After serving on the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners from 2014-2018, Martin Oakes left the board to run in the 2018 North Carolina state Senate election. He’s now campaigning to return to the board of commissioners.
“I think we didn’t get enough things finished when I was on the board before,” he said. “It apparently takes longer to get things done than you expect when you get elected.”
Oakes lists his qualifications for the seat on the board of commissioners as having spent more than 10 years helping the community get things done as well as having a lot of impact on changing some of the background rules in zoning and planning.
“I contributed a lot towards getting developers to put money towards traffic improvement to the tune of about $1.5 million in road improvements,” he said. “Some of them have happened, although a lot of them haven’t because they’re tied to DOT projects, but the county has the cash in the bank on those developments. I’m a financial analyst and have spent 30 years doing business models for large corporations analyzing their operations and having them use my models to improve investments in production. I use that same financial analysis background to watch what the county’s doing with their money. Having spent four years on the county commission shows you how things work or not.”
With each proposal for a new development, residential or commercial, in Denver, the board is bombarded with concerns over traffic and NCDOT tends to be a roadblock. While he was on the board, Oakes said that he organized the funding for and got the eastern mobility study started. It’s produced its first report and the next stage is to get the same engineers to give the board of commissioners detailed plans for the improvements that are recommended that are not in the DOT project plan and take action to do some of them.
“There are at least four, maybe five projects in that report that are actually quite small in the order of $100,000 to $250,000 that the county can easily afford to do out of savings accounts,” he said. “One of those projects is a little bigger and requires DOT involvement. You take the plans that you generate and take them to DOT and they put them on the priority list. They don’t put them on the list until you’ve got preliminary plans and cost estimates. You’ve got to get to square one before you can get that project started.”
In terms of traffic, Oakes said that while he was on the board, they got tighter rules put in place for what a developer has to do to mitigate traffic. If the delay at any leg of an intersection goes below a certain rate, which is roughly a minute, then the developer has to show how he’s going to get that delay back to a minute or under. If he can’t do that, then the county can turn down the development.
“Two developments over the past year that the current commissioners turned down, the Circle K at Unity Church and Business 16 and the charter school at Club Drive, were turned down on the basis that the developers couldn’t show how they could get the traffic back up to acceptable levels,” he said. “That helps. It may be in some cases that the amount of money having to be spent to improve the intersection is more than the developer is willing to spend or he may just walk away from the project. The commissioners don’t have to approve things that degrade the traffic beyond a certain level. I think that’s a major improvement – that wasn’t the case before. It’s important that the county has rules in place before a developer shows up because you can’t invent the rules as you go otherwise, you’re being arbitrary and capricious which will get you in a lawsuit.”
With several high-dollar projects on the horizon, including a new courthouse and the expansion of the county jail, a capital reserve fund has been established for the excess tax revenues created by last year's property revaluation. The current plan is for those revenues to be used to offset a portion of those multi-million-dollar projects, thus reducing the amount the county would need to borrow. Oakes is in favor of this plan to use a portion of the revenues to offset the projects, but he also thinks that some of the money should be used on other projects.
“The projects pretty much have to happen,” he said. “The only thing is the extent to which you take money from current taxpayers to fund things that benefit future taxpayers. The normal way of doing this for most people is to take out a mortgage for 20 or 30 years and I see the same thing happening on these projects. To the extent that you have a whole bunch of cash in your bank, then the question is what do you do with the cash? Using it to reduce interest rates when interest rates are quite low usually isn’t the best use of the funds. There’s some balance in there between using money to prepay stuff and using the money that we have on hand for other projects, for example, roads. You have to make a choice between using $3 million to improve a lot of roads in east Lincoln or taking that $3 million to lower the cost of the courthouse, I would be in favor of using it on roads.”
In 10 or 20 years, Oakes added, there will be almost twice as many taxpayers and the tax base will be higher, so the burden of paying down a mortgage gets significantly less.
“There’s another bunch of money, it’s not clear whether it’s reserve money or operating money, but the sheriff wants to expand the force he has in east Lincoln and I think that’s a priority,” he said. “I would do that ahead of the courthouse, if that’s actually a trade-off, it’s not clear if it is.”
Another issue that Oakes feels is important is having county employees, especially those in critical areas, who are experienced.
“Four years ago, we discovered that we were basically a training route,” he said. “We’d hire an EMT and train him and within three years he’d be gone to another county for more money. That’s a real problem because you don’t want inexperienced people as EMTs, you’d rather have, if you could, people with five, six or 10 years experience. It’s important to make sure you keep your critical people and spend the money necessary, not just on pay but also on their working conditions. The commissioners have basically done that. There were more raises given in the last round, EMTs are getting a very fancy gurney system that allows a single person to manhandle a 300-pound patient whereas before it would take three or four EMTs to get together and perhaps hurt their backs. The other county facilities have generally been upgraded over the past three or four years.”
There are three one-stop early voting locations which open on Feb. 13 through Feb. 29 and with the primary election occurring on March 3.