Tough choices for voters in Haywood commission race
Four more-or-less equally well-qualified candidates are competing for just two open seats on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners, leaving voters with some hard decisions come Nov. 8.
The heavily covered race has seen a plethora of forums, news stories and interviews, all of which seem to bolster the idea that this race may be the most important in the county. Robin Black, Steve Brown, Commissioner Kevin Ensley and Brandon Rogers have been poked, prodded, and interrogated for months now, leaving few political positions obscured from the public and revealing very few differences.
There are, however, some interesting aspects to each candidate and their respective platforms. Furthermore, when the new commission convenes, they’ll have to pick a new chair following the departure of longtime chairman Mark Swanger.
Additionally, some important board party lines may need to be redrawn; three Democrats on the commission will return next year — Kirk Kirkpatrick, Michael Sorrells and Bill Upton — ensuring their majority.
Kevin Ensley, the commission’s lone Republican, is seeking re-election. Rogers, also a Republican, would with Ensley form a 3-2 minority on the mostly non-partisan commission, but the election of Black and/or Brown could push the commission’s constitution to all Democrat, or keep Ensley — or Rogers — the lone Republican yet again.
Regardless, all are charged with making Haywood County exceptionally competitive amongst surrounding counties –— not only in terms of business climate and educational funding but also in terms of tourism and property tax rates.
Which of these candidates will join Kirkpatrick, Sorrells and Upton is anyone’s guess at this point, but come Nov. 9, Haywood County must move into the “post-Swanger” era, for better, or for worse.
Robin Black is a CPA with 18 years of governmental and nonprofit audit experience. Born and raised mostly in Canton, Black could be called the “change” candidate — she’s a Democrat with obvious financial expertise and some conservative financial leanings, and is by far the most outspoken against the current commission, citing the new county animal shelter cost, the lack of affordable housing and even the sprinklers on the courthouse lawn as evidence a “shift in priorities” is needed.
Black graduated from Enka High School because her father opened a Napa auto parts store in Candler.
“He found it hard to get started here, so he put his business in Buncombe County,” she said, adding that that’s what she aims to prevent if she’s elected.
She later attended Wester Carolina University and UNC-Asheville, graduating with a degree in management and a post-grad degree in accounting. Perhaps because of her financial background, Black believes that economic growth is dependent on three factors — infrastructure, quality of life, and a trained workforce.
Regarding infrastructure, she says that broadband access is key.
“We’ve known we needed it for years, and seems to me they’ve just started talking about it in the last seven months,” she said.
Calling it a two-pronged approach, Black seeks legislation that would allow local governments to bring their resources to bear on the problem, or, at the very least, an end-around on existing legislation.
“Municipalities under state law can not offer broadband services. That needs to be changed,” she said. “If we can’t change that, the other thing we can do is similar to an audit client that I had in the western part of the state that had brought broadband to a small town (Andrews), and they made them stop because of this law. So they established a nonprofit and transferred all the assets over, and the nonprofit’s operating it now, and this town that’s like an hour and a half from here in the middle of nowhere has broadband. And we do not.”
Her second principle of economic development is that a lack of leisure and recreation activities discourages businesses from relocating.
“We don’t even have a decent movie theater in Haywood County,” she said. “With all due respect to the Strand and the Colonial — because I grew up down here at the Colonial watching Yellow Submarine — but if you want to watch ‘Star Wars,’ where you going to watch it? Everyone goes to Asheville. That’s money we’re throwing at another county.”
She “absolutely” supports the proposed 2 percent room tax increase, which if not for the efforts of Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, would currently be capturing thousands of dollars of tourism revenue that would be spent on tourism-related infrastructure.
Regarding the county’s contentious new animal shelter, Black sounds a lot like every other candidate.
“I know we need a new shelter, I’m not arguing that point. My point is, do we need the Taj Mahal of animal shelters? Four million for an animal shelter?” she said.
The county’s affordable housing crisis demands new answers to an old problem –— answers Black think’s she’s especially capable of handling.
