Candidates respond to Hunting Country questions

Published 2:31 pm Friday, October 10, 2008

Candidates for the Polk County Board of Commissioners recently attended a forum held by the Hunting Country community. The candidates include three Democrats, Ray Gasperson, Ren´e McDermott and Cindy Walker, and three Republicans: David Moore, incumbent Ted Owens and incumbent Tom Pack. The candidates are vying for three board seats.

The candidates&39; answers to eight of the questions are given below in their own words. For their answers to the other three questions, see the Wednesday, Oct. 8 Bulletin.

Would you support a county-wide law enforcement that would include all three towns?

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Ren´e McDermott (D): I would be willing to look into county-wide law enforcement on two conditions. 1) That the towns do participate and 2) that there is an outpouring of support for it from the citizenry after they have a clear understanding that they would no longer be able to vote for the chief law enforcement officer of the county. I know of no towns that have expressed interest in this so far. In the past, Tryon declined to combine its dispatch services with the county. To make such a plan cost effective, though, the towns would need to willingly participate. A police commission or a civil service commission, which would oversee county-wide law enforcement, would have appointed those members. They would not be elected by the people. The chief of police would be appointed by the commission. He would not be elected by the people. By law, we would still have an elected sheriff and the sheriff would still have to carry out his statutory duties; bailiff at the courthouse, courtroom protection, execution of summons, custody of the jail and by law the sheriff must have at least two deputies; that&squo;s whether or not we have county-wide law enforcement. So the county would bear both the costs of the sheriff&squo;s office and the share of the county-wide law enforcement. It&squo;s been suggested that this would give us a more professional police force. I suspect that there&squo;s a few police officers in the area who might take exception to that. (Studies) in other communities show that this kind of police commission system doesn&squo;t always give you great police results. Look at New York. Look at Los Angeles. It&squo;s been suggested that this would take the politics out of policing in Polk County, but the police commission would be appointed and let&squo;s look at some other appointed boards in the county like the planning board. Appointments to the planning board in recent years has been raked with politics. It&squo;s gotten four developers and a realtor on that seven-member board. And commissioners complain that it&squo;s hard to get good volunteers, so we&squo;d have to take all these things into consideration.

David Moore (R): I would support a county-wide law enforcement. First of all I think it would be more effective and it could save the taxpayers money. And it secures jobs for those deputies in the county that, come the election year when the sheriff is up for election, they don&squo;t know if they are going to have a job or not. This does give them the ability for those living in the county, that work in the county and who want to stay in the county. I think it would protect them with that aspect if we do a county-wide law enforcement. Like I said, it probably would save some taxpayer money if you combine all three townships and do a police chief or commissioner or whatever it would be. &bsp;

Ray Gasperson (D): I think before I would support a county-wide law enforcement, it would take all three townships coming before the board of commissioners saying that they support this and there would have to be county citizens also in support. As I understand it would take action on the part of the state legislature too. Sometimes when you think about something like this it sounds at first like a great idea, then when you start really delving into it you realize, well, you know, Tryon and Columbus and Saluda appear to be happy with their law enforcement as they have it now. Now there is uniqueness to each of those individual towns and so it would take a lot of citizens coming forward before I could move in that direction. I wouldn&squo;t rule it out but it would take a lot of citizen action.

Tom Pack (R): I think county-wide law enforcement is something that needs to be seriously considered. It needs to be looked into to see if that&squo;s what citizens really want. If it could be worked out with the towns, it could save the towns combined about a million dollars a year. It wouldn&squo;t be any tax savings, per se, for the county residents, but for the town residents who pay both city and county taxes, they would see a substantial savings. And also, it would give you a professional administrator. They would have training in that area and that should be very important to people of Polk County.

Cindy Walker (D): I really don&squo;t see the towns wanting to come onto this. I think they&squo;ve got their little departments; it might be a good idea and maybe later on, but right now I think we&squo;ve got a lot of things we&squo;re working with. I just don&squo;t see it as a pressing concern right now for this community.

