Jackson commissioner race heats up
Anyone who’s driven through Jackson County in the last several months is likely well aware that there’s an election underway for two county commissioner seats.
Ron Mau and Mickey Luker, Republicans who are running a joint campaign to unseat Democratic incumbents Vicki Greene and Mark Jones, have had their billboards up since shortly after primary election season closed out to proclaim their message that “change is coming,” with Greene and Jones responding with billboards of their own. They’ve been attending county meetings all year and sending out press releases all summer.
It’s been an earlier start to the campaign season than what Greene and Jones are accustomed to — Jones said he’s typically started his general election campaigning after Labor Day — but Mau said he didn’t see any reason to wait.
“If I’m going to start doing something, I’m going to do it,” Mau said. “As far as I’m concerned, the day I file is the day I start.”
Mau and Luker say they’re running to give Jackson County residents the transparency, fiscal responsibility and support for public education they should expect of their government. On those fronts, they believe, a lot needs to change.
But Greene and Jones say that transparency, smart spending and collaboration with other organizations — including the schools — are already in place. Things have been going well for the last four years, they say, and if voters keep them on the board the county will remain on an upward trajectory.
“Their message is ‘Change is coming.’ I’m not sure that I have seen or understood what that change is, and I’m even more sure that there is not a need for change,” Greene said.
Mau begs to differ. One of the areas where he’d like to see the biggest shift from the current administration, he said, is in capital expenditures. Mau, who holds a Ph.D. in finance, sees something missing in the way commissioners go about prioritizing projects and counting the cost, and he believes some endeavors could be re-envisioned to save taxpayer money.
For one thing, he said, when planning new construction, operating and maintenance expenses should be built into the budget along with the cost of actually erecting the building, and those expenses should always be included in discussions regarding construction cost.
When prioritizing projects, he said, commissioners should make a bigger effort to see that the public’s priorities are reflected, as well as their own. They should use the county’s comprehensive plan as a tool to do that.
“The comprehensive plan is being updated right now, but you never hear the comprehensive plan being discussed in any of the meetings,” Mau said.
“If you’ve got items that are on your comprehensive plan, those should be your road map for the county,” Luker said. “If you’re not following that, why are we spending money on a comprehensive plan?”
Greene and Jones, meanwhile, dismiss those concerns as making a mountain where nary a molehill exists.
“If the architects do their jobs, that’s part of their project is building in the costs of operation and making us aware of what those increased costs should be,” Jones said.
And when it comes to the comprehensive plan, Greene said, there really isn’t one right now — an updated plan is on the way, but the one currently in place is a generic, “bare-bones” document written in 2006 that doesn’t contain the specifics needed to be truly helpful to commissioners making decisions in 2016. A committee has been working for the past 18 months to update it.
“It wouldn’t go into such detail as what we’re trying to do,” County Planner Mike Poston said of the existing plan. “It mentioned public health and those types of things but didn’t really try to set any particular policies specific to those areas.”
The comprehensive planning committee is currently finishing up a draft of the updated document and will be planning public input meetings before the end of the year, Poston said, presenting the final document to commissioners in 2017.
Rethinking health projects
Mau and Luker also say that they’d want to re-evaluate some existing capital priorities to see if they could be reimagined to maximize value and save money. In particular, they both support collaboration between the county and Southwestern Community College on upcoming health facility projects. SCC wants to build a $16 million health sciences building, and the county is looking to renovate or replace its existing health department building. Luker and Mau would like to see the two projects combined into one.
“As long as it’s still a potential, I think it should still be looked at,” Mau said. “There might be some opportunities to help make that project make sense and actually save money — you don’t know until you get the needs assessment back.”
According to a June press release from Mau, combining the projects could save $3 million and responses to the idea have been “extremely positive.”
“As a department leader, it’s a territorial thing,” Luker said of opposition to the idea. “Sometimes you need to just jump out of the box and say, ‘Is there a better way to cost savings, improve services, provide more educational opportunities?’”
According to Jones, who sits on both the Board of Health and the SCC Board of Trustees, there’s nothing territorial about commissioners’ reticence to the idea.
“That is not well received by our boards, period,” he said. “There is a lot of questions regarding patient privacy, having students intermingle with patients.”
