Republicans on the hunt for Haywood commission seats
The only two seats that aren’t up for election on Haywood County’s five-member board of commissioners this November are both held by Republicans. The other three are currently held by Democrats, and have attracted two Democratic incumbents as well as a third Dem candidate seeking to maintain that majority.
But three Republicans are also seeking those three seats — electronics technician/farmer Tommy Long, 52, insurance agent and former firefighter/paramedic Mark Pless, 51, and motel owner/HVAC company owner Phillip Wight, 50.
Wight is also a Maggie Valley alderman, and ran for commission six years ago. If Wight, Long and/or Pless can gain one or more of those seats, Haywood County could be in for dramatic philosophical change in how government is run.
If you were elected in 2014, how would Haywood County be different today?
Long: This is kind of a loaded question where you give me an opportunity to take a jab at maybe some of the incumbents. I will say since the Russians have been in our news lately pretty big about election tampering, let me say that [former Soviet Premier] Nikita Kruschev once said, “Politicians are all alike, they promise to build a bridge even when there’s no river.” One of the things I hear all the time is about the animal shelter. I’m an animal lover, and I have no problem with the animal shelter. We needed one. But I think we could have been wiser, and we could have been better stewards of taxpayer money.
Pless: I would like to think I’d be able to make a difference in the tax base. Taxes have raised by 4 cents over the last four years, and property values have also increased. I believe I could cut down what the government is spending, how much they’re spending, in order to compensate for what they are wasting at this point. I know that county government has to grow, but my personal taxes have grown from around $500 to $790 over the course of four years and I don’t see that I’m getting anything out of it.
Wight: I don’t believe we should have probably enacted the revenue-neutral tax. I also believe that, knowing that I was in government, that we re-evaluated property based on state standards two years early. We didn’t have to do that, knowing there was an election coming and our values were down. It probably wasn’t a good idea. But the tax rate — there wouldn’t have been a tax increase. The other thing is, we spend a lot of tax dollars to advocate against bullying — from grade school to high school — and it seems our government has taken it upon itself to bully certain positions in the Haywood County government. There’s no way you should ever be falsely accused by a government, or have the power of government turned against you, and I think that would have stayed out of the papers — a certain tax collector comes to mind, and [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh comes to mind at a higher level.
What’s your biggest priority for the next four years?
Pless: I’d like to see some of the fee systems gone. We charge taxes for everything and then we turn right around and when people need services in Haywood County — death certificates, birth certificates, weddings, concealed carry — you have to go and pay a fee on top of the taxes you’re already paying. I know all the fees can’t be eliminated but a large portion of those can, which would put more money back in people’s pockets. I’d like to see the debt paid down instead of borrowing money and continuing to climb it. I’d like to see it paid off, and get it to where we can lower the taxes down to where it’s livable and it’s something people can appreciate.
Wight: The same, hopefully, that I’ve experienced bringing Maggie Valley back up — pay off debt, bring a conservative approach, and be accountable. If we overspend by $2 million, it’s the public’s right to know. I think public access to public information should also be available. You shouldn’t have to change your policy based on one man asking questions. Also, I’d advocate very strongly to shop local. Any time we can buy local from our local vendors, whether it’s at the school board level or even here at The Smoky Mountain News, we shouldn’t be outsourcing across state lines if we can do it right here and spend our money local. Overall, [I want to] bring accountability to the taxpayers and be accountable.
Long: Everyone talks about the opioid issue, and it is a priority. We have to spend money on the opioid issue. I talked to Sheriff [Greg] Christopher recently in a meeting. He said he had 137 beds, and 131 were full that evening. He said those prisoners cost us $78 a day. Also the mental health issue surrounding this situation is astronomical. He said we were putting nearly a quarter-million miles on a county vehicle — and a driver — to carry these involuntary commitments to a state hospital. They have to go wherever there’s an available bed, so if Morganton is full, the go to Raleigh, and if Raleigh is full, they have to go on down east.
Republicans could gain a majority on the board after this election. Is that a good thing?
Wight: I don’t think it’s a bad thing at the Haywood County level, but for me Republicans are my grandfather’s Democrats today, based on how we treat people and try to help people. But if you look at the federal level, I’m not sure I’d want to be a Democrat. I mean, we’re talking about [being] against police officers. Look at the hatred. Look at open borders. But on the local level if you’re not willing to listen and have an opportunity to vote for who you want, for who sends a better message — I’ve never liked the words “either one.” I like the word conservative more than either.
Long: National politics are national politics, and there’s some deep feelings about both parties platforms, and there’s a difference. As far as the county goes, I’ve quoted John F. Kennedy in several places. John F. Kennedy said, “We don’t need the Republican answer, nor do we need the Democrat answer, we need the right answer.” I think Haywood County residents want results. They want somebody that’s got the right answer for Haywood County and I certainly think I can work with anybody that’s elected on that board.
Pless: I think it could be. I think the county has gone in this direction for too long now. I view myself as a conservative. I think that [incumbent Republican commissioners] Brandon [Rogers] and Kevin [Ensley] are conservatives. If we even got one seat and conservatives were able to reach out and do the things people are asking them to do I think we could change the way Haywood County is viewed, and we could certainly change the way people are taken care of in Haywood County.
