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Wednesday, 12 April 2006 00:00

Jackson Democrats must choose among a crowded field

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Voters in Jackson County will elect predominately Democratic county commissioners in this May’s primary elections, regardless of voter turnout.

Twelve of 13 candidates in the county’s unusually large commissioners campaign pool — fueled partly by incumbents choosing not to seek re-election — are running on the Democratic ticket, with three of the four district seats unchallenged by the Republican party.

The election of the board chairman already is decided, with Democratic incumbent Brian McMahan running totally unopposed. Consequently, four out of five commissioner positions will be decided in May.

Only Geoff Higginbotham, a Republican from the Cashiers area’s District 4 — whom either Mark Jones or Nathan Moss will face come November’s general election — stands in the Democratic Party’s way of a total sweep.

Interestingly enough, the potential election of an entirely Democratic board is status quo. The county’s sitting board, McMahan, Conrad Burrell, Joe Cowan, Roberta Crawford and Eddie Madden all are Democrats.

This week candidates address why they decided to run and some of the issues that will be carried over from the sitting board of commissioners into the next term — rising property values and taxes and the county’s debt load. Next week, look for coverage of candidates’ stance on Jackson County’s growth issues including economic development, transportation, and relations with Western Carolina University.

 

The motivation behind the man

Local politics can reveal much about what is good about a community — and what divides it.

In Jackson County candidates must reside in the district from which they are elected, but the county as a whole votes on who will serve on the board. Whoever is elected will answer to the county’s more than 35,000 residents.

Candidates’ campaigns in this year’s election draw from a variety of motivations.

In District 1 Raymond Bunn, 44, owner of Bunn’s Guns, felt it was his time to get involved.

“I’ve got a genuine concern for Jackson County and the people of Jackson County and besides that I feel like it’s my responsibility to participate in local government,” he said.

Bunn said there’s no one particular issue behind his candidacy, but that he hopes to be part of the decision-making process.

“I just want to be part of a fair and impartial commission board,” Bunn said.

Similarly, William Shelton, 43, a self-employed farmer, said that he was concerned about the direction the county seems to be heading. His campaign is rooted in his, and all families, future here.

“I’ve reached a time in my life where I want to give something back to this community,” Shelton said. “Also I have four sons who I want to have opportunities to grow up and stay in the county if they choose to.”

Shelton has made advocating for emergency management personnel, open government, and land preservation key points of his platform.

District 2’s Miguel Baerga, 54, a retired counselor for the Department of Agriculture, is looking to help make a difference by working with the county’s disadvantaged population, specifically through efforts to increase literacy rates and make housing more affordable.

“I was hoping I could do something to enhance the area of Jackson County,” Baerga said.

Ben Clawson, 35, shift supervisor for Haywood County EMS, was moved to run for election by a desire to get involved on a ground level.

“I guess it’s kind of one of those situations where if you’re not going to try to make a difference, don’t be growling about the people who are,” Clawson said.

Clawson’s platform is largely based on opposition to increased land use regulations. While he is not against safety based or viewshed preservation regulations — such as steep slope ordinances — he is a strong proponent of personal property rights.

“Folks in this area work most of their lives just to call a little piece of land theirs,” Clawson said.

Bob Ginn, 59, is retired from Verizon but now serves as chairman of the county’s planning board. He is running largely due to rising tax costs, which he fears the older population on fixed incomes will not be able to continue to afford. He said he also has a general sense of things that need to be done in the county.

Tom Massie, 49, the western field representative for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, is looking to bring his experience in public service to the board of commissioners.

“Well it sounds corny, but I believe in the old adage of government by the people, of the people and for the people,” Massie said. “I’ve always been the kind of individual that prefers to take action rather than sit and complain.”

Massie has made working to create a strong county economy, solving growth issues, and encouraging open government key points of his campaign.

Darrell Fox, 43, executive director of Webster Enterprises and a candidate in District 3, aims to help the workforce.

“One of my main concerns is to get some manufacturing jobs in the county,” Fox said.

Remodeling empty buildings could create space for jobs like those at Webster Enterprises, which makes medical drapes to be used in surgery. The market for drapes is expanding, and Fox said he could see more jobs being created to fill the demand.

Fox also has focused on finding ways to reduce the county’s debt load, improve education and reduce the dropout rate as part of his campaign.