Ted Owens (R): Well, obviously I disagree with the&bsp; three Democratic candidates because back when I was mayor of Columbus we talked to the sheriff of that time and to our police and it didn&squo;t work out financially because of different reasons. But let me tell you, I&squo;ve talked with at least two of the towns in the past and two of the towns are interested. Of course, Tryon may not be interested and that&squo;s a different story, but, here quickly let me tell you. Tryon pays over a half a million dollars for their police department, Columbus pays over $300,000 for theirs and Saluda pays over $200,000. That&squo;s almost a million dollars in taxes. Some of you may say, well, hey, that ain&squo;t us. It is. Those people in those towns pay county taxes. And to be honest with you they&squo;re getting very little for their money. And lots of things have been said about what the advantages are. There are advantages. And if police officers are worried about their jobs, there&squo;s a chance for them to have a job there and not worry about every time they have an election for the sheriff they get&bsp; kicked out, lose their job; four years is the most they can stay there. You get professionals and continuity in law enforcement. A lot of things will be taken out of it. And again, you&squo;re not hurting the sheriff; the sheriff is a constitutional office and he would be there. And yes, the point has been made for this to happen, you have to get permission from legislation, so we&squo;re not talking about something happening overnight, but I think it&squo;s something we need to approach. If you can&squo;t have good ideas, if you can&squo;t think outside the box, then I think something&squo;s wrong. But the main thing is that we&squo;re spending $1.3 or $1.4 million in the sheriff&squo;s department for law enforcement. So, with the same money we can have the same protection in the county. And I&squo;ve talked to other counties that have county-wide law enforcement and it works and it works well.

How would you follow through to carry out the recommendations of the visioning committee&squo;s keeping Polk County&squo;s rural character?

David Moore (R): As I said in my opening statement, I did serve on the visioning committee&bsp; and the citizens spoke overwhelmingly in several areas we&squo;ve already mentioned here tonight. We need (to plan) as a county, and follow through with that and make sure it&squo;s kept in tune with what the citizens of this county want, not what a certain group of members or group in the county wants. The citizens spoke and we need to apply that to that comprehensive plan.

Ray Gasperson (D):&bsp; I too feel like as we move into this land use planning, as a commissioner I would do everything I could to facilitate that and make that work very smoothly if possible. I&squo;m very excited about this happening because there is seriously an overwhelming support by the citizens and commissioners to move on with this and to be as prompt as we can possibly be.&bsp; And then this will lead on to doing unified development ordinances. You know in order to keep Polk County&squo;s rural character the one thing we have to really do is make sure we&squo;re not overrun with development. And one thing I really regret is that, it seems like when you take the word &uot;developer&uot; it carries all kind of negative connotations. And I think if we have the right ordinances in place, the right parameters, that the name &uot;developer&uot; may in the future turn out to be a very positive thing. And developers do think in the future in Polk County, they will make their developments fit into the rural character that we have here.

Tom Pack (R): As I mentioned before, I&squo;ve been on the committee. And being a native of Polk County I&squo;m really concerned about the rural character of what I grew up with here. And to follow through, we&squo;re on the next step. We&squo;re doing a comprehensive plan and there again a comprehensive plan will be community based. We have volunteer citizens from each community, each township, from each town. And once we have this comprehensive plan there will be a company (giving recommendations) to the board of commissioners. And one thing we have to remember is this is really a living document. Every two to three years it will have to be updated. And that was one of the reasons we went back and did another survey. The last survey was probably six years old. A new one needed to be done, to start over, but this time we&squo;re going to carry through and complete the task.

Cindy Walker (D): Does anyone know what the vision for Polk County is? What the visioning committee came up with? Have ya&squo;ll read that? Let me read it to you. You can go on the Polk County website and there&squo;s a place on the front of the website where you can click a box over to the right. It&squo;s not under the planning department; it&squo;s right on the main page. But the vision is: Polk County&squo;s rural atmosphere and serene natural beauty will be vigorously protected. Visionary and pragmatic county and muncipal governments will work together in a cooperative manner as they continue to enhance the quality of life for all Polk County citizens. Isn&squo;t that a great vision statement? I&squo;m really excited about that. And I think we, as people (need) to keep on it. Get a good, good comprehensive planner in here like I said before. We don&squo;t want that cookie-cutter, we don&squo;t want that boiler plate; we want someone to come in here and understand what it is about Green Creek, what it is about Hunting Country. They&squo;re going to go talk to the people out in Sunny View and Coopers Gap and the residents from there are going to work with that planning group, the good planning group that we hire and we&squo;re going to get all the ideas together and we&squo;re going to keep on it, keep on it, keep on it. That&squo;s the thing; we have a&bsp; problem with lift-off around here. We like to ask a lot of questions and then, we just like to ask more questions. We&squo;ve got to get it up and going. And, so, we stay on it. Keep paying attention to it. That&squo;s what we need to do and build it from there.

