For Queen and Hise, job creation is the primary concern

The race for the state’s 47th Senate District is a case study in the political battle of freshness versus experience that characterizes this mid-term election across the country.

The race in the 47th pits 60-year-old Democrat Joe Sam Queen, a three-term state senator and incumbent, against Ralph Hise, the 34-year-old Republican mayor of Spruce Pine going for his first state seat. If elected, he would be the youngest person in the Senate.

Recent polls show Hise ahead of Queen, who is facing a tough race in this Tea Party year.

According to a mid-September opinion poll by the Carolina Strategy Group, Hise was leading Queen by 12 percent. Queen’s edge with Republicans and unaffiliated voters had slipped considerably since the group’s June survey.

Both candidates are campaigning on a fairly narrow platform, pinning their hopes on strategies for job creation.

Hise is toeing his party’s line when it comes to campaign promises: he wants to bring jobs back to stimulate the flagging economy and drum up work for the unemployed of the district by deregulation and lower taxes, hoping this will encourage small businesses to swell their employment ranks a little more.

“The backbone of our economy is small business, and we must create an atmosphere for them to develop and thrive, rather than be taxed to death,” said Hise. “We must look to reduce government.”

His strategies for accomplishing his goals, while not clearly defined, all revolve around lower taxes and slashed spending to boost jobs and revenue.  

“Ralph will fight for us,” promise his television ads. “He’ll cut taxes, end the waste and get people back to work.”

Queen, however, has a different tactic for job creation: bringing state spending to the western part of the state. Queen doesn’t promise to end state government spending, but he advocates bringing it back to the district, where it can be spent creating jobs and improving education.

Queen preaches a message of reinvestment for salvation, promising to continue bringing home the kind of funding and support from Raleigh that he says he’s been pulling in as senator. He points to initiatives like the Golden LEAF Foundation, the N.C. Rural Center and other government-funded job-creation initiatives as the way out of the recession, and promises to keep plugging for them and for the district’s colleges and universities.

He’s working to remind voters of what he’s kept in their district: the agricultural research station in Waynesville, “$250 million of assistance to distressed mountain communities,” and the quarter-cent sales tax in Haywood County to benefit Haywood Community College, among other things.

According to the Carolina Strategy Group survey, though, a steady stream of funding from Raleigh may not be what voters in the 47th are looking for.  Fifty-one percent told pollsters that they think Republicans would be better managers of the state’s debt, compared to only 31 percent who would favor Democrats as managers.

This isn’t Queen’s first heated battle, however. He’s faced several cut-throat election cycles, most notably going up against former Sen. Keith Presnell, by whom he was unseated in 2004 but edged out in the last two races.

In this year of incumbent backlash, Hise’s no-spending mantra coupled with his freshness in the political game seem to be currying favor with voters, at least according to the most recent polling numbers.

Davis looks to seize Snow’s Senate seat; momentum favors GOP candidate

Sen. John Snow, a Democrat from Cherokee County, first won N.C. Senate District 50 by beating longtime incumbent Sen. Bob Carpenter, a Republican from Macon County, by fewer than 300 votes in 2004.

Snow took over a district made up of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, part of Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Transylvania and Swain counties — the southwestern tip of North Carolina, as far from Raleigh in the Tar Heel State as it gets. Snow defeated Republican challenger Susan C. Pons in 2008 to keep the seat.

Jim Davis, however, believes voters in the 50th District are ready to elect a GOP candidate again, a conservative from Macon County, no less.

He might be right.

This part of the state — particularly Macon County — is increasingly right leaning. And Davis is campaigning ferociously and running a hard-hitting advertising campaign accusing Snow of fiscal waste. He surged to a 16-percentage point lead earlier this month in a poll conducted by SurveyUSA for the Civitas Institute (a conservative public policy organization in Raleigh).

“Davis has greatly increased his lead over Snow since May when the two were virtually tied, and continues to garner more support from Republican and unaffiliated voters who are abandoning the Democratic party this election season,” said Chris Hayes, Civitas Institute senior legislative analyst, in a recent news release.

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, said he believes the tight race, as evidenced by polls, is more a function of national and state trends than individual actions by the candidates.

Davis, an orthodontist, has become familiar to voters in Macon County for a decade or so of service on the county’s board of commissioners. The Franklin resident is an unabashed supporter of local — and not state — control, and acknowledged a certain irony in his seeking a state Senate seat.

But, Davis said, being a state senator would give him the ability to help return some of that control to local hands, exactly where he believes decision-making truly belongs.

