Public education, agriculture, economic development important to candidates

Published 12:53 pm Saturday, October 24, 2015

Candidates seeking a position on the Southampton County Board of Supervisors gathered on Tuesday in the auditorium of Southampton High School for a forum. Tony Clark, publisher of The Tidewater News, asked a series of questions on a variety of issues in Southampton County. There to answer them were incumbent Dr. Alan Edwards and challenger Yvonne Rose of the Jerusalem District; Barry Porter and Earva Jones Sumblin of the Franklin-Hunterdale District; and Glenn Updike and Randolph Cooke of the Newsoms District.

In this second part of the three-part series — which will continue on Wednesday — the candidates give their thoughts on why they are the right person for the job; the pros and cons of the county’s land use tax; the property located on Camp Parkway that has become a topic of conversation in and around the county; school board appointments; and much more.

Clark – “I think we can all agree that public education is important, not only for the children that attend our schools, but for the future of Southampton County. As state and federal funding continues to decline, funding our local schools becomes more and more challenging. If the only way to fully fund the needs of our county schools were to raise taxes, would you vote to do so? Why or why not?”

Cooke – “I agree with all of the statements about education. It is one of the most important things in our county. We want our kids to graduate fully ready for employment or go off to college, and we would love for them to come back and work in this community and there be jobs for them. Money in Southampton’s budget is tight. I would hope that we will fund the schools enough that they can be prosperous and they can exceed in what they’re doing. To say absolutely if there were no other choice of raising taxes for schools, I would have to look at that and study why they needed it and if the school was utilizing everything they were getting. To give a clear yes or no answer, I would have to think about the consequences.”

Edwards – “We have a very good school system here, and I’m very proud of our school system. Our problem is not the locality, it’s the state. Everybody has to realize for the last five years, the state has dropped us $1 million every other year and expects us to make it up. There will be a place where we can’t make it up. We’ve been giving the schools everything we have. I would first work on Richmond. Elect some new people in Richmond. Get the word out that it’s Richmond that’s the problem, it’s not your locality that’s not paying money for the schools. I’d have to look at it very hard and very long to raise taxes for that. I would exhaust every other thing that we could exhaust before I’d raise taxes for the schools. Like I said, the biggest thing is to work on Richmond and look at other avenues, jobs, industry and other ways to get tax money. The citizen here has enough taxes. We pay enough taxes. We need to work on Richmond. We need to work on jobs and industry and other ways.”

Clark – “I’m going to restate the question because this is important — at least it is to me, and I know it is to everyone on the stage. Richmond is a problem, the federal government is a problem. We recognize that funding has been cut at every level. The tax base in the county is drying up, so we’re having an even tougher time funding it at the local level, as well. If it were the difference next year between fully funding the schools at an appropriate level or not, would you vote to raise taxes if it were the last measure available?”

Cooke – “If it was the last measure, I would still have to take a very close look at where the money is going, how the schools are spending and have we exhausted every other avenue. The citizens of the county are paying enough taxes. It is awful hard to sit here and say what I’m going to do. If it comes to absolutely that there are no other options, I would hope there are other options. So I’m still not giving you a definite yes or no.

Edwards – “To answer that question, if everything had been exhaust — everything had been exhausted — I would very reluctantly have to raise taxes because we have to keep our schools. Our schools are our future. I say again, it would have to be after every single thing, every other means had been exhausted.”

Rose – “The issue of increasing revenue is actually a vicious circle that we have here because your communities are only as strong as your weakest link. The source of education is the school system. In order to have a good community, we have to have good citizenry, which means you have to educate your population. In order to have jobs and industries come in, you have to have a workforce, which means you have to go back to educating the students and creating a situation where they will be encouraged to come in. So we can look for jobs, we can look for additional revenue in other areas, but unless you have a strong educational system which not only meets the needs of today, but futuristically (sic), you’re not going to have industries that are going to settle here, which means you’re going to be right back to where you started and wondering where is the money going to come from. We say that children are our future and that they are our treasure, but there’s a saying that comes from scripture that says where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is. So if our children are our treasure, they should have the best of everything that we have and we should desire to give them the best. I’m not saying that I’m for increasing taxes just to be increasing taxes, but if all else has been exhausted and we need to meet the needs of the school system, I would have to say yes, I would vote to increase the tax.”

Porter – “I see everyone struggling with this question. It’s an easy question for me. There are few things that stir my passion as much as education. My life is a testimony of what you can achieve. I believe I’ve already answered that question. Last year I proposed a 1 cent tax increase to save three teaching positions because I was convinced that the school system had gone through the budget, been honest with me and done everything they could to make it work. So yes, without a doubt, education is important. I’m extremely proud of our school board, administration and our teachers because they do understand the financial situation we’re in and they do try to get the most of every dollar that we give them. I go to every school board meeting and I’m proud when I see those people there doing their job. Will I support them, yes, I will support them. Doesn’t mean I like raising taxes. It means that when I know they’re doing the right thing with the money, I want to give them as much as I can.”

