The Transylvania Times -

By Jeremiah Reed
Staff Writer 

Commission Candidates Square Off At Forum - Brevard NC

 

September 18, 2014



In front of a standing room only crowd at the library’s Rogow Room Tuesday, four candidates vying for two seats on the Board of Commissioners answered questions and laid out their vision for the county.

Two Republicans – Larry Chapman and Kelvin Phillips – and two Democrats – Sam Edney and Lee McMinn – participated in the forum.

Chapman is the only incumbent. The forum was sponsored by the Brevard/Transylvania Chamber of Commerce. Candidates were given 90 seconds to provide their answers to each question. Each candidate was given the opportunity to introduce themselves to the audience.

Chapman, who was elected to office in 2010, said he was proud of his four-year voting record and described his time as a commissioner as “rewarding, challenging and frustrating.” Chapman said he works to represent “each and every one of you” regardless of political party and promised to continue doing so if re-elected.

Edney led off by explaining why he chose to run for commissioner, citing a high unemployment rate, children growing up in poverty and families struggling to survive by working multiple jobs. Edney also cited a story in The Transylvania Times where a young child was quoted as saying he went hungry because “It was not my turn to eat.” Edney said he believes attracting new business is the path to solving some of the county’s problems.

McMinn said although he was raised in west Texas, his family lived in the Transylvania area from 1767-1838 and he was glad he could “close the loop” and return home.

McMinn said he has a deep sense of personal responsibility and is an advocate for personal property rights. He cited economic development, employment, education and environmental protection as his four main campaign platforms.

Phillips, who previously served as a commissioner, said he was spurred to run for office again after “many, many people” asked that he do so. Phillips, a lifelong county native, said his primary interest is doing what is best for the citizens. Phillips said he has seen far too many people leave the county because they are unable to find work locally.

The following is a synopsis of each candidate’s responses and are provided in the order in which they were given:

Question 1: What is your position on economic incentives to bring business to Transylvania County or to promote growth of current businesses?

Chapman said he is personally opposed to incentives but understands the landscape of competition locally and regionally and realizes incentives are part of that competition. Chapman said incentives are ultimately “the citizens’ money” but in today’s environment if the county is going to compete it has to offer incentive packages.

“That is a key to economic development whether we like it or not,” Chapman said.

Edney said he is in favor of performance-based incentives.

McMinn said incentives are the way the county has to go in and are one piece of the economic development “puzzle.” McMinn does not mind providing incentives for businesses or services the county does not have. McMinn said the recent Excelsior incentive package is performance-based, and focuses on future investment in the county.

McMinn added that the 70 new jobs created by Excelsior and those wages would multiply economic activity six-fold within the county.

Phillips said there are businesses in the county that received incentives and those have paid off. Phillips said it is important the county not forget those businesses and leave them “out on their own.” Phillips said not only does the county need to take care of existing businesses but it has to actively pursue new businesses.

Question 2: If WATCO, the new owner of the rail line between Brevard and Hendersonville, decides to abandon the rail line, would you support the establishment of the Ecusta Trail?

Edney said similar Rails to Trails projects (process of turning unused rail line into recreational trails) have been successful and cited the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Travelers Rest, S.C.

Edney said if WATCO does abandon the line, the project would be viable. He said one important component to the decision would involve what, if anything, happens at the Ecusta property. Edney said if an opportunity arose to have industry at Ecusta and the rail line could support that industry, the conversation about Rails to Trails would change.

McMinn said he has spoken with Friends of the Ecusta Trail and is “very much” in favor of anything that connects Transylvania to neighboring counties.

McMinn estimated the trail would contribute $20 million of economic activity between Henderson and Transylvania counties. McMinn said he has been on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, as well as the Creeper Trail in Abingdon, Va., and can attest to their contribution to a small town. McMinn said he did not detect a single problem with the project that would be insurmountable, if the opportunity arose.

