Saluda candidates answer resident questions before election

Published 9:08 am Friday, October 27, 2017

SALUDA – Saluda residents packed the Saluda Senior Center on Wednesday, Oct. 25 to hear council candidates’ positions on city issues.


The candidate forum was hosted by the Saluda Senior Center and moderated by Karen Bultman.

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After giving mayor candidates (incumbent Fred Baisden and challenger Heath Potter) and council candidates (incumbents Carolyn Ashburn and Mark Oxtoby and challengers Paul Marion and Teddy Stevens) opportunities to introduce themselves, Bultman asked questions sent in by residents.



Bultman first asked for a major accomplishment each incumbent candidate thinks the city has achieved.


Oxtoby’s answer was the USDA loan to replace water and sewer lines and to repave roads.


Baisden said a lot of things have turned around for the city, but changing the city to a manager form of government from an administrative form, “takes the politics out of doing things.” He added that backing up city data and having drawings of the city’s infrastructure were also major accomplishments.


Ashburn said fixing the city’s infrastructure through a $1.9 million loan is the city’s best accomplishment. She mentioned recent water rate increases to pay back the loan and another increase planned for 2018. With 718 people in the city, she said, that limits where the tax base is and it is hard to make ends meet on infrastructure that is 50-60 years old.


“Some pipes are still made out of wood,” Ashburn said. “Our team of employees has certainly made a big difference in getting things done. It feels like everybody is working together and it did not feel like that when I got into office.”


Issues or challenges to tackle

To the new candidates, Bultman asked what is the biggest issue or challenge the city should be addressing.


Marion answered that the city’s infrastructure needed to be addressed. He said he agrees that the city should wait to replace the roads when the water lines underneath them are replaced.


Marion also said he wants a replacement plan for the next 10-15 years. He said he’s heard the city has a plan but hasn’t seen a plan yet with details.


“Our infrastructure supports the residents and supports the businesses,” said Marion. “If one of our mains breaks and a business has to close down, that’s a big issue, and things we need to be looking at.”


Potter said he agrees that infrastructure is the biggest issue. He said the city should be focusing on other avenues to pay back the loan other than increased rates. Potter said Saluda should be looking at other revenue sources so the water rates go down.


Stevens said infrastructure, water and sewer, storm water drainage and streets and sidewalks are the biggest issues.


Stevens said he has a lot of knowledge on how to find and rectify water leaks, schedule repairs and how to find the right contractors.


Noise control

The next question focused on each candidate’s stance on how to control the recent onslaught of loud noises that come from businesses downtown. Bultman said she received numerous questions on this subject from residents.

Marion said he remembers when the trains still came through town, waking him up at night. He said he knows music is different, but if residents are concerned, they should take those concerns to commissioners or to the planning board. Marion said the city has ordinances that can be changed.


Ashburn said the city has addressed this problem at commissioner meetings. She said the city did six months worth of reading a decibel meter and it’s hard to register the noise level that is around an area. The city has an ordinance now that says that after 11 p.m. music has to be turned off, and Ashburn feels like Saluda has done as much as it can at the moment to address the issue. Ashburn said she understands that some people are inconvenienced but when someone lives in town they have to take some of the things that go with living in town.


Stevens said he agrees with Marion, that the noise is an inconvenience. Stevens said live music brings people in to spend money.


Baisden said he can hear music from his house sometimes. He said the city recently changed the ordinance and added “some teeth” to try to cut back on some of the noise. Baisden said if citizens are not happy, they should come back to the city. He also said officials can meet with business owners who have music and ask them to comply or cut back on the music.


Potter said his business has moved music times to help the situation, from the previous 8-11 p.m. to 7-10 p.m. He said in the spring and summer people like to be outside and hear music and music brings people to town, which generates revenue. He said anyone with a house downtown is going to hear noises. He also said the board of commissioners worked on amendments to the noise ordinance close to a year and came up changes that he feels are reasonable.


Street Repairs

Bultman then said that everyone understands it doesn’t make sense to repair streets before repairing water lines underneath, but she questioned why streets aren’t being repaired.


“Why, at least, can’t we get potholes repaired?” Bultman asked.


Stevens said repaving before replacing water and sewer lines is “just asinine.” Stevens said Chisholm Street is supposed to be paved at the end of the month. He said he can see doing patch repair with gravel and patching.


Potter answered that you don’t want to pave a street and then have to tear it right back up to replace water or sewer lines. He agreed with Stevens about the city doing gravel and patching of some roads.


Oxtoby said the city has held back on paving roads because of applying for the USDA loan. He said as soon as Saluda got the manager, they thought they would get the loan in the middle of the year, and then were told they have another eight more months of work to do before receiving it.


Oxtoby said it may not be as fast as everyone would like, but the city is patching roads, repaving Chisholm Street, and replacing the water and sewer pipes underneath is supposed to begin in the next week.


