Mount Airy mayoral candidate Teresa Lewis fielded a variety of questions from citizens Thursday, addressing recent actions by city government as well as how she would handle the job of mayor.
Lewis spoke at Good Life Cafe as part of a weekly series in which each of the four mayoral candidates is appearing at the downtown business to meet voters and hear their concerns.
Deborah Cochran kicked off the series last week, with Paul Eich to be featured next Thursday and Gene Clark on Oct. 1.
While much of Thursday morning’s discussion dealt with Lewis outlining her background as a longtime business owner and community leader and goals if elected, a number of the numerous questions offered dealt with thorny topics in city government.
Some audience members expressed concerns about recent expenditures, as well as high taxes and utility charges and the renewal of a contract for City Manager Don Brookshire.
Mac Willis asked Lewis how she would handle situations such as Brookshire deciding to spend $40,000 for a consultant to study the need for a new communications system that would have indebted the city to the tune of $378,000. The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners subsequently rejected the system in a 3-2 vote.
“He loves to spend money — other people’s money,” Willis said of Brookshire, asking Lewis if she could stop such practices if she were mayor.
“I would certainly not be afraid to speak with the city manager if I thought an expense like that could be eliminated,” responded Lewis. The candidate added that she long has been concerned about large sums spent on outside consultants when solutions to problems often exist locally.
John Pritchard, a city government watchdog who also was in the audience, solicited Lewis’ position on a recent board decision to approve a new contract for Brookshire. The city manager had worked without a contract for several months while negotiations were held to lessen “golden parachute” provisions contained in a previous employment agreement.
Pritchard asked the candidate if she thought it was fair for Brookshire to have a contract when all other city personnel do not.
Lewis replied that it was her understanding that many localities have contracts with their top officials, although Pritchard pointed out that some do opt against them.
Pritchard further referred to a recent study showing citizens of Mount Airy have a large tax burden compared to other municipalities its size, but Lewis said she would be interested in knowing the level of services provided in other cities. While Lewis is satisfied with the services Mount Airy offers, “I am never in favor of higher taxes,” she said.
Another question to Lewis focused on the millions of dollars in indebtedness that Mount Airy has incurred due to expenses related to recent annexations, including the city’s controversial takeover of the Cross Creek community. The candidate was asked if she would approve of further borrowing for projects, which the present mayor, Jack Loftis, has said Mount Airy has the capacity to absorb.
“I try to make it without borrowing money,” Lewis said of the business she has owned for 22 years, Workforce Carolina (formerly Surry Temporary Services), “and I will take that same philosophy to City Hall.” However, the candidate said she also would carefully consider borrowing for needed projects that couldn’t be funded otherwise.
Lewis also referred to the Cross Creek annexation, which sparked a lawsuit by disgruntled property owners before that community finally was annexed in June 2008. Acknowledging that “hard feelings” are lingering from the move, “There’s nothing we can do about it,” the candidate added. “I want us to move forward.”
Another question from Pritchard surrounded the city’s personnel costs being greater than the state average and high in proportion to the amount of tax revenues received, which could result in lower taxes if streamlined.
“It appears to be high,” agreed Lewis, who told the crowd that she has been researching the city budgets of recent years. “I will be looking into that.”
Some people in the audience said they thought it was unfair to press Lewis on issues that she has not been involved in, and Willis replied that he and others realize that. “But we want to make you aware,” he said of the concerns noted.
Another question, from Jesse Murphy — a newcomer to Mount Airy — highlighted one of Lewis’ goals if elected mayor, to spearhead economic development for the city. Murphy said he has two college degrees, but is unable to find a job here to match such credentials.
“I will work with our state and federal officials to try to find industries that have more professional positions,” Lewis pledged. “We need to look at the types of businesses we’re recruiting here.
“There are industries we can focus on and target to get these higher-skilled positions,” she added.
At one point Thursday, Pritchard referred to numerous people in the audience wearing Lewis T-shirts, campaign buttons and the presence of expensive campaign signs, and wondered aloud how the candidate can reconcile those with her conservative views. Earlier, when listing her goals for the office of mayor, Lewis had cited monitoring the city budget to cut unnecessary expenditures and reduce taxes.
“Conservative is not the word that comes to mind,” Pritchard said of the campaign regalia.
“We have been receiving contributions from people in the community,” Lewis responded in reference to her candidacy. “I would not be spending money for these items if not for the support that I have received.”
In addition to economic development — which Lewis named as her top goal — the candidate said she wants to help existing businesses in Mount Airy, many of whom are “struggling.”
Another goal of Lewis’ would be to solicit more citizen input on issues, including decisions regarding what they want Mount Airy to look like in 20 years.
Burke Robertson, owner of the Good Life Cafe, asked Lewis about her vision for the future. Lewis replied that she hopes the downtown area will remain vibrant and also that empty buildings around town will be occupied by new businesses accompanied by full parking lots.
“We need to get people back to work,” Lewis said. She added that more residential areas will be needed under this scenario, also due to the fact, “We’ve got a huge retirement community.”
Lewis addressed another key concern, about whether — as a business owner — she would have the time to devote to the duties of mayor.
“I have the ability as the owner of Workforce Carolina to set my own schedule,” the mayoral hopeful said, which doesn’t require her to be on the job full-time. “I have a staff of employees who are very capable.”
Lewis said that while the mayor doesn’t vote on issues except to break a tie among the commissioners, he or she plays a vital role in promoting and defending the city and serving as a team-builder. The candidate offered a strong assurance Thursday that she would do just that.
“We have a city to be proud of,” she said.
Along with heading what recently was recognized as the fifth-largest employer in Surry County, Lewis cited extensive civic work in listing her qualifications for mayor.
“I have chaired seven different boards in this city,” the candidate said, including those of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and Reeves Community Center, in addition to membership on other boards. She also was the first female president of the Mount Airy Rotary Club and once headed the Parent Teacher Organization at a local school.
“I have been very involved in my community,” Lewis said.
“I think that my leadership skills in this community are well-documented.”
Contact Tom Joyce at email@example.com or at 719-1924.