Galax candidates participate in forum

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By April Wright, Reporter

A “Get to Know Your City Council” candidate forum held last Wednesday at the Crossroads Institute allowed attendees to become more informed on the issues facing the city and prepared voters for Tuesday's election.

City council candidates spoke about their backgrounds, and answered questions that were submitted ahead of time.

Among the candidates are incumbents C.M. Mitchell, Willie Greene, John Garner and Derrick Davis and newcomer and downtown business owner Margaret “Margo” Crouse.

Election day is Tuesday.

The Candidates

• Crouse is the owner of Margo's Interior Decorating in downtown Galax. She has also owned a bakery and two motels.

She serves on the executive boards of the Galax Downtown Association and the Twin County Regional Chamber of Commerce. She is also on the committee for the Blue Ridge Parkway's 75th anniversary celebration.

Crouse said the city must be proactive in its growth and prosperity without the expense of overburdening the taxpayers.

• Davis is completing his first term on council. He owns Stringbean Coffee Shop and GLX Music recording studio, both in downtown Galax.

Davis said the biggest part of economic growth is small business, and tourism is part of sustaining the future.

(Davis was not able to attend the forum).

• Garner has lived in the city since 1977 and is a certified public accountant with a master's degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina.

He was elected to council in 2006 and has served as a member of the Galax-Grayson Emergency Medical Services board, E-911 board, the Wired Road Authority and District III board.

He is running for council with the desire to continue to improve the city and create an environment that provides incentive to the creation of new jobs and opportunities.

• Greene has served four terms on city council, and serves as vice mayor. He worked at Vaughan-Bassett Furniture for 25 years and the past two years as a self-employed loss control consultant.

He has also served several years as a volunteer for the Galax Fire Department.

He has served on several committees and boards including the Regional Landfill Authority, the Galax Community Policy and Management Team, Galax Social Services Board, Mount Rogers Planning District Commission and others.

• Mitchell has worked in Galax as a pharmacist since 1971 and is the director of pharmacy services at Twin County Regional Hospital.

He was elected to council in 1986 and has served as mayor since 1992. He also serves as chairman of the Crossroads Institute.

His focus has been on growing the economic base of Galax and providing a base to increase the quality of life for the citizens.

The Questions

Are you in favor of moving city council elections to coincide with the November election?

Crouse believes that there would be a bigger turnout if the election moved from May to November. “Such a small percentage voted,” said Crouse. “We need to think this out.”

Garner said that one of the strengths of the city government is having a non-partisan city council election.

Shortly before he was elected to council four years ago, the same question was raised. “I spoke against it then, and I speak against it now. We can't move the election without subjecting it to partisan participation.

“The turnout to the November election is greater, but it's also driven by other factors.”

Greene agreed with Garner, saying that if the election were to move to November, voters would think more along the lines of Republican and Democratic parties, instead of voting for what is right for the people.

Mitchell said if the council election were to change to November, he is concerned “it would get lost in the noise,” when citizens are already voting on state and national issues.

Also, voters may be influenced by parties, he said, and that's why most localities hold council elections in May.

Would you support an election of school board officials?

This is obviously a concern, said Crouse, or this question would not be asked.

If it is the will of the people, she said, a petition should be circulated.

Garner said he opposed electing school board candidates because if that were to happen, school board members would run with an agenda.

Board members are interviewed by council and are chosen based on their fit with the school system's programs and goals.

Greene said a good system is already in place. “If it's not broken, we don't need to fix it. I feel that an election of school board members doesn't work for us at this time.”

Mitchell said the city is fortunate to have candidates and members with great qualifications who offer and volunteer their time to serve on school board.

Instead of elections, each candidate is interviewed in closed session at a council meeting, he said. “If we elected these officials, they would have to have a platform. This system works well for us.”

As a council member, what would you put in place for snow removal in the downtown area for the 2010-2011 winter?

“I know too well the loss of income due to bad roads,” said Crouse. “People couldn't park or walk. And it was also a loss in sales tax and revenue for the city.”

Crouse said a portion of the city's budget should be set aside to contract out for snow removal in order to save wage time and city equipment use.

The city will be more prepared next year, said Garner. “I know the snow came a week before Christmas when merchants depended on the sales. But hopefully, this is a rare circumstance. And there is a place in the budget for snow removal.”

Greene said the city needs to make sure the roads leading to East Stuart Drive, Main Street and emergency roads leading to the hospital are handled first.

There are four trucks and 137 lane miles in the city, but the major arteries need to be taken care of first, said Mitchell, agreeing with Greene.

City council, Mitchell noted, oversees the city departments, but snow removal is mostly left up to the city manager.

As a council member, what can you do to promote industry and maintain current businesses in the area?

Crouse said the city should implement incentive packages and tax breaks to bring in corporations. “Our incentive packages should be above and beyond those of other locations. “We need to work together and make it happen.”

There are already incentives here, argued Garner, but everyone needs to work to sell the area. “Eight years ago, you could go downtown and throw a rock and not hit a single vehicle. Now it's a thriving community, and downtown merchants are invested in the area.”