“I have audited affordable housing projects for over 10 years and I spent five years running one,” she said. “I am uniquely qualified to understand the problem in affordable housing.”
Along those lines, she decried the commission’s repeated attempts to attain tax credits for the “tired old hospital project” that’s been rejected three times.
“Nobody’s gonna invest in that place,” she said, mentioning asbestos and a shifting building foundation and offering harsh words for commissioners.
Black’s final key to economic development centers around workforce development. She proposed the creation of programs at Haywood Community College that “meet current industry demands,” possibly including a vet-tech program in light of the new animal shelter.
Countywide comprehensive planning is another hot-button issue, and Black says she’s “fine” with creating enterprise zones, but not much more.
“Looking out into the county and telling people what they can and cannot do with their property other than when it’s a detriment, like high impact — stuff like that, we’re already handling,” she said.
Perhaps troublingly, Black is the only candidate to make major noise on the issue of unfunded liabilities.
The county’s net pension liability as well as other post-employment benefit liabilities like health care benefits for county retirees, she said, are about to undergo a major change.
“That will be going on to the county’s books this year. I know what the post-employment benefit number is that was on last year’s audit and it was like $14 million,” she said.
Black says the practice needs to come to an end.
“We can stop the bleeding,” she said. “When everybody talks about lowering debt service, they’re not even talking about the liabilities that have gone up by $4 or $5 million dollars a year. Now they’re going to be required to put them on the books, which is going to make our liabilities go way up, and our interest costs go way up, because we’re not in as good financial shape.”
A lot of accountants, Black said, are predicting that when this happens, it will affect the entire state’s bond rating.
With her financial experience providing a potentially valuable addition to the board, Black thinks the commission could also use even more diversity.
“You need a wide variety of people on the county commission,” she said. “You need an attorney (Kirkpatrick), you need a small business owner (Sorrells). Even though I’m running against Kevin, having somebody that knows that kind of stuff — land use — that’s good. An accountant is just another tool, another piece. But not only do I bring a financial aspect that I think the board is lacking, that they need, 51 percent of the voters in this county are female.”
If elected, Black would be the only woman and only financial professional on the board.
As far as selecting a new board chair to replace the retiring Mark Swanger, Black said she wasn’t interested in the job.
“I do not think the chairman should be a first-year member on any board,” she said, offering no predictions as to who it might be but stating that any of the three established incumbents would be acceptable.
If she were able to serve with any political figure from throughout history, she would pick founding father Thomas Jefferson.
“I respect him,” she said. “He was ahead of his time. Like everybody, he had his flaws, but it’s what he did his whole life — he served his community, his state, or his nation.”
Brown, an educator with significant business and nonprofit experience, is probably the more mainstream Democrat in the race. Born and raised in Haywood County, Brown — whose brother Gavin is the Mayor of Waynesville — earned a bachelor of arts in education from UNC-Chapel Hill and thought maybe he’d be a high school social studies teacher.
After spending a short time as a golf pro, he earned a master’s degree from WCU in middle grade math and science, and went on to be part owner of a Hazelwood hardware store for 22 years.
“I learned the value of what it is to have to live from paycheck to paycheck, and what it means to own a small business,” he said.
From there, he became the president of Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, and then worked for the Haywood County Public Schools Foundation for over a decade.
He then returned to WCU for his doctorate in his 50s. While he didn’t complete the work, he did walk away with a superintendent’s license and then surprisingly found himself serving as the executive director of the Haywood Regional Medical Center Foundation, which became moot less than three years later when the hospital was sold to for-profit Duke LifePoint.
For the last two years, Brown has served as the executive director of ARC of Haywood County, which serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“We’re in a mental health crisis,” he said, specifying that to him, mental health also includes alcohol, drugs, and other such issues.
“It’s a broad spectrum,” said Brown, who thinks that America still criminalizes those mental health issues.
