The seven Republican candidates for the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners couldn’t stop talking about taxes last night.
During a forum sponsored by the Forsyth County Republican Women at the Ramada Inn in Winston-Salem, most pledged to keep property taxes as low as possible. Some even pledged never to raise taxes.
The candidates include two incumbents, Richard Linville and Gloria Whisenhunt. The others running in the July 20 primary are Lou Baldwin, Patricia Messick, Bob Parker, Bill Roberts and Bill Whiteheart.
More than 30 people attended the forum.
“Taxes increasing are the largest disincentive” to attract new businesses to the county, Whiteheart said.
He was among several candidates who said they would sign a pledge from the Citizens of a Sound Economy, an anti-taxation group, to not raise property taxes.
Forsyth County commissioners just recently voted 4-3 to approve a $317.4 million budget that includes a 1.6-cent increase in the property-tax rate . The tax rate went from 69.2 cents for every $100 of assessed-property valuation to 70.8 cents. A resident who owns a $100,000 home would pay $708, a $16 increase.
Linville and Whisenhunt, along with Commissioner Debra Conrad-Shrader, voted against the budget.
Messick and Roberts joined Whiteheart in saying they would sign a pledge not to raise taxes. Baldwin did not specifically say he would support such a pledge but did say he would be committed to keeping property taxes low. Roberts said he would not raise taxes except for a bond that voters approved for capital projects.
But Whisenhunt, Linville and Parker said they could not make such a pledge. Linville said that it is sometimes hard to get everyone on the board to agree on the cuts needed to avoid a tax increase.
Parker said that a disaster might happen, and a tax increase might be necessary.
Whisenhunt said that taxes have gone down in the years since she was first elected. In 1996, the property-tax rate was 72.64 for every $100 of assessed-property valuation. It is now 70.8 cents under the adopted 2004-05 budget.
“That’s a lie, ” Roberts said.
He said that property taxes are about 20 percent higher than six or seven years ago because of re-evaluation.
Roberts also said that commissioners have added to the debt through certificates of participation, such as the one that paid for the recently completed Forsyth County Government Center.
Certificates of participation use county property as collateral for a loan and do not require voter approval. Roberts said he would want residents to have a vote for any capital project costing more than $5 million.
Baldwin said that if he had been on the board, he also would have voted against the budget.
He argued that commissioners should carefully examine their spending to prevent tax increases and said he would push to form a board of citizens to scrutinize the budget.
Parker said he would want an audit of all county services to see if there are expenses that can be trimmed. He cited a recent internal audit that pointed to problems that Forsyth County Emergency Medical Services had in its bill collections.
He also said that the commissioners, who are among the highest paid in the state, should not earn more than many county employees.
Whisenhunt and Linville said they put in plenty of time as elected officials.
“I don’t see a reason why elected officials shouldn’t draw a salary,” Linville said.
Messick said that low taxes and less regulation are what businesses look for when expanding or moving here. Economic development, the candidates said, is vital in a county where the growth of the property-tax base has been nearly flat.
Whisenhunt said that the county should look at cutting services that are not mandated by the state. One of the main reasons she voted against the budget this year was because of the Downtown Health Plaza, she said.
The health plaza is operated by Baptist Hospital and had been getting a county subsidy. The adopted budget includes $1.5 million for the health plaza for 2004-05.
“We’ve gotten to providing way too many things for too many people,” Whisenhunt said.
• Michael Hewlett can be reached at 727-7326 or at firstname.lastname@example.org