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James vs. Driggs: Primary Primer

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Republican primary elections are typically no-drama affairs for incumbent Mecklenburg Commissioner Bill James, who hasn’t faced any serious opposition in more than a decade for the seat he’s held for eight terms representing the heavily suburban District 6.

This year is proving an exception, as the oft-outspoken and controversial James squares off against Ed Driggs, a comparatively low-keyed political newcomer who has run an aggressive campaign touting himself as somebody who could provide conservative leadership without, he said, James’s inflammatory and divisive rhetoric that too often proves counterproductive.

“I hope to be a better advocate for the conservative point of view,” Driggs said. “I’m mainly concerned with effective government. You don’t want to marginalize your effectiveness with you behavior, and I think Bill James has done that to the detriment of his constituents.”

James, in turn, has consistently questioned his opponent’s conservative bona fides, dinging Driggs for his lobbying on behalf of the local PBS station several years ago for increased county funding, as well as criticizing Driggs’s spotty history of voting in GOP primary elections stretching back to 2004.

“It’s pretty clear that anybody who consistently declines to vote in his party’s primaries, isn’t really a Republican. While the rest of us were standing in line to vote, he’s been AWOL,” James said. “It says a lot about his political values. A guy with that little commitment is not the guy to represent the most conservative district in Mecklenburg.”

If anybody’s been AWOL, Driggs said, it’s been James, who he criticized for keeping a low profile in the community and ignoring District 6 constituents.

“He’s been a virtual commissioner who sends out a bunch of inflammatory emails,” Driggs said. “You never see him at community events or meetings, and I think that’s led to a real disconnect.”

Being an effective steward of tax dollars, James countered, is the best way to serve his constituents.

“You don’t have to go to every community meeting and sing Kumbaya to be effective,” James said. “You have to stand up for what you believe is best for the conservative cause and the people who elected you. I question my opponent’s ability to do that.”

Driggs says he’s no RINO, pointing to several high-profile Republicans who have endorsed him that include incumbent District 5 Commissioner Neil Cooksey, along with former city councilmembers John Tabor, John Lassiter and Edwin Peacock, and school board member Tim Morgan.

A majority of those endorsements, James said, come from some of the same politicians who support a liberal, uptown agenda and have for years been trying to find a way to knock him out of office.

“There’s a reason for that,” James said. “It’s because I’m doing my job representing District 6.”

Driggs and James squared off this week in a debate that will be broadcast at 3 p.m. Sunday on WTVI. In the meantime, we asked the candidates a few questions as a primer for the May 8 primary. Their unedited responses follow:

Do you support the movement to have parts of South Charlotte splinter from the city to form a new town?

James: Yes. I was the first to mention the idea of a split in an electronic newsletter I sent out several months ago. Southern Mecklenburg within the City of Charlotte generates significant revenue for the City but they provide few services to these residents. I believe that a ‘Town of Ballantyne’ (whatever the name) would reduce taxes these Southern Mecklenburg residents I represent and allow local control. The tax rate for the new town, while not known, would be 40% less if the rate mirrored that of its geographic neighbor, the Town of Matthews. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson; “Government that is the closest to the people governs best”.

Driggs: I support the idea of a new city because it would give citizens of South Charlotte control over their own destiny, letting them decide themselves how much they are taxed and how the money is spent. As Commissioner, I would assist in any way possible with the research and preparation needed to create a new town. However, it should be recognized that this is an issue that must be resolved among area residents, the City of Charlotte and the North Carolina General Assembly.

Should Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools receive an additional $27.5 million in county funding as part of its budget request?

Driggs: No. There can be no question of another tax increase to raise CMS funding.  Education should be a priority for the County, but any additional spending would have to come from diversion of funds from less productive uses.

James: No. I was also the first to outline my opposition this request indicating that CMS had lied to the public and the County Commission, manipulated the budget last June disclosing an ‘extra’ $30 million from the state the day after the County authorized last year’s increase. CMS can afford to give teachers raises if they prioritize spending and eliminate what THEY determine are low priority programs such as Bright Beginnings. The County can’t afford such an increase but they can’t trust CMS to tell them the truth or to manage money effectively. District 6 receives about 75% of the money the inner-city receives. We clearly aren’t receiving our fair share (especially considering the money paid to CMS by the taxpayers of District 6).

What are three initiatives or budget items that you would champion to specifically help District 6?

James:

1) I want to cut taxes by 10 cents (if I have the votes).

2) I want to fix Revaluation (on the agenda for May 1, 2012)

3) I want to form a new ‘Town of Ballantyne’ and a new “Southern Mecklenburg School District”.

Driggs:

1) Cut taxes

2) Cut spending on trophy projects like the baseball stadium. From the District 6 perspective, the cost of these projects that is way out of proportion to the benefits.

3) Allocate a higher portion of CMS capital spending to building schools in District 6.

