Macon commissioner incumbents run to keep seats
Two incumbent candidates running for re-election to the Macon County Board of Commissioners say they want to see the current board’s progress continue, but the two challengers — one Republican and one Democrat — say the county is moving in the wrong direction.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale, a Democrat, is seeking his fourth term on the board. During his tenure, he has been a vocal advocate for public education funding and in Raleigh he’s been a vocal advocate for more mental health and addiction resources for Western North Carolina through his involvement with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.
Commissioner Gary Shields, a Republican, is completing his first term on the board. As a retired Macon County educator, his priorities have been focused on public education, public safety and public health.
Challengers Ron Haven and Betty Cloer Wallace may be in opposite political parties — Republican and Democrat, respectively — they agree that the current board of commissioners is not doing enough to promote economic development and provide for the needs of the people in Macon County.
Tell us about yourself and why you’re running for commissioner.
Shields: I think it’s important for me to keep involved in things. In education the subject is singular. With the Board of Education it was a little broader but when I moved into county commissioner, you have a number of topics and departments — everywhere I go it’s a new topic for me and that’s what’s kept me interested. I don’t know everything — I’m still learning — but I’ve enjoyed it and I hope I can continue with this type of work.
Wallace: I’m dismayed that Macon County continues to spiral downward, now ranked by the North Carolina Department of Commerce as a Tier I county for economic distress for the fifth year in a row. We can do better than that, but only if we work toward more local government transparency, less top-down authoritarianism, and more involvement by our citizens in bringing new ideas to our local government without fear of intimidation, insult and ridicule.
My experience as a school district superintendent and my administrative credentials in public service have been a lifetime of preparation for running for Macon County Commissioner, and I want to use my experience to work toward progressive and sustainable change to counteract the top-down voting bloc that has controlled our Board of Commissioners for many years.
Haven: I keep hearing all over the county that commissioners are moving forward and being in the majority — but there’s many ways to interpret that. For the last 10 years businesses have been closing and Macon County is losing jobs, kids are dying from drug overdoses, crime is on the rise like never before and homes are being broken into. We have an epidemic and the majority is doing nothing to help. How are they moving the county forward? They’re not. I don’t really want to be a county commissioner, but I think I could bring some jobs into this county.
Beale: The reason I’m running for my fourth term is I think, along with my colleagues, we’ve made some steady progress in a lot of areas and we continue to make progress. We have steadily improved the services to the citizens, we’ve got newer schools and safer schools, I’m very proud of what we’ve done with mental health and what we’re working now for the opioids, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
If elected, what would be your top three goals and how would you accomplish them?
Shields: The three things I focus on during budget time is public safety — our law enforcement and EMS because you need to feel safe in your environment, our health services and we have an excellent health department, and public education. If we’re all trying to enhance our public education system we’re planting a seed and to me that’s the leveling field. Supporting public education is something you have to continue with because it affects everything. Those three things make up 73 percent of our budget.
Wallace: We should set long-range priorities for the entire county and continually review and reorder them for cost, feasibility and timeliness. Our greatest need at this time is economic development, providing employment opportunities that can support families, followed by bringing the drug epidemic under control and preparing for the growing population of retirees, including medical services.
We must put money into our school facilities, law enforcement and detention center, and services for the growing population of retirees, rather than continuing to make piecemeal decisions to appease special interests that serve only a limited population and we should initiate long-range planning for a civic center large and complex enough to house high school graduations and events.
Along with promoting affordable housing, we should support and encourage home ownership, rather than overburdening home and property owners with unnecessary local regulations and fees. For example, we should support and enforce the state environmental laws, including erosion control, but scrap the locally proposed “grading license requirement” for property owners who do their own work.
Haven: My main complaint with this county is we need to offer more for our kids that graduate from our schools. We have the early college and I’m thankful for that — but there’s nothing here so they have to go somewhere else. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. When you have no opportunity and job growth is nothing and you’ve gone from a Tier 3 to a Tier 1 county, that’s why people turn to drugs and crime. We need to help people by giving them opportunity.
Beale: First of all you don’t get nothing done by yourself. You hear all these promises but you don’t get nothing done by yourself — you have to work with your colleagues on the board and you have to listen to the people. As we move forward, we’ll be talking about our space needs study that’s going to serve the citizens for the next couple of decades for construction and remodeling (county facilities). We also have to be mindful of our hospital situation — that’s a real concern. When new businesses want to move want to move to Macon County the first three things they look at is health care, schools and recreation. With recreation we’ve done real good — we have a band new facility, the Parker Meadows facilities. I think our schools will compete with anywhere, especially in the western part of the state. On health care, that’s ever changing. With what’s going on with the sale from Mission to HCA that’s sort of out of our hands but we can and have had input so we’re hopeful we’ll always have a hospital presence in Macon County.
