Three seats up for Sylva Town Council
Three seats are up for election this November on the Sylva Town Council, and six candidates are competing for those spots.
With several big projects on the horizon for the town, more than 50 people attended the Sylva candidate’s forum Thursday, Sept. 28. In addition to taking questions from the crowd and speaking their mind on issues facing Sylva today, candidates implored people to get out and vote, and to encourage family and friends to do the same. A selection of their answers are recorded below. Indivisible Common Ground WNC hosted the event and Lauren Baxley emceed. Mark Jones, not to be confused with the county commissioner of the same name, was the only candidate not in attendance. Smoky Mountain News spoke with Jones later to get his answers to questions from the event.
Early voting runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, Oct. 19 until Nov. 3, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Jackson County Board of Elections. Voters are now required to show ID when voting, but a special voter ID can be requested from the Board of Elections during early voting. Election day is Nov. 7.
Incumbent council members Ben Guiney, Greg McPherson and Brad Waldrop have all filed to run for reelection. McPherson, an assistant professor at Western Carolina University and exhibition designer at the WCU Fine Art Museum, has been on the board since 2015. Guiney, an emergency room doctor, has lived in Sylva since 2014 and was first elected to the town board in 2019, following three years on the town’s planning board. In addition to sitting on the Jackson County Planning Board, Sylva native Waldrop, co-owner and general manager of Ward Plumbing, Heating & Air, is the board’s newest member after being appointed to the seat left empty when David Nestler was appointed to former Mayor Lynda Sossamon’s vacant seat.
Also in the race are Luther Jones, Mark Jones — no relation to each other — and Blitz Estridge. Chair of the town planning board and former Jackson County Historical Commission member Luther Jones is retired following a career in theater and film programs at WCU. A Sylva resident since high school, Estridge holds a degree in electrical fundamentals and owns Dillsboro-based Catamount Electric. Mark Jones, the only candidate who did not attend the forum, is a lifelong Sylva resident who has spent 30 years as a sales manager at a local business.
“I will be honest with you; I don’t know that much. At the same time, I can do the research to find out and I guarantee that I’ll do a better job than that if I’m elected.
Luther Jones. Donated photo
But we do need to take care of Fisher Creek, we do need to take care of the watershed. I’m very much in favor of the environment and recreation.”
“It’s got to go back into the park, whether it’s water conservation or the park itself. Recently we’ve used some money from the Fisher Creek Fund to do a botanical study and we also talked about using some money from that fund to do a study for the Blackrock section as well for a master plan study … But as far as keeping that park alive, that’s something I’ve brought up in the past, whether that’s going to turn into user fees at some point in time … Folks that are using these outdoor facilities, we have to maintain them, and unfortunately sometimes we have to attach some fees on it to keep that beautiful place the way it is.”
“We don’t dip into that fund lightly. These are projects that this board sees as furthering our commitment to the environment, which is the future. That study that we did, that was very important that we catalogue the fauna that was there and get rid of that invasive species that is taken out of that park. It’s all about leverage, it’s all about partnerships … [The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River] they go around and take water samples from all parts of the creek to see if there’s anybody polluting and are sort of like water police.
Greg McPherson. Donated photo
They’re out there all the time as volunteer workers, and I hope that we can find more partnerships like this … We try to reinvest that money so that we have some for the future, for future boards to use, because we know that there’s going to be more challenges to the environment in the future.”
“This is the kind of question that we need a specific answer to, but I don’t know enough about how the fund exists now to answer how we would work together to keep it going into perpetuity. I do think it’s very important. I do have experience, for what it’s worth, managing fairly large financial budgets, including in our business, so that’s something I would definitely put my effort toward and help with. I think I could add some value. I’d be happy to learn more; I’d like to learn more.”
“I think all creeks are important for Jackson County, it’s what makes it a great place to live. I have talked to Ken Brown about the association for the watershed, he’s very knowledgeable and very passionate about what he does. And our company has actually contributed to that association. I think it’s a great thing Ken’s doing. It’s a lot to learn with our creeks and how it works and the ecosystem.”
“I believe the watershed funds should be hands-off for any purposes other than protecting the watershed.”
How will you balance the budget with revenue losses coming from N.C. 107 ?
“In order to plan ahead, when we know things are coming, like the 107 project, we start thinking about how we’re going to have to cut back in the future, what wants are not going to happen, they’re going to get pushed back. We’ve got a great town manager, great town staff that’s able to crunch the numbers and come up with it … Less than five businesses are leaving Sylva due to the 107 project and new spots are being built, like on Skyland to house new businesses.”
“My priority will be to cut spending and avoid property tax increases. Sylva’s town manager expects a major shortfall next year.
Mark Jones. Donated photo
With the looming loss of businesses and sales tax revenues we will have to get very creative during this period of disruption. The town also faces critical shortages in its capital reserve fund. Hard choices are ahead of us.”