The county’s fund balance has been restored to a healthy level. Should it be maintained, increased or decreased?
Long: I came from a family where at one time there was seven of us living under one roof. I’m the last of five children, and I certainly know how to pinch a penny and stretch a dollar. I also know how to put back for a rainy day, and put back for when an opportunity presents itself, to go ahead and be able to pounce. Our fund balance is up, at a healthy level, our bond rating is up. I certainly would look at a point to where good government practices indicate we’re in a very safe place and we’re moving that way. At some point, certainly, I want to look for tax relief.
Pless: We should look at the exact amount that it takes to run Haywood County, not the amount that we’d like to spend. I know police cars are hard to plan for, ambulances are hard to plan for. There’s gonna be expenses that are going to come out throughout the course of the year. I think we can grow the balance and pay the debt off. One of the things I see is you see a lot of funding that goes during a commissioners meeting that’s just passed from one project to the next, like the dog pound being over-budgeted. And then they made a mistake on the floor covering and agreed to spend $60,000 to correct that. I believe little things like this, if things were managed appropriately, you would have the money to continue to grow the fund balance and make the purchases. I think it’s just not being managed appropriately. They don’t watch it close enough.
Wight: When that time comes you always look at the opportunity to give back to the taxpayers, just in the name of a tax cut. What you don’t do is take that excess money and create new departments inside your government, whether it be a green energy department or something not necessarily frivolous but you try to keep that money and keep it accountable, and if there’s an opportunity to give back to the masses, you would. And you come up with policies that help people. We’re getting ready to drop emissions testing. I ran six years ago and that was my pet peeve, emissions tests. I’ve never lost sight of that being elected in Maggie Valley and [Republican Rep. Michele Prensell] hasn’t either, and that’s almost come to fruition, because that type of policy helps medium income and below.
There seems to be a collaborative spirit between the county and its municipalities. Is that to be fostered or should towns stand more on their own?
Pless: The towns need to be responsible for the needs that affect their citizens. If it’s a county problem and something the county can help, then that’s fine. I can agree on certain small expenditures. But for the most part, the county needs to handle the people in the towns — if they are living inside of city limits, [towns] are collecting taxes. They need to manage their money better so they can care for the people that are living in their jurisdiction.
Wight: Haywood County municipalities I think pretty much do stand on their own. I think there are always opportunities, especially when we say the word “government level,” but a couple years ago, we were dealing with potential water shortages. There’s definitely opportunities where we should be all working together but for the most part we need to allow them to stand alone. But if there are opportunities such as water shortage, between the EMS, even policing … there’s times when we have to have that networking.
Long: I certainly believe in cooperation, and we have to remember that our municipal residents, they pay county taxes too on top of their municipal taxes. We have to be careful and form good partnerships. We don’t need to be taken advantage of at the county level because a municipality made some bad decisions and left a baby on our doorstep.
The county’s recent economic development partnership with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce has been cited as an innovative way for rural communities to compete in economic development markets. What’s your view of this partnership and what do you want to see come from it?
Wight: Not knowing the inner workings of it, on the outside looking in it sounds ridiculous when we’re talking about always keeping an open mind and communicating, I think we can communicate at that level. As long as no Haywood County tax dollars go to fund a bigger municipality that needs us worse than we need them, our market’s here. How quick do you want it to grow? I think they’re out of inventory when it comes to housing, and we need some flatter land for bigger industry, but you’re always keeping an open ear and an open dialogue for something bigger or better to come along, hopefully high paying jobs. But to say that we have to network and possible meet with them and put money into their coffers to market Haywood County, that would be a no for me. I think it’s a negative.
Long: We weren’t getting exactly the results that I think people were looking for, but right now it’s working good. But if we’re not seeing the results that’s going to help Haywood County and get the bang for our buck, it has to be monitored continuously. That’s what good managers do, and that’s what commissioners need to do. If it looks like we’re just getting the bread that falls off Buncombe County’s table, we definitely need to take a look at that.
Pless: I believe that’s helped Haywood County more than it’s hurt. I think it would be good to continue but you have to evaluate it every year. If you have a couple years that it’s really not doing anything for you, then that’s a wasted effort and it needs to be addressed. I think a lot of times we as a county go in and we make deals and we don’t go back and reevaluate them, we just assume that it’s gonna do it’s thing and we let it stay there even when it’s no longer profitable.
Voters will choose three of six candidates for seats on the commission. Why should you be one of them?
Long: One reason — I’m a multi-dimensional candidate. I’ve served on many boards and the boards that work most effectively are the boards where the members come to the table and bring a various array of experience. If you get a board stacked with one group of people then that’s all they know. I’ve got industrial experience, I’ve got agricultural experience, I have business experience. I’ve been involved with my church. Community boards. I think I can bring a lot to the party.
Pless: I’m a conservative and I am looking to downsize what government is doing. A lot of people rely on the government to do everything for them. I as a citizen here in Haywood County, I manage my family. I take care of them. I do everything I can to support them. I want the other people to have the same opportunities I have.
Wight: I’ve got a proven record in Maggie Valley. I believe in your property rights, I believe in your rights to keep your guns. I believe in open government, I believe in being fair to the taxpayers as well as the government. It’s kind of like, people first for me.