Some people in the Nantahala community feel like they aren’t receiving adequate services — what’s your position on funding more law enforcement and providing a new library/community center?
Shields: I think with the Nantahala community we’re going to have to give public safety some more attention. We need to enhance their community whether it’s law enforcement or a place they can go for media and library time. I’m up for listening to their needs and it’s something we want to keep focused on. We have a school resource officer at Nantahala School who can answer an emergency call in the area until back up can arrive — the sheriff has a plan in place and I’ll listen to the sheriff when making those kinds of decisions.
Wallace: Nantahala has been long neglected in comparison with the rest of the county in regard to law enforcement, communications technology, and civic and educational facilities and opportunities, and it is not because of lack of asking or because funding is not available. Nantahala is continuously relegated to inequitable funding and services simply because Franklin and Highlands have always been given favored priority, leaving Nantahala further behind in every aspect of county services. Nantahala needs a reconditioned and expanded school and a separate community center that can accommodate extensions of all our county departments and programs, and with resetting of priorities the county can certainly afford to provide them. Perhaps, also, Nantahala would do well to explore incorporation as a municipality in order to have a more visible and vocal seat at the table.
Haven: I’m willing to do everything we could for that — ain’t nobody that doesn’t want to see their town have great law enforcement, recreation and schools.
Beale: I was liaison to the library for several years and we looked and looked for a place over there to construct a new library — that is a real problem in the Nantahala area. First of all you’ve got to be concerned about water and sewer because that’s a public facility. So my idea is to construct it right there on the site it’s on now. There’s some land available and you’ll have to build it to suit that particular land. I think you’ll see that in our capital needs plan moving forward. When it comes to law enforcement back before the recession we had a plan to eventually put a full-time deputy out there. The SRO at Nantahala School is a fully certified deputy and if there’s any emergency in Nantahala, he can answer that call. We’ll continue to look at that and do it in steps because if you’re going to take a $400,000 hit to one department you’re looking at a tax increase and I don’t know of any of my colleagues that are interested in raising taxes.
What is the county doing (or should be doing) to address issues like broadband and economic development?
Shields: I’m liaison to the county broadband committee. Southwestern Planning Commission has been excellent in helping us and so has Balsam West and our emergency services director Warren Cabe, but we’ve kind of run into a standstill. We’ve run up on a situation with where do we go now? We’ve about beat this to death and I’m ready for some new information — something we can act upon. After a while you kind of look to the providers for a lot of help but I understand business and profit and loss and there has to be a profit to make it work. Congress once made a law saying everyone should have the opportunity for electricity and now broadband is just as important.
I’m working on the Business Advisory Council and if we don’t get a qualified workforce we’re not going to see job growth. We are seeing changing thoughts in the educational system now — we used to have college prep, tech prep, or careers diploma and now I see us gravitating back to that. We have a hard job of converting our students’ thinking to more hands-on career type things because we spent a long time telling our kids they’re going to college. But we need welders, auto mechanics, health care professionals, heating and cooling technicians — it’s a need. Your qualified workforce is going to determine your economic development.
Wallace: Macon County has fallen into a downward economic spiral as a number of large industries closed and as a succession of storefronts were boarded up. We should develop clear and forthright industrial recruitment presentations and aggressively contact a wide range of businesses and industries through industrial associations and commercial publications to try to entice divisions or even headquarters to locate here. We can certainly offer tax incentives and negotiate long leases, but we should quit deeding away plots of our prime county-owned commercial property to private companies that thrive for a while, then sell the property and move elsewhere.
Courting tourism and construction to the exclusion of other kinds of development is obviously not sustainable, but that is the sum total of what we continue to do. Our poverty rate (29 percent), median income ($39,000), needy and declining schools, children in low-income households (58 percent), a growing homeless population, reduced hospital and health care facilities, lack of affordable housing, lack of broadband internet access, and growing crime statistics related to drug trafficking also need serious attention, since those are the main factors that prospective businesses and industries look at beyond a potential workforce.
Haven: We don’t have people on economic development moving to get this stuff done. I’ve created businesses. I’ve created things to attract things to our county and my motels. I started a (transportation) business for Appalachian Trail hikers that’s sustainable and bringing in several million a year to the county. All you gotta do is put a package together to fill the big empty buildings we have. I would offer CEOs a voucher to come down here to pay for a motel room for a couple of days and have the economic development folks take them out and show them our county. If we sent out 1,000 of these packages and got one response that would create 100 jobs it would be worth it. Broadband is a necessity — we need better communications in this county.
Beale: Broadband is controlled by the providers, but we get penalized with broadband because of where we live — our typography penalizes us. We have great maps showing our broadband, we have a great broadband committee that will continue working and hopefully by end of 2020 I think you will see some changes. The legislature needs to tell these providers they need to provide service to mountain communities.
