Challenging them are two Democrats, Leah Hampton and David Young. Both are running their first campaigns for elected office, and both have plenty of ideas as to how the county could better address not only the relatively recent issue of the Coronavirus pandemic, but also many of the legacy issues affecting residents in recent years.
Voters can choose any two of the candidates for the commission, which is currently controlled by Republicans by a four-to-one margin.
As a county, we were relatively proactive when the Coronavirus Pandemic emerged in mid-March. With the benefit of hindsight, how do you feel we did in responding to it?
Kevin Ensley: We were about right. I feel like we listened to our health professionals. We also listened to the public because we had contacts from folks who were concerned about the vacationers coming into our area and staying, so we went ahead and kind of shut that down for a period of time. What we needed was guidance from the state and the federal government on what protocols we should be doing, like wearing masks and social distancing. Now that we know what our protocols are, even for restaurants, they can work in such a way to make sure that we keep quelling the virus. I hate that that’s become a political issue. It really shouldn’t be because we trust our doctors and the CDC to be able to give us the information on how we can keep this at bay, and that’s what they do.
Leah Hampton: I’m really proud of the county health department officials. This was unpredictable in every possible way. Overall, I think we have done better than most counties in the region. I think we have been more respectful of the science, but the reality of being a community that has a lot of tourists does mean that we’ve had some who’ve come here from out of state who have maybe violated quarantine. I think there’s been some looking away from stuff that we could have been far more careful about. Hindsight is 20/20. I’m sure it’s been a challenge for local law enforcement and I wouldn’t begin to criticize what I think they’ve tried to do but I think we’ve reached a point where everybody knows this is real. It took six months and if we get to a point where, for example, the governor is issuing a real strong lockdown or something, I think we have to abide by it.
Brandon Rogers: Hindsight is always 20/20 and you learn a whole lot, especially when you have a pandemic hit like this. None of us had ever seen something like this before so I guess looking back, I wouldn’t have changed anything that we did. I feel like we were proactive and took the right steps and the measurements that we did, and I feel like that it was a big part of why we didn’t have any more cases than we did. Unfortunately since then, we have had some deaths and our numbers have went up, but I’m not sure what we could have done differently.
David Young: I think we got off to a really good start implementing some of the things you’ve talked about, hindsight being what it is. I would love to have seen a strong educational push at the beginning about masks, about social distancing, explaining how that stuff works at the nuts-and-bolts level. A lot of people get lost in the scientific jargon. They look at a journal of medicine entry and don’t know how to get through the abstract. If somebody had broken that down and explained it in layman’s terms — “this is why we want you doing these things” — I think maybe the pushback we’re experiencing now wouldn’t have happened.
And the pandemic isn’t going away on Nov. 4, or in December, maybe even months after that. How will we continue to manage this?
Leah Hampton: My understanding is that that county tax revenues have not taken the hit we anticipated. There’s been a hit, but it has not been as big. I think it has been a good faith effort. This is one of the few advantages to having a Republican-controlled county commission is they are extremely fiscally-minded and so there have been some investments. And I think there are some rainy day funds available plus state and federal funds. People in this community have to be healthy and businesses in this community are going to continue to struggle and are going to need help. And I think we have to have a very real conversation at the county level and even at the individual municipal level about what kind of sacrifices those governments can make and what kinds of incentives we can offer to preserve not just businesses but facilities so that people have jobs to go to.
Brandon Rogers: We have to let our businesses operate on a normal basis, but I feel like what’s most important is the “three W’s.” We’ve got to wear a mask, we’ve got to keep our distance from each other and be sure we’re washing our hands and keeping ourselves clean. If we do those three things, I feel like that’s the most important, but we have to let our businesses continue to run.
David Young: I don’t envy the guys at the local level. County government is second up from the bottom. We are at the bottom of a hill and we have to wait for the feds to kick stuff down the hill, then it hits the state and loses that momentum and then we have to wait for it to come down from the state to the county level. So, it’s going to depend a lot on what happens above us, what we’re able to afford to do. I think we can still do the education. I think we can still keep a mask mandate in place. I think we can still keep social distancing in place. I think this is going to get worse as we enter flu season, as we enter the colder months and more people are pushed to congregate inside. I think we need to be incredibly vigilant because 215,000 dead people is not something to play around with.
