Winslow, Lavin square off for commissioner
By Jon Hawley
Thursday, October 11, 2018
In their quest for a seat on the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners, Joe Winslow and Sean Lavin bring different resumes to a similar goal: uplifting their home county with better jobs and stronger schools.
Winslow, a 71-year-old accountant and Democrat, is running for his third term as county commissioner in the Northern Outside district.
Challenging him is Sean Lavin, a 39-year-old Republican and manager at aerostat manufacturer TCOM. Lavin first ran for at-large commissioner as an unaffiliated candidate in 2016, but lost to Commissioner Jeff Dixon, who is not up for re-election this year.
In interviews Tuesday and Wednesday, Winslow and Lavin — who will face off in next month’s general election — discussed the county's need for economic growth, improving and promoting its school system, and holding down spending.
Asked how he'd define success for Pasquotank County, Winslow said if granted another four-year term, he offer a measurable goal:
“I'd like to see that we've moved from a Tier 1 to a Tier 2 area,” Winslow said, referring to the N.C. Department of Commerce's designations for counties' economic health. Tier 1 is for the 40 most economically distressed counties, while Tier 2 is for the next 40 and Tier 3 for the 20 most well-off counties.
Pasquotank isn't that far off from being a Tier 2 county. Commerce last year ranked Pasquotank as the state’s 37th most economically distressed, putting it four spots away from Tier 2.
Winslow said the most important step for Pasquotank's economy is getting the region's U.S. Highway 17 corridor upgraded to interstate standards.
“The number-one issue is accelerating I-87,” he said, adding many potential businesses' first question about an area is its closeness to an interstate.
“It'll transform the area. … We can't keep waiting for it,” he said.
Winslow said he'll continue pushing state officials to fund the many multi-million-dollar projects needed to bring I-87 to fruition.
Winslow also said he's pushed for other “ingredients” for Pasquotank's economic growth, including more broadband access in the rural parts of the county.
Economic growth is also “the only way we can keep our taxes down,” Winslow said.
Asked if he would commit to oppose property tax increases, Winslow said he would oppose them unless the county faced a financial emergency, citing major revenue shortfalls such as happened during the recession in 2008 as an example.
For his part, Lavin said if he’s elected he would measure success for the county by its “trending upward in key areas.” He offered population growth, improved school performance, and paying off debt as examples.
Lavin said Pasquotank needs to eliminate barriers to new businesses, including high taxes and fees.
He noted commissioners earlier this month reversed course on raising water fees, but speculated commissioners simply didn't want to raise them before the election.
As someone with management experience, Lavin also said he wants to partner with County Manager Sparty Hammett to look for savings by making county operations more efficient. He also pledged to “squeeze every budget line item” before he'd consider raising taxes.
Lavin also said the county needs to lower its debt, and claimed the county needs to “get away from” paying mostly interest and not principal on its debt.
Asked Wednesday about the county's debt, Pasquotank Finance Officer Sheri Small said the county does pay mostly principal with almost all its debt payments, lowering how much interest it ultimately pays. The one exception may be the county's long-term debt on Albemarle District Jail, she added.
Economic growth also means “we've really got to get behind our schools,” Lavin said, calling for more parental involvement in schools.
Lavin said the public schools need to do more vocational training and better promote careers in skilled labor to students. TCOM, like many other employers, has a shortage of technical laborers, despite the high wages those careers pay, he said.
Lavin also called for the county to partner with industries and dedicate resources to getting students apprenticeships.
Like Lavin, Winslow also believes the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools needs to keep expanding its vocational courses. Winslow said he’s helped promote vocational courses as both a county commissioner and member of the College of The Albemarle Board of Trustees.
Asked about the county's low-performing schools, Winslow expressed confidence in the ECPPS Board of Education, commenting they won't be satisfied until all schools are high-performing. Several ECPPS schools improved their grades on the state’s annual testing program this year, but the state still considers the Pasquotank Elementary, P.W. Moore Elementary, and Elizabeth City Middle schools as low-performing.
Asked how perceptions of ECPPS schools could be improved, Lavin said the district has positives, including some excellent, devoted teachers. However, he called for ECPPS officials to show more transparency, and to acknowledge where schools need improvement.
Both candidates also addressed the Board of Education’s controversial decision recently to pay $318,000 in severance to former ECPPS Superintendent Larry Cartner, with whom the board entered into a resignation agreement in August. School board members have said they're legally forbidden from saying why Cartner resigned.
Lavin said the school board should not have approved a contract with Cartner containing a “golden parachute,” referring to the severance paid with local tax dollars.
“We should never get into a situation where we make agreements like that,” Lavin said.
Lavin said such severance agreements aren't common in business, and “that's where I'd take my cues.”
As a taxpayer, Winslow said he “was not happy” with the payment to Cartner. However, he said he believes contracts like Cartner's aren’t unusual.
Another way Pasquotank might draw economic activity is through a new solar farm. An undisclosed developer is considering a major solar farm in the county; the project could bring millions of dollars of new investment but also put solar panels on farm land or close to residences.
Those concerns led Winslow to support solar moratoriums this year while the county considers new solar regulations.
“I love solar” but “I think it's got to be in the right place,” Winslow said, adding he couldn't say if the project should happen.
As for solar development, Lavin said, “I think we've got to be careful” about solar farms, because they take land away from farming or other uses. That's unlike the county's wind farm, where farming continues around turbines, he noted.
Lavin also expressed concerns about solar farms being built too close to people's houses, calling them “unsightly.” He also said solar farms should not take up land attractive for other commercial development, such as near Halstead Boulevard Extended.
Asked about his opponent, Winslow said he has no problems with Lavin. However, Winslow argues he is the proven, more experienced candidate. Winslow said he's long worked on the issues Lavin is now trying to get involved in.
Asked why voters should support him instead of Winslow, Lavin said he “liked” Winslow and has no problem with him. However, he said Republicans are under-represented on the board of commissioners — there are six Democrats and only one Republican, Frankie Meads — and Winslow tends to vote with other Democrats.
Lavin pledged to find time to advocate for Pasquotank across the region and in Raleigh. Pasquotank is his home now and he's devoted to improving it, he said.
“This is where I planted my roots and where I'm raising my children,” he said.
Occupation: Owner of Winslow Accounting
Education: Bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from N.C. State University, associate degree in financial planning from Old Dominion University
Military service: Drafted into the U.S Army, 1972-73
Previous campaigns/offices: Elected as Pasquotank County Commissioner in 2010, re-elected 2014
Civic involvement: Member, Elizabeth City Morning Rotary Club; 32nd degree Mason at Eureka 317 Masonic Lodge; member of Providence Ruritan Club
Family: Wife, Sandi, two children
Occupation: Operations program manager, TCOM
Education: Bachelor's degree in small business management/entrepreneurship, East Carolina University
Military service: None
Previous offices/campaigns: Ran unsuccessfully as an unaffiliated candidate for Pasquotank County commissioner in 2016
Civic involvement: Chairman, deacon board for Ramoth Gilead Baptist Church; board member, Arts of the Albemarle; board member, Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce; member, Northeastern Workforce Development Board
Family: Wife, Allison, three children