“We deal with the intellectual and developmental disability side, but a lot of the individuals we serve also have a dual diagnosis,” he said citing a study that states 90 percent of county inmates admitted to having a mental health issue.
“If we can address that mental health issue, we can put them in situations where they can get treatment for their mental health issues which may be why they were in jail in the first place,” he said.
On the interrelated topics of economic development and land use planning, Brown favors the creation of enterprise zones to attract more jobs to the county.
“If you‘ve got these zones, for example at the exit of an interstate, you may want to protect those areas for development,” he said.
These zones could also be used to delineate agricultural and residential development as well, Brown added, and would likely feature a graduated incremental tax rate, with so-called “clawback” clauses in case unscrupulous companies decide to take the money and then run.
Like Black, Brown agrees that economic development in the county also needs to focus on quality of life issues. He supports the proposed 2 percent room tax increase, and also — like every other candidate — recognizes the need for greater broadband access in the county.
“The cable is here,” he said. “I think the school system and HCC have it. The problem is, we can’t get it to what they call ‘the last mile.’”
Brown proposes taking a look at the budget to see if the county can help extend cabling from main trunk lines to people’s homes and businesses, but doesn’t rule out seeking grants.
As to whether he would have supported the new county animal shelter, he admitted “grave” concerns over the $3.5-$3.75 million price tag, but said he was “a little bit involved” with the Friends of the Haywood County Animal Shelter, who asked him for fundraising advice.
“They asked me if it was reasonable to raise a million dollars, and I said without a doubt,” he admitted. Based on FHCAS’s promise to commissioners to raise that money, Brown says he would have supported it.
Looking back, Brown said he admired the professionalism, the transparency and the continued support of the public schools by the Swanger-led commission. Were he to be elected, Brown said he’d like to serve with a familiar idol of Americans of his generation.
“Since I grew up in the 60s I might have to say John F. Kennedy,” Brown said. “I feel like he had a real vision and he galvanized the country, got them together and made some really difficult decisions whether it was Democrat of Republican.”
Like Black, Ensley was born in Haywood County but attended Enka High School because his father bought a farm “just inside” Buncombe County.
He went on to earn an associate’s degree in civil engineering from Asheville-Buncombe Technical College and at the age of 22 became one of the youngest licensed surveyors in the state.
Ensley’s history on the board — which spans from 2002 to 2006 and then again from 2008 through today — presents him as common-sense conservative. He’s a clear choice for “values voters” who are pro-life and anti-alcohol, but has compromised frequently with his Democratic colleagues and repeatedly refused to say “never” in regard to the will of his constituents.
Perhaps the most authoritative source for infrastructure improvements in the county, Ensley’s all about water and sewer as an incentive to economic development.
“I learned very young when at a project in Arden, sewer and water were put in, and a plant popped up before the newly seeded grass even had a chance to grow,” he said.
That infrastructure is especially important for attracting affordable housing developments, he said, because there’s not much usable land left in the county, which drives cost up. Water and sewer allows more houses on similar-sized properties — due to septic requirements — which drives the cost down.
The other important infrastructural issue — high-speed internet — is also connected to water and sewer expansion, Ensley opines.
“As we put sewer lines in, we’re putting in conduit for high-speed internet lines to where all they have to do is just push that line through that sleeve, and they don’t have to worry about burying it,” he said.
Haywood County schools have trumpeted some major accomplishments as late, however, losing teachers to more competitive counties could begin to erode the system’s 11th in the state ranking.
Cautiously, Ensley advocates waiting for the school board to issue a report regarding teacher supplement pay before acting.
“I want to wait to see what the study shows on the teacher supplement issue,” he said. “And then if it does (recommend an increase in supplement pay), then we need to prioritize that and start working our way into doing it. I would favor a certain percent every year to build it up, because that’s the best way to get to your goal. If you do it all at once, you are looking at a tax increase.”
Ensley has served county residents for more than a decade now, and was contemplative when asked what future generations might think of the “Ensley years” of the commission.