Phillips said he would prefer the rail line stay for a number of years in hopes of finding an industry. Phillips said he was not “totally opposed” to Rails to Trails, except he has concerns about what it could mean for the rights of private property owners along the rail line, something he said he has dealt with personally. Phillips said if those owners agreed to give up their land, he would support the project, but his first priority is honoring private property rights.

Chapman said he has cast a formal vote against the project in the past and added that as long as there is any opportunity at the Ecusta site for the need for the rail, he wants to keep that site open. Chapman said he’s spoken with the rail line owners who indicated they had no intention of abandoning the line because in today’s environment there would be no way to get EPA approval to build a new railroad. Chapman said the estimated cost of the trail construction is $20 million and questioned where that money would come from.

Question 3: What are your criteria for when a referendum is warranted?

McMinn believes the North Carolina Constitution and general statutes lay out the qualifications for a referendum but added when the county commission is “so far out of touch” with citizens there is the need for a referendum. McMinn said if there are strong feelings in the community on a particular topic, a referendum would also be justified. However, McMinn said referendums don’t do anything but kick the can down the road and make elections more expensive. McMinn said when commissioners have the authority to act, he believes they should, but if a referendum is needed, one should be put on the ballot.

Speaking specifically about the school system, Phillips said the schools have a lot of capital needs and those are very difficult to deal with in a yearly budget without continually raising taxes. Phillips believes commissioners need to operate county government as efficiently as possible. In referencing the referendum for a school bond that expires in 2017, Phillips said if the county did not raise taxes, and the people so chose, a new referendum could take the place of the one that expired.

Chapman said referendums are controlled by state statute. In addressing the referendum involving countywide alcohol sales, Chapman said commissioners had no right not to allow citizens to vote on the issue. Chapman agreed that referendums should never take the place of decision-making on the part of elected officials but in some instances a citizen vote must be taken and commissioners should not deny that right. Chapman called referendums a “useful tool” and said the purpose of a referendum is not for elected officials to shrug off responsibility but to meet the statutory requirements for citizens to exercise their rights.

Edney said North Carolina statutes define what can and cannot appear on the ballot as a referendum. Edney said the upcoming alcohol referendum is an “emotional issue” and by including that referendum on the ballot each citizen has a chance to vote their conscience. Edney said county citizens are good, wise people and people of character.

Question 4: What is your position on the expansion or renovation of the county courthouse?

Phillips said he is not fully supportive of the renovation and cited a county study done 3-4 years ago that he said was nearly unanimous in recommending the construction of a new courthouse on Morris Road. Phillips said the renovation project was proposed to be a 15-year fix and doesn’t see that as a good option when a little more money could be spent to get a courthouse that would service the next 50 years. Phillips said the renovation would be “a lot of money for a short-term fix” and he is opposed to it.

Chapman said commissioners have made no decision about the courthouse and are still evaluating all options.

Chapman said the current courthouse situation is “totally unsustainable” from a security standpoint, with prisoners commingling with citizens, judges, etc. Chapman said the current cost estimate is $8-10 million for renovating the existing courthouse versus constructing a new courthouse for $30-40 million. Chapman shared the concern that expanding the courthouse could only be a temporary solution.

Edney said the most recent plan to expand the courthouse expands the building but exacerbates the parking problem downtown. Edney said in addition to being expensive having a parking garage in downtown could be an eyesore. Edney expressed concern that not all options involving the courthouse have been explored. Citing the impending revaluation of the county tax base – which could possibly be a smaller base and produce less revenue – Edney said he believes the county should proceed cautiously with any renovation discussion.

McMinn said there have been past projects that involved moving 12,000 square feet worth of county offices out of the courthouse. McMinn said past studies were based on population numbers in the county that have not come to fruition (projections based on a county population of 44,000 and the current population is roughly 33,000). McMinn said one of his main concerns if a new courthouse is built, is having the old courthouse – a building listed in the National Historic Register – sitting empty and unused.