The SCC building would be for teaching only, not for providing care, Jones said. And as of now it’s looking like the county’s health department won’t need a completely new building after all. Currently commissioners are talking about renovating the existing structure and possibly building a small addition as well.
Differing capital priorities
Both Greene and Jones, by and large, support the board’s current prioritization of a renovated health department, new animal shelter and improved parks and greenways as the most vital improvements to the county. However, they differ on some counts.
For Greene, an animal shelter should be the number one priority.
“We’re in a terrible, small, antiquated concrete block building that just is not suitable, so we need a larger facility to house animals until they can be adopted and perhaps include an adoption center — a really nice place for the humans and animals to interact and pick each other out,” she said.
Earlier this year, commissioners received a report that put the price tag for a new animal shelter at somewhere around $5 million, which gave everyone pause. The board is currently waiting for a new, more conservative design and cost estimate to be completed.
Jones would like to see an indoor swimming pool make it to the top-tier of priorities. He’s long enjoyed swimming as a favorite form of recreation and believes having a swimming pool would draw people into the county while also providing valuable opportunities for recreation and physical therapy.
“I think I’m the only commissioner that wants one, but I will keep asking for one until we can fund one and it fits into our recreation center,” Jones said. “I think it would be a great addition to Jackson County.”
Greene said she questions whether the high price tag of a swimming pool is worth it and maintains that her top priority recreation-wise will be to create community parks in Jackson’s outlying areas that are currently without. But once that’s done, she may one day consider supporting a swimming pool.
“I don’t consider the swimming pool a necessity. I consider it a luxury, but it is something people other than me would enjoy,” she said.
For Jones, however, the top priority — and one of the main reasons he’s running for another term — will be to achieve expanded sewer capacity in Cashiers. For nearly a decade, there’s been no additional sewer capacity available in the mountain community, and that’s a reality that severely stymies growth.
“It’s a total economic need,” Jones said. “I can’t put more emphasis on that.”
He’s been working on the project for 12 years — since before he was elected commissioner — and wants to see it to the finish line. The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority has acquired property and a $500,000 Golden LEAF Fund grant towards a new wastewater treatment facility, and now TWSA is finalizing plans and funding for the project.
Luker and Mau, meanwhile, say they’d be looking to the comprehensive plan to inform their capital priorities as commissioners and criticize the current administration for the funding struggles that Jackson Neighbors in Need, a nonprofit that works to protect low-income people during cold weather (see story on page 3) has experienced in recent years.
Neighbors in Need came to commissioners last winter to announce that they were days away from running out of money — commissioners responded with a donation of $15,000 — and met with commissioners in September to discuss structuring some more permanent partnership between the county and Neighbors in Need going forward.
“The agencies should not have been coming and begging the county to take a part of this opportunity to provide a second opportunity for somebody that’s hit a misfortune in their life,” said Luker. “The county should have automatically been stepping up to the plate and said, ‘Let us take a lead role in this.’”
Jones, meanwhile, responded that he’s more than happy to think about funding the organization on a permanent basis. During the September meeting, commissioners were receptive to the idea and have been responsive to previous funding requests that Neighbors in Need has made.
“I could see the county being a strong supporter and partner in doing something permanent,” he said.
Funding the schools
Luker and Mau have also criticized the current board on their funding of public education. Sure, commissioners approved $9 million for emergency repairs of school facilities, but it’s an election year — they needed to look good, Luker said. What negligence in past years led to those repairs being so immediately necessary now, he asked?
“That didn’t happen overnight, that didn’t happen in a year’s time, and why was that issue allowed to compound?” Luker asked.
That goes back to the earlier point about capital planning, Mau said. There should be an asset management plan dictating how and when facilities are replaced so the county doesn’t need take out a loan to fund a $9 million maintenance bill.
“Roofs have an expected life. Pavements have an expected life,” Mau said. Commissioners should plan accordingly.
But that’s exactly what motivated the current board to make the choice it did, Greene said. Back in 2015, Jackson Schools Superintendent Mike Murray updated commissioners on the state of the roofs and said that year-by-year maintenance expenditures had been neglected prior to his arrival in 2011. Now, a large docket of work was needed up front. In response, commissioners funded some of the more immediately needed repairs, but in 2016 Murray came back and told the board that the rest of the repairs needed to be done yesterday — they couldn’t wait to be crossed off a five-year plan.
