Roundtable: contrasting views about priorities for County government

Roundtable: contrasting views about priorities for County government
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Tommy Sofield, right, draws his seat number from a cup held by moderator Bob Burroughs.

By David Rogers. October 4, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — At least as far as Blowing Rock is concerned, Thursday night’s Candidates Roundtable at the American Legion Hall suggests that only a few key issues will be at the forefront of voters’ minds when they go to the polls on November 6th: [1] 24/7/365 ambulance service based in Blowing Rock; [2] increasing Watauga County’s tax base instead of raising tax rates; [3] accelerating the infrastructure needs of Watauga County Schools; and [4] getting spending priorities aligned with available resources.

As luck of the draw would have it, Thursday night’s event found four of the six candidates sitting side-by-side with their district opponents. Moderator Bob Burroughs opened the proceedings by having each candidate draw a number for seat position, which determined the order of speaking and addressing the event committee’s prepared questions.

Opening statement summaries:

  • Challenger Tim Hodges (running for the District 3 seat) said his decision to run did not come lightly, but after a lot of discussion and prayer. He said he had family members who had served in political offices in the past. He disclosed that his family has been blessed to live in Watauga County for 11 generations, so he feels a certain responsibility to give back to the community, “…and I have always taught my children the importance of being a servant leader.” Hodges stated that economic development in Watauga County is important, encouraging existing businesses to grow and expand while attracting new businesses to the area. “We have many pieces to the puzzle in place, but need strong leaders who are good at connecting those pieces.” Before his time expired, Hodges also hinted that there are many school facilities’ needs to be addressed.
  • Incumbent Billy Kennedy (center) offers an opening statement while challenger Tim Hodges, left, and candidate for District 5 Tommy Sofield listen and await their turns.

    District 3 incumbent Billy Kennedy noted that he is in his sixth year as a County Commissioner, having been first elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2014. During that time, he said he has learned a lot and served on multiple boards, including in areas such as mental health, Project on Aging and Tourism Council. He asserted that things are going well in Watauga County right now, with a lot of plans in place. He also noted that the County’s bond rating was recently raised to AA+, even with the planned construction of the new recreation center in Boone. “The Rec Center is a dream that many people have wanted for 40 years. Finally we are going to make it happen and the Board had a unanimous vote to go ahead with it. He added that the schools need some work ant that the current Board had a plan in place for long-term repairs and replacement. “It’s probably going to be $100 million, but we have a plan for working on that, working with the School District and an architect in prioritizing which projects should be undertaken first. He said that the County would fund the school improvements with county money. “We have all of this within our budget.” Speaking to the election, Kennedy said, “I would really like to be able to continue (in this position) and see some of these projects through (to completion).”

  • Local businessman Tommy Sofield (running for District 5) thanked Blowing Rock Civic Association for hosting and producing the Candidates Roundtable, acknowledging the work that went into it. “I came to the High Country in 1971 on a football scholarship to (Appalachian State) and I was one of the fortunate ones to be able to stay in the area (to make a living) after I graduated.” He conceded that he is not a politician nor has known much about politics in the past, “…but I have been fortunate in my businesses and decided it was time for me to give back.”  Sofield listed several opportunities that the County has, including for the school system. “You know, some of these schools are 70 years old and we need to think about replacing them.”  The longtime entrepreneur who owns several successful businesses observed that “…economic development is a big part of our community. As we continue to grow, our children and grandchildren start to move forward, looking for jobs. I was fortunate to stay here and start a couple of businesses and stay in the area, but most people (today) don’t have that opportunity. One of my burning desires is for our community to have better jobs and opportunities for the younger generations coming along.” Sofield also expressed a sensitivity for keeping tax rates low. “The money coming into (the county government) is from everyone sitting in this room and from throughout our county. It is YOUR money and we need to spend it wisely. I am looking to offer some good common sense.”
  • Former County Commissioner David Blust is challenging the current incumbent, Larry Turnbow, who defeated Blust in the last election. Blust noted that “…it is a privilege to be elected to the County Commission and be a servant to the people. The #1 thing (a Commissioner) must remember is who the money belongs to.”  Blust pointed out that after he lost in the last election, the new Board raised property taxes. “They think that your money is their money. I am with Tommy (Sofield). I want to be a good steward of (your) money. In 10 years of being a County Commissioner previously, we didn’t raise taxes one time.”  Blust seemed critical of the current Board of Commissioners for what he termed, “misplaced priorities.” Among what he felt were top priorities are schools, “…and we seem to be spending money other places.”
  • District 4 incumbent Larry Turnbow brings a smile to the face of District 5 challenger Charlie Wallin