Sumblin – “First of all, I believe in a concept of building inside out. In building inside out, you have to connect the relevancy of education to the lifeline resource to that. Students have to understand the importance of why they are getting an education and how they are going to make a living in Southampton County. One of the things I would propose is partnerships. Partnerships, I, too, have a history. By the time I was 17, I had three children and I was married, but yet I stand before you as a master-level student. I have been in this county all of my life. What I would like to see before we talk about taxes is to reinvent the spirit of entrepreneurship, to reinvent the spirit of, ‘You can do it!’ I hear a lot of negativity in this county about what we don’t have. I think it’s time to shift that to what we do have and draw on our resources. One of the things that I can guarantee you will make a difference in every student is if a farmer would take that student to that field and say, ‘What do you see with this cotton seed? Can you see a sewing factory in Southampton County? Can you see the dress that you have on?’ I believe we have to raise the dream that Southampton County is rich. For me, I would not raise taxes. I would roll my sleeves up and go to work to produce the money.”

Updike – “You didn’t give us very much alternatives in the question. Of course, I would [raise taxes] if that’s the last avenue that was available. You have to realize one thing: the board of supervisors only provides the money. The school board dictates where the money is being spent. In four years, I’ve had more questions asked about two or three things. First thing is, ‘Why did y’all pay that teacher twice as much as any other teacher in the school system?’ I said, ‘We didn’t have a thing to do with it. That’s the school board.’ The second thing that they’ve fussed at me about is administration. [It’s] top heavy. The administration is getting all the funds. Let’s take just a moment out, and I wish each one of you would do it, and we’re going to say we’re going to give someone a 30 (sic) percent raise. The person making $160,000 or more, they’re getting close to $5,000. The teacher making $40,000 is only getting $1,200. That’s a four-times differential. The school board needs to classify the system. The teachers separate them from administration so that the funds can go to the teachers, not for the administration, not for the bigger scoreboards, not for the athletic association. Go to the teachers who’s doing the job of teaching the young children. The school board needs to answer these questions. Only at the very last option to keep the schools financially sound would I consider it. I want first that the school board do their job.”

Clark – “We’ve touched on land use a little bit, so we’re going to talk a little more about agriculture and its impact on the community. How can Southampton County continue to maintain its agricultural heritage, yet grow its economy to meet future needs?”

Edwards – “It’s a very difficult question, but one that I think the board has an answer to. We need new industry and we need new jobs, but we need them in the right places. There is plenty of room in Southampton County for new industry to come in to an industrial park. We have a new industry right now. We have a new one coming pretty soon. We have areas that the comprehensive plan has set aside for new industry and new jobs along the highways, where there’s an availability of rail and water and electricity. By doing that, putting the industries and jobs in the right place, you can keep them out of the way of harm and you can maintain the agricultural integrity of the county. Our No. 1 industry is agriculture, and I hope it remains that. People don’t know it, but we’re located in a crescent that starts in Virginia Beach that’s 25 miles wide and spreads right down through the middle of this county and into North Carolina. The most productive land in the state of Virginia. So I think we should all be charged with keeping agriculture separate from the industry. Put the industry in the right place and the agriculture will survive.”

Rose – “Agriculture is obviously the largest economic industry in Southampton County because of our 384,000 acres. We have over 180,000 that is dedicated just to agriculture, which is about 48 percent of our land usage. What we have to do is charge ourselves with finding how we can connect the products that are going to be produced with either processing or any other kind of industrial development that could go on. One of the advantages that I use or can use and will use is to seek on the state level how we can interface with some companies that need what it is we offer agriculturally. We see all the cotton that’s coming up right now, but we have cotton gins over in Suffolk and other places. Can we get some and more here? We have livestock. What can we have here industrially, manufacturally (sic), that will create jobs but also promote the agriculture industry and cause it to go forward. I would be at the table in the state department with our labor and commerce division so that I would know what it is that they’re looking for and pursing down the road and ask the question, ‘How can we buy in on that? What role can we have in that development?’ So that’s the route we go. We take what we have an expand upon it by looking at who out there have a need for what we have and then seek after it.”

