Candidates for Tryon mayor, council respond to Bulletin questions

Published 5:38 am Thursday, October 22, 2015

With the general election just 13 days away, Polk County is gearing up for possible changes in councils in the county’s three municipalities.

Early voting begins today for Polk County’s three municipalities, starting at 8:30 a.m. at the Polk County Board of Elections Office, 40 Ward St. in Columbus on the second floor of the Womack Building. Early voting continues Oct. 23 and Oct. 26 – 30 from 8:30 – 5 p.m. and Oct. 31 from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.

The general election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 3 at polling places in Columbus, Saluda and Tryon.

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The Town of Tryon has races for commissioner, with two open seats, and for mayor. Commissioner incumbents George Baker and Roy Miller are being challenged by Crys Armbrust and Doug Arbogast.
Former mayor Alan Peoples is challenging Tryon’s current mayor, Jim Wright.

The Bulletin asked each of the candidates several questions about their priorities for Tryon’s future, staffing of the fire department, thoughts on a countywide water authority, and equality of services amongst the communities. Their answers are below:

Why are you running for mayor of Tryon and what is your top priority for the town?

Alan Peoples: I am running for mayor again because the job I started in 2001 is not finished. I spent 12 long years paying off a debt of nearly a million and a half dollars that no one knew we had until about the time I filed for mayor the first time. Nearly every improvement that you see in Tryon was either paid for, started, finished, or approved during my tenure as your mayor. I am the hands-on mayoral candidate; I go downtown, and I listen and I care. It is now time to continue to rebuild the town to its rightful place in the area. My vision is for all storefronts to be filled by retail businesses and shops. These shops will generate tax revenues to pay for needed upgrades and repairs all over town. At this time, nearly all of the property tax that is paid goes to pay the police department and administration. We need to improve on that issue.

Jim Wright: I am running again because some of the issues from the last campaign, such as the retention of town management, a strategic plan for our water and sewer infrastructure, the strategic plan implementation for the fire department, and the other services provided to the community remain important to me. I asked a reasonable cross section of citizens from the town whether or not I should run again and if they believed the record of what has been accomplished in the last two years merited running again. The responses were positive.

Why are you running for commissioner of Tryon and what is your top priority for the town?

Doug Arbogast: I am running for council because I would like to see more energy put into promoting Tryon’s assets in talent, venues and organizations. With the Tryon International Equestrian Center making headlines in various parts of the country and world, we can take advantage of the name recognition. The recent film festival seemed to be very well attended. A small music festival would lend itself to our venues as well. These types of festivals keep our town alive while also bringing people to the area for a day or two. They spend their money in our town and then go home. We have a first class town that is friendly and inviting to small businesses and festivals because there is less competition and a greater chance to survive and build on. The top priority for the immediate future has to be infrastructure, primarily the water and sewer issues. In the past there has been resistance to rate increases. There were, at one time, discussions to sell the water company to an entity that would update the lines and meters but that will eventually lead to higher water bills as well. No one is going to buy our water company unless they can make a profit on it. We currently have minimum usage amounts and, one idea might be to re-address this by lowering that slightly. That would increase profit with minimum impact on the consumer. We also need to review some of our less “friendly” ordinances and rethink their impact on the businesses as well.

Crys Armbrust: I am running for Tryon commissioner because of my love of and passion for the Town of Tryon and its citizens. My 40 years of association with Tryon gives me unique insight and broad knowledge about the community and its needs. My ability to evaluate problems and create reasonable solutions is evident in numerous Tryon projects. Moreover, my seven-year service as Tryon’s economic development director deeply immersed me in the day-to-day operations of town government. Further, I achieve results, as with the 1906 Depot, the St. Luke’s Plaza, the Depot Plaza and the Missildine’s projects. I seek to build on those accomplishments to help Tryon achieve its greatest potential. In that attempt, I wish to involve all of our citizens, and do so with absolute transparency. My top priority is a countywide water authority (see response below). This issue is one we must address now together. Alternately, we need to complete the downtown streetscape master plan. Downtown is Tryon’s public face. We need to put the very best face on “The Friendliest Town in the South” to help strengthen Tryon’s economic viability. These upgrades increase property value and tax base, and that revenue provides more revenue to enhance public services.

