Looking toward Sylva’s future: Five race for three board seats
With two of the three Sylva board members up for re-election jumping into the mayoral race, Sylva is guaranteed to get at least two new faces on the board after the November elections. The three open seats attracted a field of five candidates spanning an age range from 28 to 78.
As in the mayoral race, taxes were on the tip of each tongue in the running for town board. It’s been 12 years since Sylva’s taxes have increased, and recently the town has been dipping into its savings to meet budget demands. The problem is only expected to get worse after the county’s revaluation of property values goes into effect next year.
“We should have been incrementally raising taxes leading up to the revaluation,” said candidate David Nestler, currently vice president of the Main Street Sylva Association. “If we had incrementally raised taxes going up to it and gone into it with something of a surplus, we could have absorbed that loss.”
Nestler believes there’s no way around a tax increase, contending that local tax dollars go straight back into the community and so cutting the budget only hurts the community. But he wants to find ways to lighten the burden on those struggling the most. For instance, he said, state law allows for elderly people living on Social Security to be exempt from 50 percent of their property taxes. The law also states that if property tax is more than 5 percent — Nestler would like to see the town adopt a 2.5 percent version of the law — of a person’s income, the price is reduced.
“People that are at that level, they’re not our tax base,” he said. “We’re not going to lose that much revenue by giving people that are barely affording their property taxes a break.”
Other candidates were more cautious about voicing support for a tax increase, though all conceded that it would be something the board would need to discuss.
“I’d like to avoid raising property taxes in any way possible,” said Jeremy Edmonds, a mechanic who ran for mayor in 2013. “The only way I’d want to raise them is if we absolutely have to, if there’s nowhere we can cut.”
“I love to hold the line on taxes,” said Harold Hensley, who has served on the town board for 10 years and is the only incumbent in the race. “You can’t say they’re not going up sometime, but I’ve stood my ground so far.”
Some have criticized the town for drawing down its savings to compensate for a dearth of tax revenue, but in Hensley’s view it’s wrong to ask citizens for more money while the town’s fund balance is still above the state-mandated 8 percent of the total budget.
Nestler, meanwhile, said that he thinks it’s wrong for the town to use money it got for selling development rights to its old watershed at Fisher Creek to pay for budget deficits. If elected, he said his biggest priority would be using the $2.8 million left in the fund to clean up Scotts Creek, which runs through town.
“If you have to raise taxes you have to do it, but if you can get by without doing it you’re going to keep a lot more people happy that way,” said Charlie Schmidt, a planning board member who is running for a seat on the board. Schmidt couldn’t name any specific places in the budget that should be cut but said he’d consider the question carefully if elected.
Greg McPherson, a downtown building owner and adjunct art professor at Western Carolina University, said that he’d also be gun shy on raising taxes but would like the town to look for other revenue sources. His ideas thus far include installing parking meters, putting in a few vending machines in the defunct fire station and looking into getting a heated pool for which admission would be charged.
“I think that there’s ways for the town to make money without raising taxes,” McPherson said.
For McPherson, however, the biggest issue of the race is the town’s aesthetic needs. In particular, those of Mill Street.
“When you drive down backstreet (Mill Street) and say, ‘Someone should clean this up, I want to be that person,’” McPherson said.
McPherson’s to do list includes upgrading the sidewalks — there are several places where pedestrians are forced out on the street — getting fresh paint on buildings and, in the long term, burying power lines. He’d like to see the town partner with the building owners to make some of those things happening, perhaps using town manpower for some of those projects that would benefit the downtown aesthetic as a whole or creating a grant pool to help with some projects.
Nestler agrees that the town should take an active part in beautifying downtown, particularly Mill Street.
“Our downtown looks beautiful, but it could look better and I do think town government should play a strong role in making it look better,” he said.
The other candidates — Schmidt, Edmonds, Hensley — said they didn’t see any aesthetic projects downtown the town needed to tackle at the moment.
The candidates all seemed to agree that it’s part of the town government’s job to ensure an attractive downtown area, but some of them — Schmidt, Edmonds, Hensley — said they didn’t see any aesthetic projects downtown that the town needed to tackle at the moment.