“I think they’ll see that we’ve professionalized the board,” he said. “I think they would say that this is when transparency and professionalism started.”
He also mentioned proactively constructing county buildings that “should last for generations,” including the Justice Center, the Law Enforcement Center and the rehab of the historic courthouse just to name a few. He was also perhaps the commission’s biggest advocate for the new animal shelter.
When asked who he’d like to serve alongside were he re-elected — any political figure from past through present, he offered a surprising-yet-practical answer.
“I’ve worked with Mark Swanger, and he’s probably the most — when he doesn’t serve anymore, I just feel like there will be a void no matter who it is,” Ensley said. “I’m not cutting any of the candidates, but I’ve served with Mark for 12 years and I‘ve watched him serve as a board chairman for the school board for years. I think we’re going to miss his leadership on that board.”
Born and raised in Haywood County, Brandon Rogers attended Bethel, Pisgah, and Haywood Community College, where he became interested in machining and welding.
In his youth, he worked at Bi-Lo and a gas station in Canton before laboring as a production manager for almost 15 years at a Dayco subsidiary, and also took basic law enforcement classes at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College, enabling him to work part-time with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department.
Rogers comes off as a Reaganesque conservative with some practical contradictions — he’s in favor of increasing education spending, and also has soft spot for the shelter.
But his true Republican credentials stem from his time as a small business owner. Rogers with his father owns Rogers Tire and Lube in Canton, which has enjoyed 15 years of success despite naysayers advising him against such a venture.
“I feel that I am a job creator,” he said. “I’ve created a job for nine other families, just at my business. I feel that that’s important to Haywood County — not necessarily us needing big manufacturers to come in, which would be great, but I think that small business is where it’s at. I think going down the path I’ve gone, I could be a help to other small businesses, because I know how tough it is.”
Rogers — uniquely — proposes focusing on retention of those small businesses in addition to attracting new ones.
“I would like to see (commissioners) reward businesses that are already here that are trying to survive,” he said. “Even after you get a business open, it’s tough. After they are here, let’s reward them, whatever that may be. I hear too may times of businesses that’s already here in the county saying they’re thinking of moving to Buncombe or Henderson or even Jackson because from a tax standpoint, they get a better deal. I would like to see us reward the businesses that are here and then attract businesses to come in by not regulating them to death.”
Rogers also demonstrated his knowledge of the county budget by stating less than 25 percent of spending is county discretionary. If he could expand that, he said, he knows exactly how he’d approach it.
“I think it’s our economic development. Out of that, only three percent of that funding goes to our economic development. I’ve spoken with Buncombe and Henderson — some counties that are doing well I feel in that area — and they’re spending quite a bit more money than we are. I think this past year we were budgeted for $250,000. Buncombe was almost at a million and a half, if I remember correctly. Now, their population is almost twice what we are, so if we look at the population and cut it in half, they’re spending quite a bit more than we are.”
He also advocates spending more money on teachers.
“I’m the type of person that where we’re at is great — better than where we’ve been,” he said. “You look at the past 10 years, I think we’ve done an exceptional job of moving forward, but I’m not happy unless we’re number one, and that’s just the drive I’ve always had.”
For Rogers, delivering broadband access to Haywood’s residents and businesses means not reinventing the wheel.
“My big thing is looking at other counties that are successful to see what they’re doing,” he said.
Predictably, he thinks dealing with countywide land planning should occur on a case-by-case basis.
“I feel like we’re ruled and regulated a lot here,” he said. “I would like to hold that to a minimum.”
Were he to be elected, Rogers said he’d like to look over and see Rev. Billy Graham serving alongside him.
“Number one, he’s a Christian, which I am also. Being a Christian, there’s a lot of things that come along with that — integrity, honesty, commitment,” he said. “I feel like he is the type of guy that all people respect. I don’t know that you could ever find anyone who would say anything negative about him. He’s easy to get along with, a problem solver. I feel like he’s the type of guy that mediates and calms everybody down.”