Question 5: As a county commissioner, what would you do to safeguard our ability to control use of water in our county?

Chapman said the only two systems are located in Rosman and Brevard. Chapman said water is a “critical resource” in the region. He added that it is important to note that in any discussion involving water that the water belongs to citizens and is controlled by the EPA and other government agencies. Chapman said the county is doing a lot of work involving the water issue and needs to evaluate the county’s water needs.

Edney said commissioners conducted a recent water study and views that as the beginning of a long process to determine the best route moving forward. Edney said he believes the county needs a joint water policy with municipalities and the county must protect its water rights.

Edney said he was concerned that the study focused on comparing the cost of building a new treatment plant to purchasing treated water from outside county, as initial cost is only one aspect of the discussion to consider. Edney said the study ruled out the Davidson River as a potential source, based on DENR standards, and believes the county needs to look at variances that could be applied to the Davidson.

McMinn said the recent water study is not the “be-all and end-all” to water issues in the county. McMinn said it would cost an estimated $30-40 million for a new water treatment facility. He also said access to a public water system is one of the requirements of getting a certified industrial park in the county. McMinn said the water issue creates a great opportunity for the county to partner with municipalities to create a vision for water moving in the county forward.

Phillips said the county has very adequate water supplies and didn’t understand why DENR and the EPA ruled out the Davidson River as a potential source. Phillips said the county water issue is going to be a long enduring process and the citizens of the county need to be active. Phillips said Rosman, Brevard and the county should study water needs closely.

Phillips also said there are other ways to attain what the county needs, in relation to water, without building a new treatment facility.

Question 6: What is your position on having high-impact land use ordinances?

Edney said one thing any business hates is uncertainty.

He then cited a comment made recently by one commissioner who said civil litigation is already in place as a remedy to resolve property disputes. Edney said litigation is the “height of uncertainty” and such a statement from a public official is “chilling” to outside businesses. Edney said a “rational, thoughtful” land-use ordinance would encourage investment by eliminating uncertainty.

McMinn began by citing the N.C. Department of Commerce standards for an industrial park, site or zone and said one of those requirements is the site must be zoned for industrial use. McMinn said he knows that “the z-word” is a dirty word to many citizens but said “spot zoning” could be applied in particular areas of the county. McMinn said there is no need for countywide zoning but supports spot zoning, as the county needs to know what it will look like in the future.

Phillips said he supports very strongly the Product Development Task Force and the work they have done. Phillips said he believes the proposed land-use ordinance that was rejected by commissioners earlier this year was “very overreaching” and “very restraining” to businesses and residents. Phillips said he recently spoke to a “very informed source” who told him the county had the potential for two businesses to come into Brevard and because of restrictions one has definitely pulled out and the other is now hesitant.

Chapman said one of the problems in the discussion of high-impact land use ordinances is “how far-reaching they are” when you look at the impact they would have on the county. Chapman said over 50 percent of the county is already “zoned” through floodplain, national forests, etc. Chapman said the EPA is “overreaching” and DENR is involved in anything environmental and believes those agencies would not allow an industry to come into a community and pollute the surrounding area.

Question 7: What do you believe to be an appropriate amount of money to spend on renovation or new construction on the county schools?

McMinn said renovations to schools are necessary, hence the need for a $19 million bond. McMinn cited restrooms at Brevard High School that have been closed for a year and floors at Rosman High School that are in disrepair as examples of needed renovation projects, among others, that can’t be put off anymore. McMinn said he would rely on the school system to make recommendations to commissioners and evaluate their proposals and how to pay for them. Phillips, who served on the Board of Education in the 1990s, said many buildings are getting old and a lot of the buildings are in “disrepair.” Phillips said the amount of money needed to remedy those situations would be best evaluated by the school system. Phillips said he would not be in favor of hiring a consultant “to come in and tell you what you already know” and if presented with recommendations the citizens of the county would be the ones making the final decision.