The economic problems North Carolinians face are directly attributable to the Democratic party, Davis said, which has controlled the state Senate for more than a century and the state House for all but four of those years.

“And what do they have to show for their century of rule over North Carolina?” he asked, answering the question himself: out-of-control cycles of taxing and spending, job scarcity, and an unfriendly business environment. Because of these problems, he said he’d be a better choice for senator than his competitor.

But Snow isn’t rolling over and playing dead, regardless of his challenger’s strong hand and surging lead in the polls.

Snow, a former prosecutor and district court judge, is intimately familiar with his eight-county district, where he heard thousands of legal cases in three decades of legal work. He believes voters know him, too, and what he stands for.

“In this last Senate term, we have had to make tough decisions faced with the worst recession since the Great Depression,” he said. “We have made the deepest budget cuts in the history of North Carolina, and per-capita spending under the budget stands at a 14-year low.”

Still, Snow said, the Democratic-controlled legislature worked to protect teaching jobs, and K-12 education. He said the key to recession recovery will be education, and that the most important issue is to create new jobs.

Snow cited university and community college funding, small-business refundable tax credits, restored funding for small business centers in the community colleges, job training programs and more as reasons voters should return him to Raleigh.

Budget issues top Macon commission race

On this, the seven candidates for the Macon County Board of Commissioners agree: the problems of a dour economy, and the subsequent need to watch every dollar spent and encourage any economic growth possible, is the No. 1 responsibility facing the next set of commissioners.

The number two issue? That, most likely at least in the minds of voters, would be the steep-slope debate. The question on the table is whether Macon County — site of the 2004 Peeks Creek landslide tragedy, albeit this was a natural disaster and not a manmade one — should regulate building on steep mountainsides.

Three seats on the five-member board are open, with the top vote-getters in District I and District 2 winning the seats – one in District I, which represents Highlands, and two in District 2, the overall Franklin area. The other two board seats come open in two years.

Macon County is an increasingly conservative-voting county. The old “outsiders”-can’t-win-truism of most counties isn’t true anymore here, either. Current Commissioner Jim Davis, a Republican now vying for a state Senate position, broke that rule by being elected way back in 1996 to the commission board.

In District I, Democrat Daniel Allen “Ricky” Bryson, a former commissioner, is trying to regain his previous seat on the commission from incumbent Republican Brian McClellan. During a recent candidates’ forum sponsored by The Macon County League of Women Voters, Bryson spoke of his experience (unfortunately for him, that doesn’t delineate him from McClellan) and the fact that when he was commissioner, funds had been routinely set back to offset bad times such as these. He also cited strong support for economic development, schools, and spoke against unfunded mandates passed down by the state.

Bryson did not mention one point in his favor that conservative Macon County might hold against McClellan: a driving while under the influence charge the incumbent commissioner picked up last year. McClellan didn’t mention it, either.

Instead, McClellan talked of the need to offer incentives to companies willing to settle in Macon County. The more jobs, the more breaks from the county, that’s the general idea.

“We need to do that in order to be competitive,” McClellan said.

He also advocated zero-based budgeting, or making each county department start from ground zero when building and justifying an annual budget.

There also wasn’t much fierce talk in the battle for District 2. Ronnie Beale, a Democrat presently serving as chairman, like McClellan, spoke of the new economic development guidelines passed 18 months ago to allow for incentives. He said Macon County is finally getting the tools needed to help attract new jobs.

He spoke of stopping a “brain drain” in Macon County, in which the brightest young minds leave for jobs elsewhere. And he touted the new Iotla Valley Elementary School building. A construction contract was recently awarded to an Asheville company.

Democrat and incumbent Commissioner Bob Simpson spoke similarly, but added that during his tenure, the board of commissioners had helped oversee a new space for Southwestern Community College to operate in Macon County.

Simpson staked out a safe political agenda by expressing his support for children, the elderly, and fire, police and emergency services when it comes to budgeting priorities.

Charlie Leatherman, a Republican former commissioner trying to regain a seat on the board, used several of his four minutes available to emphasize his support for education. Leatherman, it should be pointed out, is an educator — he works for Macon County Schools and serves on the SCC Board of Trustees.

“We don’t have jobs for these kids who are graduating,” Leatherman said. “We don’t have jobs for those people who have lost their jobs.”

Ron Haven, a Republican, said he wants to apply what he’s learned as a business owner to Macon County government. He pointed to the need for a department-by-department budget analysis to find areas to cut waste. Haven also flatly came out against study of a steep-slope ordinance, saying this simply isn’t the time to worry about such things, given the dire economic issues.