“I think it’s a real enjoyable downtown atmosphere and haven’t really seen anything that needs to be changed, but if people had ideas I’d be more than welcome to hear them and see what we could do about it,” Edmonds said.
Downtown traffic, however, is still a discussion to be had, the candidates said. The suggestion of reverting Main Street to two-way traffic is basically dead — of all eight town board and mayoral candidates, only Hensley said he’d support the switch — but there are still other issues to hash out. Namely, how to get more parking on Mill Street; whether the right turn option on Spring Street should go away in order to eliminate the need for a light at its intersection with Mill; and whether the left turn only lane on Main Street is a good idea.
“We need to evaluate the Mill Street situation a little more,” Nestler said. “The study (from J.M Teague Engineering) didn’t really address all the possibilities there.”
The candidates generally seem to favor eliminating the light at Spring, feeling it would alleviate traffic congestion without really disrupting traffic flow. Most of them felt that the town should make an effort to find a way to provide more parking on Mill, thought Hensley said he didn’t see it as a problem. Both Hensley and Edmonds said they weren’t fans of the left-lane dividers on Main Street.
There’s one thing, however, on which all five candidates can agree.
As Edmonds said, “I just want to see Sylva prosper and become a great town.”
Each candidate has his own ideas of the direction Sylva should take over the next four years.
• Jeremy Edmonds: “If we could have more things like that (Concerts on the Creek), I think it would be really good. Have things for the community to come together and enjoy themselves. That encourages people from out of town to come.”
• Harold Hensley: “I’d love to see something as big as Lowe’s or Walmart. There’s room for different kinds of variety stores in the town. I know were not going to go back to the ‘50s when I grew up, but the town was a lot different.”
• Greg McPherson: “I would like to see some more amenities for the citizens. I would like to see the greenway be realized. I would like to see Bridge Park be finished out.”
• David Nestler: “I would like for it to promote itself as an outdoor recreation center. My biggest push on the town board is going to be cleaning up Scotts Creek. We have this creek that flows right through downtown — we could have a great river park access for fishing, rafting, tubing. I would like to see Sylva’s identity grow as an outdoor recreation center. Having served on the Main Street board, I’ve developed a good model of how I want to see Sylva grow and prosper as a community.”
• Charlie Schmidt: “Right now it’s still a relatively small rural town, but with the combination of Cullowhee growing, Western Carolina University growing, I’d like to see Sylva continue to grow and capitalize on the fact that here are 10,000-plus students in this area.”
Five candidates are running for three available seats
Jeremy Edmonds, 28
• Profession: mechanic at Whittier Automotive
• Political experience: Ran for mayor in 2013
• Reason to run: “I’m running for town board just to try and represent everyday people that live in Sylva, the people that work hard for a living, are homeowners and just normal regular people.”
Harold Hensley (incumbent), 78
• Profession: retired from 30 years with Jackson County Public Schools, ending his career as maintenance supervisor for the system.
• Political experience: 10 years on Sylva town board, member of Jackson Neighbors in Need and Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority boards.
• Reason to run: “I think I’ve done what’s been the best for the citizens of the town of Sylva and I plan on continuing that if they want me back.”
Greg McPherson, 45
• Profession: Adjunct professor at Western Carolina University’s School of Art and Design, exhibit designer for the school’s Fine Art Museum, owner of downtown Sylva commercial building.
• Political experience: McPherson has not held office or sat on a board before.
• Reason to run: “I’m running to get some focus on revitalizing downtown Sylva.”
David Nestler, 30
• Profession: Electrical engineering student at Western Carolina University and part-time arborist
• Political experience: Vice president and past president of Main Street Sylva Association, board member for Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority
• Reason to run: “Having served on the Main Street board, I’ve developed a good model of how I want to see Sylva grow and prosper as a community."
Charlie Schmidt, 35
• Profession: General manager at Speedy’s Pizza
• Political experience: Three years on town planning board
• Reason to run: “I feel with my experience on the planning board I would be a good member of the town board. You have a little bit more say. The planning board, we can make recommendations but we can’t actually enforce anything.”