Q&A with candidates for Polk County Board of Commissioners

Published 1:22 pm Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Candidates respond to questions from the Bulletin

 

There are five Polk County Board of Commissioners candidates running for three available seats in the 2022 General Election. The two candidates that receive the most votes will be elected to four year terms on the BOC, and the candidate that receives the third most votes will be elected to a two year term.

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As we approach Election Day, the Bulletin reached out to each of the candidates, posing the following six questions.

 

  1. Nonprofit organizations have announced plans to purchase the inactive Saluda Grade railroad corridor to develop a 31-mile recreational trail. Do you welcome this development? How do you respond to community members who disagree with you on this?

 

Paul Beiler: When there is a chance for value to be added to our community, I am excited to explore these opportunities. I have sat down, and I have heard a lot of possibilities of how this project could be a benefit to our county, but at what cost?  I have looked at other models across NC and other states to see how programs like this have impacted their communities. 

The question I ask myself is, will this add to the “Polk County way of living?” To that question, I feel that in part, I can say yes. It is taking something that does not have any use at this point, and transforming it into a usable asset. It also gives people an avenue to explore the outdoors and see our great county from a unique point of view.

 I see some advantages, but there are some questions that have still not been answered that would solidify my decision. Questions like, how will this affect public safety? Will this require additional county resources (EMS, Sheriff Dept., etc.)? How will the homeowners along the proposed route be impacted? Are we equipped to handle the traffic that this may bring to our county? 

I believe the bottom line is that, yes it will benefit us and our county in a positive way. I understand that there are people that do not want to see any change and I hope that this project will be structured in a way that is beneficial for all of us.

 

Ray Gasperson: It’s critical that the property rights and privacy of residents who live along the proposed Rails-to-Trails corridor in Polk County be respected. Additionally, no property owner along this corridor should be forced (especially through eminent domain) to sell land or easements.

 

Tommy Melton: As a commissioner, I welcome any opportunity for positive growth and potential economic benefits for Polk County. At this point, I am still asking a lot of questions. I want to hear from the property owners and get their perception of how this would impact them. I also want to hear from businesses and merchants and get their feedback. Will the businesses support this trail as an opportunity to bring growth and positively impact their bottom line? Tourism is vital to Polk County. There are those who come here for hiking, camping, biking, fishing and other outdoor recreational activities. 

This trail would add another opportunity for tourists to experience the beauty of Polk County. It is also important to maintain the safety and security of the property owners that border the trail. The commissioners would need to work with municipalities’ fire departments, police, EMS and our Sheriff’s department to ensure that property owners, as well as those using the trail, are safe.

 

Andy Millard: This is not a new issue. In 2010, I chaired a committee looking into the possibility of a Saluda Grade Rail Trail very similar to the current project. Back then, I saw only positives: a safe place for families to exercise, prospective business growth for our towns, and an attraction for visitors. 

But while many Polk Countians were enthusiastic, some owners of property next to the rail line voiced concerns about privacy, the potential for unsavory activity near their homes, and problems from the rapid growth brought on by a new trail. Those concerns were — and still are — valid; they deserve to be addressed.

Back then, Norfolk Southern, which owns the rail corridor, had no interest in giving up the property, so there was no chance of the project taking off. 

But now the railroad actually wants to sell, and a group of governments and nonprofits led by Conserving Carolina have joined together to develop a serious plan. They’re actively raising the multiple millions that will be needed to make the project a reality. In other words, the trail may be coming whether we want it or not.

If that’s the case, it may no longer be a matter of supporting or not supporting. We’ll need to plan ahead and prepare for what’s coming. That means addressing property owners’ concerns as best we can, determining the extent of growth we can handle, preparing for unanticipated consequences, and minimizing the impact on our budget. We’ll certainly need to seek the input and assistance of our fellow citizens as we deal with the opportunities and challenges.

 

David Moore: It is very early on in the process. I understand that the Saluda Grade railroad corridor is still owned by the railroad and they have a certain amount of right of way beyond that. At this point, I don’t have enough information to make an informed decision, but I do see some economic benefits to the towns along the corridor as well as to our county. With that said, I encourage any property owners along that corridor to reach out to the nonprofit organizations to express their concerns.

 

 

2.Mental health has been named a number one issue according to community health assessments. Unfortunately, suicide and overdose-related deaths have been a problem in Polk, as they are nationwide. How can the board of commissioners address these intertwined complex problems?

