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Budget issues top Macon commission race

On this, the seven candidates for the Macon County Board of Commissioners agree: the problems of a dour economy, and the subsequent need to watch every dollar spent and encourage any economic growth possible, is the No. 1 responsibility facing the next set of commissioners.

The number two issue? That, most likely at least in the minds of voters, would be the steep-slope debate. The question on the table is whether Macon County — site of the 2004 Peeks Creek landslide tragedy, albeit this was a natural disaster and not a manmade one — should regulate building on steep mountainsides.

Three seats on the five-member board are open, with the top vote-getters in District I and District 2 winning the seats – one in District I, which represents Highlands, and two in District 2, the overall Franklin area. The other two board seats come open in two years.

Macon County is an increasingly conservative-voting county. The old “outsiders”-can’t-win-truism of most counties isn’t true anymore here, either. Current Commissioner Jim Davis, a Republican now vying for a state Senate position, broke that rule by being elected way back in 1996 to the commission board.

In District I, Democrat Daniel Allen “Ricky” Bryson, a former commissioner, is trying to regain his previous seat on the commission from incumbent Republican Brian McClellan. During a recent candidates’ forum sponsored by The Macon County League of Women Voters, Bryson spoke of his experience (unfortunately for him, that doesn’t delineate him from McClellan) and the fact that when he was commissioner, funds had been routinely set back to offset bad times such as these. He also cited strong support for economic development, schools, and spoke against unfunded mandates passed down by the state.

Bryson did not mention one point in his favor that conservative Macon County might hold against McClellan: a driving while under the influence charge the incumbent commissioner picked up last year. McClellan didn’t mention it, either.

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Instead, McClellan talked of the need to offer incentives to companies willing to settle in Macon County. The more jobs, the more breaks from the county, that’s the general idea.

“We need to do that in order to be competitive,” McClellan said.

He also advocated zero-based budgeting, or making each county department start from ground zero when building and justifying an annual budget.

There also wasn’t much fierce talk in the battle for District 2. Ronnie Beale, a Democrat presently serving as chairman, like McClellan, spoke of the new economic development guidelines passed 18 months ago to allow for incentives. He said Macon County is finally getting the tools needed to help attract new jobs.

He spoke of stopping a “brain drain” in Macon County, in which the brightest young minds leave for jobs elsewhere. And he touted the new Iotla Valley Elementary School building. A construction contract was recently awarded to an Asheville company.

Democrat and incumbent Commissioner Bob Simpson spoke similarly, but added that during his tenure, the board of commissioners had helped oversee a new space for Southwestern Community College to operate in Macon County.

Simpson staked out a safe political agenda by expressing his support for children, the elderly, and fire, police and emergency services when it comes to budgeting priorities.

Charlie Leatherman, a Republican former commissioner trying to regain a seat on the board, used several of his four minutes available to emphasize his support for education. Leatherman, it should be pointed out, is an educator — he works for Macon County Schools and serves on the SCC Board of Trustees.

“We don’t have jobs for these kids who are graduating,” Leatherman said. “We don’t have jobs for those people who have lost their jobs.”

Ron Haven, a Republican, said he wants to apply what he’s learned as a business owner to Macon County government. He pointed to the need for a department-by-department budget analysis to find areas to cut waste. Haven also flatly came out against study of a steep-slope ordinance, saying this simply isn’t the time to worry about such things, given the dire economic issues.

Vic Drummond, an unaffiliated candidate, is unapologetically right leaning. He, like Haven, wants to see work stop on a steep-slope ordinance. (He made the small gaffe of saying that no houses in Macon County had been lost to landslides, leading several onlookers to whisper audibly to one another, ‘Hasn’t he heard of Peeks Creek?’)

Other candidates cited a desire to see what the planning board offers up in the way of steep-slope controls before condemning study of the ordinance out of hand.

Drummond criticized taxes being raised during a recession, and made a bid for revaluation of property in the county to take place next year instead of 2013 (it has been postponed from 2011).

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