Haywood incumbents cite progressive, responsible leadership
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.
“We have worked to achieve efficient, streamlined government,” Commissioner Mike Sorrells said. “We are doing more with less.”
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick challenged the position of his opponents on cutting the budget.
“There are some people who have an opinion they want to cut everything out,” Kirkpatrick said. “If you can find anything that looks like pork barrel spending, I would challenge them to find it.”
“It is easy to say ‘cut government,’ but when you start looking, what you going to cut? That’s what people want to know, in my opinion,” Commissioner Bill Upton added. “If there is fat in there, I’d like to know where it is at.”
Upton said any cuts would sacrifice deputies on the road, teachers in the classroom, social workers in the field or emergency responders on call.
Sitting commissioners feel cutting the budget any more would be harmful.
“I think you would see some of the things that improve the quality of life in our county suffer,” Sorrells said.
“It is a balance of taxes versus services and quality of life,” Kirkpatrick agreed. “Quality of life is going to cost you money, that’s libraries, that’s recreation, that’s senior centers, it’s things like that. But what kind of community do you want to have?”
With the economy still in recovery, many cuts made during the recession haven’t been restored. One area where the commissioners have tried to reinstate funding is schools.
Haywood is in the top 25 percent of counties statewide in per student funding. Commissioners say they would do more if they could, but they feel they are giving education as much as they can until the economy improves and in turn bolsters tax revenue.
“I am all for looking at it every year, and if in fact we can increase it, I am for it,” Sorrells said of education funding. “I feel like in this economy we are doing as well as we can do right at the moment.”
Upton said education is his top platform — given his career as a principal and superintendent.
“If the dollars were there we would look at an increase,” Upton said.
An unrocky road
The current commissioners have enjoyed an unusually long and steady tenure. It’s a historical anomaly for the county board to be stacked with so many long-serving commissioners who get elected again and again — as is the case now.
The sitting commissioners say that shows support for the direction of the county.
“People come to me and say they are very pleased with the way things have gone,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells. “Everything is pretty calm.”
The sitting commissioners chalk that up to their moderate yet progressive leadership. They say they’ve kept the county moving forward, remained a leader in the region, and maintained a balance between quality of life amenities and the realities of a recession-era budget.
“I am all about moving Haywood County forward and keeping Haywood County at the forefront of the region as it has always been,” Sorrells said.
It’s a platform shared by the three sitting Democratic commissioners running to keep their seat this fall.
“The main reason I am running this time is I enjoy the progress I feel like we are making. I can actually see we have done something positive in a difficult economic climate,” Upton said.
Debt is not all bad
The county’s debt has been fodder for this year’s challengers as well, but sitting commissioners point out that all the debt is due to loans on construction projects that had wide-spread public support, some of them approved by voters in countywide referendums.
Unfortunately, there were a lot of them in a short time. Aging county buildings and a space shortage had gone unaddressed for years, forcing the county’s hand to fund a spat of new buildings in short order: new schools, additions to schools, a new jail, a new justice center, a senior center, a new office complex for health and human services, landfill expansion, renovating the historic courthouse and community college additions and expansions.
“We have been pretty much constructing things since 2002,” Kirkpatrick said.
But at least it’s done now, and that legacy is a gift to future generations, they said.
“Those improvements will keep this county in good shape probably for two generations,” Sorrells said.
The challengers say they want to pay off the debt, but that is already happening as annual payments gradually pay off the building loans.
“That trend will continue,” Sorrells said.
Upton doesn’t understand the challengers’ assertion that the county shouldn’t take on debt to fund construction, and he questioned how any major project could be undertaken if you had to accumulate the millions up front. Individuals don’t save up the full cost of buying a house, but instead take out a mortgage, Upton said.
The big picture
The current commissioners say the county needs strong leaders focused on local issues, like the attention required over the past few years to the instability of Haywood Regional Medical Center. The county commissioners took an active role supporting the sale, both as public advocates and with behind-the-scenes legwork to find a stable buyer to keep the hospital open.
“We had to come right out of the chute and say, ‘Look, this is the thing we have to do, the other alternative is not good,’” Sorrells said.
