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In Cary, Middle America, some taxing questions 

Friendly, handsome, Ernie McAlister sure looks the part of fair Cary's next mayor. And it's certainly no surprise, listening to him promise to "stop Cary's out-of-control spending," that he's a former Chamber of Commerce chair, Rotary Club board, Boy Scout, all of that. What is surprising is that he's a banker. (Or was--he's currently retired, at 46!) Because it's hard to see Ernie, who smiles so easily, stamping "No Loan" on your application. But that's what his campaign is about.

McAlister, up against Town Councilor Julie Robison in the mayoral runoff Nov. 4, insists that Cary has taken on too much debt in the last four years, or since Glen Lang's been mayor. (Lang missed the runoff two weeks ago, finishing third). The town's debt has jumped up from about $13 million in the 2000 fiscal year to $111 million in FY 2004, with debt service--the payments, that is--going from $1.6 million annually to about $12 million.

This, McAlister argues, is like someone with a $2,500 a month mortgage payment suddenly refinancing into a $19,000 a month mortgage.

Let's pause here, before we say what we think of this, for a nice word about Cary elections, especially the role of the League of Women Voters and Cary's public access television operation--Channel 11 for you Cary cable subscribers. McAlister and Robison debated each other for an hour last week in Town Hall, answering questions sent in by actual residents and vetted by a LWV committee ("Bill Hickey, of Hickory Wood Boulevard, asks ..."). Their debate is aired daily, along with one between at-large Council candidates Harold Weinbrecht and Michael Joyce, also in a runoff; has a link to the schedule.

Tune in yourself, and see how embarrassed McAlister is to be making this argument, so much so that he's compelled, as a banker if not as a Republican, to state first his "healthy respect for debt." Nonetheless, he goes on to say that if Cary keeps it up, the town's AAA bond rating will be in jeopardy.

This being Cary, and Democrat Robison being--let's face it--a bit of a wonk, her comeback was that the AAA rating is in no jeopardy whatsoever: "We are well within the reasonable parameters." (The 44-year old Robison's specialty, at the nonprofit Triangle Research Institute, is local government planning and policy analysis. Later in the debate, her Irish up, Robison charged that "there is not an appropriate understanding on the part of my opponent about these numbers." In Cary, them's fightin' words.)


The envelope, please: Cary is worth $11.27 billion, its total assessed value. Thus, $12 million a year for debt service is about 0.001 percent of that--one one-thousandth of total value. It would be more accurate. therefore, if McAlister said Cary's recent borrowing was like somebody who had a $25 mortgage payment and refinanced up to $190 a month--on a million-dollar house.

Pre-Lang, Cary was "pay as you go" for roads, parks, open space and other amenities that Robison and McAlister both say the town needs more of, not less. But just as "pay as you go" won't put you in that 4-BR Cary Colonial--unless you've already saved up $300,000 in cash--it won't buy Cary the "quality of life" everyone there is so keen for unless they're ready to jack the current tax rate up. Way up.

Cary's tax rate is 42 cents, which brings in $46 million a year in revenues. You do the math--how much higher would it be if, instead of borrowing, Cary'd paid out $98 million more in cash the last four years?

McAlister's right about this much--if Cary borrowed $25 million every year, at some point it would owe real money. But since, as Robison says, Cary owed no money to begin with, and was way behind on its roads, parks, etc., after two decades of frenetic growth, "we had a lot of catching up to do."


Hard-core, or Universal? By a 2-to-1 margin, Americans prefer a government-run, universal health-care system to the current employer-based system run by insurance companies. That startling finding is contained in a new ABC News-Washington Post poll the local press seems to be ignoring. Eight out of 10 of those polled say they'd pay higher taxes to guarantee health care to every American.

Democratic candidates who dare to talk about universal health care coverage are quickly dubbed "hard-core liberals" by defenders of the status quo, and this is considered the kiss of death for any respectable office-seeker.

Imagine our surprise, then, to hear Republican U.S. Senate candidate Richard Burr, asked by WUNC's Melinda Penkava if he is a hard-core conservative, answer that "the label is appropriate." Burr, a five-term congressman from Winston-Salem, went on to say that on every issue before the Congress, he is "right of center."

Assuming that the center is where most voters are, how do these avowed right-wingers keep getting themselves elected? And why are political candidates whose views are left-of-center so afraid to just say so? EndBlock

Contact Bob Geary at


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