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South Boston Town Council forum keeps it cordial

Candidates for South Boston Town Council found little to disagree on during a forum Thursday night at the South Boston-Halifax County Museum on subjects ranging from taxes, efficiency of town government, the ban on uranium mining and town funding issues.

Five candidates are running for three seats on council in Tuesday’s election, and all five participated in the forum, including incumbent Connie Manning, former councilman and vice-mayor Radford Trent, current planning commission member Bob Hughes and political newcomers Tina Wyatt Younger and Ronnie Couch.

South Boston Mayor Carroll Thackston, unopposed for another four-year term on council, made remarks and answered questions at the forum.

The Halifax County Chamber of Commerce sponsored the forum with Nick Long serving as moderator.


Pay for performance

Perhaps the most striking difference of opinion among the candidates involved the “pay for performance” system currently in place for town employees.

During the current economic downturn, very few municipalities have been in a position to grant employee pay raises, and the current merit pay system has somewhat softened the blow, according to Long, who asked the candidates if they supported the current system.

In addition, if future raises were discussed, would they be in favor of an across the board pay raise.

Couch, a former code enforcement administrator for the town, said he “really did not like the pay for performance system,” adding “there are too many factors that are put into operations to give you a raise.

“There are too many instances where you wouldn’t get paid the amount of money you should get paid…I’m for equal pay for everybody,” Couch added.

If the merit system were already in effect, Younger said she would take the extra money and divide it across the board to everyone.

She agreed with the concept of a merit system that “pays people for their actual performance.

“I personally don’t believe everybody deserves the same pay if you’re not doing your share…I believe you should get paid for what you do,” said Younger.

Thackston, former personnel manager at Daystrom, said he was a “firm believer in merit raises,” while Trent, a former director of support services at Halifax Regional Health System, said he “supported a merit system 100 percent.”

Manning, an educator for Halifax County Public Schools, agreed in concept with a merit pay system, “If you can create a program that’s fair and equitable.”

“I do think it can be a little difficult to control, and I think that’s why people choose to do the other,” Manning noted.

Hughes, who told the audience he has worked with organizations on performance issues and performance appraisals during his career, added you have to remove as much personal bias as possible when constructing a pay for merit system.

“If we give everybody a raise across the board, those who are poor or marginal performers would say to themselves ‘heh, this isn’t bad, I’ll just keep on doing what I’m doing,’” said Hughes.

“But, when those who do the work are recognized and reinforced for that, then those who might be inclined to be marginal might say to themselves ‘I need to get with the program.’

“So, I’m a real advocate for pay for real, identifiable, specific performance.”


Taxes versus core services

None of the candidates want to raise taxes to keep the level of core services such as police, fire and rescue services intact unless they had no other choice.

“Raising them as a last resort means you’re doing due diligence to investigate any way that exists to trim where necessary from an economic standpoint,” said Hughes.

“There are certainly two ways to look at it,” said Thackston.  “I think we do due diligence and find a way to reduce the costs of the core services.

“I worry about raising taxes.  The county has just raised real estate taxes, but it will take a lot of hard work and thought on our part before we make the decision as to which way we would go.”

“We shouldn’t raise taxes unless we really, really have to,” explained Trent.  “Spend taxpayer funds wisely, and that way we wouldn’t have to raise taxes, but if need be, I would be in favor of increasing taxes.”

Couch would look at other ways to trim expenses on everything else before considering raising taxes, and Manning noted South Boston has “one of the lowest tax rates in the state.

“We’re very, very lucky to have what we have, and as far as our infrastructure, continued growth cannot happen alone,” said Manning.

“And, to build on that sometimes you have to take that step…I’m not for raising taxes, but I want to be realistic about that.”

Younger said she would need to have more information before any tax increase could be considered.

A former resident of New York City, Younger said she’s seen communities where those services were not there.

“Just to think you have to sit there longer than you have to, and it’s a matter of life and death, if it comes down to raising property taxes or someone’s life, I couldn’t even make that choice.” Younger pointed out.

“To me, don’t reduce the services people depend on every day.”


Investing in downtown

Each candidate favored continued financial support of downtown revitalization through organizations such as Destination Downtown South Boston and the Main Street Program.

