Newcomer Saluda candidates say change needed

Published 11:08 pm Monday, October 28, 2013

The majority of new candidates running for two seats on the Saluda Board of Commissioners say they are running because Saluda government needs a change.

The Saluda Center sponsored a candidate forum on Sunday, Oct. 27 with the seven candidates running for commissioner, as well as Saluda Mayor Fred Baisden, who is running unopposed. Saluda Center board member Mary Lou Price moderated the forum and asked questions from the community and a full house audience.

Commissioner candidates include incumbents Johnnie Kinard and George Sweet, along with challengers Carolyn Ashburn, Karen Bultman, Mark Oxtoby, Hobart “Sunny” Pace and Ellen Rogers.

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Price asked challenging candidates what their motivation is to run in this year’s election.

Ashburn said she’s been attending council meetings for the last three or four years and almost every month she has observed inefficiencies. Ashburn said it would be helpful for each commissioner to not have one area of expertise. Saluda’s board of commissioners is currently made up of four commissioners who oversee individual departments, including water/sewer, buildings, streets and police/fire.

Ashburn said she thinks others should have input. She used for example that commissioner Kinard has been over the police and fire departments for 12 years.

“After 12 years things may have changed or there could be new ideas he’s not thinking of,” Ashburn said.

Bultman said she’s not a politician and like Ashburn she’s been attending council meetings.

“I don’t think we’re doing things right,” Bultman said. “I think there’s a better way.”

Bultman said she doesn’t think the rules currently apply to citizens equally. She referred to it as the “good old boy system,” saying another resident recently told her they don’t like the “hierarchy in Saluda.”

“If nothing else, let’s just insist that we play by the rules for all people,” said Bultman.

Bultman said Saluda is wasting money and although it’s great the city put $43,000 in this year’s budget to make water repairs, what about the $20,000 of delinquent water bills that were written off. She questioned why residents can’t see the details of those bills saying there needs to be more transparency.

“That’s why I’m running,” said Bultman. “Total transparency.”

Oxtoby said he’s sat on that side looking in at this side and someone can complain, and he’s complained, but eventually you have to stop complaining and move over.

Oxtoby said one incumbent said Saluda is a service industry, not a business, but Saluda’s service industry uses “our money and I don’t think they are using it appropriately.”

Oxtoby said he understands there’s a learning curve with an elected position, but he also understands that once you get through the learning curve you become efficient and he’s still waiting for efficiency in Saluda.

Pace said he agrees the city can do better and the biggest thing he wants to work on is the “us against them” attitude. Pace said he thinks he can promote cooperation and better communications and do it in a nice way. He said he would look at any way to become more efficient and agrees with Bultman that the rules should apply to everybody. Pace said the city needs to consider the people who can’t afford a big tax increase. He also said Saluda needs to reduce it’s water loss and the city would do well to increase its customer base.

Rogers said she got into this game about 13 years ago, a year after she moved to Saluda, when she was asked to join the board because of a vacancy. She ran in 2001 to keep the seat and won a 2-year term. At the time she served as the streets commissioner and said she worked with the youth on the Saluda park and initiated a sponsorship program for Coon Dog Day to take the burden off taxpayers. She said she also then supported the first evaluation of the streets and minimum standards for new construction.

She said she thinks her involvement in the community speaks for itself. And as far as water and sewer, yes, that’s important but Saluda residents are fortunate they have water they can drink, Rogers said. She also said Saluda’s new water cutoff policy turning service off after 15 days sickens her.

To the incumbents, Price asked what is the thing they are most proud of being involved in as a commissioner.

Sweet said his first two years he was in charge of buildings and he is proud the city is renovating city hall. The other thing he is most proud of, he said, is that the city has set aside $43,000 in this year’s budget for beginning to improve the water system.

Price also asked how Sweet feels he is equipped to continue to serve as commissioner.

Sweet said he brings the experience of three years and 10 months as commissioner. He said it surprised him how much he had to learn, saying how different state law is versus the business world.

“I think that experience is valuable and I hope you all do too,” Sweet said.

Answering the same questions, Kinard said he is most proud of the fact that Saluda has operated its police department every year he’s been police and fire commissioner under budget and returned that money to the city. Kinard also said the police department has recruited officers that have the respect of surrounding police departments.

