Republican candidates deliberate Macon’s future
Even though all five of the candidates running for two open seats in the Macon County commissioner primary are Republicans, they all have a fairly different stance on the county’s role when it comes to spending and setting policies.
Commissioner Paul Higdon, who is seeking a second term in the District 2 seat, and former commissioner Ron Haven, who is seeking to fill the open District 3 commissioner seat, both have a fiscally conservative philosophy and the voting record to back it up.
The other three candidates for districts 2 and 3 — Manny Carrion, Greg Boyer and Karl Gillespie — consider themselves fiscally-responsible conservatives who understand the need for spending when it’s an investment in the future.
The current Macon County Board of Commissioners is comprised of one fiscal conservative (Higdon), one Democrat (Ronnie Beale), and three moderate Republicans (Kevin Corbin, Gary Shields and Jimmy Tate).
The three moderates and Beale typically find themselves on the same side of an issue while Higdon is often the lone opposition, especially when it comes to spending. With Corbin running for the North Carolina House of Representatives, the board will at least have one new commissioner. The question is whether voters replace him with a like-minded Republican or a challenger with more conservative views. Also, will voters re-elect Higdon or replace him with a challenger who is more progressive?
Here are the candidates’ positions on the issues facing Macon County.
Role of commissioners
Incumbent Commissioner Paul Higdon said the role of the board of commissioners was simple: collect taxes and provide services. He described his voting record as “conservative and consistent.”
“Every decision we make is based on spending money for services. We definitely need to have a set budget and take enough money from taxpayers to fund that budget,” he said.
“I want you to know that my goal is to serve each and every one of you,” Boyer said.
For Manny Carrion, the commissioners are responsible for preparing for the future and leading the county forward.
“I think they (commissioners) have done a great job leading our county and being progressive,” he said.
Local attorney Greg Boyer said he understands that one commissioner doesn’t hold any power — it takes the board working together to accomplish goals. He also knows that some issues are outside of the commissioners’ control.
“There’s many things we can’t do — we can’t change state or federal laws, but the local government can stay out of the way,” he said. “We don’t want to add rules and regulations that aren’t beneficial to the community.”
Haven introduced himself at a recent commissioner forum by saying Macon County is one of the worst places to do business. Even though he said he’s been able to make a good living in Macon County, he thinks more could be done to train students, attract new industry and create jobs. Having traveled all over the country putting on gun shows, Haven said many other smaller towns are seeing significant economic growth while Macon County is still lagging behind.
“If we had an economic director that could get information out across the country we’d be OK,” he said at a recent candidate forum. “We’re struggling here. If we want to survive, we’re going to have to make it boom.”
Higdon said the county does allocate about $100,000 a year toward economic development, which is used to pay the salary of the Economic Development Commission’s director Tommy Jenkins and to offer incentives for businesses. While Macon County did lose the Caterpillar plant and 150 jobs last year, Higdon pointed to many success stories — including the expansion of Brasstown Beef.
“I think Tommy (Jenkins) does a good job,” he said.
Constructing the new Parker Meadows recreation complex was another large economic development/recreation project the commissioners worked on for many years. While the project cost more than $3 million to complete, commissioners felt it was a good investment. Commissioner Kevin Corbin said the county estimated the ballpark would have a $6 million economic impact from bringing in traveling tournaments, but it’s actually had a $10 million impact.
Concerned about the price tag, Haven and Higdon both voted against the Parker Meadows project in 2013. Both commissioners thought it was a good project but didn’t think it was the right time to spend the money.
Carrion and Boyer both said building the complex was the right move at the right time.
“Sometimes you have to spend money to continue improving qualify of life for the unity and benefit for everybody,” Boyer said. “And Parker Meadows is also bringing in outside revenue to the county.”
Higdon said the backbone of the county’s economy — tourism, real estate and construction — was hit hard during the recession, but said those areas are slowly making a comeback. He added that he was also examining the county fees that could be restricting businesses from starting or growing.
“I’d like to do away with environmental health fees, construction fees and real estate fees and monitor that for one year and see if there is a positive impact,” he said.
Boyer said he would be in favor of doing away with any unreasonable fees that inhibit business growth. However, he said some fees were in place to pay for an important service like septic tank and private well inspections.
Karl Gillespie, one of Haven’s primary challengers, said the county needed to create a climate to attract new businesses without forgetting the importance of retaining and expanding existing businesses.
Carrion, whose company employs more than 40 people in Macon County, said he thinks the county is heading in the right direction when it comes to economic development. With a bustling downtown and more entrepreneurs opening restaurants, breweries and other tourism-related businesses, Carrion said the main concern he has is whether the county and town are promoting what they have to offer.
“We’ve gotten some great publicity but we need to take it and run with it,” he said. “I predict we’ll get more tourism because of that.”
Higdon said commissioners recently directed the planning board to find out where the cell service and Internet “dead zones” are in the county so they can start looking at where those services need to be improved. Providing better Internet and cell service throughout the county will lead to more businesses locating to Macon, he said.
Carrion agreed that improving broadband Internet and cellular service would encourage more part-time residents and entrepreneurs to relocate permanently to Macon County. Many people could run their businesses from home in the mountains if they only had the Internet service to telecommute.
“It would open a lot of doors. I meet new people every day who come here for the weekend, but they would be here fulltime if they had better service,” he said. “We live in such a beautiful part of the country and we have the qualify of life people want.”
Gillespie said the county needed to create a climate to attract new businesses while also working to retain the businesses it has and help them grow. Having an educated and trained workforce is critical to attracting and retaining industries.
