Jackson commission race stands out in complexity

Ambivalence toward development, and who should pace and manage growth in a manner that preserves the natural beauty of the mountains, has surfaced as the central debate in the race for Jackson County’s Board of Commissioners.

Three seats are open on the board. This includes the top the chairman’s position. Commissioners must live within their voting district to seek election, but are elected by countywide voting, or at-large.

In most Western North Carolina counties, the races for commission seats are fairly easy to categorize and subsequently, to analyze: newcomers — generally supportive of land regulations — versus long-timers — generally oppose land regulations.

Jackson County, however, is more complicated than generalizations allow. Two of the most ardent supporters of the strict development regulations now in place are scions of old mountain families: Tom Massie and William Shelton, both incumbents.

Additionally none — not one — of the commission candidates is in favor of a total absence of development regulations. Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated (all are represented in this year’s race), each in some manner, and at some level, acknowledged the necessity and responsibility of overseeing growth.

Other issues are also on the table this year: the deal struck with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro dam; pay raises that seemed to mainly benefit the already-highest paid of the county’s employees; and budget issues.

See also: Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of

 

Regulating development

Background: Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners enacted sweeping steep-slope and subdivision ordinances. Many in the development and real estate industry were angered by the regulations, which were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. Others protested that too many subdivisions — 238 — were exempted. The “vested rights” were to protect developers caught mid-stream by the new regulations, but were ultimately granted to developers in the planning stages. This, in turn, angered those wanting stricter growth controls.

When it comes to growth, the most hands-off candidate is Charles Elders, Shelton’s Republican opponent and a former commissioner. Even Elders, however, gives a nod to “some regulations” being necessary to protect the mountains. He is calling for a study of the current set to see if they need revision.

Shelton, a Democrat, voted for the regulations now in place. He said they weren’t developed willy-nilly, but followed a great deal of public comment from a cross-section of the county’s residents.

“I supported the temporary moratorium on new subdivisions because I felt the county needed time to develop the minimum standards without the planning department becoming overwhelmed with new applications that were simply trying to get into the system before any regulations were passed,” Shelton said.

Additionally, blaming a local governing board for a national recession doesn’t make sense, Shelton said.

But Republican Doug Cody, who is battling Massie, a Democrat, thinks the regulations should be examined “in considerable detail.”

“I also think that there should be input from a larger cross section of the community,” Cody said. “For example, I feel that there are creative ways to construct very low-density housing on steeper slopes without harming the environment.”

Massie pointed out the regulations were actually developed by members of the county’s planning board, which included a representative of the Home Builders Association. And were tweaked by commissioners. He characterized the advisory board as “reasonable, concerned citizens.”

What wasn’t reasonable — in his mind, at least — was what happened after the moratorium was placed on new developments conceived after February 2007.

“The regulations did not cause the slowdown in construction or real estate sales,” Massie said. “However, the hysteria generated by elements within the real estate and construction industries may have done more to damage that sector of the economy than the actual moratorium.”

If there is a man in the middle on these development issues, that is Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. He, among the candidates, cast the sole ‘no’ vote on current development regulations. He also opposed the moratorium on subdivisions.

“Did we really accomplish anything with a moratorium but alienate and frustrate many in the public?” McMahan queried rhetorically when asked about his vote.

But McMahan’s position is more complicated than simply dismissing the regulations that were passed, because he supports — and has been consistently on record as doing so — most of what is in place.

“I found it to be true that everyone was in favor of having stable slopes,” he said. “Everyone wanted some assurances that their neighbor’s property would not slide down the mountain and destroy or damage their property.”

Everyone also wanted safe and good access and roads, McMahan said, and “appropriate” buffers.

“I stopped in my support … when the ordinances went a step beyond those health, safety and protections aspects and started trying to regulate aesthetics, which is what ‘looks good.’’

McMahan also disagreed with lot-size requirements, which he said effectively limited some development possibilities.

His opponent, Jack Debnam, who is unaffiliated with any political party, is having a difficult time delineating himself from McMahan on this issue because, frankly, their views on the subject are so similar.

