Candidates focus on Macon’s future
Macon County residents will more than likely recognize the names of the four commissioner candidates who will appear on their Nov. 8 ballots.
District 3 Commissioner Paul Higdon is running for a second term after unseating Democrat Bobby Kuppers during the 2012 commissioner race. Higdon is often the voice of dissent on the board when it comes to spending money. While some would say he hasn’t accomplished much during his first term, Higdon said his opposition to certain projects has at least created more discussion.
“I think my questioning viewpoints have been healthy for the board and the decisions being made,” he said. “It made them have a deeper and more thoughtful conversation about issues.”
Now that he has the first-term learning curve behind him and he’s not worried about running for a third term in 2020, he says he will be more aggressive in his fight to get some things changed. A couple of his goals include getting a convention center built, permitting fees reduced and getting rid of the gun-free zones on county property so law-abiding citizens can protect themselves.
Kuppers is running again in hopes of reclaiming his seat on the board. As a teacher at Franklin High School, he has a big heart for public education. If elected, he wants to focus on being a more involved commissioner and a voice for his constituents. He’s unsure of his chances given the last election when Higdon won with 57 percent of the vote.
“I think it will come down to turnout and how satisfied people are with the status quo — maybe there’s some buyer’s remorse out there,” Kuppers said.
Retired educator Charlie Leatherman, who also served previous terms as a commissioner, is running for another chance to serve District 2 — the only difference is this time he’s running as a Democrat instead of a Republican. He said party affiliation had no place in county government.
“I’m neither,” he said. “I’m an independent thinker not controlled by political handlers. What’s good for a Democrat will be good for a Republican and vice versa — we’re all just people.”
The only new name on the ballot this year will be Karl Gillespie, running as a Republican for District 2 commissioner. He’s no stranger to the community though — he has served on the planning board, Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees and owns a local business in Franklin.
The District 2 seat is open this year as Commissioner Kevin Corbin is vacating his seat to run for state representative. The outcome of this election could significantly change the dynamic on the board. If Kuppers is able to beat out Higdon and Leatherman wins the District 2 seat, the board would then have three retired educators, including sitting commissioner Gary Shields. With public education funding being a hot topic lately, three educators on the board could make a huge difference when it comes to local funding decisions.
Education funding has been a major talking point in Macon County and the rest of the region during this election cycle. Commissioners have recently been faced with the cost of renovating and repairing school facilities, complaints about the amount of state funding for operational costs, controversy over money going to charter schools and lottery revenue not coming to the local school systems as promised.
This issue has become more complex as public education advocates have argued the state is cutting local funding while state legislators say they’ve increased public education funding since the Republicans took over the majority in 2013. The real answer is yes — the dollar amount in the state budget for public education has increased — but local school districts are receiving more operating funds because the money is going to teacher raises, charter schools and private school vouchers.
No matter who they side with on the issue, all four candidates are products of the Macon County public school system and say providing adequate education funding is a top priority for them.
Kuppers said funding public education has always been a team effort of the federal, state and local government. While the local government has done a great job of providing bricks and mortar, he said the state hasn’t been pulling its weight lately.
“It appears the state is not necessarily providing the funds it did in the past, which has put us in an uncomfortable position,” he said. “The county can’t be expected to pick up all the cuts from the state.”
If state funding continues to decrease for traditional public schools, Kuppers said commissioners would need to figure out what the county could afford to keep a high standard of education.
As an educator at Franklin High School, Kuppers said he wants to be part of the early planning process for constructing a new high school complex.
“I have a unique viewpoint on what public education should and could do — I’ve been on both the supply and user end.
“I think eventually we’ll need it and this is the time to start talking about it and laying out plans,” he said. “We need to ask ourselves what a 21st-century high school looks like. It’s not too early to start asking even if construction and financing are years away.
