Butterfield: ‘I have an affection for Henderson’

Rep. G.K. Butterfield speaks at Uptown Rose on Thursday.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield delivered the following remarks during lunch at the Uptown Rose restaurant in downtown Henderson on Thursday:

Thank you very much for inviting us up to take the tour today and just fellowship with you and see firsthand what the issues are in Henderson and Vance County.

First let me apologize to you. I’ve been suffering from a head cold all week, and I’m on medication, but I think I can get through this just fine.

We’re on our district work tour this week. Congress is not in session. All of us have returned to our home districts, and all of my colleagues are doing the same thing we’re doing this week. We’re having a series of town-hall meetings across the district dealing with the Social Security issue, and we’re also touring schools in the district. I think we have five or six schools that we’re visiting this week, and it’s a good week. I’ve been on the road now since Monday morning, but it’s very productive, and it’s good to see the people.

As all of you know, members of Congress are elected every two years, and there’s a reason for that. The Founding Fathers envisioned that members of the House would stay close to the people. Senators are six years, members of the House every two years. And so it keeps us very close to the people, and rightfully so. But it’s good to be here, and I bring you greetings from the 109th Congress.

We have a lot of challenges in Washington. The president has indicated that his No. 1 legislative item during the 109th Congress is going to be Social Security reform, and that’s going to be a very contentious debate. We in the Democratic Caucus feel that Social Security is rather safe, relatively safe, that it faces a long-term challenge, but by no means is it anywhere near bankrupt. Right now we have more money coming into the trust fund than we have going out, and there is a surplus in the Social Security trust fund as we speak. Next year there will be a surplus, and the following year there will be a surplus. The problem is that the baby-boom generation, of which I am a part and some of you may be apart, we’re going to start retiring in the next few years, and that’s going to cause a drain on the Social Security trust fund, plus many of us are living longer and longer. The average age is now greater than it was 30 years ago, and so the trust fund is facing some challenges. We’re going to have to sit down in a bipartisan manner and work out these problems. But to change the system from a system that our people are accustomed to, a predictable, reliable Social Security system, to a system of privatization is going to stir up a lot of debate. Let me just leave it with that. So stay tuned for this great debate.

The president has proposed his budget. He unveiled his ’07 budget on Feb. 7, and it’s a budget that some of you may be familiar with because it’s going to impact the city of Henderson in a great way. I brought with me today the Democratic summary of the budget. If any of you want to know any of the details about the budget, I think we can give you some answers. But the president’s budget is not going to be good for rural America. And I am concerned about that. I am particularly concerned about the Community Development Block Grant elimination. That will particularly hurt us here in eastern North Carolina. So stay tuned with respect to the debate on the budget.

We have an ’06 budget that is $427 billion out of balance, and that’s problematic. We ended last fiscal year with a $350 billion deficit, so we have some great challenges. The national debt is now up to $8.2 trillion, and we have two wars that are ongoing, and we have the war against terrorism that’s ongoing, so we have a lot of challenges in this country, and we’re going to have to deal with all of that when we go back to Washington.

I say all of that to say, this is a representative democracy. I am not an autocratic congressman. I don’t make all the decisions. I want to have your input. So as we go along, I want to invite you to participate in the decision-making and the development of public policy as it affects eastern North Carolina.

But it’s good to be here today and to see the work that you’re doing in this community and what your dreams are in this community. And I want to say to you that I want to continue to be part of this effort. There are so many similarities between Henderson and Wilson. We took an extended tour this morning, toured your community, and I hate to say this to you, but there were no surprises. I grew up in a small community that was just like Henderson. Glen (Allen) knows it very well. There’s so many similarities, so I can just see my hometown as we drove. I know the challenges you face. You don’t have the tax base that will support all of the programs that need to be started in this community. So you’re going to need some help. You’re going to need some help from the private sector. You’re going to need help from the state government and in turn from the federal government. And to the extent that I can and want to pledge to you that I will do my part as your elected representative to begin to bring you the resources into Henderson. I tell my staff often, they get tired of me saying this, but this job is about bringing resources to the people who need them. Certainly ribbon cuttings are fine and funeral appearances are fine and those sorts of things, they have their place, by all means. But the name of this game is for congressmen to bring resources to the people. And I understand that. I’m old veteran at public service, and I want you to understand, to know, that I understand my job description, I understand it well, and my staff understands it. We have lot of constraints that we have to work within in Washington, and the more seniority I get in Washington, the more effective I can become.

When I first went a few months ago, I was No. 435 out of 435. And then Porter Goss went over to the CIA, and I become No. 434. That was a great day in my life. And then we had an election, and I moved to 395. And then Bob Matsui of California died unexpectedly, and I moved to 394. So I’m No. 394 out 435. I have two very good committee assignments, I’m proud to report to you. I serve on the Agriculture Committee, which is important to North Carolina. But I’m also the newly appointed member of the Armed Services Committee. I did not think that we would be able to pull that off. It was a long shot when we got in the race, but we made it happen. And I am now on the Armed Services Committee and serve on the two most important subcommittees of Armed Services. And they are the subcommittee on tax, air and land forces. That handles military construction and housing. And I’m also on the readiness subcommittee, which handles base closings. And that’s going to be very important to North Carolina.