 

Paul Beiler: Mental health is a very complex issue in every community and ours is no different. As a Board of Commissioners, we are actively involved with our HHSA and our local Sheriff Dept. to see how we can have a positive impact on these situations. We just held a stakeholder meeting two weeks ago that is addressing these types of issues with community partners and are coming up with a plan to move forward. We recently received a settlement from funds that came from being involved in a class action suit against the makers of opioids. Some of the funds will be used to help create programs that focus on mental health as well as drug addiction. 

Another avenue that I believe would be of great help in partnering with the county is the “Faith-based community.” I believe that it would be helpful if leaders and pastors of local congregations would be educated and trained to identify these types of issues in their congregations. Once it is identified, it is imperative for that pastor or leader to have tools and a place to turn to for help. I am hopeful that addressing it earlier and getting that person help sooner would help with these types of outcomes.

 

Ray Gasperson: The Polk County Board of Commissioners should make sure that the Polk Health Department has the appropriate amount of funding and personnel needed to help with mental health issues in our schools and the general population. Also, Polk County Government must continue to work with the local medical community to make mental health services more affordable and easier to access through federal and local grant funding. 

Additionally, the money Polk County receives through the opioid settlement funds should be directed by the Commissioners to be used to help find new mental health initiatives.

 

Tommy Melton: Michelle Fortune, St. Luke’s Hospital CEO, recently addressed the subject of suicide in the Tryon Daily Bulletin. She mentioned St. Luke’s Senior Life Solutions, “an intensive outpatient counseling program that addresses the emotional and behavioral needs of adults over 65”. In addition, Josh Kennedy, our Director of Health and Human Services has published on his website North Carolina’s “coordinated action plan to reduce injury and death by suicide.”

Given that suicide prevention is complex, the plan is structured to implement comprehensive strategies in the following focus areas to reduce injury and death by suicide. 1) Create a coordinated infrastructure 2) Reduce access to lethal means and implement safe storage practices 3) Increase community awareness and prevention 4) Identify populations at risk 5) Provide crisis intervention with a specific focus on people with increased risk 6) Provide access to and delivery of suicide care, promote use of 9-8-8 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 7) Measure our impact and revise strategies based on results.

 Polk County is blessed with a large Veteran population. Nationwide, every 24 hours, 22 Veterans take their lives. We have a full-time Veterans’ Services Officer, Gina Cashion, who works closely with our great Veterans to ensure that they have the resources they need for their safety and well-being. I would close with this quote that Mrs. Fortune quoted from David Jeremiah, “when our lives are filled with peace, faith, and joy, people will want to know what we have.” 

Hopefully, we as individuals, will reach out to others when we see them hurting.

 

Andy Millard: Polk County reported a heartbreaking 28 suicides in 2020 — almost double the overall state rate. Substance abuse and addiction go hand-in-hand with poor mental health and pose a burden to our health and law enforcement systems.

As with most problems, the first step is to recognize and prioritize it. That clearly is not happening with our current commissioners. Some examples:

We have a mental health commission, but no commissioners attend the monthly meetings or participate in their activities.

The Polk County Health & Human Services Agency hosted a Community Partner Roundtable two weeks ago. I was one of over 60 local leaders who discussed some of our most critical local problems. Mental health and suicide were at the top of the list, but none of the current commissioners were there to hear about it. 

The annual Walk/Remembrance for suicide prevention took place at Harmon Field on October 15. For the second year, I was there as a volunteer and participant along with 600 others, but again, no current commissioners.

If you don’t look at a problem, you certainly can’t fix it. The good news is that if you do look at it, you can start to make headway. Polk County has an excellent Health and Human Services Agency. They’re in a good position to address the mental health crisis in our midst — but only if our commissioners care enough to provide them with the support and resources necessary to do the job. That’s not happening now, but I’ll make it a priority.

 

David Moore: Our county, along with every other county in our state, has received an opioid settlement. I would like to set aside some of that money to address this issue. Our Health and Human Services Agency is continually working on solutions to address this complex issue that we face here in our county.

 

 

3.Community response to a future YMCA facility has been very positive. Will you support the development of this project? How can the board support the project?

 

Paul Beiler: I have supported and will continue to support bringing the YMCA to our area. One of my goals as a commissioner, when I was elected, was to bring a recreation center to our county. We reached out and began to establish a relationship with the YMCA in Spartanburg.