As part of those incentives, he said, the Crossroads Institute has added jobs and money to the area and the Rex Theater is a big draw to the community.

Greene said funds should be set aside for economic development, especially

for industry. Tourism has kept the city going, he said, but the door should not be shut

on industry. “We need to push that.”

The city spends 90 percent of the time working to attract and create industry, said

Mitchell, who is chairman of the Crossroads Institute, which acts as a business incubator and offers a place to enhance and continue education.

Mitchell said Crossroads is working to grow businesses and expand companies to reengineer the economy. “And Vaughan-Bassett Furniture, which is expanding, is a good example of that.”

“It's also important to train and retrain, because companies come to where the talent is.”

Mitchell said he recently met with a couple of state officials who were “blown away by what the community has done.”

The Small Business Development Center, located at the Crossroads Institute, has created 136 businesses and 625 jobs, and $40 million has been invested in those businesses.

What are you most proud of, and what are you looking forward to over the next term?

Crouse said, over the next four years, “I hope to have earned the trust and respect of the voters” if elected.

She noted her pride in tourism, lodging, recreation and education — and hopes to

expand on those for economic growth.

Tax breaks, she said, would allow employers to save jobs.

“I'm proud of Chestnut Creek School of the Arts, and what it says about the community. I'm proud of broadband and see it as a way to transform the community,” said Garner, who is on the Wired Road Authority to support broadband. “There's so many things to be proud of. Some communities start things and never finish it, but we finish it.”

Broadband is expected to make Galax a competitor for corporations and employers.

Greene said he is proud of the new library, recreation center, renovations to Galax High School and the Crossroads Institute.

“I'm proud of the people,” said Mitchell. “We have a neat community that is diverse but works together.

“I believe we have the best city council and school board in Virginia. We get along and work well together.” The people, he said, allow the city to do that.

Mitchell also noted that working with Grayson and Carroll counties on regional projects guarantees that the city will succeed.

As a council member, how will you and the chosen tourism director effectively pull tourists to the area?

Crouse said the city needs to continue using its natural resources and market the area. Tourism is vital, she said, because it brings revenue to the city.

Crouse volunteers for various festivals, serves on the Twin County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Galax Downtown Association, a committee for the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway and has been working with the North Carolina Motor Coach Association to bring busloads of tourists to Galax.

Garner said it is evident that the new art school, The Rex and natural resources, such as the New River and the New River Trail, are already pulling people to the area.

“Ninety percent of the people that I meet on the trail are from North Carolina,” said Garner, an avid runner and frequent visitor to the New River Trail.

The festivals hosted throughout the summer bring in many visitors who return, said Garner, who also owns and RV park and campground in Galax.

“I've always supported tourism and usually enjoy the festivals myself,” said Greene. “Tourism has kept us going, and I'll do what I can to support it.”

Mitchell said tourism is an important economic tool. “And [Galax Visitor Center Director] Ray Kohl has the strong ability to work the tourism aspect... And we've made an excellent choice for that position.”

Mitchell noted that a visitor from Australia last week rode his bike on the New River Trail from Pulaski to Galax.

“'Small town America is dying, but you've got it here,'” the traveler told Mitchell. “He was truly captivated by the city — there's a beautiful downtown and the trail.”

Mitchell said tourism has kept the city thriving.

Please address your position on commercial water rates for multiple units, which have one master meter but are billed by the amount of apartments.

Crouse said the amount of usage should be fair for the owners.

Garner said every family should pay for the minimum amount of water. “It evens it up. Everybody pays their fair share.”

Greene said the city hasn't kept up with the rates, but if it didn't go to this, it would catch up with the city and its citizens. This is the right thing to do, he said.

Mitchell said implementing water rates for all is fair and equitable. Now, every resident pays for the minimum number of gallons used, which is 6,000.

Textile mills, he said, were the biggest consumers. In fact, Hanes/National Textiles consumed 30 percent of the city's water and was billed for that 30 percent.

“When it went away, we had to spread it around to makeup the difference,” said Mitchell, noting that one year, there was a utility deficit of $750,000. “We still have the cheapest and lowest rates of any location.”

How do you feel about fees being raised, and what plan would you suggest to avoid raising fees?

Crouse said, even though it's difficult for some, the city has been working hard to balance the budget to avoid eliminating jobs — but said she would study the budget and work with council to come to a solution to avoid raising rates.

Garner noted that raising water and sewer rates allows the city to cover enterprise funds, especially since many grants, which are used to build these water and sewer infrastructures, require water and sewer utilities to be self-sustaining.

“We don't like raising the rates, but it's kind of necessary,” said Greene. “We have to have taxes to operate. I've voted against them before, but if we put them off too long, it catches up to you.”

The vehicle sticker fee, he said, hasn't been raised in 20 years, and the water and sewer rate increase will affect 56 percent of Galax residents. “It's tough to do, but we have to share the burden.”

Mitchell said that, with severe state cuts to funding, rates had to be raised to make up the loss.

However, he noted some cost saving measures the city has incorporated into the next fiscal year. Hiring staff in at a lower salary and not filling vacant positions saves the city $239,000.