Dems defend Haywood commission seats
Haywood County’s board of commissioners consists of five members, three of whom are up for election Nov. 6. All three of those seats are currently held by Democratic commissioners. One of them, Bill Upton, isn’t seeking re-election.
Two of them, however, are — Waynesville attorney Kirk Kirkpatrick, 49, is currently serving his second stint as chairman and is in his 16th year on the board, and gas station owner Mike Sorrells, 62, is in his eighth year.
With a 3-to-2 Democratic majority at stake, Kirkpatrick, Sorrells and Waynesville attorney/former judge Danny Davis, 65, are all working to earn seats on the board.
Three Republicans are working toward that same goal, and if any one of them gets elected, the board will swing to a 3-to-2 Republican majority.
Voters will be able to choose any three of the six candidates, from either party, in a race that could be seen as a bellwether for a mostly-red rural county looking to define itself within the context of a Republican-controlled state and nation.
If you were elected in 2014, how would Haywood County be different today?
Davis: I would hope that our infrastructure, which I’m extremely interested in, would be a little farther along. [We’ve made] great strides in improving our infrastructure, but we’re still behind, so I would hope that if I’d have been here, there would’ve been a lot more emphasis put on infrastructure like water and sewer, high-speed internet and natural gas, so we can have the kind of infrastructure we need to bring good-paying jobs to this county.
What do you consider as accomplishments by the board during your tenure?
Kirkpatrick: One of the main things is the revival of the hospital. The hospital lost its Medicaid number. We were under hospital authority at one time, we were down to six patients. I served on multiple boards during that time. As a matter fact, one of the first meetings for collaboration with the hospital was in this [Kirkpatrick’s law firm] office. It’s certainly not attributable to one person, but I feel like I spent a lot of time to make sure that hospital was successful, and I believe now it has been successful.
Sorrells: During my eight years, we’ve had many accomplishments. We can start with reduction of debt for the county. We’ve reduced debt over $8 million in my years. We have increased our fund balance up to state average now. It was very low when I came in, dangerously low. We’ve increased our bond rating to as best the county’s probably had in many, many years. We’ve done all this while we’ve continued to invest in our infrastructure throughout the county, which is going to take us well into the future. We dealt with the hospital — we had a situation where our hospital was in dire straits. We stepped in and did what we had to do to stabilize it … we worked with Evergreen [Packaging, in Canton] to protect our good-paying jobs, along with others, and we’ve invested in education, helped the sheriff’s department modernize public safety along with emergency management. There’s just been many, many accomplishments.
What’s your biggest priority for the next four years?
Kirkpatrick: I would say to maintain infrastructure is one of the most important things. To improve education. I think we have done a good job with education, but education is always at the forefront as part of being a Haywood County commissioner. I think keeping the tax rate as low as possible, and yet making sure that we provide the services that provide good quality of life for our citizens. The main thing is, just making sure that we take care of our citizens properly.
Sorrells: I think those priorities right now are, of course, our opioid crisis that we have going on — not only in the county but throughout our whole country, and Western North Carolina. We have an affordable housing situation that we’ve got to do whatever we can do to facilitate, hopefully relieving the pressure on that. We have broadband expansion that we’ll continue to work on, and then of course workforce development and economic development throughout the county.
Davis: I was a judge for 27 years and then emergency judge for another couple years. I’ve been in the legal profession 39 years. One of the things I’ve seen here is all of our children — we educate them, and they have to move elsewhere to get a good-paying job. I would like for our children to not only be able to be born here, but live here and work here again like it used to be. We lost lots of manufacturing jobs. I think infrastructure, education and jobs go together. You can’t talk about one without talking about all three.
What happens if Republicans gain a majority on the board after this election?
Sorrells: I’m not sure that it would be a bad thing. We have worked extremely hard throughout my time as a commissioner to keep partisanship — especially extreme partisanship — out of our board and out of local government. I think if you come in focused on Haywood County and focused on doing what’s best for the county and don’t have a political agenda or a personal agenda, it works very well. When I came in, it was a 4-to-1 [Democrat majority] board, now it’s a 3-2 board. It’s continued to work very well, and I expect it to work well any way.
Kirkpatrick: I don’t really look at the county commission as being a Republican or Democrat commission. I know that’s how we run, but since I’ve been there the last 16 years, I’ve seen the commission, at least the five people, act in a nonpartisan way. I think I’ve yet to serve on a board — I’ve served on eight different boards, with eight different sets of five people — wherein that board does not serve to try to do what’s best for Haywood County. I think what you could run into is a problem with someone who gets on the board who has an agenda, an agenda that doesn’t serve the best interests of all the people of Haywood County.
Davis: I would never say belonging to one party or another is a bad thing. I think the approach sometimes they take is not the approach I would take. For example, at the [Waynesville Mountaineer] forum last night, I think the consensus of the candidates on the other side was that you just kind of let nature take its course. When I say that, they’re not as concerned about infrastructure — and the government being involved in infrastructure — as maybe I am, and maybe the other candidates on the Democrat side are. My answer to that is, private enterprise has been responsible for high-speed internet in this county and that hadn’t worked out real well. We don’t have it. We have the sorriest high-speed internet in this state, and it’s private enterprise.
The county’s fund balance has been restored to a healthy level. Should it be maintained, increased or decreased?
