A tough road

Hard decisions lie ahead for newly elected officials
Nov. 24, 2012 @ 06:13 PM

When five new High Point City Council members take their seats at the dais next month, they won’t have much time to learn the ropes of city government.
After a campaign that focused heavily on whether the city’s tax and utility rates are too high, High Point’s governing body will have to decide how such ideas play out from a practical standpoint.
The new council, which will be sworn in Dec. 3, will have new faces representing five of the six city wards and one of the two at-large seats.
It won’t entirely lack for experience, however.
New Mayor Bernita Sims is a nine-year council veteran and new at-large council member Becky Smothers has served as mayor for the better part of the past 20 years. In addition, newly elected council member Judy Mendenhall served previous stints as mayor and on council during the 1980s and 1990s.
Finding common ground could be a challenge on some issues, as there is still disagreement about how to interpret the results of the Nov. 6 elections, in which two incumbents were defeated by challengers and political newcomers won three open council seats.
For new council members like Jay Wagner, citizen concern about property tax and utility rate increases over the past two years were expressed “loud and clear” at the polls.
“My hope is that folks take a look at what happened in this election and realize that there’s not a whole lot of sentiment among our citizens, it would seem to me, for our taxes continuing to go up,” Wagner said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to cut the budget somehow, or at least freeze it, so we don’t have to pass on these tax increases to the citizens.”
But that wasn’t the message outgoing Councilman Latimer Alexander saw the electorate as trying to send.
The council candidates who were most critical of the city’s leadership for its handling of budget and tax issues lost at the polls, he said. For example, one contender, Elijah Lovejoy, made this the centerpiece of his campaign, pointing out repeatedly that High Point has the highest property tax rate and second largest per capita budget in the state among cities with a population of at least 100,000.
“I viewed Elijah Lovejoy and Cynthia Davis as a hardcore, ‘We’re going to shave all the meat off the bone kind of thing and just make you grovel for nickles and dimes.’ I don’t think that argument carried the day,” Alexander said. “I believe the citizens said, ‘We like the services we’re getting, and feel like they’re done in a fair and equitable way.’ If I took anything away from the election, I think that what many of the voters said is, ‘We like what we’re getting with respect to services, and we feel that it’s fair.’”
New Councilman Jeff Golden said the Ward 1 residents he will represent are hopeful the council will not raise the property tax rate for the third year in a row.
“I know the folks in my ward aren’t wanting another one. I didn’t promise that I wouldn’t vote for a tax increase, but I think we all should be looking at that as a last resort,” Golden said.
New Councilman Jason Ewing said he believes the council needs to be more active in the budget process, closely examining each department’s expenditures and personnel levels.
“We’ve got to make some budget cuts. We cannot afford to raise taxes again after raising taxes the last two years,” Ewing said. “We’ve got to buckle down, make cuts and find common ground that the citizens are happy with, that staff can live with and that council’s happy with.”
Ewing said one possible way to generate savings that he would like to investigate is looking at consolidating some services in which there is current overlap with Guilford County.
He said he would like to propose a specific dollar amount to be cut from the overall city budget and review each city department’s budget line-by-line “and just start cutting out the fat that we can” until this goal is reached.
“It’s going to be a tedious process, but it’s going to be a process every council member needs to be engaged and involved in,” Ewing said.
Mendenhall said it will be important for the new council to work together to get initiatives passed.
“It’s very easy to talk and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this or I’m going to do that,’” she said. “I think I understand how you get things done at the council table. I was there for 11 years, and we accomplished a lot.”
pkimbrough@hpe.com | 888-3531