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Hopefuls speak up on issues at city council candidates forum
Friday, October 26, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Martinsville must work with Henry County and other nearby localities to achieve progress, city council candidates in the Nov. 6 election agree.
It is easier to get federal and state funds, such as for projects to improve the economy, “if there is regional collaboration,” incumbent Martinsville City Council member Mark Stroud said during a candidates forum on Thursday.
“The entire region must be our partner” — not just Henry County, incumbent council member Danny Turner said. “It gives us an opportunity to have a louder voice in Richmond” on political issues.
Turner said Martinsville and Henry County must cooperate with other cities and counties in Southside and, sometimes, those in northern North Carolina.
In cooperating, localities must show they understand each other’s concerns and share common experiences, such as when they have had to make budget cuts toward services such as schools, said political newcomer Jim Woods.
However, “collaboration must go beyond government entities,” said Sharon Brooks Hodge, another political newcomer. It also must involve organizations and social groups as they look for ways to improve the community, she said.
The candidates commented in response to a question about how important it is for the city to cooperate with the county and surrounding areas.
The forum was sponsored by the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce at TheatreWorks’ black box theater uptown.
Candidates responded to seven questions posed by the chamber. Each candidate had two minutes to respond to each question. They also received time to make brief opening and closing remarks.
Glenn Wood, the chamber’s vice chairman of government affairs, moderated the forum. Recognizing that city officials had a hard time preparing the fiscal 2013 budget, he asked the candidates where in the budget they would have liked to see deeper cuts made or funds added.
Hodge said the city should rely less on paid consultants. She said she thinks city employees are able to do much of the work consultants have done, such as in the ongoing hiring process for a new city manager.
Stroud indicated he would have liked for city employees to have received pay raises. He mentioned that most workers have not had raises in several years.
Workers must be compensated well to entice them to give good customer service and not leave the city for employment elsewhere, he said.
Turner said he opposes spending city funds to continue the Martinsville Mustangs baseball team.
Woods, who manages the Blue Ridge Regional Library branch in Martinsville, said he has experienced effects of budget cuts there, such as losing personnel.
He said, though, that if more cuts have to be made, “everything should be on the table. There are no sacred cows.”
More budget cuts eventually are going to be needed, Turner said.
Wood asked the candidates what — other than creating jobs and improving public education — they think is the most important issue facing the region and what they would do if elected to address that issue.
Stroud said the most important issue is the city’s declining population and tax base. He said the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC) must make broad efforts to market the region to attract newcomers, including retirees.
Hodge agreed with Stroud. She also said the city must work to address an identity crisis. Turner indicated he agreed with her.
Martinsville once was known as Virginia’s manufacturing center but now “we’re the poster child” for economic problems, Turner said.
Now that most of the city’s manufacturing has left, “what’s Martinsville’s new identity?” Hodge said. What will the city do to lure people in their 20s and 30s who will want to spend the rest of their lives locally, she asked.
What the city should do, she said, is market its low cost of living and that it is a “quality place to live.”
Turner said, though, he thinks the city’s most pressing issue is the possibility of the state eventually allowing uranium mining near Chatham. He said he is “not ready” to support mining because nobody has proven it can be done safely and without negative health effects on the region’s residents.
Woods said of utmost importance to the city should be looking for ways to consolidate services with Henry County to save money.
None of the candidates voiced outright support for reversion, a process in which Martinsville would legally become a town in Henry County, which would take over some of the city’s services.
Wood asked the candidates for their thoughts on the issue.
Hodge opposes reversion. She said it represents “a step backwards” by indicating “we’re ready to throw in the towel” and not try to increase Martinsville’s population and grow the city’s tax base.
Past efforts to consider reversion have failed but the city is studying the idea again. The council expects to receive consultants’ preliminary reports in a few months.
Both Stroud and Woods said they want to see what the reports say before taking a stand on the issue.
Woods and Hodge both presented the idea of the city and county merging into one locality.
Stroud said that for him to vote for reversion, “a majority of citizens in Martinsville” would have to favor it.
Most people he has talked to so far do not, he said.
During the forum, Turner declared, “we (the city) don’t have the (financial) resources for a prolonged (legal) battle” with the county over reversion.
He said afterward he likely would support reversion.
But first, he said, he would like to see the General Assembly “put up some money so we don’t have to revert.”
If that does not happen, he would like to see lawmakers somehow “sweeten the pot” so the county would not oppose the city reverting, he added.