By Jessie Burchette, Salisbury Post
The six candidates vying for three seats on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners never mentioned their party affiliation Thursday night, but they all stressed their conservative credentials.
"It doesn't matter what I tell you," said Chad Mitchell, the lone incumbent in the race, "What defines me is my actions ... my record."
Candidates were asked to define themselves as conservative, moderate or liberal.
Raymond Coltrain, the retired superintendent of the Piedmont Research Station, called himself a "progressive positive conservative."
Carl Ford, 49, owner of Ford Broadcasting of China Grove said he's conservative adding, "I've been called an ultra-right-wing, Bible thumping conservative. That's all right."
Leda Belk, Tina Hall and Jon Barber cited their upbringing in Christian homes and the need to live within their means.
Candidates answered nearly a dozen questions during a one -hour forum which filled the Tom Smith Auditorium of the Ralph Ketner School of Business at Catawba College.
Dr. Michael Bitzer, head of the history and political science department, rotated questions among the field of candidates. In most cases, only two candidates answered the same question.
Belk, 60, a retired teacher and former commissioner, said the county is suffering from lack of planning and being too frugal. She cited the problems with code enforcement, jail overcrowding and the loss of employees in other county departments. "We're so frugal we're strangling ourselves."
Coltrain was the only candidate to say he would raise taxes if necessary to provide needed county services. Others — including Hall, Mitchell Belk and Ford — supported lowering the tax rate or reaching a revenue neutral rate once the revaluation is completed.
Candidates waded into the business of education, some cautiously and some making big waves.
Belk, Ford, Coltrain and Hall focused on the need for the schools to come up with new and better program, reduce the dropout rate variously put at 35 to 40 percent.
"Let the school board do its job," said Mitchell, 30, a teacher at East Rowan High School, saying the county's business is to fund schools, not operate them. His advice for commissioners, "Stop messing in their business just because we can."
Mitchell went on to warn of the growth and the coming need for new school buildings. "We will be slap dab run under ... not be able to breathe." He suggested starting a school construction fund setting aside money each year, rather than doing another bond referendum.
Barber, 47, a retired Eastman Kodak executive who teaches at Southeast Middle, focused on the larger picture, the county's future and the need for planning. Responding to almost every question, Barber stressed the need for planning, emphasizing the connection between education, economic development, tax rates, services and quality of life.
Barber said he began the campaign months ago thinking every day what he could do to get elected. "Now, I ask everyday what I can do to help the people with their problems."
Coltrain, 57, emphasized the need for sound, cost-effective government. He also called for an open dialogue with the schools, saying the boards should "not worry about our own individual kingdoms."
Ford spoke out for less government, from the federal level to Salisbury. He said the county needs to stop waste, citing recent problem with contracts.
Hall, 55, a retired principal, hit on her campaign theme of "Let the sunshine in."
"Every time the commissioners go into closed session, they are taking the taxpayers' wallet with them," said Hall, urging an end to doing business behind closed doors.
At one point Hall held up a copy of Thursday's Post, focusing on Kannapolis City Schools working to improve their curriculum to meet the job needs of the N.C. Research Campus. "We're not there yet," said Hall stressing that the Rowan-Salisbury Schools must take initiatives, including a possible bio-tech academy.
Mitchell and Hall had solidly opposite views of the value of commissioners attending town board meetings.
Hall said it's important and a way for commissioners to know what's going on. She suggested commissioners could change the time of one meeting to allow them to attend town meetings.
Mitchell said it would be "ridiculous at best" for commissioners to attend town council meetings. He went on to point out he finds out far more about what's going on by attending football games. Mitchell is athletic director at East Rowan High School.