In the race for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners chairmanship, incumbent Democrat David Gantt faced off Sept. 24 with Republican challenger J.B. Howard, marking stark contrasts in how the two candidates would approach economic development, education, the budget and other issues.
Howard came out swinging, asserting in his opening remarks to the roughly 75 attendees at the Asheville–Buncombe League of Women Voters forum on the campus of A-B Tech: "The present leadership in Buncombe County has failed miserably."
Video of the candidates opening remarks by Jake Frankel for Xpress.
A former state highway patrolman and owner of a private investigation firm, Howard argued that the single-biggest thing the county can do to stimulate job growth is to cut government spending. The county should "analyze, evaluate, every bit of waste we have [and] take that money and give it to our small businesses to expand," he said. Not only did Howard slam the millions of dollars in economic incentives the county has pledged in the last year to lure companies to the area; he even criticized the idea of businesses relocating to Buncombe County at all. "We need to keep the companies that are coming here from other states, out of here," he said.
Meanwhile, Gantt defended moves the county took to give Linamar, a Canadian auto-parts manufacturer, up to $14.5 million in tax incentives and grants over the next several years in exchange for the company investing $200 million into its south Asheville facility and hiring 650 workers. He also voted to approve giving the Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium Brewing Co. up to $8.45 million in grants in exchange for investing $175 million in to a new River Arts District production facility and hiring 154 workers.
Gantt, who was first elected to serve on the board in 1996, said the incentives were an important part of attracting the companies and their jobs to the area. But he said Buncombe County's high quality of life and education system played an even greater role. Linamar executives have cited A-B Tech as a reason for the company's decision to move here. And Gantt contended that the county's successful referendum last year to raise the sales tax by a quarter-cent would help the college continue to develop.
"We have to have facilities that have the technology of the 21st century and moving on beyond," he explained. "We have to support A-B Tech; we have to have jobs for people. And the way you do that is, you build facilities that help nurture the jobs, which are going to be in health, in services, in nursing, and we're doing that, and we want to continue to do that."
Howard rebutted Gantt's comments, arguing that "Building new buildings does not educate children. It's teachers, quality teachers." Later, he asserted that the county places undue restrictions and rules on local businesses, although he cited no specific policies he'd like to relax.
In response, Gantt said that local business owners "tell me every day that the county is easier to deal with than the other municipalities around here and I hope we keep it that way." He added, "We can still have rules to keep our quality of life, but we don't need to strangle business or make it hard for business."
Asked by moderator Jerri Jameson, news director for Clear Channel Asheville, about their outlook on taxing and spending, Howard said cutting the county's debt should take precedence. Gantt countered that the county recently earned a triple-A credit rating for its excellent fiscal management and noted, "I'm certainly not going to cut education, I'm not going to cut public safety, I'm not going to cut out the economic incentives we have."
The incumbent also reveled that next year he "can't foresee a situation that we're going to be able to raise any rates" and said his preference will be for the county to remain revenue neutral. However, the board needs to wait for an upcoming property revaluation to be completed before they determine the right course of action, to which Howard responded, "If you analyze that budget and cut the waste out of it then you won't have to worry about raising peoples' taxes."
Asked about a recently approved Greenways and Trails Master Plan that eventually calls for building roughly 100 miles of paths at a cost of at least $39.3 million, both candidates agreed that putting a bond referendum on the ballot next year to fund implementation isn't a good idea. But Howard went much further in his opposition, framing the issue as one that pits the city of Asheville against other county residents.
"The culture in Asheville loves the idea of that greenway," he said. "Now, the hard-working people out here don't do the things they do down on Lexington Avenue at 11 o'clock on Friday and Saturday nights. They work. So lets put that greenway on hold and spend the money more wisely," said the Fairview resident. "I have always been told, if you play, you pay. Now why should the taxpayers of this county be burdened with building bike trails, walking trails, picnic areas, all around the county. We have plenty of churches, we have plenty of other organizations that have places they can go."
Meanwhile, Gantt, a lawyer who lives in Arden, noted that he supports the plan in principle, saying that it calls for acquiring funds from private donations and federal grants as well as county taxpayer money.
"I think that greenways are part of what makes us a great place to live but we have other priorities right now," he said. "But we need to talk about it and figure out how we can move it down the road and continue to provide greenways, farms and conservation easements before everything gets developed."