Candidates speak at forum
by Tom Chillemi
Alternatives to increasing real estate taxes, and school Standards of Learning (SOL) tests were among questions posed by the audience of about 35 citizens who attended the Middlesex County election forum at the Deltaville Community Center on October 15.
Another candidate forum is set for tonight, October 22, at 7:30 p.m. at the Urbanna Firehouse.
Two seats on the Middlesex Board of Supervisors and two seats on the Middlesex School Board will be on the local ballot on November 3.
Robert A. Crump of Topping is seeking re-election as a Saluda District supervisor. Crump is being challenged by Peter W. “Pete” Mansfield of Urbanna.
Running unopposed is Carlton S. Revere of Hartfield, who is seeking a Pinetop District seat on the board of supervisors.
Also unopposed on the ballot is incumbent Saluda District school board member Dr. Richard J. Shores.
Jim Goforth of Hartfield is seeking re-election to a Pinetop District seat on the school board, and is opposed on the ballot by Garland Harrow of Deltaville.
Jerry McMurtrie asked the supervisor candidates what alternatives there are to raising county real estate taxes.
Crump said a meals tax would raise revenue, but a county-wide meals tax needs voter approval and it has already been defeated twice on a referendum. “A meals tax would have to come from the residents and business owners,” he said.
Crump noted that Middlesex has the state’s third lowest real estate tax rate at 35 cents per $100 of value. The county also has the seventh highest Composite Index, which is a measure of the county’s ability to fund its public school system.
Raising taxes should not be the first option of government, said Crump, emphasizing that budget spending should be controlled.
He noted that when the state cut funding 15%, “We made it.”
Crump said business tax revenue will amount to $175,000, which is lower than the anticipated $250,000.
Mansfield said cutting the entire county budget by 5% this year was “unfair. We need to take a look at each individual line item and determine if it is essential to the county.”
Mansfield said the board of supervisors is planning a trip to The Homestead in November. “That’s a pretty nice place to go, and they will be meeting other government officials, but there are cheaper ways.”
Mansfield said he will only accept half of a supervisor’s salary if he is elected. “We need to cut from the top down.”
Revere, who is running unopposed, said a meals tax is a “use tax that’s pretty fair.”
Previous meals tax referendums were not marketed well enough to be approved by voters, said Revere. “A meals tax would put less pressure on your real estate tax.”
Revere also said the first priorities are “public safety and schools.” Other needs are “up for discussion.”
Becky Nelson asked what can be done to attract businesses to the county that provide employment.
Revere said the proposed Middlesex Comprehensive Plan lists more places to establish businesses. The county’s biggest resource is its rivers, and its tourism, marinas and seafood industry should be promoted, he added.
Middlesex is the only county on the Middle Peninsula that is not a member of the Middle Peninsula Public Access Authority. The county should be part of the authority that identifies water access spots, such as where public roads end at the water, said Revere.
The county needs to show it is “open for business,” said Revere, who proposed waiving the business license for the first year for those new businesses that have two employees.
Mansfield said the county Planning and Community Development Department could help with an “active advertising campaign.”
Placing businesses in “office parks” is a way to keep the county’s rural character, said Mansfield.
Dan Downs of Hartfield asked Crump why he voted to apply for a federal grant to allow the county to buy two vehicles, the cost of which would be reimbursed by the federal government. Downs asked how long it would take to get the money back from the federal government once the vehicles are purchased.
Crump said the recent board vote was only to get on the list for federal stimulus money for the two vehicles, and no vehicles would be purchased unless money was available. If approved, the county has one year to use the federal grant, which would pay for 100% of the vehicles, he said.
In closing, Revere said future decisions “will not be easy.”
Mansfield said, “We have got to learn as a county to get together.”
Regarding the proposed Saluda sewage treatment plant, Mansfield said the permit should be delayed. He noted the county will spend between $4,000 to $6,000 to send representatives to a State Water Control Board meeting in Richmond on October 26 to defend the county’s position.
Crump took credit for having the proposed treatment plant site moved from next to the sheriff’s office to about a half mile east of Saluda. “Had I not been there (on the board of supervisors), it would be pumping there. I begged them to not build the plant behind the sheriff’s office.”
Crump noted that supervisors did not increase the tax rate during a time of economic crisis, rising fuel costs, and federal mandates.
Roger Martin of Urbanna asked the three school board candidates for their “philosophy” on education and if students are “learning how to learn” when teachers “teach to the (SOL) tests.”
Jim Goforth said when he was a teacher he “did not like” SOLs. “You do teach to the test,” he said. However, he added, there is room for teachers to teach other things as well.
The state wanted accountability and the SOLs must be passed for the school system to be accredited, Goforth said. The Middlesex School Board is committed to “pre-testing” so that help can be provided to students. “I’m sorry to say, that’s life.”
Richard Shores said, “SOL scores are how we are judged,” and there needs to be accountability and standards.
Garland Harrow said, “I don’t like SOLs, but they are the best measure of where we are and what teachers and students are doing. There has got to be a balance in teaching with SOLs and the ABCs of learning, so students know how to analyze problems and figure solutions.”
Moderator John Koedel asked what role the federal government has in education.
Shores answered that the state regulates education, but federal dollars help support it. “If you take federal and state funds, you must have accountability.”
Goforth said the federal government “guarantees the rights of certain individuals.” Before the federal government got involved, handicapped children were not allowed to attend public schools, he noted.
Jerry McMurtrie asked how good teachers can be recruited when Middlesex has a reputation of paying less than other counties.
Goforth noted Mathews County teacher salaries are lower than in Middlesex, but added, “We are one of the lowest.” He said Middlesex has a “young and talented administrative staff and the superintendent actively recruits teachers.”
Teacher layoff in some areas is a benefit to Middlesex, and this year teachers came to Middlesex from Wyoming and Arizona, said Goforth. “This is the first year in the past two or three that we’ve had a full math department at the high school.”
In closing, Harrow said, “There are ways to tighten the budget and still achieve the level of education that we now have. Education should be the number one priority and the rest comes second.”
Harrow said that with better schools the county “would be a better place to live.”
Goforth said the most recent budget was cut by $500,000 and there was a 25% increase in health insurance costs. The school board held meetings in every district to get citizen input. “We tried our best,” he said. “We are not going to cut anything that affects the kids.”
Shores said the school board and board of supervisors need to work together. He added that an athletic facility is needed at MHS and that plan should move forward.