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Haywood commissioner candidates tackle the county’s hot-button issues

Six Democrats and five Republicans are vying for three seats on the Haywood County board of commissioners. Only three from each party will advance past the May 4 primary to the November election. The Smoky Mountain News spoke with the candidates about some of the most pressing issues in the county.

Excessive spending?

Commissioners caught flak from some citizens for raising the tax rate by 1.7 cents last year amidst one of the worst recessions to strike the country. They claim the board is spending beyond taxpayers’ means.

A different group criticized commissioners for making excessive cuts and slashing millions from the budget.

Earlier this year, commissioners decided to purchase a former Wal-Mart in Clyde to house the Department of Social Services and Health department, which had long awaited a move from its aging facilities. The total Wal-Mart project will cost taxpayers an estimated $12.5 million.

At the county fairgrounds, taxpayers will be taking on a loan of up to $800,000 to pay off outstanding debt and make improvements.

The county board has been accused of “bailing out” the fairgrounds board, a nonprofit that’s been unable to keep up with loan payments after the commissioners cut all funding when the economy tanked.

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Moreover, commissioners were chastised for spending more than $4.5 million last year to expand the landfill, which was running out of room.

Raymond L. Brooks (D) says the commissioners were quick to jump the gun on the Wal-Mart purchase, and opposes pulling the property from the tax base. Brooks supports a vote by the people on such major decisions. He said there must be better planning in general for deteriorating facilities in order to prevent impulse spending in the future.

Kirk Kirkpatrick (D) said the cost of rehabilitating the existing DSS building would far exceed the cost of purchasing and renovating the old Wal-Mart. “It may be difficult for some people to grasp that now, but I am in hopes that 10 years from now folks will look back and say it was a tough decision, but it was a good decision.”

John McCracken (D) said he won’t criticize the commissioners, who had to make “very, very tough decisions” during the last budget process. He is concerned with the timing of the Wal-Mart purchase, however. McCracken would have liked to see the DSS building renovated and considers it a landmark in the county. McCracken said he considers the fairgrounds a county operation and supports the commissioners’ purchase.

Rhonda Schandevel (D) wants to identify and cut any wasteful spending in the county. Schandevel supports the Wal-Mart purchase, because it was a good deal financially and because the DSS and health departments were in jeopardy of losing funding if no action was taken.

Michael Sorrells (D) says he’s had to cut back as a business owner and a homeowner, and he believes the county must do the same. Though the rough economy made the Wal-Mart purchase more affordable, Sorrells believes the decision came at the “most inopportune time.” He supports the county’s purchase of the fairgrounds, however, because he believes the venue will be profitable in the long run.

Bill Upton (D) stands by the board’s decision to purchase the old Wal-Mart rather than renovating the old DSS building. “It was going to cost us so much more to renovate and add space, that it was not cost-effective.” Upton said the fairgrounds can be profitable in the long-run. Although commissioners raised the tax rate, Upton commended the board for balancing that “small increase” with cuts in funding and positions.

David Bradley (R) said he won’t throw stones at a glass house and believes commissioners did what they deemed necessary on Wal-Mart. “The deal’s done, no matter whether you’re for it or against it.”

Going forward, Bradley would like to reduce debt, pay off obligations and sell some of the county’s current property.

When it comes to the budget, Tom Freeman (R) said commissioners are not thinking things out before they act. Freeman would have supported the fairgrounds purchase if the county had enough money to pay for the purchase without a loan.

Jeanne Sturges Holbrook (R) would not comment on the job that commissioners are doing, but says that there’s an urgent need to face fiscal responsibility. “Regardless of whether the budget is $65 million or $6 million, reducing debt, reducing expenses, that’s what’s needed.”

Denny King (R) criticizes the commissioners’ timing on the Wal-Mart purchase. He said that citizens should have voted on both that decision and the fairgrounds takeover. King said the county could have gotten by longer in the current DSS building.

Michael “Hub” Scott (R) says commissioners should not be in the real estate business.

Scott supports the commissioners’ decision to purchase the fairgrounds, however, since it brings business to the county from all over the Southeast.

Tackling a rare conflict with HCC

County commissioners are still at odds with Haywood Community College over new construction and maintenance needs at the college.