Our work has paid off. We have created a steering committee to help make this a reality. Two subcommittees have also been appointed; a fundraising committee as well as a design committee. We have also allocated $100,000 to help get this project started. We are also working with several partners in the community, to address different needs and concerns that each partner has. 

This project is something that I will continue to be passionate about. I feel like a local YMCA will be a great asset for our community, with things like childcare, a swim team for the high school, and a pool that would be open year-round. When this project is completed, I believe that it will have a positive impact on our county.

 

Ray Gasperson: Currently I am serving on the YMCA Development Committee. Two years ago, Polk County formed a partnership with the YMCA of Spartanburg. 

Since then, the YMCA has been running Polk County‘s youth sports, the Gibson Park pool and the summer day camp. This partnership has been very successful. I am excited about a future YMCA facility for our county. None of this would have been possible without the partnership that has been formed between Spartanburg YMCA and Polk County government.

 

Tommy Melton: In the initial planning stages, the board wanted to determine whether the YMCA would be supported by the citizens of Polk County. Subsequently, surveys were sent out and 2,800 were returned. Of those, we received back an 82% positive response rate. The enthusiasm for a YMCA was expressed by our senior citizens as well as our youth. Our school system also supports a YMCA. I feel that it is very important for Polk County to have a YMCA, and it will serve our youth, young families, middle-aged citizens and seniors. 

I am on the YMCA committee, and we meet regularly to give progress reports on bringing this to fruition. We are seeking financial resources for collaboration in achieving this goal. Currently, the YMCA of Greater Spartanburg has joined Polk County Recreation Department to enhance our sports programming.

 

Andy Millard: I support the concept of the YMCA project. It offers us expanded recreational and exercise opportunities with no expanded pain to taxpayers. 

As with any such project, we should proceed with caution. A number of things could go wrong. Such projects sometimes fail for a variety of reasons, and we don’t want Polk taxpayers to be left holding the bag if that happens.

I’m not suggesting that it will happen. The YMCA is a well-respected nonprofit entity with recognized expertise. But we can’t simply wash our hands of a vital government responsibility. The mental health crisis discussed in the previous question is associated with a lack of activities for members of the community, especially the young and/or underprivileged, so we cannot afford to get this wrong.

I look forward to learning more about the project as a county commissioner.

 

David Moore: I have supported this project 100% from the beginning, along with my fellow commissioners. I will continue to support this with funding as our county budget will allow. We have supported this by budgeting $100,000 and by creating a steering committee made up of two commissioners, along with our Superintendent and other community partners, to develop a site.

The steering committee has already created sub-committees for fundraising and design. This project could also help address childcare needs here in our county.

 

 

 

4.Community uproar over the NCDOT’s planned widening of Hwy. 9 has brought the issues of development, growth, and change to a head, once again. Can Polk County slow development? Should it? If growth is inevitable, what does it look like?

 

Paul Beiler: I am for controlled growth. Our policies and ordinances as a county would reflect that. When the Board of Commissioners voted to implement the subdivision ordinance in 2008, they helped us to have some control over our growth. The BOC has not changed it since then. This policy does not allow major subdivisions to have lots smaller than five acres if you have a well and septic. 

As for widening our roads in Polk County, it is my opinion that we do not need the focus of NCDOT to be on widening our roads, rather they should be focused on maintaining the roads that we have that need upkeep. At this point in time, I believe that there is not enough data to show the need to widen our roads along with the large shoulders that they recommend. When it comes to growth in Polk County, my view is “better, not bigger.”

 

Ray Gasperson: Twelve years ago I was on the committee that wrote the current subdivision ordinance for Polk County. And I was one of the commissioners that moved forward and passed by unanimous vote this ordinance. The key reasons I still support the county’s subdivision ordinance is that it promotes open space, protection of our rural vistas and slow growth.

 

Tommy Melton: Polk County has a subdivision ordinance that requires a five-acre minimum on lots with only well and septic and a two-acre minimum with water or sewer. This ordinance has stopped all major residential subdivisions since 2010. I would not vote for any modification to this ordinance that would encourage more growth in our area. 

This ordinance, along with controlled expansion of water and sewer in our rural areas will help slow down/control residential development growth in the county. We have measures in place to keep us from becoming another Boiling Springs, SC, as no one wants to see this happen.

