Public hears from local candidates during forum

James HowellStaff

October 10, 2012

The N.C. Farm Bureau hosted an “issues forum” allowing the public to hear from the candidates running for the N.C. General Assembly and the Ashe County Board of Commissioners Tuesday evening at the Ashe County Courthouse.

Each candidate was given an opportunity offer their reasons for running for public office and ideas for how to improve the region.

Gerald Price, Richard Blackburn, Dan McMillan, Larry Rhodes, Marty Gambill and Gary Roark are running to fill three seats on the Ashe County Board of Commissioners.

Gerald Price reaffirmed his position to be conservative with the county’s tax revenue.

“I never made any promises but one: I will do the very best I can to represent the taxpaying people of Ashe County,” said Price.

Representing the county taxpayers was a constant theme from all of the commission candidates during the forum.

Unlike his opponents, Price believes the county should go into a rest period in order to build its reserve funds. This position is based on his belief that this area hasn’t reached the bottom of the recession, so we should be conservative with the county’s revenue until we have a better idea of what the recession will bring moving forward.

After the county’s rest period, said Price, we should continue to support education. Price said he is in favor of building additional education facilities. He also supports agriculture being taught in school, saying he regrets not learning more about the subject.

Price also supports measures to inspire job growth in Ashe County. “If we can do anything to maintain growth without coercion, I support it,” said Price.

Richard Blackburn is a retired school teacher and principal who said the board of commissioners needs a voice of reason.

“The issues commissioners face are very complex and addressing those requires balance and a voice of reason,” said Blackburn.

Blackburn said he would try his best to maintain the county’s low tax rate, but he also admitted he wouldn’t promise to avoid a tax increase at all costs. “We can’t afford to let expenditures exceed revenue,” said Blackburn.

Blackburn also said the county must provide a new middle school that is on “the cutting edge of technology.” Blackburn also supports agribusiness and said he wishes to promote locally-grown food, which is healthier and reduces poverty levels in the area.

Dan McMillan is the former Ashe County Manager. During the discussion, McMillan said he had seen Ashe County change in the 12 years he served as the county’s top administrative officer.

According to McMillan, some of the best infrastructure in Ashe County’s history was built during his tenure as manager and this was accomplished without significant tax increases. The only tax increase was a short-term three-cent increase for a new law enforcement center.

McMillan touted that while he was Ashe County’s Manager, several capital projects were completed, including the new jail, West Wood Elementary School, and an improved Ashe County Public Library.

In addition, McMillan said the board of commissioners is responsible for protecting our natural resources, like the New River and our mountaintops. McMillan also said land-use planning is necessary for economic development because the N.C. Department of Transportation is only interested in working with counties that plan ahead.

According to McMillan, this area has built good educational facilities in the past, and should have adequate funds to build a new middle school.

Larry Rhodes pledged to use his business background and bachelor’s degree in economics from Mars Hill University to make good decisions as a commissioner.

“The only promise I can make is that I will do my very best to serve the people of Ashe County,” said Rhodes.

Rhodes said future plans for the county must be realistic and must not come at the expense to our neighbors.

According to Rhodes, the Ashe County High School will be paid off in 2016, and so will West Wood Elementary School in 2017 and the Ashe County Library in 2018. Rhodes said he is not sure what should be done about the middle school, but said it “needs improvement.”

Rhodes said “education is high on my list.” Also, he supports the FFA program at the high school and would like student interest in agriculture to continue.

Marty Gambill was the final candidate for the board of commissioners that attended the meeting. Gambill said the people of Ashe County deserve good services and should get their money’s worth from paying their taxes.

Gambill was confident the county could expand its services and infrastructure without raising taxes, and he backed that notion by making a stern promise to everyone in attendance. “I will not vote for an increase in the property tax rate,” said Gambill.

He also said he is in favor of a proactive planning board, so the county doesn’t need to “respond to a situation with a knee-jerk reaction.”

According to Gambill, the board of commissioners has a responsibility to ensure economic growth is not stifled.

Gary Roark is also running for a position on the board of commissioners, but did not attend this event.

The candidates running for the N.C. House of Representatives and N.C. Senate also attend the Farm Bureau candidate’s forum.

Democrat Cullie Tarleton is running against Republican Jonathan Jordan to represent the 93rd district (which includes Ashe and Watauga counties) in the N.C. House of Representatives.

Democrat Roy Carter is running against incumbent Republican Senator Dan Soucek to represent the 45th district of the N.C. Senate, which includes Ashe, Alleghany, Watauga, Caldwell and Avery counties.

Tarleton is a candidate from the Democratic Party and a current resident of Blowing Rock. He is a former two-term representative of the 93rd district of the N.C. House of Representatives from January 2007 through December 2010.

According to Tarleton, the best opportunity for growth in Ashe County is the expansion of U.S. 221 into a four-lane road. Tarleton said he worked to push this project to the top of the DOT’s to do list. He also supports expanding current infrastructure, like Ashe County’s airport, and supports a tax system that spreads out the tax burden and is revenue neutral.

Jordan is attempting to get re-elected as the representative of district 93 of the N.C. House of Representatives. Jordan is a local attorney who resides outside of West Jefferson.

Jordan said he strongly supports balancing North Carolina’s budget. “The state cannot spend like there is no tomorrow,” said Jordan.

According to Jordan, he managed to pass a balanced budget while giving teachers in North Carolina a 1.2 percent pay increase.

Jordan said he will protect farmers from overbearing and needless regulations, adding regulations need to be lifted off of all businesses to allow them to grow.

Both Tarleton and Carter attacked Jordan for a tax credit he supported during his time in the N.C. House of Representatives. Carter said the state lost $336 million in revenue thanks to a “poorly written piece of legislation that let everyone save $3,500.” Carter said teachers have lost jobs during Jordan’s time representing the 93rd district.

This is in reference to a tax credit that allows businesses a tax exemption for the first $50,000 made through non-passive income, which amounts to a savings of $3,500 for each business. This credit applies to businesses of all income levels that do not trade stock.

Jordan defended the tax credit, saying 57 percent of those who benefited from the tax credit made under $100,000 of income, while only 2 percent of businesses saving $3,500 made over $1 million in income.

Jordan said the tax credit was aimed at helping small businesses, but all businesses were allowed to apply because “the government has no right to pick and choose who benefits from a tax credit.”

Also, Jordan said teachers in North Carolina lost jobs based on the 2010-2011 state budget, which was actually the final year of the budget constructed by Tarleton, his opponent.

Carter is the Democratic Party candidate running for the 45th district of the N.C. Senate. He has lived in Glendale Springs for 47 years and spent 42 years as a school teacher and football coach.

According to Carter, education is his top priority. Carter said investing in education is the best way to promise economic growth long-term.

Carter also said he supports tax reform that would benefit North Carolina’s farmers, who “purchase at retail and sell at wholesale.”

Soucek is attempting to regain his position representing the state’s 45th district in the N.C. Senate.

Soucek said he has been a part of discussions for large tax reform for North Carolina. Soucek says the current tax system is based on an antiquated system. He also said a simpler tax system would restore economic growth.

Soucek also said immigration laws should be simplified so businesses will be less inclined to “skip around” immigration laws that oppose hiring illegal immigrants into the workforce.

According to Soucek, the state needs a reality check in reference to state spending. “We need a fiscally responsible government,” said Soucek.