When Guilford County voters go into the voting booth and pick a Guilford County commissioner this year, they’re doing a lot more than voting for one commissioner candidate over another – they are casting a vote to keep, or completely reshape, Guilford County government.
That’s because Republican commissioners hold a thin 5-to-4 majority on the nine-member board, and a Democratic win in either of two contested incumbent races would mean not just a new commissioner for Guilford County, but a completely new Board of Commissioners: A Democratic-led board would be a radically different animal than the Republican board, which has been running the county since 2012. The new board would have a new agenda, a Democratic chairman and vastly different ideas about taxation and spending.
Four incumbent Democratic commissioner candidates on the ballot face no opposition: At-large Commissioner Kay Cashion, District 1 Commissioner Carlvena Foster, District 7 Commissioner Carolyn Coleman and District 8 Commissioner Skip Alston. However, two incumbent Republicans do – and it’s a Democratic win in either of those races that would cause a seismic shift in Guilford County government. In District 2, Commissioner Alan Perdue is up against challenger Scott Jones and, in District 3, Commissioner Justin Conrad is facing Democratic challenger Tracy Lamothe.
In the days leading up to the Tuesday, Nov. 6 election, Conrad has been emphasizing to voters the fact that, if Lamothe is elected, the board will be very different. In fact, at a recent Republican event, Conrad made the point that, if the Democrats win control of the board, former five-time Chairman Skip Alston could very well be the next chairman of the board.
That statement is a true one, but Conrad said a critic who posted on social media claimed the comment was a “racial dog whistle.” Conrad said that it had nothing to do with race and instead had everything to do with the fact that, when the Democrats controlled the board – and in some years when Alston was chairman – the county saw hefty property tax increases and made other moves that appear ill advised.
Conrad said that, on the other hand, since 2012, the Republican Board of Commissioners has not raised taxes once and, instead, has consistently cut taxes. He also said the board had increased Guilford County’s savings account, paid down the debt and increased school funding every year. He added that the Republican board has also begun or completed several key projects that were put off by the Democratic-run board.
The county has just approved a new animal shelter, begun work on a new Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility and opened up a Family Justice Center in Greensboro and High Point to combat domestic violence.
Lamothe did not return a phone message left by the Rhino Times, but it is clear from comments she’s made publically that she is for generous county funding for the school system. But Conrad said Democrats who criticize the current board on school funding are off base.
Recently, Conrad led an effort for the county to sell two-thirds bonds to raise up to $10 million for security upgrades. Even though Conrad is a Republican, that move was very well received by school system officials.
Perdue was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2014, but, for years leading up to his election, he got to see the board at work first hand as the director of Guilford County Emergency Services. Like Conrad, Perdue said there are key differences between the board of old – run by the Democrats from 1998 to 2012 – and the Republican board that took power in 2012.
“Philosophically, there’s a different thought process regarding tax increases,” Perdue said.
He said the Republican board has been determined to reduce taxes – and that, he added, means not spending on every project that comes up.
“A lot of it is setting priorities,” Perdue said of keeping taxes down. “You can’t do everything.”
Perdue said he didn’t want to be too critical of previous Democratic boards but he added that he did believe the Republican-led board continued to concentrate on what county government should be doing.
“We try to focus on core government responsibilities,” Perdue said.
For instance, he said, for years the Board of Commissionaires handed out money to a large number of area nonprofits, but the question asked at budget time now is whether or not those programs promote economic development.
Before the Republicans won a majority on the board six years ago, there was a very long list of community-based groups that the county helped fund in every budget – everything from local YMCA’s to animal rescues. Now the list is almost entirely economic development groups or funding for those who put on music or art festivals that bring in revenue to the county in some way. There are still a few organizations that get funding every year because they’re pet projects of one or more commissioners, however, the Republicans’ have trimmed that list down significantly.
Perdue said he also feels the Republicans on the current board have worked well with the Democratic commissioners and haven’t simply pushed things through without input from the opposing party.
“I think that’s the biggest thing about this board – working together,” Perdue said.
He pointed out that, when the board adopted a new county budget in June, the vote to approve it was unanimous.
When Perdue’s Democratic challenger was asked this week about how the board would change if he won his race and the Democrats took control – as well as asked other questions about the race – Jones had a surprising answer.
“I prefer not to talk to the media about political matters,” he said.
Jones may be the only candidate in the country right now who’s shying away from media attention a week before the election.
Alston was willing to speak about the different nature of the Board of Commissioners pre- and post-2012 and the way the board could change if the Dems took control again.
He said it’s true he voted for some tax increases, but he said he did so only as a last resort.
“When I was chairman, I voted for a tax increase when all else failed,” he said.
He also pointed out that in 2009, after the financial collapse, the board worked hard to successfully keep from imposing a tax increase on citizens even though the county’s voters had approved a massive school bond in 2008.
“In 2009, we deferred a tax increase by delaying some projects,” Alston said.
He also said that he had a Republican vice chairman and worked well with some Republicans on the board.
“I worked with Linda Shaw, Mike Winstead and others,” he said, adding that he often butted heads with fellow Democratic commissioners at the time such as Paul Gibson and Kirk Perkins.
“We really had a bipartisan board,” he said.
Alston added that, even if the Democrats do win control of the board this year, that didn’t necessarily mean a tax increase – though he did say that the cost of current projects is certainly getting to be more and more of a strain to fund with current revenue. He said that it might be possible to cut some fat and find that money rather than hike taxes.