We need to start concentrating on our workforce development and take care of the businesses we have. We lost a big business in Caterpillar but now construction is slowly but surely coming back, but we’ve got to have a trained workforce, which is why we need to continue to partner with Southwestern Community College. I’m a big proponent of teaching brick masonry, plumbing, carpentry — that’s where the money is at.
The jail is overcrowded and we’re spending money to send inmates to other counties — is that a sustainable practice? Do you support expanding jail or how can we better manage the jail population?
Shields: I think when we talk about jail expansion we have to look at the mental health situation — many people who are incarcerated it is drug related. But they may not be in too deep in the criminal part of it yet — we need to be salvaging those people and getting them back to being a productive citizen. I think Sheriff Holland does an excellent job with his staff and the programs he’s started. There’s a piece in the Capital Improvement Plan about jail expansion but we also have plenty going on in the community trying to decrease the need. But the need to expand is still there because we have more women in jail now, which makes the facilities tougher to manage because it used to be more male oriented. If we do things right in mental health, if we do things right in public education and we do things right in public safety, we can decrease the need at the jail — that’s my objective.
Wallace: By every socio-economic measure, Macon County has fallen prey to the opioid epidemic with less than adequate resources to deal with it. We should renovate and expand the detention center and quit sending, at great expense, our inmate overflow to Cherokee and Clay counties, and we should provide more programs for offenders to lessen incarceration time.
We need more rehabilitation services for non-violent offenders, and a separate “drug court” with pretrial services to relieve our overloaded court system, since we have seen the positive implementation of such specialty courts in other states, including Georgia. We should also work to change our laws regarding marijuana that is clogging our law enforcement and court systems, and increase the use of fines and electronic monitoring rather than incarceration for non-violent offenders. We should create more accurate and more streamlined flow of information between our local government officials and the public, and most of all, build trust by being transparent with the problems of law enforcement and the court system.
Haven: I’d love to see a big nice new law enforcement center built over there, but I don’t want to see anyone smoking pot being thrown in jail. I’m not saying I’m for marijuana, but we need to handle it like Georgia does by getting people to treatment. We pay for it either way so I’d rather put them in a halfway house than jail. But it also goes back to what I said before — idle mind is a devil’s workshop. We need to teach children in school to be someone they’ll be proud of — that’s the solution.
Beale: I think we have to look at all avenues, especially with rural county jails. If you take Macon County’s jail population and what we have spent at other jails — Clay County, Cherokee County — I think that is going to be one priority. I really hate to put money into a new jail. We can’t lock up people to get out of this drug problem and 70 to 80 percent of those people incarcerated in Macon County jail are due to drug problems so you’ve got to tackle that problem. We’ve made some strides with good jail programs, but what we’re missing is treatment programs. Are we going to have to expand the jail and I think when you see the space needs study I think the answer is yes. When we’ve spent close to a million dollars in the past two or three years to transfer prisoners and incarcerate them elsewhere, I’d say yes.
Me and some other folks have started a program called No Wrong Door — it’s a navigation program. We still have people here in Macon County that don’t know where to go for help. No Wrong Door is help for the individual with the problem, but these families need assistance too. In some ways it’s not a money problem — there’s money out there but it’s all fragmented, we’ve got to get past that … it’s costing us a fortune in jail time. Had several community meetings that have been well attended and we’ll continue that. This is one program where we want to be proactive. We also need to be very conscious of House Bill 403 and the Medicaid changes coming to our area. That all ties together.
Meet the candidates
• Age: 61
• Hometown: Macon County
• Education: Franklin High School
• Professional background: General contractor; owner of Beale Construction
• Political experience: Macon County commissioner for three terms; former president of the NC Association of County Commissioners; named County Commissioner of the Year for N.C. in 2014; served on the Macon County Planning Board.
• Age: 60
• Hometown: Macon County
• Education: Franklin High School
• Professional background: Motel owner in Hiawassee, used to own several motels in Franklin; regional gun show promoter; former professional wrestler.
• Political experience: Served one term as commissioner from 2010-14
• Age: 70
• Hometown: Macon County
• Education: Gardner Webb University; Master's Degree in School Administration from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte; Master of Arts degree in Guidance and Counseling from Western Carolina University.
• Professional background: Served in the U.S. Army, served tour tours during the Vietnam War; retired Macon County teacher and principal.
• Political experience: One term as county commissioner and also served on the Macon County School Board for four years
Betty Cloer Wallace
• Age: 74
• Hometown: Franklin
• Education: Doctor of Education in Administration from University of Georgia, Education Specialist in Administration from Western Carolina University, Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from University of North Carolina and Bachelor of Arts in English and Art from Humboldt State University, California.
• Professional background: Deputy Assistant State Superintendent for the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction, Director of the Western Regional Education Center, Superintendent of Vance County Schools, Associate Superintendent of Macon County Schools, adjunct faculty at Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College.
• Political experience: Elected two terms as state secretary of the N.C. Democratic Party, ran for U.S. Senate.