Marion said when he and his family moved back to Saluda a few months ago they had lived in a subdivision, with homeowners having a pothole fund. They put money away because they knew down the road they would have to replace roads. That, he said, is what Saluda should be doing. He also agreed that it doesn’t make sense to repave a road if it will have to be dug back up in a year or few years to replace lines. Other cities, he continued, that don’t have money to repave roads are starting to gravel roads. If elected, he said those are things he will look at and try to implement.


Baisden said if you ride around on a golf cart you can see how bad the streets are.

He said some patches are worse than the asphalt that was patched. Baisden said he and commissioner Leon Morgan traveled to Atlanta to look at sealer and spoke of the expense of patching holes. Baisden said the city is starting its long-term plan of 14-16 projects of replacing water and sewer. He also mentioned the city gets $32,000 from Powell Bill funding to pay for streets, sidewalks and snow removal on the city’s 10 miles of roads.


Ashburn said there is a plan and anyone wanting to know where their street is on the list can come by city hall and receive the list. She also said residents are always welcome to request streets that need repair. Ashburn mentioned limited funds, saying that of a $1 million budget, over a third of it goes to police and fire, and $32,000 for street repair doesn’t go very far.


“It’s a slow process,” Ashburn said. “I think that’s the one thing I’ve really learned in my four years is the wheels of progress move really slow.”


Preferential treatment for Main Street?

Many Saludians feel that if something needs to be done on Main Street the city finds the money, but they can’t say the same about the neighborhoods.


“True statement or not?” asked Bultman.


Stevens said he’s not informed about work outside downtown and if elected he will look into it further. He said his main focus is water and sewer and streets.


Potter said when people come into the town Main Street is the first thing they see.


“I feel like Main Street should be a priority,” said Potter. “Not saying it’s right or wrong.”


Oxtoby said he doesn’t know that Main Street gets fixed right away. He said the dip in front of Thompson’s Store was first repaired in 2008. In 2017, the city actually dug it up and figured out the cause of the problem. He said there was a liability there, and when it was opened up, there was a serious problem underneath.


Marion said Main Street should be a priority because it’s the first thing visitors see, but it would be a concern if nothing gets done in the community. He said he will also look into that. Marion also said growing up here, Main Street is something to be proud of and he does want to keep it safe and enjoyable.


Baisden said the area in front of Thompson’s was an issue because of a potential lawsuit if someone tripped and fell. He said the city found the creek underneath had gotten outside of its bounds and the creek has been there over 100 years.


“That’s why the board voted to take money out of fund balance to fix it,” Baisden said. “It’s a risk management type of thing.”


Ashburn said the liability issue is one of the main reasons Main Street gets more attention.


City employees

The next questions focused on the city’s personnel and salaries. Out of a $1 million budget, the city spends over $592,000 on salaries for a population of 718 people. Bultman said the city hired a finance officer in October (Julie Osteen) at a salary of approximately $51,000. With technology, Bultman asked why Saluda needs a finance officer.


Potter said the finance officer is probably a very important job and he knows the city manager has his hands full.


“Hiring a finance officer doesn’t sound bad,” Potter said.


Oxtoby said the city made the decision to save $10,000 a year by hiring her.


“She’s an asset to the city,” Oxtoby said.


He said the payroll in the past was less, but the city was doing less work and wasn’t doing what was required by the state. Saluda has brought in a new professional crew that is doing more than the state requires, Oxtoby said. He said if you look at other cities, Saluda is not out of line in its salaries.


Marion said if the city is saving money he agrees with the hire. He said if the board made a decision to reduce the amount of money to do the job, that sounds like a smart job. Marion said the question of whether Saluda is being as efficient as it can be still needs to be asked. He also said the city needs to invest in its employees so they stay.


Baisden said the city’s previous finance officer was making about $70,000 a year, and when Ron Cole retired he recommended the city hire a firm. He said if you look at any $1 million business they have a finance officer. Baisden said the city is required by the N.C. Local Government Commission to have certain reports and Osteen was involved with the city as an auditor for the past 11 years.


“I think we got a bargain,” said Baisden. “If it becomes an issue financially, we’ll look at other ways.”


Ashburn said she agrees with Baisden in that the city is saving money by hiring Osteen full time. Ashburn said Osteen works well with the staff, is a team player and presents reports at commissioner meetings every month.


Stevens agreed as well. He said with the USDA loan, it is good to have a financial officer, and that the hire was “a fantastic idea.”


Employment contract with city manager

Bultman then asked about an employment contract the commission recently approved for city manager Jonathan Cannon.


“Why after two years on the job was this contract necessary?” Bultman asked. “Also, why did it happen roughly a month before the election?”


Ashburn said the board feels very lucky to have a city manager that is willing to stick with the city knowing the board can change and his job possibly could be in jeopardy if three new members were elected.


“It became timely that we address the situation and gave him some job security,” Ashburn said.


