Stewart, Smith Clash in NVCC, PW Chamber Chairman’s Debate

| October 5, 2015 | 0 Comments | News
(L-R) Incumbent Chairman Corey Stewart (R) faces off against opponent Rick Smith (D) at Northern Virginia Community College, Manassas campus, Thursday.

(L-R) Incumbent Chairman Corey Stewart (R) faces off against opponent Rick Smith (D) at Northern Virginia Community College, Manassas campus, Thursday.

Corey Stewart (R) celebrated his victories as Chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, while Rick Smith (D) said Stewart had further to go to make the county business-friendly, safe and pro-education at the Chairman’s Debate hosted by the Prince William Chamber of Commerce and Northern Virginia Community College, Thursday in Manassas.

In line with the interests of the two groups holding the debate, the conversation focused on economics and educational opportunities in the county, especially higher education.

Economics: Attracting Businesses

Rick Smith began the debate by saying that Prince William County will attract more businesses once the county makes it easier for businesses to move into the county. He said that businesses want to see great schools, less traffic and more police officers.

Stewart agreed. He said his board has increased the quality of life in the county by building schools, libraries and more roads than any other jurisdiction in the state. “Nobody’s even close to second.”

Smith rebutted that Stewart spent money on transportation but should have spent more on police and education. He also said the BPOL tax is a drag on Prince William. It means that Prince William losses out to Stafford County.

However, later in the debate, Stewart said that Stafford never actually collected a BPOL tax. Prince William’s brings in $23 million a year, so it cannot just be eliminated without significantly raising residential taxes. Stewart said the board is working to incrementally phase out the BPOL tax, so it affects fewer businesses each year. 

Economics: Zoning Obstacles

When an audience member said that upon starting a business in Prince William, getting through zoning regulations took months, Smith said “this is the story that I’m constantly hearing. We do have to make major policy changes.” Smith said the county government needs to be run like a business, and he would make the process of opening a business much easier.

Corey Stewart said he already made major changes to how Prince William does business. At the beginning of his term he got business owners together with county staff to talk about how to improve their zoning policies. “They came up with specific changes,” Stewart said. As a result, the county created the Department of Development Services a “one-stop shop,” and also created a business liaison to help guide business owners through the process. Stewart says he is willing to foster more improvements.

Economics: Innovation Park

On how to better serve Innovation Park, the largest research business park on the east coast, Rick Smith said he has made a career of IT, thus he knows how to bring more IT and scientific companies to Prince William. He also wants to raise the average salary for Prince William workers, which he says is $46,000/year.

Corey Stewart said that those who live and work in Prince William have grown under his leadership. Now only 59 percent of the work force leaves the county, whereas it was 66 percent. However, Smith disputed those numbers. Stewarts also said that phasing out the BPOL tax will also bring in more companies, and he noted VenTech Solutions just moved into the county.

Smith said we are still losing businesses to Stafford, and Prince William could invest in better public transportation as well such as PRTC buses.

Land-Use: Preserving the Rural Crescent

Both candidates said they want to preserve the Rural Crescent but they also want to look at different ways to slowly open it up to new development while working alongside residents in their decision making.

“I am a big proponent of the Rural Crescent,” Smith said. Nonetheless, he said he read the study done on the rural area.“It had some great ideas,” said Smith. “I think those ideas need to be fully discussed.” He added that if there were any changes made to the Rural Crescent, “I would work with land owners.”

Stewart said the Rural Crescent was a county designation in the late 90s to make sure that other areas were developed first. “We all want to preserve open spaces,” he said, “but ten acres is too large to mow and too small to farm.” He said he is not suggested Prince William do away with the Rural Crescent but he does like the idea of clustering homes together and leaving bigger open spaces for farming and open space.

Education: Career Preparedness

On how to prepare students for careers, Stewart said he has worked with state Sen. Chuck Colgan in building a NOVA training center. He said it is important for not only young students but also adults changing careers. “Not so long ago you could live with that one career for the rest of your life, that’s not going to be the case going forward,” Stewart said.

