(Editor’s note: Today’s Question and Answer is for Republican candidates for the District 1 county commissioner seat, Danny Jackson and Clark Wooten. Questions were not provided in advance to either candidate and were compiled by the Independent’s editorial staff and asked to candidates via in-person interviews. Answers appear as they were given. Q&A conducted by Chris Berendt)
Danny Jackson: Retired after 32 years with Star Telephone and now has a second career, as a poultry farmer. Has served as a member of the Sampson County Republican Party executive committee, the party’s vice chairman and on the three-member Sampson County Board of Elections. A Midway High graduate, Jackson attended Sampson Community College. He is married to wife, Joyce. They have two children, Greg Jackson and Tracy Bass, and four grandchildren.
Clark Wooten: Owns and operates turfgrass production company Tri-State Turf Inc., which began as a one-man operation 30 years ago in the Spivey’s Corner area at Timothy crossroads, where his grandfather farmed land and ran a country store. It still operates at that site. A graduate of Hobbton High School and UNC-Wilmington, Wooten is married to wife Linda, They have two children, Houston and Celia.
1. What makes you the best choice as commissioner for your district, and how are you different from your opponent?
Jackson: I’m a lifelong resident of the district. I’ve worked in the area with Star Telephone, I know all of the people and I know the problems we’ve experienced. I’ve also been a lifetime Republican, and worked hard for our party over the years in various jobs — precinct chairman, precinct judge, vice-chairman of our county party and a member of the Board of Elections. I was recruited by our party to run for this position. During my tenure with Star Telephone, my job involved service to our customers, so I know how to work with people and help people. That’s all I’ve ever done. I know how to handle individual problems as well as wide problems.
Wooten: I was blessed with a good education from the public schools of Sampson County and I went on to UNC-Wilmington to gain a Bachelor of Science degree in economics. I came back and started a business that’s been running now for almost 30 years. With that, I had to learn a budget and I had to live and operate within means through the downturns and upswings in the economy. We meet a payroll every week, so I feel like I’ve got some pretty good experience. Individuals have to live within their means, households have to live within their means and budgets and businesses do too. I’d like to bring that concept and that culture to county government.
2. Do you believe that commissioners should make their district a priority over the needs of the entire county?
Wooten: Once you’re elected, you represent everyone. That’s the wholistic view I’ll take. What I’d like to do is have an opportunity to listen to everyone. That’s the way we need to make decisions. That’s the way I make decisions. I gather information from everyone, listen to everyone — that’s the way we grow and get better. That’s what government is about, and the people have to be involved in it. That’s what I’d like to see. I sent everyone in District 1 my cell phone number so I’m committed to that. If I’m elected, my commitment to the people of Sampson County and District 1 is to be accessible and, in everything I do, have their best interests in my mind. I want to be accessible to the people and an extension of them on the board.
Jackson: If I win, I will be a county commissioner elected from District 1 but I’ll represent all of Sampson County for the good of the county. Sure, anybody would want to help their district, but we have to look after the whole county. If one part of our county flourishes and does better, that affects the whole county. It’s not just District 1 or District 2 that is going to flourish, it is also going to bring 3, 4 and 5 with it, we hope. I’m a district man and a county man at the same time. If I’m elected, I want to work with the commissioners in a harmonious fashion. Cooperation goes a lot farther than dissension. I’m willing to work with all our county commissioners and our county manager. We have a great county manager and we need to support him.
3. What do you see as Sampson’s single greatest need and, if elected, how would you work toward seeing that need met? Explain how you would go about funding it given Sampson’s current financial picture?
Jackson: We have several major problems. One is our debt. We accumulated our debt because we needed new schools.We probably should’ve stretched it over a longer period of time, but that’s water under the bridge now. We have to work with it now. The number two problem is we have to do something for our county employees. Our budget has been put on their back for too long. At one time, we even had furloughs for them, which is not good. We need to maintain our employees. We’re having a lot of employees leave for better pay, better benefits and other reasons. Continuity and experience helps make great efficiency. If we’re constantly in a training mode, we’re swimming upstream, and we’ve had several employees over the last year who have gone to other position within another county or municipality that we needed to keep. They had certifications in their respective fields and they had experience, which is hard to get. It takes time, but it’s an invaluable tool. So I stand with our employees and will do everything I can to help and support our employees.
Wooten: I think you just hit on one of the number one problems: the fiscal position we find ourselves in. We have to find ways to meet that fiscal responsibility. I think a good way to start is to be able to look at what we’re doing within the county, separating our services into essential and non-essential. Government has to provide a minimum level of essential services. People want to be protected. They want to have fire and rescue, and the Sheriff’s Department. Those are things we have to stand on for our citizens. Then we can take a look at our non-essential services and I think through input from the community, we can find what people really want and really desire from the non-essential services. I do not believe raising our taxes is a way to meet our fiscal responsibility. Another problem is our employees are lacking for a raise. They haven’t had a raise in six years. I think we need to reward the hard-working employees of our county for innovation and tax-saving. And with education, we need to support our teachers and our kids and we need for them to have the tools to be successful, right on from elementary into high school and on into college. We need to support that. We also need to present a culture as a county and as a Board of Commissioners that is a friendly environment for business. We want business to come here. We are one of the most agricultural counties in the nation and we need to be able to build on that strength with businesses that want to come to our area. But we have to be ready to say yes when they come and that’s going to require some innovative thinking.
4. How do you feel about the current pay study authorized by the Board of Commissioners and, if you believe the employees deserve better wages, how would you go about ensuring that is implemented?
