Macon commissioner candidates talk budget matters, schools and slope regulations
Despite having three Macon County commissioner seats on the ballot this fall, only one has any competition.
In the conservative leaning county, two sitting Republican commissioners will stroll back on the board after no Democratic candidates stepped up to run against them. While Commissioners Jim Tate and Kevin Corbin had to fend off challenges from other Republicans in the May primary, both won and are now enjoying a leisurely campaign season given the lack of Democratic opposition.
The third seat up for election is held by Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, a Democrat, who faces opposition from Republican challenger Paul Higdon.
“I would like to see five conservative members on that board,” Higdon said of his bid against Kuppers. “We are a conservative county.”
Indeed, Macon has more registered Republican voters than Democrats — 9,900 Republicans to 7,900 Democrats. But two of the five county commissioner seats are held by Democrats, so the political climate isn’t quite as hostile toward Democrats as it may seem, if judging solely from voter statistics.
Kuppers said party affiliation doesn’t matter at the local level. County commissioners check their “D” and their “R” at the door when they walk in to county meetings, he said.
“There is no place for parties in the commissioners’ board room. Your constituents are not interested in whether you are Democrat or Republican. They are interested in whether you will work together to solve problems for our community,” Kuppers said.
Higdon said he wants to bring another conservative voice to the “board’s decision making process,” however.
Kuppers knows first-hand how hard it is to recruit Democrats to run in Macon County. Kuppers was that guy four years ago. As a teacher and football coach at Franklin High, Kuppers’ students in civics class hounded him to run, pointing out there were no other Democrats on the ballot. Kuppers eventually relented and said he would do it if no one else emerged. He called everyone he knew, but finding no takers, he found himself on the ballot.
Taxes and spending
Higdon’s platform centers around the classic conservative issues of the day: lower taxes and checks on spending.
Kuppers countered that the county has done an excellent job managing the economic storm during the past four years. It kept the property tax rate low but also kept budget cuts to a minimum.
“This board has done a great job working together and maintaining fiscal discipline,” Kuppers said. “We have the lowest tax rate in the state while still being able to do things to invest in our kids and youth.”
Despite the recession, the county has carried on with a master plan for school construction. During the past several years, two new schools were built and five others got needed renovations and upgrades, Kuppers said.
Higdon, however, pointed out that Macon County voters rejected a bond measure in 2007 to fund new school construction, yet commissioners seemed to ignore voters’ wishes and proceeded with the school construction plan.
The price tag wasn’t the only factor driving opposition. Many were against the plan to close older, smaller community schools and consolidate them into new ones.
“The taxpayers voted against consolidation, and they built them anyway,” Higdon said.
Higdon said the new schools so far haven’t seemed to improve education, citing declining test scores.
“If our test scores are not improving, so what is the problem?” Higdon said. “The public education system has got to perform better.”
Higdon disagrees with a 1.5-cent property tax hike in 2010 — something Kuppers voted for — to pay for new school construction. He said the county had ample money in savings to pay for the construction without raising taxes.
Although Macon County’s property tax rate is the lowest in the state, Higdon believes it could be lower, pointing to the county’s robust cash reserves, which stand at around $23 million.
While Macon County leaders often tout their comfortable cash reserves as a bragging point, Higdon believes the county is sitting on more than it really needs. Macon’s fund balance is more than five times the minimum recommended by N.C. Local Government Commission for a county of Macon’s size.
The county should refund some of it in the form of lower taxes, Higdon said.
“That fund balance is made up of property taxes. That is money that comes straight out of households,” Higdon said. “It is my opinion we should lower this fund to the appropriate level to save people some money.”
Kuppers said the fund balance proved a valuable safety net during the recession, however. While the county did cut its workforce, it was spared the type of widespread layoffs and furloughs seen elsewhere.
“Really, to be able to do that goes all the way back to several boards before us — to maintain our fund balance and maintain our fiscal discipline,” Kuppers said.
School budget shortfall
Macon County Schools recently revealed it is facing an immediate $550,000 budget shortfall. Kuppers said the county can’t leave the school system hanging and must take an active role to help fix the financial situation.
“We are going to link arms with the school board and find a way through it. I have great confidence in our school board,” Kuppers said. The county has a “tremendous” relationship with the school board.
But Higdon questioned whether better planning could have averted the need for a potential rescue package from the county.
“Those of us in the private sector had to make adjustments five or six years ago to deal with lower revenues,” Higdon said.
Kuppers said he couldn’t pass judgment on how the schools got into such a bind. Part of it has to do with the loss of federal stimulus money for local schools, and part of it stems from an 11th-hour pay raise for teachers ordered by the state this year.
“I am not sure you can blame the schools for allowing that to happen,” Kuppers said.
When asked if the county would “bail out” the school system, Kuppers said that’s not the term he would use.
