Democrat Mark Jones served on the county commission from 2006 through 2016, when he lost to Republican Mickey Luker. Luker — who has faced criticism due to an ongoing lack of physical attendance at county meetings that began in earnest in May 2019 — is not running for re-election.
This time around, Jones will face Republican Mark Letson. Letson has never held elected office before but currently serves on three appointed boards and in 2019 was named by the Jackson County Republican Party as a desired replacement for Luker, who the party had hoped to see relieved of his seat early.
Both candidates believe that they are the best choice to represent the county’s southern district and to serve Jackson County as a whole. While members of Jackson’s board of commissioners must live in the district they represent, they are elected through a countywide vote.
The issue: The national discussion about the place of Confederate monuments in modern-day America hit home this summer as the fate of Sylva’s Confederate statue became the subject of intense public discussion. What does the statue mean to you, and how do you view commissioners’ Aug. 4 decision to let it stay after covering pro-Confederate messaging on the pedestal?
Letson: “I think the commissioners did what was right in terms of keeping the statue and removing the offensive material in it. At this point I don’t see a purpose for removing the statue.”
Commissioners should take a “holistic approach” to the statue, and think about honoring Jackson County servicemen from all wars. Any decision to remove it should be made by county citizens, not by a vote of three or five commissioners.
Jones: “I support the commissioners’ decision. I support the idea and the commitment that commissioners have to that situation.”
Jones, a fifth-generation Jackson County resident, has ancestors who fought in both sides of the conflict. He views the statue as a memorial to all who fought in the war, a piece of history that needs to stay.
The issue: In 2016, commissioners raised the property tax rate 32 percent after a tax revaluation delivered a much-reduced taxable property value in the county. In 2021, a new revaluation will take effect and currently values are expected to rise by more than 10 percent. Would you support decreasing the tax rate to keep the budget revenue-neutral, or would you prefer to maintain or raise the current tax rate?
Jones: “Definitely keep the tax rate revenue-neutral.”
With construction continuing to increase the county’s tax base, Jones expects the county’s revenue to increase even with a decreased property tax rate. He’d like to use any extra revenue to address much-needed infrastructure projects.
Letson: “I would support cutting the tax rate.”
The budget is currently as big as it needs to be, Letson said, and if there are outstanding budget items that need to be addressed, the county is currently experiencing a surplus that it can use to that end.
The issue: COVID-19 has disrupted normal routines and expectations around the world, and Jackson County is no exception. What challenges do you foresee as Jackson County continues to grapple with the virus, and what policies would you support to spur recovery on the other side of the pandemic?
Letson: “I really think we need to hit the chambers of commerce and tourism board and really start now promoting next year’s increase in traffic. We need to be keying in on Asheville, Atlanta, Knoxville and reminding people that we are open for business.”
Jackson County has done a good job of containing the virus, but testing and access to testing are serious issues, especially in the southern end of the county where residents can find themselves driving half an hour or more for a test. While the impact to event-driven tourism has been significant, Letson sees “a promising note on the horizon” as weddings and other events begin making plans for 2021.
On the other side of the pandemic, he would support allocating funds to help the Tourism Development Authority get out the message that Jackson County is open for business. He would also encourage businesses to reach out to their chambers of commerce about their post-pandemic status and needs.
Jones: “I think the state and the federal government has the bulk of responsibility on providing assistance to local governments, towns, cities throughout the nation, and I think we’ll be looking for support and help.”
The county has done a good job containing the virus, but it’s come with sacrifice — whether that’s businesses being forced to pause operations due to state restrictions or positive tests, or people not being able to see loved ones in congregate living situations.
As the pandemic continues, Jones would emphasize the importance of wearing masks and would also work to improve the Meals on Wheels program and Jackson County Transit with the goal of keeping seniors healthy and able to live independently for as long as possible. Additionally, said Jones, he would like to see any federal stimulus efforts take a more targeted approach in the future.
The issue: In the General Election, Jackson County voters will be asked to approve a $20 million bond referendum to build an indoor pool complex in Cullowhee. If the referendum passes, commissioners will decide whether the project moves forward and how to pay for it. Do you support this project?
Jones: “It would enhance Jackson County’s recreation department, enhance that quality of life. That’s what it’s really all about.”
Swimming is important not just for children who want to attend pool parties or teens who want to join a swim team but also for the county’s aging population, who can benefit from water therapy and low-impact exercise. A pool in Cullowhee would also help keep local dollars local, as Jackson County residents often must cross county lines to use an indoor pool.
Letson: “I support the project, but I feel like we can find funding a different way than increasing property taxes.”
Currently, the plan is to fund the pool’s construction and operation through a property tax increase estimated at 2.26 cents per $100 of value. Letson believes he could help fund the pool by reducing waste in the county budget and would also support a higher tax rate for people who own a home in Jackson County but don’t live there. Multiple nearby counties in North and South Carolina have such a tax, Letson said, and he believes Jackson County should take advantage of that opportunity to keep residents’ taxes low.
The issue: The N.C. Department of Transportation is planning for a $100 million makeover of N.C. 107 in Sylva. What is your opinion on the project, and what can the county to do mitigate some of the negative side effects of the construction process?
Letson: “It’s going to be a pain. Everybody has to understand that it’s progress and it’s a temporary inconvenience, but the end result will be much better and safer.”
