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Waynesville candidates weigh in on array of budget questions

haywoodWhat to spend money on and what to pass up? The Waynesville town board faces this question month in and month out. Seemingly small budget decisions can have some of the biggest impacts on residents’ daily lives.

• Will the town install a series of new bike racks around town or resurface crumbling tennis courts? 

• Will it fund National Historic designation for the town cemetery or add more public parking spaces for the Hazelwood shopping district?

• Will it add paid staff to the town fire department to replace the dwindling volunteer base or support a nonprofit that fights child abuse?

Saying “yes” makes someone happy, but saying “yes” too often soon leads to a tax hike.

It can be difficult for town board candidates to summarize their budget philosophy in a phrase. Phillip Gibbs, a challenger for the town board, honestly couldn’t say whether the town’s budget is too extravagant, too meager or just right.

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“I don’t think it is feasible to stand over here and say ‘Yes we can cut this or cut that,’” Gibbs said. “What are the pros and cons of cutting certain things?”

Only one candidate has unequivocally pledged to lower taxes. 

“As much as possible, as soon as possible,” said Jonnie Cure, a challenger for the mayor’s seat. 

Cure is a staunch advocate of what she calls “frugal government.” Government is spending other people’s money, after all.

“They take it, but it is not theirs. It is ours,” Cure said.

Mayor Gavin Brown countered that a town’s budget is more nuanced, however. A pledge to lower taxes might sound good on paper, but how will you get there?

“The town will say ‘What do you want to cut?’ and they’ll say ‘I don’t care, just lower it,’” Brown said. “It is not about a tax increase or decrease. It is about providing services to the community.”

Alderman LeRoy Roberson said it’s not practical for aldermen to comb through every line item in the town’s budget. Roberson cited his own curiosity about a fairly large budget expense for a new flocculate at the water treatment plant. He paid the plant a visit to see just what a flocculator is.

“Now I know what the flocculator is, but what is the best flocculator? If you are going to examine every item and then tell them to buy a different one that’s cheaper, you can’t really do that,” Roberson said. “You have to trust the people who work for you.”

It would be easy to strip line items from the budget that seem superfluous, like resurfacing the tennis courts.

“But it is important to the people of Waynesville that play tennis,” Alderwoman Julia Freeman said. “We spend a tremendous amount of time mulling over these to see are they economically viable, will they improve services and infrastructure, and is it going to have a positive impact for our citizens?”

Freeman said the town has been “very conservative” and “good stewards” of tax dollars. The town’s budget has faced a double-whammy in recent years between the recession and cut backs at the state and county level that trickled down to the town — forcing the town to scrimp and pinch. 

But Cure said the town shouldn’t get brownie points for scrimping.

“Everybody else is scrimping. Why should I scrimp and government not scrimp?” Cure asked.

It’s often hard for voters to discern which candidates align most closely with their own views. What’s worthwhile spending is often in the eye of the beholder.

One voter may applaud money spent on the disc golf course, but care little about the expensive knuckleboom truck to spare town workers the risky job of manually feeding brush into a chipper.

The Smoky Mountain News asked town board candidates to weigh in on a sample of real-life budget questions the current town board has faced.

 

For a good cause

Dozens of nonprofits request donations from the town each year — from charities to the arts to recreation.

Requests outnumber what the town has to dole out, and the town leaders must slice and dice the available nonprofit funding pool among the many causes that ask the town for support. In all, the town provides about $125,000 in donations to nonprofits each year.

The majority goes to nonprofits that serve needy people: nonprofits that help victims of domestic violence and child abuse, that serve the elderly and disabled, or that provide heating assistance and medical care for the poor. But they also include cultural programs, like the Shelton House heritage museum, Christmas parade and public art displays, or recreation like youth football.

Here’s what candidates had to say about nonprofit and charity support.

“At the end of the day we have to take care of our people. Isn’t that the biggest commodity we have? Isn’t that what we sell? Isn’t that what this community is all about?” 

— Gavin Brown

“It should be my choice as to what I am going to support. Because it is my money. Who are they to take my money and give it to somebody?” 

