(Editor’s note: Today’s Question and Answer is for Democratic candidates for the District 5 county commissioner seat, incumbent Albert Kirby and challenger Eugene Pearsall. 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)
Albert Kirby: Elected to the board in 2010, Kirby is seeking his second term as District 5 commissioner. A Clinton High School alum, Kirby attended Wake Forest University on a full athletic scholarship, graduating in 1980 before going on to graduate from Campbell University School of Law. A longtime practicing attorney at Kirby Law Firm in Clinton, Kirby is past president of the Sampson County Bar, as well as a member of the N.C. Bar Association and the N.C. Black Lawyers Association.
Eugene Pearsall: Owner of Eugene’s Trucking, a contract hauling business based on N.C. 403 (Faison Highway) in Clinton and in operation for 24 years, serving the East Coast. Pearsall was born and raised in Duplin County, where he went to North Duplin High School and was the self-proclaimed “basketball king.” He is married to wife Cheryl and they have three children, Jordan, Erica and Genna.
1. What makes you the best choice as commissioner for your district, and how are you different from your opponent?
Kirby: I think with my training and experience, I think that would make me a better candidate. I have a four-year degree from Wake Forest University, which is a very tough school. Then I went to law school at Campbell University, graduated and was licensed as an attorney, and have practiced law for nearly 28 years now. I’ve run a law business for that period of time, where I have had to deal with budgets and payroll. I was the school board attorney for nearly 23 years, so I understood the law with respect to government bodies and understood the struggles the school system faced. And just my experience being a commissioner for four years. I’m just getting to where I really understand how the budgetary process works. With that experience, I think that gives me an edge over my opponent, who is a likable fellow, I suppose, but has no experience whatsoever in doing this. I am a Democrat and I really understand the Democratic Party. (Pearsall) doesn’t really understand what District 5 needs. I do.
Pearsall: I’m different from my opponent because I’m coming in to work with the commissioners of Sampson County, not fight and disagree. You can’t get anything accomplished disagreeing, especially when you’re outnumbered 3-2. You work with people, negotiate and try to get things done for the people of District 5 and Sampson County. It’s not about me, it’s about the people. There’s fussing and fighting. I want to bring harmony to the board. You have to work with people. Everywhere Mr. Kirby goes, some controversy follows him. I feel I’m the better choice because I feel I will work better with the board than what is going on there now. I’m a self-made businessman and I will bring a business mind to the board. I started with one truck and I built it to 50 units. If I can do that, I feel like I can help bring Sampson County back to where it needs to be. I have been very active in the community. For example, I worked with Head Start (as board chairman and committee member) and we got things done. When it was struggling, Ms. Patty Cherry and I worked diligently, going to Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, Ga. until we got funding. When I left Head Start, we had Early Head Start and new vehicles and new busses for the kids. It was thriving, but at this point (the county) let the program slip away. I think it was very important to keep programs like that around. I’m on the advisory board for Hobbton District Schools, I am a member of the NAACP, the Chamber of Commerce and the Workforce Development Board. We partner with Central Carolina and Sampson Community College and we send kids to school, train them and they find jobs. Those are good success stories.
2. Do you believe that commissioners should make their district a priority over the needs of the entire county?
Pearsall: No, I think the commissioners should work together to help all citizens of Sampson County, not just District 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, but all districts. I’ve noticed where District 5 has gone unnoticed, especially with the school system. We haven’t had a new school in this district in I don’t know how long. Hargrove — God bless his soul, former commissioner Malachi Faison went to that school — and it’s still there. So, we’re in need in the Hobbton district for schools. And our teachers need a lot of support. We have very good teachers in this (Hobbton) district and they have the worst working conditions. So one of my priorities would be to try to raise some funds so we can build some schools in this district.
Kirby: I really think, because we’re in the districts, that you need to make sure that the folks who put you in office are taken care of. That is very important. However, I don’t see how taking care of any specific district would necessarily be in conflict with taking care of all the citizens of Sampson County. What the people need in District 5, I think Sampson County needs overall. For instance, nobody wants to have higher taxes. If you address that with respect to folks in District 5, it applies to everybody, or being efficient in government, being effective and that kind of thing.
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.
Kirby: I think taxes being too high, we’ve got to address that. And number two, the perception of fairness. Sometimes people feel like the government isn’t fair to them. It doesn’t happen that much and it’s not that anyone is intending it, but all it takes is perception. To be more specific about the taxes, I’ve been hearing people complain all the time. They say their property tax is too high and that our rate is higher than all the counties contiguous to us. If I’m elected, I will do my best to try to address that issue. That goes into seeing if there are other ways of cutting waste. I must admit that, although there is some waste, in my opinion a lot of it has been cut. I must commend the commissioners. We’ve worked diligently to try and get a lot of the huge spending issues whittled down, but we can go a little further. To the fairness issue, the Medicaid transportation debacle is something I point to that everybody was talking about, across racial and party lines, and saying that just looked unfair. Hopefully that is behind us now, but we have got to try to avoid appearances of impropriety in government. That goes with hiring. If we say we’re going to hire somebody who has a degree and an education, we should do that, and not hire someone who does not. Otherwise, individuals are looking at the government thinking they are not being treated fairly. That’s one thing I’d like to work on.
Pearsall: I would say Sampson’s greatest need, going back to our kids and our schools, we have cut the budget for Parks and Rec and we aren’t giving attention to our schools. As far as funding, I would think in this economy we don’t need to raise any property taxes, but we need to do something where maybe drug dealers, illegals, everybody would pay taxes. The way we could do that is with a sales tax (hike), maybe a half a cent. That would generate a lot of funds.
