Republicans vie for Macon commissioner seat
Macon County Commission Chairman Jim Tate will face fellow Republican challenger John Shearl in the May 8 Primary to claim the District 1 seat on the board.
While both men are Macon County natives, reside in Highlands, own landscaping businesses, volunteered for the Highlands Fire Department and have children that play soccer together, they have very different views about the role of county government.
The two candidates recently answered questions about the issues facing the county at a candidate forum hosted by The Smoky Mountain News and The Macon County News.
Tell voters about yourself and why you’re running?
Tate is the owner of Tate Landscaping Services in Highlands. He has served two, four-year terms on the board and is running for a third term.
“I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1995. I had a beautiful girlfriend who’s now my wife. I had a choice — I could go anywhere in the world to start a life and I chose Macon County because I personally think it’s the greatest place in the world. I am now the sixth generation of my family that made that decision. And since I moved home I made a promise to myself to make a difference. I’m going to make a sure they’re (pointing to his children) the seventh generation to make this decision and because I make that promise to them, I make it to all of you,” Tate said.
He added that if he’s re-elected for a third term in office, he would continue to work with the board to provide the residents with the services they need while maintaining the second lowest tax rate in the state.
Shearl said he grew up in Franklin and has worked since he was 12 years old to help buy his own clothes and school supplies. He’s been married for 31 years, has three children, one daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. He owns J&J Lawn Service and Home Maintenance in Highlands and Shearl Produce in Otto.
“I’m going to tell you right off the bat I did not sign up until 20 minutes until 12 on the last day of filing. The No. 1 reason I’m running is to protect my freedom and my private property,” Shearl said.
Shearl said the county commissioners were trying to infringe on private property rights through a proposed amendment to its Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control ordinance, which includes a requirement that anyone performing a land disturbing activity on their land or someone else’s must obtain a grading license from the county. Even though the commissioners have suspended the grading license program while they continue to hear feedback from the public and decide the best course of action, Shearl said he would completely do away with the requirement if elected.
As for criticism from people saying he can’t run on one issue — Shearl said it’s about more than this one issue. He also has a problem with the way to county spends money and thinks the county has too much money in its fund balance.
What are the top two issues facing Macon County and how would you address them if elected?
Tate said the lack of high-speed internet access is one of the major issues plaguing Macon County and the rest of Western North Carolina. While there’s no easy solution, he said the county has established a broadband committee to work on it and that the board has also been in communication with its state and federal counterparts to see what can be done to expand service.
“I wish I had the perfect answer, but we’re studying it locally and on the state level,” he said. “The main question is how do we fund it.”
Another key project the county is working on is a capital improvement plan to prioritize all the major renovation and/or replacement projects coming down the pipeline.
“We have some really large items we’re getting ready to spend money on,” Tate said. Franklin High School — do we continue to put Band-Aids on it, do we remodel or do we build a new one? Our senior center is exploding at the seams — how can we expand there?”
Those capital projects are too large to just come out of the general fund budget, Tate said, which is why it’s important to have a healthy fund balance that can help fund some of those projects.
Shearl said Macon County’s drug problem was a serious issue that needed to be addressed.
“As a county commissioner I’m not sure exactly what we can actually do for that, but I’m open to any suggestions,” he said.
As a business owner, he said he couldn’t get any help because he conducts random drug screenings on employees.
“Look at all the people looking for help — no one can find anybody. We’re in trouble,” he said.
Secondly, Shearl said the county needs to make sure its providing the best services it can to all the residents while also being mindful of the cost to residents. As a conservative person, he said the county needed to operate within its budget.
“It was brought up that I’d shut down the government. I am a conservative — I worked hard for all I have but that don’t mean I’m going to shut down the government. I believe in the government, we need government, but we need limited government,” he said. “I want the private sector to grow — not the government. We need jobs in the county but we need people who can do those jobs.”
As a commissioner, how do you ensure all the outlying communities in Macon County are provided adequate services — particularly in Nantahala?
Tate said it’s a hard question to answer, but something the commissioners are constantly faced with during budget season. Do you pour money into the Franklin area because that’s where the majority is and that’s where a concentrated number of people live in poverty or do you pour money into Highlands where a majority of the county’s tax base comes from? And then there’s unincorporated areas like Otto and Nantahala that also have unique needs that need to be addressed.
“Everyone that pays taxes deserves to be treated the same,” he said. “I don’t give favoritism to one over the other. I’m going to work hard for all of them.”
The county does have to spend more per student to support the Nantahala K-12 school that has less than 100 students, but Tate said the Nantahala Library and community center would definitely be a part of the county’s capital improvement plan.
“You’ve got to listen,” Shearl said. “I had a meeting with the residents of Nantahala — they’re ignored. They said they are treated like the redheaded stepchild. They get nothing.”
Shearl said the best way for commissioners to ensure all the communities’ needs are met is for them all to bring their wish lists to the commission before budget time and see what can be done that year.