Porter – “We have a county that’s 600 square miles. There’s plenty of room for industry and agriculture to coexist. In fact, if we don’t have industry, agriculture will die. Why will it die? Because the county will die. We have 18,000 people. Agriculture can’t pay the bills to provide the minimal services [like] education, law enforcement, fire, rescue services. They can’t pay the bills by themselves. To pay these bills, we’ve got to have industry. It doesn’t mean we willy-nilly go get it. It means that we control it and bring it in so that it’s compatible with our environment. I’ve seen that happen other places, and I’m convinced we’re smart enough to do it here. It’s not a conflict. It’s not something that’s either or. It’s something that if we don’t have both, we don’t have either.”

Sumblin – “Again, I must say in order to keep our homeland that we love so dearly fluent, growing, prosperous and safe, if you will, we have to still take a look at growing it inside out. Let me explain what that concept is. It means that we take ownership. We are the pacesetters. We don’t need industry coming in destroying what we love. What we need to do is take a look at, for example, in 1961, farmers supplied food for 25.8 people in the United States. Today, one farmer supplies 155 people with food. There is still advancement and growth in my understanding that farmers can produce here in Southampton County. Now, if we were to expand that, I remember growing up pulling plants so that farmers across the bay could grow tomatoes and then they’d turn around and ship them back here and sell them to us. If we could grasp that concept and grow those tomatoes and sell them locally, it is in my understanding that we would be one step better off. And the next thing, people still have wineries. Let me tell you something, in 2012, $757 billion annual gross revenue came in through that industry alone. Yes, we are rich in farm land. We have to look at a different approach of using the land. Couldn’t we have vineyards here? Couldn’t we look at the possibility? And one other thing. I bought apples from Applewhite Orchards. Couldn’t we grow our own apples again? That’s jobs right there. And horses have become a big business. $873 million annually [are related to] horse expenses. Out of that, let me tell you the average, $3,100 per event is paid per person per year. Now why isn’t it that we’ve seen the use to develop that dead race place up there on [Route] 58. Can’t you see having horse shows up there. the benefit it would do for us?”

Updike – “Everyone in the room knows my viewpoint on this, and that is, first of all, as you know, I brought in industry to this area over the past four years on the board. Not only did that provide jobs, it provides a source of income and a source where we can market our timber. All you got to do is look at what the timber was selling for three years ago and compare it to today. It’s almost up 30 to 40 percent, sometimes even more. This is the type of industry we should be looking for you, as you mentioned, that can utilize the agricultural products. And to go one step further, the planning commission has done an outstanding job. They worked 2 and 1/2 years on the comprehensive plan. You’ve got a gob of land identified as industrial where it would not affect the farmers at the very minimum. I’ve been skeptical of putting industry in areas that they’ve got to take up all the roads. Our roads cannot handle dual traffic and tractor trailers in the country. Let’s face the facts. We can work together on development, and [industry and agriculture] can work hand-in-hand, but let’s do it and give it some thought wisely, not just haphazardly putting it where it shouldn’t be and destroying the areas where it’s not necessary.”

Cooke – “This county can have industry and keep our agricultural heritage. There’s plenty of room for both. We do need to have some economic development that would bring jobs and places for our high school graduates to work and provide more money for our tax base. We have an excellent economic development team, and besides Enviva wood pellets, we’ve had a peanut butter factory that’s opened, we also have in Pretlow Industrial an ag supply company that has broken ground. So we have had success, and all of those businesses are related to agricultural products we have in the county. I do think our economic development folks work very hard, but it’s so competitive getting industry in here that they’re looking for somewhere that has shovel-ready land that they can move right in. They don’t have to do rezoning. They want to be able to go to work. We, as a board, need to support economic development and how it needs to move forward in Southampton County.”

Clark – “The very next question has to do with economic development, so this is a good segue. Currently, there is a piece of privately held property located on Camp Parkway, adjacent to Riverdale Elementary and across from High Street United Methodist Church, that the owner is attempting to have rezoned for development. Are you familiar with the owner’s current proposal, and do you think the county should rezone the property so that the owner can develop it according to his proposed plans?

Rose – “I’m familiar with the piece of land, not as much familiar with the developer who is trying to get it developed. The brief encounter I’ve had indicates that this developer was also one who donated some land to the county, so it might be that there is an understanding that might already be preexisting. I’m not sure. I think that land is currently being used for agriculture, and just as you said, we have more than enough land to support agriculture and industry. I would first look at what the proposal is for that land in terms of industries and what is going to be brought there. Personally, I might have one opinion, but I think that what ultimately should be done is dependent upon the persons who live in that area, who are farming currently in that area and the recommendation that would come from the zoning board because they would have a broader picture than I currently have. I don’t want to pretend that I know it all because I don’t, but I think that we would have to rely upon their opinion based upon the facts and the information that they’ve gathered. Also, from going to the public hearings, I’ve been disappointed knowing that some of the people who live in that area were only brought in on the information at the last minute and it was like the third hearing. So, whether or not I would support it would depend on what industries would be projected to come there and the affect it would have on the school and the residents of that area.”

