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    Candidates discuss tax promises

    BY Michael Hewlett
    07/17/2004

    Few people like higher taxes, and elected officials often stake their political careers on promising not to raise them.

    The seven Republican candidates running for three seats on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners are all making such promises, though they vary in how far they will go on that pledge.

    The primary is Tuesday. The top three winners will face Democrat William McDonough and Libertarian Richard Norman in November.

    Incumbents Gloria Whisenhunt and Richard Linville are facing candidates Lou Baldwin, Patricia Messick, Bob Parker, Bill Roberts and Bill Whiteheart in the primary. Com-missioner Chairman Pete Brun-stetter is not running for re-election.

    Whisenhunt, Linville, Baldwin and Parker have said they will try to keep property-tax rates as low as possible but will not sign a pledge from Citizens for a Sound Economy, a national anti-tax organization, to never raise taxes.

    The issue came up last month during a forum sponsored by the Forsyth County Republican Wo-men.

    "Making promises in the political world is not a good thing to do, from my point of view," said Linville, who has been a Forsyth County commissioner since 1980 and is running for another four-year term.

    Parker agreed with Linville. "You don't know what will happen from one year to the next," he said.

    All the candidates said they would find and eliminate wasteful spending to keep taxes low.

    During the forum, only Whiteheart, Roberts and Mes-sick said "yes" when asked if they would sign the pledge from Citizens for a Sound Economy.

    But Messick said she could only pledge not to vote for higher taxes for the next budget year.

    "I think it's unrealistic to make a commitment to run for an infinite amount of time, not knowing what's in the future for Forsyth County," she said. "I'm very much against raising taxes."

    Roberts said he would raise taxes only if doing so was necessary to cover debt from bond referendums approved by voters.

    Whiteheart, however, said he would pledge to never vote for higher taxes.

    "My response is, malarkey," he said about his opponents who refuse to sign such a pledge.

    Whiteheart said that lower taxes are critical to attracting new business into the county. But he did not offer specifics on what he would cut to avoid a property-tax increase.

    "I don't know where the fluff is today, but I know there's fluff," he said.

    He said that his years of running several businesses gives him the skills to eliminate waste and reduce expenses.

    Messick said she would have voted against the $317.4 million budget that Forsyth County commissioners adopted last month.

    The property-tax rate increased 1.6 cents, going from 69.2 cents for every $100 of assessed property valuation to 70.8 cents under the budget. A property owner with a $100,000 house will pay $708 in county property taxes, a $16 increase.

    One of her priorities if elected, Messick said, would be to examine the amount of money giv--en to such agencies as the Downtown Health Plaza. She also said she would push for the state to pick up a greater share in providing mo-ney for education.

    Whisenhunt and Linville vot-ed against the budget.

    Both said they support keeping taxes low, but that it would be unrealistic to expect that commissioners would never raise taxes.

    In 2002, commissioners vot-ed to raise the property-tax rate 5.2 cents. They blamed the large increase on losing more than $13 million in state reimbursements.

    This year, County Manager Graham Pervier proposed a bud-get that would have raised the property-tax rate about 3.7cents. He said that the tax increase was needed to deal with nearly flat revenues and to cover debt from the $150 million school bond that voters approved in 2001.

    Whisenhunt said that when voters pass a bond referendum, they should know that it will take some property-tax increases to help pay for it. That is why she said she could never sign a blank pledge to never raise taxes.

    But she said she would cut out things that were not mandated by the state. For example, she pushed to eliminate money for the Downtown Health Plaza, which is operated by Baptist Hospital and provides affordable primary health care to people who have little or no insurance.

    Linville said that opposing higher taxes is fine, but a commissioner has to get his colleagues to agree with him.

    "Just because you say no on something doesn't mean you've accomplished something," he said.

    Baldwin said if elected, he would form a citizens efficiency review committee that would work on finding and eliminating wasteful spending.

    "Anybody can sign a pledge," he said. "We need commissioners who can get in there and make tough decisions."

    Pervier, the county manager since 1987, said that it is probably impossible to permanently avoid property-tax increases. Cuts would have to be made to public libraries, parks and recreation and education.

    "That would ultimately require hard choices," he said.

    • Michael Hewlett can be reached at 727-7326 or at mhewlett@wsjournal.com

    by Michael Hewlett on 7/17/04.