The city wanted to offer him some sort of stability to keep him here, she said, adding that he could move to a city that provides that benefit. She feels fortunate the city signed a contract with only a six-month severance package.


Stevens addressed rumors concerning his views on Cannon’s employment, specifically that Cannon would lose his job if Stevens were elected, “but those words never came out of my mouth.”


Stevens said as far as a contract goes, if you’re a city employee and if you’re doing your job, you shouldn’t have to worry about losing your job. Stevens said he thinks the contract should be null and void and the manager should work just like every other employee.


Potter said the words about him firing Cannon never came out of his mouth either. He said he has no problem with Cannon and just like everywhere else, if you’re doing your job, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Potter said he feels like the contract was rushed though.


Baisden said it’s common for town managers to have a contract. The difference between the manager and other city employees is that the manager works for the board of commissioners, he said, adding that the contract states that if Cannon is terminated without cause, he gets a six-month severance pay. If he gets another job making the same money, Saluda pays him nothing, Baisden said. Baisden said the contract was discussed for six to eight months. The city asked for a contract and received the draft at the first of the year and asked for changes.


Marion said he thinks most everyone knows his mother was the city clerk for Saluda for 25 years. Marion said she never had a contract, and when he found out she could be fired at any time, it caused him a lot of anxiety.


Marion said he disagrees with Baisden, saying when you put a person on contract, they no longer serve at the pleasure of the board. He also said the contract puts the city on the hook for six months of pay. Marion said he doesn’t agree with the contract, and the contract should have an end date.


Oxtoby flipped the question around, asking why wouldn’t the city give the manager a contract? Oxtoby said the contract says if he’s fired without cause, the contract is implemented.


“If he’s not doing his job, he can be fired and it cost the city nothing,” Oxtoby said.

Oxtoby also said the contract didn’t just happen at the city’s last meeting.


Water usage fee rise

Bultman then asked all candidates why the water usage fee has risen so much and what it is used for.


Marion said he hopes it’s being used to either pay back the USDA loan or to fix the system. Marion also said raising taxes may be something the board has to consider as well as fees. He said the city should look for other revenues and grants. He asked how much pressure the city is putting on state representatives to get some of the laws and ordinances changed to favor the city.


Baisden said raising taxes for water isn’t legal as the water and sewer, or enterprise fund, has to be self-sufficient. Baisden said there is a $10 user fee for water, a $10 user fee on sewer, a $4.50 charge that goes to the interconnect line, and there was a $3.50 charge that paid for a sewer line. Baisden said the board paid off the interconnect line loan two years ago and an engineer figured out how much revenue the city would need to pay the new USDA loan. Baisden said the USDA loan is the reason the rates increased, and Saluda has also fixed leaks and the pump station on Laurel Drive. Baisden said the cost of the water is not the issue, it’s the maintenance of the system.


Ashburn said the user fee is for the connect along Ozone and a small part is the interconnect system that officials know doesn’t work, but that was already in place before she came into office. Ashburn said the city still has to pay for that connection. She agrees Saluda has high water rates and she’d like to do something to lower the rates, but until the city gets the system fixed, she doesn’t see that as a reality.


Police department cars

With just 718 residents, Bultman, asked, why does the city needs four police cars when most of the time at least two of them are parked at city hall?


“So what is the problem?” asked Oxtoby. “We have four police cars.”


Oxtoby said the city has already bought them so he doesn’t understand the question.


Oxtoby also said everybody wants to talk about how much the city spends on the police department but as soon as someone isn’t on duty everybody cries, ‘Where is the police department?’


He said the general feeling is everybody likes the 24-hour coverage. The city looked at maybe not having a police department, but, he said, sometimes there is only one sheriff deputy on duty at night and they could be as far away as Green Creek.


“This city decided it needed a police department,” Oxtoby said.


Baisden said he doesn’t see a big deal with having four police cars. He said the city cycles them out and they need maintenance.


Marion answered that Saluda definitely wants cops here. He added that if it’s not needed, maybe the city could consider getting rid of one car.


Ashburn said not all the cars are brand new, and the city has a replacement schedule for each of the vehicles the city owns, and is adhering to that schedule.


Stevens said the city could possibly look at cutting back to three vehicles.


Marion then added that he thinks the GPS on the vehicles is going to help because it means more accountability.


Baisden said at one time Saluda had two officers using the same car to patrol 10 miles of roads. That car was being worn out, Baisden said, so the city started setting aside money. He said one car has over 100,000 miles and another has 80,000 miles, so the city did order another car to take some pressure off the other cars. Baisden added that GPS is for safety as well as for tracking city vehicles.


Early voting for the elections in Columbus, Saluda and Tryon is ongoing Monday-Friday next week from 8:30 a.m. -5 p.m. at the Polk County Board of Elections Office and on Saturday, Nov. 4 from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m.


Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7, where each municipality’s polling place will be open for voting from 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.