LUMBERTON — The Rev. Dennis Harrell, a candidate for the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, says that more businesses might locate in Robeson County if the county offered a more favorable business climate.
“It’s the local government’s responsibility to provide an environment so businesses have the best chance to succeed,” he said. “The county tax rate should be lowered as much as possible, and people should be trained so they are qualified to fill the jobs these businesses provide.”
Harrell, a Republican, is trying to wrest the District 7 seat held by Commissioner Tom Taylor, a Democrat, since 2000. It is the only competitive commissioner race, with three others having been decided in the May primary.
Harrell, who is running for his first elected public office, hopes to become only the second Republican to serve on the county Board of Commissioners since the Civil War. Current Commissioner David Edge is the other.
Harrell is a retired pastor of Hyde Park Baptist Church in Lumberton, where he served from 1985 to 2010. A graduate of Fruitland Bible Institute and N.C. Wesleyan College, he is also a former manager for Kaiser Agriculture-Chemicals.
Harrell credits his early years growing up on a tobacco farm in Wilson County for his responsibility and work ethic.
“Most of my life is about growing things,” he said. “On the farm I learned about growing crops. Kaiser taught me about growing a business. As a pastor I learned how to grow a congregation.
“I believe that God has prepared me so that if the people decide to elect me, I can help this county grow.”
Harrell said the county leadership that has been under the control of one party for so many years has not moved the county forward.
“It’s time to break up the monopoly of a one-party-controlled county,” he said.
Harrell said county needs should be prioritized so available revenues can be focused on essential growth needs related to protection, education and job creation. He said the county needs to work with schools and colleges to improve academic opportunities for creating a highly skilled workforce, and that any county budgets and bid proposals should be posted publicly for 30 days before the commissioners take any action.
During his campaign, Harrell has called for the county to eliminate wasteful spending, including commissioners’ pay and benefits. He said the commissioners should “drastically reduce their discretionary funds and implement procedures to assure transparency and accountability.”
The Robesonian recently did a series of stories on the pay and benefits, finding that the commissioners rank fourth in the state when combining salaries and travel stipends, their travel stipend of $700 a month is the highest in the state, they and their families can receive free health insurance and they have a retirement plan that includes a county match. Much of that was done in the budget process, without public discussion during the meetings.
The commissioners on Oct. 1 voted to end a deferred-compensation plan.
County Manager Ricky Harris, at the request of the board, is currently comparing the pay and benefits with those of other counties. He is expected to bring that information to the commissioners at their Nov. 19 meeting.
Taylor, who has been on the board during a period when the pay has grown and new benefits have been approved, has declined to discuss the issue in detail.
“I have some concerns,” said Taylor, the board’s vice chairman. “I’ll make some comments after I see the county manager’s study.”
Taylor, 57, is a lifelong resident of the Allenton community, and a graduate of Littlefield High School and Southeastern Community College.
He is co-owner of the Bargain House in Lumberton, chief of the Allenton Volunteer Fire Department for 23 years, a member of Antioch Baptist Church and chairman of the Robeson County Health Board. He also is a member of the Robeson Regional Agricultural Fair Board, serves on the Airport Commission, is president of the Robeson County Fire Chief’s Association and has been a member of St. Alban’s Masonic Lodge No. 114 for 36 years.
According to Taylor, the county has moved forward since he has been on the board. Accomplishments include: lowering the county’s tax rate by 3 cents, from 80 cents to 77 cents per $100 of value; implementing a “one-stop shop” at the old DSS complex on N.C. 711 for residents needing to obtain certain construction, land-use and health-related permits; purchase of the former BB&T building in Lumberton to be used to house county departments in a single location; and the construction of the county’s new DSS building.
Taylor said county taxpayers saved approximately $1.2 million a year when the commissioners lowered the tax rate; approximately $300,000 a year is now being added to county coffers from the generation of electricity at the county landfill in St. Pauls; eventual renovations of the BB&T building will provide for county departments to be moved out of the courthouse in downtown Lumberton and “let the courthouse be used as a courthouse”; and soon a new county jail will have to be built. He also said he would like for 10-, 15- and 20-year plans to be drawn so there is a guide for county growth and development.
“Everything from the landfill to DSS should have a plan,” he said. “I think that is something we need, and I want to see that on paper.”
According to Taylor, economic development is a major challenge.
“Our economic developer is trying, but other counties are battling just as hard to get new industries,” he said.
Taylor also said it might benefit the county to recruit small businesses rather than target just the larger ones.
“I don’t think the 500- to 700-job businesses are out there anymore,” he said. “Maybe we should emphasize getting the smaller ones. We should take what we can get. I’d rather see people working than not working.”
Taylor said he has an open-door policy when it comes to helping all county residents.
“I listen to what the people say, and before I make any crucial decision I go out and talk to them,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t do what they want … Sometimes (commissioners) run up against a brick wall.”