Debnam supports the development regulations, but argues that he doesn’t think “we needed to cover everyone with the same blanket set” of rules. He, too, believes the moratorium was a terrible mistake.

“The implementation of the moratorium, in my opinion, gave us a five-month jumpstart on the rest of the nation in our economic downturn because of the question of what could happen next,” Debnam said.

 

Dillsboro Dam

Background: Jackson County tried to exercise eminent domain and take the dam in Dillsboro away from Duke Energy to make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the Tuckasegee. The county lost the battle in court, and was forced to cough up a half-million dollars in legal fees. Per Duke’s wishes, the dam now has been torn down.

Elders said he believes a little more skill at the negotiating table would have served Jackson County residents better than the bare-knuckled battle that took place with Duke.

Well, Shelton responded, of course it’s always nice to sit back and scrutinize someone else’s decisions: “Hindsight makes it easy to say that we should not have fought the fight, now that history shows we lost,” he said. “However, at the time I thought it was worth the gamble. If you look at the amount gained through the settlement against the amount spent, then you have pretty much a zero-sum game.”

Cody, like Elders, doesn’t approve of the “adversarial approach” taken by the county. His problem on this issue? Neither does his opponent. In fact, Massie voted against continuing “the legal wrangling” once the county’s appeal was denied.

“I felt it was a desperate, costly, gamble with little hope for success,” Massie said.

McMahan disagrees with that assessment, saying the fight made Duke pay more attention to the demolition than it might have otherwise. Such as sediment removal, and riverbank restoration. He agreed with Shelton that, ultimately, the situation was about break-even.

Not so fast, Debnam said.

“‘A wash?’ he said, “$500,000 out-of-pocket to area attorneys, who knows how many hours of county employee time, and we get what the stakeholders had agreed to. I think that should be considered ‘a bath.’”

 

Pay raises

Background: The county instituted a pay plan for employees. Some have since protested that the only employees who truly benefited were already those who were the highest paid.

Why in the world pay someone to conduct a study when the Institute for Local Government could have been consulted, and for free, Elders wanted to know. Additionally, Shelton’s challenger said it was disappointing to watch as the lowest paid tier of employees didn’t seem to reap rewards — only those at the top.

This issue is a tough one for the incumbents. Well-intentioned the study might have been, but the effort to bring a level of fairness to the pay scale that is based on experience, education and length of service didn’t exactly work out as thought. This truth Shelton acknowledged.

“In hindsight, I feel that our board made a mistake by voting on this policy without taking into account … the ‘career ladder’ portion,” he said. “That said, I still believe that we have a fair system in place that, in the long run, will serve the county well.”

Cody, like Elders, believes paying for a study was unnecessary, and that it unfairly rewarded those at the top tier.

Massie, like Shelton, seemed uncomfortable with what took place.

“I still support those raises,” Massie said, “but I should have better understood the impact the ‘career ladder’ … would have on pay levels of the employees with the most seniority. Had I fully understood that, it might have impacted my decision.”

McMahan, alone of the incumbent commissioners running for office, is unapologetic on the issue. The old pay plan didn’t adequately compensate some employees, and the county had too much turnover of critical personnel, he said.

“In a two-year period, the board met at seven different occasions in which the plan was discussed publicly in some way. No member of the public ever voiced the first complaint until after the plan had been presented, funded and implemented,” McMahan said.

 

Managing the dollars

Background: Being an incumbent is tough. You actually have a record to defend. But here’s one issue on which Shelton, Massie and McMahan are difficult to fault. Neighboring counties had huge budget shortfalls, layoffs and other fiscal nightmares. Jackson sailed through, with very little belt-tightening.

All in all, Elders acknowledged, the county is in pretty good shape. Wouldn’t hurt to build the tax base up, he said, and get an economic development commission re-established to focus on job growth.

Shelton said the current board “trimmed down the budget incrementally” during two budget cycles.

