Editor’s note: Democrat Martin Eaddy and Republican Jay Thomas are vying for Lincolnton’s Ward III seat on the City Council, currently held by Democrat Carroll Heavner. Heavner, a former Mayor of Lincolnton, is the longest-serving official in Lincolnton’s history and is not seeking reelection. The Times-News submitted 10 questions to each of the candidates in the upcoming city elections. Their responses are listed below.
Why are you running for office?
Eaddy: I am running for a seat on Lincolnton City Council because I believe I can help lead the city in a positive direction despite the tremendous budgetary challenges we are currently facing. My previous role as a public administrator gives me a unique set of experiences in public policy, laws, and budgets that should help in solving the budget issues we will face in the near future. While it is easy to advocate cuts, one must weigh each and every reduction in terms of what it not only means for the present but also the implications for the future. I am a lifelong resident of the city and do not want to see shortsighted decision making ruin the quality of life that has made Lincolnton such a great place to live and work. I believe we must protect our neighborhoods and assure that our children have a clean, safe place in which to grow up. I believe the cultural and historical aspects of city life should be nurtured in order to make living in town desirable for residents of all ages. I have demonstrated my love for this city and community through over 40 years of community volunteerism. I see service on city council as a way to expand this service and assure the city has a bright future.
Thomas: I was asked by well-respected citizens to consider running as they felt like I had the qualities needed to represent the city of Lincolnton. As a proud citizen of Lincolnton, I felt it was my duty to serve if the voters choose to elect me.
Do you have a goal that you would first-and-foremost like to see attained if you are elected?
Eaddy: My first priority will be to study and analyze the budget to assure that all city operations are being conducted in an efficient and effective manner and determine where money saving measures can be implemented. I would like to improve our citizens’ understanding of the budget and expand their involvement in setting budgetary priorities. As part of this effort the city should develop a strategic plan to guide decision-making. While many issues seem to have only an immediate effect, most of them have long-range implications. Having a strategic plan will provide a framework to assure that today’s decisions do not impede tomorrow’s progress.
Thomas: I would like to take immediate steps to get the city operating with a business mentality and improved operational efficiency.
The City of Lincolnton, like many other municipalities across the U.S. has been forced to contend with diminishing revenue and increasing costs. What do you view as the best solution to this issue, in both the long and short term?
Eaddy: In the short term we must do a complete and thorough review of the existing budget to assure that the city’s basic services are being appropriately funded and efficiently conducted. Costs for city operations beyond those basic functions should be evaluated as to their true worth to the long-term health of the city, and the budget should be adjusted to reflect that worth. In the long term, growth of the economic base of our city will be essential if our city is to remain economically strong. This includes reviewing the planning and development regulations that restrict the renovation of our older downtown buildings for business and residential occupation. Identifying what downtown infrastructure is needed to encourage business development and planning to install that infrastructure over time will posture the city to attract growth in the future.
Thomas: The best solution to this situation is to use modern day business principles and practices to reshape the way the city operates and conducts business. We cannot continue to operate “business as usual” and expect the situation to improve.
One of the most contentious issues in city politics was the implementation of a $10 fee for garbage collection. The fee was first cut in half, then repealed entirely. What is your opinion of the garbage fee and the public outcry that resulted in its eventual repeal? Do you believe that the revenue that would have been generated by this fee will have to be drawn from another source?
Eaddy: I am against using this type of fee to raise money for basic services such as garbage collection. The fee was an attempt to raise revenues to offset losses in the city’s last property evaluation and shortages in the sales tax receipts. The public’s reaction to this fee demonstrates a need for City Council to reexamine how the public is involved in the budgetary process and to develop procedures that assure the public’s opinion is heard in adequate time for Council to react prior to making a final decision. The fee has been repealed using one-time revenues. Money will have to be found to fund this and other basic services over time. Budget adjustments will have to be made to generate this money on an on-going basis. This may mean a number of programs will have to be reduced or eliminated to accommodate redirecting revenues to these services. The publics’ involvement in these decisions is very important since they may have an effect on the quality of life in our city.
Thomas: The garbage fee was never necessary as Mayor Gilleland & Councilman Rhyne indicated while the democratic majority on council voted it into existence. The revenue can be gotten from elimination of unnecessary spending and improvements in operational efficiency.
The trash fee sparked a debate about compensation for city employees including Christmas bonuses and insurance benefits. Where do you stand on this issue?
Eaddy: Christmas bonuses and insurance coverage are part of the overall compensation for employees. The Christmas bonus raises the average salary for a city employee by $25 per week. These are the very people who may have to be away from their families on Christmas to keep our families safe and comfortable during the holiday. These employees, with the exception of police officers, do not have a 401K retirement match paid by the city. This bonus program has been in effect for over 20 years and is part of the benefit package our employees expected when they were hired, and I believe it would be a breach of trust to eliminate it at this time. Christmas bonuses for administrative and supervisory personnel are another matter. The bonus is established as a percent of salary so the higher the salary the higher the bonus. I believe the bonus program for these employees should be reexamined with the possibility of establishing a cap. The family health coverage is an unusually generous benefit provided by the city during these tough economic times. The cost per employee for total family coverage is around $1,200 per month. Dropping this coverage immediately would cost some employees over 50% of their monthly salary to cover their families and not leave them enough income to survive. I do believe that current budgetary restraints require that this benefit be reviewed closely. This benefit is already being phased out as employees leave and new employees are hired. Of the 160 employees in the city, only 67 still have the full family coverage. However, there are others who have employee/spouse or employee/child coverage. This makes a “one size fits all” solution very difficult to implement. There may be ways to reduce the cost to the city without a wholesale dismantling of the program. All options must be explored. The goal should be to have a benefits package that attracts good employees, allows them to raise a family on their wages, and fits within budgets that must be tightened. I am confident that this issue can be addressed in a manner that meets all of those requirements.