So I’m excited about my work and excited about what you are doing here in Henderson. I have an affection for Henderson. Some of you know this, Bernard (Alston) knows it, I told some of you earlier. When my dad came out of dental school many, many, many years ago, he set up a dental practice here in Henderson. He came out of dental school and didn’t have the money to go into dental practice, so he worked as a bellhop at the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel in Raleigh. And one day one of his old college professors saw him on the street and asked him what he was doing, and he told him he was a bellhop. And he said, “I thought you went to dental school.” And he said, “Well, I did go to dental school, but I don’t have the money to open a dental practice.” And the man told him that his brother was form Henderson. His name was Dr. Beckford. Dr. Beckford was on his death bed, and they needed a dentist in Henderson. And so my dad came to Henderson in the year 1927. So every time I see the Henderson city limit sign, I have very fond memories of the stories that my family told me about that.

But I have a lot of relationships in this community, so many relationships over the years, and it’s always good to be here.

Now in my hometown of Wilson, let me just close with this. I have been buying and selling real estate for 30 years. It’s something that I developed an interest in as a young lawyer. So for years and years and years I have bought real estate, fixed it up and sold it. Occasionally I would retain it and rent it out. But for the most part I would sell it. But several years ago the community of Wilson became pretty much like the community here in Henderson, and it became an unwise investment to invest in dilapidated housing. And so I stopped investing 10 years ago. I told my CPA I was getting out of the housing business, and we sold off everything that I had, and I was out of it. And then one day one of my real estate friends called me and told me that he had property right across the street from my church. And it was heir property; the heirs wanted to sell the property. He wanted to know if I wanted to buy, and I said, “How much?” And he said $125,000, and I said, “You’re crazy. I would not offer more than $25,000 for that property, I just wouldn’t do it.” And the next day he called back and said, “You got that $25,000?”

I bought the property, and there were four or five structures on the property. I think I tore down three of them and retained two. I went to the bank and borrowed money and fixed up these two structures, and now they’re income-producing properties. A few weeks later, the next-door neighbor called and wanted to know if I wanted to buy her property.

To make a long story short, I just continued, and I got back into the real estate business, and I have now acquired a million dollars’ worth of real estate in inner-city Wilson. Some of my friends have told me that I’m crazy to do this, but I have a long-range vision that it’s going to be a good investment for me, and it’s going to be good for the community.

The way I do it, having lived in Wilson all of my life, I know just about everybody. And I know families who have moved away and they own heir property, what we call heir property, back in the inner city. So Mom and Dad may have owned the property 30 years ago, Mom and Dad are deceased now, children living away in other cities, and many of them don’t speak to each other, OK? I mean, there’s inner-family politics, and Bernard knows what I’m talking about. I’m sure you’ve had clients like that. They don’t even speak to each other, and usually one person may collect the rent and pay the taxes or pay the insurance, and once a year they send a check out to the remaining heirs. In so many cases, the heirs want to get out of that arrangement. They live in New York City, they have no intention of moving back South. They want whatever they can get out of the property, and they want to close that chapter. In North Carolina, you can buy fractional interest in property. A lot of people don’t realize that. People think you have to buy the whole thing or not at all. But if a person owns a one-24th interest in a piece of real estate, you can buy that one-24th interest, and then you can become an owner of the property, and then you can partition property, and either have it divided or have it sold. And that’s a technique that I have used over the years, and I’ve used it very effectively. You don’t have to get all of the interest. You go in and you buy fractional shares, and then you go to the other heirs and try to use your leverage to get their interest. You may call the others and say, “Look, I’ve bought your sister and brother’s share, are you willing to sell your share?” And you can negotiate with them. And if they say no, you can continue to own the property jointly with them, or you can force it to be sold.

Putting that in the local context, I want to challenge you here in Henderson to become more aggressive and tear down these properties and clear this blight. You have the power to do it under the law. Use your powers that you have under Chapter 168. Put these property owners on notice. If you don’t fix the property up, we’re going to tear it down. And follow through with what you plan to do. Tear those properties down.

You might even try to get some demolition companies to give you credit. Tear the property down with the promise to them that in 180 days they will be paid. That will give you a window of opportunity, first to go to the property owner to get it paid, which is not likely to bear fruit. But then you can attach a lien on the property and foreclose on the lien. Within six months you can have the property sold, you can pay the demolition, and the balance, if any, can go to property owner. And hopefully in the meantime you could then develop a 501(c)3 or some nonprofit, exempt organization that would bid on these properties and buy these properties in. And hopefully in a matter of time you’ll have your city cleaned up and have some clear land.

That’s just an idea. But the law is one the books, and you can clear these structures if you just exercise the muscle that you have as a municipality. And I know it’s not pleasant sometimes to do that, but it must be done.

So thank you very much for having me today. I pledge to you that I’m an ally in your work, a natural ally, because I understand the importance of what you’re doing. So once again, thank you very much.