“This past year, we cut our budget by close to 10 percent across the board, with the exception of the fire departments,” he said. “Jackson County has a healthy debt-to-asset ratio in comparison to surrounding counties, and has a strong fund balance.”

Cody isn’t prepared to credit the incumbents even for a strong budget performance — he believes the only reason this county functioned better during the extended recession is because property values were so high.

“In my opinion, the county officials overspent while the national and local economies were slowing down,” he said.

But Massie said Jackson County certainly has done a very good job of managing its budget, thank you very much. Line items were reduced, overall expenditure reduced, money was placed in a rainy day fund to help offset future problems.

“I think that the fact that Jackson County has not had to do layoffs, furloughs and severely cut services is a testament to the sound leadership of the county manager, finance director, department heads and employees,” McMahan said.

(Note: For those not-so-good at picking up on subtleties, this is an oblique defense of the county pay raises — the highest paid who got more pay under the study did a good job on the budget, ie., county manager, finance director, and so on.)

Debnam simply refused to acknowledge that even Jackson County’s budget might be sound, and that commissioners did a good job on this part of their job. Or anything else particularly.

“Until I can get in office and have a cost accounting done, I will not know what kind of job has been done,” he said.

 

More information

Some candidates weren’t there, but if you want to know where the ones who did attend a forum put on by regional environmental groups stand on certain issues, here’s a video clip courtesy of the Canary Coalition: www.youtube.com/watch?v=raasOuOc7_0

Swain commissioner candidates

Democratic candidates, pick four

Steve Moon, 59, owner of a tire shop, incumbent

Moon is finishing up his first term as commissioner and has served on the school board for six years. Moon said he’d like to be re-elected to make sure the interest from the North Shore road settlement is used wisely. “I wouldn’t want to hand the reigns over to anybody else.”

Tommy Woodard, 51, owner of construction company

Woodard said his main goal is to represent the interests and desires of Swain County residents. Woodard freely admits that he would like to bring his Christian values and ethics to the board of commissioners. “Whether you agree or disagree, it would only be fair to you that you know where I stand.”

Raymond Nelson, 63, retired U.S. Navy officer

Nelson said politicians should stop pointing fingers and start tackling problems. His main goal is to save taxpayer money through efficient use of county employees and equipment. For example, he’d like to use county engineers and workers to repair a sinkhole in front of the jail rather than paying for private labor.

Donnie Dixon, 64, tool and dye maker/machinist

Dixon was a commissioner for one term in the early ‘90s. He’s running to provide good leadership during tough economic times. Dixon would like to bring high-paying jobs to the county, create a more open government with televised meetings, and focus on setting long-term goals.

Robert White, 70, retired school superintendent

White says he has spent countless hours working on budgets, communicating with both staff and community and creating a strategic plan for Swain’s schools. He would like to create an ad hoc committee of citizens to look at the Swain’s future needs, help create a strategic plan, and guide commissioners in their decisions.

Judy Miller, 62, retired psychotherapist

Miller would like to see staggered terms for county commissioners and the school board race made nonpartisan. Miller advocates creating a long-term plan for the county and closely involving citizens in the process.

Janice Inabinett, 68, retired social worker

Inabinett said her chief goal is to inspire citizens to participate in government. “People are apathetic because they are not asked to participate.” Inabinett says she’s in favor of starting a department of community involvement to create more leaders in Swain.

David Monteith, 63, schoolbus driver, incumbent

Monteith hopes to bring more jobs to Swain County and better promote tourism. Building the North Shore Road would have brought 714 federal jobs to the area, according to Monteith, who was the sole commissioner to vote against the cash settlement. “We need to make sure we do not allow the federal government to continue to take over Swain County.”

Billy Woodard, 63, construction worker and supervisor

Woodard says he will bring much-needed leadership to the county. For Woodard, the biggest issue facing Swain now is the lack of jobs in the area. Woodward’s priority is help citizens establish small businesses in the county.

 

Republican candidates

John Herrin, 49, project manager for construction company

Herrin’s priorities are to establish an open government, create an active job creation program, and provide full support to the school system. Herrin says the county government would stay within budget if it was profit-driven like the private sector.