Higdon says there’s no doubt the county had lived up to its statutory obligation to fund the school system’s brick and mortar needs and gone above and beyond its duty by providing additional operational costs when needed, especially since Macon County is home to two K-12 schools that cost more to operate. Right now, public education funding makes up 20 percent of the county’s $48 million annual budget.
“You hear that the state is cutting education funding and that’s a convoluted issue, but the numbers I got from DPI (The N.C. Department of Public Instruction) show that the legislature has dedicated more money to education. Locally, I think we’ve done an excellent job in education. We’ve built new schools and renovated others. We’ve spent $50 million since 2008 in upgrading and building school infrastructure and we still owe $35 million.”
Higdon was hesitant to answer the hypothetical question of whether the county would or should step up to fill the funding gap if the state allocations don’t keep up.
“I’m hopeful that we’re never faced with that choice,” he said. “I would say yes the county would step up, but to what level? We have other programs we have to fund — education is only one function of local government. It would be incumbent upon the school board to make sure education dollars are spent wisely.”
Higdon does believe in taking care of the infrastructure investments by staying on top of repairs, but he isn’t convinced at this point that a new high school is needed. He said he wouldn’t propose a major funding increase or a tax increase to pay for a new school without deep conversations and input from the public. A new high school complex could cost upwards of $60 million.
“We’re certainly not going to let education suffer but before we write a blank check we would have to research it,” Higdon said. “In these economic times we’re having now it may be something to look at long term but not right now.”
Most commissioners agree that state law requires the county to only be responsible for brick and mortar while the state is responsible for operational costs, but Leatherman says the statutes aren’t as clearcut as that. One part of the law does say counties are responsible for capital projects while another part of the law says the counties should provide adequate funding when added with state funding.
“The state has been bypassing funding procedures and formulas for local education agencies and just saying ‘this is what we can afford and here’s your cut,’” Leatherman said. “I think the county is responsible for making up the difference.”
However, he knows raising taxes is always a last resort for commissioners.
“It’s extremely unpopular to raise taxes for school expenses,” he said.
Leatherman was on the board when commissioners voted in a 2-percent supplement for teachers and he gave his supplement to the Macon County Academic Foundation. If re-elected, he said he would give away a portion of his commissioner stipend as well — 15 percent to the academic foundation, 15 percent to Macon Citizens Habilities and 15 percent to Macon County Emergency Services.
“It can be spent any way they want to,” he said. “I know it’s not a lot of money but I still want to give it.”
As a retired educator, Leatherman also wants to begin discussions about building a new high school or doing major renovations to the existing building.
“That’s something that Macon County needs to be prepared for,” he said.
Gillespie said education and economic development were his biggest priorities and are tied closely together. He wants Macon County to support high education standards and low classroom sizes.
“Because of my business background, one thing that means a lot to me and what I’m most familiar with is economic development and the foundation in which economic development sits is education,” he said. “We need to provide a K-12 and college education system K-12 to make sure that our workforce is well trained from top to bottom.”
In addition to working closely with state legislators to make sure they’re meeting their public school funding responsibilities, Gillespie said he wants to find out how much money it takes to educate a child in Macon County. If the state isn’t providing that amount, he would be in favor of making up the difference on a local level.
“At the end of the day Macon County children are the responsibility of Macon County,” he said. “I think there’s other money available where taxes wouldn’t need to be raised to fund it.”
Improving the economy is still something residents and business leaders are concerned about. Before the recession, Macon County’s economy relied on the construction industry — mainly due to the demand for second homes in the mountains — but now that is shifting.
Construction and real estate are still an important economic drivers that benefit many other related service businesses, but commissioner candidates seem to all understand the importance of Macon County’s tourism industry while still finding opportunities to diversify.
Commissioners are also limited in what they can do to improve the economy. They can’t create private sector jobs but they can change location regulations in a way that makes it easier for businesses to get started and expand.
To improve economic development, Kuppers said Macon County needed to decide its identity and work toward specific goals.
