With two members of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners departing at the end of this term, the seven-member board will have two new faces. But they will likely be familiar faces to local voters.
Four candidates are vying to fill the two at-large seats. Two other seats representing District 1 are uncontested.
Unlike municipal races, the county contest is a partisan election. Voters will choose two candidates from among Democrats Marshall Faircloth and Veronica Jones and Republicans Ron Ross and John Szoka.
Faircloth is a former county commissioner and former member of the Cumberland County Board of Education. Jones is the founder and CEO of the Jones Global Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with families on health, education and social issues. She also has been involved in several political campaigns.
Szoka served five terms in the N.C. State House beginning in 2013. He announced a bid for a seat in Congress in 2020 but dropped out of the race because of redistricting. Ross ran unsuccessfully for the Cumberland County school board in 2016.
Faircloth and Jones edged out incumbent county Commissioner Ken Lancaster in the May 17 Democratic primary. Lancaster has been a commissioner since 2014 and previously served as chairman. The other at-large seat is being vacated by Commissioner Charles Evans, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House to represent District 7. He lost in the Democratic primary.
Faircloth received 7,233 votes, or 20.57%, and Jones received 10,976 votes, or 31.2%, in the May Democratic primary. Ross and Szoka were the only Republicans running in the Republican primary in May.
Running unopposed for commissioner representing District 1 are Commissioners Jeannette Council, a retired educator, and Glenn Adams, an attorney.
County commissioners serve four-year terms that are staggered. Elections to represent the three-seat District 2 will be held in 2024.
There is no lack of challenges facing Cumberland County, giving candidates an array of issues and causes on which to hinge their campaigns. From contaminated drinking water in the Gray’s Creek community and elsewhere in the county and the resulting lawsuit against the Chemours chemical company to spending millions on a new events center, some important decisions await the winners.
CityView asked the candidates a series of questions about issues in the race. Candidates’ answers are in alphabetical order; some lengthy responses were shortened for clarity and space.
What makes you uniquely qualified over the other candidates?
Marshall Faircloth: “As a certified public accountant with over 20 years of local government accounting and auditing experience, I would be the go-to commissioner on most financial matters coming before the board. I also have 16 years of actual county commissioner service, while all other candidates have none.”
Veronica Jones: “I’m the only candidate that possesses and has experience in all — not one, not two — but has combined professional experiences in all important areas of working directly with a variety of families — hands-on — for well-established nonprofits on an executive level. I'm also the only candidate that has worked directly with a variety of families in mental health and family services and served on boards, all executive-level positions, for the Cumberland County school system. I'm the only candidate that owns both a nonprofit that provides family services and (who) owns a business consulting company. This has allowed me to develop a strong strength in budgeting, financial management and, most importantly, the strongest skill I have developed, working in family services and mental health. And by being a business owner, I have been afforded … the opportunity to do professional work and serve families holding a variety of positions, such as case management coordinator; family advocate director; family services executive director; mental health professional and mental health educator; communications director.
“The combination of my professional work experience and active engagement and investment in our community provides me with a positive connection and exposure to a variety of families and individuals, and I understand the needs of all families, regardless of their ZIP code, gender, religion or financial status.”
Ron Ross: Ross points to his 54 years working with a nonprofit agency, the Boys & Girls Club. “Donations are just like tax dollars,” he said. He touts his ability to stick to a budget, unlike some local governments, and to remember whose money is being spent. “It’s not our money. The key is to always put the people first,” he said.
John Szoka: “I am an experienced leader with a proven record of saving taxpayers money, helping to bring good-paying jobs to our community and working in a bipartisan manner to arrive at common-sense solutions to complicated issues. Just a few highlights of my accomplishments as evidence: I led legislative efforts to bring over $412 million to Cumberland County in the last state budget cycle, which affected every citizen in the county; in 2017, I was the primary sponsor of H589, which has saved electric ratepayers across the state over $350 million in electricity costs by changing the way solar energy is integrated into the grid; I worked for years to build the consensus needed to pass the law that makes military retired pay exempt from N.C. state income tax; in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, I initiated and led a bipartisan committee on justice reform that changed state laws to protect the public, help good officers do their jobs better and hold bad officers accountable.”
The county is set to unveil a $16 million 911 emergency dispatch center later this month, and the city is asking voters to approve a $98 million bond package of which about $33 million is for a new 911 facility. In 2019, the county and city negotiated to combine their 911 centers, but last-minute disagreements scuttled the plan. Do you favor negotiating with the city for future consolidated or merged services?
Faircloth: “Yes, if the city wants to. They passed up an opportunity to at least co-locate the 911 service with a view of possibly merging some of it in the future.”
Jones: “I favor always keeping the best interest of the people of our community first. Therefore, yes, moving forward with a positive attitude as a potential county commissioner, I favor possible negotiating on certain projects with the city. Although the 911 center project was an opportunity for city and county relations, the county had to move forward with what was a necessary project for the greater good of service of safety and providing service for the people as soon as possible. … Unfortunately, the city and county on that project did not get on the same page. However, when the city and county do come together, there is positive evidence from projects that have come together well for the greater good of our community. … The city and county merger of parks and recreation has been an unqualified success and is one of the best examples of the advantages of consolidation. The county also pitched in with the investment in the new baseball stadium downtown by approving a special tax district. In addition, both the city and county governing bodies pledged millions to the N.C. Civil War & Reconstruction center, a key plus in a project expected to bring more money and more jobs to our Fayetteville and Cumberland County community.”
Ross: “911 should have been consolidated,” Ross said, adding that any merger with the city should require a written agreement to “stick to a budget.” He noted that the city spent millions of dollars above its budget for the baseball stadium. He said politics should not play a part in merging services. “It’s never about me, it’s about the people, even if it costs you an election,” he said.