Vic Drummond, an unaffiliated candidate, is unapologetically right leaning. He, like Haven, wants to see work stop on a steep-slope ordinance. (He made the small gaffe of saying that no houses in Macon County had been lost to landslides, leading several onlookers to whisper audibly to one another, ‘Hasn’t he heard of Peeks Creek?’)

Other candidates cited a desire to see what the planning board offers up in the way of steep-slope controls before condemning study of the ordinance out of hand.

Drummond criticized taxes being raised during a recession, and made a bid for revaluation of property in the county to take place next year instead of 2013 (it has been postponed from 2011).

Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of

Jackson County commissioners passed a slate of sweeping development regulations in 2007 designed to rein in what they saw as runaway development. Commissioners touted the regulations as protecting not only the environment and but also the quality of life from irresponsible mountainside construction.

The end of the laissez-faire building climate in Jackson County, that had paved the way for a proliferating number of gated communities over the past decade, angered real estate and building interests. The homebuilder’s lobby pledged to oust the four commissioners who voted in the regulations.

They failed to do so two years ago, however, when both Commissioner Mark Jones and Joe Cowan were re-elected. This year, they have their shot at Shelton and Massie. While Brian McMahan was the lone vote against the regulations in 2007 — and works for the county’s largest gated community Balsam Mountain Preserve — he has been subject to the same attacks as his fellow commissioners.

That didn’t stop the three of them — Shelton, Massie and McMahan — from taking the stage at a candidates forum sponsored by the Jackson County Homebuilder’s earlier this month.

Their opponents, however, declined an invitation to a forum hosted by Jackson County environmental groups.

What could have been tit-for-tat forums — dominated by the opposing forces of developers and environmentalists — instead fell flat. Since challengers stayed away from the environmental forum, the sitting commissioners were left preaching to the choir, and a small one at that since there was little motivation among the general public to attend a one-sided forum.

The sitting commissioners criticized the challengers for failing to show.

“I wish they could have been here tonight. I wish we could have had some good dialogue on the economy and the environment,” McMahan said.

“I think our opponents are conspicuously absent,” William Shelton said.

“I am sorry you didn’t have the opportunity to hear from our opponents, to hear what they believe in,” Tom Massie said. “We don’t know where they stand on these kind of issues.

Shelton and Massie have rejected the accusation that the development regulations passed in 2007 are to blame for the slump in real estate and development.

“We have tried to beat the drum that the policies in Jackson County are not what has killed our economy. These ordinances did not kill the economy,” Shelton said.

Massie said the challengers on the ticket want to “roll back the ordinances.”

“The subtext of their message is they don’t like the ordinances and they want to go back to the way it was four years ago. But we’re not going to go back to the way it was four years ago,” Massie said.

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

Judging the judges: Forums put candidates in public eye

Candidates in this year’s race for District Court judge fielded questions about the job they’re seeking to fill at a judge’s forum Oct. 14 hosted jointly by The Smoky Mountain News and the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute.

In front of a 50-person audience at Haywood Community College, candidates defended their positions and explained their views on the role of a judge in the District Court.

The forum was the second of two sponsored by the newspaper and the PPI. The first was held Oct. 12 at Western Carolina University.

Only one of the six candidates, Danya Ledford Vanhook, is currently a sitting judge. She was appointed to that post by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2009 and this will be her first election to try and retain the seat.

On Nov. 2, candidates will be vying for three open judge seats. Competing in the contest for seat one are Ledford Vanhook, who currently holds the position, and Donna Forga, a Waynesville attorney in solo practice who was employed as a factory worker before going back to school.

Seat two will be taken by either Kristina Earwood, also in solo practice, or David Sutton, a Waynesville attorney with the Kirkpatrick Law Firm. Earwood and Sutton were neck-and-neck in the primary race, with Sutton edging out Earwood by only 701 votes.

The third seat will be filled by Steve Ellis, another solo practitioner, or Roy Wijewickrama, who spent several years with the district attorney’s office before moving to his current post as a prosecutor in Cherokee.

The forum was moderated by Western Carolina University political science professor Todd Collins, and each candidate was given two minutes for each answer. The following is a selection of answers to each question.

Q: Which is more important in criminal sentencing, punishment or rehabilitation?

Steve Ellis: It usually depends on the person that’s in front of you. There’s some people that can benefit from rehabilitation. In other situations, if they’ve been before the court over and over again, the sentencing is determined by two things: the severity of the crime and what kind of criminal record the person has.

I think one of the jobs a judge has is that judgment factor, and I think experience in both the community and legal system plays into that.