George Baker: As any incumbent running for reelection would say and I feel strongly, to finish the unfinished projects and business started or continued during my current term. I very much want to implement an occupancy permit system to put some teeth in many of our current ordinances and continue to upgrade our minimum housing requirements for residences and rentals.

Roy Miller: I am running for Tryon Town Council for several reasons. The first is to continue the progress of our economic development plan for Tryon. Secondly, is to be the voice of all our citizens. Lastly, the need for protection of our water sources in Polk County has and still is a priority as I have participated in conversations since 2005 about countywide water authority.

Do you feel the Tryon Fire Department is appropriately staffed? Do you think the town should have 24-hour coverage? If so, how do you propose to pay for the needed upgrades?

Alan Peoples: First we need a clarification. We have 24-hour fire department coverage. The question should ask if I think that the fire department should have paid employees 24 hours a day at the firehouse. My answer is the same as it has always been. Yes! The problem is, how do we pay for the extra coverage? There are only a few options. We could: 1. Raise the fire district tax and hire firefighters. 2. Assign the fire chief to full time fire department duty during the day, and use the daily funds currently being paid to firefighters during the day to help cover the evening and night shifts. 3. Delay purchasing new equipment until we have the correct mix of personnel for 24-hour coverage. 4. Put together a mix of all of the above.

Jim Wright: Volunteer fire departments, in general, never have enough participants so, in that sense, they are understaffed. Several societal trends work against volunteer fire groups such as the time, mostly unpaid, volunteers commit. We are fortunate to currently have a skilled, responsive group. Current response times are good. In theory 24-hour coverage would lead to quicker response times. To have 24-hour coverage we will need to build sleeping quarters at the fire station for both males and females. That will be expensive but town management has been developing a plan for this improvement. Most coverage scenarios require three or four people to cover 24-hour staffing. That staffing level would require a fire tax increase approval from the county of roughly two to three cents per $100 value of personal property in a tax increase.

Doug Arbogast: The Tryon Fire Department is essentially a volunteer organization. It handles in excess of 1,000 calls annually. Our residents’ safety should be the primary concern and to add staffing to better serve the town should always be a goal. There are costs involved with this. To have a 24-hour station requires sleeping quarters and currently we need to replace an aging truck. The town would also need to go back to a 24-hour dispatching, something I think we should do anyway. A local dispatcher would be more familiar with our streets and be able to send units to the proper locale faster. To pay for these needed upgrades would require at least a one cent increase, by my estimations, to the fire tax. Another goal might be a sub-station on the East Side. Again this would require additional funding but could cut down on response time. Presumably, more residents would volunteer for the substation as well.

Crys Armbrust: As a “volunteer” fire department, Tryon Fire Department is adequately staffed. However, Tryon, and the broader Polk County community, would be better served if Tryon had the ability, the fiscal resources and the certified personnel to establish a full-time department, with 24-hour on-site staffing. Fire service is an essential service provided by Town government for the protection of both private and public property, not to mention the greater assurance and peace of mind of all citizens in the community. Thus, any upgrade of fire services assists everyone equally. The Town of Tryon has had this issue under discussion for a number of years. Indeed, as part the forward-planning process, the town has already acquired preliminary architectural renderings for living quarters to house firefighters on duty. How to pay for increased services and infrastructure is the real primary challenge. Grant funding is an option to investigate for some expenses; a municipal bond is certainly a viable option to consider. Ultimately, the question is one that will require input from the whole community, and the solution requires the will and support of the people.