 

Andy Millard: It’s always good to improve the safety of our roads: adding a turning lane at Polk Central School would be great. But it’s not okay to expand NC 9 so much that it threatens family farms and invites urban sprawl.

The current crisis should have been anticipated. In 2018, residents of Lynn, Tryon and Columbus faced the exact same situation with NC 108. They were able to beat it back that time; this time, a committee of Mill Spring residents has been working hard to achieve the same result. But who will be next? Green Creek? Sunny View? Both are in the plan for future widening.

This is all the more frustrating because Polk County commissioners participate in the planning process for road improvements.

The Foothills Rural Planning Organization (RPO) is the regional commission that plans and approves road projects for Polk, Rutherford, and McDowell Counties. The planning for a project like this takes place over the course of years. What’s more, one of our Polk County commissioners is a member of the RPO and has a say in its decisions.

As a county commissioner, I’ll work with our Polk citizens to look ahead a decade or more to determine what we want our community to look like. We should develop our own plan for our own county — then communicate that plan to the Foothills RPO and DOT — and keep Polk rural.

Easier said than done? Of course it is — but so is everything that’s worthwhile. If we don’t take control of our own future, we’ll be destined to fight the same battles over and over.

 

David Moore: We’ve not had any major residential development since 2008. Can we slow development? Yes. We have and will continue to do so with our current subdivision ordinance that we have. This is what has helped protect our rural character here in Polk County.

 

 

5.Using Zillow listings for the properties currently for sale in Polk County, the average price for a home with a Tryon address is $560,597. For Columbus addresses, the average home price is $663,630. With an average per capita income of $32,327, an average Polk County buyer may find buying a home is out of reach. Finding affordable rentals is also difficult. Do you think the lack of affordable housing is an issue worthy of the board’s attention? What can the board of commissioners do?

 

Paul Beiler: Our county’s subdivision ordinance has a direct impact on the number of homes in our county. The price of homes is a direct reflection of the housing market. The fewer homes available, the higher the price will be. This is the concept of supply and demand. If we as a board were to modify that ordinance and allow more subdivisions, the county could possibly see more housing options. If we see more housing opportunities, we see more growth. More growth means addressing the infrastructure needs of a growing community. 

I feel like questions 4 and 5 are at odds with each other. On one hand, we do not want the modernization of our roads but on the other hand, the need for affordable housing will directly affect the infrastructure needs of our county. I understand the need to have more housing, but I also understand the effects that having more people in our county will bring. 

What we have in Polk County is special. We are a rural community and if I am serving, I commit to keeping it that way. Remember, “better, not bigger.”

 

Ray Gasperson: As a real estate broker, I have worked with several lower income homebuyers in Polk County over the years on their quest to purchase affordable housing. Even though it can be challenging, it is still very possible. 

My experience with Polk County‘s Building Permit Office, Planning Office and Health Department (for septic and well permits) has always been professional, prompt and very effective. These offices are especially helpful working with those who are purchasing modular or manufactured homes.

 

Tommy Melton: The lack of affordable housing has been addressed in several ways over the past decade. Ashley Meadows has 48 units with 1-3 bedrooms. The Housing Assistance Corporation provides safe and affordable housing to persons of limited income and now has a workforce “sweat equity initiative” in which the homeowner completes a percentage of the work himself. Also, the Jasmine project is a workforce (those who generally make between 60% and 120% of the area median income) development in Columbus. 

However, as important an issue as affordable housing is, we must maintain a balance and approach this with caution (see question 4). We want to maintain a rural Polk County for our children and grandchildren to return to after college (or to remain here if they choose ICC or to go directly into employment after high school). We are incredibly blessed to be able to call Polk County home and we should preserve it as much as possible.

 

Andy Millard: I take issue with the framing of the question. Average listing prices can be misleading, because a few multi-million dollar listings can make prices look higher than they are.

A more useful figure is the median (or middle) price of homes sold over the past 12 months. That figure is $375,000. Half of all the homes sold in Polk County were below $375,000, and half were above.

But that doesn’t mean that we’re free of housing issues; far from it. In the most recent Community Health Survey, 21% of Polk Countians said they had always, usually, or sometimes been worried about paying the rent or mortgage in the past year. Housing worries also contribute to the mental health issues discussed in an earlier question. It’s not just a matter of convenience for those who are struggling.

Some of our citizens are blessed with relative prosperity, but if those who work in important but lower-paying jobs can’t afford to live here, we risk losing them. If that were to happen, who would fill those jobs? And where would that leave the rest of us?

