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Five vie for three seats on Haywood Commission

Five vie for three seats on Haywood Commission

Three incumbents, along with two challengers, are all running for the Haywood County Board of Commissioners this year, and there isn’t enough room for all of them. Voters can select up to three candidates and in doing so will determine whether or not the county continues moving in the same direction or embarks on a different path.

Whoever ends up on the five-member board with Chairman Kevin Ensley and Commissioner Brandon Rogers will have to grapple with difficult issues that have no easy answers, and although the candidates have much in common, there are plenty of differences between them — some nuanced, some not. 

Slaying the three-headed monster 

Homelessness, opioids and mental illness — although they can all exist independently of each other they’re often linked together, with one arising from, or giving rise to, each of the others. As such, viable solutions to one problem may not suitably address all three. 

In a place like Haywood County, where resources aren’t exactly abundant, some have openly wondered if county government is doing enough about homelessness, or if it should be doing anything at all. 

“Are we doing enough? Absolutely not, only because if we were doing enough, it wouldn’t exist,” said Jeff Haynes, a Democrat and longtime chief deputy in the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re certainly not doing everything we can at this point only because of limitations that are put forth with funding. We just need to be creative in how to find that funding, and that all develops through partnerships.”

Homelessness, in this case, is less about the county’s affordable housing crisis and more about individuals who’ve chosen that particular lifestyle, or are so bogged down with substance use disorder and/or mental illness that they’re really not prepared to help themselves. 

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Terry Ramey, a retired wrecker operator who’s run unsuccessfully for the commission several times in the past but finished third in a five-person Republican Primary Election earlier this spring thinks that government should play a benevolent role in the situation, as does incumbent Republican Commissioner Tommy Long. 

Jennifer Best, a Republican commissioner, favors more of a “tough love” approach. 

“I think we’ve reached a point that we can no longer as a board put our heads down and say that we don’t have a problem in the county,” Best said. “We have to create an uncomfortable environment for those things. We cannot begin to create a welcoming environment for that, because I wake and look at our neighbors to the east, which would be Buncombe County, and say that by welcoming that in just creates a nightmare of issues.”

Kirk Kirkpatrick, longtime incumbent and two-time chairman of the board, is now the board’s lone Democrat — albeit a relatively conservative one. On the issue of homelessness, Kirkpatrick has staked out a position somewhat to the right of Best, saying that government intervention isn’t warranted unless it affects everyone in the county. 

“I don’t need to take everybody else’s money and help homeless people unless the homeless people are causing problems for all the people that are paying taxes,” Kirkpatrick said. “Can we do more? We probably can do more, but what I don’t want to do is do things that enable people to continue the same status that they have.”

The monster’s second head, opioid abuse, appears immune to proactive solutions from state and federal governments, leaving local governments the expensive option to administer reactive measures meant to ameliorate the visibility of the symptoms, if not the disease itself. 

Back before Best joined the board, the county entered into an agreement with a harm reduction organization to conduct a needle exchange but stopped in late 2020 after complaints from citizens over a perceived increase in needle litter. 

Right now, third-party harm reduction nonprofit organizations operate in the county, but without county support or the expenditure of taxpayer monies. 

The current practice of the Haywood County Department of Health and Human Services is to provide contact information for harm reduction organizations when people call seeking needles, because it’s been proven to cut down on the transmission of disease. 

Best has consistently spoken out against syringe service programs of any sort, and believes that the reduction in disease transmission associated with needle exchanges is outweighed by the possibility that they enable the continuing usage of intravenous drugs. 

Kirkpatrick, who was on the board when the needle exchange experiment started and ended, voiced concern in a recent meeting that such third-party organizations aren’t being monitored more strictly. He’s currently looking for a way to tell them to shape up or ship out

“I think the board now is taking the position that maybe the way [the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition] was approaching it is not the best way to handle it,” he said. “I’m for us establishing some type of ordinance that makes it more difficult to operate these programs here, especially if they’re not complying with the statute.”

Attempting to regulate third-party syringe services programs is a tricky balancing act between the rights of a private business and the desires of a community, but it’s not the only tool commissioners have to combat the opioid epidemic. 

“I think it’s a three-pronged issue, too. You have to come through law enforcement, the judicial system, and then local government providing resources for those folks to do their job,” said Long, adding that he favored tougher penalties for dealers. 

Ramey looks at it from a public safety perspective and favors a law enforcement-based approach, but echoed Best’s “tough love” philosophy. 