George Baker: The fire department is a volunteer organization and as such is organized differently than a paid professional full time department. One of the big challenges we face as a town and a town council is moving from the current to a more hybrid department which combines a base volunteer force with a supplemental 24-hour force which can more quickly respond to erupting emergencies. In order to staff a 24-hour force we will need to provide quarters for those personnel who are on duty during the extended hours. This requirement is mandated by state regulation is an expensive proposition to construct and maintain. The primary reason I supported the recent increase in the fire tax rate, the first in over a decade and a half, was to begin to build up a reserve to pay for the infrastructures that will be required. The additional personnel required has been initiated with the addition of a full time assistant chief. I expect to phase out the current town manager-fire chief combination, which I have been against from its inception. As a matter of record when the position was proposed I was the only council member to vote no. The other incumbent and one current candidate who was then a sitting councilman voted yes to fund the position in the current iteration. While I was in full support of the person involved I was against the combined position. The position also included planning, permitting and code enforcement duties. We have since hired a full time economic development director, which includes those duties. This has relieved the town manager of one piece of that unwieldy combination. One of the problem areas is solved, one to more to address.

Roy Miller: The citizens of Tryon and the township deserve the best fire protection we can offer. During the day we have paid personnel at the FD. We passed a 2 percent fire tax increase in June, that would pay for two paid firefighters for night shift. We would not need sleeping quarters at this point because it would be a working shift, thus providing coverage for 18-20 hours per day. The cost of sleeping quarters could be split by departments (fire, police and public works) on the second floor of Town Hall as we currently have showers and adequate space available thus saving the taxpayers additional rate increases. There would be some remodeling and I would suggest applying for grants first.

Now that the water contract negotiations between Polk County and Inman-Campobello Water District have ended, do you think the county and towns should revisit discussions about a countywide water authority? If so, how do you propose to make it work this time? If not, explain why.

Alan Peoples: Several years ago when we began the negotiations to consolidate the water systems, I proposed a water and sewer authority [WASA]. My belief is that it is still the correct way to go. It is, in my opinion, what is in the best interests of the county and the municipalities. I would like to see a WASA with appointed members from each municipality. The WASA would be responsible for the entire water and sewer systems and its running and upkeep. I have not changed my belief that one consolidated system run by an independent board is the best course for the long run. What has to happen now is to get elected officials from three municipalities and the county to work together. If one system chooses not to participate, then the others should continue to work toward consolidation.

Jim Wright: The contract the county commissioners signed with ICWD has unraveled. Last year I spoke several times at county council meetings asking to involve the towns and for the commissioners to think strategically about water. Citizens were ignored and the commissioners moved in the now failed direction. While I have generally been in favor of a countywide water (and sewer) authority, I think we should see if the county is willing to include the towns in their next plan. Clearly the cost of dam repairs at Lake Adger was a major driver behind the contract with ICWD. Those repairs will now need to be funded in another way, most likely by taxpayers including residents of Tryon. If included in the process, the towns may be able to exercise influence. We have seen this summer that drought conditions and responding to them may mean it is important to remain independent.

Doug Arbogast: As I understand it, the Town of Tryon had some informal discussions with ICWD that proved not to be in the best interest to the town. We owe it to our water and sewer customers to pursue any and all options that may provide a greater benefit to them. During my previous time on council we debated several water options. Our facility has the capacity to treat a lot more water than our town uses. We can bottle it and sell Morris water. I am not comfortable taking our water department and turning complete control over to anyone else. I am not in favor of giving Lake Lanier’s water away to the property owner’s association, or anyone else. I am in favor of making Lake Lanier available to Tryon residents since the town maintains and owns the water in that lake. And taxpayer money is used for this. I think this can be done by creating a small beach area at the access point the town currently uses to service the lake.

