Mt. Pleasant Forum Provides Sparks Along Campaign Trail

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by Gene Marrano

Who would think there would be political fireworks at the Mount Pleasant Civic League candidate forum – not for the higher profile Virginia delegate or Senate races, but for Commissioner of the Revenue? But there were some shots fired and a few sparks as well when all three candidates for the Roanoke County position showed up last week, along with several hopefuls for the General Assembly.

As she stated previously, Carla Bream, the Republican challenger to long time Democrat incumbent Nancy Horn, charged that it is next to impossible to get people in the Commissioner of Revenue office on the phone directly, without going through an elaborate phone tree procedure.

Bream even held up a tape player at one point, dramatically playing a message she said was recorded when calling in to the department—evidence alleged Bream, that it is difficult to get employees there on the phone. “I want to bring back that good old fashioned customer service,” she said, citing a campaign pledge she has used since kicking off her campaign.

Bream also alleged that an embezzlement incident in the office was a sign that Horn, who first inherited the position when Wayne Compton passed away while in office, did not run a tight ship.

“We answer our phones,” countered Horn; an employee in her department who was in attendance said at best that a caller might have to punch in “option 2” when prompted. Horn also said the department’s “books were perfect,” and that the alleged embezzlement incident took place a decade ago and was dealt with promptly. She refused to name the party publicly, as Bream urged her to do, citing respect and privacy issues.

Horn also said, contrary to Bream’s charges, a person can remove a sold vehicle from private property tax roles over the phone if they cannot do it via the county’s website. In general Horn told Bream she was making “unfriendly” statements about the people working there and the Commissioner of the Revenue department.

Brian Lang, chair of the Roanoke County Democrat committee, asked Bream if she thought there were not “checks and balances” in place now to prevent embezzlement. “I have no idea,” said Bream, adding that she would have to wait until she took office (on November 8) to ensure that. Horn countered that such checks and balances were in place, on a daily basis. “I think it’s misinformation that you’re getting,” she told the 20 or so civic league members on hand.

There is a third candidate in the Roanoke County commissioner of the revenue race, independent Bruce Love, who asserts that the county is over-assessing real estate appraisals in order to keep property tax collections higher. “That’s happening despite a drop nationally in real estate values,” said Love, who is an appraiser by trade. He adds that supervisors are unwilling to tackle the thorny issue of raising tax rates to compensate for the revenue drop caused by property values that should be falling further.

“There’s a big difference between all the candidates,” cautioned Love, a Virginia Tech graduate. He’s running as an independent because “my allegiance is not to any party.”

Freda Cathcart, running as a Democrat against Republican Chris Head for the 17th District House of Delegates seat being vacated by Bill Cleaveland, was on hand, although Head did not appear. Cathcart, president of the Grandin Court Neighborhood Association, is also a former teacher and insurance company employee. She coaches youth soccer as well.

Cathcart said she would work to “turn this sluggish economy around.” Noting reductions in funding for social programs that could come at the state and federal levels, Cathcart expressed concern; “I worry when I hear people talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare.” Funds from those programs that helped place her mother-in-law in a facility for seniors with dementia have influenced her thinking, said Cathcart.

Overcrowded classrooms are another reason she would fight funding cuts for school districts.  She is also worried about a plan floated by the General Assembly that would give localities the responsibility for secondary road maintenance. “I have concerns … it’s more efficient when you pool your resources [state wide].”

Brandon Bell, running for the 19th district state senate seat against Republican Ralph Smith (gerrymandered out of his 23rd district seat) said that “people were fed up” with party labels, although he still identifies himself as a conservative.

Creating more jobs is the number one priority for Bell, who has served two terms previously in the General Assembly. He helped push through the state’s smoking ban in restaurants during his last tenure, which ended in 2007. Smith did not appear due to a conflict; campaign manager Steve Mabry told the Mount Pleasant Civic League that Smith “championed regional cooperation – and [lowering] the tax burden.”

Bell drew the ire of one attendee when he refused to discuss his position on an issue while at the microphone – citing a Smith campaign worker who was filming him – saying he would have done so if his challenger had been there to debate the issue. Bell did offer to discuss the matter with the person who had asked the question, but in private. He also said he had challenged Smith to five debates, a request apparently not granted to date.