Porter – “I do not know the developer, but I do know the property and I have done my homework and I know what he’s applying for. I know the project and the proposal. We have basically sent messages back and forth from the board that if you want to develop this property, you have to develop it within the guidelines that are consistent with the surrounding community. That is that it has to be in a professionally landscaped campus-like setting. In other words, it’s got to be nice. There are some people opposed to this project just on the surface, but before we can oppose the project on the surface, we need to really look at what it is. This project is about a lot of jobs. This project is about better schools. This project is about better law enforcement. This project is about keeping our tax rates reasonable. This is an opportunity for the county to develop a high-quality commercial park without putting any taxpayer money into it. That’s unheard of. As Mr. Cooke recently said, you need to have a place to attract businesses. You need to have a shovel-ready, pre-zoned place. This is the kind of place that we need. Even the people that oppose it say, ‘I like that what that stands for, just do it somewhere else.’ I hear that everywhere we make a proposal.

Well guess what? We don’t have an option to do this one somewhere else. This is the only place that we can do it because it’s being proposed by the owner. One of the things that Ms. Rose left out is the owner rights. The owner has some rights on that property. The issue with it is we have an obligation to pursue every possible way to do this right. We have an obligation to the 18,000 people of this county to do something like this. If we can make it work and the developer will cooperate, then we’re irresponsible if we don’t explore every possible chance to make it work.”

Sumblin – “First of all, I want to say that I am not anti-growth. I want to make that clear. I have studied the proposal that the developer has submitted to the planning commission, and there are a lot of languages that is not friendly to us as county residents. No. 1, Riverdale has 600-plus students in that school every single day. There is a church across the road, I don’t know membership, but I’m sure they have weddings, funerals and all of those things going on. I would hate to think how congested that area would become if we allow big business who have not given us a model so we can physically see the impact in that area. Second to that, yes, owners have rights. But the constituents have rights, as well. We are to protect, as a matter of fact we are their parents, and we are to protect every situation that they are concerned with.

Now, a building is a great thing, but an empty building does not generate revenue. But for the developer, it will generate a tax deduction because they have passive activity. I’m not against growing big business, but I am against this type of business being at that corner beside that school and beside that church. We have over 600 students every day, and it is our first responsibility to take care of them.”

Updike – “I hate to disagree with my fellow supervisor, but this development is a disaster for this county. We’ve got property like Valley Proteins for sale for little or nothing. We’ve got the racetrack up in Capron. We’ve got a comprehensive recommended zoning for industrial all the way up and down [Route] 58, and to destroy the prettiest development or area in the county is beyond my comprehension. Let’s face facts. Each one of you should have come to the planning commission at the hearing and get the facts. This is their facts. You’ve heard government employment. My question is, sure, it’s going to bring in revenue, but what liabilities is that going to bring? We talk about schools. We would have to build at least four new schools to accommodate the children from the people that work there.

To educate a child today, it’s $3,800 per kid that the county contributes. By the time they build it, it’ll be over $4,000 per child. [Inaudible] This is waving a dollar in front of you, we’re going to try to grab it and cost yourself millions. I say, come to the planning commission and learn more about it. How many of you would like to have 1,000 trucks going by your house everyday. Your property. What’s the safety of the children and tractor trailers?”

Cooke – “I believe this application was turned in last week, I believe, and I do have a copy of it and the traffic impact study. I’ve started; it’s very long — 400 pages, I believe, something like that. I am reviewing it and I don’t want to see the county push another business away without fully evaluating what it has to offer the county. When it goes to the planning commission, and if the planning commission can come out with the proper restrictions to protect the county, I would have a hard time voting against it.”

Edwards – “This is a good topic. I know the developer. I had dealings with the developer over 20 years ago, and I know the land. I know the property. Basically, this comes down to two questions: Destroy a neighborhood, or is this the best thing for the whole county? That’s what you have to look at. Only information concerning this project is not in. The jury is still out. This has to go [through] the legal process. It has to go through the planning commission, where there’s a public hearing, and then the planning commission’s decision goes to the board of supervisors, where there’s another public hearing. And I’m not really willing to make a the decision on this until I hear everything because I don’t think everything … all the information concerning this project is on the table. Like I said before, if we have industry, it has to go in the right location. My question is, is this the right location or not? Is it right to destroy a neighborhood for industry, or is it right to destroy a neighborhood because it’s best for the whole county.

Basically, it’s a very difficult question that’s bothered me for a long time. I’ve been on the fence on this for a long time, so I just have to say I’m going to wait until all the information is in and we all understand what’s going on, and then we’ll put our cards on the table.”