“This January when we were presented with a list of $9 million worth of capital projects, this board led by (Commission Chairman) Brian McMahan decided, ‘Let’s not put off any of these projects that the school needs. Let’s tackle it all right now,’” Greene said. “That way in a year or so when they’re all completed, we’ll be starting with as good of buildings as we can get and then we can set aside funding for repair needs as they come up.”
Evidence of the current board’s positive relationship with the school system, Greene said, would be that the school board appointed Jones, a commissioner, as its representative to the SCC Board of Trustees.
“To me that indicates a strong belief in Mark as a commissioner with the feeling that he will represent not just the commissioner board but the Board of Education in dealing with the community college,” Greene said.
But if the school system is such a high priority, Mau asked, why has the county’s allocation for the schools’ operating budget increased by only 2 percent since 2012 even as the overall county budget has increased by 15 percent? Especially considering that teachers are paying for school supplies out of their own pockets, textbooks are aging and in short supply, and resources such as printer paper and ink are limited?
“Teachers are having to buy more supplies for their classroom,” Mau said. “There’s no reason that shouldn’t come from the county’s budget.”
According to Greene, however, Mau is leaving out some key context.
“The county commission funded exactly what the school system asked for for operating expenses,” she said. “Exactly.”
Besides, she said, it’s technically not the county’s job to pay for supplies. In North Carolina, counties are expected to pay for school facilities while the state provides the staffing and resources to fill them. But over the last several years, Greene said, the state legislature has reduced funding by more than 30 percent.
“People at the local level look to us to replace what the state has done,” she said.
In regard to taxation, Mau and Luker have both been vocal opponents of increases the current board of commissioners has recently facilitated. As of this year, county property taxes are 37 cents per $100 of value compared to the previous 28-cent rate, and an additional quarter-cent sales tax now applies to purchases excluding gas and groceries.
“At the most we should have stayed revenue-neutral,” Luker said of the property tax increase.
Following a countywide revaluation of property, most people saw their values drop compared to the last valuation, which appraised pre-recession property values. Commissioners knew they’d have to raise the property tax rate in order to maintain services at the same level. A revenue-neutral rate would have been 35.3 cents per $100 of value.
Commissioners decided to up the rate to 37 cents in order to fund increased expenditures for emergency services.
“I have no problem with that and I will tell you this,” Greene said. “I think there have been a couple letters in The Sylva Herald about the tax increase but nobody’s called me about it. It has not been the big issue that I thought it could be.”
Before the tax increase, Jackson had the lowest property tax rate in the state. It’s now the sixth-lowest in the state and smack dab in the middle of the seven westernmost counties.
Mau doesn’t see that new placement as being the best way to go. Jackson’s per-capita property value is the second highest in the state, he said, so it stands to reason that its tax rate be lower. Meanwhile, the county has a high poverty rate to think about.
“We’ve got 20 to 25 percent living below the poverty rate, and they’re getting hit with that tax bill,” Mau said.
He takes particular issue with the new quarter-cent sales tax that went into effect Oct. 1 — or, more specifically, the manner in which that tax was passed.
The discussion began during a Feb. 24 work session as part of a conversation about the SCC master plan, which proposed tens of millions of dollars in capital improvements. On March 3, commissioners unanimously voted to place a referendum vote on the June 7 ballot asking voters to approve an additional quarter-cent sales tax, excluding gas and groceries, to raise money for capital projects at SCC and Jackson County Schools. Oftentimes, Jones said, the existing 6.75 percent sales tax was being rounded up to 7 percent anyway due to the inability to split a cent, and passing the measure would create an additional $1.2 million per year to help out the schools.
Mau, however, decried the fast-paced decision to put the question on the ballot for a second primary in which only a small portion of registered voters would participate. It should have waited until November, he said, when turnout would be much higher.
“That’s not a hard math problem to figure out when it should have been placed on the ballot,” Mau said.
“I’m all about education and all that we can do for education,” Luker said. “Our kids deserve it, our classrooms deserve it and our teachers sure as hell deserve it, but to be fair to everyone in Jackson County, it only makes sense that we have that election to have that on the ballot when the biggest majority of Jackson County is voting.”