Kevin Ensley: I think that there’s a lot of good news. We got the funds from the federal government which helped pay for some of the extra costs we had but since the protocols have been in place our county, I don’t know if you heard but June was the highest sales tax we had ever received. So I feel like the economy for our area, anyway — I know nationally, it might not be up where it needs to be — I think in our area it’s doing great. Our occupancy tax was the highest in July it’s ever been. I feel like that industry has come back.
The pandemic has also exposed the high-speed internet problem — it’s not a luxury or a convenience anymore. Kids are sitting in cars outside fast food restaurants and firehouses, doing their homework. What can you do to help?
Brandon Rogers: This is one of my top three issues. We, we are a Tier 3 county [as designated by the state, meaning among the most prosperous], which restricts us from getting certain funding from a state or federal level. One of the first steps we could do is work with our legislators, both from a state and federal level and be sure that we get appropriate funding to fix it. We just need to continue to work with them to get to proper funding so that we can fix it, even if it’s getting broadband through satellite services. We got kids that drive to the community center or Taco Bell to sit in the parking lot to do their homework. It shouldn’t be that way.
David Young: I would absolutely push to have that law [that restricts local governments from providing internet services] overturned. That was a bad law. You can follow the money and see why that law passed. It doesn’t prohibit municipalities from offering broadband. It makes it very difficult for them to offer broadband. There are loopholes, there are work-arounds. I think we should be looking at that. We should have the county attorney, and the different municipalities should have their town attorneys looking at those options. The only thing that’s going to work to get these bigger companies, these high-speed providers in here is if we’re already building the infrastructure, if we’re already showing that there is a market and that we’re willing to go after that market if they’re not.
Kevin Ensley: We’re continuing to work on broadband. We have a committee that meets. It’s really frustrating. And I feel like Haywood Electric Membership Corporation can be a big part of that solution. I’ve heard rumblings that they’re maybe going to start getting on board. One of the strengths that we have in our county for broadband would be to have wireless towers put in. I personally have Skyrunner, which is where I get my internet. We’ve talked about maybe working with them to find sites. I know we’re putting a site in to try to help the Lake Logan area on the south end of the county and if we put that sat that site there, we would be willing to partner with either Skyrunner or a telecom to be able to place their equipment on those towers.
Leah Hampton: There was a committee that did a lot of research on this, but they’re kind of stymied in two ways, one by some statewide limitations but then also by the pandemic, which limits some of their ability to implement some of their objectives right now. There are grants available from multiple organizations that could help with buying materials and laying cable. There are community centers in the county that have good internet. We have the library for example, right? I think if we have a tiered approach looking at building on what that committee has done — first priority would be making sure that educators and students in the region can get internet for classes, as long as they need it. We don’t meet certain qualifications with Tier 3, so we can’t get those dollars. We’ve been mislabeled there.
Let’s talk about economic development. Recently we spent some money on infrastructure, to make a vacant parcel more attractive to developers. What do you think the role of the county should be in encouraging economic development like that?
David Young: I love the free market. I obviously have some capitalist blood in me. The free market does not work in rural areas. It’s the exact same reason Charter’s not going to pay $200,000 to run a high-speed internet line up the side of a mountain for 20 houses. Their payoff is 50 years and they don’t care. They don’t want those customers. They’re not going to take on that investment once that happens. I think you have to have a quality of life metric — what is available here for businesses? What is available here for residents? If private industry isn’t willing to step in to fill those deficits, I think it becomes the responsibility of government to make sure that we have an industrial park that is marketable. We paid for that land. We’re still paying for that land, and it’s sitting unused and empty. If we have to pay $150,000 to run a sewer line to sell a multimillion-dollar parcel of land that’s a pretty easy math problem for me.
Kevin Ensley: Being a land surveyor, any time we’re dealing with land issues or ordinances, especially water and sewer expansion, I really know where most of those lines already are and potential places where they could be. I know when we were looking at the Highway 209 corridor, I knew that there was a possibility that we could get sewer down through there because we needed it for the truck stops and the school. It kind of gives me a leg up on all those top issues. You know, the more water and sewer expansion we have, the better we can do economic development or workforce housing or affordable housing to where people can carve their lots a little bit smaller and you can get more density on the property.