“Let’s put it in the budget — that’s how you get it,” he said. “If I’m commissioner we’re going to set a budget and live within the budget.”
How would you rate the efficiency of the current board?
Tate had a long list of accomplishments the board has made over the last six years.
“We survived Obamacare with 360 employees without a tax increase; looking at this year alone, we’re looking at a $650,000 increase in health care over last year and we’ll do it without a tax increase. We’ve made significant enhancements to our recreation facilities — we completed the Parker Meadows complex without a tax increase; we (renovated) the Highlands and Franklin pools without a tax increase and we (renovated) community centers in Highlands and Franklin without a tax increase,” he said. “We’re running Macon County as efficiently as we can.”
“I don’t keep up with what the commissioners are doing,” Shearl said. “What got my attention was the soil and erosion ordinance that’s going to require you to get a license to do work on your own land. That is unconstitutional my friends.
“I haven’t kept up with them doing their job — I’m sure they all feel they’re doing their best but as a conservative person I see it differently.”
Shearl went back to the issues he sees within the budget and the county’s spending. He pointed out that the county property tax rate went from 27.9 cents per $100 of assessed value to 34.9 cents per $100 in 2015.
“That’s a pretty significant tax increase, especially for our senior citizens living on Social Security or whatever means they have,” he said.
In a follow-up question about the budget and the property tax rate, Tate explained why the millage rate went up in 2015. The state requires counties to perform a property revaluation every four years. However, the state made exceptions during the recent recession and Macon County went eight years without one. When the county finally completed one in 2015, property values decreased, which means the county would lose property tax revenue. Since the state also requires counties to pass a revenue-neutral budget, the county had to increase the millage rate to make up for the property value loss and pass a revenue-neutral budget. The county is still collecting about $26 million in property taxes — the same amount it collected before the revaluation.
“Overall values went down and we still had to bring in $26 million — some people had an increase in their taxes but some had a tax decrease — it all balances out, it all equals $26 million,” Tate explained.
As for Macon County holding on to about $20 million in its fund balance, Tate said there’s a reason that reserve is there — for emergencies, natural disasters and infrastructure needs. It also boosts Macon County’s credit rating, which helps when the county has to take out a loan on a big project.
“If we go to get a $50 million loan to take care of Franklin High, all the banks look at our credit rating. Currently because of our fund balance and because this current board cut our debt in half from $60 million to $30 million in six years, we’re ranked in the top 10 percent not just in the state but in the entire country for county financing,” Tate said. “Do you know the difference between a 2 percent and a 3 percent loan? It’s $500,000 a year in interest.”
Where do you stand on the controversial grading license issue?
Tate took a minute to give people a brief history of the grading license requirement, which was implemented in 2008 before he was elected in 2011. He said Commissioner Paul Higdon originally brought up the issue last year and asked that the soil and erosion ordinance be reviewed. He wanted the grading license part to be removed from the ordinance, but he board ended up voting unanimously to suspend the grading license program while the issue was sent to the planning board for review just as they periodically do for all ordinances.
The planning board came back with recommendations, which included keeping the grading licensing requirement. At that point, the board decided to open it up to a public hearing to receive feedback. Tate said the commissioners were inundated with comments regarding the ordinance and the program is still suspended while commissioners try to work out a compromise.
“I’m not a fan of Macon County government invading people’s personal property rights,” Tate said. “I won’t vote for anything that will take over personal property rights — I have some concerns with some recommendations from the planning board.”
On the other hand, Tate said he also thinks there are some aspects of the ordinance that are beneficial to residents. For example, it helps to ensure a neighboring property is not damaged by someone else’s grading project on their property.
There are also educational aspects of the ordinance that Tate would like to explore. “Let’s make it voluntary. If you come get a permit from Macon County, we give you materials that might help you with a grading project. If we can make a difference and stop a major sedimentation issue then we should,” he said.
“I’m against it,” Shearl said. “I don’t want any more government rules, regulations, or anything — especially on my own private property.”
Even though the grading license program has been suspended, Shearl said it’s still on the books and could be brought back any time. He wants to see the county do away with it completely. If the only benefit is keeping residents from causing sedimentation on a neighbor’s property, Shearl said those types of issues could be handled in civil court.
Macon County Schools needs $3 million in capital needs for this coming year — What can the county do to meet these capital improvement needs?
“That’s why it’s important to have a healthy fund balance so we have somewhere to turn when these expenses come up. We have a $48 million budget — it hasn’t passed yet — but a third of it goes to our school system. We can afford it if we have to because we’re in a great financial shape,” Tate said.
“Put it in the budget and live within the budget if our kids and schools need it,” Shearl said. I’m a product of Macon County school system. I want the schools to be the best they can be for our students, but it’s going to cost. I believe honestly that any major expenditure (that comes before the county) the taxpayers should have a say in it. If I’m elected I will listen and I will vote to provide whatever you say we can afford, but it will be in the budget.”