For its next candidates’ debate, the Forsyth County Tea Party may need a bigger facility.
People packed the Center at Charles Place on Monday night as a standing-room only crowd came to hear what the men running for sheriff had to say.
The three Republicans will face off in the July 31 primary. Qualifying is set for May 23-25.
During the 90-minute session, incumbent Ted Paxton and challengers Duane Piper and Lauren McDonald III fielded written questions from audience members.
Paxton, who’s seeking a fourth four-year term, emphasized the county’s low crime rate.
“We’ve been able with the economic downturn to still maintain a tremendous impact on crime,” he said. “Crime stats are down.”
He also highlighted community programs, new technology and training to keep Forsyth County “on the cutting edge.”
Piper, who has 25 years’ experience in law enforcement, including 16 with the local sheriff’s office, discussed plans to reduce the budget and increase operational effectiveness.
He said the current sheriff’s budget has increased from nearly $13 million 11 years ago to about $37 million.
“That’s a huge increase,” Piper said. “That drives our tax rate, his 41 percent [of the county general fund budget.]”
Paxton previously attributed the larger budget in part to population growth and across-the-board salary increases approved over the years by the county commission.
Piper also said he would localize patrols so deputies get to know an area and the people in it.
McDonald, who announced his candidacy earlier this month, said his business experience will translate into a more effectively run office.
The current county coroner, McDonald also owns a funeral home and serves as a firefighter.
“I promise to reduce the budget, but not the service and protection,” he said. “A clear and transparent view of the budget and drug seizure funds will be available through a nine-member sheriff’s council.”
While drug seizure funds cannot be used to supplement the budget, McDonald said he would put them to use for educational programs rather than vehicles.
Paxton’s use of taxpayer and drug seizure dollars came under scrutiny from the audience and his opponents.
The sheriff said 81 of the 103 vehicles purchased with those funds during his three terms are still in service.
His opponents also challenged the necessity of the mounted patrol unit.
Piper called it “a nice campaign tool” and said bicycles would be more effective and less expensive.
McDonald said deputies have told him the horse patrol isn’t needed.
The four-horse unit cost $11,000 last year, Paxton said, with added funds coming from donations.
He said the unit patrols campgrounds and parks in the warmer months, as well as The Avenue Forsyth outdoor shopping mall in south Forsyth.
Both opponents also said the office could be doing more to retain deputies.
“A sheriff needs to be someone who has the mutual respect and trust of the deputies,” McDonald said. “I promise to work for better pay for the deputies.
“I will restore the feeling and pride of being a Forsyth County deputy.”
Piper pointed to the need for a retirement plan, which he said would keep experienced personnel in the county.
He said cutting unnecessary expenses could afford the office better pay or plans for its employees.
Looking out at the large crowd, Piper encouraged residents to maintain this level of interest in all election races.
“Pay attention, look at what your candidates are saying. Look at their records,” he said.
The Forsyth County Tea Party plans to hold a debate for commission candidates at its April 16 meeting.