Haywood commissioner candidates debate merits of spendingWritten by Bibeka Shrestha
Taxes and spending in a recession economy have emerged as the top issue in the race for Haywood County commissioner this year.
Challengers vying for a seat on the board have jumped on the bandwagon of critics who have continually called into question county spending.
While county cut its budget dramatically in the face of the recession — from scaling back library hours to slashing public school maintenance —it wasn’t enough to avoid a small property tax hike last year.
As a result, commissioners caught flak for raising the tax rate by 1.7 cents amidst one of the worst recessions to strike the country. Critics claim the board is spending beyond taxpayers’ means.
But others criticized commissioners for making excessive cuts and slashing millions from the budget. Nonprofits in particular were hit hard after being completely dropped by the county.
“It’s something we had to do to reduce the tax burden on the people in the county,” said incumbent Kirk Kirkpatrick, adding that commissioners have cut the budget almost $9 million in the last four years — a 10 percent reduction. He anticipates the county board will have to make even more cuts over the next four years.
Democratic candidate Michael Sorrells said the commissioners could have reduced the budget further. “They cut the least painful things,” Sorrells said. “Well, now we’re going to have to look at the hard parts.”
But Upton says commissioners have already worked thoroughly and diligently to come up with the best possible budget. “[We] have put in many hours, most of it televised,” Upton said. “...I think this group has done an excellent job of balancing the budget and also listening to our citizens.”
Republican candidate Denny King disagreed. He pointed to big ticket items as the culprit: commissioners bought the abandoned Wal-Mart to replace crumbling DSS offices, expanded the landfill, bailed the Haywood County fairgrounds out of debt and tacitly signed off on a new Haywood Community College building.
“In my opinion the biggest thing that has caused taxes to go up is we are borrowing a lot of money. Every time we borrow money, budgets have to be cut or taxes have to be raised,” King said. “I think we will just really have to reduce the money we borrow on projects. If we don’t, the county services are going to have to continue to be cut and property taxes will have to continue to go up.”
Before tackling the budget, Republican David Bradley vows to communicate frequently with Western North Carolina’s delegation in Raleigh to underline the county’s needs. “Get more of a two-way conversation,” Bradley said. “Voice our concerns, not just carry out what’s dictated.”
With the recession likely to continue, Bradley said he would focus on diversifying the local economy. Tourism is always one of the hardest-hit industries during economic downturns, so Bradley wants to focus more on promoting emerging industries, like organic farming and technology-based business.
Meanwhile, Republican Tom Freeman said he would look at unconventional ways to save money, such as turning off the lights after hours at the historic courthouse and justice center. “I know it’s just lights, but it adds up,” Freeman said.
He would also keep employees from driving county vehicles home. If elected commissioner, Freeman would make unannounced visits to each department to see if all employees are being productive. “[Commissioners] need to go out and look, see what’s going on,” Freeman said.
The Wal-Mart debate
Earlier this year, commissioners decided to purchase the abandoned Wal-Mart in Clyde to house the Department of Social Services and Health department, both of which have long awaited moves from aging buildings. The project will cost taxpayers about $12.5 million.
This comes on top of the tens of millions dropped over the past eight years on the new justice center, a parking deck, a major school construction bond, and property on Jonathan Creek to house a future county sports complex — although not all the current commissioners were on the board at the time of these decisions.
So when the old Wal-Mart purchase came along, “it sure enough put everybody over the edge,” Bradley said.
But Kirkpatrick says that commissioners don’t spend money without thinking long and hard first.
“It’s always been tough for us to actually spend the money,” Kirkpatrick said. “We weigh the good for the county versus holding on to it.”
Incumbent Bill Upton points out that the Wal-Mart decision took commissioners two years. As the recession worsened, the property’s price became unbeatable — and no one else was picking it up.
“To me, it was our chance,” Upton said. “We couldn’t refuse.”
Even if the old DSS building were repaired, there would still be the issue of insufficient space, privacy and parking, Upton said.
While $12.5 million seems like a lot of money, constructing a building from scratch could have taken up to $30 million, Upton said. Repairing the crumbling former county hospital dating back to the 1920s and 1950s where DSS is currently housed would likewise be more expensive, commissioners asserted.