Crys Armbrust: Revisiting the countywide water authority discussion is my top priority. Much evidence exists to demonstrate how water shortages have negatively impacted communities across America. The reality of this generalization will not lessen in the future, so it is imperative that we collaborate to find a solution beneficial to everyone. Our most recent experience with a minor drought compels us forward. The urgency of the situation cannot be stressed enough, and our delay only compromises our future. A level playing field will be required for successful discussions, since the former discussions were stymied, in large part, by the outstanding debt on the state-mandated upgrades to Tryon’s water plant. So first, Tryon must isolate and manage that debt, taking that debt figure out of the discussion. When this is done, the two things Tryon brings to the discussion table are 1) a complete, state-of-the-art, operational, water facility infrastructure and 2) abundant water resources, both of which embody real cash value and bargaining strength. The discussion thereafter becomes a matter of negotiation on such items as oversight responsibilities, user access, usage agreements, service rates, etc., and the associated charges paid to Tryon for said shared uses of its infrastructure and its water resources.

George Baker: The three towns have now completed and are in the process of implementing an interconnect line which will link all three current water systems operating in the county. The next logical step is to organize a regional water authority board with members from all three towns and the county. This authority would have a legal charter and a budget funded with taxing authority to begin planning a true countywide system. Each town would appoint a member with two additional members appointed by the county. Currently the only customers outside the town systems number less than 200 so we have time to be deliberate and do the careful planning required to get this right. This revolutionary change in business as usual, will require a commitment by all involved to release their parochial interests. This will be a true and committed effort to make a viable water production and delivery system for the entire county. With cooperation of all this is not and will not be an insurmountable problem.

Roy Miller: I would and have supported a county water authority. In 2005-2013 the municipalities and county were engaged in meetings/planning about water authority. The issues of debt, control, maintenance and rates were always intense discussions. Although Tryon was willing to enter into an agreement, others were not. I feel that we need to protect our water sources within the county and I am willing to negotiate again with the governmental bodies in Polk County. If we are not successful with a countywide water authority then we need to look at possibly selling water to Spartanburg directly and maybe Greenville.

Do you feel the town treats all its communities equally as far as services, particularly speaking of the Eastside community? Are there needs that you plan to address if elected, and if so, state what you think should be addressed.

Alan Peoples: When I was mayor from 2001-2013, I felt that we spent the better part of the first few years digging out from the over $1,000,000 debt that was left to the town. There were few funds available for any improvements from the town coffers [we had a total of about $50,000.00]. As we progressed with the payback, we were able to provide some much needed upgrades to all areas of Tryon. At the time I became mayor, the vast majority of the tax dollars went to pay the police and dispatch. At some point we were able to write grants and add matching funds here and there to begin improvements for the town. We were able to do the following on the Eastside: 1. Worked to upgrade Ziegler Field; however, we still have work to do there. 2. Worked to get a small park across from the Tryon Cemetery. 3. Worked with Habitat to procure land for some new Habitat housing. 4. Set aside monies to tear down dilapidated houses in the area and put a lien on them. 5. Procured a grant to fix the sewer overflow that helped all of Tryon. In the past I feel that the town did not adequately spend funds on the Eastside. I feel that when I came on board as mayor that things began to change. During my time as mayor, Tryon hired minority and female firefighters and were certainly more inclusive of all citizens. We also procured a number of funds for improvement in the Eastside community; however, like the rest of Tryon there is more to be done.

Jim Wright: This is a divisive question, pitting neighborhood against neighborhood. The issue is: “Is the Town adequately serving all areas of our community with the resources we have?” That is the council’s responsibility. The budget for services does not separate areas of town. We have a specific budget item for removal of substandard housing, and the majority is spent on the Eastside. The Eastside has a unique, long-standing committee with an appointed council member who attends their meetings. Town department heads also attend these meetings. Members of all communities are encouraged to participate in council meetings to make us aware of issues. I believe most services are comparable such as public works, garbage pickup, mowing, etc. The same is true of police, fire and emergency medical services, although those are “on demand services” and are responsive to citizen calls. “On demand services” will always vary from area to area.

