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Candidates disagree (agreeably) at CIBO forum
Friday, 16 September 2022 21:01

From Staff Reports

 All six candidates seeking seats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners showed up for a forum hosted by the Asheville-based Council of Independent Business Owners early Sept. 9 at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center.

About 50 people attended the forum that included breakfast.

Past CIBO president John Carroll led the meeting and served as moderator for the one-hour forum that included opening statements by each candidate, questions submitted in advance by CIBO members and asked by Carroll, and closing remarks from each candidate.

The first to give opening remarks was Al Whitesides, an incumbent running for re-election as District 1 commissisoner, who said, “I’m running. I’ve known most of you for years. I’m from the hills here. I’ve lived here all my life and my family has lived here for six generations…. My goal is to leave the county better than I found it six years ago — and to improve the quality of life.

Challenging Whitesides, a Democrat, for his seat is Anthony Penland, a Republican, who noted, “I’m a lifelong resident of Buncombe County as well. I’ve lived in the Swannanoa Valley community. I’m not ‘political’ — I just want to serve our citizens and put our citizens first. I love Buncombe County and I want to keep it that way. We live in a great place — in ‘God’s country.’”

In the District 2 race, incumbent Robert Pressley, a Republican, said, “I’ve been a commissioner for six years now. I’d like to extend it for four more years. I’ve lived here all my life, but I’ve still got time left, as I still have life to live. My aspiration is to serve my constituents and meet their needs and work in a bipartisan way.”

His Democratic challenge, Martin Moore, a lawer, countered, “I moved to North Carolina in 2006 and went to UNC Chapel Hill Law School. I (since) moved to Asheville. It (Asheville) has a very special place in my heart. The residents are ready for some real change. I’m dedicated to applying the law the right way — and dealing with the affordable housing crisis” in Asheville.

Among the District 3 candidates, Democratic incumbent Amanda Edwards said, “I’m married to a high school principal… I love cycling, hiking and walking dogs… I’m into real solutions for real people. I bring my expertise and skills to the job,” with a motto of “trust, transparency and service.”

Further, Edwards said, “I successfully advocated for land conservation” and have focused on “kitchen table issues.”

Her Republican challenger, Don Yelton, wryly quipped, “After last night (a three-hour candidates’ forum in East Asheville lasting until 10 p.m.), you’re one of the best looking audiences I’ve seen” since the previous night. (CIBO’s forum started at 7 a.m.)

“By the way,” Yelton said, “I was one of the first — in the first graduating class at UNC Asheville... I was born and raised in Buncombe County... I believe in freedom of speech, the right to happiness — with no guarantee.

“I have upset people in both parties — and that should tell you a lot about me,” meaning he rates his status as a positive.

“The definition of a county commissioner is to respond, unlike our current county manager (Avril Pinder) who doesn’t even answer the phone.

“You know me. You know the record I stand on,” Yelton said in concluding the introductory remarks portion of the forum.

Next, Carroll, CIBO’s forum moderator, asked a series of questions submitted in advance by CIBO members. He began by noting that, “recently, the county reviewed the tax appraisal process in Buncombe County, What changes could be made to the process?”

Whitesides said, “Basically, we need to update our whole reappraisal process. How we do it? If you see how our appraisals are going up, it (major valuation spikes) is mainly coming from people moving into Buncombe County” who overpay for properties. “It’s a problem because if we don’t watch it, we’re going to force some people out of their homes.”

Penland replied, “We also have to look at programs that can help our people who are being forced to move out of their homes. That’s wrong. Otherwise, it won’t be the Buncombe County we love.”

Pressley answered, “After a sale way above the appraised value, the appraised value returns to its prior level, rather than reflecting the sales price. That’s wrong.”

Moore said, “I think the comprehensive plan we’re working on needs appropriate funding. Let’s put some programs in place with real money behind it, so we don’t have problems for locals.”

Edwards said, “It’s causing a domino effect. This is a problem across our entire country — and not isolated just to Buncombe County. One thing I support and continue to support is people can apply for a grant to help offset their property taxes.”

Yelton said, “We need to freeze property taxes at age 62. We’ve got the overlay that the county uses. It’s not what your propetry is worth, it’s the overlay of what it could sell for.”

Next, Carroll asked, “The county has focused on equity and inclusion in all of its processes. What does it mean to you?”

Penland replied, “It means everyone gets the same opportunities and resources, Now what you do with those opportunities? That’s up to the individual.”

Pressley said, “I totally agree” with Penland. “We all are created equal and we all should be treated equal. What’s we’ve lost is respect. We’ve lost respect from schools, etc. This nation needs to reunite — all as one.”

To the contrary, Moore said, “It’s our job to foster job training in place, so that we can have a diversified workforce. Let’s be honest where we’re at.”

Edwards said, “Equity — to me — is that everyone has the opportunity to survive and thrive. I think access to education is a huge component, along with job training, so that everyone can thrive and survive.”

Yelton replied, “Equity is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, without guarantees. I was not accepted in Biltmore Forest when I was growing up because I grew up in the country. Move on — and give everyone equal opportunity.”

Disagreeing, Whitesides, who is black, said, “For me, equity and inclusion has been a lifelong struggle. I found out that it starts with education. Without the education, we are not going to have the equity we need to have. You’ve got to be educated to take advantage of opportunities on our society.”

Carroll then asked, “What are the top three toughest issues the commissioners have to deal with? How would you manage them?”

Pressley answered, “The top three priorities are setting policies, setting a budget and making it affordable… As a businessman, I never spent more than I was bringing in. Look also at what you can get rid of — or cut back on — first,” before spending money.