“I feel like we could partner with the other police departments and the sheriff’s department and give them the resources that it would take to get these people off of the street where they’re not a danger to the citizens,” Ramey said. “Personally, I don’t think you can make it comfortable for these people because more and more are going to come here when you keep making it comfortable for them to come here.”

Haynes, who’s spent his entire career in law enforcement, probably has more hands-on experience with the opioid crisis than any other incumbent or candidate. 

“I think we are our brother’s keeper. At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to help,” he said. “I certainly think everyone needs to earn their own way. But some people have circumstances that are beyond their ability to change.”

The third and final head of the three-headed monster, mental health, is for the most part one of those things beyond most people’s ability to change, especially without help. Following President Ronald Reagan’s historic undermining of mental health funding in the 1980s, states have been left to deal with the fallout. 

But help may be on the way from an unlikely source — the pharmaceutical companies that benefitted financially from deceptive marketing practices that helped fuel the opioid crisis in the first place. 

North Carolina’s county and local governments will soon begin to benefit from $26 billion in settlement funds. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a whole lot of money, but it’s better than nothing and does offer limited opportunities for the treatment of mental illness that is often  co-occurring with substance use disorder. 

“If we can throw our money in with the other seven western counties and maybe have a central location or facility where we can send folks to help them get over this, I think that would be a very good option,” Long said. 

Ramey and Haynes also expressed support for the regional model. Best agreed with the need for such a facility, but cautioned that there were many practical and financial questions that would need to be answered first. Kirkpatrick has similar questions, but also wonders if hiring social workers to supplement law local law enforcement could be a prudent use of resources. 

The (un)affordable housing crisis 

“Affordability” isn’t a substantial contributing factor to de facto homelessness in Haywood County, but with inflationary pressures mounting, it could soon become one. However, for now, the affordable housing crisis affects mainly working adults who don’t have problems with drugs or mental illness. They have problems with housing supply. 

A recent study by the Dogwood Health Trust estimates that there exists in the county a 1,500-unit deficit. Haywood’s Tourism Development Authority reports around 1,600 short term rental units utilized mostly by tourists. 

Although there’s been plenty of new development lately and new units are coming online slowly, their relative scarcity keeps prices high. Thus far, the free market hasn’t solved the problem, which again brings up classic questions — should governments enter into competition with private businesses, and if so, when? 

Two candidates, Long and Haynes, both see a limited but valid space for the county to act, as it recently did in matching a $1.1 million grant from Dogwood that will not only open up immediate opportunities for the construction of affordable housing, but will also have an effect far into the future with a revolving loan fund for nonprofits engaged in the affordable housing business. 

Long added that the efforts of faith-based groups like Baptists on Mission and Habitat for Humanity often offer more cost-effective solutions. 

Ramey didn’t specify the precise approach he’d favor; however, he was far from voicing outright support for county intervention. 

“I don’t think it’s the county’s responsibility to actually build them, but I think the county should let people build some apartments or houses or whatever is necessary to for some of these people that that can afford,” Ramey said. “We’ve got a lot of single parents, we’ve got a lot of people who’ve got small kids, and they’ve got to get a start somewhere. If they can’t afford to live in any of these houses that are being built or condos or apartments or whatever, then how are they ever going to get a start?”

Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly like to see governments competing with private businesses but does recognize that the free market probably isn’t going to solve the supply issue or the affordability issue. 

“If the government doesn’t step in like we’re doing right now, in attempting to get these grants to provide monies to nonprofits so they can build these homes,” he said, “then you you’re not going to have people around to work at all the places you need them work and your whole community starts going down.”

Only Best, a former insurance agent who is now a realtor, explicitly spoke out against government participation in the housing market, affordable or otherwise. 

“I do not think that’s the role of government. If you sell your home, or I sell my home, I’m going to want top dollar for it, I’m going to want what the market will bear. I believe that real estate is a free market, and I’m not fond of government getting involved in housing,” she said. “I would like to see nonprofits or other organizations, maybe the Realtors Association, they’ve had some thoughts about how they could help with workforce housing.”

Budgeting priorities 

Once the three winners are sworn in this coming December, they’ll immediately start thinking about next year’s budget, which is usually approved each June. All five candidates have slightly different priorities when it comes to that budget, from the immediate to the long-term. 

“It continues to be the jail project,” Long said. “It’s something that commissioners need to keep their eye on, continuously.”

With fluctuating building costs and talk of an impending recession, the much-needed $16 million jail expansion project could become subject to cost overruns or delays, which could cause a significant blemish on the county’s otherwise stellar balance sheet — debt is down, fund balance is healthy and the county’s eyeing another increase to its bond rating. 