Roy Wijewickrama: At the District Court level, the cases where you’re most likely to see criminal defendants receive active jail time are DWIs, domestic violence cases and child abuse cases. As a judge what I would look at — the first question I ask myself — is whether the safety of the public is at issue here? Sometimes, the punishment and rehabilitation do go hand-in-hand. I think rehabilitation is important, but at the same time the primary factor we must look at is whether the safety of the public is at issue.

Q: What steps would you take to make sure that all people are treated fairly in your courtroom?

David Sutton: That is, in my opinion, the absolute most important job we have as a District Court judge. The judge sets the tone for the entire courtroom. The judge must treat all of them with dignity and respect. If the judge does not, then it’s going to leave the door open for other individuals in the courtroom to do the same. Apply the law without prejudice to anyone. I think as a District Court judge, that’s how you set the tone in your courtroom. As long as you set the tone, then everyone else will follow.

Kristina Earwood: The District Court judges handle the volume of what I like to call the regular people. Most of the people that come in there are just the regular people that you’ll see in the grocery store or at the library. It’s very important to treat those people with respect. Its’ really important that when someone steps through the door of a courtroom, there is no color, there’s no race, there’s no economic line — justice is blind. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings. I do think it’s very important because of the impact we have on people’s lives.

Q: What do you think will be the most difficult challenge in serving as a District Court judge, and how do you think you’ll rise to that challenge?

Donna Forga: The biggest challenge will be living up to the District Court judges we have. I want to be able to pay a lot of attention to the judges and keep the fabulous degree of judges that we have now.

Danya Ledford Vanhook: The greatest challenge of the job is knowing that every piece of paper that comes before me in a case with a child – it is a child’s life. It is not always that I get to meet the child, but I rely on the expertise of others in the community. That is the greatest challenge — using and utilizing my personal experience.

Haywood commissioner candidates debate merits of spending

Taxes and spending in a recession economy have emerged as the top issue in the race for Haywood County commissioner this year.

Challengers vying for a seat on the board have jumped on the bandwagon of critics who have continually called into question county spending.

While county cut its budget dramatically in the face of the recession — from scaling back library hours to slashing public school maintenance —it wasn’t enough to avoid a small property tax hike last year.

As a result, commissioners caught flak for raising the tax rate by 1.7 cents amidst one of the worst recessions to strike the country. Critics claim the board is spending beyond taxpayers’ means.

But others criticized commissioners for making excessive cuts and slashing millions from the budget. Nonprofits in particular were hit hard after being completely dropped by the county.

“It’s something we had to do to reduce the tax burden on the people in the county,” said incumbent Kirk Kirkpatrick, adding that commissioners have cut the budget almost $9 million in the last four years — a 10 percent reduction. He anticipates the county board will have to make even more cuts over the next four years.

Democratic candidate Michael Sorrells said the commissioners could have reduced the budget further. “They cut the least painful things,” Sorrells said. “Well, now we’re going to have to look at the hard parts.”

But Upton says commissioners have already worked thoroughly and diligently to come up with the best possible budget. “[We] have put in many hours, most of it televised,” Upton said. “...I think this group has done an excellent job of balancing the budget and also listening to our citizens.”

Republican candidate Denny King disagreed. He pointed to big ticket items as the culprit: commissioners bought the abandoned Wal-Mart to replace crumbling DSS offices, expanded the landfill, bailed the Haywood County fairgrounds out of debt and tacitly signed off on a new Haywood Community College building.

“In my opinion the biggest thing that has caused taxes to go up is we are borrowing a lot of money. Every time we borrow money, budgets have to be cut or taxes have to be raised,” King said. “I think we will just really have to reduce the money we borrow on projects. If we don’t, the county services are going to have to continue to be cut and property taxes will have to continue to go up.”

Before tackling the budget, Republican David Bradley vows to communicate frequently with Western North Carolina’s delegation in Raleigh to underline the county’s needs. “Get more of a two-way conversation,” Bradley said. “Voice our concerns, not just carry out what’s dictated.”

With the recession likely to continue, Bradley said he would focus on diversifying the local economy. Tourism is always one of the hardest-hit industries during economic downturns, so Bradley wants to focus more on promoting emerging industries, like organic farming and technology-based business.

Meanwhile, Republican Tom Freeman said he would look at unconventional ways to save money, such as turning off the lights after hours at the historic courthouse and justice center. “I know it’s just lights, but it adds up,” Freeman said.