    Incumbent Larry Turnbow is the man who defeated Blust for the District 4 seat, opening his remarks by saying that when he ran two years ago he promised to support a recreation facility in Watauga County, “…for the children and for those of us who are aging out in this county. It has been talked about for 40 years and nothing has been done…until I was elected. We had a unanimous vote from the current Commission to go forward with that project. We are going forward with the project.” Turnbow conceded, “None of us, including me, likes to pay taxes but we were in the unfortunate position that we had to increase taxes because we do have schools that have aged out. My opponent (Blust) said he was on the Commission three times (previously) and during those times nothing was done to do anything about our schools. We are giving $1.5 million more to education since I have been on the Commission than we have ever given. We are in constant contact with the Board of Education, working with them to see what their plans are going forward so that we can get our schools replenished, replaced and repaired.” Turnbow also reminded audience members of “seed work” he is doing as a member of the current Commission to bring in better paying jobs, “…so we can increase our tax base instead of having to increase tax rates.”

  • Charlie Wallin, the second challenger for the District 5 seat opposing Sofield noted his background in having lived in the High Country for some 30 years, including several years of service on the Watauga County Planning Board and the boards of several non-profit organizations. He shared that he has worked at Appalachian State for over 20 years, and previous to that “…I ran all of the Pizza Huts in town, back in the 90s when they were still profitable and they were locally owned and operated.” He stated that he works to give back to the community in every way that he can, whether coaching young children in Parks & Recreation or supporting the school system.  If elected as Commissioner, he pledged to represent everyone in the county, including Blowing Rock, Seven Devils, Cove Creek, Boone and all areas of Watauga County. “I take that seriously and I work really hard in things that I undertake.”

There are ways you can cut costs.

Lined up, ready to go.

Burroughs opened the Q&A part of the event with audience-submitted questions, with the first addressing all, but initially directed to Kennedy and Turnbow, the incumbents. The question was obviously intended to see what level of engagement the incumbents have had with Blowing Rock, specifically, because it asked, “How many times in the last two years have you attended a Blowing Rock Town Council meeting and what other civic events have you attended or participated in?”

  • Turnbow reported that since elected to serve District 4 he has attended at least five and possibly six meetings of the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners. He added that he attended the ribbon cutting for the new AppalCart service and that he has participated in various Veterans Day and Memorial Day events, “…since I am a veteran. I share that between both Blowing Rock and Boone.” In addition to events at Blowing Rock School where his children attended, he said he had been to many events in Blowing Rock “…even though I can’t think of all of them (to name).”
  • Kennedy smiled, “I live in Bethel, near the Tennessee line, so I am about as far from Blowing Rock as anyone can get (in Watauga County). I have a 100-acre farm raising cows and goats and do some woodworking. I spend 10-20 hours a week going to meetings (as Commissioner). I have not been to a Blowing Rock Town Council meeting the past two years, but I have met individually with members of the Blowing Rock Town Council. I have attended ribbon cuttings for the Middle Fork Greenway, which I know is a big priority for Blowing Rock…I am very much connected…”
  • David Blust, left, is vying to retake his former District 4 seat won in the previous election by Larry Turnbow, right

    When the challengers were asked how much they would commit to staying in touch with Blowing Rock, Sofield responded, “We represent not just Blowing Rock, but the whole county. Whether in Boone or any of the other communities, we need to be part of it. If I am elected I will guarantee that you will see me around Blowing Rock whenever I can. I am here to help people in Blowing Rock. What I do is listen, evaluate, then put plans together. I am excited to listen to what Blowing Rock folks have to say.

  • Hodges admitted that he has never been to a Town Council meeting, “…but I come to Blowing Rock often.” He said that it is really important that “…we all work together.”
  • Blust said he has been to a lot of civic meetings in Blowing Rock. “I am here almost every day…You have seen me a number of times and I am good friends with Doug Matheson, Albert Yount, Jim Steele, and Ray Pickett when he was on Town Council…I always make it a point to talk with Charlie Sellers.” Blust went on to name the many Town members that he interacts with frequently. “I know what is going on in Blowing Rock. I am always talking to people. You will see me day in and day out.”
  • Wallin said that he is engaged with the areas and the people or organizations he represents. “I want to be out and engaged with people and be involved. I can’t promise that I will be at every single (Blowing Rock Town Council) meeting, but I will be at as many as I can to hear what the needs are and learn what is going on. I am in Blowing Rock already for different things. I am Director of Catering (at Appalachian State) and we have been doing a lot of events here in Blowing Rock…in private homes and (Blowing Rock Art & History Museum)…My daughter loves to come here to Memorial Park. We enjoy coming to get some ice cream once in a while and enjoying this beautiful community.”

