DENMARK — Most of this city’s voters are familiar with the candidates for mayor in the Feb. 12 municipal election, which pits a native son who has been extensively involved in the community against a New York native who says she cleaned up a financial mess as the city’s administrator.
Incumbent Mayor Dr. Gerald E. Wright is being challenged by Patricia Anduze in Tuesday’s municipal election. Polling places are the Brooker Center for town residents in the East Denmark precinct and the Old Train Depot for town residents in the West Denmark precinct.
Denmark City Council members Jake N. Bookard Sr., James Robinson and Bonnie Love are unopposed for re-election, so their names will not appear on the ballot.
Anduze said she and her husband first came to Denmark to visit relatives, and “we just decided it would be a nice place to retire,” so they bought a house. Both worked in government financial positions that took them from Washington to Orangeburg to Florida and back.
“I wound up being the city administrator for Denmark for almost two years,” she said. “Nobody knew exactly what the finances were. I went in to clean things up, find out where the city stood financially and move the city forward. The city had not been paying its bills and owed a lot of money. It really was a mess. “
“We had a great staff, very diligent, and we turned things around in the city,” Anduze said. “We had debts of $3 million or $4 million at one point and reduced that to a little less than $500,000. My background in government finances was a benefit to the city.”
After doing a cost analysis, Anduze switched trash collection from a contractor to an in-house operation, saving money and creating jobs locally, she says. “We worked very hard to get crime reduced and we were successful,” she added.
She said she lined up grant money for a city park, but after she left to take a job in Florida, “they put the park in a place that used to be a garbage dump and named it after the former mayor who had been indicted.” The former mayor’s legal problems were an “embarrassment” to the city, Anduze said, adding, “I know Mr. Wright is not responsible for what another mayor did, notwithstanding it was his sister.”
Anduze returned to Denmark in 2006 and decided she “needed to get involved in the city again.”
“People are always complaining about the water,” she said. State health officials “determined our drinking water was basically unacceptable, and that’s extremely scary.” The city was fined — and then fined again — “for not making corrective actions over an adequate length of time.”
“Notwithstanding the fact they can’t drink the water, people’s bills are out of this world,” Anduze continued. “The pipes are so old, any pressure will break them. Ten years ago, the meters were so old, you couldn’t even calibrate them correctly, and I don’t think they have replaced any of them. They just repair them and install them somewhere else.”
“We don’t get a lot of information out of City Hall,” she said. “It’s almost a closed-door policy. Two weeks ago, I called and asked for a copy of the latest audit and they told me I had to pay $10.25. I went in and paid the money. They gave me an audit for 2011. I had asked for the latest audit. I called back. He said, ‘Yes, we have a new audit.’ I was livid!”
“I’ve talked to so many people, and they all feel their concerns are falling on deaf ears. They think no elected officials care about them. They are so disillusioned. They’ve given up hope,” she said. “I want to make sure our residents have a voice that is not only heard, but acted upon. It is not a privilege but a right for them to expect good and responsive government.”
Anduze said Wright “is a very nice person, but I just don’t think he’s what the city needs right now. They need me, to be asserting, to utilize the tools ... to make sure everybody you are overseeing is well taken care of. You’re taking their tax dollars and there is a lot of responsibility.”
A lifelong resident of Denmark, Wright held teaching and administrative positions with the local school district for 35 years.
In 1975 he became the first black elected to public office in Denmark and Bamberg County. He served on city council from 1975 until 1992, when he was named superintendent of schools. He served on a committee that helped conceive the annual Dogwood Festival.
After retiring from the school district, Wright was encouraged to seek a council seat and served from 2003 until 2009, when the incumbent mayor decided not to seek re-election.
He said his “knowledge of the people” in Denmark and his experiences on council and in the school district prepared him for success as mayor.
In Wright’s first term, the city annexed Voorhees College and Denmark Technical College. He said the city was already providing essential services to the colleges and might as well get the increased federal funds that are allocated by population. And individual property owners in the area saw their utility bills cut in half when they came into the town, he added.
Wright is proud that “we haven’t raised property taxes and our fund balance has grown a little” despite tough economic times.
City officials are “open” with public documents, he said, noting, “We’re familiar with the Freedom of Information Act and don’t try to violate it in any way.” He said the city charges a nominal 25 cents a page for copies of public documents that are readily accessible.
Wright acknowledged that the city has not “addressed water issues as quickly” as state officials wanted, but “we cooperate with” them and “we’ve never been told the water was unfit to drink. At no time have we had to discontinue water distribution because the water was of poor quality.”
At one point, contaminants were found in two of the town’s four wells, Wright said. Those two wells were taken out of service and water was purchased from the City of Bamberg via a pipeline between the cities. That arrangement ended after Denmark put two new wells into service, Wright said.
“We got a lot of flak” for raising water rates, but “we had to do that to borrow the money we needed” to improve the water system, Wright said. “They require you to show that you can generate sufficient funds to pay back what you borrow.”
Denmark has replaced aging water hydrants and begun replacing water pipes during his first term, Wright said.
“We are as vibrant as any little town and we’re going to try to maintain that,” he said. “Ride through and compare our downtown area with any other. Our storefronts are not empty.” In fact, new businesses are coming to town and so are new industries, such as Masonite, he noted. And the city has a new library, he added.
“We have activity, and that’s encouraging,” Wright said.
“We’ve got a lot of work to be done, I don’t kid myself about that,” he said. “But my council is very supportive. All of the current council members have endorsed me. And I’m going to do the best I can for Denmark, because that’s where I plan to stay.
“I’ve had opportunities to leave, but I chose to stay because I care about Denmark.”
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