John Gardner of York said he likely won’t know which candidate he’ll vote for in the race for York County Council’s District 3 until he casts his ballot on Tuesday.
He’s friends with both Joe Cox and Steve McNeely, who will face off in a rematch for the seat representing the county’s largest, westernmost district – a seat McNeely held before Cox unseated him.
Either would do a good job, Gardner said, but McNeely, a lifelong York resident, is more “polished” on economic development and would likely be a better business recruiter.
Cox, a Sharon Town Councilman and former Sharon mayor, “is a down-to-earth person that speaks from his heart,” Gardner said. “He’ll be fair and honest.”
The candidates’ differences emerged Thursday in York, where the Republicans held their only debate before the June 12 primary. Several dozen people packed a small exercise room at the York Recreation Center.
Asked their stances on taxes and the size of government, McNeely, County Council chairman from 2002 to 2006, said he supports less of both. The government shouldn’t infringe on people’s or businesses’ rights, he said.
Cox, who served from 2006 to 2010, pointed out the difficult decisions council members face. Some taxes, such as the county’s Pennies for Progress 1-cent sales tax, are positive because the people support them, he said, but others he would like to reduce, such as the taxpayer money going into the county museums.
“We’re a representative of you,” he said. “We have to be cautious about what we put on the books.”
A clear distinction between the candidates arose over whether they would support a gas tax.
A gas tax would provide for a maintenance program for fixing roads, clearing ditches and mowing grass, Cox said, adding that “everyone complains” about the roadways now.
But instead of “imposing” a gas tax on county residents, Cox said, he would “put it to the voters.”
But McNeely said York County voters already pay their “fair share” for road improvements.
The candidates’ spending records while on council also came up, when Michael Bradham, a Sharon volunteer firefighter and Cox supporter, asked why McNeely’s spending while on council was greater than Cox’s.
McNeely’s travel and training expenses while on council totaled more than $13,921, while Cox’s totaled $1,228, according to a report from the county manager’s office.
McNeely said he took several trips to Washington, D.C., lobbying for federal money and helped secure millions for York County that have translated into hundreds of jobs, he said. McNeely, who was chairman during his travels, said having “face-to-face” meetings with potential businesses and investors was his duty as chairman.
“The $13,000 that you invested in me was beneficial,” he said.
But Cox questioned McNeely’s use of taxpayer money on the trips. Cox said if he returns to office, he wouldn’t need to go to Washington to meet with U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land.
“Guys, I’ve got a cellphone,” Cox said. “I make phone calls. Let’s do it cheap. I don’t think I’m going to go get a hotel on you, period.”
If he believes a trip is a real benefit for the county, Cox said, he’ll pay for it himself.
McNeely’s willingness to spend money on traveling went over better with some voters than others.
Myra Strickland, a real estate agent working in York County, said she didn’t know who she would support before the debate, but after it, she said she’d likely vote for McNeely, who she said appeared ready to recruit businesses.
“We need more jobs in York County,” she said. “We don’t have enough development.”
For Gardner, it may come down not to who will best bring businesses, but who has more solid moral grounds, a quality he’s looking for after incumbent Eric Winstead’s two arrests since taking office.
“I’m tired of voting for people and them embarrassing us,” Gardner said.