We definitely need more affordable housing. There are some non-government projects currently underway, and we’ll need more as we go forward. One way the commissioners can help is to give serious consideration to proposals by reputable private developers — but such proposals come with a host of controversies. Still, we need to come to grips with them.

I would hope that, as part of the planning process outlined in a prior question, we will take a serious look at this thorny problem and be willing to address it

 

David Moore: This is not a new issue. It’s one that not only we here in Polk County are facing, but throughout our region. I think it will be an ongoing issue. We have some organizations that have a couple of projects planned that will include sweat equity housing. This is to help our local folks, such as our law enforcement, EMS, school teachers, etc. to have access to affordable housing here in Polk County.

 

 

 

6.What state-level issues are you keeping an eye on for their effect on Polk County? Conversely, are there local issues that you would like to see elevated at the General Assembly?

 

Paul Beiler: One issue that is a big deal in our community is broadband connectivity. I am always looking for opportunities to find programs, whether they are state or federally funded, to help bring broadband to our community. I think this has been evident by our board partnering with Charter Communications to bring a project that is bringing high-speed access to roughly 4,200 unserved homes in Polk County. This is a large number for our county. 

I do want to mention that we as a county have had tremendous representation at the state level. Our State Representative, Jake Johnson, a Polk County resident, has done a tremendous job for the needs of this county. When we have needed answers at a state level, he has always been available. He obtained over $6 million in state funding for the repairs on the dam at Lake Adger. He has been a tremendous advocate for our region. 

One issue that I would like to see raised at a state level is accountability for cell phone companies. In our area, it seems they can sell a product but cannot deliver that product. I would love to see something addressed to make sure that our citizens are receiving the service that they have paid for.

 

Ray Gasperson: A major state-level issue that affects Polk County is funding for our public school systems and adequate income for our teachers and school staffs. Also, continued funding for broadband expansion is extremely important. 

A local issue that the General Assembly should help Polk County with is passing a budget that includes a grant to help Polk County with the cost of building a new YMCA. For example, in the 2021 state budget, there was included a $4.5 million grant to support the development of a new 18,000 square-foot Spruce Pine YMCA located in Mitchell County.

 

Tommy Melton: We have a very good working relationship with our State Representative, Jake Johnson (who is a former Polk County Commissioner), and also our State Senator Ralph Hise. These two men are constantly updating us on things going on at the State House. Jake was able to obtain six million dollars for the repairs of the dam at Lake Adger – a huge accomplishment! We are so grateful to have men such as Jake and Ralph Hise working for Polk County. 

The NC Association of County Commissioners works on our behalf in the State Legislature. As far as state-level issues, we look for these two things, among others; any legislation that will give us state allocations to reduce the burden on the local taxpayer, and any legislation that comes as an unfunded mandate. In order to comply with the mandate, sometimes taxes have to be raised which results in an additional burden on our taxpayers. We have worked very hard to hold the line on raising taxes. We have the 15th lowest tax rate in the state and we haven’t raised taxes in three years. We also keep our eyes on school funding at the State level, specifically school capital funding.

 

Andy Millard: I want our own Polk Countians to have a greater say in the way state money — especially Department of Transportation (DOT) money — is spent in our county. Local folks know which roads need maintenance, repair, or expansion, and engineers at DOT should take advantage of that local knowledge when developing plans that affect us. I will push for more meaningful collaboration in this important area.

Medicaid: The state legislature has partially accepted the expansion of Medicaid, and I hope they will complete the process. North Carolina is one of only 12 states that have declined to fully accept the expansion, which was first offered in 2014. This is a complex issue, but the effect on Polk’s low-income families is that they are mostly denied health coverage, and that hurts all of us.

Daycare: To the best of my knowledge, Polk is the only county in North Carolina without a daycare option for ages 0 to 3. This prevents many young parents from being able to work here, it causes others to move away, and it keeps still others from moving here. It hurts businesses who need workers. And it contributes to the poverty, housing, and mental health issues that have been discussed throughout these answers. I’m not sure exactly how the county commissioners can address this problem, but I do know that we must try.

 

David Moore: Unfunded mandates put a strain on our local taxpayers’ backs. I would like to see more funding for broadband for our rural areas, as well as funding to move our YMCA project forward. We must get more funding for capital outlay projects for our schools.