It is time for the County to pony up.

Asked about any infrastructure problems at Blowing Rock School, Turnbow reported that there had been a problem with some water and mold. After elected, he said he had spoken with the Superintendant (of schools) and the Board of Education about the issues that had been going on with the school. He stated that before school started he had met at the school with the principal and noted, “Those repairs were taken care of. A lot of the infrastructure issues going on (result from) the building being as old as it is. We have to look at that facility, but (any) decision will be made by the Board of Education. We have to look at their priorities. The initial problems with Blowing Rock School have been taken care of.”

The American Legion Building was near capacity.

Hodges was asked about the wisdom of building a $38 million recreation center that will operate at a $300,000 to $400,000 loss, and that has resulted in more than a 13% increase in county property taxes.  He noted that he was not part of the Commission during the deliberations leading up to those decisions, but added that the recreation center is something that “…the county has wanted.” He also added his concerns that for residents of outlying areas such as Bethel, Blowing Rock and Vilas “…it is going to be a little bit harder to use.” Even given those concerns, he suggested that in its being centrally located that it will still benefit Blowing Rock economically. “The research suggest a $26 million to $40 million economic impact (to the County)…If I had been on (the County Commission), though, I will be honest and say that I would have tried to come in less than (the $38 million price tag)…I have been in business for over 30 years and have dealt with a lot of contractors and have been involved in the development of commercial buildings, as well as residential. There are ways that you can cut costs, but I have not been a part of those conversations.”

Presumably referring to the communications tower previously proposed for Green Hill Circle, Kennedy was asked why a communications tower keeps coming up. He stated that the Board is conducting a study of the County’s 9-1-1 communications needs, and that there was a recent purchase of dual band radios for deputies. “With the geography where we live, it can be tricky to get service everywhere. We need our medical and emergency EMTs to be able to get (to a need) and be in communication…We have as much as a $7 million price tag for all the towers we need. The state has instituted a Viper communications system. There is funding for that, but we haven’t been able to use all of the funding we’ve gotten because we have a hard time finding sites…It is important that we have access to communications everywhere in our county.”

There has been quite a big drive for a rec center.

An audience question was directed to Sofield about county commissioners being directed by the state to fund the care of abandoned cemeteries. Sofield admitted that it is the first that he had heard about the issue, but that “…all of us should be concerned about (the cemeteries). Whatever the state statures require, we should make provisions to help, but I had no idea that it was an issue.”

Kennedy was asked why the recreation center was not left for a private enterprise to develop, although there was some initial confusion based on the wording of the question read. Blowing Rock resident George Ellis took responsiblity for the question and clarified, “My question is really, if it takes 40 years for a private company to not want to do a recreation center, I am really wondering why our tax dollars are being used (for this purpose).”

Kennedy responded by saying that the need has existed for a long time, listing the lack of a facility for the high school swim team or to hold a competition in the county. “Plus,” he said, “we hope to see every third or fourth grader get to learn to swim for free at this (facility). It is something that the community has wanted. There has been quite a big drive for it. We had to figure out how to pay for it. We are raising taxes one percent per year for 12 years, which is below inflation, and we are still the third lowest property tax rate in the state. But of the money raised (from the tax rate increase), $1.5 million of that goes specifically to school construction, $2 million will be financing the recreation center, and the rest will go to public safety, which is the communications towers. And we have budgeted into it, without any increase, operating expenses, too.”

Charlie Wallin, right, offers opening statement.

There was a moment of comic relief with the next question, drawing loud laughter from the audience when Burroughs directed the next question for all to answer: “How many campaign signs have you put up or plan to put up targeting Blowing Rock?”

  • Hodges was quick to point out that he had signs at the back of the room and welcomed all to take one for their yards or businesses, which drew even more laughs. Most of the candidates responded that they would put up 15-30 campaign signs around Blowing Rock.
  • Although not any kind of career politician, Sofield knew how to capitalize on the question when he said, “Not being a politician, I think the signs are kind of annoying. Frankly, instead of having them all over town we need to have some (specific) locations where the community might say these are better places to put them instead of these signs all over the place. A lot of people don’t know me, so I have to have them out, but the signs are annoying to me.”
  • Blust pointed out that candidate frequently don’t know where or how many of their signs are being placed because voters have access to them at campaign headquarters and at various election-related functions. “I’ve got a number of signs around Blowing Rock,” Blust observed, “but there are three or four that I didn’t put out. I don’t know how they got there, but I am thankful that someone put them there.”
  • Turnbow said, “As few as I can possibly put out because I drive around Blowing Rock and hate seeing all of the signs…I am hopeful that I don’t put out more than nine this year.”
  • Wallin admitted, “Signs are a necessary evil….I hope that more residents take them and put them in their yards so we don’t have to clutter up the intersections.” He added, “As a member of the (county) planning board, there are limitations that we can put on these signs. There is a sign ordinance. When I was on the planning board originally, we greatly reduced how long the political signs could be out. That has been reversed now…I think the shorter amount of time, the better.”