He would also keep employees from driving county vehicles home. If elected commissioner, Freeman would make unannounced visits to each department to see if all employees are being productive. “[Commissioners] need to go out and look, see what’s going on,” Freeman said.

 

The Wal-Mart debate

Earlier this year, commissioners decided to purchase the abandoned Wal-Mart in Clyde to house the Department of Social Services and Health department, both of which have long awaited moves from aging buildings. The project will cost taxpayers about $12.5 million.

This comes on top of the tens of millions dropped over the past eight years on the new justice center, a parking deck, a major school construction bond, and property on Jonathan Creek to house a future county sports complex — although not all the current commissioners were on the board at the time of these decisions.

So when the old Wal-Mart purchase came along, “it sure enough put everybody over the edge,” Bradley said.

But Kirkpatrick says that commissioners don’t spend money without thinking long and hard first.

“It’s always been tough for us to actually spend the money,” Kirkpatrick said. “We weigh the good for the county versus holding on to it.”

Incumbent Bill Upton points out that the Wal-Mart decision took commissioners two years. As the recession worsened, the property’s price became unbeatable — and no one else was picking it up.

“To me, it was our chance,” Upton said. “We couldn’t refuse.”

Even if the old DSS building were repaired, there would still be the issue of insufficient space, privacy and parking, Upton said.

While $12.5 million seems like a lot of money, constructing a building from scratch could have taken up to $30 million, Upton said. Repairing the crumbling former county hospital dating back to the 1920s and 1950s where DSS is currently housed would likewise be more expensive, commissioners asserted.

Kirkpatrick said buying the deserted Wal-Mart was a good move, considering the substantial cost of repairing and updating the old DSS headquarters, pressure from the state to bring the building up to code, and the county health building also being in disrepair.

“It also creates additional viability for stores in that area,” Kirkpatrick said, citing the gaping hole left in the strip mall when Wal-Mart pulled out.

Bradley said commissioners knew for years that the DSS building was in major disrepair, and they should have set up a separate fund to address the problem, which could have been used as a down payment on the old Wal-Mart.

Bradley said the purchase will be very beneficial in the long-term, but commissioners should have saved ahead of time.

Since funding sources are in place from the state and from a lease agreement with Tractor Supply, Sorrells, too, supports the Wal-Mart purchase.

“It was an inopportune time, but inopportune times bring opportunity,” Sorrells said. “...It appears to be a solid move.”

But Sorrells adds that some of the commissioners’ spending has addressed wants and not needs in some cases. He pointed to the million-dollar purchase of a 22-acre Jonathan Creek property for a future county sports complex.

“Should that property have been bought? Probably not,” said Sorrells.

Freeman opposes the Wal-Mart purchase. As a self-employed building contractor for 25 years, Freeman says there was nothing majorly wrong with the old hospital building. It needed “cosmetic work,” a new roof and handicapped access to bring it up to state codes.

King agreed.

“It could be renovated and brought up for less money than what the Wal-Mart building cost,” King said. King said he would have voted against buying the old Wal-Mart, but that ideally it would been sent to the people for a vote. “It is their money,” King said.

 

Tackling trash

County commissioners are considering an overhaul of Haywood’s current trash operations. Earlier this year, they decided to shut down the recycling pick line, laying off employees who manually sorted recyclables. Instead the county now sells loads of recycling in bulk without being sorted first. Commissioners also privatized operation of the convenience centers, where county residents who don’t have curbside trash pick-up can drop off their garbage.

As part of the ongoing overhaul, some commissioners want to shut down the transfer station, where town and private haulers take their loads of trash rather than making the long trek to the White Oak landfill. Commissioners are also considering turning over landfill operations to a private company, including selling off space in the landfill.

Kirkpatrick said the next county board must continue examining the efficiency of the county’s trash operations. It’s become increasingly expensive for the county to comply with strict environmental standards and replace aging equipment, and commissioners must scour for savings.

“You have to continually analyze what’s going to be best for the whole,” Kirkpatrick said.

At this point, Kirkpatrick opposes closing the transfer station.

“I’ll have to be convinced otherwise, and I’m not saying I can’t be,” said Kirkpatrick, who wants to maintain an open dialogue with towns before making a final decision. “What we want to do is what’s cheapest and do what’s best.”

Sorrells said he has already been researching and visiting the solid waste department. While he hasn’t come to a conclusion yet on whether the transfer station should be closed or the landfill privatized, Sorrells said making trash operations more viable is essential.

“The users are probably going to have to pay its way in order to make it more efficient,” Sorrells said of the transfer station, should it remain open.

