By Brandon Martin and Debbie Hall
The five candidates for Martinsville City Council duked it out in their final debate before Election Day, as questions of reversion and character dominated the discourse on the floor of Hollywood Cinema.
Incumbents Kathy Lawson, Chad Martin and Jim Woods made their individual pitches to reclaim their seats while contenders Tammy Pearson and Nelson Edwards sought to make inroads with voters.
The topic of reversion was the first issue discussed by the candidates.
“We can continue, but we cannot offer more services,” Woods said. “We always hear that ‘I want low taxes but I want the services to stay strong.’ For us to maintain strong services to our citizens, we have to either increase taxes” or decrease spending.
Woods added that the most expensive line item in the city’s budget goes to the school system.
If Martinsville and Henry County combined their local composite index, Martin said there was room “for a win-win” for both localities.
Woods contested the notion that “the city will be pawing its debts off on the county. We have legal contracts that require that we keep our debt as a town if we revert.”
Woods also noted recent expenditures by the county at Meadow View Elementary School and with the new Adult Detention Center (jail), and added the county “has a tax increase on the ballot this year because they have taken on a great deal of debt. It is important to be aware that they have issues, that by reverting to a town, will be able to combine resources.”
Henry County voters will consider a referendum on whether to increase the sales tax by one percent. If approved, proceeds of the tax can be used only for school construction/renovation projects.
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall noted that if the referendum is approved, any proceeds generated by it are “not the county’s money.”
Additionally, Hall said the county borrowed money to finance the construction of Meadow View Elementary School, but “we did not have a tax increase for that, nor do we anticipate one” for the school project.
With regard to the jail financing,
Hall recalled the county “raised taxes specifically to pay that several years ago, and we have been putting aside the revenue that was generated by that to pay the debt service on the jail.”
Edwards said he supports reversion, but does not intend on “harming the county” with the city’s bid to revert. “The tax base is not there.”
Lawson said that the “cost to do business” has increased over the years, which underscores her support for reversion.
“We have a tax base that is stuck where it is,” she said. “We don’t have room for expansion, and the thing with reverting is it gives us an opportunity to share in common expenses that Henry County has.”
In the end, Lawson said she hopes for “no more us and them. We will be a unified community, moving forward.”
Pearson said after looking through various documents related to reversion, “I’m not saying that I’m completely against reversion; however, I think we should look at the root cause of everything.”
She offered other alternatives to reversion, such as reassessing alleged unfavorable contracts by the city and areas “where there is fat that we can cut. Are we funding nice things and not necessary things,” she asked rhetorically.
Overall, Pearson said there are multiple alternatives to reversion–including the revitalization of small businesses in the area.
In addition to reversion, the candidates also briefly discussed efforts to prevent utility disconnections in the city. The debate then took a turn from policy to personal, when Edwards was asked to list his qualifications for office.
“I’ve almost been a life-long citizen of Martinsville and I’ve been teaching school and working with our youth,” Edwards said. “For 31 years, I’ve helped mold the lives of my students. I feel that I am qualified as a good person and as someone who is genuinely in love with the City of Martinsville.”
Pearson listed her experience as a local business owner for her qualifications for office.
“I had to put a business plan together. I had to figure out how to fund it. I got that business started and I’ve had to figure out how to sustain it,” Pearson said.
Woods, who also previously taught in the area, touted his involvement with community organizations like the Salvation Army and Winter Warming Shelter.
“I feel like with the wealth of experience that I have, it’s a desire to serve this community,” Woods said.
Lawson said she has spent the last 30 years serving the community.
“Just walking through our community and serving our people has been a true blessing for me,” Lawson said. “It’s part of my life to give back to this community.”
Martin noted his belief that representatives should be a “servant-leader. There is no way in the world that you can actually serve people in this city and not want to listen to them.”
Following a question about the most neglected parts of the city, Pearson said “you listen with the intention of understanding. So you try not to look through your own eyes. You try to look through the lens of your neighbors. Instead of sitting back and waiting for them to come to us, let’s go out. Let’s look at some of these houses. Let’s look at some of these buildings.”
Martin said that he found it “frustrating” when “somebody talks about going and listening to citizens” and “you know for a fact that there are some areas they don’t visit at all. When you talk about going to talk to citizens and yet, somebody else went door-to-door to fill out your paperwork to get on this ballot to run. That is very frustrating to know.”
He added the Registrar’s office is a resource for those who want to see “who did go door-to-door and who didn’t.” He later clarified his comments were directed towards Pearson and Edwards, and alleged that “a lot of” Pearson’s sheets were filled out by Danny Turner, a council member who is not up for reelection this year.
“Let’s really talk about why people are up here. Is it from good intentions for the city or is it because you’ve been tapped by somebody else and you’re going to do exactly what they want you to do,” he said, and when asked about a contentious nature during this election cycle, Martin shifted his focus back to Pearson.
He said he had visited Pearson’s home (“door-step”) following a disagreement about the dress code at one of her husband’s businesses. “The clothing policy they had, it was very, very intrusive and it was very in-exclusive.”
Pearson then displayed an alleged “No Trespassing Order” that was sent to Martin, who said he would never resort to violence but “when somebody mistreats the community, I will stand up.”
Pearson said the policy was from nine years ago and noted the proximity to the election is why it was recently re-introduced.
“Are we doing this really for the good of the community or is he (Martin) doing it, which it appears, to get votes,” Pearson said. “He’s being divisive. What we need to do is come together as a community.”
“For somebody to think that this policy was okay in the first place–even though we made them change it when we went to social media–for somebody to even think that was right, that means you don’t have the whole community in your heart. So if that is how you run business, then imagine what you would do to certain citizens in the city. Be mindful who you vote for because you just don’t know what some people’s intentions are.”
A request for candidate petitions was submitted Oct. 26 to the Registrar’s office under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Registrar Cynthia Barbour said the request could not be completed until the weekend before Election Day because time is needed to redact information that is protected under FOIA.