Ted Owens (R): I said four years ago when I was down here that we needed to step forward and get into what I called a strategic plan at that time. But this vision committee and thing that went out again was more in depth, I feel, and we had more responses. So, it had something in there that interested a lot of people that (the first survey didn&39;t). But again, I was the one that proposed we develop this comprehensive plan (through) the method we have now to get this thing going. So, I&squo;m definitely for what we&squo;re doing; to get a comprehensive plan in place. That will not only help a lot of things, it will help other areas of the county that we need to work towards doing certain things and other questions on here that we need answered. And it will help us with those type of answers to those questions. So I&squo;m definitely in favor of pushing this comprehensive plan forward. Money&squo;s been put in the budget to start with; that&squo;s something that has not been done before. To kick it off, the present board put money in there and said, okay, if this is worth doing, we&squo;ll do it. So, the money is there and we&squo;ll continue to do that if we&squo;re on this board in the future.

Ren´e McDermott (D): I would first vote to hire a talented and competent professional planner or planning organization to assist our planning office in developing a comprehensive plan for Polk County. That comprehensive plan should not be a cookie-cutter approach, or a one size fits all&bsp; piece of work. It should specifically be tailored for Polk County and our three small towns that want to keep their small town atmosphere. I&squo;d also follow through with selecting a citizen&squo;s oversight committee to oversee the professional planner and work with the planning department primarily with the mission to ensure that they are staying consistent with the visioning committee&squo;s&bsp; findings and recommendations. I may be the only candidate this time who has worked on a comprehensive plan before. When I served as a county attorney for five years, in a rural county, quite a bit like Polk County, one of the towns that was the county seat put together simultaneously a comprehensive plan. I learned quite a bit about the creative approaches to planning to keep an area&squo;s rural nature, preserve the wonderful natural resources and keep the small town charm. Keep in mind that a comprehensive plan is a vision. It&squo;s not an end in itself. One way to put a comprehensive plan in effect is by developing and implementing a unified development ordinance. That will provide the teeth of the plan so that (there is a section) to carry out that part too. I&squo;ve already taken steps to help preserve the rural nature of Polk County until the plan is in place. I&squo;ve provided the commissioners with a draft big box ordinance and a draft chain store ordinance. And that has been&bsp; sent to the planning board, but unfortunately the planning board just blew it off. They said we&squo;re not even going to read this unless you zone the entire county. And that&squo;s just wrong. We need to get people on the planning board who are caring about the Polk County citizens, who will protect us and who won&squo;t worry so much about their own self interests.

The vision committee report said there is a need for affordable housing. Would you support planning for affordable housing and if so, what would your plans be?

Ray Gasperson (D): This is very important to me, especially since I have two young adult children who live here in Polk County and I&squo;m concerned about their housing issues. We all know that Polk County is a wonderful place to grow up and a wonderful place to retire and unfortunately those in between have a tough go of it. And I think it&squo;s very important that we have a wide group; the full spectrum of folks who live in Polk County, not just retirees and not just very young people, but we also need to have those young, married adults. I&squo;m also a licensed general contractor and in the past year and a half I&squo;ve been involved in putting together what is called in Buncombe County a working class subdivision. And it&squo;s been quite the learning curve for me to go through that process. It&squo;s been very interesting. And I think I&squo;ve learned a lot of things that I can bring here to Polk County. Let me tell you, I have no desire to do any developing in Polk County, unless I could help with this affordable housing. We need to do that and we also need to have parts of the county, perhaps we could have some smaller lots so that there could be some more affordable housing. The great concern I have is the price of acreage out there. Even though the real estate market has slowed down, prices really haven&squo;t started dropping out here. So it&squo;s really tough for young people to find affordable acreage to keep and put a house here.

Tom Pack (R): As far as affordable housing, I&squo;ve been working with our planner, Cathy Ruth for several months on this. The idea that we require or ask developers coming into the county, major developers, to provide affordable housing as part of the package.&bsp; And she&squo;s done the research and actually Asheville City does this, they don&squo;t require, but they ask the developers or tell developers, they&squo;ll give them bonuses or incentives if they&squo;ll provide affordable housing. And this affordable housing doesn&squo;t necessarily have to be with a large subdivision; it can be a different part of the county under a development agreement that the county has&bsp; the authority to contract with the developer. As far as Asheville, the way they do it, (they work with) the city of Asheville&squo;s affordable housing program to provide housing for people with household incomes below the area median or for rental by people with household incomes less than 80 percent of the area median. And that works to get affordable housing. Now the developer may lose money on providing this affordable housing, but they make the money off the major development. And I think that&squo;s something we need to seriously look at.

