After wading through more than 300 legislative goals presented by more than 500 commissioners throughout the state, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners has agreed on five top priorities to present to legislators during the 2015 General Assembly.
Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, president of the NCACC, gave his fellow commissioners an update on the recent Legislative Goals Conference during the board’s retreat last week.
When Jackson County commissioners halted the controversial rewrite of the steep slope development rules earlier this year, critics were both pleased and skeptical.
Pleased that a rollback of the county’s steep slope rules wouldn’t be pushed to the finish line before November’s election, but skeptical that the sitting commissioners would really stop work on the rollback. Instead, many thought the incumbents were trying to save their own re-election chances and would pick up where they left off after November.
Controlling mountainside development is a universal issue grappled with across Western North Carolina.
But Jackson County’s residents have wrestled more passionately, more vocally, more extensively and more heatedly over mountainside development than almost any other county in the region.
The hurt is coming. All the candidates agree, it won’t be pretty. In 2016, Jackson County will preform a property revaluation, in which the values of properties on the tax role — currently listed with values tethered to the high times of the housing boom — will be squared up with the values actually reflected in the current real estate market.
No one really knows how the Jackson County commissioner races are going to pan out. Incumbent Republican Commissioner Charles Elders has no idea.
“It’s hard to say,” Elders said. “Straight party voting, that’s a thing of the past. They’re gonna study, they’re gonna look.”
State issues are trickling down to the election debate surrounding the Macon County commissioners’ races. Three of the five seats are open, bringing out a total of six candidates looking for a place on the board. Chief among the topics of discussion surrounding the race are education funding, how to prioritize spending in the wake of the real estate bust and what stand, if any, the county should take on fracking.
Three challengers running for Haywood County commissioner are touting lower property taxes, a smaller budget, limited government, less regulation and personal freedom — the core tenets of conservatism with a Libertarian twist.
“The government needs to live within its means,” said Philip Wight, a Republican challenger. “It doesn’t seem like we are moving toward lower spending in the government. We keep looking at what more can the government provide. That is an unsustainable path.”
Criticism over taxes and spending from the conservative arm of the local Republican Party is nothing new for Haywood County commissioners.
So this election year, the three Democrats running for re-election came armed with talking points: only 29 counties have a lower tax rate, the county budget is smaller than it was five years ago and there are fewer employees now than five years ago.
The past four years have been the first in recent memory that Democrats haven’t held a majority on the Jackson County board.
But likewise, Republicans haven’t had the majority either — a point Chairman Jack Debnam is quick to point out, and points out often.
Debnam is an independent, ascribing to neither party. It was a historical anomaly not just in the mountains but the entire state when Debnam won a county commissioner seat as an unaffiliated candidate four years ago.
But he has been criticized by Democrats for really being a conservative at heart — his independent status merely a ruse to help his election chances with a Democratic-heavy electorate.
But in defense, Debnam pointed to his voting record.
“I voted with the Democrats 95 percent of the time. I also voted with the Republicans. That’s because 95 percent of our votes were unanimous,” Debnam said.
Out of 586 votes by county commissioners over the past four years, 95.06 percent of them — to be exact — were unanimous. Only 24 — or 4.1 percent — were split votes.
But Brian McMahan, the Democratic challenger for chairman, questioned that bragging point. Most of the
“Of the 586, most are routine, procedural agenda items that pretty much are non-debatable,” McMahan said.
Things like approving the minutes, ratifying department head reports, approving budget amendments.
“Those are not a Democratic or Republican issue,” McMahan said. “Those that were split votes were of significance. Those 24 represent real issues where there is a difference of opinion.”
Debnam said Jackson is the only county in the state where neither party has the majority on the county board, and he believes it has brought balance.
“A split board has made things better in Jackson County,” he said. “We have done good things with two Democrats, two Republicans and myself.”
Debnam said it isn’t easy to run as an independent. To get on the ballot four years ago and again this time, he has to collect a passel of petition signatures — he gathered 1,100 in all this time.
Running as a team has posed a conundrum for Debnam. On one hand, aligning with the Republican commissioners could hurt his chances. It certainly won’t gain him any Republican votes. There’s no bona fide Republican running for chairman — it’s just Debnam and Democrat Brian McMahan on the ticket — so Debnam is likely the most palatable choice for conservative voters, regardless of official staking himself out with the Republican candidate camp.
But buddying up with Republican running mates could hurt his chances with swing voters and moderates who question how independent Debnam really is if he is running as a team with Republicans.
At the forum, Debnam addressed the apparent incongruity of running as a team with Republicans on the one hand, despite his partisan independence. A split board is in Debnam’s interest. He needs the two Republican commissioners to win to balance out the two sitting Democrats not up for election this time.
Without a split board, Debnam couldn’t lead from the center.
The other two Republicans likewise touted their ability to work with Democrats and avoid split votes.
“Since we are a mixed board of two Democrats and two Republicans and an independent chairman, we have had to work together to get these things done,” Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican running for re-election, said.
Still, McMahan questions how genuine it is to use the unanimous voting record as a litmus test of cooperation.
“The chair has so strictly controlled the agenda the more controversial votes have been denied access to the agenda in the first place,” McMahan said.
Some issues get decided by majority consensus without having a formal vote, like whether to give the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad a economic development loan. Regardless, the course has been different than it would have been under a Democratic majority.
“This election is about a vision for the future and where we are going,” Democratic challenger Brian McMahan said in his closing remarks. “We are at a crossroads. Now is the time to grab ahold of the reigns and to lay the foundation. We cannot afford to stumble.”
• Kirk Kirkpatrick, a lawyer, has been on the board since 2002 and has been a supporter of recreation.
• Michael Sorrells has been a commissioner for four years and previously served six years on the school board. He is a service station, convenience store and café owner in Jonathan Creek.
• Bill Upton, the retired superintendent of Haywood County Schools, a principal and teacher, has been on the board eight years.
• Denny King, a conservative voice in county politics and frequent critic of sitting commissioner’s decisions, previously ran for a commission seat in 2012. He came within 300 votes.
• Phil Wight, owner of a motel in Maggie Valley and Maggie town alderman. Wight has long been involved in Maggie’s controversial breed of politics and a player in the tourism industry.
• Windy McKinney, is a historian and writer with a Master’s Degree in Medieval Studies from the University of Kent, in the United Kingdom. She is the Libertarian Party of Haywood County’s first candidate for county commissioner and feels the area is ready for a candidate who will “change politics as usual.”