Education, tax rates on ballot in Macon
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.
Five of the six candidates attended a forum last week held by the Macon County League of Women Voters — Ron Haven, the only one who did not attend, came to the event but left after reading the questions. Questions quizzed candidates about whether they would take a stand against fracking, a controversial form of fossil fuel extraction recently legalized in North Carolina, and what they would do to strengthen Macon’s public schools as state budget cuts create challenges. Candidates were also asked to outline their general approach to spending tax dollars for cultural- and tourism-related projects.
The in-progress property revaluation is another hot topic in the election. When real estate values tanked in 2008, property owners were left paying taxes based on land values they no longer held. Fearing the hit a revaluation would deliver to county tax revenues — historically, county valuation goes up over time, not down — the county had put off reassessing properties as long as legally possible, but landowners will next year be paying taxes based on new, lower values.
To keep the budget revenue-neutral, commissioners will likely be looking at raising the property tax rate. That will mean a lower overall tax bill for the high-end properties that lost the most value but a higher tax bill for more modest homes whose values didn’t change as much.
The fund balance, the county’s equivalent of a savings account, is also an important discussion item when it comes to budgets. The state mandates that counties keep a minimum of 8 percent of their annual budget in the fund balance, and Macon County’s goal is to keep it above 25 percent. The fund balance right now sits at about 29 percent. The fund gives the county flexibility and security to deal with unforeseen issues, though some think those funds should be tapped to pay for more immediate county needs or to soften the tax rate increase likely to accompany the property revaluation.
Though candidates must live in their respective district to run for the seat, Macon County voters can vote for all three seats.
Franklin, pick two
Ronnie Beale, D-Franklin
A little background: Ronnie Beale, 59, has owned Beale Construction for 35 years, and he and his wife Cissy have three adult children. First elected to the board of commissioners in 2006, the Macon County native has experienced being in the majority party and in the minority, and he held the chairman’s seat for two years. This year he was named president of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.
Why run? Beale’s bid for re-election stems from gratitude toward Macon County and a desire to move it forward.
“The reason I’m running again is the same reason I ran eight years ago,” he said, “which is to advocate for Macon County and to work to improve the quality of life for all Maconians.”
On the property revaluation: The county’s set to lose $2 billion in value, so there’s no way around hiking up the millage rate to compensate.
“If we do have to change the millage rate, I hope it’s minimal and I think it will be,” Beale said. “But all that is guesswork at this time.”
On education: Legally, all the county has to do for its schools is provide the “bricks and mortar” buildings for the school system. However, the county does much more, spending about 50 percent of its budget on education and designating a school liaison to make sure that county commissioners are aware of school district needs.
“You can count on my support to continue public education in our county,” Beale said.
On the role of the fund balance: There’s a lot of money in the fund balance, but it’s important to keep it there in case emergency spending is ever required. That means the fund balance should not be used to pay for recurring costs.
“It’s important we maintain a strong fund balance in the county because it’s taken years and years to build that fund balance up,” he said.
On the county’s role in tourism development: The county’s first priority is to provide services that benefit its citizens, but tourism is extremely important to Macon County. That’s why mechanisms such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Development Authority exist, and as commissioner he’d be open to working with those organizations to improve the climate for tourism, as long as those initiatives would also benefit the entire county.
“If it benefits the county as a whole, I as a commissioner would certainly look at any proposals that would come forth and study them carefully,” Beale said.
On fracking: The law lifting the moratorium was rushed through quickly, and we don’t yet know enough about how drilling infrastructure breaks down over time. Forced pooling is a concern, and the biggest issue is the fact that the law prevents counties from deciding the issue for themselves.
“We have no input. Any laws that we have on our books now, including our erosion control, things we worked hard to implement, none of that applies,” Beale said. “So that’s number one.”
Ron Haven, R-Franklin
Ron Haven refused interviews with The Smoky Mountain News, as well as with the Macon County News and the Franklin Press, and he left the Macon County League of Women Voters forum after reading their list of questions. He did not give a reason for his refusal to interview with SMN.
“Mr. Haven chose to leave the forum,” said debate moderator Susan Ervin. “He read our questions and didn’t like them.”
As Haven would only send a few words’ worth of talking points via email rather than answering the questions posed to other candidates verbally, his profile is not as complete as the others.
A little background: Ron Haven is a sitting commissioner, elected in the 2010 election. He and his wife have two children, and Haven, a former pro wrestler, operates several businesses, including the Sapphire Inn, Budget Inn, Gem Capital Shows and Appalachian Trail Services.