Do you support the proposal to split Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools into three smaller, locally controlled school districts?

Driggs: Like the de-annexation proposal, this idea results from of the widening gap between the citizens of the District and the governing bodies that make taxing, spending and other decisions. In general, I support the break up as a means of bringing control of the schools closer to the families they serve and protecting them from underfunding and social experiments. Issues to be considered are 1. the Independent School Districts would have to have taxing authority, possibly leading to a rise in total taxes, and 2. capital spending for schools could still be controlled by the County.  Approval of the NC General Assembly would be needed.

James: Yes. CMS is large unwieldy behemoth. The School board is controlled by Democrats that fail to provide adequate and fairly distributed dollars to suburban schools. In particular, CMS funds District 6 schools at about 75% of the per pupil amount that the inner-city receives. This unfair treatment won’t be solved without a change in structure.

Should the county provide financial incentives to companies as a way to promote economic development in Mecklenburg?

James: No. If the incentives were designed to eliminate blight, as was originally envisioned, that would be one thing. Economic incentives today are a way to fund uptown baubles such as baseball stadiums and the arts. They take from certain citizens and give a tax break to others. It is the moral equivalent of building a media room on the back of your house and then asking for a tax refund to pay for the mortgage increase. Economic incentives are also damaging our collective fiscal heath because there are no rules that limit the amount of money the County gives away each year. Because this give-away program is ‘additive’ (increases year after year) the amount of tax revenue we are now losing is above $20 million per year.

Driggs: I believe that creating a favorable business climate (low taxes, fewer regulations, strong schools) is preferable to offering financial incentives. Aside from the issue of foregone tax revenue, incentives give new businesses an unfair cost advantage over established companies. However, there may be times when the advantages of attracting a new employer warrant offering incentives to compete with other communities.  The requirement must be that only a portion of conservatively estimated additional tax revenues can be offered, no cash is paid up front, and new jobs are made available to locals.

What are three items you would cut from the county’s budget?

Driggs: Poorly-structured trophy projects such as the baseball stadium; County operating expenses that too readily receive a green light in its internal review process; Social programs that do not place a heavy burden on able beneficiaries to become self-reliant quickly.

James: Child Support Services (I want to charge a fee for our collection services); CIAA and NASCAR; Welfare funding programs given to illegals.

Do you support city/county consolidation?

James: No. Consolidation will double tax the citizens in the Towns and will result in more Charlotte City Council domination over suburban residents.

Driggs: I am opposed to city/county consolidation for three reasons: The District towns of Matthews, Mint Hill and Pineville would end up effectively subordinated to Charlotte in County affairs; The functions of City and County are generally separate, there would be minimal cost savings; Special arrangements can be made for shared services like fire protection where appropriate.

Should the county conduct an outside audit/review of the revaluation process?

Driggs: The overall revaluation process is controlled by the North Carolina General Assembly, which should conduct a review.  In the current unsettled market, valuations based on computer models and aerial photography were highly erratic, and many properties shot up in tax value while others benefited from “stigma” adjustments.

James: Yes. I have previously proposed this and it is to be on the agenda for May 1st again (this time by Commissioner Bentley and co-sponsored by me and Commissioner Pendergraph).

How will you vote on Amendment One?

James: Yes. Marriage is between one man and one woman.

Driggs: In favor.

Do you support Center City Partners’ 2020 Vision Plan, as it relates to applicable county funding and participation?

Driggs: The plan provides useful guideposts for the development of center city, but relies too heavily on County funding for projects like the baseball stadium. Experience with Whitewater and the NASCAR Hall of Fame does not inspire confidence in planned development. Tough cost/benefit tests need to be applied to any public funding for transportation projects, and partnerships with private sector companies should be negotiated using the same discipline the private companies use when they deal with each other.

James: No, the CCCP ‘soviet’ vision counts on fleecing County taxpayers and in particular suburban taxpayers to pay for the baubles that uptown wants.

Is the board of commissioners appropriately using taxpayer dollars to fund parks, greenways and libraries?

James: No. The County has politicized the parks process by allocating more dollars to ‘greenway’ projects when they are really uptown boosterism. A good example of this is the old Charlottetown Mall redevelopment from a few years ago. The County has spent too much money on select areas of greenway in uptown at the expense of other areas of Mecklenburg.

Driggs: Spending on parks in District 6 lags behind other areas of the County. Library spending needs to be reviewed regularly to reflect declining demand for traditional books because of electronic alternatives.

BONUS ROUND:

What model of car do you drive?

James: 2008 Cadillac STS

Driggs: Mercedes S-Class

What was the last book you read?

Driggs: “Clapton” by Eric Clapton

James: “History of Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte from 1740 to 1903” by Daniel Augustus Tompkins (1903) – published by the Observer Printing House.

What’s your favorite movie?

James: “Driving Miss Daisy”

Driggs: “The Hunt for Red October”

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