ROCKINGHAM — Crime and the county’s finances took center stage at the Ashley Chapel Community Center’s second candidate forum Thursday night
The candidates for the four available seats on the Board of Commissioners took questions from moderator Richard Nicholson and from the audience. Fifteen people attended — not even a quarter of those who took part in the forum before the primaries, a low number organizers attributed to the simultaneous Pee Dee Electric 78th annual meeting, at which there were drawings for door prizes.
The incumbents are Don Bryant, Herb Long and Ben Moss and challengers, Tavares Bostic, Jim Entwistle and Rick Watkins. Of the six, Moss was the only candidate not present. The fourth seat up for grabs is that of Commissioner Thad Ussery, who will retire from the board following the election.
The first question from Nicholson was: In light of Richmond County’s high crime rate and the cuts made to the Sheriff’s Office staff — as well as to virtually every other county department — what can we expect from you in terms of providing support the Sheriff’s Office needs to ensure the safety of this community?
Long, running for his second term, explained that every department had had to make cuts following the revelation at the board’s open budget meeting in February that the county’s finances were not as sound as previously thought. The cuts, he said, were “tough choices” made because newly appointed County Manager Bryan Land “inherited a mess” from the prior manager, Rick Sago.
Long also said that Sheriff James Clemmons told the board that his budget had been so high because of the need to keep more deputies stationed at the courthouse. The comments by Clemmons had not previously been made public and have not been independently verified by the Daily Journal.
Bryant noted the importance of law enforcement in light of the shooting in South Carolina on Thursday, in which one police officer was killed and six others were wounded.
“I will do anything I possibly can to support our sheriff’s department,” Bryant said, which meant growing the tax base through providing jobs and jobs training.
The challengers couldn’t deal with the issue of the current budget directly and instead presented how they would address the issue if elected.
Watkins, who worked for Richmond County Schools for 27 years and has been an assistant professor at Wingate University, said supporting law enforcement should always be a top priority and that he would be proactive in purchasing new equipment rather than reactive.
Entwistle, a general contractor running for his first elected office, said he felt sure many in the room had ideas that could help solve the crime issue, and that he would make sure those ideas were heard. He called crime a “cycle” and said leaders must help those who commit crimes so breaking the law is no longer necessary.
Bostic, a mental health practitioner running for the board for the second time, focused on the need for better resources, such as education and job opportunities, as a way to reduce crime. He also said Richmond County needed better communication between those elected to represent residents and those who managed their money to make sure what happened in years past didn’t repeat itself.
The issue of the budget flared again when audience member Cameron Hairston, the chief operating officer of Bostic’s practice, asked how it was one person’s responsibility to know the health of the county’s budget.
In February, Land said tax revenue projections over previous years were “inflated slightly,” which ultimately led him to ask the county’s department heads to cut their budgets 15 percent and informed his recommendation that the county increase the tax rate by 4 cents. Long and Moss voted against the current budget, though it ultimately passed with a 4-2 margin.
Bryant said no money actually was “missing” and attributed the tax increase to ill-advised tax cuts in previous years. When asked what he would do to prevent such a thing from happening, Bryant said the numbers given to board members at the time had been “falsified” giving the impression “that we were better off than we were.”
Long reiterated that no money technically was missing and said that he asked Sago directly about the inflated numbers. Long said Sago responded with, “Let me do some research on that, and I’ll get back with you,” and then when the board caught the mistakes, Sago announced his retirement. This account has not previously been made public, and the Daily Journal could not independently verify it Thursday evening.
Bostic said the solution was to eliminate the “buddy-buddy system” between county leaders that allowed such things as miscalculations in the budget to be “swept under the rug.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]