I think we would have been better off spending the $15 million on the rec center and the other $25 million on our schools.

With the audience questions concluded, Burrough introduced the six question prepared by a committee of the Blowing Rock Civic Association, acknowledging that there might be some duplication but that perhaps a different candidate might have an opportunity to answer. Beginning with Hodges, each candidate picked one of the sealed envelopes, each of which contained one of the questions.

For Hodges: We hear that the Watauga schools on the elementary and middle school levels have facilities that are aging or in disrepair. Some of them are over a half-century old. How can the County Commission justify spending $38 million on a recreation center rather than accelerate spending on school infrastructure needs?”

  • Hodges (left) favored making education and the schools a higher priority.

    HODGES answer: “My wife was on the school board so I have a pretty good understanding of the needs and we have had them for a long time. Personally, I would like to have seen us have a plan for these schools, in particular Valle Crucis and Hardin Park. Hardin Park is at 125% capacity right now. I know the Commission is working on (the school problems), but I would have liked to have seen a long range proactive plan instead of a reactive plan. I was not privy to all of the information, but I would like to have seen a plan to address those school needs in place before we moved forward with the recreation center.”

For Kennedy: The most recent all-in estimates for the recreation center in Boone is $38 million. What is the projected annual operating budget for the center, and how is the County going to pay for it?

  • KENNEDY answer: “It is going to be about $600,000 more for various expenses. The existing county swimming pool is over 40 years old. It is an outdoor pool with a cover put on it. We are having to spend $200-300,000 per yer to repair it. That is just money down the drain. I believe a pool is important and people expect these infrastructure (elements). There is a construction manager risk (in the agreement), so there is a guaranteed price on this. We already have made a lot of hard choices in (carving out) more than $4 million out of the proposed building already. We cut it back as much as we can without cutting scope…The more healthy we are (as members of the community), the more we all save in the long run…The specifics of the operating budget are that we are moving the whole Parks & Recreation Dept. into the new Center. The current staff is about eight people and we will probably add a couple more. We are also looking at revenue creation because with the right programming you can offset a lot of those (operating) costs. We are budgeting an extra $600,000 in our budget next year to cover any additional costs.”

Blowing Rock is a unique place.

Sofield, right, garnered loud applause in telling the crowd that the County Commission needs to make good on its earlier promise to make Blowing Rock next for 24/7/365 ambulance service after the needs of the western county were met.

For Sofield: Blowing Rock citizens have twice beaten back proposals to put a communications tower on Green Hill Circle. Should this proposal still be considered by the County, and given today’s technology is it even necessary?

  • SOFIELD answer: “Not having been on the Commission and not knowing much about that…but just hearing (that question), if the local community has twice beaten it back then obviously the County Commission and perhaps the Town need to listen to the community.  Again, you all know what is going on here. Not to say anything negative about Billy, but using him as an example, if he is living over in Bethel then he needs to listen to the local people (in Blowing Rock). If I was on the Commission, I would obviously look at it from the standpoint of ‘Do we need it?’ If we do, then we all need to get together and figure out (the solution). It may mean using another location.  But when it comes to the community, the County Commissioners should be obligated to listen to the voters that put them there.”
  • Add-on answer with extra time: “Quickly about the community recreation center. I am all about these children having a place to go. If you go across the U.S., there are so many people who turn out to be good citizens because they had a YMCA or recreation center (to grow in). However, the YMCA knows how to run it. They build them at $15 million apiece and know how to run them. I think if we would have spent $15 million (for the recreation center) and spent the other $25 million on our schools, we would have been a lot better off.”

For Blust: A few years ago, the sales tax redistribution was changed from a focus on per capita, which favors Boone, to an ad valorem calculation that gave more money to towns like Blowing Rock where a higher relative proportion of the sales tax revenue is generated. What is your position as to whether the sales tax distribution should emphasize ad valorem or per capita?