“It’s an intangible benefit,” noted Thackston.  “You agree to support the merchants through Destination Downtown South Boston and Main Street programs.  We give some $90,000 a year to that program (Main Street), and the whole idea is revitalize downtown.

“It’s money well spent…if we take restaurants like [Bistro] 1888, probably 70 percent of that business comes from out of town.”

Younger said some of the merchants she knew as a child are still working downtown.

“It’s great to see they are still there,” added Younger.

“Some towns have closed shop and moved on, but we have invested in downtown.  Maybe we can have a vendors market, as opposed to a farmers market so they can come and display the things they make at home.”

Investment in downtown has resulted in almost 150 jobs being created in the last eight years, according to Hughes, a board member of Destination Downtown South Boston, who added revitalization is a work in progress.

“You and I owe these downtown businesses, too,” said Hughes.  “Maybe we can get products a little cheaper elsewhere, but to do business with them will not only encourage them but to get others to come and increase the traffic in the downtown area.”

Downtown revitalization involves more than just retail, Manning pointed out.

“It’s housing, arts, restaurants, an area to walk in and parks,” she noted.

“It incorporates everything, and any money put into it benefits us.

“It’s an investment that’s unmatched, and we have to understand it’s the first thing you see when you come into South Boston, and it leaves the biggest impression.

“But, we must support it, and it’s very crucial also we support it locally.  It’s hard to compete with malls and compete with Danville, Lynchburg, Durham and Raleigh, but it’s very important.”


Recreation and education funding

Each candidate favors continued town funding for educational institutions such as the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, Innovation Center and the Washington-Coleman Community Center project.

Manning said education and economic development go hand in hand.

“As far as education goes, it’s very crucial we support programs as the SVHEC and the innovation center, because these are the types of activities that are going to bring people to this community,” said Manning.

“I also feel that our research should be done as far as uranium mining, and it’s not going to be cheap. 

“No one’s done the research, and no one knows what will happen, what can get into the water and get into our food system.

“I think that’s where we have to put our money, education and research.”

Thackston said the town is partners with the county and the Town of Halifax in fighting to keep the ban on uranium mining in Virginia.

Council is exploring options regarding help in funding that fight in its current budget process, he added.

Continued funding of education initiatives is crucial, he noted.

“As I said earlier, part of the mission of town council is to provide policies that enhance the quality of life for our citizens.

“At the higher ed center during the week, you’ll see 4,500 students and a parking lot full of cars, coming to us from counties throughout Southside Virginia.

“That’s important to me.”

“I support money to the higher education center,” agreed Trent.

“That’s one of the greatest things that has happened to this community,” he added, while expressing support to keep the ban on uranium mining.

“There’s a lot of politics mixed up in there, a lot of pressure to lift this ban, so I think it’s essential to support not to lift it. The SVHEC has allowed people who have lost manufacturing jobs a better chance in furthering their education,” according to Younger.

“It gives them the same rights to an education, no matter what age, what background and gives everybody an equal playing field,” she pointed out.


Landfill gas project supported

Each candidate agreed the landfill gas to energy project was a good investment for the town.

“It’s leading edge, to use methane gas and turn it into electricity for the elementary school and the clinic at Houghton Park is incredible,” noted Hughes.

“They tell me that’s a 15-20 percent savings in energy a year, and that’s going to happen for roughly 10-15 years, but at the end of eight years when this is paid for, monies come back to the town, so that’s a source of generating income.”

“I think it’s a win-win situation for the health clinic, the dental clinic and the school system,” said Manning.

“If you ask me, it’s something that’s a little high-tech, but I won’t deny I was a little lost when this first started, how to take gas from landfill and create energy from it and put it into a school.

“We’re the only locality in the state of Virginia to use this concept, and it’s a win-win situation.”

“This is a very complicated process and it is a win-win situation,” noted Thackston.

“At the end of 15 years with the elementary school and the end of 10 years with the medical clinic, South Boston will come out somewhere between $750,000 and $800,000 ahead through the sale of electricity and sale of carbon credits,” said Thackston.

“It’s a good idea.”

Couch, Trent and Younger also stated their support of the project.

“As long as it’s safe for the community, I’m for it,” said Younger.