Commissioners accuse HCC of overspending on environmentally-friendly and optional features at the planned creative arts building. They say a quarter-cent sales tax that was passed by voters to fund new construction and expansion at HCC should be used responsibly.

Meanwhile, HCC wants the county to restore funding for maintenance — which was cut by two-thirds during the recession — so it doesn’t have to dip into sales tax money for repairs and renovations.

Raymond L. Brooks (D) said he is not in a place to take a side on the conflict, but emphasized the commissioners should not cut back on education even during a recession. “Young people are our future.”

Kirk Kirkpatrick (D) would like HCC to use the quarter-cent sales tax to construct new facilities “as reasonable as possible,” and use the leftover funds for maintenance and other improvements. Kirkpatrick said the college will continue to get a line item appropriation for maintenance, though he does not anticipate seeing the funding go back to the pre-recession level of $500,000.

John McCracken (D) hopes the commissioners and college leaders can reach a compromise that will work for the time being. He recognizes that HCC has critical needs and wants to help the college as much as possible, but suggests temporarily using a portion of the sales tax money for maintenance until the economy recovers.

Rhonda Schandevel (D) said the county has a responsibility to HCC and to the buildings in the county. Schandevel said many worked hard to pass the sales tax increase, so it should be committed to new construction and not supplant existing appropriations. “I believe that the county should look at increasing the funding.”

Michael Sorrells (D) said it would be ideal to restore full funding to HCC and the public school system, but until the economy recovers, schools must make arrangements to get through this tough time.

Bill Upton (D) said HCC will receive as much as $2.6 million from the quarter-cent sales tax that they may use for any immediate needs. “That money is their money.” Upton said the conversation with the college is ongoing, and the commissioners will look at the possibility of raising funds for maintenance.

David Bradley (R) says HCC might have to put some projects on hold until the economy straightens out. “Right now, it’s maybe not the best time to actually go into the building process.”

Tom Freeman (R) says that like each county department, HCC should work with the money that it’s presently receiving from the county. “We’ll see what happens in a year or two years down the road.”

Jeanne Sturges Holbrook (R) had no comment on whether the county’s funding to HCC should be changed. Holbrook believes the college should utilize the quarter-cent sales tax money for only those uses approved by voters in the referendum.

Denny King (R) says he’s not familiar enough with the issue to take a side. But the sales tax increase that the voters supported should go only to HCC, King said.

Michael “Hub” Scott (R) said the quarter-cent sales tax must only fund new buildings. He said if the college could pursue another quarter-cent increase to help maintain its buildings if it really needs the funds. However, state legislators would have to approve that measure, and they are unlikely to do so again.

Confronting the local 9-12 movement

A group of citizen activists launched the 9-12 Project in Haywood County, a national movement that supports small, fiscally conservative government and is similar to the Tea Party.

Members have presented themselves as dedicated watchdogs. They are conspicuous at every county meeting, where they barrage commissioners with questions and criticisms.

Commissioners often respond, but have argued that the 9-12 group is actually costing taxpayers more money by taking valuable time away from the county staff. Commissioners say it’s one thing to request public information, but it’s another to ask for one-on-one Q&A sessions or PowerPoint presentations.

Raymond L. Brooks (D) says any kind of improvement usually begins at the grassroots level. “That seems to be something our commissioners have forgotten, especially these last several months.” Though some 9-12 members “want to get on tangents,” that is the case with many groups across the country, Brooks said.

Kirk Kirkpatrick (D) said the 9-12 movement is helping people become more aware of government and express their own opinions. But like with any group of people, Kirkpatrick believes there are a few bad apples. “I think there are people with good intentions in the 9-12 group, and those that I question whether their intentions are truly to find out the truth...Clearly, there’s some attempt to create publicity.”

John McCracken (D) said having more people interested in government is always a positive. He’s attended three 9-12 functions and recognizes that many of the members have legitimate concerns. McCracken said as assistant superintendent, he welcomed the opportunity to address questions and took time to personally explain financial concerns.

Rhonda Schandevel (D) said it’s great any time people get involved in government, and she respects everyone’s opinion. But Schandevel doesn’t appreciate the anger members display. “It’s one thing for there to be passion and to do something with that passion, but when there’s anger, that is such an unproductive emotion.”

