Forsyth County commission candidates introduced to voters

Gail McNeill (left), David Plyler and Gloria Whisenhunt attended a candidate forum at First Christian Church in Winston-Salem today.

The lone Democrat in the Forsyth County Commission District B race made her first appearance with her Republican opponents during a candidate forum hosted by the senior services agency Shepherd Center today.

Gail McNeill is the only Democrat who filed in the conservative-leaning district known colloquially as the “doughnut” because it encompasses the suburban, small-town and unincorporated parts of the county while carving out much of Winston-Salem. Three seats are up for election in the district. The other three candidates on the ballot — Richard Linville, Gloria Whisenhunt and David Plyler — are all Republican incumbents. Linville, who chairs the commission, did not attend the forum today.

“I got into this race because the county commissioners made me really mad,” McNeill told the audience. “They made me very mad when they voted to allow concealed weapons in most of the county parks. And I have one granddaughter — two and a half — and when I think of her in the county park, and someone has a gun. Maybe he’s not going to use it, but maybe he is.”  

She said there are several issues on the commission that she believes “need a different point of view.” Among those, McNeill cited socioeconomic disparities in schools, which she said the commission …. And plans to build a new library with bond funds approved by voters in 2010. 

“Where is our library?” McNeill asked. “Didn’t we all vote for the library? I want my library.” 

Plyler, the most moderate Republican on the board, promoted his cross-party appeal in his closing statement. 

“I vote for the community,” he said. “I will not vote for a Democrat who says, ‘Do it for the party.’ And I will not vote for a Republican who says, ‘Do it for the party.’ If it’s not good for the community, if it’s not good for the student, if it’s not good for the patient in a mental-health hospital, if it’s not good for everyone, I probably will not vote for it. But if it is in my opinion, I will vote for it. That means I will cross party lines.” 

He said his first priority is job creation. 

“In the last four years I have been very fortunate to be involved in bringing in a doubling of revenue and $100 million in improvements at Deere-Hitachi recently,” Plyler said. “The VA clinic is coming — we’re going to have a hospital and clinic right next to each other in Kernersville. Two years ago, Caterpillar brought us about 500 jobs. We’re making progress. If we have that, we can broaden the tax base and keep taxes low.” 

Whisenhunt, who is part of the Republican majority’s conservative faction, avoided partisan entanglements with McNeill. Instead, she highlighted her empathy with and commitment to seniors. She noted that she is older than 60, and her mother is 84 years old and practically blind. 

“The last two budgets we have had to cut across the board — we made it mandatory that departments cut 5 percent across the board,” she said, “but we held senior services harmless in both of those budgets because we know what senior services provide for seniors here in Forsyth County. I think they’re probably Forsyth County’s best-kept secrets: The Meals on Wheels program is just outstanding. They still have a waiting list, and I’m very troubled by that. I hope to see the day when everyone who wants a hot meal, receives that hot meal.” 

For the most part, the candidates spoke in generalities about funding priorities and said they would consider new proposals, while avoiding hard commitments. But Whisenhunt interjected the one provocative idea during the forum, using as a launching pad a relatively banal discussion about whether Forsyth County should market itself as a retirement community. 

“Our two major assisted living [communities], which is Arbor Acres and Salem Town, are extremely, extremely expensive, and those are two areas that do not pay taxes. They are totally exempt from paying taxes as churches. I don’t ever think the Lord’s house ought to be taxed, but I think when churches go out here and start building assisted living and whatnot, I do think they should be taxed. And I’m hopeful that when the legislature is going to work on tax reform, I have already started lobbying them and encouraging them to look at this tax-exempt property. We in Forsyth County are really hit hard because we are a medical community.” 

Plyler sounded a note of caution on the idea of taxing assisted living communities operated by religious groups. He noted that Blumenthal Jewish Home took care of his mother before she died. Plyler later was asked to chair the assisted living community’s board of directors when the decision was made to sell the facility. 

“The only people in the world who cared enough to take my mother in went broke,” Plyler said. 

McNeill stumbled at times during the forum. Answering a question about what issues concern the candidates as they pertain to residents who are 60 years or older, McNeill rambled on about various services that are funded in the county budget and eventually said, “You can tell this is the first time I’ve ever done this.” 

Plyler displayed a touch of courtesy, reassuring his opponent: “You’re doing well.” 

At another point, McNeill challenged a sideline comment by Plyler instead of answering the question posed by the moderator, which concerned whether they would advocate for increased funding for senior centers in the county. Plyler had said that the property revaluation underway is expected to result in a $20 million shortfall, requiring commissioners to choose between raising the tax rate or cutting spending. 

“One thing I’d like to point out is that housing values have been going down for several years so this should not be really coming as a surprise,” she said, adding that Wake Forest Universities biotech park under construction near the intersection of Business 40 and US Highway 52 would be exempt from property tax. 

“No, it won’t be,” Plyler quietly interjected. “Because a lot of it will be private built. They will build it and rent it out. It will be tax-paying property.” 

McNeill tried to regain her footing, and then asked, “What was the question?” 

McNeill closed her remarks by saying that, if elected, she will be “a commissioner who will listen and learn,” and will hold office hours to make herself available to constituents. 

“I would be very interested in hearing the problems not just from the top but the problems from the bottom — the problems that teachers are having, the problems that the nurses are having, the caregivers,” she said.

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