Why run? “We have around 35,000 citizens in Macon County and the commissioners have spent around $400 million dollars in the last eight years,” Haven wrote in an email. “The national debt is almost 18 trillion dollars. If spending is not brought under control from our local government to Washington we are headed for serious problems.”
On spending: “I have voted for Macon County to have the best services and best schools possible and do it in an affordable budget. If I am re-elected I will continue the same trend,” Haven wrote. “The only few that don’t like what I do is the big spenders and people who feel threatened that I will not vote to fund their special interest with taxpayers money.”
John Martin, L-Franklin
A little background: John Martin, 57, is retired from working in real estate and financial planning businesses. He has owned his own agency in both fields and still teaches part-time. He’s rooted in the area, having grown up in Macon County with his parents and seven siblings, and he and his wife Patricia live in Franklin.
Why run? “I had been reading all about the situations with regard to the future problems that the county was facing,” Martin said. “I felt like I had to run.”
On the property revaluation: The revaluation should have been done earlier, because people have for years been being taxed on property values they don’t in fact possess since the market went bust. And with many people struggling financially, it’s not right for the county to pass a tax rate hike that will affect owners of modest homes the most.
“We have a lot of issues, but where we’re spending the money there is some spending that we don’t need to be doing,” Martin said, though he declined to specify in which areas that surplus spending might be found.
On education: Education is important, but it is not the county’s job to fund teachers. That’s the state’s role. Alternative forms of education, such as private, charter and online schools, as well as Macon Early College, are also important.
“I am a strong proponent of education and I’m for parental choice in education, true parental choice,” Martin said. “Mr. [Gary} Shields along with the Macon County school board members joined the lawsuit to oppose the Opportunity Scholarships [vouchers] that North Carolina was passing.”
On the role of the fund balance: The fund balance is far above the state’s suggested minimum of 8 percent, so some of that money should be used to reduce county debt or soften the upcoming property tax increase.
“You have to balance all these things out, but I do believe there are areas we could make some cuts, trim some fat,” Martin said.
On the county’s role in tourism development: Tourism is vital to the county’s economy, but the government shouldn’t necessarily be taking the lead on economic development. That might be a place to trim some fat when looking to snip the budget.
“Economic development, I think the majority of that needs to be done by industry,” Martin said, as well as nonprofits fueled by interested volunteers.
On fracking: The fracking law is bad news for a number of reasons, one of the biggest being potential property rights issues stemming from forced pooling. But it won’t pay for the county commissioners to focus their efforts there, because counties aren’t allowed to make decisions about fracking.
“We have no county authority on this issue,” Martin said. “With regard to taxes, we do.”
Gary Shields, R-Franklin
A little background: Shields, 67, retired in 2010 from 37 years in education, 29 of which he spent in Macon County, 21 as principal of Franklin High School. He’s a Vietnam veteran and has served on a number of boards and community groups, including the Macon County Board of Education, the Angel Medical Center Foundation Board and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce Board. Shields and his wife have two children — one a sophomore at Western Carolina University and the other a teacher in Tennessee.
Why run? “Part of our motto is ‘service to America,’” Shields said, crediting his service in Vietnam with his desire to give back to the community.
“I just want to have a way to say thank you back to the community and give back to the community,” he said. “This gives me an opportunity to engage in the bigger picture, not just in education.”
On the property revaluation: As a property owner, Shields isn’t a fan of higher taxes. However, with the county valuation projected to take a nosedive, a hike in the property tax rate will be inevitable. It won’t be possible to slash the budget enough to make up the difference.
“If you’re going to sustain what you’ve got, something’s got to go up,” Shields said. “The millage rate is what would have to go up, and to what degree I just don’t know.”
On education: In his years in the schools, Shields has gotten quite familiar with their challenges and with the way the school board and the county commissioners work together to address them.
“I respect the work that has been done from the school system that brings the funding request to the county commissioners, and at that time we will study and decide on it,” he said.
On the role of the fund balance: Having a healthy fund balance is important so that the county can pay for unforeseen expenses and keep paying its bills in case of emergency. However, the school system does not have a fund balance, and Shields would like to see part of the county’s fund balance earmarked for school system needs that may arise.
“We need to find that figure that we would feel comfortable with and see what we can do there to accommodate a system where there won’t be a continual movement or plea to the county for funds,” Shields said. “What that number is I don’t know at this time.”