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?
Pearsall: I think they’ve got a great start (with the study). My opponent voted against the employees in Sampson County getting a raise and it passed anyway. Employees haven’t had a raise in seven or eight years — I stand by the Sampson County employees. They deserve their raise.
Kirby: I’ve used this analogy before. When I was a kid, my mom got us a Christmas toy that was somewhat homemade — she did the best she could, we were poor — and my little brother Roosevelt sees this kid down the street with a brand new bicycle. So Roosevelt comes back and says ‘Santa Claus must hate us mama, because I didn’t get that.’ And mama said she cried because in her heart she knew that her kids, we deserved the same, but we just didn’t have the money. I know that each of our employees deserve more money. That has never been the debate. We have some of the hardest working people in government, but we just don’t have the money now. That being said, I do think something ought to be done, but the pay study was a waste of money. Even if it was $10,000 and not $50,000, I would say let’s not worry about a pay study. Let’s get right to the issue and figure out how much money, after looking at other budget concerns, that we could honestly and truthfully put aside to address this issue now. If the answer is no, we have to be honest with ourselves and say we can’t do it now. If the answer is yes, (it would be with understanding) that either everybody has to raise their taxes to cover it or later on you’ll have to send people home because you have to cut back. That’s the dilemma we’re faced with.
5. Where do you see Sampson in terms of economic development? If it needs improvement, explain what you think needs to be done.
Kirby: I don’t want (economic developer) John Swope to think I’m picking on him in any way. I think he’s a good fellow and a hard-working fellow. There was a time in our past that we did not have that department and we seem to have done just fine. I’m not against John. The way I look at economic development is the way I suppose college football coaches look at their jobs. If you don’t produce usually you leave. I hate to put it that way, but you don’t continue to pay. If we look at what we’ve gotten in return, in hard numbers, in the last 10 years it hasn’t been that much. We’ve had some nibbles, but nothing is there. For the amount it is costing to run (Economic Development), you have to ask yourself do we need to do something differently? Is there something we can do better or differently? I don’t know the answer to that question, but something has to be done. We have to get some kind of return on that kind of money in this day and age. I believe Sampson County has somewhat of an identity crisis at this point. We have been traditionally rural and agrarian. The majority of our income is from agriculture. Unfortunately, agriculture does not produce a great deal of money in terms of running governments. Manufacturing is the answer. If I had to choose a path for Sampson County, it would be to do some critical thinking in the agricultural arena to make it better, but start looking at changing our identity to a more manufacturing-based.
Pearsall: We have to be very careful in how we bring in new projects in this county. I remember two or three years back, I was a supporter for Fibrowatt, but then I went out to Minnesota (to the Fibrominn plant) and, after I went out there, I realized there could be some danger for our seniors here. We own the land at the N.C. 403 and I-40 interchange so we have a great opportunity to do the same thing Warsaw did at N.C. 24 and I-40. Why can’t we do the same thing in Sampson? That would be a great way to raise funds in the county. I think John Swope does a great job. He comes to the table with great ideas. At this point, we need more projects like the Ammonia Refrigeration facility (at Sampson Community College). That is very unique. There’s only six of them in the United States I think. We need to bring stuff like that to Sampson County. That would be tremendously helpful. I work on the Workforce Development Board and we discussed this project at the last meeting. It’s like a secret, I didn’t know about it, but we need more like it.
6. Are there county departments where you think too much money is spent? Are there ones that don’t get enough funding? Explain.
Pearsall: I understand that there is a lot of disagreement about the Sheriff’s Department. That stands out in my mind. My understanding is there is a fund and the county commissioners vote on what percentage the Sheriff’s Department and other departments get. What we need to do is sit down, meet, talk and do what’s best for Sampson County for each department. I can’t say where the money needs to go, because I’m not in there. But once I’m there, I will sit down and we’ll look and see who needs the money the most. That’s where the money should go, not just to a department because they need a favor. Parks and Recreation does not get enough funding. Being that I’m successful, I donate thousands to the Hobbton district, Clinton City Schools and to the football and basketball programs in Parks and Rec. They have cut that tremendously and it starts with our children. We need to take care of them first. And we have to make sure our senior citizens get better living conditions and more affordable housing. That is very important.
Kirby: This is not to beat up on the Sheriff’s Department, we have a good Sheriff’s Department. It is light years from what it was 15-20 years ago. It is a totally different atmosphere, but it takes a lot of money. It has increased. I looked at the total amount of the budget from when Sheriff (Jimmy) Thornton took over in 2002, its cut of the pie is tremendously much more than that now. If that money is going to the Sheriff’s Department, that means the schools, Department of Aging, DSS and others are not getting that money because the pie is only so big. This is not a criticism of Jimmy at all. He can help out on this issue. You say to yourself, ‘what can I do to be more efficient and effective so that the dollars that are coming to me can go somewhere else overall?’ I don’t know what that answer is. I know that when you’re in a battle against crime and meth, you want to use all the resources you can get, and sometimes you may not even know that you have more than you need. I can’t second-guess the sheriff when he says he needs more men, more cars and more equipment. He is being very genuine, but our job is to look at the whole thing and say ‘well is the crime rate worse than what it was 20 years ago?’ I went back and looked. The crime rate in general is about the same. As far as the departments that need more money, EMS is something you need to look at where we might be able to do a little bit more. We have an aging population who are going to be needing help. Department of Aging and the Health Department could probably use a boost. The dollars spent at the Health Department would be more along the lines of having education programs to help individuals stay healthy, get healthy or not become unhealthy in the first place.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter, @SampsonInd.