SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - Thirteen candidates running for the five seats available on the Salisbury City Council answered questions about how they would lead if elected, and how to deal with the city's most pressing problems.
The candidates spoke during a forum on Monday night in the Crystal Lounge on the campus of Catawba College. The forum was sponsored by AT & T, the Rowan Chamber, The Salisbury Post, WSAT, and Catawba College.
Questions had been submitted to The Salisbury Post and were presented to the each candidate.
One reader asked, "Do you think a tax increase is necessary to balance the city budget?"
Latasha Wilks said she doesn't think it would be fair for the city to raise taxes because of problems caused by past City Council members.
"A prime example, I'm just going to put it out there, is Fibrant," Wilks said. "Why should citizens have to have a tax increase?"
"By state law, we have to have a balanced budget. We don't have the luxury like our federal government colleagues do in running a deficit budget," Brian Miller said.
Miller said that earlier this year, the council voted to raise taxes so that the city could give police officers a raise.
"Those are the fun things you get to do when you're an elected official. You have to make hard decisions," Miller said.
John Struzick joked that while it's not a popular thing for a candidate to call for a tax increase, he did believe it was necessary.
"It's not a question of whether we think it's necessary or not. It's the law. The budget has to be balanced. If we don't have enough revenue, then we have to raise taxes. Pure and simple," Struzick said.
Todd Paris said that if Fibrant's problems can be solved, taxes could actually be cut and services could be expanded.
"As (David) Post has said before, the Fibrant thing drives the city, drives everything. We have some people who work for the city … that haven't received anything like a real salary raise in many, many years because the Fibrant deficit is eating our entire budget alive," Paris said.
Post said Fibrant negatively affects Salisbury's tax rate.
"Our tax rate's about 70 cents. Fibrant costs about 12 (cents). We have the highest tax rate of any community near us. Take that 12 cents away and guess what: We're among the lowest tax rates of any of the communities near us," Post said.
Tamara Sheffield said Fibrant has "obviously" been a drain on the budget. She then asked members of the audience, "Do you have Fibrant?"
"It might be necessary, but I think the first thing we need to do is actually look long and hard at the budget," said Patricia Ricks. "We need to look at Fibrant; if we're losing $3 million in Fibrant, why do we need a tax increase? If we can figure out a way to make Fibrant work and work efficiently, bring in money, that will help make sure that we don't have a tax increase."
Another question dealt with the system by which Salisbury elects a mayor. Traditionally, the mayor is the council candidate who receives the most votes. One reader asked if it would be better to have candidates run for the office of the mayor.
Kenny Hardin said he believes voters should be able to vote directly for mayor.
"And if I'm fortunate enough to be on the council, that's something that I will actually push for," Hardin said.
During the course of his campaign, Hardin has said that he is running for mayor, though voters don't elect the mayor.
Many of the candidates, including Hardin, also said they would support having ward or district voting, which would allow specific areas of the city to elect representatives to the council.
Ryan Evans said he agrees with the way the mayor is currently elected but he would want City Council terms to be four years rather than two.
"I also believe that, as far as the districts and the wards, there should be a two-year representative from it and they have a two-year term," Evans said.
Leda Belk said she wants voters to be able to elect their mayor. But she agreed that terms are too short.
Al Heggins said she believes there should be a mayoral race.
"Let your most qualified people who think that they're the most qualified run for mayor and let the system decide who the mayor should be," Heggins said.
Rodney Queen, who sat near the middle of the group, said he was "climbing out of the chair" with excitement to answer the question.
"Ten years ago, I went before the City Council and said, 'We need to have seven people on the council. We should stagger the terms. We should elect the mayor,'" Queen said.\
The forum was broadcast live on Memories Radio 1280 and 103.3, and will be rebroadcast several times before Election Day on Access 16 in Salisbury.
Approximately 150 people attended the forum.
The next candidates forum will be from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Nov. 2 at Mission House Church, 120 Statesville Blvd. It will be geared toward college-age voters.
The Salisbury Post contributed to this story.