Andy Parris, 35, insurance agent

Parris hopes to bring a more transparent government to Swain County. “I want to see if we can do business on top of the table instead of under it.” Parris said commissioners seem to do what they want once they’ve been voted in. “I think it’s time that people had a say-so. That’s what a representative does.”

James F. King, 57, owner of a local meat butcher facility

King would like to keep property taxes as low as possible and curb some county spending. “I feel I can help people of the county, maybe address what people of the county wants instead of what the government thinks they need.”

Gerald (Jerry) Shook, 48, delivery driver

Shook would like to quit following the “old partisanship ways” and make choices for the common people of Swain County. Shook also wants to curb waste on the county’s expense accounts and make cuts to the budget.

Scant primary in Jackson commissioner race

While three of five seats are up for election on the Jackson County board of commissioners, there is primary competition for just one of the seats: the Democratic primary for the Cherokee/ Whittier/Dillsboro district profiled here.

 

William Shelton, 47, Whittier, farmer

• Experience: Shelton has been on the board for four years and is a full-time farmer. Shelton has worked as supervisor for the Jackson County soil and water conservation district and served as member of the planning board and the steering committee for the Mountain Landscapes Initiative.

• Platform: Shelton was elected to his first term after running on a platform of environmental stewardship and controlled development in Jackson County. While on the board, he helped pass steep slope and subdivision ordinances as well as create a Historic Preservation Commission and a Farmland Preservation ordinance.

“The beauty and natural resources of this area are our number one asset. We need, as always, to find ways to strike that delicate balance between growth and stewardship.”

Shelton said his focus now is on economic development, job creation, and fiscal responsibility.

“I think our goal as commissioners in Jackson County should be to support the infrastructure and services, from education and recreation to emergency services and well-justified capital projects, that would set the table in making this county as attractive as possible to people who are looking for business locations in this new ‘green’ and ‘high-tech’ economy.”

 

James “Bo” Brown, 55, Dillsboro, pastor/business owner

• Experience: Brown is pastor of Alarka Missionary Baptist Church in Bryson City, works full-time on the night shift at WestCare Medical as a floor technician, and is the owner of Bo Knows Construction.

• Platform: Brown believes the people of Jackson County are overtaxed and that over-regulation of development has accentuated the effects of the recession.

“The hard-working people who have grown up here starve or are having to sell off their land to pay the taxes. The people of Jackson County want a place they can be proud of, with jobs for all and the ability to keep their land for their children, so they too can raise their children here instead of having to go away to find work.”

As commissioner, Brown said he would seek to diversify the local economy by attracting manufacturing jobs and hiring local contractors for county work.

“Jackson County needs to seek manufacturing companies to come to this area to give jobs to the people. Tourism is fine, but not everyone has a business that runs on tourism. We really need stable places to work where people can look forward to having a retirement.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

Finances likely to dominate Haywood commissioner race

Haywood

The Haywood County board has five commissioner seats. Three seats are up for election this year. A party primary in May will narrow down the field to three Democrats and three Republicans for the three vacant seats.

Haywood Commissioner Skeeter Curtis will not be running for re-election this year, meaning at least one new face will join the board come fall.

Curtis said he will not run for a second term in order to focus on family issues. Curtis, a former deputy commissioner of insurance, has been working as a consultant in the past few years, but will return to a full-time position.

“I just really feel right now I need to put all my efforts on that side, on the family,” said Curtis. “I just wouldn’t have enough time to devote to the job [of commissioner].”

Curtis said he’d like to see a lot of people run, especially those from the younger generation.

“I think it’d be good for them to get involved in their county government,” said Curtis.

Fellow commissioners Bill Upton and Kirk Kirkpatrick said they will both seek another four years on the board.

“I would like to help assist the county in continuing to get through this difficult economic time,” said Kirkpatrick, who has been on the board eight years and serves as chairman.

Kirkpatrick initially thought he would step down after this year, but in recent months committed to running for another term.