In addition, said Mau, the sales tax increase is a “regressive tax” that will disproportionately affect the families struggling most in Jackson County.
Both Jones and Greene, however, have stood by the decision.
Had they waited until November to put it on the ballot, Jones said, the schools would have lost $500,000 in potential revenue from the delay. And, with so many local, state and national offices in the mix, the sales tax issue would likely have gotten lost in the fray — it would have appeared on page four of the ballot. During the June 7 primary, it was on the first page of the ballot and at the forefront of local news.
“I would have never thought in my whole elected official career that I would have been proud of a tax increase and could hold my head high, but I am,” Jones said.
“I think that was the right call,” Greene agreed, pointing out that the Republican commissioner board in Cherokee County also put a quarter-cent sales tax increase on its June ballot to benefit its public schools.
Regarding impacts on the poor, Greene and Jones agreed, the outcome is likely minimal. The increased tax doesn’t apply to gas and groceries, and due to rounding many purchases were already taxed at 7 percent anyway. The tax amounts to 25 cents per $100.
“I think we did the best we could,” she said.
• Party: Democrat
• Residence: Webster
• Age: 66
• Professional background: Greene spent 36 years working for the Southwestern Commission, holding various positions including community planner, grants planner, revolving loan fund administrator, housing program workforce development director and assistant director.
• Political experience: Greene is coming to the end of her first term on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. She has served on a variety of boards, both before and during her tenure as a commissioner. She currently sits on the county’s airport authority, library and tourism development authority boards and is on the advisory committee for Smoky Mountain Mental Health.
• Reason to run: “I wish to continue to be of service for the citizens of Jackson County. I love Jackson County. I love its people and feel as though I will continue to do the best job I can as commissioner.”
• Party: Republican
• Residence: Forest Hills
• Age: 52
• Professional background: After working as a geotechnical engineer for 13 years, Mau earned an MBA and a Ph.D. in finance, after which he moved to Jackson County to spend six years as a professor at Western Carolina University. Currently he’s department chair for business administration in the College of Business for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s online campus.
• Political experience: Mau has been elected to two terms on the Village of Forest Hills’ town council. In addition to town council, he is currently on the Comprehensive Planning Committee and the Comprehensive Transportation Planning Committee.
• Reason to run: “I want to bring my experience and education in engineering and finance to county leadership to help improve Jackson County for the citizens of the county and also for the people I’ll represent in my district.”
Jackson County District 4 candidates (pick 1)
• Party: Democrat
• Residence: Cashiers
• Age: 57
• Professional background: After completing school, Jones spent five years as a research assistant at Western Carolina University working to recreate the type of corn that Cherokee people would have traditionally used. When the project ended he took a temporary job as a bellman at High Hampton Inn and has worked there ever since, moving up until he was offered the general manager position in 1997. When he was elected to his county commission seat in 2006, Jones scaled back to a morning management role to make time for his commissioner duties.
• Political experience: Jones has been a Jackson County commissioner since 2006. He has served on a variety of boards, both before and during his tenure as commissioner. He currently sits on the boards for the health department, Southwestern Community College, Good Samaritan Clinic and Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. He is vice chair of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and chair of the Airport Authority.
• Reason to run: “I would like to continue to offer the skills and knowledge I have picked up in my life with 30 years of being general manager at High Hampton Inn combined with the organizations I have served with the knowledge of the county that I have.”
• Party: Republican
• Residence: East Laport
• Age: 48
• Professional background: Luker began his career with 20 years in county government, including as a jailer and dispatcher in the Sheriff’s Office, then work in the Department of Social Services. He then moved to Bear Lake Reserve, where he served as vice president, and for the past five years he has owned Caney Fork General Store.
• Political experience: Luker has served as chairman of the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority and as an officer in the Cullowhee Fire Department. He has also been part of the Travel and Tourism Board and of the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce board. Luker has never held elected office before.
• Reason to run: “At the end of the day it’s the people, the reason I’m running. Over the last year and a half I probably had numerous people come to me and ask me to run for office so that they’d feel like they had a voice and somebody that would actually speak for them.”