Kirkpatrick said buying the deserted Wal-Mart was a good move, considering the substantial cost of repairing and updating the old DSS headquarters, pressure from the state to bring the building up to code, and the county health building also being in disrepair.
“It also creates additional viability for stores in that area,” Kirkpatrick said, citing the gaping hole left in the strip mall when Wal-Mart pulled out.
Bradley said commissioners knew for years that the DSS building was in major disrepair, and they should have set up a separate fund to address the problem, which could have been used as a down payment on the old Wal-Mart.
Bradley said the purchase will be very beneficial in the long-term, but commissioners should have saved ahead of time.
Since funding sources are in place from the state and from a lease agreement with Tractor Supply, Sorrells, too, supports the Wal-Mart purchase.
“It was an inopportune time, but inopportune times bring opportunity,” Sorrells said. “...It appears to be a solid move.”
But Sorrells adds that some of the commissioners’ spending has addressed wants and not needs in some cases. He pointed to the million-dollar purchase of a 22-acre Jonathan Creek property for a future county sports complex.
“Should that property have been bought? Probably not,” said Sorrells.
Freeman opposes the Wal-Mart purchase. As a self-employed building contractor for 25 years, Freeman says there was nothing majorly wrong with the old hospital building. It needed “cosmetic work,” a new roof and handicapped access to bring it up to state codes.
“It could be renovated and brought up for less money than what the Wal-Mart building cost,” King said. King said he would have voted against buying the old Wal-Mart, but that ideally it would been sent to the people for a vote. “It is their money,” King said.
County commissioners are considering an overhaul of Haywood’s current trash operations. Earlier this year, they decided to shut down the recycling pick line, laying off employees who manually sorted recyclables. Instead the county now sells loads of recycling in bulk without being sorted first. Commissioners also privatized operation of the convenience centers, where county residents who don’t have curbside trash pick-up can drop off their garbage.
As part of the ongoing overhaul, some commissioners want to shut down the transfer station, where town and private haulers take their loads of trash rather than making the long trek to the White Oak landfill. Commissioners are also considering turning over landfill operations to a private company, including selling off space in the landfill.
Kirkpatrick said the next county board must continue examining the efficiency of the county’s trash operations. It’s become increasingly expensive for the county to comply with strict environmental standards and replace aging equipment, and commissioners must scour for savings.
“You have to continually analyze what’s going to be best for the whole,” Kirkpatrick said.
At this point, Kirkpatrick opposes closing the transfer station.
“I’ll have to be convinced otherwise, and I’m not saying I can’t be,” said Kirkpatrick, who wants to maintain an open dialogue with towns before making a final decision. “What we want to do is what’s cheapest and do what’s best.”
Sorrells said he has already been researching and visiting the solid waste department. While he hasn’t come to a conclusion yet on whether the transfer station should be closed or the landfill privatized, Sorrells said making trash operations more viable is essential.
“The users are probably going to have to pay its way in order to make it more efficient,” Sorrells said of the transfer station, should it remain open.
Shutting it down has drawn ire from towns and private haulers as a double-standard, since convenience centers used by residents out in the county would continue to be subsidized.
Upton is still undecided on which path to take. The issue is a complicated one, so he’s waiting on more information despite all the research that’s already been done. “I feel like I’m back in school,” Upton said. “I think the more we research, the more we study and the more we listen to people, the better decisions.”
Bradley said commissioners must be open-minded when tackling the trash problem. Private companies will have a knack for solid waste operations since that is their main focus. As of now, Bradley is also undecided on the transfer station.
Freeman is adamantly opposed to privatizing only parts of any county department or closing the transfer station. “That’s just running from the problem,” said Freeman, adding that the issue is one of proper management.
King said the county needs to study the issue more and that he doesn’t know enough yet to say what the right thing is.
Commissioners vs. HCC
For months, county commissioners were at odds with Haywood Community College over new construction and maintenance needs at the college. Commissioners eventually approved the $10.3 million professional crafts building after accusing HCC of overspending on a green design and showcase features. A quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters to fund new construction and expansions at HCC should be used responsibly, commissioners said.
Kirkpatrick said he and fellow commissioners asked the tough questions. Though he’s not “completely comfortable” with HCC moving ahead on its craft building, the college board of trustees unanimously stood by their recommendation that it be approved.
