LAURINBURG — Matthew Block is doctor, not a politician.
You might not know that from his well-organized run for mayor of Laurinburg. His campaign accoutrements are abundant, ranging from buttons and refrigerator magnets to social media profiles and Youtube videos.
Yet when you talk to the 51-year-old cardiologist, there is little evidence that he is a polished candidate. He often seems uncomfortable in interviews and before audiences. Instead of pat or well-rehearsed answers, Block’s manner of speaking is both analytic and halting.
“I never thought of myself as a politician,” said Block, a heart specialist in solo practice at Scotland Cardiology since 2001. “I probably sound like a politician saying that. But I was never involved in student government and I don’t see myself going on to be a state legislator or governor. I’m in this for the simple reason that it is depressing to live in a town that is dying.”
Block said a lot has changed since he served as mayor four years ago — and not for the better. Tommy Parker, the incumbent running for re-election, has done little to fix the problems facing Laurinburg, according to Block, whose campaign advertisments claim he has the “prescription for progress.”
Block, who served as mayor from 2007-2011, argues he has a proven record of accomplishments, included initiating input sessions for the public; the formation of the Laurinburg Beautification Committee; the hiring of City Manager Ed Burchins,”an expert in economic development;” a monthly column in the newspaper; and increasing the number of monthly city council meetings.
“There is more complacency and less of a sense of hope than there was four years ago that things can be turned around,” said Block, who has a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from the University of Virginia and a medical degree from New York University.
Block has also made Laurinburg’s handling of its electric rate one of the main themes of his campaign.
He has accused the municipality of “dragging its feet” in passing along rate savings to utility customers after Laurinburg and 31 other municipalities agreed to sell their power-plant assets to Duke Energy in return for lower wholesale electricity costs.
In Block’s view, Laurinburg’s electric rate should have been lowered by at least 10 percent when the Duke deal was finalized at the end of July. City officials said they will consider a 7 percent rate drop next month.
Block said the city plans use the revenue that could have been returned to customers to pay for a new City Hall.
Parker and other members of city council insist they have no such intention and that the municipality cannot take revenues from utility funds to construct a new building. Parker also said there are no definite plans to even build a new facility.
But Block continues to make the argument.
“I know with 99 percent certainty that they plan build up the fund balance in the light and water utilities fund for that purpose,” he said. “It is a way to make a big expenditure without raising taxes. It is outrageous.”
Block is also opposed to a new City Hall, which he said a majority of residents are against as well.
“I think this whole mess with the new City Hall has been completely unacceptable,” he said. “There has been no public input and no honest presentation of the options.
“I haven’t spoken to one citizen who is for tearing down the current police station and building a $5 million new one.”
Block said if elected mayor, he would hope that city council would view that as a mandate.
“There is no rush to do it … the staff has not grown and there has been no damage to building … Now is not the time to go build a palace.”
The New York native said he would rather see the city partner with Scotland Memorial Hospital to build a recreation center within the city limits — a project that he said there is public support for.
“It is what the citizens want,” he said. “And it’s not just for kids to play hoops, although that’s important, but a rec center makes Laurinburg a more attractive place to live.”
He added that the city needs a leader who is aggressive and has vision. He said Parker appears to have “laissez faire approach” to most things — including economic development.
“Just look at our downtown. My overall thrust is what we have been doing here for the last 30 years is not working,” he said. “We’re stuck in the old traditional model of luring large industries. I want a large industry as much as the next guy, but we can’t continue to dwindle.
“The new economy is based more on education, health care retirement and quality of life. We need to focus on those things to create a growing economy.”
Block said the mayor should be a catalyst for pushing not only the council to be more progressive, but the county and the business community too.
“Progress does not come from everyone sitting around slapping each other on the back,” he said. “There needs to be some tension to move things forward.
“The mayor’s job is to provide a vision for the town … for what the town would like to be and how to get from here to there.”
Reach editor Scott Witten at 910-506-3023