Michael Sorrells (D) agrees with a lot of the 9-12 group’s goals, like efficient and smaller government and lower taxes. Sorrells admits that government has “gone away from the people,” but that they still have to govern. “You elect them to make decisions. If you don’t like their decisions, then you vote them out.”

Bill Upton (D) says the 9-12 movement is positive for Haywood County. Upton admits that the group takes time away from taxpayer-supported county staff, but he supports citizen involvement and receiving broader opinions.

David Bradley (R) says people across the country feel ignored by their government. “They feel that nobody’s listening and nobody cares.” Bradley said the 9-12 group has every right to voice concerns and organize. To avoid taking up too much county staff time and to allow more participation from home, Bradley advocates posting all public information on the Haywood County Web site.

Tom Freeman (R) said commissioners should listen to the group and any other citizens who want to talk. “Listen to what they’ve got to say, not let it go in one ear and out the other. Let it rest in between.”

Jeanne Sturges Holbrook (R) plans to speak to the 9-12 group and says it’s positive to see citizens tune in to their local, state and federal government.

Denny King (R) has spoken to the 9-12 organization and said the group is doing a good job. King supports their goals of keeping taxes low and ensuring the government remains constitutional.

Michael “Hub” Scott (R) said he doesn’t know much about the 9-12 group, though members have contacted him to ask if he is a conservative, to which he replied yes.

The latest prayer debate

A lawsuit in Forsyth County sparked debate over whether it is constitutional to say overtly Christian prayers at county government meetings, causing commissioners to tread cautiously in making specific references to Jesus.

Some were outraged by the move, claiming commissioners should be allowed to pray however they please. But others argued that commissioners represent the government, which is forbidden from sponsoring any particular religion.

A few said fighting a lawsuit with taxpayer money would be worth the ability to pray in Jesus’ name at meetings. They demanded a vote by the people on the issue.

Raymond L. Brooks (D) said commissioners should be allowed to pray to whoever they’d like, whether it’s Jesus or Allah. “The First Amendment was given to protect the people. It wasn’t given to protect the government.” Brooks says he’ll stick by his convictions and pray in Jesus’ name if elected.

Kirk Kirkpatrick (D) said the issue isn’t one that gets to be decided by a vote by the people. “I believe the Constitution has already decided...A vote is not above the law that has been established.”

John McCracken (D) said he supports a moment of silence to allow those who want to pray do so to their particular God. McCracken would like to open the meeting with prayer, but he said there are firm opinions on both sides. “You can get involved in some very expensive litigation.”

Rhonda Schandevel (D) said no one could take prayer away from her, but she would respect other people’s religious beliefs. “As much as I believe in my lord Jesus Christ ... we should not force it down anybody’s throats.”

Michael Sorrells (D) said he supports holding a prayer at the outset of meetings, but that the issue of a separation of church and state is involved. Sorrells supports saying the Lord’s Prayer, which doesn’t expressly say Jesus but is clearly praying to the Christian God.

Bill Upton (D) has not changed his prayer since he took office four years ago. “I’ve never had Jesus in my prayer, but just used Heavenly Father. It wasn’t something I thought about.”

David Bradley (R) says he understands both sides. He would like to hold a prayer with fellow commissioners ten minutes before going into a public meeting. Bradley pointed out that the country’s founding fathers were very religious and their values are still relevant today.

Tom Freeman (R) said it’s sad that Jesus has to be taken out of everything. “If I need to pray at the commissioners meeting, I’ll pray. I will not leave his name out. He’s number one in my life.”

Jeanne Sturges Holbrook (R) said religion is a private matter and would not comment on whether she would or would not pray to open meetings as commissioner.

Denny King (R) said the Bible plainly teaches that Christians have to pray in the name of Jesus. “I will make it known to the other commissioners that if I pray, I will pray in Jesus’ name.” King said it’s not an issue that needs to be voted on.

Michael “Hub” Scott (R) said he would pray in Jesus’ name as commissioner. Scott said it was “pathetic” that the judicial branch, rather than the legislature, is running the government. “I don’t need a college degree or be from out of town to know why this country is going straight to Hades. We have no morals anymore.”

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