Kirkpatrick: Fund balance is very important as far as the way that financial institutions look at a county. I think it’s important to have good fund balance, I also think it’s important to keep the fund balance at such a place where you’re not saving money on the backs of county citizens. I think you should use the fund balance when you have necessary items for expenditure, but I’m not a proponent of saving a lot of money to say we’ve got a big fund balance to utilize.
Davis: I think it depends on what your priorities are. When I’m talking about infrastructure and priorities, I think we need to sit down and figure out where we want to go and do some planning, some strategic planning. So without having to raise taxes or do those kinds of things, you might have some money available to do what I’m talking about, about partnering with private enterprise. So you might want to use some of that fund balance to do that with, but I think we’ve got to sit down at the table and decide where we want to go, and then decide.
Sorrells: We decided as a board that we would try to maintain our particular percentage amount, which would protect the county in the chance of a downturn. Anything above that would be looked upon to be used for non-recurring expenses, like voting machines or maintenance problems, something that needed to be addressed. I’m always looking for the possibility to cut taxes, if it comes to pass at some point and we have a healthy [fund balance] we can look at. The problem is, if you use it for recurring expenses, it just turns right around and eats you up in the end.
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?
Davis: I think we do need to be more cooperative with the municipalities because I think a lot of the growth that’s certainly going to come to this county — we’re already seeing it — I think a lot of that growth is going to come to the cities and then it may start sprawling, so there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s going to have to be better cooperation between the county and municipalities, especially about water and sewer … I don’t want to duplicate services, but I do want to cooperate and I think it’s going to take all of us working together to have a plan to deal with the growth that we’re going to have.
Sorrells: I think we should continue to work together. We’ve had great partnerships with all of our municipalities in the county. I think all of them will tell you this has been one of the unique times in Haywood County history where all the municipalities have worked very closely together, and we have a track record of helping particular municipalities when they’re in need of help, and the same with us. I see some projects probably down the road that we will partner with them.
Kirkpatrick: We’ve established the Council of Governments and been part of that, and that has grown over the tenure I’ve been here, the last 16 years. I think the cooperation with the towns is a benefit to the county. I think the towns should stand alone, the county should stand alone, but we should collaborate on certain things, and we should also not duplicate certain things. Recreation is one of those things where we have to meet on a regular basis to talk to each other about not duplicating certain things, because none of us individually has the money to supply everything that the county needs recreation-wise.
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?
Sorrells: If you know a lot about economic development and look throughout the country, it has become more regionalized. Asheville and Buncombe County, they have lots and lots of revenue or monies in order to advertise and go out and attract new businesses and investments into the area. They have interest from people or businesses that want to be close to Asheville, but not necessarily in that area, so we serve that need … it’s not even been a year [for the partnership], and we have already seen tremendous interest. We’ve not had a particular result yet, but we’re close, and [there’s] a lot of interest in Haywood County right now.
Kirkpatrick: Basically just as hospitals are having to do — regionalize — we felt like it would be good for economic development for us to regionalize and be part of Buncombe County or part of the same group of people that they’re looking at. Hopefully what we can do is, we can attract an industry or a company that’s maybe not interested entirely in what Asheville offers, but something more like what Waynesville and Haywood County and Canton offers. I think it’s been a really good thing. We’ve had a lot of interested industry and companies since that time, and I hope soon we can land something.
Davis: What we were doing obviously wasn’t getting the result that we wanted here, so I’m all for trying new things and I think certainly partnering with a community like Asheville, as big as they are, helps. But everything comes back to infrastructure. They can give us 10 leads for potential industries but if we don’t have the shovel-ready sites, water, sewer, natural gas — if we don’t have all those things in place, we’re in trouble no matter how many people they send over here. I’m willing to look at that [partnership] and see how it does, but I think we have to do some things on our own too. I don’t think we can just totally depend on Asheville.
Voters will choose three of six candidates for three seats on the commission. Why should you be one of them?
Kirkpatrick: I think voters should choose me because of the experience that I have. Unfortunately, voters can not choose me because of the experience. When you have 16 years under your belt, they can kind of look at you and say, “Do we like what this guy has done, or do we not like what he’s done?” and then they can cast their vote. When you’re running for election you can say a lot of things about yourself. Generally if you’ve been in there that long, it’s “What have you accomplished?” and “How have you made decisions?” I hope that people feel I’ve made good decisions for the county, [that] we’re in a better place than we were 16 years ago, and that they will vote for me.
Davis: I’ve had a career as an attorney and assistant district attorney, a judge for almost half my life. As a judge and a lawyer, you always have facts and the evidence, and you try to make a decision based on the best facts you have in front of you. I think I bring that kind of experience. I think I bring a passion about young people that a lot of people don’t have, because as a judge I’ve seen what happens to our young people. A job gives you a sense of self-worth, it gives you a sense of belonging to the community. A good healthy economy doesn’t just include tourism, it includes young people working here again. That gives us a sense of community, and that’s the kind of community I want to see here again.
Sorrells: One of the big things now is experience. I’ve had eight years on the board. I’ve been in a lot of different situations. I’ve got a very good understanding not only of county government but I also served time on school board, so I understand education. I’m a longtime resident of Haywood County. I know its people, I’ve been in business — I’m a service business. I deal with people every day that live in this county, from all walks of life. I know the needs. I just think I’m really well suited for the next four years.