Stewart also said that the public schools have the Spark program in which they partner with business professionals. He said students are “inspired more by the things that are happening in reality.”

Smith said “not every child is best served going to a four-year university right out of high school.”He said he would work for CTE on the K-12 level.

He believes the school board is leaving too much money on the table where it could be getting matching dollars from Richmond and Washington. One example is that they do not fund PreK education even though they could get matching funds to help with that program.

Education: Supporting Higher Education

Both Stewart and Smith thought that the Board of County Supervisors had a role to play in higher education.

Stewart said his board has been actively working with Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University. He also praised Prince William public schools, especially their specialty programs. He said his board has “begun to turn the corner” and is now working with the School Board to reduce class sizes.

Smith said he is committed to supporting teachers, which is the reason he has the support of the PWEA and the Prince William Federation of Teachers.

He said he sees what county can accomplish when working with the universities, such as the Hylton Performing Arts Center and he said the county needs to nurture those partnerships.

Stewart said that businesses want to locate near institutes of higher learning which is how they attracted a new IT firm to the county.

Education: Diversity

Prince William is now the first majority minority county in Virginia. When asked how we can better help our diverse population, Stewart said, “as we become more diverse, we become better educated. Our scores are going up, not down.”

Smith said that high class sizes are an impediment to learning, so it is really important that the schools reduce class sizes and that they start with the middle schools.

Stewart responded that “children are inspired by different things. It’s not just one-size fits all. That is why we have our specialty programs,” he said.

An audience member later commented that Stewart did not really answer the question. However, Stewart said he would not single out a certain group, but believes that children are individuals and that the specialty programs serve all students.

Policing & Community Relations: Immigration

Stewart took some heat for his illegal immigration policy. One audience member asked how do you integrate immigrants into the community?

Stewart said his policy was specifically aimed at those committing crimes. He says now they only run citizenship background checks for those committing arrestable offenses, and they do it for everyone so not to racially profile.

Rick Smith said, “What happened in our community lead by Chairman Stewart was atrocious…It destroyed our reputation.”

Smith believes it affected home values, negatively affected Prince William’s ability to attract businesses and “most importantly, it hurt real people.”

Closing Statements

In his closing statement, Stewart said that he has proven that he is a leader that can cooperate and get things accomplished. He said a leader needs to be able to change and grow, and he has done that too. He said people move to Prince William County because of our education system and that “We are on the edge of a gilded age for our community.”

Smith said Stewart cannot just take credit for Prince William’s successes, he also needs to accept responsibility for the county’s unsolved problems. “I know we can do better; we have to do better.” For Smith doing better means hiring more police officers, reducing class sizes and attracting more businesses to the county. Smith said the chairman’s position is not a stepping stone, and he wants the community to hold him accountable.

“I am not going to want to look you all in the eye and say I failed you; I failed your children” Smith said. 

A Look at the Debate

The debate was quick moving, and focused, but the winner varied depending upon whom you asked.  Stewarts answers were eloquent and confident, still a majority of the audience, judging by their applause, sided with Smith.

One group of female friends Bristow Beat spoke with were solidly in favor of Smith’s candidacy. Prince William residents and former Fairfax County educators, they believed that Stewart harmed the county’s reputation with his immigration policy.

Rima Vesilind  said that as a Fairfax principal, she was always able to attract very good Prince William teachers since her county paid better than Prince William.

Laura Feld of Lake Ridge said PWCS was “working miracles with pennies.”

Both women said they wished the debate had focused more on K-12 education and also the reason there had been so much residential development since the 1990s when the business development would have been preferable and was even recommended by county staff.

However another woman, Jen Jones, Director of Red Leash: Therapy and Assistant Dogs, and Alpha Pets, said she was squarely in Corey Stewart’s camp. Most recently she said she was happy to hear that Stewart was recommended the building of a new animal shelter. The current shelter is 40 years old, and according to Jones quite “dilapidated.”

Jones said she agreed with Stewart, when during the debate, he answered that he would not do anything different to educate minority kids then he would all students.

© 2015, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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