Doug Arbogast: The Town Council and town leaders must ensure to see that all areas of Tryon are serviced fairly. Every community in the immediate Tryon area needs additional sidewalks and re-paving for starters. I would like to see sidewalks continued at the end of Melrose Avenue as well as existing ones repaired. Chestnut Street desperately needs attention. I would like to see re-paving efforts in Gillette Woods going up towards the water plant. I would like to see sidewalks continued on the South side of town on S. Trade Street. Godshaw Hill has drainage issues and needs sidewalk attention. I would like to see a sub-station for the fire department on the East side. I would like to see the town borrow adequate funds to achieve these goals and use the annual $60,000 from the Powell Bill to pay the note.

Crys Armbrust: I think that the town makes an honest attempt to treat its citizens equally. That being said, I believe a perception persists that the situation could be better regarding basic services. The old adage “perception is reality” may seem to apply here for better or worse. Untangling and addressing the component parts of that perception is the real issue, and that needs to be done in a proactive way in order to bring about positive results which benefit citizens. The Eastside neighborhood clearly needs sidewalks, both for convenience and public safety. Yet, the same is true in many of Tryon’s other neighborhoods. Historically, Tryon’s extreme topography seems to be a determining factor of where to implement sidewalks, not indifference or malice. Numerous abandoned structures negatively impact property values and even community pride. Absentee landlords and multiple heirs further complicate matters, as does the slow, extensive and expensive legal process to remove an abandoned structure with a controlled burn. On the positive side, strategic grant applications have helped. The 2008 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) upgraded housing, and the 2013 CDBG upgraded sewers. The reality of the situation comes down to this: much has been done, much more remains to be done.

George Baker: In my mind services are those core activities of town government, police, fire, sanitation, water and sewer. That answer is definitely yes to all areas. But, the real question is what of other areas like minimum housing, infrastructures and quality of life? These are the real problem areas. I believe the needs of the Eastside Community naturally require more attention than other areas of town to bring it to a par with the rest of the town and redress the neglect of the past. I firmly believe that the currently sitting council is aware of this and is working diligently to address these needs. Is more work and attention required? The answer is clearly yes and the task is an ongoing one. The major stumbling point is money. In this town as in any other, funding is finite. Where do we start? I think we already have. Far more attention is focused on the Eastside minimum housing. The recently completed Community Development Block Grant project which rehabilitated several residences and removed others is a huge start. More grant and assistance monies need to be found. The commitment of the current town council is evidenced by the hiring of a full time economic development director to pursue opportunities of these kinds. The current incumbent in the position is uniquely qualified for this task having spearheaded two recently completed projects while working for an agency whose charter was to facilitate these kinds of projects. This is how we observed the expertise that makes a great fit for our continued ambitions in this area. This is also true of other infrastructure projects, the recent completion of the main sewer trunk line, also administered by the new director has brought great benefits to the Eastside since its pathway is directly through the area. Much work and innovation continues to be needed but I believe that the ball is now rolling and we will continue to make even more progress. But, lets also talk about the other elephant in the room. The Eastside Community itself needs to redouble its efforts of community involvement in many of these improvement projects. The Eastside Advisory Board is the obvious locus of renewal of effort in this regard. Certainly the town must be an active partner but as the money says “E Pluribus Unum,” or, One out of Many, we are all in this together. The town can’t do it all alone. We need renewed and vibrant community involvement. I believe that the current town council is readily led to redoubled efforts, by strong Eastside community interest, encouragement, commitment and hands on participation.

Roy Miller: The service delivery to the Eastside neighborhood is not at the level as other communities within Tryon. I have served as a member of the Eastside Advisory Committee for nearly 15 years. This committee was formed as a sub-committee for the town to address issues/concerns on the Eastside so meetings would not get bogged down with the endless complaints. The town has made strides with removal of dilapidated houses, sewer line improvements, water line improvements and house rehab through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). Bryan’s Park was part of the 2009 CDBG grant as well. The need for grass cutting, ditches clean, working fire hydrants, street paving, blight, kudzu control, community policing, are just some of the concerns I would continue to work on. I would and have fought just as hard for every community in Tryon.