— Jonnie Cure

“Those are valuable services in our community.” 

— Gary Caldwell

“We should be careful when we spend any dollar, but we don’t want to be pennywise and pound foolish. I think these kind of organizations provide a multitude of benefits to our community.” 

— Jon Feichter

“These nonprofits that we support provide critical community services on a very limited budget. Anyway the town can help supplement the budgets to help get those services out into the community is critical.” 

— Julia Freeman

“The town has always been good to support Little League. Anything supporting kids and the needy, I can see that. I think it is a case-to-case thing.” 

— Kenny Mull

“People say they have to boot strap themselves up but sometimes you need help getting started. We need ways to help people get off the street. We need ways and means to help people get back on their feet.” 

— Phillip Gibbs

“It is beneficial to the town. The amount we put in is very small relative to the value we get from it.” 

— LeRoy Roberson

“Contributions to local charities is not only compassionate but helps provide resources to citizens of the town.” 

— Anthony Sutton 

 

Supporting the arts as economic investment

Waynesville is home to two flagship cultural arts programs: Haywood Regional Arts Theater and Folkmoot USA international folk festival. Both have major capital projects under way.

HART is building a $1.2 million second theater venue. Folkmoot is spending $400,000 to renovate the old Hazelwood Elementary School to serves as a community center as well as its festival headquarters. The town has pledged $75,000 to each project — $25,000 a year for three years for each.

Here’s what candidates had to say about town support for the building projects under way by HART and Folkmoot.

“The budget should reflect what our community wants to be. Your budget is going to be a little larger but it says something about your community. I think the community wants that. It creates all this energy.” 

— Gavin Brown

“Many people do donate to HART. That was their choice. Government shouldn’t go out and say ‘Give me your money, I am going to give it to HART.’ Am I a friend of taking money by force from the people and deciding how to spend their money? Absolutely not.” 

— Jonnie Cure

“They are like a little economic engine.” 

— Gary Caldwell

“They drive economic development in and of themselves. I view those as investments as opposed to handouts.” 

— Jon Feichter

“We look at those as more of an economic development component. They are visible to visitors coming here. Those things improve the town itself.” 

— Julia Freeman

“Is there a benefit of these two places to the economic development of Waynesville? I would like to know these things. I think there other things that are more important.” 

— Phillip Gibbs

“Folkmoot, you have to look at how many people that brings in to the town. The arts center also, you have to look at the economic impact they have.” 

— Kenny Mull

“These are part of community development and bring recourses and attention to the town of Waynesville. Folkmoot brings not only tourists and guests to the area, but also provides media coverage to Waynesville. HART is instrumental in making Waynesville attractive.” 

— Anthony Sutton

“You put a little money in and get a lot more out. It supports a lot of businesses. Folkmoot has put Waynesville on the map for a lot of people.” 

— LeRoy Roberson

 

A flagship skatepark

The town spent $415,000 three years ago to build a state-of-the-art skateboard park. Here’s what candidates had to say about that project.

“That was a great investment in this community. It was talked about for so long, we decided ‘Let’s make this statement about the town of Waynesville.’”  

— Gavin Brown

“This comes down to the taking of people’s money and deciding where to spend it for the quote-unquote ‘common good,’ for the common benefit of everybody. The skateboard was not of benefit of anyone unless you skate or are a skate watcher. They say it will keep kids off the street. Has anyone done a survey?” 

— Jonnie Cure

“It made a safe avenue for our kids. All the businesses in town were having problems with kids skating down the sidewalks and skating on the streets and private parking areas and church parking lots and everything like that.” 

— Gary Caldwell

“I think parks and recreation directly correlates to overall happiness and well being of our citizens. The skatepark is just one more part of that. Sure it would be nice not to have to spend $400,000 on the skate park, but I think it is important we provide those kinds of amenities to our citizens. Otherwise, what’s the point?” 

— Jon Feichter

“I supported that as did all of the other aldermen. I think it was needed. It is a draw. I think it is a shining star in Waynesville’s hat.” 