Cindy Walker (D): That&squo;s a great idea. I am very much for affordable housing. I want you to know that I&squo;m in my mom&squo;s house; she&squo;s from the Cramer family if any of ya&squo;ll knew the Cramers, and one member or another of my family has been in that house for 87 years. And if I didn&squo;t have that house to move here to, I wouldn&squo;t be able to move to Polk County. And I would have missed an opportunity and I think Polk County would have missed an opportunity too, because we&squo;ve got some good movers and shakers and people that can be here that will help the community and they can&squo;t afford to be here, then we&squo;ll never get to have them. So what Ray&squo;s saying is right. We&squo;ve got to think about this middle, the younger folk, the kids and middle aged people that aren&squo;t so wealthy. So, anything we can do. I think a unified development ordinance will help us, guide us on that, well, the comprehensive plan will guide us and the unified development ordinance will help know where to put those things like on the edge of town or those neighborhoods near the schools. There was something in the paper today, Transylvania County here using some kind of a land trust to get part of the property to establish housing for the teachers and the county people that are working there so they can afford to be there. So I think there&squo;s lots of different ways; we just need to be willing to look at it.

Ted Owens (R): I think the first thing to be sure and understand is affordable housing is good housing; it&squo;s not low-income housing and a lot of people take it for granted. It&squo;s not. It&squo;s good housing. It&squo;s houses that look good; that&squo;s the whole thing, it&squo;s just housing. The thing that we need to remember is we keep saying; particularly when we run for office, we say we want young people or younger people to stay in the county. And we&squo;ve had some people at the high school, I was doing a volunteering thing for seniors, and every question we asked them about coming back to Polk County (they said) they wanted to. But I know they would not come back for two reasons; number one they don&squo;t have a job here in the county to come to; and number two, they don&squo;t have affordable housing to live in. So, yes, we need affordable housing. I think the comprehensive plan is going to allow us to find those areas where we can put them. But the second thing I&squo;d like to point out to you guys; there was a meeting the other day about affordable housing and I was surprised to find that the North Carolina Housing Authority can give assistance to people who need it. The median income of this county is like $39,000. But this particular median they chose, that they can even help like in the Raleigh/Durham area people that made $80,000 a year. You know, I might fit into that. But anyway, my point is, affordable housing is worth having. It&squo;s not something that we need to be ashamed of if we expect to have younger people to live here. So we all should support it. As Tom was saying, it doesn&squo;t have to be where the big developments are, it doesn&squo;t have to be close to your five acres, but we need it because we need those young people to stay here. Because I don&squo;t know about ya&squo;ll, but I&squo;m not a young person any more and I&squo;d like to see some young people around here.

Ren´e McDermott (D): I support planning for affordable housing. First I think we need to see what our professional planner and our planning department has to say about affordable housing. There are creative ways of approaching it and I would like for the professional planner and the planning department to come up with a menu of possibilities. There are government programs, some of which are already at work in Polk County, that can be continued in the future. Sub-standard housing can be remodeled using grant money. There are means of subsidizing rent; Habitat for Humanity can be encouraged. You may recall that Thermal Belt Outreach built an affordable housing community, Ashley Meadows, a few years ago. That can be duplicated elsewhere, especially where there are water and sewer lines, most likely near the towns. I&squo;ve talked with Eloise Thwing of the Thermal Belt Outreach about these issues and I have some thoughts of my own as well. There could be incentives for the builders who build affordable housing projects, like Ray was talking about, which would include affordable housing at other projects. One thing I learned when I was county attorney and working on a comprehensive plan was a concept of rural villages. Rural villages are a form of development, but they are a different form of development. They mirror towns of old, where&bsp; there is a town square and a variety of housing sizes, types and costs all within the same community. They can also include commercial elements. This is the small (things people) would want or need on a daily basis that would keep residents from having to drive everywhere they go. Since the rural villages have a variety of housing costs, some could be affordable. Developers (could plan to provide) housing at lower costs so that young couples, seniors, or public servants like teachers and police officers who aren&squo;t making the highest salaries could afford to live there.