“I don’t accept that we’re just a retirement community. Macon County is a prime location for small business, outdoor recreation and tourism,” he said. “Whatever we as a community define us to be, we need to focus on it.”
As far as infrastructure, Kuppers said Macon has fairly good roads and an airport, but it’s missing high-speed internet capability to offer the school system and students trying to do homework at home. More entrepreneurs could also start businesses and part-time residents could move here full-time if they had a reliable connection at their mountain homes.
“We have to be willing to invest in our community if we expect businesses to come in and invest in us,” he said.
Kuppers said the county has done a good job offering what incentives it can to help businesses expand in Macon County, but he said more could be done by visiting with business owners and listening to their needs and concerns.
He said one great thing the county did was saving the old Cowee School and turning it into a heritage center and small business incubator for local artists. There are five small businesses running out of the building right now.
“Those are the kinds of partnerships we need to be looking for,” he said.
Higdon said he has continued to push for a thorough review of all county regulations and processes to look for ways to make the county’s policies more business friendly. For example, he suggested decreasing the county health department’s environmental service fees and monitoring it to see if it spurs any growth. The idea didn’t catch on, but Higdon said the other commissioners did seem interested in another idea he has to build a county convention center that could host large groups for conferences and events.
“If we had a venue to attract these trade shows it would be great for small businesses and would benefit tourism and the board was receptive to it,” he said. “We can take some of that $20 million we have in our fund balance to invest in stimulating the economy.”
Leatherman said the commissioners’ hands are tied when it comes to creating jobs and offering incentives since the gutted Rural Center no longer has the financial resources it once had for struggling local governments.
He also said the Macon County Economic Development Council missed its chance to save existing jobs in the county. In the last few years, Macon has lost several big industries, including Caterpillar.
“The EDC should have been asking years ago how to keep the jobs we have here,” he said.
Leatherman said the construction industry and second-home market are slowly recovering in Macon County, but that the county had little to offer to get manufacturers to relocate to the area.
“The thing we need to focus on is making it attractive to the people who live here to improve tourism businesses,” he said.
Gillespie said the local government’s role in economic development is to foster an environment where private industry can thrive.
“I don’t think county government should be in business, but we should create a pathway to let free markets take place,” he said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job but there’s always more we can do to further enhance our ability to attract folks.”
Gillespie said he knows that regulations are necessary but thinks they should be closely reviewed to ensure they’re serving their purpose and not hindering growth. He said his service on the county planning board has given him a well-rounded education on the county’s ordinances and regulations. He was part of the planning board’s efforts to review several ordinances to make processes easier for those applying for permits.
“We made them extremely user-friendly without compromising the meaning of the ordinance,” he said.
As for the future of Macon’s economy, Gillespie referred to what his grandmother told him years ago — “If you want to live in Macon County, you need to be in a service business.” He still thinks that rings true and that Macon offers great opportunity for small businesses, which is why he wants to be heavily involved in the county’s efforts to bring better high-speed internet to the area.
Budgeting and taxes
The budgeting process in Macon County has been fairly mundane as far as the public’s concern. The commissioners passed a revenue-neutral budget this year for without increasing the property tax rate for residents. After a revaluation process in 2014, Macon County went from having the lowest tax rate in the state — 28 cents per $100 of valuation — to the third lowest tax rate of 35 cents.
The county has conservatively budgeted for sales tax revenue increases and has a healthy fund balance of about $20 million. While some candidates think that fund balance is too high, others say it’s necessary for emergency situations.
Kuppers said the county has done an amazing job at keeping the tax rate down, especially during the recession years when he served on the board.
“I think it’s remarkable what we’ve done, but we need to make sure we’re doing all the things we need to do with that tax rate,” he said.
For example, the library recently announced it was cutting back its hours to make up a budget shortfall of $8,000. Kuppers said the county could look at providing more funding for the library to stay open as much as possible.