Shutting it down has drawn ire from towns and private haulers as a double-standard, since convenience centers used by residents out in the county would continue to be subsidized.

Upton is still undecided on which path to take. The issue is a complicated one, so he’s waiting on more information despite all the research that’s already been done. “I feel like I’m back in school,” Upton said. “I think the more we research, the more we study and the more we listen to people, the better decisions.”

Bradley said commissioners must be open-minded when tackling the trash problem. Private companies will have a knack for solid waste operations since that is their main focus. As of now, Bradley is also undecided on the transfer station.

Freeman is adamantly opposed to privatizing only parts of any county department or closing the transfer station. “That’s just running from the problem,” said Freeman, adding that the issue is one of proper management.

King said the county needs to study the issue more and that he doesn’t know enough yet to say what the right thing is.

 

Commissioners vs. HCC

For months, county commissioners were at odds with Haywood Community College over new construction and maintenance needs at the college. Commissioners eventually approved the $10.3 million professional crafts building after accusing HCC of overspending on a green design and showcase features. A quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters to fund new construction and expansions at HCC should be used responsibly, commissioners said.

Kirkpatrick said he and fellow commissioners asked the tough questions. Though he’s not “completely comfortable” with HCC moving ahead on its craft building, the college board of trustees unanimously stood by their recommendation that it be approved.

“I don’t think it’s my responsibility to usurp their responsibility as a board,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s their money.”

As a school board member for six years, Sorrells supports the community college’s pursuit of a craft building but questions putting so much of the quarter-cent sales tax proceeds in one basket.

Upton said it is “mighty tough” to vote against education. He felt better about the purchase after the HCC board of trustees came to a consensus. “I feel pleased that we moved on that one,” Upton said.

Bradley said the HCC craft building needed to be replaced, but its size should have remained under 20,000-square-feet so the college could avoid more stringent environmental regulations for larger buildings.

Freeman said he voted for the quarter-cent sales tax, believing it would only be used to fix roads and maintain existing buildings. “What do they need that new building for?” Freeman said. “Fix the ones that are there.”

If the economy was booming, the new craft building might be acceptable, Freeman said. For now, Freeman is wholeheartedly against the new construction.

King also said the building was too expensive and wouldn’t have given it the green light. He said rather than borrow money, the college could have saved up sales tax revenue until the building could be paid for upfront.

“I think most citizens in the county, including myself, felt like this money would be spent on a yearly basis as it comes in,” King said of the special quarter-cent sales tax.

 

The 9-12 factor

Bradley and King have been endorsed by the WNC Tea Party. A local offshoot of the Tea Party, known as the Haywood 9-12 Project, has been a recurring critic of commissioners during the public comment period at nearly every county meeting for the past year and a half.

Though a handful of 9-12 activists have been especially vocal, Kirkpatrick points out that its members don’t represent all 60,000 residents in Haywood County. Kirkpatrick says he has supporters as well as opponents within the ranks of the group, and he hopes all voters will research before casting their ballots. “Don’t just vote to get someone out,” Kirkpatrick said.

While some members get “extreme,” Sorrells says everyone can agree with the core principles of the 9-12 group: a small, efficient government and fiscal responsibility.

Upton said his goal has always been to listen to the people, and he doesn’t mind the 9-12 group constantly turning up at commissioner meetings.

“I haven’t taken the 9-12 Project as a negative,” Upton said. “Because we want people voicing their opinions. If we don’t hear, we don’t know.”

Bradley said the group has been consistent in calling for fiscal responsibility.

“This is a nonpolitical organization,” Bradley said. “They’re looking for people to make best use of county funds.”

King said he appreciates the endorsement.

“I am glad they did chose me. I have a lot of respect for the Tea Party,” King said.

Freeman would not comment on the group because he said he wasn’t familiar enough with them.

 

Upcoming challenges?

Many candidates said the budget and setting the tax rate after the property revaluation will be the two biggest challenges in the next four years. The value of lots and homes in upscale developments are expected to drop, while the value of medium priced housing will hold steady. Property taxes will be adjusted according to the new appraised values.

“I’m afraid there’s going to need to be a greater tax burden on those with less valuable properties,” Kirkpatrick said.

“It’s going to disproportionately affect the lower-income portion of the population,” Bradley agreed.

Kirkpatrick said another major hurdle will be funding the school system, which will soon suffer the absence of stimulus funds that have helped prop it up during the recession.  

With the senior citizen population set to mushroom, there will be an increasing need to  provide services to the elderly. Upton said commissioners must plan for the impending crisis.

— Staff writer Becky Johnson contrbitued to this story.