Cowan, 72, a teacher at the HUB school of alternatives and the only incumbent commissioner in a contested election, said he wanted to see through the county’s projects currently underway.

“In the last eight years the administration before the one I’m in now laid out a good plan of progressive things they wanted to see happen for the county,” Cowan said.

The plan included a new Department of Social Services and expansion at Smoky Mountain High School. Although Cowan had thought about retiring, he feels pushing these projects through is important.

District 4’s Mark Jones, 46, general manager of High Hampton Inn, was asked to run two years ago by the area’s acting commissioner Eddie Madden, who was considering a bid for chairman. Madden chose not to seek re-election this year, citing family reasons. Consequently, Jones threw his hat in the ring.

Jones has made increasing deputy presence, particularly in outlying areas, a focus of his campaign.

“We need police presence everywhere,” Jones said.

Nathan Moss, 30, a self-employed farmer and pastor, is bringing his experience on the school board to the commissioners’ election, as education is one of his primary focuses — Moss has three children just entering the school system.

“I got to thinking of the school system, especially our local school here,” Moss said, noting the K-12 Blue Ridge School.

Moss said also that while he’d never had much by way of political intentions, he had wanted to see the county board do better.

“I am really concerned about the integrity of the board — doing things for the right reasons, doing things the right way, being consistent, being fair,” Moss said.

 

Sold to the highest bidder

Like all Western North Carolina counties, Jackson has seen a rise in property values over the past several years that is gradually pricing lifelong residents and middle- to low-income residents out of the housing market.

Two years ago, many residents saw their values almost double with revaluation, and county commissioners — led by then chairman Stacy Buchanan — passed a revenue neutral tax policy so that while values had gone up, the tax rate went down and most residents would still pay about the same in property taxes.

Another revaluation is due in 2008. Whomever is elected this May 2 will have the task of deciding whether to continue to remain revenue neutral.

All candidates running in this year’s election who were interviewed supported, on some level, looking for creative and alternative taxation that would allow breaks for families that have held their land for generations. Candidates questioned exactly what the county could do to implement such tax breaks, as a majority of taxation policy decisions are left up to the state.

In District 1, Bunn said he would support breaks for farmers and homestead exemptions — property tax breaks for elderly or low income residents who do not intend to develop their land — but that the county would have to weight its needs come revaluation.

“Obviously when they talk about if we’re not going to raise taxes to generate the income, some of the services would need to be cut,” Bunn said. “I obviously wouldn’t be in favor of raising taxes at this time, but we shouldn’t say that we never would do that.”

Shelton said that commissioners could push for taxation change at the state level, possibly with breaks based on property values themselves.

“Maybe you could look at an incremental approach that does give breaks to property owners whose home value is less,” Shelton said.

District 2’s Baerga also encouraged keeping tax rates at an affordable level, as he has seen his own property more than double in value given time and a $35,000 remodeling project.

“I would like to address it in a way where a reasonable tax rate could be implemented,” Baerga said. “Every time I turn around my taxes go sky high.”

Clawson said that millage rates are worse for those who live in town and must pay taxes at both a municipal and county level. However, Clawson said the county’s debt load may preclude any serious tax breaks.

“It’s going to be real hard to find tax breaks until we get some of that caught up,” he said, noting the county’s near $33 million in debt.

However, Ginn said those who are on fixed incomes just don’t have the ability to pay ever-increasing taxes.

One of Ginn’s primary reasons for running is to try to address tax issues. Though he said the county’s hands were tied in terms of enacting a homestead tax exemption without state approval, commissioners could look at lowering the tax rate.

“We could try rolling the millage back,” Ginn said.

Massie said that commissioners need to get more active in the state legislature in Raleigh and work with representatives from the coast who are facing the same issue to facilitate state policy changes. Massie encouraged agricultural breaks, homestead exemptions and perhaps redefining how taxes are assessed in the first place.

“Obviously it’s going to hurt your coffers, but it preserves the integrity of the county as you get new growth,” Massie said.

The purpose of the county’s budgeting process is to balance what’s coming in, with what’s going out.

“You can raise taxes, or you can cut services, or you can do somewhere in between,” he said.

Like Ginn, District 3 candidate Fox noted the elderly population’s inability to pay rising tax costs on a fixed income and recommended looking into different rates for residents who are not full-time.