  • BLUST answer: “I was one of the (then sitting Commissioners) that changed it from per capita to ad valorem. Since that time we have been able to give Blowing Rock, for example, $1.8 million more. Speaking about listening to citizens (Blowing Rock resident) John Aldridge beat me to death on (this issue) for years and he was right. Blowing Rock is a town that for five or six months out of the year just swells. It is not just the (full year) population. You guys deserve so much more and I am glad we (made that change). I would not go back at all…Just like with the ambulance service, (Blowing Rock) needs full-time staffing of ambulance service here. We said that three years ago, Perry Yates and I, and it hasn’t yet happened. Blowing Rock is a unique place.”

For Turnbow: Good municipal government usually places an emphasis on growing the tax base instead of increasing property tax rates. How do you propose to encourage economic development in Watauga County in order to grow the base?

  • TURNBOW answer: “I was just in the Raleigh-Durham area with three other members of the EDC (Economic Development Commission) and Joe Furman (Planning Director). We were there for two days evaluating co-workspace areas and talking with young entrepreneurs and small business owners about developing high paying, sustainable jobs in Watauga County, based on IT (information technology) rather than on manufacturing which is not going to come here. There are two ways that you can grow your tax base. You can either increase taxes, which none of us like, or we can work to develop sustainable jobs so that students who have been here going through our schools can stay here. It has gone on for generations that our young people leave after they become adults because there are few good-paying job opportunities here. So yes, along with EDC I am trying to develop a long-term plan so that we can develop jobs and keep those jobs here.”

If the (response) time justification is there, yes.

For Wallin: Blowing Rock may not be geographically centered in Watauga County, but it arguably has the highest proportion of an elderly demographic with the highest probability of needing emergency services and the ability to pay for those services when needed. Why shouldn’t Blowing Rock have a full-time ambulance service when the Town is basically offering the facilities to accommodate the truck and crew for virtually nothing?

  • WALLIN answer: “I believe that we should have proper coverage in all of the county. District 5 residents would argue that they need one as well. Both areas need full-time coverage. We worked on the western end of the county and got them something, now we need to make sure that this end of the county (is covered). I work with numerous employees at Appalachian State that live in this area, and (the lack of ambulance service) is one of their biggest complaints, to have an ambulance that can get to residents readily with full-time coverage. If elected, I want to work with the County and the Town to make sure we have the ambulance coverage that everybody in this county deserves, not only in Blowing Rock, but also in the eastern part of the county, too…Every second counts (when it comes to ambulance response times) when a life is at stake.”

Burroughs finished this section of the Roundtable event by asking for a show of hands among the candidates, “How many of you have visited the Blowing Rock Fire Department within the last two years?”  Then after stating, “This question is so important,” Burroughs went down the line and asked each candidate to go on record to the question, “Would you favor full-time ambulance service for Blowing Rock? Yes or No.”

  • Hodges: “Yes”
  • Kennedy: “Yes, but look at the study which is trying to reduce times everywhere. We’re trying to get everything down below 10 (minutes).”
  • Sofield: “Yes. My understanding is that the County Commissioners promised that after they took care of the west end of the county (three years ago) that Blowing Rock would be next and they haven’t followed through on that promise. So something does need to happen.”
  • Blust: “My answer is yes, and Doug (Matheson) you will remember that Perry Yates and I remember clearly that Blowing Rock was next. Your population swells here for five or six months, then in the winter you have all of the (injuries) up at Appalachian Ski Mountain in the wintertime. By far, this (24/7/365 ambulance service) needs to be done.
  • Turnbow: “We had no ambulance service (based in) Blowing Rock before I was on the County Commission. I met with the members. I worked and advocated. It also sounds good to say in front of a group of Blowing Rock residents that it should be full-time. I don’t know if that is the case because we have an ambulance service and we are evaluating (response) time. I will continue to advocate for Blowing Rock. If the (response) time justification is there, then yes.”
  • Wallin: “Yes.”
  • Hodges: “I understand that the Town funded the Fire Station and included ambulance facilities. It was my understanding that once the western end of the county was provided for, then Blowing Rock would be next. The way I look at it, (Blowing Rock) saved the county a lot of money by building that (new fire station with ambulance facilities). Now I think it is time for the County to pony up and do their part in providing the services.”

The Roundtable event lasted just over the promised time of one hour, adjourning at approximately 8:15 pm but with candidates staying to field any questions one-on-one.  Included among the candidates were the two candidates for Sheriff, incumbent Len Hagaman and challenger David Searcy, as well as challenger for County Clerk of Court, Travis Critcher.

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