It's a three-man race for mayor in Mt. Pleasant this election season and the decision might be difficult for residents concerned about traffic, roads, and the tangle of quality-of-life issues facing their ever-expanding municipality.
According to Mt. Pleasant's election rules, a candidate needs a plurality to win on Nov. 3, so there will be no runoff.
This year, all three candidates — Joe Bustos, Gary Santos, and Billy Swails — are natives of the town who've spent most of their lives working within the community. All three have served multiple terms on Town Council, and they all place traffic, revitalization projects, and revenue as major concerns.
Bustos is a retired lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Army, who has served on the town council since 2000. Swails owns an insurance business, and he was elected to Mt. Pleasant Town Council in 2006 after having served two terms on council several years ago. A port manager with Inchcape Shipping Services and a longtime local coach, Santos has served on town council since 1996.
While some of their positions on the main issues are similar, there are a few disagreements over growth and expansion.
"I feel like the town has become a little disconnected from the residents of Mt. Pleasant," says Bustos. "But I'm going door-to-door, and I've been putting my face in front of them, hearing the good, the bad, and the ugly."
Well-mannered, amiable, and soft-spoken, Bustos seems more scholarly and formal than most small-town politicians.
"We are no longer a small Southern town," he says. "I can tell you, we have citizens who are well educated and sophisticated, and they know what's going on. I think the little wink and nod and saying, 'Trust me,' doesn't work any more."
As part of his mayoral campaign, Bustos has sent out numerous surveys and personally visited over 3,000 houses.
"I've found that the residents put traffic as the top concern," he says. "The candidates know that the income stream that is beginning to shrink is the most important thing, because they can see where that's going to be a problem in the foreseeable future."
Along with maintaining the financial health, the services, and the personality of the town, Bustos promotes the idea of "business incubators," in which several small compatible businesses collaborate on renting a common space with utilities and expenses.
"We have a lot of empty storefronts," he says. "We need to create an environment so that the banks will work with us and extend credit to those who want to start a business and create jobs. We need to create an environment where they not only can start, but can thrive."
Serving on council for 13 years, Gary Santos has been a staunch advocate of recreation.
In addition to the traffic issues and road projects, Santos continues to champion an extensive recreation system for all ages, partly for general wellness among kids, adults, and seniors, and partly as a crime deterrent.
"I want to get more programs with the recreation department — concentrating on physical fitness and agility for kids and seniors. I've always believed that if you put your energy and resources into the kids, you don't have to hire more police and build more jails. I'm not saying we don't have crime — we do — but our kids are busy and our kids are involved.
"I'm an old football coach, and I've been very successful at taking a group of people, molding them together as a team, and being state champions," Santos adds. "I'll bring that same process and mindset to the council as the mayor. I'd get them together and handle town business as a team."
Billy Swails served two terms on Town Council from 1976-1984, when the town was less than half the size it is now (in land space and in population). He returned to council in 2006.
"We had two revenue sources — property taxes and business licences," he says of the time of his first two terms. "Now we have about 15 different revenue streams with 67,000 citizens. In some ways [the financial situation] is easier, but mostly it's more complex now."
All three mayoral candidates view development plans outside of city limits in areas like Awendaw as one of Mt. Pleasant's greatest forthcoming challenges.
"All those folks in Awendaw are going to come through the town of Mt. Pleasant," Swails says.
His campaign's central themes are financial, acknowledging that the economic reality is changing and resources are dwindling.
"We have to get our financial house in order. We can't be all things to all people, but we have to make sure that our essential services are taken care of."
Swails considers all of the current road projects to be top priorities and major economic engines.
"I promote economic development without sprawl," says Swails. "It's not a buzzword for me. We don't need to populate things that we don't have the infrastructure for."