The race for chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners pits incumbent Democrat David Gantt against Republican challenger J.B. Howard. The two squared off in a Sept. 24 forum sponsored by the Asheville-Buncombe League of Women Voters, revealing starkly contrasting approaches to economic development, education, the budget and other issues.
Howard came out swinging, telling the roughly 75 people in attendance at A-B Tech, "The present leadership in Buncombe County has failed miserably."
A former state highway patrolman who’s now a private investigator, Howard said the biggest thing the county can do to stimulate job growth is cut government spending. The county, he maintained, should "evaluate every bit of waste we have, take that money and give it to our small businesses to expand.” Slamming the millions of dollars in economic incentives the county pledged over the past year to lure businesses here, Howard proclaimed, "We need to keep the companies that are coming here from other states out of here.”
Gantt, meanwhile, defended the $14.5 million in tax incentives and grants to Linamar, a Canadian auto-parts manufacturer, over the next several years in exchange for the company’s investing $200 million in a south Asheville facility and hiring 650 workers. He also supported up to $8.45 million in grants to New Belgium Brewing Co., which has agreed to invest $175 million in a River Arts District production facility and hire 154 workers.
Those incentives, said Gantt, played a key role in bringing these companies and their jobs here. But the county's high quality of life and educational system played an even greater role, he said. Linamar executives have cited A-B Tech as one reason the company chose Asheville. And last year’s successful sales-tax referendum for the school, contended Gantt, will pay further dividends.
"We have to have facilities that have the technology of the 21st century and 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, however, said: "Building new buildings does not educate children. It's teachers: quality teachers." The county, he charged, also places too many restrictions on local businesses, though he cited no specific examples.
Local business owners, responded Gantt, "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."
The moderator Jerri Jameson of Clear Channel Asheville, asked the candidates about their views on taxes and spending. Howard said cutting the county's debt is paramount. Gantt, citing the county’s recently acquired AAA credit rating, declared, "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 said he doesn’t foresee raising taxes, cautioning that the board must see the results of the upcoming property revaluation before determining the best course of action.
Howard, however, said, "If you analyze that budget and cut the waste out of it, then you won't have to worry about raising people’s taxes."
Asked about the Greenways and Trails Master Plan, which the commissioners recently approved without committing any money toward the estimated $39.3 million cost, both candidates said they oppose holding a bond referendum next year to fund implementation. But Howard went much further, pitting Asheville residents against those living outside the city limits.
"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 let’s put that greenway on hold and spend the money more wisely," the Fairview resident urged. "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."
Gantt, an attorney who lives in Arden, said he supports the plan in principle, but it will require private donations and federal grants as well as county funding.
"Greenways are part of what makes us a great place to live, but we have other priorities right now," said Gantt. "But we need to talk about it and figure out how we can ... continue to provide greenways, farms and conservation easements before everything gets developed."
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Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at email@example.com.