“We have to let students know finishing high school is a good first step but they need to further their education,” he said. “And we need to fill these slots to cover our potential employment. If everyone gets the same degree we’re not meeting everyone’s needs. We have to have a broad employment base.”
In order to create jobs, Boyer said, the county first needs to decide what kind of community it wants to be and go after industry that fits into that identity.
“We need to have a vision for our future. We need to figure out who we are — a retirement community, a tourist town, agricultural or all three,” he said.
With continued cuts coming down the pike from the North Carolina General Assembly, education expenses have been a major talking point in this election.
Gillespie said the state has lost some ground in education in certain areas while some areas have been improved under a Republican-led legislature.
While the student population in Macon County has been on an upward swing, the school system has had to cut back on personnel to save money. Since North Carolina is ranked 42nd in the country for teacher pay, Gillespie said he supports the county’s 2 percent salary supplement for teachers. He added that more needs to be done to retain good teachers so they don’t leave for neighboring states that offer higher salaries.
“Charter schools will continue to be a challenge because when we lose students we’ll lose dollars,” Gillespie said. “We need to keep our eyes open — education choice is fine, but we need to understand the impact of that.”
Having served for four years as a commissioner, Haven said he never once voted against anything that would improve education. If elected, he said, he would continue to support giving teachers a 2 percent salary supplement.
Higdon said the county and state each have a role in funding public education — the county is responsible for school facilities and the state pays for everything else, including salaries, supplies and instruction. Higdon said the county has been doing its part by investing money annually into upgrading its schools.
“Our buildings are in great shape — we allocated $3 million this past year (for renovations),” he said. “We also locally fund 40 to 50 teachers to fill the state’s void.”
Higdon said he was disappointed that the proposed Connect N.C. Bond, which promises more than $1 billion in funding for universities and community colleges, doesn’t include funding for K-12 education.
“I think the state missed a golden opportunity to take a little of it to tag into K-12 to alleviate some of these problems we’ve been talking about for years,” he said. “I don’t support the bond simply because of that.”
Education is Carrion’s major platform in his campaign for commissioner. While he understands it’s the state’s responsibility to pay for education costs, he said he would be in favor of the county contributing more money toward the schools if it meant retaining teachers and better preparing students.
“Students are our greatest assets,” he said. “There comes a point when we have to put our foot down and do what’s right and take care of it locally if we have to.”
Boyer said economics and education go hand in hand because without a proper education, the younger generation can’t be competitive in the job market, and without a trained workforce, the county can’t attract new jobs. He added that he didn’t support the Common Core State Standards now being taught in the classrooms.
“We need to educate with common sense values,” he said.
Editor’s note: Candidates Ron Haven and Karl Gillespie answered questions at a forum hosted by the Macon League of Women Voters but did not return phone calls for a follow-up interview.
Meet the candidates
Five Republican candidates will appear on the March 15 primary ballot for the Macon County commissioners’ race. The top two Republican vote-getters will move on to the November election to run against the two Democrat candidates, Charlie Leatherwood and Bobby Kuppers.
Manny Carrion (Running for District 2)
• Age: 36
• Hometown: Lived in Macon County since he was 2 years old.
• Education: Graduated in 1997 from Franklin High School.
• Profession: Owner of Carrion Tree Service, silent investor in The Bowery restaurant in downtown Franklin.
• Experience: Ran for Franklin alderman three years ago, volunteers with Cold for a Cause, CareNet’s backpack program, sponsors Relay for Life, attends Discover Church and coaches youth sports.
• Describe yourself in three words: Entrepreneur, leader, family man.
• Why are you running? My four kids — Chase and Morgan, 8, Taylor 6, and Price, 4. When I graduated I did what everybody else did — I left Macon County to get a job — but I moved back after 10 years. I want to give the youth of Macon County the opportunity to stay in Macon County to find employment or start their own business.
Karl Gillespie (Running for District 3)
• Age: N/A
• Hometown: Macon County
• Education: N/A
• Profession: President of National Communications Inc.
• Experience: Serves on the Macon County Planning Board and the Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees.
• Describe yourself in three words: N/A
• Why are you running? N/A
Ron Haven (Running for District 3)
• Age: 59
• Hometown: Macon County
• Education: Franklin High School
• Profession: Former pro wrestler, operates several businesses, including the Sapphire Inn, Budget Inn, Gem Capital Shows and Appalachian Trail Services.
• Experience: County commissioner from 2010-14
• Describe yourself in three words: N/A
• Why are you running? N/A
Paul Higdon (Running for District 2)
• Age: 66
• Hometown: Macon County
• Education: Bachelor’s degree in environmental health science and biology.
• Profession: Wastewater development and construction contractor – Sewer Solutions, Inc.
• Experience: Commissioner from 2013-present
• Describe yourself in three words: Consistent, honest and conservative.
• Why are you running? The same reason I ran last time, and that’s to interject the consistent conservative vote on how we spend taxpayer dollars.
Greg Boyer (Running for District 2)
• Age: 66
• Hometown: Born in Massachusetts, moved to Florida as a child, moved to Macon County fulltime in 1999
• Education: Bachelor’s degree from Florida State, associate’s degree from Montreat College and a law degree.
• Profession: Lawyer since 1985, previously worked as a minister and social worker.
• Experience: Ran for District Court Judge in 2010, board chairman of the Smoky Mountain Pregnancy Care Center in Cullowhee, past president of the Macon County Humane Society, member of the Cullowhee Mountain Arts.
• Describe yourself in 3 words: Conservative, common sense and envisioned.
• Why are you running? A week before the filing was up I was sitting at the house thinking about issues not being addressed — I decided sitting around and complaining was not the thing to do. Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution. I think I have the skills as an attorney to listen and weigh out the answers.