“The reason that I voted to raise taxes is because I think that everybody that works for the Town of Syva should have a high standard of quality of life, and that’s sometimes painful for people … This is not just about this board raising taxes, this is about our community moving forward… I do know that the majority of businesses that are being relocated or have lost their buildings have been relocated. There is assistance from Southwestern [Community College] and there’s a lot of people working behind the scenes tirelessly, communicating with the people that are being relocated. I look forward to 107 being done and there being new areas that we can attract new businesses to this community, and I think it will all balance out in the end.”
“What’s being said about businesses having support and many of them not actually leaving the town is definitely accurate. That’s observable in the community, but there is still going to be probably an impact to the budget. Approaching that, you can increase revenues, or you can decrease expenses … We don’t have a lot of opportunities to decrease expenses, especially in a community that is, by all accounts, growing.
Brad Waldrop. Donated photo
We’re left with trying to find ways to increase revenue. We can do that by attracting businesses, trying to do everything we can to help the businesses that we have, stay. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of that. There are certainly inevitabilities about the highway expansion that really can’t be changed. But there are resources for businesses that are being utilized, we know success stories already. We have to do everything we can to protect those businesses and when needed, attract more businesses to the county that will provide good jobs and provide more tax revenue.”
“I think we must have a plan in place. The 107 construction project is a big project that needs attention now and planning and budgeting ends to be the hot topic. We need to work with the DOT and with the county also, going out and talking with business owners, getting their ideas and seeing what they think.
Blitz Estridge. Donated photo
I’ve been doing that actually with a lot of feedback on it. But this project is going to transform our town, and we must work together and help the citizens deal with the construction and the traffic.”
“I know how we can mitigate it. But it’s not something we can do as a town by itself, it’s something that we have to do in cooperation with the county. The state sales tax in this state is 7.5% maximum. The state itself takes 4.75%, this county takes less than the maximum, therefore we have a 7% sales tax in this county. If we added one half cent on the dollar, the Town of Sylva would pick up roughly $190,000 a year. We get right now $873,000 in sales tax from the county each year. What if we could add another $190,000? That becomes a use tax. The problem with a property tax is that it’s hitting people who live here. A use tax is going to be transferred to people who are traveling through here, people who are tourists. I’m not anti-tax, but I am anti-property tax increases because we’re hurting the people that live here.”
What are the top three things you want to change or improve in the town?
“I want to change the town to make it more walkable, more bikeable, safer for pedestrians. Why am I the right person to do that? Because I ride a bike to work every day. I walk everywhere. … the second thing, I want to see the town be able to be more friendly for folks with disabilities. That goes back to the ramp down from Bridge Park, the crosswalk signals.
Ben Guiney. Donated photo
Why am I the person to do that? Because like a lot of things with the town board, you need a champion, and you need someone who really wants to do it. The third thing I’d like to do, I’d like the town to stop using Roundup. I’d like to find a different way to remove weeds in order to protect rivers, because all of that stuff runs down. Why am I the person to do it? Because I care about that.”
“The first on my list is more amenities. The getting around downtown is not the easiest thing for somebody who’s accessibly challenged. Those are the kinds of things that I would like to see so that everybody has the same opportunity to move through the town and in the town. The second would be the environment … Any building that the town has charge over, that it builds, I would like to be LEED-certified. I would like to see the town fleet move to electric. I think that would be a positive step for our culture. We spend a lot of money to Duke Energy for power every month. That is one of our main expenses. The third thing is the aesthetics of the town. That was one of the things that I ran on when I first started this. Looking for partnerships, looking for ways to celebrate the diversity of our community through art.”
“One, four-day workweek for everybody. Already did it for our plumbers, they really enjoy it, so we’re going to start with that … I would like to see us work together to establish ways to have our buildings downtown better upkept. And also, our sidewalks, that would kind of be our number two, there are cracked sidewalks around here. One, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to have sidewalks that are cracked and people trying to walk on them or get around them in other ways, but it’s also an aesthetic. And then, I also think the town needs to be more walkable. We’re going to have to address traffic flow in general in some ways. I’ve heard some really good ideas about that, but there hasn’t been any action. We do have opportunities to improve that as well and make it more walkable and safer, and more enjoyable for visitors and ourselves.”
“I can’t really think of anything that I would want to change. I love living here and I’d have to agree with Brad, I think some of the buildings and the sidewalks need attention. That’s something I would look at, but I hear good things about the police department, I hear good things about public works. I think they’re doing a great job, it’s just a great community.”
“I think there’s some things that need to be fixed. I’ll give you an example, the bathrooms down in Poteet Park. Why am I the one that wants to do it? Because I have a grandson and I take him down there … We have other things as well that we need to look at — the infrastructure, that we’re not thinking about at times. Let’s take the parking lot at the other end of town. There’s a wall there that’s beginning to crack and it’s beginning to sag in. If we don’t do something with it, it’s going to cave in and wreck some cars in there at some point in time … We need bathrooms in town, we really do, and I’m glad to see that you’ve moved ahead on that. Some of the things that need work have to do with amenities.”
“We need to build working relationships to address these critical challenges. My first priority will be to emphasize the fundamentals of government — public works, public safety and other core services. Given the financial constraints we will face, smart spending will be critical. We must manage town resources effectively during the 107 project. Lastly, I will prioritize building Sylva’s future so that we can recruit and develop businesses we need.”