“The county will work with the school system and come with a solution to the problem. It seems they are in a constant battle to patch it together,” Kuppers said of the school’s budget. “Let’s get a grip on it, get it back to where we can predict it.”
One of the biggest challenges that could be facing the next board of commissioners is a countywide property revaluation. Property values will be recalculated for every home, lot and tract of land in the county.
The stakes are high since property values in turn determine how much people pay in property taxes.
Property values have declined, however, and that means each penny on the tax rate might not bring in as much as it use to.
“We need to be talking about this now, and we need to be planning a strategy,” Higdon said. “If property values go up, great, we are back in the game. If they remain the same or go lower, what is our approach to that? I think we need to be discussing it now. What are our options?”
The county would face two choices if property values indeed go down: raise the tax rate to keep bringing in the same amount of money or cut the budget to make up the difference.
Higdon said if property values go down, he would like to avoid raising the tax rate to make up the difference. But commissioners haven’t yet publicly broached those “what-if” scenarios, Higdon said.
Kuppers said he is optimistic that it won’t be an issue. He believes the real estate market will rebound by then, making it a moot point.
But if property values do in fact go down, he doesn’t think the county can make up the difference by cutting. Instead, Kuppers would consider increasing the tax rate.
“I know how cut down we are already,” Kuppers said.
A revaluation was initially on the books for last year, but fearing a dramatic decline in the county’s property tax base, the current board of commissioners postponed it until 2015, hoping the real estate market would improve by then. In the meantime, however, people are paying taxes based on property values that are inflated.
Higdon said he doesn’t agree with that decision.
“We kicked the can down the road. The thing that concerns me right now is people are paying taxes on values that aren’t accurate. I don’t think that is fair,” Higdon said.
But Kuppers said the real estate market was in too much flux to go forward with a revaluation.
“We don’t have an accurate picture of where we are,” Kuppers said. “We felt like we would wait as long as we could to have a more realistic idea of what property values are.”
Higdon equated the balancing act between the tax rate and property values to a “shell game.”
Macon County can brag about having a low property tax rate, but that’s only been possible because of high real estate values. The higher the values are on homes and land, the more each penny on the tax rate brings in.
“If you have the highest property values, you can have a low tax rate,” Higdon said.
No election in recent history has come and gone in Macon County without candidates being asked to weigh in on development regulations. The upshot is the same: do regulations infringe on private property rights or protect the interests of the greater good?
The hot-button issue the past two years has centered on steep slope construction.
Higdon opposes steep slope regulations. The fear mongering over landslides from unsafe slope construction is “junk science,” Higdon said.
“I love these mountains and I want to protect them. I think we have done a great job developing them,” said Higdon, who has worked as an excavator in the past.
The Macon County Planning Board spent two years devising steep-slope construction standards, but they’ve gone nowhere. The steep slope regulations were embarked on under a previous board of commissioners and have been indefinitely tabled by the current board.
Higdon does not support the regulations.
“I think the people on the ground have the best knowledge of that and not some government agency,” Higdon said.
Kuppers has served as the county’s liaison to the planning board when the regulations were being crafted and in the past has been supportive of the idea.
But he would not weigh in on the specific steep slope construction standards. He doesn’t believe they will remain tabled forever,. Conversely, the county likewise has no “immediate” plans to take up the issue.
Until then, Kuppers said he couldn’t offer an opinion.
“We have not discussed them, so I am hesitant to comment on them until we have discussed them,” Kuppers said. “We have to make sure they fit with the economic climate we are in and do they make sense at this time.”
Macon County’s planning board has come under fire during the past year. Opponents to steep slope regulations called for the planning board to be reined in and in some cases disbanded.
But Kuppers said the planning board plays an important advisory role for the county.
“I am a strong believer in the planning board process. I am a strong believer in letting the Planning Board grapple with tough controversial issues,” Kuppers said. “I am a fan of having adults sitting around a table as adults and working through the issues. They come to us with a recommendation, and we will do what we need to do.”
Higdon believes there is a concerted effort to undermine the American values of capitalism, stemming from a United Nations doctrine known as Agenda 21. In short, Agenda 21 was launched by the U.N. more than two decades ago to work toward global sustainability. Conservatives have grown increasingly leery of Agenda 21 and now fear it is being covertly pushed on American society by operatives.
Agenda 21 is aimed at limiting the private accumulation of wealth, and steep slope regulations are part of that movement, Higdon said.
“They are designed to limit the rights and freedoms of private property owners,” Higdon said.
Who’s up for election in the Macon commissioner race?
While Macon County commissioner seats are divvied up by geographic districts, all voters countywide can vote in all the races. Districts merely determine where the candidate must hail from.
Only one of the three seats has any opposition, with Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, a Democrat, facing challenger Paul Higdon, a Republican.