Upton said he’s had a positive experience serving on the board during his first term.

“I see some good things going on, and I want to see that continue,” said Upton, who commended the board for moving forward on the Wal-Mart purchase and for operating openly.

“There are very few things we don’t televise,” Upton said. “And our chairman has allowed people to speak at work sessions. I feel like we as a group are good listeners.”

Challengers prepare

Mary Ann Enloe, a former commissioner, is undecided whether she attempt to regain the seat she lost two years ago.

“I still have to give it some more thought,” said Enloe, who was a commissioner for eight years and mayor of Hazelwood for 12. Enloe said many in the community are encouraging her to run

Michael Sorrells, a 53-year-old native of Haywood County and Democrat, said he plans to run for the board, a decision spurred by Curtis stepping down.

Rhonda Schandevel, a 45-year-old dental hygienist and Haywood County native, hopes to land a spot on the Democratic ticket as well.

Three Republican candidates who are considering a run include David Bradley, Tom Freeman and Elizabeth Norris.

“I think there are a lot of changes that need to be made,” said Norris. “We need to become fiscally responsible.”

Freeman and Bradley, who serves as the treasurer and executive officer of the Haywood County GOP, could not be reached for comment.

Sorrells owns and operates a service station, convenience store and café in Jonathan Creek, a family business that’s served the rural community since 1968. Sorrells has served on the Haywood County school board for about six years.

Schandevel, who resides in Canton, is an advocate for those with special needs. She has had leadership roles in several boards, including The Arc of Haywood County, The Waynesville Recreation Board, the Tuscola High School PTO, and the United Methodist Women group.

Schandevel said it was important to have a balance on the board, which currently has only males.

“Women and men see things differently,” said Schandevel. “I think that’s very important.”

All eyes on the budget

With the economy still in a recession, the county’s budget will sit at center stage in the upcoming election.

“One of the major issues will be the budget,” said Curtis. “There’s no question about it.”

The current board came under fire last year for raising property taxes by 1.7 cents during a recession. Commissioners said it was necessary to make ends meet and avoid painful cuts to core county services.

“To me, the big issue is still the budget and making the best of not having the monies we had in the past,” said Upton.

Kirkpatrick said this would be another year of slashing every non-necessity from the budget, all the while keeping property taxes as low as possible.

“It will be difficult as it was last year in cutting down some of the needs to determine what has to be spent to continue to keep the county going,” said Kirkpatrick.

Sorrells said he would try to lighten to load on the taxpayers “if at all possible” by reevaluating every department to see where cuts could be made.

Kirkpatrick agreed but said candidates should detail exactly how they plan to lower taxes during hard times.

“Everybody wants to cut the tax rate, but nobody can ever point to what it is that they’re going to cut,” said Kirkpatrick.

All three incumbents to run again in Macon

Macon

The Macon County board has four commissioners and one chairman. This year, the seats of two commissioners and the chairman are up for re-election. A party primary in May will narrow the field to one Democrat and one Republican for each of the three seats. Each commissioner represents a geographic district in the county, but the county chairman is elected at large.

With three seats on the Macon County board up for grabs this year, all three of the incumbents have said they will run again. Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale, Franklin-based Commissioner Bob Simpson, and Highlands-based Brian McClellan will seek re-election.

Beale said he wants to finish work the current board has started.

“I’ve been a part of implementing a lot of things from the mental health task force to the completion of the new school, and there’s still some things I want to see through,” Beale said.

Beale said the economic development commission is working well in Macon County and taxes have remained among the lowest in the state. He is concerned about the impact of declining retail sales tax revenue on the county. Beale said has taken pride in the capital projects completed during his last term –– including the new early college building at Southwestern Community College, a series of school upgrades and the modification of the old library into a center for the elderly.

Commissioner Bob Simpson has also said he will seek re-election to a third term on the board.

“In this economy we’re going to have to have experience on the board to keep taxes low,” Simpson said.

Commissioner Brian McClellan was reached briefly just prior to press deadline and confirmed he intends to run again.

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