The project falls under state control, but the county could consider shifting school start times to better sidestep traffic holdups. Requests from small businesses in need of help handling relocation could be entertained on a case-by-case basis. Clear communication from the county and the DOT about what is happening, and when, will be vital as well.
Jones: “We can make suggestions, but I don’t know there’s much we can do from the county but guide the county economic entities to work with the state to help those impacted.”
The county should reach out to state legislators after the election to see what funds are available from the state to help mitigate construction impacts. However, commissioners have minimal influence over the project itself.
The issue: The opioid epidemic continues to wreak havoc in Jackson County and nationwide. What can the county do to address it?
Jones: Jones recently met a young doctor who hoped to open a practice specifically targeted toward helping people with opioid addictions, and that concept intrigues Jones. He’d want to look into forming a public-private partnership to bring such a practice to Jackson County to get addicts the help they need. Additionally, he’d consider allocating money for more detectives so law enforcement can better prevent drugs from entering the county.
Letson: Letson would prioritize talking to high schoolers about the dangers of drugs and educating senior citizens about securing their prescriptions and turning in their unused pills at one of the county’s drop-off locations. He also criticized the “quick bailout system” that often allows people who have been arrested on drug charges to leave the jail soon after entering it. This pretrial release program launched in 2019 and aims to keep people accused of low-level crimes from being held in jail prior to conviction due to their inability to post bond.
The issue: Cashiers’ remote location and large number of seasonally occupied homes make it a challenge for policing. What’s your opinion on the status of law enforcement coverage in District Four?
Letson: “Having a second officer has really made a dramatic stride in visibility for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.”
Letson applauded a recent increase in law enforcement coverage in the Cashiers area. He’s seen noticeably more officers around, and that’s reassuring for Letson. It’s important for residents to know that officers can respond when a problem occurs and that help is closer than 30 or 45 minutes away.
Jones: “I would like to see not just one but possibly two more deputies.”
Law enforcement coverage has improved in Cashiers, but it’s still too easy for anyone with a police scanner to figure out which areas aren’t covered at a given moment, Jones said. He wants to allocate money for additional deputies in Cashiers and countywide, as well as more funding for overtime pay. This would increase the available workforce, because when overtime pay isn’t available deputies are given comp time instead.
The issue: It’s becoming increasingly difficult for people who work in Jackson County to own property in Jackson County due to lack of housing inventory and high prices. How would you approach this problem?
Jones: Jones would be interested in attracting housing projects interested in a model in which renters who work in certain industries have their rent subsidized by other residents who pay a slightly higher monthly rent. Businesses in need of a local workforce could also contribute by paying a fee to offset the cost of rent for their employees. A project currently under discussion in Cashiers plans to use this type of model, and Jones feels the concept could be replicated elsewhere.
Letson: A countywide initiative to identify available and buildable land and access limits for water and sewer in those areas is necessary to address the problem. The county could also consider tax breaks and other means to encourage local construction businesses and affordable housing projects. Expanding water and sewer service will go a long way to addressing the issue. Cashiers has a public sewer system but not a water system, and many funding programs require both in order to qualify for an award.
Meet the candidates
Jones, 61, represented District 4 on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners from 2006 to 2016 and has spent his career in the hospitality industry. After graduating with a land planning degree from Western Carolina University, he got a job as a bellman at High Hampton Inn and eventually became the inn’s general manager before stepping down to a morning manager role after winning his first county commission race. In 2018, he started as front manager for Mica’s Restaurant and Pub in Sapphire. Jones is originally from the Cope Creek community in Sylva and lives in Cashiers with his wife Wilma. He is currently a member of the Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees and the Jackson County Community Foundation, and chairman of the Jackson County Airport Authority.
Reason to run: “Every time there was an article in one of the newspapers regarding the absence of District 4’s commissioner, I would get phone calls. I waited until the last day to file. I kind of wanted somebody to step up to the plate. I felt like I had done my public service from an elected official standpoint but I was slowly convinced and somewhat compelled to get back involved.”
Top three priorities for the next four years: Capital improvements to the schools, including screening, fencing and security at all schools and a complete overhaul of Blue Ridge School; economic outreach to small businesses, including support from the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority, whose board he would like to join; increased funding for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department.
Letson, 40, has lived in Jackson County since 2006 and grew up in Rome, Georgia, visiting the mountains frequently. He works fulltime as director of amenities at Trillium Links & Lake Club in Cashiers, and since 2015 he and his wife Brandi have owned Cashiers Valley Pharmacy. Letson, who lives in Sapphire, has an associate’s degree in turfgrass maintenance and is currently pursuing a business degree from Louisiana State University. He is chairman of the Jackson County Planning Board and sits on the Cashiers Small Area Planning Council and the Business and Economic Council. He’s been involved with all three organizations for about three years and also serves as cubmaster for Cub Scout Pack No. 222, which he founded two years ago.
Reason to run: “I’m running for office because I think that we can make a significant change moving forward. I’ve been in the planning portions of all of this for the last three years, and about two years ago I said the next step would be to run for commission. Seeing how our county actually functions, it’s good, but we need to expand on what we’re actually accomplishing.”
Top three priorities for the next four years: Improve workforce housing opportunities; increase funding for teacher salaries and school building maintenance; prevent property tax increases for residents and find other sources of revenue for any necessary new expenditures.