Conversely, his opponent Moore said that his priorities would be community safety, the housing crisis and education,” the latter of which he termed “a means to an end.”

Edwards said, “The top issue for me is affordability — and livability. The second issue is delivery of services. The third is meeting the needs of our residents. Under that (meeting the needs), I consider education, job training and workforce development.”

Yelton said, “What we must do is total transparency,” includiing over “what money is raised and where it is spent — and how it is working. There is an ‘X amount’ of money, folks. We can’t provide everything to everybody.”

Whitesides said, “What you haven’t heard is accessibility. We put everything, even our checkbook, is online now. We want to make sure people can call us with complaints, or with  ‘attaboys.’ That’s what I think we get away from as elected officials.”

Penland, Whitesides’ opponent, said, “My biggest thing is to make sure we’re serving the citizens. We can do that by making deputies paid well. Affordable housing? How are we going to do that, if the cost of everything is up? We’ve got to get creative. We’ve got to work with our real estate folks to see how we can do it.”

Next, Carroll asked, “What do you think the new Comprehensive Plan will change?”.

Moore answered, “It’s given our community a chance to weigh in. I’ve been on the Board of Adjustments for several years — and zoning has been a big issue. Some people say, ‘Never build anything again.’ I think that’s unrealistic.”

Edwards said, “I think the most exciting art of the Comprehensive Plan process is the incredible community engagement. It’s been passionate. As to what we’d like to see Buncombe County be, we’re going to have to look at our growth corridors.”

Yelton asserted, “Zoning — planning for the whole county — is not scientific and does not consider” many complex and important aspects. “We pass exact laws and enforce a ‘cookie-cutter’ across the whole county. It’s got to be scientifically based.”

Whitesides said, “Zoning will affect the areas outside the 

municipalities. Conditional zoning sometimes is needed. We’ve got to have a Comprehensive Plan — and continue to get input from all of the citizens.”

To that, Penland,Whitesides’ opponent, said, “If something is zoned one way, it doesn’t mean it’s the right place to put something. The thing I do like is we’re getting input from our citizens. We’re not just doing what ‘experts’ say.”

Pressley pointed out, “What I like is we finally went out and talked with citizens and got their input on it. Change is something we don’t like, but we need. Also, we need to finish the projects we’re already doing.”

Carroll asked, “Do you support the $40 million bond referendum? How do you sell the plan to Buncombe County residents, given that we’re likely to see an increase in property tax bills?”

Edwards replied, “I support the affordable housing bond referendum. I’ve seen first hand the affordable housing crisis — it is dire… It is in the voters’ hands.”

“Yelton said, “No, I will not support it. If a property is fixed up, its value will ‘get’ the owner on the back end, and they still won’t be able to pay the taxes and (eventually will) lose their property.”

Whitesides answered, “I approve both bond issues. We need affordable housing… It’s up to the citizens on Nov. 8 on whether they approve it. It’s something we need — and I do support it.”

Penland said, “Do I support affordable housing? Absolutely. The question is how to get there. We’ve just said it’s unaffordable to live here. So how we get there? We need to come up with a different plan. We can’t burden the taxpayers.”

Pressley asserted, “I don’t think it’s my opinion whether to approve or disapprove of this bond issue... It’s $70 million that were going to spend... We’re paying either way. This ain’t no one-year deal — this is for 20 years.”

Moore said, “I do support both bond referendums. The $40 million bond for housing is for low- to moderate-income folks. It’s going to address a wide margin of people.”

For the final question, Carroll asked,  “As just about every area of the county budget continues to grow, what area would you be willing to cut?”

Yelton replied, “I will look at each program, its total cost and the number of people that that program impacts.”

Whitesides said, “We’ve always got to look ahead. We’ve got to have the five-year plan and stick with it. But if we’ve been doing something the same way for 20 years, it doesn’t mean we need to keep doing it.”

Penland answered, “I believe you look at the revenue coming in – and then all parts of the budget. The county is not in the business of making products. The role of our government is protecting the citizens.”

Pressley said, “Don’t spend more than you’ve got coming in. Even if you’ve got an AAA rating — it doesn’t matter, as you’ve still got to pay interest” on money borrowed.

Moore asserted, “Whenever you’re looking at a budget, you have to think five, 10, 25 years ahead. You have to look at what your goals are. Because our job is to serve.”

Edwards said, “The state of North Carolina makes it very clear what the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners can fund - — and not fund. We’ve got a strategic plan. That will drive our budget decisions for the next four years. I do advocate that we start looking at 5- or 10-year budget projections.”

Following are the final remarks from each of the candidates:

• Whitesides — “I ask through your vote to give me another four-year term... I have the integrity, experience and leadership ability to be your humble servant.”

• Penland — “I have the proven ability. I will impede my capacity to put others first. It’s not about me — it’s about the citizens we serve.”

• Pressley — “I was called to serve after a long career in NASCAR racing. As I got into this, I realized it was all about you. We talk about equity and transparency — can we have that if we have a one-sided board? I’m the only conservative” in office now.

• Moore — “This is about public service — about being responsive to our community. I don’t think the county races are as partisan as is being made out today. I’m here and I’m going to make choices that are in the best for people of Buncombe County.”

• Edwards — “I’m devoted to my family and I’m wholeheartedly committed to public service.”

• Yelton — “Look at what I’ve accomplished not being elected. The vote on zoning — I worked on that behind the scenes. The cell towers — I helped them figure out what to do with them. I also implemented the first recycling program in Buncombe County. That’s what I’ve done ‘un-elected.’ See what I will do if I’m ‘elected.’”



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