The pros and cons of paying volunteer firefighters, economic-development incentives and the possible pitfalls of grant funding were debated Saturday by Republican candidates for seats on the Surry County Board of Commissioners.
More than 150 people crowded into the gym of Temple Baptist Church for the second segment of a scheduled six-hour forum, which highlighted six people running for county commissioner seats. The forum sponsored by the Surry Republican Party featured about 25 GOP candidates altogether who are running for various offices on the county, state and federal levels — split into four segments in all.
The most-contested seat on the county board is the Central District post to which Gary Tilley recently was appointed after the resignation of longtime Commissioner Buck Golding.
Tilley is now campaigning for that office against Republican opponents Mark Marion, Tony Childs and Tony Tilley. The latter did not attend Saturday’s event.
Also there were incumbent Mount Airy District Commissioner Larry Phillips, who is being challenged by Bill Goins, and Eddie Harris, who has no party opposition for his South District seat.
The six candidates all responded to the same set of questions.
The issue of paid firefighters in Surry has become a concern in recent years with declining ranks among volunteer departments long supplying that service.
It took on added significance with a decision last September that provided the basis for a forum question Saturday regarding county spending, which triggered a philosophical debate among the candidates.
That move involved the county commissioners voting not to provide money for three paid firemen requested by a trio of volunteer units, but they did fund driveway and parking lot paving at Franklin Elementary School. According to Saturday’s discussion, this work also benefited the Franklin Youth Foundation that holds youth sports programs near the school.
“We have been looking at paid firefighters for quite a while,” Commissioner Phillips said.
“But you have to understand that when it is approved it has to be sustained,” he added in reference to the fact that this does not involve a one-time budget allocation.
Phillips also defended the decision to OK the improvements at Franklin Elementary, saying the conditions there were bad and maintaining school facilities is a responsibility of the county board.
Commissioner Harris said the board had the understanding the paid firefighter move was out of its control, that the departments involved “were going to do it anyway.”
But he said the issue is not going away. “Paid firefighters is obviously something we’re going to look at,” Harris predicted.
However, Childs says the status quo should be maintained.
“I think the volunteer firefighters is the best deal going,” the Central District candidate said. “I personally don’t support going down that avenue of paying volunteer firefighters — I think we need to keep the volunteer aspect.”
Marion offered a counter-approach that takes into account the dangerous nature of firefighting.
“I don’t care if they’re paid or volunteered,” he said. If a department needs money for personnel needs, Marion would provide it so firefighters “can go back home to their families — they’re my number one priority.”
The issue of attracting more business, and jobs, to Surry County also was a key forum topic, particularly as it relates to providing tax and other incentives that can be controversial.
Commissioner Tilley called government support for economic growth in that manner “a key to prosperity.” Yet incentives should not be provided to the detriment of taxpayers such as farmers and others, and must be “reasonable,” he said.
“Reasonable and prudent economic incentives is a subjective term,” said Tilley, who explained that the benefits from a project must be apparent.
Goins said that includes making sure a prospective company will pay good wages and otherwise benefit the county economically through increasing the tax base.
“You have to be careful when you do these incentives not to break the bank and put the burden on the taxpayers.”
Such things as water and sewer services and shell buildings are “just the cost of doing business,” Commissioner Phillips said. “To be competitive with the other 99 counties in North Carolina, you’ve got to have an incentives structure.”
“We need to educate our young people and make it more attractive for them to stay in Surry County,” Marion said of preparing for the economy of the future, while also touting its unique geographical resources.
“All roads go through Surry County,” he said of two interstates and other major routes. “We just need to get out there and make it more appealing for people to come to Surry County.”
While Commissioner Harris said Saturday that county officials are on the lookout for money provided from various state and federal sources, other candidates pointed out that strings can be attached.
“Grants are tricky — they get you on the hook,” Phillips said of providing money for some purpose, which leaves the county with a dilemma if the grant support goes away.
“Then you have to figure out how to pay for it, like for a position.”
“You feel like you need it, and then you can’t sustain it,” Goins agreed.
“When you get in bed with the grants and bonds, you’ve got to make sure the future is good,” said Marion.
“You better make sure you can sustain the grant and if you hire people with it, what are you going to do when the grant runs out?”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.