Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Election story in which the Herald gets it wrong

The Smithfield Herald FINALLY published the Selma candidate's forum in an article today. I was VERY disappointed in what I read. We sat there for a solid hour and this was the scant article that was published. There was no individual coverage, no separate profiles, no attention to equal time, and a lack of detail. As a matter of fact, I was misquoted. I have an almost photographic memory when it comes to conversations. Fortunately, the quote did not totally detract from what I said and conveys the thought, but the quotation marks should be omitted from the article. Next time I go to a forum like this, I am bringing my audio recording device.

Another thing that GREATLY disappoints me is the fact that The Herald gave equal time to Tommy Holmes yet again. Tommy did not have the decency to show up at the forum two years ago and again this year, and yet he is afforded the same opportunity as every one of us who took the time and courtesy to attend. His answers are included along with everyone else's as if he was in the room along with us.

If this is going to be how things are done, why not just call me at home, instead and save us both the time and effort. Sorry, but this irritates the heck out of me. It is patently unfair to every other candidate who made the effort to be there and participate. Five other people were just insulted in that column. Furthermore, it is dishonest to not make that distinction within the article. I am not slamming Tommy. It was his own personal CHOICE to not come, and I am told that he does not like such events. SORRY, but that being the case, he should not reap the benefit of it.

There were five topics of discussion and only three made it into the article. I just retrieved my notepad from my vehicle...yup, five. We also discussed the current perception of Selma and ways to improve it as well as the topic of forced annexation. By the way, what did we supposedly "breathe a sigh of relief" over? Was this the same forum meeting I attended?

Candidates breathe sigh of relief
By Jordan Cooke, Staff Reporter

After bleeding red ink for a couple of years, the town has its financial house in order, say the six candidates seeking office in his year.

Last week, the Herald sat down with mayor candidates Charles Hester and William Overby and council candidates Eric Sellers, Cheryl Oliver, Troy LaPlante, and Tommy Holmes. Here's what they had to say.

The state of spending
Unchecked spending had forced Selma to use $1.8 million in savings to balance its book, leaving the town with just $300,000 in reserves, said Hester, the incumbent mayor. But some tough spending decisions and the implementation of checks and balances put the town's finances back in the black, he said.

"When I came on board, we didn't really know how much money we had," Hester said. "We didn't reconcile bank statements. There was no management of money. But as time went on, we put the most qualified people in place to correct that. And we're getting much better performance out of everyone."

To rein in spending, the town trimmed its staff. That was unpopular but necessary, the candidates said.

"It's just a fact that like any major business, you've got to cut overhead," Overby said. "Sometimes to balance the books, you've got to cut waste."

"Sound fiscal management is not rocket science," added Sellers, a retired businessman. "If your expenses are running more than revenue, that's not good. At that point you have to think it doesn't matter what you like or want. Our fiduciary responsibility is to make sure taxpayer money is spent in such a way that gets the most bang for the buck."

Oliver said she was pleased to see that the town manager and finance officer had developed "granular budget reports" that help track exactly where each dollar is spent. "It enables us to look and see if things are out of control," she said. "It's a relentless battle, but we have to keep track."

For his part, Holmes said he didn't think the town had done enough to correct its financial affairs. But he said he also doubted the town was ever in as serious a financial crisis as town leaders indicated.

"If the town was in the state it said it was in, I think the Local Government Commission would have stepped in and taken over," he said. "They went and gave money to Sysco for coming. And the town leaders turned [former town manager] Jeff White loose and weren't keeping up with what he had going on. When Charles came in, he tightened the belt. But I still can't see where town has recovered that much in two years."

Oliver said she'd like to see the town explore the possibility of giving back to its employees some of the perks taken from them during the town's financial crisis. LaPlante said he would also like to see the town eventually rescind a five-cent tax increase passed last year.

"When we do have the money to do some of these things, I think we need to start giving back," Oliver said.

Attracting industry
Hester, a veteran of the real estate business, said increasing the town's tax base would be key to "doing something good for our area." Attracting new industry will play a huge role in increasing the tax base, he added.

But before the town can lure another Sysco, it must achieve a few goals, the candidates said.

First, the town must improve its infrastructure, LaPlante said. "It's great that we have beautifully painted water towers, but not when we have 100-year-old water lines," he said. "If we're going to offer more services to businesses like Sysco, were going to have to improve upon the infrastructure we have now."

Holmes said Selma also needed to lower its utility rates. "As high as light and water bills are for a business right now, I think the town needs to look at cutting the rates by about 10 percent," he said.

Second, the town needs to work to shed a negative image and encourage residents to take pride in their community, Oliver said. "We have so many things going for us, but we have to overcome stereotypes and perception," she said. "We also need the people of Selma to believe in Selma. Internally, people are not very optimistic. We need to make Selma a place that is positive about itself from the inside out."

To help shed that negative image, Selma needs to focus on rundown rental homes, Overby said. "The more we have, the less people will want to move here," he said. "And who knows, a big business might be looking, but might get concerned because of the condition of the town."

Sellers said the town also needed to continue promoting itself as a tourist destination and to engage industries to assess their interests and needs. "One thing you do when you sit down with them [companies] is you put yourself in their place," he said. "You assess their need, but you do it in an intelligent way."

The doctor is out
Selma has struggled in recent years to keep a doctor in town. The latest to leave were the doctors of Carolina Express Care, who in July vacated a building Hester built years ago to attract another healthcare practice.

The six candidates all agreed that having a local doctor was a convenience, but not a necessity. While they said they wouldn't turn a doctor away, the candidates said they wouldn't necessarily go looking for a new one.

"I suppose we could use a doctor just for identity's sake," Hester said. "But we're not that far from Smithfield. Last time I checked, we touched borders. But if we were to try to attract a doctor, I think we would be better served to work with the hospital on that rather than spending tax dollars."

Holmes agreed. "Not that many people are going to doctors here in Selma anyway," he said. "We can't afford to put the burden of luring a new one on the taxpayers."

Oliver said she would also favor a partnership with Johnston Memorial Hospital over spending tax money. But she said it could be important to the town's image to have a local physician. "I don't think we have to force it, but I do think a doctor's presence says something about the town and how it cares for its people," she said.

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