Thomas: Compensation for city employees should be evaluated periodically against the marketplace in the same fashion as done by private businesses. There has to be a balance between offering competitive salary/benefits and cost effectiveness for the taxpayers.
A batch of contracts between the city and Lincoln County for the sale of water from the city to the county and the sale of 911 call, animal control and other services from the county to the city was recently approved by the Board of Commissioners, but was subsequently sent back to the negotiating table by the City Council. The council sent a revised set of contracts back to the commissioners but the county has taken no action. How urgent is the city’s need to sell its water? What is the best way for the city to move forward with regard to the sale of its water?
Eaddy: The city water system is being challenged by the debt payments on the water plant and the reduced revenues caused by the reduction of manufacturing plants in the city limits. This situation has been made worse lately due to the recession and the reduced consumption of our largest water users. The city must find ways to sell more water if we are to keep the rates down for our citizens. Lincoln County is the perfect water customer for the city. The county needs more water and the city has a surplus. If the county does not buy water from the city they will have to make substantial investments in their water facilities. The issue is not the advisability of selling water to the county but the cost and conditions contained in the county contracts. I believe that city and county officials can come to a common understanding that will benefit both bodies, but the city cannot afford to sell water cheaper than the cost of producing it. In addition to county water purchases, the city must focus on recruiting businesses into the city limits. Continued cooperation with LEDA and a renewed emphasis on marketing our city to businesses has the potential to provide a long-term solution to the water issue. The water contract should not be batched with the 911, animal control, and fire protection contracts. Each contract should be considered on its own merits.
Thomas: With declining water usage, it is critically important for the city to sell more water or find other options. I recommend we continue to aggressively pursue all options to sell water to any feasible user. I would also like to explore options to refinance or re-issue bonds with more favorable terms that don’t necessitate constant fee increases as water volumes drop.
What should the relationship between the city and the county entail? Do you feel that the relationship between the city and the county needs improving?
Eaddy: The relationship between the city and county should be one of mutual benefit. The county has approximately 10,000 citizens that pay county taxes and happen to live in the city limits. The Board of Commissioners should be as interested in actions that benefit those that live within the city limits as they are in benefitting those that live in the eastern and western portions of the county. A strong, viable city is good for the county and a strong, viable county is good for the city. The current relationship is positive, but the recent contracts on water sales and other services document that much work remains to be done to develop the concept of mutual support and its benefits.
Thomas: The relationship between the city & county should be a mutually beneficial relationship like two companies doing business together. There is certainly an opportunity to improve the relationship. I believe this can be accomplished through honest open dialogue working towards the most effective solutions for the taxpayers.
What are the keys to promoting growth in the city?
Eaddy: First we must assure the financial integrity of the city by solving the water sales issue and maintaining as low a tax rate as possible. We need a long-range plan to make sure that the infrastructure is in place to allow our city to meet the growth opportunities that may arise in the future. Strengthening our partnership with LEDA gives us access to economic development opportunities from regional, state, national, and international sources. Our Downtown and Community Development Department should develop or revise strategic benchmarks focused on business recruiting to assure maximum success and accountability. We must maintain Lincolnton’s cultural and historical assets to attract the families of business owners to the city. Lincolnton is a wonderful place to raise a family, and we should focus on promoting that aspect as a major recruitment tool.
Thomas: Having a city government operating at maximum efficiency and delivering required services at the lowest tax rate possible.
How do you feel about the current tax rate in the city?
Eaddy: The biggest challenge facing the City Council next year will be finding a method to reduce expenditures to the degree that the current tax rate can be maintained or reduced. The current tax rate of 56 cents has been unchanged for over 10 years. This is noteworthy given the recent loss of sales tax revenues and tax receipts due to a lower valuation of property. The city lost 13% of its property tax value and was able to maintain our tax rate compared to the county’s loss of 2% resulting in a tax increase. The stress of making ends meet during the recession and keeping the tax rate stable was reflected in the effort to establish a garbage collection fee to generate more revenues.
Thomas: It is much higher than many other similar cities and I believe we can get it down to a more acceptable level.
What are some of the other issues that you feel are important?
Eaddy: I believe that there should be a long-range plan to provide support and infrastructure to developing more residential growth downtown so that accompanying business will relocate here and reestablish downtown as a retail center. We have a beautiful downtown but some of the outlying areas need revitalization. We must work to maintain safe, attractive neighborhoods if we want Lincolnton to remain a great place to live, work, and raise a family. I believe the city needs to develop a strategic plan, involving input from our citizens, to set goals and benchmarks that will guide decision making in the future. Many of the strategies that will improve our city will take more revenues than can be generated in one or two years. A strategic plan will allow council members to work together to plan over several years to accomplish goals that will lead to positive growth.
Thomas: Having a master plan for the future that addresses our aging infrastructure and provides sensible zoning for growth.