Ramey and Best both said that public safety would be their number one priority, with Best including mental health in that category and Ramey saying county first responders should be prioritized over recreation. Ramey also mentioned education, which is Kirkpatrick’s main focus. 

When asked about his main priority, Haynes brought up a national issue that’s finally starting to get some traction locally. 

“At the end of the day, we need to have school resource officers in each and every school,” he said. 

Haynes has ample experience in the granting mechanisms available to local governments that would help pay for full-time SROs at every Haywood County School, but those resources are often limited to funding that will pay for one, two or three years of service. 

After that, it’s up to local governments to pick up the cost indefinitely by raising taxes or cutting other critical items from a budget that’s already chock-full of mandated services. 

Chairman Ensley recently said he’d explored the possibility of funding those positions years ago, at a cost of maybe $20-30 per taxpayer, per year, but couldn’t make it happen. 

All five candidates expressed support for finding the money to ensure adequate coverage. 

“It’s the responsibility of a responsible board to make sure that they have that sustaining funding afterwards,” Haynes said. “We’re literally talking pennies on the dollar for the safety of our children.”

Misinformation 

As a career law enforcement officer, Haynes is used to people lying to him on a daily basis. 

As a candidate hoping to take a seat on the commission, he’s prepared to deal with the ever-increasing phenomenon of misinformation during public comment sessions, like when several people took to the podium at a recent commission meeting and offered all sorts of statements that aren’t based in fact

“I’m very, very confident in confronting anyone with [misinformation],” he said. “I’ve done that for the last 30 years. I think I have rested my entire career on finding the truth, and that’s exactly what I intend to do as a commission member.”

Long took particular umbrage at the unfounded notion that Haywood County is number one in the state for opioid deaths. 

“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on,” he said, repeating a statement sometimes credited to Mark Twain. “When you start degrading our county, when you start disparaging our county, when you start running this beautiful place down — Haywood County has got so much to be proud of when you stack it up against the other 100 counties in the state.”

Ramey pledged to research whatever information was presented and find common ground, while Kirkpatrick thinks it might not be a bad thing for the county to hire a public information officer to help respond to misinformation. 

Best maintains that she didn’t contest the incorrect assertions presented during the meeting, particularly the overdose claim, because she still hasn’t “gotten to the bottom of those numbers” presented during the meeting, despite data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services that puts Haywood County near the top of the bottom quintile in overdose deaths.  

A taxing affair 

While there are some solid differences in how commission candidates will approach pressing political issues, there are none starker than how they approach their personal and business affairs. 

Terry Ramey is the only candidate who owes back taxes to the county, per the county’s payment database

Some candidates still owe current-year taxes, which can also be a function of mortgage company escrow services and aren’t delinquent for a few more months, but Ramey has a history of unpaid personal property taxes dating back to 2013 and totaling $1,028.09. 

Ramey claimed that he was double-billed through his now-defunct business, Ramdog Enterprises LLC, and that at least some of the eight unpaid bills were not valid. 

Tax accounts from Ramdog, sometimes spelled Ram Dog, show a total of $1,878 in unpaid personal property taxes dating back to 2012. 

Ramey did say that if the bills were valid, he’d pay them. After his interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Ramey met with the county manager and tax assessor to investigate the alleged billing issues. 

“According to the assessor, he owes the bills,” said Greg West, Haywood’s tax collector, on Sept. 26. 

West added that Ramey had discussed payment plans with him, but as of noon on Sept. 27, no plans had been set up and no payments had been made. 

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1 comment

  • On budget, council member should receive a $0 paycheck as they have real jobs and should not be paid more than an entry level fast food worker as they should be worried about the community not their own paycheck and should have a REAL job as well. Drop property taxes for people living in their homes raise property taxes on investment non residents. Require rent control for all landlords based on the average income of current Haywood county residences and the pay scale of the area, renting your home should never be a multi million dollar industry. Raise taxes on Air B&B's lower taxes for Commercial & Industrial Small business, take care of the people and try to increase the job market in the area. Anyone that refuses to get a job and remains homeless give them a one way ticket to anywhere out of town. Harsher punishment for anyone illegally in possession of any narcotic prescription medication, methamphetamine or heroin. Stop wasting money raiding homes with out a warrant and never inditing the criminal. Haywood needs a minimum of 4 income based mental health clinics its not hard if county elected officials where paid the same as the average Haywood county citizen.

    posted by Andria Roney

    Thursday, 09/29/2022

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