“I spent lot of time on the budget during my first term — it’s the biggest job we did — and now I’m in a much better position than the first time I ran,” he said. “I know if you’re going to raise property tax, you need to have a good reason and raise it for that reason.”
Higdon says the county is in good fiscal shape and attributes a lot of that to County Manager Derek Roland. Roland was hired shortly after Higdon took office almost four years ago. While Roland was young and inexperienced at the time, Higdon said he fought to get Roland hired and now considers it one of his greatest accomplishments during his first term.
“He’s been reviewing all the policies we’ve had in place for years and he’s saved us money on risk pool insurance, a phone system and found significant health insurance savings,” Higdon said.
Higdon does have a point of contention about the county’s $20 million fund balance and thinks that some of the money could be utilized for county needs.
“The state recommends keeping a month’s worth of expenses in reserves,” he said.
He suggested dropping the property tax rate a few cents to eat up some of that funding, but that didn’t go over well with the rest of the board members.
Leatherman has been the only candidate to say he wants to reduce the budget, but hasn’t specifically said where he would cut. He did say he wouldn’t cut education, sheriff’s office or emergency services — three departments that take up a huge percentage of the county budget.
“When I left as chairman the tax rate was 24.5 cents — the lowest in the state,” he said. “I know we have to raise a certain amount of money to operate on but I would like to see the rate reduced somewhat.”
Gillespie said he wants to continue having government transparency when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. He said current commissioners have made some very difficult and sound fiscal decisions in recent years, including the large investment into the Parker Meadows sports complex.
“It’s very easy to look back and say it was the right decision because it’s been very successful — sales tax numbers paint a clear picture of that and I think it will continue to grow,” he said. “I think there are other opportunities similar to Parker Meadows we can look at in the future.”
When it comes to the county’s $20 million fund balance, Gillespie said he doesn’t know what the magic number is or how much is too much for a reserve fund. However, he said having a healthy fund balance does have some value when the county goes to borrow money and in cases of emergency.
Get to know the candidates
(Republican running for District 2)
• Hometown: Fifth-generation Franklin native
• Age: 54
• Background: Worked for Global Communications 17 years before he moved back to Franklin in 1999 to start his own business — National Communications, Inc.
• Political experience: None
• Why are you running? “I see running for county commissioner as serving the same purpose as other boards I serve on — and that’s to give back to the county that has been good to be me and my family for many years.”
(Democrat running for District 2)
• Hometown: Macon County native
• Age: 65
• Background: He has operated an independent tax business since 1996 after retiring from the Macon County School system where he taught math and gifted education.
• Political experience: Served two terms as commissioner until 2008, including two years as vice chairman and two years as chairman.
• Why are you running? “It’s a combination of different reasons, like being a part of something that’s positive for the county. And I’ll be about 70 at the end of the term if I get elected, so one last time I’d like to serve again if the people want me.”
(Republican running for District 3)
• Hometown: Fifth-generation Macon County native
• Age: 66
• Background: He served in the U.S. Army for two years and the graduated from the University of Arkansas Little Rock with a degree in environmental health. He currently operates a small business — Sewer Solutions, Inc.
• Political experience: He is currently serving his first term as a Macon County commissioner.
• Why are you running? “I got into politics because I wanted to have a voice. As the owner of two small businesses, I wanted a voice in how we spend our hard-earned tax dollars.”
(Democrat running for District 3)
• Hometown: Family moved to Franklin in 1960 when he was 5 years old
• Age: 62
• Background: Served in the U.S. Navy for 25 years before moving back to Franklin to become a high school teacher and coach in 2000. He teaches civics and government and used to coach football.
• Political experience: Served as a Macon County Commissioner for District 3 from 2008-2012.
• Why are you running? “The first time I ran in 2008 I was teaching an AP government class and I was always talking to them about the importance of getting involved in your community. So when a commissioner seat came open my students said ‘why don’t you run?’ so I did. This time I got a call from the chairman of my party and he asked me if I’d be willing to run again and I said yes.”