In Morrisville, race for mayor gets heated

aramos@newsobserver.comNovember 1, 2013 

  • Morrisville mayoral candidates

    JACKIE HOLCOMBE

    Occupation: Former business owner.

    Education: Studied computer and information sciences at University of Florida.

    Family: Husband, two adult daughters.

    Website: www.ElectJackie.com

    NARENDRA SINGH

    Occupation: Professor and chairman of the chemistry department at Methodist University in Fayetteville.

    Education: Earned a doctoral degree in chemistry from Banaras Hindu University.

    Family: Wife, four daughters.

    Website: www.votedrsingh.com

    MARK STOHLMAN

    Occupation: Certified public accountant.

    Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration from American University; master’s degree in accounting from UNC Chapel Hill.

    Family: Wife, two children.

    Website: www.citizensforstohlman.com

— The two elected officials at the center of most of the divide on the Morrisville Town Council are facing off in a mayoral race.

Incumbent Mayor Jackie Holcombe is trying to keep her seat in Tuesday’s election, and she faces a challenge from Councilman Mark Stohlman.

Holcombe and Stohlman have found themselves on opposite sides of issues ranging from taxes to Northwest Park.

Political newcomer Narendra Singh also is vying for the mayor’s office.

The race has gotten heated, as gun-rights group Grass Roots North Carolina has funded attack ads against Holcombe.

The mayor has been an outspoken advocate for gun-control measures, and she is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Earlier this year, Holcombe asked Gander Mountain to stop selling semiautomatic assault rifles at its local store.

Stohlman accused Holcombe of overstepping her authority as mayor on the gun issue. She used town letterhead in her open letter to the Gander Mountain CEO, without consulting other council members.

Holcombe and Stohlman have also had different takes on how best to handle the town’s finances. Although both claim to be fiscal conservatives, they have supported increased spending or tax hikes.

The tension between Holcombe and Stohlman stretches back about five years. Holcombe co-founded grassroots group Morrisville Action after the Town Council, including Stohlman, considered a potential 19percent tax hike.

Holcombe went on to be elected mayor in 2009, the same year Stohlman lost his District 2 council seat. He later was elected again.

Holcombe has since left Morrisville Action, and the political action group is now endorsing Stohlman for mayor.

Morrisville now has the lowest taxes and fees of any Wake County municipality. The town also has a AAA bond rating, the smallest town in North Carolina to earn the financial designation that affects interest rates on borrowing.

“We have the best bond rating available,” Holcombe said. “We have an incredible and exemplary finance department. We have financial situations other towns dream about. We couldn’t be in more solid shape.”

In 2012, Holcombe voted against a proposed $24.3million town budget that called for a 10percent increase over the previous year. The mayor said the town was spending more than it was bringing in, and she suggested cutting expenses or raising property taxes by 2cents, which staff had recommended.

But Stohlman has had a different take on the town’s finances. Last year, he said the town’s revenue estimates were conservative and it was unlikely the town would need to dip into its fund balance, negating the need to raise taxes.

Ultimately, he was correct. The town’s most recent annual financial report showed the town has $1.1million in additional surplus funds.

“We knew that would happen when we set up a budget,” Stohlman said. “We have a really good track record. We don’t spend the fund balance if we don’t need to, and there has not been a need.

“That’s the main difference between Jackie and I. I’m a (certified public accountant) and I have a financial background. You know how to read budgets.”

Stohlman voted against the 2.35 cent property-tax increase over the summer. Most of the additional money will go toward the design of the N.C. 54 bypass. The remaining .35cent will be slated for regular road maintenance.

Stohlman said the .35cent was above the amount the town told voters was needed for last year’s voter-approved bond projects. He said town leaders could have cut costs elsewhere to make up for the money.

“We asked for an increase above and beyond; this roundup was arbitrary,” Stohlman said.

While Singh has not served in public office, he said he has experience working with budgets. He has served on the budget committee at Methodist University in Fayetteville, where he is chairman of the chemistry department.

Singh has also served on Morrisville’s Board of Adjustment for about five years. He said he was motivated to run for mayor because of the division on the Town Council.

“They were very polarized,” Singh said. “I bring very strong leadership and consensus building (skills).”

Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews

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