“We might have to tax a second home higher than we do people that’s just got their full-time residency here,” Fox said. Setting different tax rates for different residents is not legal under current state law.

Cowan said that as far as taxes are concerned, the county has one of the lowest rates in the state. With the last revaluation the county lowered millage rates from 48 to 36 cents per $100, marking the greatest reduction in county history, he said.

However, Cowan said that he would support further discussion of homestead exemptions, or those based on age, income or residency.

“If possible we could try to come up with something that’s fair and equitable at least for people who are retired, on fixed income, and people with low incomes overall and see if we can make some adjustments for them,” Cowan said.

Candidates Jones and Moss are running to represent the Cashiers area, where the second-home market is booming. Jones said that he had yet to decide what might be best for the county in terms of taxes.

“In our meeting that we had Friday, there was some discussion about what have other areas done in the use of their land without have to pay revaluation,” Jones said, referencing a candidates training session led by County Manager Ken Westmoreland. “All those are good ideas to talk about, but you really can’t make concrete decisions about that.”

However, Moss said that he’s sure there are ways to adjust tax rates to allow for fixed income residents and homesteaders to be able to continue to afford their homes.

“Initially I’m not in favor of any tax increase,” Moss said.

With pressure put on the legislature, more can be done to prevent those who have been settled in the area for years or local youth from being driven out due to high housing costs, Moss said.

“I don’t like that, I don’t think it’s a good idea, I don’t think it’s good for our local culture,” he said of the trend.

Goose and gander

Tied in with the issue of what to do about rising property tax costs is what can be done about the county’s current debt load. The county is nearing the legal limit allowed by the Local Government Commission. Once that limit is reached, a county faces interest rate penalities.

Bunn said he wasn’t too worried about the debt, as the increasing amount of property tax revenue should help.

“In the way the county’s growing, I don’t feel like they’re going to have all that much of a problem paying it off,” he said.

Bunn couldn’t say whether or not he would recommend taking from the county’s fund balance to pay off a portion of the debt.

Shelton said the county needs to look at ways to get more bang for its buck for county projects. Projects like Smoky Mountain High School expansion have been coming in at significantly higher costs than originally bid out, in part due to the rising cost of materials post-Hurricane Katrina. Shelton said the county should examine these escalating costs, and see if paying off a project would make sense.

“I would want to carefully analyze our reserve versus our debt load,” Shelton said.

Clawson said he didn’t necessarily support raising taxes, but attempting to relieve the burden on taxpayers through a revenue neutral policy may not be an option forever.

“It sure would be nice if we could remain revenue neutral, but being that far in the hole I don’t know if we could,” Clawson said.

Ginn also recommended trying to limit county spending overall and investigating whether projects can be removed from the docket.

“We’ll probably have to look at delaying some of the projects,” he said.

Ginn didn’t endorse taking from the fund balance to help pay off debt, as that amount affects a county’s ability to borrow.

“You need to maintain a good fund balance,” he said.

But borrowing won’t matter once the county hits the Local Government Commission’s limit, Massie said. If that limit is met and there is an emergency situation, the county may be forced to look at raising taxes or cutting services to make funds available, Massie said.

Massie didn’t recommended using the fund balance to help pay off the debt, rather going project by project to see what can be saved and consolidated.

“We need to look at the capital improvements plan and see what actually needs to be done, what will benefit the most citizens,” Massie said.

Cowan said that in his experience dealing with the county budget, commissioners have never exceeded LGC limits and that he is not particularly worried about paying off the debt.

“With the rate of growth in the county we can stay within our budget and not go over that amount and still can accomplish all the things that we have on the agenda over time,” Cowan said.

Jones agreed, saying that concern about the debt load is an overreaction.

“I don’t think Jackson County is in a bad a debt as the articles appear,” Jones said, citing news reports on the issue.

Jones said that revenue from new home property taxes will help reduce the debt. The county should finish the projects it has started — SMHS expansion, the Cashiers and Sylva libraries — before beginning new ones, Jones said.

Moss said a focus should be placed on paying off the debt, slowing down the number of projects the county is taking on, and perhaps lessening their scope. Like in personal life, all things take planning.

“Sometimes it’s a little better to wait until you’ve created a little better financial situation, rather than take on a bunch of debt,” Moss said.

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