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Sheriff, hopefuls debate
Candidates cover finances, agency's future
Sheriff WEB
Incumbent Ted Paxton, center, faces challengers Duane Piper, left, and Lauren McDonald for Forsyth County sheriff. - photo by Jim Dean

What’s next

• The Forsyth County Tea Party Patriots Alliance will wrap up its series of three debates May 24 with candidates for the District 9 U.S. House seat. The session is set for 7 p.m. in the Forsyth County Administration Building.

• Also, the Forsyth County Tea Party will hold a debate in the same location at 6:30 p.m. May 21. It will feature the District 9 hopefuls, as well as candidates for state House and Senate.

The candidates for Forsyth County sheriff talked leadership, budget and safety during a debate Monday night.

The event, organized by the Forsyth County Tea Party Patriots Alliance, drew a crowd of about 250 to hear incumbent Ted Paxton and challengers Duane Piper and Lauren McDonald.

Since all announced candidates are Republican, the next sheriff could be decided in the July 31 primary election. Qualifying is set for May 23-25.

Most of the 17 questions asked during the debate were submitted in writing by members of the audience at the county administration building.

For the upcoming four-year term, McDonald touted school safety as a top priority, while Piper plans to reduce the budget and Paxton will look to establish best practices for the new courthouse and expanded jail.

All three pointed to leadership as an important quality for the county’s sheriff, but differed in their views on what makes a good leader.

“I’m proud of my leadership … because of what we have accomplished in the last 11-and-a-half years,” Paxton said. “Apparently, I’ve done something right because I kept getting recognized by my peers in law enforcement.”

He pointed to several awards that he and the office have won in his three terms as sheriff.

Piper called the deputies in the field “the backbone” of the agency and said a sheriff needs to provide the leadership needed to focus on the office’s purpose of service to the public.

“Any organization takes on the personality of the person at the top,” he said.

McDonald vowed to follow the acronym ELECT: Ethics, leadership, example, character and trust.
Though he doesn’t have experience in law enforcement, McDonald said his business management and three terms as county coroner provide the leadership skills needed for the post.

Paxton and Piper, who have each spent their careers in law enforcement, agreed that prior experience is necessary to take on the job.

McDonald countered that his ethics and character are “beyond measure” when compared to the other candidates.

He also questioned Piper’s ability to handle the financial operations of a large department, citing a lawsuit against him for nonpayment.

Piper acknowledged the matter, saying he had been affected by the economy financially and lost a house.

The sheriff’s budget, totaling about $37.5 million this year, was also a main topic of debate.

Piper called for zero-based budgeting, in which each cost is justified each year, to reduce what he called a “bloated” budget.

He also proposed cutting positions in middle and upper management, but not those in the field.

McDonald called for a new organizational structure that would reduce the “thick layer” between the captains in the field and the sheriff.

He said the office could also do more to retain deputies by giving “good pay for a hard day’s work,” which he said can be found in the multi-million dollar budget.

Paxton broke down the office’s expenses, of which 70 percent go to salary, wages and benefits. About $2 million of the more than $38 million this past year wasn’t mandated for internal services, salaries or jail expenses and went to operating costs, he said.

“Every penny that’s spent for the budget of the sheriff’s office is to provide the law enforcement function to the people of the community,” Paxton said.

The candidates also addressed what they felt will be the most important future public safety issue.

Paxton said technology has opened the doors to new ways to scam older residents, steal identities and exploit youth.

He called for continuing and expanding programs educating people on these issues.

Piper agreed that “white collar crime” is a growing problem in the community, but said the matter hasn’t been properly addressed.

Piper noted he ran the unit dealing with computer crimes against seniors prior to retiring from the agency in October. About half the cases assigned in criminal investigations, he said, deal with these types of crimes.

Of about 40 people in the criminal investigations division, Piper said just four worked on these issues.

“We’re not looking at forward trends,” Piper said. “We’re not working smart enough with your money.”

On the other end of the age spectrum, McDonald spoke of working to improve public safety for youth.

He would like to work with the school system to get more resource officers and to make that position a career path with a rank of sergeant.

“If we’re going to have a great community tomorrow,” he said, “we’ve got to start today in our schools.”

The candidates also addressed the horse patrol unit. McDonald and Piper plan to eliminate the expense, but Paxton said it’s another valuable tool the office uses in areas bikes or cars can’t reach, such as wooded areas.

In terms of addressing morality of deputies, Paxton said discipline, not punishment, is needed to change behavior.

Piper said the employee manual needs to clearly address the policies and the repercussions of violations, which he said the 1,000-page-plus book does not.

McDonald said certain offenses should be grounds for firing, and the employees of the agency will know what those unacceptable actions are.