Haywood trio seek to oust incumbents, reduce local government
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.”
Denny King, also a Republican challenger, said the high property taxes are a burden — especially to low-income people who are struggling — and harm the business climate.
“Low taxes in my opinion are essential to attract new business into a county,” King said. “People just can’t find employment in our county.”
A third challenger, Windy McKinney, is running on the Libertarian ticket, but shares the same concern over taxes and spending.
King and Wight were guarded, however, when asked if they would cut the county budget to achieve a lower property tax rate.
“We need to look at the budget very closely,” King said.
King said rather than cut spending, the first goal should be to reduce debt.
“If we do that, we can eliminate tax increases and probably even reduce taxes,” King said.
Debt is a familiar conservative talking point, but debt at the county level differs from the national political rhetoric.
Counties can’t borrow money for operations like the federal government — they can only take out loans for building projects. The county’s debt load is due entirely to past construction projects — 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.
Loans to pay for the building projects — some dating back more than 15 years — are being paid for over time, like any long-term mortgage.
King said he would like to accelerate the pace of loan payments. The annual loan payments are a drain on the county’s budget, and King wants to eliminate that burden. Accelerating the payoff on the debt would also save on interest.
“We pay quite a bit of money in interest in this county,” King said.
But to pay off the loans more quickly means making bigger payments. And the money to make bigger payments would have to come from somewhere — presumably by cutting the budget or by raising property taxes.
King said there are other options, however.
“One recommendation would be to sell off some of the unneeded buildings and put the money from that toward paying off the debt,” King said.
The county has been trying for a couple years to sell off its older office buildings — buildings vacated when new office space was built — but given their age and condition there is little interest among buyers so far.
Wight said he would find “savings” in the budget to pay down the debt. When asked where the savings would come from, it led back to the same question: would you cut the budget?
Wight eventually conceded the budget could be cut, but said it would be a long road rather than quick reform.
“We didn’t get here overnight,” Wight said.
McKinney was far bolder on the question of budget cutting, although she explained the conundrum that it caused for fiscally conservative candidates.
“If you don’t want to raise taxes to pay off the debt, you are going to have to cut into the budget somehow,” McKinney said. But McKinney said it was “dangerous” for a candidate to say that because people get defensive and fearful about what might be cut.
As for what to cut? McKinney said that’s almost impossible for an outsider to assess. Line items in the budget have a numerical code and a vague description that the layperson can’t understand.
“Honestly I have looked over that budget so many times,” McKinney said. “It is hard for me to say looking at it myself what to cut because I don’t know what all this stuff is.”
While the sitting commissioners claim they’ve trimmed all they can, McKinney wants proof.
“It is easy for them to say that, but can they show that? Because I can’t tell looking at the budget,” McKinney said.
McKinney, King and Wight all touted the idea of posting the county’s “check register” online, so the public could see every purchase, big and small.
Only then could the public participate knowledgeably in a discussion of what to cut from the budget, McKinney said.
“If individual items were listed and what we paid for it, we have a lot of smart people in our county, they may say, ‘Hey, I know where we could get that same thing for less money.’ I think in the long run that could help us to reduce spending,” King said.
One of Wight’s campaign slogans is “no more taxes,” a phrase that appears on his signs and in his flyers.
When asked whether he literally means “no more taxes” — as in an end to county taxes — he clarified that he really meant “no more new taxes.”
The county’s last tax increase of 1.5 cents was in 2009, aimed at softening the blow of county layoffs and budget cuts prompted by a $7 million recession-induced budget shortfall that year.
The challengers opposed the attempt by the county to increase the tourism tax on hotel rooms, a failed initiative to raise money for civic projects that would benefit the tourism industry, such as ball fields, a skating rink or a convention center.
Wight also said he would like to get rid of the business property tax on equipment, or the property tax on vehicles, but that is a state policy and not one the county can opt out of. Wight replied the county should push back against state or federal mandates it doesn’t agree with.
Haywood has the 30th lowest tax rate of the state’s 100 counties, something sitting commissioners are quick to point out. But King said on a per capita basis, the property tax burden is 26th highest in the state.
“We always hear how low our tax rate is, but we have to start looking at the tax burden on each person. What’s important is how much each family pays in our county,” King said.
But the “per capita” tax burden King referred to doesn’t really mean that’s what each family in the county pays. A “per capita” statistic assumes the tax burden is carried entirely by the year-round residents, but there are thousands of second-home owners and vacation property owners who pay property taxes but that counted in the census population and thus aren’t part of the “per capita” property tax load number being thrown around.
King said he got the statistic from the John Locke Foundation and thus couldn’t comment on the merits or flaws of a per capita analysis that fails to account for the second-home population.
King has publicly taken commissioners to task in the past over flawed property appraisals on the county tax books. He claims the property revaluation in 2011 unfairly increased the tax burden on the lower- and middle-tier homes.
Time for change
Wight said the current commissioners have lost touch with the people.
“I believe people need a choice. I believe that the current commissioners have been there a while and people need a choice,” Wight said. “I defend a taxpayer to fault more than I would protect the ways of our government.”