On how he is equipped to serve the city, Kinard said he has a law degree and a masters in accounting. He said he has been in law enforcement most of his life and is one few commissioners who has taken Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET).

He said there is a vast difference in how a business operates and how a city operates.

Another question was how the candidate would change how the city is being managed.

Rogers said Saluda’s structure has been set up where there are commissioners who make policy decisions and it hires staff to carry out operations. If Saluda is going to have an ordinance, she said the city should think ahead of how it is going to implement and enforce that ordinance. What she sees now, Rogers said, is Saluda doesn’t have the manpower, or womanpower to follow up.

Rogers also said she thinks Saluda is overtaxed.

Pace said he would not change the system of the board of commissioners, mayor and people hired to take care of day-to-day duties. He said if things are not being done properly, the board should ask for a change and if problems persist, “then maybe they’d be happier somewhere else.”

Bultman said Saluda has some excellent employees, but no one would ever know that because employees receive raises across the board. She said there’s no incentive for the good employee in Saluda and the city needs to hold people accountable to do their jobs.

“We need to call a spade a spade in this town,” Bultman said. “So yeah, I say let’s start managing.”

Ashburn said after serving on the planning board she realized the need for Saluda to have a part-time zoning administrator. She said Saluda has laws on the books with no teeth in enforcement. She also said commissioners need to be more involved with the Saluda Business Association and the Small Town Main Street Program.

Kinard said Saluda has a city administrator/mayor type of management and he definitely does not want to change to a city manager form because that’s under contract the manager makes all the decisions. He said Saluda is currently advertising for a zoning administrator. Kinard also said as far as he knows in the police department everyone is treated the same, saying he’s received a ticket as well as other elected officials.

As far as efficiency, Kinard said, it takes a while, and if Saluda starts making commissioners oversee different departments every other year, “that’s not going to be efficient, I tell you that.”

Sweet said when he first got to Saluda he thought he wanted a manager form of government but said he likes the way Saluda does things because it brings different perspectives. Sweet said one thing he is pleased with is commissioners do have open discussions on what each department is doing. Sweet also said he thinks Saluda’s city administrator does an excellent job.

Baisden said the view on the outside looking in is different from the inside looking out. He said the city has to start looking at ways to be more efficient. Oxtoby said he agrees with Baisden.

“I don’t know the way the city works is wrong,” Oxtoby said, “I just think the city has gotten a little bit slack.”

From the audience, resident and former commissioner John Morgan said Saluda has seen the city tax rate soar to the highest in the area and asked what candidates are going to do about that.

Baisden said Saluda needs to take a look at its spending. Baisden said Saluda spends roughly $300,000 a year for police for about 700 residents. If the city could cut $200,000 out of its budget, they could fund road repairs or a tax decrease, said Baisden.

Rogers said perhaps it’s not looking at where the city can cut but looking at increasing revenues. She said Saluda could look at smart growth and how to create businesses by looking at its resources such as Saluda’s green space, rivers, mountain roads, the people and the culture. The kayakers and bicyclists are here and Rogers asked how does Saluda encourage those people to shop in the businesses. She also said Saluda needs to look at its fee structures.

Bultman mentioned that it is costing Saluda over $5,000 a year for three employees to drive city vehicles home. She said two commissioners said that’s not a lot of money, but Saluda “can’t afford all these perks,” Bultman said. She also asked when was the last time Saluda shopped around for insurance.

Kinard responded that Saluda’s police salaries are the lowest in the area and if Saluda starts taking away the perks it will lose employees. He said law enforcement officers in the area have automobiles they take home and they have cell phones and Saluda can’t compete with that. Kinard said Saluda had one officer leave to work for Hendersonville and is making $5,000 a year more.

Oxtoby said Saluda approved a 10-cent tax increase, but all the money is going towards salaries. He also said after the last election, the new board suggested the city spend $5,000 to $10,000 to pick up people’s sticks and the city basically just wasted money.

Early voting for the municipal election ends on Saturday, Nov. 2 at 1 p.m. at the Polk County Board of Elections.

Early voting can be done at the election’s office through Friday, Nov. 1 from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. The general election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 5 from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. Saluda residents will vote at the Saluda Fire Department on Election Day.