“I don’t think it’s my responsibility to usurp their responsibility as a board,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s their money.”
As a school board member for six years, Sorrells supports the community college’s pursuit of a craft building but questions putting so much of the quarter-cent sales tax proceeds in one basket.
Upton said it is “mighty tough” to vote against education. He felt better about the purchase after the HCC board of trustees came to a consensus. “I feel pleased that we moved on that one,” Upton said.
Bradley said the HCC craft building needed to be replaced, but its size should have remained under 20,000-square-feet so the college could avoid more stringent environmental regulations for larger buildings.
Freeman said he voted for the quarter-cent sales tax, believing it would only be used to fix roads and maintain existing buildings. “What do they need that new building for?” Freeman said. “Fix the ones that are there.”
If the economy was booming, the new craft building might be acceptable, Freeman said. For now, Freeman is wholeheartedly against the new construction.
King also said the building was too expensive and wouldn’t have given it the green light. He said rather than borrow money, the college could have saved up sales tax revenue until the building could be paid for upfront.
“I think most citizens in the county, including myself, felt like this money would be spent on a yearly basis as it comes in,” King said of the special quarter-cent sales tax.
The 9-12 factor
Bradley and King have been endorsed by the WNC Tea Party. A local offshoot of the Tea Party, known as the Haywood 9-12 Project, has been a recurring critic of commissioners during the public comment period at nearly every county meeting for the past year and a half.
Though a handful of 9-12 activists have been especially vocal, Kirkpatrick points out that its members don’t represent all 60,000 residents in Haywood County. Kirkpatrick says he has supporters as well as opponents within the ranks of the group, and he hopes all voters will research before casting their ballots. “Don’t just vote to get someone out,” Kirkpatrick said.
While some members get “extreme,” Sorrells says everyone can agree with the core principles of the 9-12 group: a small, efficient government and fiscal responsibility.
Upton said his goal has always been to listen to the people, and he doesn’t mind the 9-12 group constantly turning up at commissioner meetings.
“I haven’t taken the 9-12 Project as a negative,” Upton said. “Because we want people voicing their opinions. If we don’t hear, we don’t know.”
Bradley said the group has been consistent in calling for fiscal responsibility.
“This is a nonpolitical organization,” Bradley said. “They’re looking for people to make best use of county funds.”
King said he appreciates the endorsement.
“I am glad they did chose me. I have a lot of respect for the Tea Party,” King said.
Freeman would not comment on the group because he said he wasn’t familiar enough with them.
Many candidates said the budget and setting the tax rate after the property revaluation will be the two biggest challenges in the next four years. The value of lots and homes in upscale developments are expected to drop, while the value of medium priced housing will hold steady. Property taxes will be adjusted according to the new appraised values.
“I’m afraid there’s going to need to be a greater tax burden on those with less valuable properties,” Kirkpatrick said.
“It’s going to disproportionately affect the lower-income portion of the population,” Bradley agreed.
Kirkpatrick said another major hurdle will be funding the school system, which will soon suffer the absence of stimulus funds that have helped prop it up during the recession.
With the senior citizen population set to mushroom, there will be an increasing need to provide services to the elderly. Upton said commissioners must plan for the impending crisis.
— Staff writer Becky Johnson contrbitued to this story.
In the running
Three of the five seats on the Haywood County board are up for election this year. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis will not be running for re-election this year, meaning at least one new face will join the board come fall.
Kirk Kirkpatrick (incumbent)
41, attorney, Waynesville
“I’ve seen the good times and the tough times. I think that experience will be helpful for this county in the next four years.”
Bill Upton (incumbent)
65, retired superintendent of Haywood County Schools, Canton
“I feel like I listen...I’m sensitive to the needs of the people.”
54, owner of service station, convenience store and cafe, Waynesville.
“I’m very knowledgeable about Haywood County...I understand how government works, and I’m already educating myself to be in the position.”
David Bradley, 44, sales, Clyde
“I try to look long-term versus short-term...We can’t always take a hammer to the project.”
Tom Freeman, 53, self-employed building contractor, Waynesville
“I’ve had my own successful business for 25 years...When projects come up...I could go look at them, give my opinion on it and go from there.”
Denny King, 53 manufacturing engineer, Beaverdam
“I am in favor of a limited government to keep our taxes low in the county.”