Chapman said Transylvania County is in good shape financially and because of that the county has the ability to borrow money at a low rate. Chapman said the only way to address the school issue is through a bond referendum but that would be contingent on how much citizens are willing to raise taxes to pay for the bond. Chapman said everything in government revolves around money and how much citizens are willing to commit is a decision the public would have to make.

Edney said the amount of money being discussed could only be raised through a referendum. Edney said he would want to know exactly what the money would be used for, but that is a school board decision and they should come to commissioners with their recommendations and requests. Edney cited a county survey from 2011 in which citizens ranked schools as one of the top three priorities in the county and said he believes citizens would support a referendum.

Question 8: What role do you see for the new Economic Development Organization (EDO) and what is your vision for how this may lead to growth in the county in the future?

Phillips said in his prior eight years as commissioner he was not satisfied with what he sees as a lack of job/economic development. Phillips said he could provide “several negatives” where the county turned companies away. Phillips said the county has to do its due diligence and support the EDO. He expressed his desire that the EDO “take the bull by the horns” and do as much as they can for economic development.

Chapman said he is excited about the EDO, particularly moving the responsibility for economic development away from government control and into the private sector. Chapman said commissioners have set aside $500,000 for the EDO moving forward and is “very optimistic” about their work. Chapman said the EDO is working on a contract that will be signed with the county to ensure transparency to the public. He said the EDO is the first time the county has made a major shift in the direction of economic development and he has high expectations of the organization.

Edney cited the county survey from 2011 that showed citizens were unanimously in favor of investing tax dollars to bring jobs to the county. Edney said the county has done very little since the closing of the Ecusta and DuPont and the county knows from the 108 companies that were interested in moving here in last 5 years, but did not, that infrastructure in the county is greatly lacking. Edney said the Product Development Task Force requested funding for infrastructure from commissioners but didn’t get it. “We know what we need to do, we just haven’t done it,” Edney said, adding that the it seems like the county’s put the car before the horse.

McMinn said the new EDO, when they come up with a contract, will have specific goals and objectives. McMinn said one advantage of the EDO is it receives public funding but operates as a private organization. One “uncertainty” McMinn expressed about the EDO regarded where their funding would come from in the future. McMinn said the EDO will also focus mostly on marketing and wondered where companies would go and what they would do once they came to the county.

With all questions complete, candidates then had the opportunity to make closing remarks.

Chapman said when he first ran in 2010, he promised citizens he was committed to keeping government out of their pocket and to keeping the government “off your back” in terms of regulations. Chapman said he feels he has met that commitment and guaranteed he will always provide “strong, ethical and accountable leadership.” Chapman said while the county does need jobs it is in good financial shape. Chapman vowed to continue his commitment to represent all citizens and always be available to the public.

Edney said while the county may be in good shape there are still people suffering and children going hungry and “that is not right.” Edney said the county needs to focus on economic development and cited the 108 companies that did not come to Transylvania because they needed infrastructure and the county doesn’t have it. Speaking directly to unaffiliated voters, Edney said over the last few years the board of commissioners has been dominated by “very conservative office holders” and asked, “Has that worked? Are you pleased with the job of rebuilding our economy?” Edney said the county is at a “critical point” in its history and if it does not act, the county’s future will be decided for it.

McMinn said over the last 12 years since the plants closed, there has been “very little progress” in the county. McMinn said there are a lot of people unemployed and there is a low median income in the county. McMinn said the county needs to get involved “very heavily” in economic development and needs to target specific business/industrial sectors. He reiterated his four platforms – economic development, employment, education and environmental protection – as his main objectives.

Phillips said he attended many county commissioner meetings during his tenure and on most occasions there might be 15-20 people attend, something he said was “so disappointing” as there were important issues being discussed. Phillips advocated for holding commissioner meetings in community centers, so citizens could feel more in touch with their government. Phillips said the county has to continue working to create jobs or the population will continue to decline.

 
 

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