Szoka: “Elected officials always need to remember that money being spent is taxpayer money. Wasting taxpayer money on needless duplication of facilities and services is something that I won’t do. While not every government service is a candidate for consolidation or merger, the 911 center is an example of a service that should have been, at a minimum, co-located in the same facility and probably merged. I will always work for opportunities to save taxpayers money while providing a higher level of service.”
During the public comment period at Board of Commissioner meetings, residents of the Gray’s Creek area often ask about safe drinking water. County Manager Amy Cannon recently told commissioners that her staff is in the process of identifying water sources for the area and that the county is working to provide water service to the Shaw Road area. But getting Public Works Commission services to that area would require that its residents agree to be annexed by the city. What do you believe are the county’s options to provide safe water to county residents in areas not now served by PWC?
Faircloth: “PWC is still the best option, and it's a viable option as a water wholesaler. It was originally chartered as a countywide authority, but it has never managed to operate anywhere near its potential. Bladen County has said they are unable to supply the required volume. As to Shaw Road, the county is not nor has it ever been an obstacle to the annexation by Fayetteville. As I understand it, they only need property owners to agree.”
Jones: “These are the best course of actions to take: (1) The Board of Commissioners should consider creating two new water and sewer districts to combat contamination of private wells due to Gen-X and other forever PFAS chemicals in portions of … the county; (2) consider creating Cedar Creek and the East Central water and sewer districts; (3) conduct a community education campaign before scheduling a public hearing … in addition to providing educational town halls regarding helpful resources and solutions for community residents affected …; (4) apply for state and federal monies and resources such as USDA and EPA grants … for the Gray’s creek area, Shaw Road, and the Vander Water and Sewer District; (5) the county commissioners should continue to seek and stay updated with suggestions and recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and (6) board members should become knowledgeable about the … (Clean Water Act) and provide education for the community through campaign and special town hall meetings.”
Ross: Ross lives in the Gray’s Creek community and is adamant that Chemours should pay for all water extensions in the contaminated areas of the county for which it is responsible. Ross said this issue is important to him. His grandson attends Alderman Road Elementary School in Gray’s Creek. “He can’t even drink from the school’s water fountain,” Ross said. If the county cannot convince PWC to extend water lines in the Gray’s Creek area, the county needs to negotiate for water service with Robeson County, he said. Otherwise, Chemours should pay for “every penny of the cost to run water lines and for the connection fees,” he said. “I don’t know why the state and county didn’t sue (Chemours) sooner,” Ross said. He also said the county should cut the property tax rate by one-half for people living in the affected area. “It should be a top priority. It’s the biggest mess we’ve had in a long time,” Ross said.
Szoka: “In the 2015-16 legislative session, I was a primary sponsor of HB392, Fayetteville Charter/PWC Changes. The bill was a huge policy change and clearly gives the PWC authority to extend water service anywhere in the county without requiring annexation into the city of Fayetteville. I personally wrote that part of the legislation to ensure that rural areas of the county would not be ‘held hostage’ to an annexation requirement. The answer for Gray’s Creek is to extend PWC water lines and provide water service. Period. The county and the PWC need to sit down and negotiate the agreement to make this happen. For the rest of the county, the PWC has the authority to extend its water lines today. For those areas where it is not economical for the PWC to extend its water lines, the county needs to conduct a study and determine how best to achieve the goal of safe drinking water for all citizens and then take action to make it happen.”
What do you hope to accomplish either by yourself or with the Board of Commissioners in the first 90 days of your term?
Faircloth: “The first 90 days will be spent either searching for the best possible county manager candidate or learning to work with this person depending on how far along the task will have come. Other than that, I would likely be working to build a solid working relationship with all board members, getting updated on all current and upcoming projects, and reviewing the activity of the past two years.”
Jones: “I realize the importance of goal-setting and long-range planning. County policies will have an impact on the lives of our Cumberland County families and individuals, and for that reason I believe that our community residents will expect myself and the other county commissioners to influence the direction of county government for the greater good of the people in a positive manner. Policymaking is far more art than science. The key to good policymaking is to see the forest for the trees. … I will provide quality services to our Cumberland County citizens while being fiscally responsible. … I will maintain core values, serving … with PRIDE: Professionalism, respect, integrity with accountability, diversity, and excellent customer service. … I know that it's important to understand (and) recognize policy and procedures and the overall budget process thoroughly within the first 90 days. This is important to effectively represent our citizens. Families can trust that I will have no problems in this area.”
Jones said she also will prioritize these issues: (1) Speed up the pace of planning for the new events center, noting that a location has not been selected despite a target date of August 2022 to do so; (2) Set goals to address affordable housing and homelessness; (3) Reevaluate funding for the county school system; (5) address issues related to mental health, Gray’s Creek public water access, government communication, economic development, and an asset inventory and audit skills.
Ross: Ross said he does not have a single priority for the first 90 days but rather a “wish list” of items he would like to see happen. First, he would like the commissioners to hold meetings every three months in different areas of the county. Unlike the current public comment rules, speakers should not have to sign up or provide a topic before speaking. The program could provide a mediator to keep the program on point. Second, Ross wants to see an “open meeting” with senior citizens to consider what additional senor-centric programs the county should create. Third, construction of “working” homeless shelters to put the homeless to work and providing them with treatment should become a greater priority, he said.
Szoka: “Among my top priorities is clean water countywide. In the first 90 days, I will work for an approved, funded plan for the first loop of PWC water extension into Gray’s Creek that will provide safe water to the two elementary schools currently still using bottled water and to the surrounding neighborhoods.