Archive for April, 2008

Time for some historical perspective on Bill Clinton’s Tuesday visit to Surry County. No one I’ve come across can recall a time when a president or former president set foot in this area. Perhaps generations ago?

If not, when was the last time a visitor of comparable stature not named Andy set foot in the area. And yes, I know “comparable stature” is a highly debatable term when you’re dealing with this particular former president.

Some other debate points:

How many people will actually show up?

When will the lines start?

How many times will President Clinton utter the words “experience?”

How late will his arrival end up being?

Will he drum up more Hillary supporters, or just scare them away?

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Torn on who to vote for in the Democratic primary for governor? Andy Griffith has some words for you. Mount Airy’s most famous son just came out with an ad supporting Bev Perdue over Richard Moore, much the way he supported Mike Easley in the 2004 race. Just like their presidential counterparts, the Democratic governor hopefuls are pretty similar when it comes to policy stances on key issues. So the cult of personality makes a difference. No wonder Obama and Clinton keep trotting out well known Tarheel politicians and public figures who support their campaigns.. No one still living in Surry County has of yet weighed in. But who, if anyone, could deliver the Surry vote?

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It’s been more than two years now since Fibrowatt, the oft-discussed power company that generates electricity from poultry waste, teased reporters and residents of Surry and Wilkes counties with talk of opening a local plant in the “near future.” We’re still waiting. But Sampson County isn’t. That’s the site announced last week for the first of Fibrowatt’s three planned North Carolina plants. The announcement doesn’t really impact whether Surry or Wilkes gets a plant, but what is interesting is the company’s $2.5 million incentive package from Sampson County commissioners. Two years ago, Fibrowatt officials and economic developers told me no incentives  would be on the table for their NC plants. Perhaps that’s changed. Perhaps it’s what will determine where the other two plants go.

Perhaps $2.5 million is worth 35 well-paying jobs and 70 truck driving positions. Or perhaps that’s too much to ask of cash strapped taxpayers.

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The numbers are coming in on Mount Airy’s water and sewer fund, and once again they don’t add up. Though we’re not looking at another 45 percent increase, a hike of 5 to 10 percent is likely for the fund to break even. For some perspective on how this compares with other municipalities, the state has this interesting data base that makes it easy to see where any municipal utility system stacks up. Playing around on the site shows that Mount Airy’s rates are high compared to other Surry municipalities (some of which subsidize their systems out of the general fund) but when compared to the state or the region as a whole it’s in the middle of the pack. A different way of displaying that data visually is available here.

Of course most municipalities don’t have their rates jump so high at once. This database allows you to compare rates over time for a utility system.

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So called “controversies” emerge every week in the never-ending battle for the Democratic Presidential nomination. But this weekend’s flap carries special resonance since it revolves around the plight of so many of our neighbors. During a California campaign event, Barack Obama called small town workers “bitter” and “frustrated” about their economic plight. Almost every media outlet is running these comments as big news, but scroll down to the bottom of this entry on Huffington Post, which broke the story, to read the full transcript of Obama’s comments. They’re not that long and they put things in context.

Those comments have caused the Clinton camp to pounce that Obama is elitist and out of touch with small town voters. Some have speculated that it could cost him dearly during the general election or even the primary. But I really don’t care what pundits or even journalists think about something like this. All that matters is whether actual blue collar workers, like the ones here who have been through so much upheaval, really are offended by such comments, or whether they regard them as the truth. The comments were directed to manufacturing-based communities in Pa., but they very much apply to North Carolina and Surry County.

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With a new planning director having just arrived, and one with pretty extensive experience for a county of Surry’s size, I’d expect we’ll see active efforts to shape development to meet he goals of the county’s land use plan. It’s hard to argue with recommendations in such planning documents to preserve the area’s scenic beauty and keep unsightly development from overwhelming parts of the countryside or spoiling a rural byway.

But those are just guiding principals. Putting teeth into the plans takes more zoning ordinances, the likes of which new planning director Scott Carpenter seems eager and willing to at least explore. Everyone wants a pretty view. Few want new restrictions on what they can do with their land. It’s a debate that grew heated just recently with repeated attempts to establish a junkyard ordinance, and a State Road community development plan also proved controversial. And it’s a topic I’m guessing we’ll have to revisit several more times in the coming years.

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The most recent budget request from the Mount Airy school system is asking for more local funds, and part of the reason is having to pay for a 10 percent salary increase Gov. Mike Easley is expected to include in his budget proposal. Most teacher positions are funded by the state, but districts typically supplement those positions by hiring additional teachers from local dollars. When the teacher salaries go up across the state, the county has to foot the bill for its locally funded positions.This brings up the interesting issue of teacher compensation. Easley has already pushed through several pay hikes, part of a goal he announced several years ago to put North Carolina’s teacher salaries above the national average. No one would argue against the importance of strong education, and few would dispute that teachers play the most influential role in the learning process, whether for good or bad. But how do you encourage the good teachers to stay in the profession without giving the poor ones undeserved benefits? The debate is summarized very well in this Time Magazine cover story from a couple of months ago.We’ve all had our share of good and bad teachers growing up. Deciding on the fairest compensation system isn’t just a matter of good public policy, it’s a matter of fairness for those who turn down more lucrative careers in favor of the chance to better the next generation.

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