David Moore (R): I do support affordable housing. We need to encourage our developers to work with our planning board and commissioners to provide those houses for the families out there who want to stay in Polk County. I&squo;ve been here all my life and I look around and I have a 22-year old and I&squo;m worried. When she decides to get married and move out, where is she going? She can&squo;t afford to live here. That&squo;s a real question. My son just moved to South Bend, Indiana. He bought a house and moved there cheaper than he can live in Polk County. That&squo;s what&squo;s so scary. What are we doing to keep them here?

With all the negative publicity regarding the Polk County Sheriff&squo;s Department; that is over-budget, high turnover, what future plans are there for planning oversight of this department?

Tom Pack (R): Really, as far as the Polk County Sheriff&squo;s Office, the only control that the commissioners have is over the budget; the monies that we allow them. The sheriff is the highest ranking elected official in the county. It&squo;s up to him to manage his department. There has been a lot of tension between the sheriff and the commissioners. We&squo;ve tried to increase the salaries and we have increased the salaries of deputies because that was one of the complaints. We&squo;ve tried to work with him in some areas. But all we can do is the budget. It&squo;s going to be up to having the sheriff and his staff manage themselves well. And that&squo;s going to take the citizens&squo; actions and not the county commissioners.

Cindy Walker (D): I believe that citizens&squo; oversight is a powerful tool in democracy. I marvel at the level for which public scrutiny has been exercised in regards to the operations of the sheriff&squo;s department. My only wish is that the same degree of scrutiny might have been applied to the first courthouse renovation, the first land use plan, the existing buildings that we&squo;re having problems with. I think we&squo;ve got plenty of citizen oversight on that sheriff&squo;s department right now.

Ted Owens (R): My first comment is that every point made on this question is a point for my county-wide law enforcement. As it&squo;s been said earlier, commissioners only have one area that they can have any restraint put over the sheriff&squo;s department and that is the budget; by law. And we have nothing else we can do about it. He&squo;s an elected official and Cindy was talking about the oversight and the oversight is the voters. Period.

Ren´e McDermott (D): There are two tools available to the commissioners for oversight of the sheriff&squo;s office and that&squo;s the budget and job (openings). The first place to look to see what future plans there might be is the North Carolina Statutes. The sheriff is not simply a Polk County department head. He is not subject to at will hiring and firing as other employees are. Rather he is an independently elected county official. The board of commissioners may set the number of employees in the sheriff&squo;s office, but the elected sheriff has the exclusive right to hire, discharge and supervise the employees in his office. Each sheriff is entitled to at least two deputies. The commissioners set the budget and can oversee the budget and that&squo;s of course the strongest control that the commissioners have. The sheriff explains that some of the turnover is due to deputies not being able to live in Polk County because of high housing costs and being able to get higher salaries in most if not all the surrounding counties. How can you blame employees for going where salaries are higher and costs of living are lower? The commissioners currently agree that at least some of the sheriff&squo;s office salaries are proportionately low and they&squo;ve agreed to raise some of them. The best way to provide oversight is to work together, rather than to fight politically motivated battles. The best way is to define what the problems are and to suggest solutions to those problems, rather than placing blame and making speeches to the media. I&squo;m a trained mediator. I&squo;ve worked out solutions to many problems, including problems that some thought couldn&squo;t be solved. My work as an environmental attorney and county attorney was primarily problem solving, including problems on personnel issues. I prepared the personnel manual for the county in which I previously worked. I believe that these skills and experiences will make me better able to work with other elected officials to solve the problems we have.

David Moore (R): It&squo;s pretty simple for me to say. He&squo;s an elected official and commissioners (oversee the budget).

Ray Gasperson (D): I agree with everybody else. The only control is the budget. In terms of the high turnover, one reason being given often is salaries, as a commissioner, not only for the sheriff department but for all county agencies I think it&squo;s really important that we not only hire the best qualified, but we give them the proper salary so they&squo;re not always having to constantly struggle so much. They are perhaps looking at where can they move and often times they will go to another county if they have jobs that are related to county work. So we need to have a stable group of county employees not only in the sheriff&squo;s department but county-wide in other agencies who will stay here because they can afford to live here.

Is farmland preservation important to Polk County and if so do you support the use of a land transfer tax to pay for farmland preservation.

All candidates responded that they support farmland preservation and using 100 percent of the land transfer tax toward farmland preservation. For more on this topic, see the front page article in the Tuesday, Sept. 30 Bulletin.