Kirkpatrick played an integral role in steering the hospital through the tumultuous past six years — the shutdown after failing federal inspections, nearly going bankrupt, loss of public confidence, changing CEOs, merging, splitting again and finally a sale. Kirkpatrick jumped in early in the string of crises as a facilitator to find a way forward and ended up serving on the hospital board and MedWest board over the years.
Sorrells said the same tack was taken to help save jobs at Evergreen paper mill. The county lobbied for state grants and incentives — securing $14 million in all — to help the mill with a natural gas conversion to meet federal air emission rules. The commissioners also pointed to local incentives for two other manufacturing companies that were expanding and adding jobs.
The commissioners also pointed to a new economic development model crafted for the county, which will hopefully make the county more nimble in creating jobs and nurturing the business climate.
Back for more
Kirkpatrick said he never envisioned himself being a commissioner this long when he entered his first commissioners race somewhat on a whim in 2002, signing up at the last minute on the last day of candidate registration.
“It was extremely random. I had never been involved in local politics,” Kirkpatrick said.
At the time, controversy was swirling over whether to proceed with building a new courthouse.
“That was the only reason I ran,” Kirkpatrick said.
But now, 12 years later, he’s running for his fourth term.
Kirkpatrick found he was good at it and enjoyed it, but he also feels a sense of obligation to keep the county on its current direction.
“At the end of each term it seemed like there was always something else that needed to be completed,” Kirkpatrick said.
Sorrells entered local politics in 2004 as a school board member but always envisioned running for commissioner one day.
“I have always been a growth, forward-thinker, mover-shaker kind of guy, so I felt like it was time to move up,” Sorrell said of his first run for commissioner four years ago.
Sorrells’ grandfather was also a county commissioner, and that made an impression on him.
“People respected him because he helped them. They came to him for help and he was able to deliver for them. I admired that. I wanted to be like him, to be able to help people,” Sorrells said.
Kirkpatrick believes his contribution to the board is rooted in his training as a lawyer and being willing to play devil’s advocate.
“I try to look for potential problems down the road. We need to look ahead and say ‘OK, if we make this decision what are the repercussions of this decision?’” Kirkpatrick said. “Also, are we following the right process? If you break from precedent, you should be able to explain why.”
Kirkpatrick said it would be a “tremendous problem” if the opposition group ever gained a majority on the board of commissioners. He fears they would roll back the clock on Haywood County’s progress.
“People who get elected with a certain agenda can be so focused on their agenda that they can’t see the forest for the trees,” Kirkpatrick said.
Further, county commissioners shouldn’t use their office to wage battles over national issues, nor use the county as a vehicle to advance their own philosophical agenda in the federal political arena.
“You can’t just go rogue,” Kirkpatrick said. “There are laws you have to follow. You do have a fiduciary responsibility to the county and the people.”
Upton said the current board of commissioners has led with an even temper and avoided the kind of infighting that can make a board dysfunctional. Discord on the board due to personality conflicts could ultimately harm the county.
“We can agree to disagree on an issue and not carry that over to the next issue,” Upton said of the current board. “To me that is important. It doesn’t need to carry over. If you feel like you have been personally beaten on an issue then is it going to affect the next one and the next one.”
Upton said the current board of commissioners is dedicated to doing what’s best for the county.
“I like the heart of the people I am working with. Their heart is in the right place,” Upton said, quoting a saying, “You don’t care about what a person knows until you know they care.”
Meet the defenders
Bill Upton, 69, Democrat, lives in Canton area
Upton worked in the Haywood school system for 35 years, as an assistant principal, elementary principal, Pisgah High School principal and finally superintendent. He has been a commissioner for eight years. Upton is married and has one grown son.
Mike Sorrells, 57, Democrat, lives in Jonathan Creek
Sorrells owns and runs Sorrells Merchandise Company on Jonathan Creek, which includes an auto repair shop, hardware store, convenience store and gas station store and café. Sorrells has been a county commissioner four years and was on the school board for six years before that. He has three grown children.
Kirk Kirkpatrick, 45, Democrat, lives in Waynesville
Kirkpatrick has been a general practice attorney in Waynesville since 1995, practicing the full gamut of cases, including real estate, civil, criminal and estates. He has a solo practice. Kirkpatrick has been a county commissioner since 2002, and is running for his fourth term. A native of Haywood County, he is married and has three children.