— Julia Freeman

“I am not sure we should have spent that type of money on it. It doesn’t seem like we are getting that bang for the buck. It is seemingly very sparsely used. A lot of our kids can’t even afford skates, cannot afford a skateboard.” 

— Phillip Gibbs

“I would have supported it but the only question I had at the time and was how much is it going to be used. It has gotten substantial use. Any time you go down there, there are people using it.” 

— Kenny Mull

“The skateboards were everywhere, setting up jumps and ramps in parking lots and not taking them down. You can’t arrest every kid skateboarding on the sidewalk. This had languished for so long we felt it was time.” 

— LeRoy Roberson

“I support the skatepark, however, it would have been more pertinent to seek business contributions and/or sponsorships to offset more of the cost.” 

— Anthony Sutton 

 

Expanding the fleet of patrol cars

The town of Waynesville spent nearly $500,000 two years ago to buy 15 new police cars so each patrol officer could be assigned their own vehicle. Before, officers shared vehicles. An officer going off duty would vacate their patrol car and turn it over to an officer coming on shift.

While the additional cars had a big upfront price tag — coinciding with a three-cent property tax increase enacted the same year — the cars would run less and not have to be replaced as quickly. 

Here’s what candidates had to say about the cost-benefit.

“At the end of the day, this should save money. The cost spread over the life of the vehicles is really no different. Officers are more likely to take better care of their own than a generic fleet car.  Many communities have chosen to go this path.” 

— Gavin Brown

“I am sure there are arguments for and against. I was told this was done for recruiting officers. They have to be serviced, they have to be maintained, they have to gassed up. That is a big question I don’t have the answer to yet.” 

— Jonnie Cure

Alderman Gary Caldwell initially voted against it, because it came in the same year as a property tax increase.

“It made it seem like it was going to be a burden on the citizens but it turns out it was a good thing. All in all it helped support keeping our officers here, because Waynesville and Haywood County don’t have the salaries that larger cities have.”

 — Gary Caldwell

“I completely trust Chief Bill Hollingsed’s judgment. If he felt it necessary and prudent to change the direction of how the fleet is managed, I would support him. The only slight questions I might have, would it be possible to stagger the purchases so that there wasn’t such a significant all-at-one-time expenditure? Could the cars have been purchased at a local dealer?” 

— Jon Feichter

“I think it is so important because of the downtime when we were swapping vehicles. Now, even if they are off duty, they can respond to calls instead of waiting for someone to switch over on shift changes.” 

— Julia Freeman

“They say it does quicken the response time and that over the years it would save on fuel. I think they know best. I have heard a lot of complaints from people about the cost of all the vehicles they bought. One thing I do know, that over the years it would pay for itself.”

 — Phillip Gibbs

“When an officer has a car delegated to him alone he takes better care of it and it doesn’t have as much wear and tear and it has less repair bills. While you have more rolling stock you end up saving money.” 

— LeRoy Roberson

“I support Chief Bill Hollingsed’s decision. He is the expert in the area and I am confident that he did due diligence to determine what is in the best interest of not only his department but the community as a whole.” 

— Anthony Sutton 

 

 

Who’s running? 

Nine candidates are running for five seats on the Waynesville town board this November. Pick four for town board and one for mayor.

Mayor

• Gavin Brown, 68, attorney and current mayor

• Jonnie Cure, 73, real estate agent

Town Board

• Gary Caldwell, 62, printing rep for Clarke Communication, current alderman

• Jon Feichter, 50, owner of New Meridian Technologies, an IT service firm providing computer and networking services

• Julia Freeman, 48, director of REACH domestic violence nonprofit, current alderwoman

• Phillip Gibbs, 70, retired paper mill worker

• Kenny Mull, 61, co-owner of family-run Bob’s Sports Store

• LeRoy Roberson, 71, retired optometrist, current alderman

• Anthony Sutton, 43, accounting and systems manager for Biltmore Farms development group

* Lynn Bradley’s name will also appear on the ballot for mayor but has chosen not to actively run.

 

Save the dates

Early voting starts Thursday, Oct. 22. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

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