Leah Hampton: There’s other ways to do it. For example, if we place conditions on things like that. So if you want this extension or if you want this property to be approved, well that needs to be a win-win situation, right? I think the definition of win-win situation for a lot of people on the current commission is purely fiscal and purely fiscal for a very narrow portion of people in the county. My instinct would have been to lean against voting for it until I knew more about what the conditions being placed on the company that would be doing this were, for example, requiring that their build meet LEED standards, requiring that they employ a certain number of people, making sure that they were contributing a fair amount of tax so that the roads into that facility water and sewer, all that kind of stuff, that we’re getting a return on investment.
Brandon Rogers: I feel like we have made some major strides in helping attract some businesses over the last three or four years now. Unfortunately, the packages are a little more eye-catching in bordering counties. We’ve had several people that looked at our area, loved our area, but unfortunately going back to broadband and other issues that we have here in these mountains they decided to go elsewhere. I feel like we can sweeten them a little more to do a better job. We have drawn the attention of some big key players and matter of fact, we’re talking to some now. Seems like we get right there where we’ve about got them and then they make a decision to go elsewhere. So we’re close. We just need to do a little more work.
And then, there’s homelessness, which is becoming a bigger and bigger issue here. What’s the role of county government in addressing that problem?
Leah Hampton: I think that there are organizations in the community, private organizations and nonprofit organizations that do a great deal in that regard. I think we stand in their way a little bit. I think the community response is one that is kind of knee-jerk and doesn’t really think about the data of how these programs can work and can truly help people. I would like to see county government assisting those organizations. Maybe it doesn’t even have to necessarily be financially but the short answer is no, we are not busing people out of Haywood County and if I lose this election because I’m not going to discriminate against homeless people, so be it.
Brandon Rogers: That’s a tricky question. I feel like when you talk about our homeless situation, I’m not so sure that government should play a part in that. I would hope that our faith-based programs and churches would take care of that. I just don’t feel like government has much of a place other than when funding is available that comes down from the state or the federal level that has to pass through us. Of course, we have to approve that kind of thing, but I feel like the help there should be more from faith-based programs in church.
David Young: Stable housing is the foundation for everything. If you have a substance use disorder and you’re in unstable housing, your chances of recovery plummet. If you have a mental health issue and you’re trying to manage it and you’re in unstable housing, your chances of managing it plummet. Health issues, disabilities, poverty, domestic issues, all those things just get amplified when you’re in an unstable situation. We need to get people off the streets and into stable housing. If it has to be a hotel room for a couple of months, that’s better than a parking lot. That’s better than a park bench. That’s better than a tent out in the woods. We need to start moving people into their own homes. That’s one of the reasons I’m running. In the 20 years I’ve been here, rent has gone up, utilities have gone up, taxes have gone up, fees have gone up. Wages are the same. Wages haven’t budged in 20 years. And we’re wondering why people who were struggling when rent was $600 a month 20 years ago are now out on the streets when rent is $1,200 a month, and they’re still making $2.13 an hour as a server.
Kevin Ensley: I know they’re working on a low barrier shelter, and I think that’ll help with town of Waynesville. Also, I’ve noticed with the low barrier shelter that we have, it seems like to me that that’s helped that community by giving these folks a place to stay and maybe giving them a linkage to treatment. They told me one of the girls got a job, you know but was staying in the shelter. She got her feet back under her and she was able to get a job. I want to feel like it’s helped calm the neighborhood down as far as these people aren’t wandering around everywhere. I know there’s still homeless people, but I think it gives a segment of the homeless people somewhere to stay. And it helps them get on their feet to where they can get back and get a job and maybe even get into housing that they can pay for. I’d like to see that move forward as much as we can.
Meet the candidates
• Age: 59
• Residence: Iron Duff
• Experience: Four-term commissioner
• Age: 47
• Residence: Waynesville
• Experience: First campaign
• Age: 49
• Residence: Bethel
• Experience: One-term commissioner
• Age: 43
• Residence: Haywood County
• Experience: First campaign