorities
Posted October 28, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Four of the seven seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners are up for grabs in next Tuesday's election, and observers say the outcome could dramatically change the priorities for county leaders.
"Even a switch of one seat will change the balance," said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College. "We could see huge policy shifts."
Republicans hold a 4-3 edge on the board, but all four Republican commissioners – Joe Bryan, Paul Coble, Rich Gianni and Phil Matthews – are up for re-election. The four Democratic challengers – John Burns, Matt Calabria, Jessica Holmes and Sig Hutchinson – are running as a bloc under the "More with 4" banner.
"This is the most obvious kind of teamwork we’ve seen in county commissioner races," McLennan said. "It’s also a way for them to cut through the clutter."
Hutchinson said he hopes a Democratic majority can soften what he says has become an increasingly harsh partisan tone on the Board of Commissioners.
"We have seen a level of bickering, partisanship and consternation we’ve never seen before," he said. "We need to change the tone. We need to change the tenor."
He cited the tense relationship between the commissioners and the Wake County school board over the annual school budget and over control of local school buildings. The Board of Commissioners in August rejected a proposal to put a local sales tax increase to help raise teacher salaries on the Nov. 4 ballot. Last year, commissioners failed in their attempt to obtain approval from the General Assembly to be put in charge of school construction and maintenance, but the two county boards reached an agreement on the matter in February.
"We’re not providing enough resources to provide a quality education for our kids, and we’re not working with our school board to solve problems," he said.
Bryan said the commissioners have "worked jointly with the school board" in recent years, noting that the county has invested more than $2 billion in school construction over the past 12 years and included raises for teachers in the 2014-15 budget. Wake County now offers the largest local supplement to teacher salaries in North Carolina.
"Teacher pay is generally a statewide issue. It needs to be solved at the state for all 100 counties," he said. "We are No. 1 when it comes to supplement. I think that says something."
Bryan said the Republican commissioners offer needed experience at balancing priorities and budgets that Democrats lack.
"It’s not just about transportation. It’s not just about education. It’s about human services, being that safety net. It’s about mental health," he said. "There’s lots of different issues you have to prioritize.
"They are short on experience, long on promises, and those promises will only lead to significantly higher taxes," he said.
Hutchinson called tax increases "a function of growth" and should be viewed as people investing in the future of their community.
"If we explain to the voters what they’re getting for their money, voters are more than happy to invest in something they understand," he said. "I would say the best way to keep our taxes low over the long term is to continue to invest in our community so more people will want to come and share that tax burden."
Mass transit is one such investment that is needed, he said, noting that commissioners have dragged their feet on putting together a plan that meets both Wake County and regional needs.
"We’ve been working on a transit plan for the past 10 years, and these commissioners have refused to even talk about it until very recently," he said.
"We have a transportation future that looks a lot like Atlanta unless we begin to plan today," he continued. "Even if you never use transit, you benefit from it by someone else using it."
Bryan said the Board of Commissioners is "moving forward with a good robust discussion with our community" and is reworking the transit plan after consultants called it unsatisfactory.
McLennan said voter turnout could be the deciding factor in control of the Wake County board.
"If the Senate candidates – (Democrat) Kay Hagan or (Republican) Thom Tillis – can turn out their prospective voters, then that will filter down the ballot to the county commissioner races," he said.