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Wednesday, 16 April 2014 13:22

Are Haywood commissioners big spenders, or doing the best they can?

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Property taxes have emerged as a top issue in the Democratic primary for Haywood County commissioner candidates.

The three sitting commissioners running for re-election say the property tax platform of their challengers is a predictable one. Pledging to lower taxes is a tried-and-true campaign formula and borrows familiar lines from the national rhetoric. But the shoe doesn’t fit, sitting commissioners say.

 

“We are a conservative board when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money,” said Commissioner Bill Upton, who is up for re-election. “It sounds good to cut government, but when you look at each department, are we going to send school teachers home? Are we going to send deputies home? Would you want less emergency vehicles on the highway if you had a wreck?” 

Commissioner Mike Sorrells said the view is much different once you’re sitting in the commissioner’s chair, especially given the recession.

“The challenges are always needing more revenue and trying to improve our services without new revenue. We had to really look at it hard and justify what we did,” Sorrells said. “We did a pretty dagum good job of doing that.”

“We always worry about spending money,” Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick added.

Kyle Edwards, a conservative Democrat running as a challenger, wants to lower property taxes. 

But he doesn’t necessarily want to cut the budget by cutting county jobs. Instead, he wants to go after wasteful spending. When asked for examples, Edwards hesitated.

“I know some, but I don’t want to say until after the election,” Edwards said.

Commissioners claim there isn’t any wasteful spending, and if there is, to please come forward and point it out.

“If somebody can find some wasteful spending we need to know where it is, because that’s money we could use,” Upton said. “But we hadn’t found it yet.”

“They would have a heck of a time finding any,” added Sorrells. “We already looked for all of that.”

 

Been there, done that

The three commissioners cited budget cuts the county already made during the recession. The county budget is $68.7

 million this year, compared to $70.2 million five years ago — despite an increase in the unavoidable cost of doing business, from health benefits for employees to gas to food for jail inmates.

“I really believe we are at bare bones,” Upton said. “We have continued to consolidate functions if possible. We have moved down from a wish list in the past to a needs-list now.”

“We have streamlined government where we could streamline it,” Sorrells added. “We went through each department and looked for cost savings.”

Cuts were big and small. Even the annual Christmas breakfast for employees was killed out.

“That was a big deal to the employees, but we completely did away with it because of the expense,” Kirkpatrick said.

The county also wholesale cut its funding to nonprofits: from domestic violence and child abuse agencies to Folkmoot International Festival and the Haywood Arts Council.

It’s been hard to cut off support for worthwhile community endeavors, but the recession took its toll on the county, Kirkpatrick said. The commissioners have gotten good at saying no. The county was recently posed with a $25,000 grant request from Haywood Arts Regional Theater to help build a second stage.

“It is a very good cause and an economic boost to the community. But if we have said we aren’t funding nonprofits, that poses a problem,” Kirkpatrick said.

County Manager Ira Dove echoed the open invitation to ferret out wasteful spending.

“For years we have been looking at everything that was waste. Nobody wants wasteful spending,” Dove said.

Unfortunately, most of the county’s budget goes to things that aren’t optional: schools, jails and court, mandatory social service programs, emergency management.

There’s very little flexibility left in the budget to whittle down, he said. Dove listed a few final pillars of so-called discretionary spending: libraries, recreation, Meals on Wheels, Haywood Transit, the senior resource center, economic development.

Cutting these any further would reduce them to skeletons or render them obsolete, Dove said.

“That is where we are at as a county,” Dove said.

The decision is a philosophical one, Kirkpatrick said.

“You have to figure out in government what services you are going to provide,” Kirkpatrick said.

He cited recreation, one of those optional budget areas he is a fan of.

“Can you go out there and tell your kid to run up and down the street? Well, sure you can. But that’s more of a benefit to the community. It is a quality of life issue,” Kirkpatrick said of recreation.

Bob McClure, a challenger in the Democratic primary, wants to trim the budget, too, although it’s not his number one platform.

“I feel like as a county the spending should be limited to what is coming in. Some of this stuff seems like we are overspending,” McClure said.

But he admits he doesn’t know where the budget could be cut, and said that’s the hard part about being a challenger.

“The ones in there have very much an advantage to the ones that are outside running,” McClure said. “Not setting in the meetings with them, I would be at a loss to say they are not doing this or not doing that.”

He said he would need to get in there to really see what could be cut.

“I know what a working person does, and I know how important it is, the salaries that we make, we have to live on those salaries. If we make $1,000 we have to live on $1,000,” McClure said.

 

Brass tacks

But it isn’t that easy, Kirkpatrick said. As the longest-serving commissioner on the board — 12 years — he’s seen other newly elected commissioners show up on the scene with hopes of trimming the budget.

“When they actually get into this position and they have to look at the budget, they look at what the county is required to run, and they say ‘Wait a second. I thought I was going to come in here and find a bunch of fat to cut,’” Kirkpatrick said.

Wendy McKinney, the Libertarian candidate running for commissioner, said she would have no problem finding areas in the budget to cut.

“As a Libertarian I believe in smaller government. We believe in a lot less spending and a lot less taxation in general. There are a lot of things I think are excess,” McKinney said.

McClure disagrees with one area that’s been cut, however. County employees need better pay and better benefits, he said. He said county employees have had to pick up such a big share of health insurance costs for family members, he doesn’t know how an average county employee could afford it if they were the sole breadwinner in their house.

“You would have to decide whether your family goes on insurance or your family has groceries that go on the table,” McClure said. “I know times have been hard, but we still need to take care of the employees.”

Regardless of what to cut, Edwards said, something has to give.

“There’s a lot of families that can’t pay the taxes,” Edwards said.

Edwards knows the plight of the working poor. He grew up dirt poor himself. His dad died when he was young, and his mom scraped together a living running a country store in Maggie Valley. He was sent to live with his grandparents at one point because his mother couldn’t afford to feed him and his two siblings.

“We picked up drink bottles, penny a piece, get 11 of them to go to the movies. We were just trying to survive. I appreciate things a lot more, having lived that way,” Edwards said.

One thing he doesn’t appreciate, however, is his property tax bill.

“I pay $900 a week in property taxes,” Edwards said.

Edwards pulled out copies of last year’s tax checks to prove it — $35,000 to Haywood County and $10,000 to the town of Maggie Valley.

But Edwards is likewise a big property owner. He owns a large commercial campground, several rental homes and a clogging entertainment venue, the Stompin’ Ground.

He also has several tracts of raw land, some of which he uses as borrow or fill sites for his grading and excavating business and others he’s bought on speculation as investments.

Edwards applied for a seat on the county’s board of equalization and review, which rules on appeals from property taxpayers who disagree with their property tax assessment.

But commissioners, who appoint the property tax appeal board, rejected him.

“I was certainly upset about them not giving me one vote. I wanted a voice over the taxes,” Edwards said.

Expect property taxes to take center stage in the general election for Haywood commissioners come fall. This is a top issue for Denny King, a Republican candidate, who has challenged the fairness of property values under the county’s appraisal system — values which in turn determine taxes.

“I believe there are issues with our property tax system in Haywood County,” King said in a written statement. “We must ensure all property owners have uniform property assessments.”

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