“I feel like the incumbents are professional politicians and I have a problem with that. I feel like the longer people are in office the more isolated they get from the people, the more embedded they get in their own agendas and own perspectives. We need regular people in office, not just people who it is assumed they are always going to be in office,” McKinney said.
As an electrician and heating and cooling contractor, Wight said he connects with the working people of the county.
“I feel like I am the person to bring a blue collar point of view,” Wight said. “Our hardcore everyday working people aren’t being represented.”
King, however, wouldn’t say anything negative about the current commissioners.
“I make it a point not to say anything bad about the commissioners, and I am sticking to that,” King said.
A libertarian in the mix
It’s rare to see a Libertarian candidate brought into the mainstream political fold as McKinney has been in this election.
The two Republican candidates have held joint fundraisers with her. They’ve invited her to their Republican meet-and-greets. She’s had a seat at the table — literally — during roundtable political discussions over dinner. King and Wight have also reached out to McKinney’s voting bloc by appearing and speaking at her Libertarian Party meetings.
The two Republicans and Libertarian aren’t in lockstep on everything, though. Their alliance when it comes to small government and less spending falls apart in the social issues arena.
“I don’t see eye-to-eye with anybody who is running. We have different political ideals,” McKinney said.
McKinney has publicly advocated for legalizing medical marijuana, joining a rally on the front steps of the Haywood County courthouse recently for the cause. While it’s not exactly a radical stance these days, taking part in a public rally while simultaneously running for county commissioner could be considered politically bold.
McKinney also supports a host of other civil liberties more closely tied to liberals, including same-sex marriage — although she disagrees the government has a role in sanctioning the marriage of anyone.
The trio has seemed to agree to check their positions on social issues at the door. Those don’t really have anything to do with local government anyway, Wight said.
Nonetheless, it’s kept Wight and King from making McKinney a full-fledged running mate. Wight stopped short of endorsing McKinney this week when asked if the three were running as a team.
The local Republican Party hasn’t endorsed McKinney either, although individual party members have adopted her as their candidate.
In particular, McKinney has been a darling of a far-right faction of conservative activists that have asserted themselves within local GOP leadership. King and Wight have both been supported by that camp as well.
The conservative activist camp has been embroiled in political infighting within the local GOP over the past year, a tug-of-war between far-right and moderate Republicans for control of the local party. King and Wight were affiliated with the conservative activist camp.
King was endorsed by the N.C. Republican Liberty Caucus earlier this year, a political advocacy group that’s a blend of Libertarian and Republican philosophy of the Ron Paul brand.
Giving it a shot
This year will mark King’s third time running for commissioner, but he’s not deterred and said he gains name recognition each time. He said it’s a tougher road for a Republican to get elected in Haywood County, given the Democratic power structure and larger number of registered Democrats compared to Republicans.
King is only aware of three Republican commissioners in Haywood’s history.
“Historically, in order for a Republican to get in, they have had to run three times,” King said.
King said he has been inspired to keep trying because he cares about people.
“I care about people in general. No matter what party affiliation or whatever, I would treat people the same. I think if you check me out you will find I am a person who does care about people,” he said.
Wight not only faces the uphill battle of a Republican trying to break down the Democratic power structure in Haywood, but he also faces the hurdle of being from Maggie Valley.
Few countywide office-holders have been elected from Maggie. Wight has been an alderman in Maggie Valley, which he cites as governing experience. But his active role in Maggie politics — seen as dysfunctional over the years by the rest of the county — could be baggage.
“Have we blended?” Wight said. Perhaps not entirely, but
“I don’t think being from Maggie matters. As far as anyone’s right to run from any part of the county, I don’t concede it one way or the other.”
McKinney, meanwhile, doesn’t expect to win — at least not at the ballot box.
“It depends how you define winning,” McKinney said. “We are engaging people who have never voted before. Citizen-led government is people feeling engaged and empowered by the people who are their leaders.”
But she feels like she has advanced the Libertarian ideals in the community by running, which was the natural progression after starting a local Libertarian chapter.
“It is a great group of folks sitting around and talking about the real issues, and I love that. But how long do you sit around and talk without doing something?” McKinney said.
Meet the challengers
Denny King, 57, Republican, lives in Canton area
King works as a manufacturing engineer at BorgWarner Turbo Systems in Asheville. It is his third time running for commission on a platform of lower taxes, less spending, limited regulation, no debt, pro-business and constitutional principles. King is a Haywood County native with family roots on both his mother’s and father’s sides and is married with four children, all of whom still live in Haywood County.
Philip Wight, 46, Republican, lives in Maggie Valley
Wight is the owner of a motel in Maggie Valley and a heating and cooling contractor. He is an alderman on the Maggie town board but would step down if he wins commissioner. He is running on a platform of lower taxes, less spending, limited regulation, no debt and constitutional principles. He is married with one child.
Windy McKinney, 39, Libertarian, lives in Jonathan Creek
McKinney has a Ph.D. in early medieval history and medieval literature from the University of York in Great Britain. She grew up in Haywood County and moved back here three years ago. She has been working as a restaurant server. McKinney is running on a traditional Libertarian platform of extremely limited government, free enterprise and personal freedom.