A primary challenge in a quiet ward

by Alex Ashe

Robert C. Clark, the Winston-Salem City Council’s West Ward representative since 2001, isn’t used to campaigning. Since unseating Democratic incumbent Martha Yorkeley Martinat in 2001, Clark has run completely unopposed in the West Ward in both the primary and November elections. The West Ward is the only ward represented by a Republican and, barring a successful write-in campaign, that will stay the same, but not as a result of the usual circumstances.

This year, two of Clark’s fellow Republicans, Andrew Johnson and Howard Hudson, will challenge the three-term councilman for his seat.

The West Ward representative says the city has thrived financially during his three council terms “I think the city has made more progress in its economic development in the last 12 years than it has in, I’ll challenge, any 12-year period in the foreseeable past,” Clark said. “I think we’ve done an outstanding job in economic recruitment,” he added, referring to the Caterpillar manufacturing plant, data centers for Lowe’s Hardware and Wells Fargo, and the forthcoming arrival of Herbalife.

“As head of the public works committees, I think we’ve taken some initiatives to work smarter and more efficiently,” Clark said. He says, that by implementing front-yard garbage collection and reducing workers and trucks, the city saves about $3 million per year, while making recycling collections biweekly has saved about $1 million per year. “We’ve had about a 20 percent increase in the amount of material recycled, so that was very much a win-win situation,” Clark added.

However, both Hudson and Johnson question the fiscal responsibility of the West Ward representative and the council as a whole. They both say they decided to run after Clark voted to increase the city’s property tax rate in each of the last two years.

“There’s a serious void of fiscal responsibility on our city council,” said Hudson, a retired banking attorney. “We have a tax-and-spending problem in Winston-Salem, and Mr. Clark’s been very much a part of that, particularly in the last 4-5 years that I’ve followed him.”

“The answer to fiscal irresponsibility is not to continuously raise the property tax raise on homeowners and businesses that are grappling with their own budget issues in this recession,” Hudson explained.

Hudson, 67, says Clark has been wrong to support tax increases while approving spending on what the challenger considers “questionable and even frivolous capital projects.”

“You can’t run two successive fiscal years with significant budget deficits and call yourself fiscally responsible,” Hudson said. “When people fail to perform their jobs, there should be a consequence.”

He’s especially critical of the city’s handling of the BB&T Ballpark transaction. “There was little oversight,” Hudson said. “It was to be a $22 million project, and it wound up being $48-52 million, depending on which paper you want to believe.” He says the city council was “asleep at the wheel” in regards to funding the park, which, he says, cost taxpayers $27.8 million, a claim that Clark refutes.

“There’s no taxpayer money involved in the baseball stadium. All the money we used to finish it was borrowed,” Clark said, referring to the city’s $12.7 loan from First Tennessee Bank. “We’ve paid off about $800,000 and we’re gaining a surcharge on the tickets, as well as rent on the stadium from the ball club to fund the debt payments of the money we’ve borrowed,” Clark said. “It hasn’t cost taxpayers a penny.”

Johnson, a 32-year-old claims adjustor, considers himself fiscally and socially conservative.

We definitely have had shrinking revenue over the last several years, so one of my biggest concerns is that we shore up our services that serve all our citizens,” Johnson said. “Our police and fire departments are the lowest paid in the state for cities of our size and that’s just not appropriate.”

He says making sure police are paid a reasonable amount is a pressing issue “so we don’t have constant turnover creating a training expense issue, which is where we’re heading right now.”

“If you’re happy with increasing our debt with large spending projects when we have decreasing revenues, then the council we have is the one you need to reelect,” Johnson said.

While Clark is the only Republican on the council, Johnson asserts that there are no genuinely conservative council members, including the West Ward representative.

“I realized that we do not have a conservative person on our city council,” Johnson said.

“I don’t find someone who votes for tax increases to be a very conservative person,” he said of Clark. “I’m not the only one in the Republican Party who thinks that.”

“Given that there are eight democrats and one Republican on the city council, I can’t do anything by myself, therefore I pride myself that I’m able to work across the aisle with the folks that I’m with,” Clark said.

He points out that even though the council voted to increase the tax rate, it amounts to a cut because 70 percent of property owners will see their tax bills lowered under the recent revaluation. He adds that in comparison to the state’s other cities, Winston-Salem’s tax rates are low.

“The John Locke Foundation, a conservative, independent think-tank out of Raleigh publishes a yearly tax burden ranking of the cities,” Clark said.

“This year, of the nine largest cities in the state, we’re the lowest.”

The report he referred to, though published this year, actually accounted for the 2011 fiscal year.

“I think the fact that we have the lowest tax rate of the nine largest cities in the state says we have a very fiscally responsible council,” Clark said.

Hudson pledges to represent the West Ward with a sense of fairness and individuality.

“I’ve always been my own person.

I am not beholding to and special interests or any people about anything,” he said. “If I’m elected, the folks will definitely know where I stand.”

Johnson says that with a young son, he has a vested interest in Winston- Salem’s future.

“I’m a regular guy. I’m not a career politician,” he said. “I think this is a great opportunity where I can add something that will be a benefit to our whole city.”