 

In the running

Three of the five seats on the Haywood County board are up for election this year. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis will not be running for re-election this year, meaning at least one new face will join the board come fall.

 

Democrats

Kirk Kirkpatrick (incumbent)

41, attorney, Waynesville

“I’ve seen the good times and the tough times. I think that experience will be helpful for this county in the next four years.”

Bill Upton (incumbent)

65, retired superintendent of Haywood County Schools, Canton

“I feel like I listen...I’m sensitive to the needs of the people.”

Michael Sorrells

54, owner of service station, convenience store and cafe, Waynesville.

“I’m very knowledgeable about Haywood County...I understand how government works, and I’m already educating myself to be in the position.”

 

Republicans

David Bradley, 44, sales, Clyde

“I try to look long-term versus short-term...We can’t always take a hammer to the project.”

Tom Freeman, 53, self-employed building contractor, Waynesville

“I’ve had my own successful business for 25 years...When projects come up...I could go look at them, give my opinion on it and go from there.”

Denny King, 53 manufacturing engineer, Beaverdam

“I am in favor of a limited government to keep our taxes low in the county.”

Judge candidates to take stage in Jackson, Haywood next week

Candidates for District Court judge will espouse their vision for the bench at election forums held next week in Haywood and Jackson County.

“Judges make decisions every day that directly influence people’s lives, yet many voters don’t know where judicial candidates stand on the most important issues of the day,” said Chris Cooper, WCU associate professor of political science and public affairs, and director of the Public Policy Institute. “We want to help voters learn what they need to know about the people who want to represent them in the judiciary.”

Candidates in other local races will be given two-minutes at the mic prior to the judge hopefuls taking the stage. The forums will be sponsored by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News. The two forums are:

• 6:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12, at Western Carolina University Multipurpose Room of A.K. Hinds University Center.

• 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, at Haywood Community College auditorium.

A reception will be held from 6:30 to 7 p.m. where voters can talk informally with the candidates for judge and other local offices. The formal portion of the forum will begin at 7 p.m. Local candidates who attend — county commissioner, school board, sheriff, and state representative or senate candidates — will get two minutes each to introduce themselves and discuss their platforms.

Todd Collins, WCU assistant professor of political science and public affairs, will serve as moderator of the forum with the judicial candidates. Questions will be developed prior to the forum, but audience participation will be allowed as time permits.

For information, contact the Public Policy Institute at 828.227.2086 or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Judge’s race to have lasting impact, say attorneys

Not a day goes by that Judge Monica Leslie doesn’t realize the gravity of her decisions.

Leslie is one of six District Court judges in the seven western counties. They decide how to split property and wealth when a couple gets divorced. They decide whether a restraining order is warranted in a domestic violence claim. They make heart-wrenching decisions in custody battles. And perhaps most difficult, decide whether a parent with a history of neglect is ready to get their children back.

“We deal with families in crisis,” Leslie said.

Gavin Brown, a Waynesville attorney, said that in some ways who serves as judge is more important than the president.

“A District Court judge affects the citizens directly in my community and on a daily basis. They take care of domestic disputes, they take care of foreclosures, they take care of car wrecks and traffic violations,” Brown said. “They are so critical in everyday life — in what they say and do and how they do it.”

There’s even more at stake in this year’s judge race than normal, however. Three long-time judges have retired in the past two years — creating a void of experience. Turnover is rare on the bench, let alone this level of turnover all at one time.

“Once you win a position as a judge, barring a health problem or some personal issue, you don’t lose that job,” said Brown.

Out of six District Court judges for the region, half are in flux. The watershed election year attracted a staggering 10 judge candidates in the May primary. The list has now been narrowed to six going into the November race. Two candidates are vying for each seat, with each still considered a toss-up just a month away from Election Day.

Two of the three seats will fill vacancies left by Judges Danny Davis and Steve Bryant — who retired this summer with a combined 50 years of experience on the bench.

“Whoever replaces them will have big shoes to fill and will need to be able to handle the load almost immediately,” said Judge Richie Holt, now the senior District Court judge with 17 years on the bench. “My number one job in the next year is to get everybody going on the right direction and handling the cases adequately and appropriately.”

That’s not to say that different styles of running a courtroom can’t be equally effective, he said.

“The folks can use their own styles and their own personality, but it will take them a while to figure out what type of things to do or say to keep it moving,” Holt said.

The legal community will certainly tread cautiously until they get used to the new lay of the land — and the tendencies that the new judges manifest.