On the county’s role in cultural and tourism development: Tourism is Macon County’s “bread and butter,” so it’s important for the county to keep an eye out for opportunities to develop magnets to encourage tourism. However, Macon County needs to prioritize its dollars to go toward projects that will eventually be able to become self-sustaining.
“I don’t think county commissioners are a situation where you buy into something forever and ever amen,” he said. “I think you have to look at something and say, ‘OK, we’ll ride this horse for a while, but where do you pick up on this?’”
On fracking: The law as written would infringe on property rights, and it’s likely that North Carolina voters aren’t dealing with a complete roundup of information.
“I’m a Vietnam vet and I’m now taking two-and-a-half pills a day for Agent Orange, so to tell me that the truth is on the table,” Shields said, “I say bull.”
Highlands, pick one
Michael David Rogers, D-Highlands
A little background: Michael David Rogers, 51, owns a landscaping business in Highlands and has two daughters. One graduated from WCU, and the other is currently attending there.
Why run? “The reason I’m running is basically I want to bring more jobs to Franklin and I want to get better pay for those people that have to drive up and down this mountain,” Rogers said. “I want to get our waterways cleaned up.”
He’d look to do that by getting sewage treatment plants to evaporate their water rather than dumping it into the river and working to develop a state park in the Blue Valley area.
On the property revaluation: Rogers is for raising the tax rate to keep the budget revenue-neutral — all that money is spoken for, he said — but it’s not something he’d look to repeat.
“I want to keep it the same for years to come down the road,” he said. “We need to work off of what we have now and not raise it again, ever.”
On education: Education is important, and it needs to be better funded. That goes for public schools as well as Southwestern Community College, whose Macon County campus should be expanded to include more labor training programs.
“School is important to me, and when you guys elect me I’ll work close with Jane Hipps and I’ll work close with all the other ones — Kay Hagan — to get the money that we need to make Macon County the best,” he said.
On the role of the fund balance: A fund balance of about 25 percent is good, though if it’s higher than that the extra money should probably be allocated to some other use. However, it’s important to keep the fund full.
“That sounds like it’s a lot of money, but you never know what’s going to happen and you have to have money set aside for emergency situations,” he said.
On the county’s role in tourism development: Tourism is very important to Macon County, and it’s the county’s job to ensure that there’s always a draw to bring tourists in — and get them to stay for a while. He’d want to keep working on his plan to develop a state park in the Blue Valley area and look toward getting a downhill ski park going for winter tourism.
“That’s something that brings the people, and I’m thinking that would be good for our county because in the wintertime we really do struggle,” he said.
On fracking: “This fracking deal, it’s a major problem. It will destroy our water and when the damage is done there’s no fixing it,” Rogers said. “I think we just need to shut it down completely.”
Jim Tate, R-Highlands
A little background: Jim Tate has been a commissioner for three years and owns a landscaping company in Highlands. A University of Georgia graduate, he’s served on boards including the Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust and Four Seasons Hospice. He and his wife have two children, ages 10 and 11, who go to Highlands School.
Why run? “It’s just my way of giving back,” Tate said. “Some people might be a Little League coach, some people might do good at their church. I just feel like I can give back through local government.”
On the property revaluation: Though he couldn’t foresee himself voting to raise the millage rate any higher than necessary to keep the budget revenue-neutral, he doesn’t see any way around raising it some.
“I don’t see any feasible way that we can get by without raising the millage rate to remain revenue-neutral,” he said. “There’s too many things that need to be done with our schools right now in order to afford a cut.”
On education: Education is the most important factor in what keeps a society going, and supporting that sector will be a priority for Tate.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my educational opportunities,” Tate said. “I believe in excellence in education, and as a commissioner I’ll do nothing but strongly support our education.”
On the role of the fund balance: “I personally don’t want to see it drop below 25 percent for a lot of reasons,” Tate said. “I think keeping it in that 25 to 30 percent range is good.”
On the county’s role in tourism development: Tourism is the reason Macon County was able to pull through the recession, and it’s important for the county to “look after that industry.”
“Tourism is really the bread and butter of Macon County’s economy, and for the past several years it’s actually been growing if you consider what the local experts say and also if you look at our tourism and development tax,” Tate said.
On fracking: Tourism is Macon County’s main industry, and fracking doesn’t fit in with that. While he’s for fracking in general and would have no problem with Rutherford County, for example, deciding to allow the practice, he does not think it’s right for Macon County. However, the law doesn’t allow counties to opt out.
“The worst thing about this is we, locally, don’t have that decision to make,” he said.