LAURINBURG — The city’s two mayoral candidates challenged each other on the issue of city utilities during a pair of recent candidate forums.
Incumbent Mayor Tommy Parker and challenger Matthew Block went head-to-head on Sunday at a forum hosted by the Scotland County Civic League at the Storytelling and Arts Center and on Monday at the Laurinburg-Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum at the Scotland County Courthouse.
During both debates, Block and Parker discussed their positions on unemployment, the need for a public recreation center in the city, and whether or not the city is in fact gouging its customers on electric bills.
Parker took issue with advertisements run by Block’s campaign, which accuse the city of not passing cost savings from Duke Energy’s purchase of ElectriCities assets on to its customers.
“Regarding the electric rates, I think that the city has had a deaf ear towards the public,” Block said on Sunday. “The city of Laurinburg knew in August their rate was going down.”
Those ads, which Parker called “misleading to our public,” claim that the city has accumulated an extra $1.5 million in electric fees since July for the purposes of constructing a new city hall and police station.
“I think my opponent’s just throwing things out there hoping something will stick,” Parker said on Monday.
Parker said that the city has depleted its electric enterprise’s fund balance over the last 10 years by keeping electric rates steady despite rising costs. He also predicted a 7 percent decrease in the city’s electric rates based on a recent independent rate study.
“You cannot verify (the ads) with math that is done the way I learned it it college,” Parker said. “When you claim that you’ve given a right answer and you’ve given a wrong answer and the public’s misled, I don’t do business like that. I also don’t do business behind closed doors. You can see my cell phone records if you want to.”
Block, a former mayor, also criticized the city council’s decision to allocate $550,000 toward architectural fees to design a new city hall building without first holding a formal public input session.
“When a big issue like this comes up, of whether to demolish a perfectly functional building and build a new one that’s twice as large for $5 or $6 million, when it’s very questionable whether we need any more space, then it’s the mayor’s job to involve the public in these decisions,” he said.
During both forums, Parker said that the cost of the new building could be financed over several decades, and that the loan could be paid back in part using savings realized from operating in an efficient space.
If elected, Block said that he intends to work toward the placement of a recreation center inside the city, and identified Scotland Health Care System as a possible partner.
“I think it’s very important, not just for the youth but as a means of community and economic development,” he said. “That’s part and parcel of having an attractive place to live, and I think it should be centrally located.”
Parker agreed that a recreation center would benefit the city, but nixed the idea of using city taxes to pay for one. He suggested that it is the role of nonprofit organizations to provide such facilities, and noted that the city-county Crime and Drug Committee has facilitated collaboration between nonprofits who serve youth.
“If some money falls out of the sky, I will gladly help apply it,” Parker said. “But right now there are no resources in the city of Laurinburg for that initiative.”
During Monday’s forum, Parker pointed out that recreation opportunities do exist, such as the Laurinburg Optimist Club and Unionville Baptist Church recreation center, but are not fully taken advantage of.
“There are opportunities, you might have to look for them, but it’s not like we’re devoid of opportunity,” he said.
When asked about their vision for improvement in the city’s economic environment, both candidates agreed that focusing exclusively on attracting large industries with hundreds of jobs apiece is not realistic.
“Every job counts in this community, whether it’s one, 51, or 151,” Parker said. “The day of the big industry coming and helping us solve our unemployment problem is probably gone. We’ve got to peck away at it, we’ve got to get the fives and the tens, the moms and the pops, the small industry.”
Though the development of new businesses — among them Roses Express and Zaxby’s — just off of U.S. 74 is a marker of positive growth, Parker said that the city will need a greater population of people with better-paying jobs in order to attract significant retail and dining options.
“Unfortunately they pick us instead of us picking them,” he said.
Block proposed expansion of the city’s existing amenities as a basis for further development.
“We need to take a step back and see what the formula for growth is,” he said. “I think it’s lower taxes, I think it’s more amenities in the community, it’s growing our assets at Scotia Village, St. Andrews, the hospital, Highway 74 that runs right through here. We have a lot of positives, there is a lot of hope.”
Incumbent Laurinburg City Council member Curtis Leak, who has represented District 1 for more than 20 years, and challenger Darlene Alston, a minister, discussed the problems facing the district, such as crime and homelessness.
Alston proposed that recreation and other programs be offered to youth in an effort to address violent crime.
“Many times it has something to do with human dignity and how people are personally feeling about themselves,” she said. “So I would say more programs geared at youth to help them refocus.”
According to Leak, crime in the district is less severe than perceived, but the city has cultivated its law enforcement arm to better relate to youth — including with school resource officers and the appointment in 2013 of Laurinburg native Darwin Williams as police chief.
“We’re trying to make our police department young and our officers are going through sensitivity training to deal with the present youth,” Leak said.
Both Leak and Alston voiced skepticism toward the possibility of a citywide curfew. Leak said that council has considered a curfew in the past based on the level of crime in the city, but ultimately decided against it.
“Where the high crime rates are in the city, certain apartment complexes already have certain curfews that are in effect,” said Alston. “I think if you made it city-wide it would make a hostile environment. At this point, I don’t think it should be an issue as a whole as a community curfew.”
With respect to the homeless, Leak said that he is working with the city’s new community development director to identify possibilities, but that resources are hard to find.
“We’ve got a group already, we do have a homeless committee in Laurinburg already in force. We are looking at the homeless situation, but it’s hard to get the partners and the people at the table to come up and do their part.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.