Wooten: I think we need innovation and we need to look into where we’re duplicating services and what our employees can provide more with. And we need to reward them for that kind of innovation and thinking. That’s all a lot easier said than done. That’s going to take some implementation and culture (change). I suspect (the board) wants to level the playing field with other counties through the pay study. Now, you weigh that against spending $60,000, in a simplistic view, to determine our county employees are underpaid. Then maybe you weigh that against, should we not just give that $60,000 to our employees for a raise? I see both sides of it. I struggle with that. It’s hard for me to see us writing a $60,000 check. Our county employees deserve compensation for their hard work. People want a good working environment. That’s number one, but also comes financial reward as well.
Jackson: I really didn’t like the idea of another study. We’ve already had two and nothing has come of them. It’s time for action now. Are we or are we not? I think we should. We’ve cut (the budget) pretty thin. I’m sure we have some areas we can work on. I do not want to cut services, but some of our services may need to be streamlined and some may need to be combined. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that taxes are never going to go up. I don’t know what the future holds for Sampson County, North Carolina or the United States for that matter. Bad economic times means lower revenues. It also means an impact on some services, such as Social Services. When the economy goes down, the demand for Social Services goes up. If we can keep our tax rates low, we can encourage business growth and expansion which will add to the tax base. Hopefully, we’ll see some income off the vehicle tax (collections being done by the state). Our county tax department is one of the best in the state at collection rate, and that means a lot. I’d like to see our tax office work out a payment plan on late or delinquent taxes. Some money is better than none. All that money will be able to be spent in things like employee raises.
5. Where do you see Sampson in terms of economic development? If it needs improvement, explain what you think needs to be done.
Jackson: We need more economic development. It adds to the tax base and employs people. An unemployed person does not spend as much, therefore your sales tax are lower. If we’ve got people working, they’re spending money and buying products and services from within Sampson County a large percentage of the time. That is income we desperately need. One of the best economic tools we have coming is the four-laning of Highway 24 that ties Interstate 95 to I-40. There is some question as to whether this extends on to I-40 or not. DOT suddenly doesn’t have the money. If I’m elected, I want to work with our state legislators to get that link. Without it, we’re sitting in the dark. Sampson County is on the verge of growth if we can get 24. I don’t like incentives, but that’s the nature of the game. If you don’t offer some incentives, Duplin County will.
Wooten: There are a couple things going on. We don’t know what the governor and the State of North Carolina are going to do with the Department of Commerce. There’s talk of privatization. One of the comments that came out of the work they were doing at the state level when they did exit interviews with businesses that didn’t come to North Carolina, one of the things that came to light is the people were really confused as to who they really needed to talk to. We really need to streamline that so when businesses come, they know who to talk with. One of the (other) problems in getting businesses to come to North Carolina is we’re not on a level playing field. Now that’s a state issue, but that impacts us, where our taxes are higher. Even though we’re willing to give tax incentives for people to come, when other states do that that have lower taxes, it puts us at a disadvantage. We need to focus on our strength in agriculture. There are companies that already have looked at coming here to Sampson County and they have not always been well received. We were not in a position to say yes. That’s what we have to work on. We have to work on being in a position to say yes when those opportunities come, and strike when the iron is hot.
6. Are there county departments where you think too much money is spent? Are there ones that don’t get enough funding? Explain.
Wooten: I do believe there are certain departments that need to look at the value of their service. I’d say one of them is the county recreation department. Do the people who are receiving the services feel as if they’re getting a good value for that. That’s just one that pops off the top of my head. I’m sure there are others. If I’m fortunate to be commissioner, I want to vet through each one of those departments. We do need to look at the money we’re spending and what value actually comes to the citizens. You want your customer or end user to be successful. What are you doing and how are you impacting that to make them successful? Are you doing the best you can? I think recreation is important. People learn a lot of life skills — organization, leadership, how to follow rules, how to be on a team. All those things are important, we just need to be sure we’re providing that the best we possibly can versus what we’re spending. With recreation, money can’t buy the passion that volunteers bring to any program. I think it’s important we support all our volunteers in the county, our fire and rescue people. That’s the ultimate sacrifice. They have tremendous commitment and I want to support them. They touch all our lives and I want to be sure we do all we can to support them.
Jackson: I’d like to see more paid EMS. Our county is fortunate. We’re one of the few counties, other than the large metropolitan areas, that a paramedic will arrive at your house if you need help. It costs money to do that. Our EMS needs something. I have a lot of questions about our recreation department. Are we getting $600,000 a year worth (of service)? Can it be better organized? We have a lot of people in the northern end of the county who go to Harnett County to play baseball. Dunn’s baseball team went to the Little League World Series two years ago. If you had taken the Sampson County people off the team, they wouldn’t have won three games. All our boys were there, and it’s come to fruition at Midway High School. We have as good a Sheriff’s Department as the state. They do a lot more than people even know about. Crime seems to be down. Of course, we know it’s going to come back again because it’s tied right into the drug trade. But our sheriff’s deputies and investigators keep beating that down, so we are working on the problem. Our fire departments, we probably can’t give them a lot of money, but maybe we can give them some administrative assistance to encourage those departments who have not to get their lower insurance ratings. That is an asset to every homeowner. As a former fireman and fire instructor, I see the reward in that. I don’t think the county is in a position to fund every department with paid personnel right now, but we can work with the local districts on their fire taxes. But if you can get that lower insurance rating, it tends to take the sting out of the fire tax.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.