Jobs, taxes, uranium moratorium among primary issues

Candidates had mixed opinions on the top issues facing the town, with Couch, Younger and Trent citing job creation as the number one issue, while Hughes and Thackston cited financial discipline to keep from raising taxes.

Manning noted the potential lifting of the ban on uranium mining as a primary concern.

“The number one issue facing the town in my opinion is we need more jobs,” said Couch.

“We need to do whatever we can to bring people jobs for them to have a place to work so they can afford taxes and economic growth any way we can get it.”

Given the current situation, continuing to maintain sound fiscal management and practices as the town has throughout the years is a priority for Hughes.

“We need to continue to respond to the issues and needs of our community in a positive and responsible manner,” said Hughes.

“I’m reminded from a town standpoint, property and personal taxes haven’t been increased since 1999.

“That’s 13 years, and how many communities can say that?

“I think that’s awesome.  It doesn’t just happen, not some sort of lucky happenstance, its responsible, caring people being in touch with the community and the community’s needs and responding accordingly.”

The balance between taxes and core services are an issue for Thackston.

“It’s a dilemma we haven’t had to face,” he said.  “Our tax rate is 19 cents per 100 dollars for personal property, and the question remains if you get into a bad situation from an economic standpoint do you raise taxes or reduce core services.

“That’s an issue for our town.”

“We need to support economic growth, there’s just no jobs around in South Boston and Halifax County,” said Trent.

“We need to develop some sort of a plan to maximize these jobs that are here, also trying to encourage new industries to move in.

“I’m concerned about the uranium mining, we need to stay on top of that, and I think it will be a mistake to bring uranium mining back to this community.”

“I think the issue affecting the whole community is uranium mining,” noted Manning.

“I’m very concerned what it can do to our future, what it can do to people who choose to have an opportunity to move here but choose not to because of this situation.”

One of the issues I see facing us is getting everyday people involved in the town,” said Younger.

“I feel like it’s so one-sided, and that everyone can do their part and be involved in the community.

“We want the kids who graduate from school to come back, and we want to have more jobs for them, want them to graduate from college and come back and use the resources they learned while they were away.

“The main thing is getting people to care about their community because a lot of people have lost hope in our community.”


Candidates give administration high marks

Each candidate gave high marks to the current town administration and Town Manager Ted Daniel

“I was on town council when Ted Daniel was hired, and over the years I think he’s done a great job,” said Trent.

“We can’t satisfy everybody’s needs, and it’s sometimes a thankless job being town manager or mayor.

“But Ted’s done a great job to move the town forward, and I’ll support him any way I can.

“As far as public works, they do a great job, and I think we have the greatest police and fire departments you’ll find anywhere in Virginia.

“I certainly support them 100 percent.”

“I believe in order for a town to succeed they have to stand behind the people they place in office,” noted Younger.

“I feel safe, and that’s very important to me.  I don’t have to barricade myself in my home because I think we have a great police force, fire department, rescue and public works departments.”

“I think Mr. Daniel has done a good job in moving the town forward, and I think public works, the police department and the fire department do a great job,” added Couch, while Hughes, who has a 35-year background in organizational development, said he was impressed with Daniel’s organizational skills.

“I’m always impressed with people who are so organized and who can present information in a way I can understand it,” Hughes pointed out.

“If I can understand it, any fourth or fifth grader can.  I’ve been in meetings where Ted made these presentations, various presentations on different subject matter, and I’ve always been impressed with his organization and presentation skills.

“In addition to that, although I don’t know all that goes on here, I know that from a background standpoint he has been incredibly instrumental in getting grants, and to get a grant is a form of art in my opinion,” Hughes continued.

“I think he has done an outstanding job,” agreed Manning.

“He had the foresight about the Washington-Coleman Community Center, the idea of coming up with the landfill gases to energy project and how it will benefit us in the long run.

“He is a very fair individual and a very strong leader.”

Thackston said Daniel has been a driving force behind the Taylor Lofts project, Washington-Coleman Community Center project, the Halifax County Service Authority and funding for The Prizery, higher education center and innovation center.

“We’re pioneering in providing gas to the school and the health center, and no one else in the state of Virginia has done this,” Thackston added.

“I couldn’t ask for a better town manager.”