“From a lawyer’s point of view, lawyers like consistency. We like to be able to predict under certain sets of facts what the likely outcome might be so we can advise our clients accordingly,” said Don Patten, a Haywood County attorney.

That’s going to be tough when 50 percent of the judiciary will essentially be new at the job.

“I would guess the general public, I don’t think they have any idea the gravity of our situation to a certain extent,” said David Moore, a Sylva attorney.

That said, experience isn’t everything.

“Temperament, knowledge, skill, intelligence — those are all factors that are fairly critical,” Moore added.

Not to mention time management. There’s hundreds of cases on the line across the seven-county district every month.

“You sure want someone who knows what they are doing and can handle it fairly, judiciously and expediently,” said Patten.

The election for District Court judges is non-partisan. In other words, candidates on the ballot won’t be labeled as Democrats or Republicans. Partisan views aren’t as relevant as personality traits when it comes to electing judges.

To help voters familiarize themselves with the candidates, Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News are putting on two forums next week.

“This particular judicial race is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for this region,” said Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod. “Three District Court judge seats being decided in one election is very unusual, and so we hope voters will take the opportunity to familiarize themselves with who is running and their backgrounds.”

On the bright side, after this hump the bench will most likely enjoy another 20 to 30 years of long-term stability, Brown pointed out.

See also: Judge candidates to take stage in Jackson, Haywood next week

 

Who’s running for district court judge

Seat 1

• Danya Vanhook, a sitting judge based in Haywood County who’s been on the job a little over a year

• Donna Forga, Waynesville attorney in solo practice

Seat 2

• Kris Earwood, Sylva attorney with solo practice (formerly of firm Lay and Earwood)

• David Sutton, Waynesville attorney with Kirkpatrick law firm

Seat 3

• Steve Ellis, Waynesville attorney in solo practice (formerly with the firm Brown, Ward and Haynes)

• Roy Wijewickrama, Waynesville attorney serving as prosecutor in Cherokee

Jackson sheriffs race marked by acrimony

Mary Rock wants to become the first female sheriff in Jackson County, but gaining that title against two-term incumbent and Democrat Jimmy Ashe won’t be easy.

Part of Rock’s tactic is that she is running unaffiliated rather than under the banner of a political party. She is a registered Democrat, however.

“I did not feel that I would have as much time for folks to get to know me if I ran as a Democrat,” Rock, 43, said of the difficulty she would have had winning the primary against Ashe back in May. “But the biggest reason is that I’m not seeking the job to be either a Democrat or Republican — I want to serve all people.”

Rock, a U.S. Army veteran, served in the military police for two years, and spent an additional five years in the reserve. She then completed her basic law enforcement training at Southwestern Community College. Afterwards, she began a double major at Western Carolina University in social work and criminal justice. Rock works as a professional bail bondsman, a job she’s held for 12 years.

“I’m an officer of the courts,” Rock said. “I take people into custody.”

If elected, she said she’ll place more emphasis on manning the substations at the farthest ends of the county, arrest drug dealers, work closely with social workers who are investigating elder and child abuse, cooperate and work with other agencies, tackle property theft, and operate with “a moral compass.”

“I feel (Ashe) has abused his power,” Rock said, in reference to revelations that Ashe used state and federal money from narcotics seizures to operate an informal fund for youth sports.

Additionally, the sheriff used $20,000 from the fund to pay for a carpet in the sheriff’s office and $400 to list himself on a national “who’s who” list. Ashe also, while off duty, road a Harley Davidson motorcycle that had been seized from a drug dealer.

State authorities deemed the sheriff’s use of the money on sports was not illegal, but the lack of oversight violated a general statute. Jackson County in response changed how it administers the narcotics fund.

Ashe, 51, is unapologetic about steering money toward helping the young people of his county.

“That’s putting back what the drug dealers have taken away,” he said, adding that his tenure in office has been “above board and transparent.”

Ashe said his opponent is mudslinging. He pointed to his experience, and the work done against crime since he’s been sheriff, as being the real issues.

Ashe has been in law enforcement for 29 years. He started in 1981 as a dispatcher and jailer, working his way up to the top post. Stops along the way include work as a detective and as chief deputy.

“Law enforcement has been my life and career for more than half my life,” Ashe said. “I think it was my destiny to be where I am — serving the public.”

In response to Rock’s plan to man the substations, Ashe said he keeps deputies active on the roads in the farthest parts of the county. He said he doesn’t want them out-of-sight behind a desk.

Ashe also pointed to anti-drug programs he’s instituted, an inmate work program, and other initiatives as reasons he should be reelected sheriff.

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