Candidates vie for eastern Guilford commission district

by Eric Ginsburg

by Eric Ginsburg

Jerry Alan Branson stood in the parking lot of the Four Winds Café a short drive from his office, talking to two men on their way out, one with an impressive handlebar moustache. Producing a yard sign out of the back of his pickup, Branson joked that if nothing else, the men could use the sign for target practice.

The southeastern part of Guilford County is Branson’s home turf: He’s lived in Julian for 22 years, grew up nearby in Whitsett, is “a man that wears all hats” at Stout Trucking and attends Tabernacle United Methodist Church right up the street. The newcomer Republican candidate hopes to pull heavily from this area to defeat incumbent Democrat Kirk Perkins for District 4 county commissioner, but a number of his signs in this stretch of the county, and even the Four Winds Café, aren’t in his district.

Perkins acknowledges the competitiveness of the redrawn district, but he too has strong ties to the area and is running on his record, which includes two terms as a commissioner and service as the chair and vice chair of the board. He too can trace his roots to the district, as a graduate of Northeast High School and with a decade of work at a prison in McLeansville on his resume. Perkins lives with his wife on a farm in McLeansville.

While District 4 encompasses the biggest geographic area of any of the board’s districts, covering a large swath of the eastern part of the county from top to bottom and stretching an arm into a north-central portion by Lake Jeanette, Perkins doesn’t think anyone could cover it better.

“I have no illusions that being an incumbent gives you anything,” Perkins said, “[but] there’s no substitute for experience.”

Perkins said his home base in the northeastern part of the county faces similar issues to the southeastern part and isn’t fazed by Branson’s base there, pointing out his experience in the area through real estate, appraisal and general contracting through his business Perkins & Associates and his work as a commissioner since 2004.

Branson is confident about his chances too, and is working closely with the county GOP and several Republican politicians. Before a media interview, Branson finished a conversation with District 6 candidate Hank Henning.

Commissioner Billy Yow, with whom he has a business relationship, called in the middle of the interview, and Branson said he’s working with Sheriff BJ Barnes and US Rep. Howard Coble.

Perkins said he isn’t running with the county party or anyone, and that he represents all residents regardless of party affiliation.

“I want a commissioner that can stand on his own two feet and not lean on other people as crutches,” he said.

Branson said he hoped to see the board work across party lines more often and that he would be a part of that, sharing a story about a supporter who wanted to put his sign next to one for Obama. Branson noted that their presidential preferences differed, but left the decision up to his supporter.

While there are some similarities between the two men — both served on the parks and recreation commission — the gulf between the two candidates for District 4 is much wider than how they are running their campaigns.

Branson’s main objective is to save residents money by cutting spending, and he has several ideas for how to do so including combining county departments. At a candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and in an interview, Branson said there should be closer scrutiny on who receives county services and whether people are taking advantage of programs like food stamps.

“I know it takes a lot of money to operate but sometimes we act like it’s a bottomless pit and money is falling out of the sky,” Branson said, adding that money could be raised to help community-based organizations through fundraisers and churches. “I’m not a guy that’s against that stuff [like nonprofits], I just think we need to look at different ways to generate revenue.”

Perkins said most of the services the county provides are mandated, and that he’s always been open to hearing recommendations for where the county could save money.

“Even things that look simple are complex,” he said. “I’m just as fiscally conservative as any Republican out there. I never want to raise taxes — I own a lot of property.”

Branson said the county needs to try to get as many people who are on government assistance back in the workforce as possible, adding that there is a balance between those “with a hand out for help and those out working for a living.”

“I sometimes wonder if some of this area [of government assistance] is not regulated closely enough and some folks have a tendency to take advantage of the system,” Branson said, adding that there may be a need to increase funding so government assistance could be monitored more closely. “I have a strong desire to provide for those who truly need it.”

Perkins said there were already lots of control on who received social services and that it was important to understand the needs of the people, and that candidates can say anything but don’t truly understand things until they are in office.

When asked about sustainable building practices at the forum, Branson said “To go green is all fine and well,” but only if it saved the county money, emphasizing that too much money is spent on school design and construction rather than in the classroom.

Perkins said the board sometimes has concerns with how the school board spends money, but said they have joint meetings to hammer it out.

“I’m not sure exactly what he’s talking about,” Perkins said, adding that he doesn’t see how money could be saved on school construction and a standardized design, in part because there are already more streamlined design plans.

The two have different outlooks on incentives for businesses as well, with Branson calling for state or federal laws to stop incentive bidding wars between municipalities to attract businesses while Perkins said he would likely support an incentive that would provide a net gain to the county.

“As much as we need work and jobs, I sometimes struggle with… deep down if it’s the right thing to do with the taxpayers’ money,” Branson said.

He said even if the county is technically supposed to receive money back if a company like Dell ends up leaving, a lot of money is spent in legal fees to recover it. Perkins said incentives are already regulated and the companies the county can provide much-needed jobs that pay well and produce tax revenue.

“There are state laws for what you can do with incentives,” Perkins said. “You’re either growing, dying or being stagnant.”

Perkins’ general view on governance comes from the idea that “a rising tide lifts all ships” and that improving life for some residents enhances the county overall. Incentives can be a part of generating a net gain, but so is social-service spending.

Branson doesn’t always think more cuts are a good thing — he criticized Perkins wanting to cut Squad 50, a fire rescue squad in the district. Perkins said Branson’s statement was a mischaracterization — that the squad was considered for a cut to save the county money but that he and others ultimately decided against making the cut. On the contrary, Perkins said he has worked to improve response time and equipment available to the fire departments.

Part of the county’s debt is due to bonds that takes decades to pay off, Branson said, and he expressed frustration that students from out of town and who move away after graduating can unknowingly saddle residents with the burden of paying it off.

“I wonder if college students should be able to vote for county bond packages,” he said, adding that he wants students to vote but that it was worth looking into the issue.

Perkins emphasized his love of the outdoors, pointing to his instrumental role in establishing Northeast Park and in the county takeover of Hagan-Stone Park. A member of the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy and a board member at two animal-related nonprofits, Perkins said in an interview and at the League of Women Voters forum that creating more public open space in the county is a priority.

While Perkins said it was “nice to have grand ideas” like Branson, referring to Branson’s idea that the sheriff and city police departments could possibly be combined, Perkins continually returned to his record, which he said distinguished him from Branson, adding that he’s never missed a commission meeting. He offered ideas for the future too, like upgrading ordinances for un-maintained and foreclosed properties, and said he was focused on efficiency and attracting jobs while keeping taxes low.

Perkins’ website lists a slew of committees he’s served on such as the jail advisory committee and he said the old jail wasn’t humane or safe for inmates and guards. Saying there was no substitute for experience, Perkins said it applied to business as well, saying he started his own business while Branson “basically married into it.” At the forum Branson said he owned Stout Trucking, which was started by his wife’s family in the 1940s and is in the process of being transferred to him, his wife and her brother.

Branson emphasized his service in his church, on the parks and recreation board since 2004 and his role as the Mount Hope Athletic Association youth league director, saying it was the first year since 2004 that he hasn’t been the head coach so he could campaign.

So far it’s going well, he said, like when he was pleasantly surprised by an overflow crowd at his Sept. 11 memorial event and campaign fundraiser. Drawing on his connections to the area, service and “conservative leadership with strong family values,” Branson hopes the voters in the eastern part of the county are ready for a change.