District 3 covers the western side of the county from the Airport Road area in the south, curving around West Asheville, and moving out through portions of Leicester to the Madison County border. And there were echoes from the candidates during the evening — particularly concerning extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) from the city of Asheville and a lack of parks and recreation — that spoke to a degree of frustration with the representative status quo.
Republicans Joe Belcher and David King and Democrats Terry Van Duyn and Michelle Pace Wood responded to numerous audience inquiries that were presented by card to moderator Jerri Jameson, former news director for Clear Channel in Asheville. The questions touched on such subjects as jobs, economic incentives, education, fiscal responsibility, environmental considerations, employee policies, and the candidates' individual visions for the county.
Responses ranged from an across-the-board "No" when the candidates were asked if they supported domestic-partner benefits for county employees, to nuanced support for a county greenway plan, and full agreement that incentives for business growth are needed in the economic climate the county faces.
Van Duyn called the greenway model "aspirational," saying it represents a "vision of the county that reflects values we place on our natural resources." And although she supports it as a framework, she believes that "now is not the time" for funding. Wood picked up on the "future" status of the greenway plan, but spoke to the importance of equal distribution in the county for current maintenance of existing parks. She specifically noted that the southern and western sections of the county "don't have as many parks as other areas."
Belcher also noted the lack of existing parks in the district, and expressed his opinion that a greenway is "not a recreation area for children — it's a place to connect Buncombe County." In that respect, he does not think it meets the geographic recreational needs. King answered that he was "not opposed to greenways," but he was also "not sure next year is the time to put that on the table." He pointed to the pending revaluation of county property and the financial questions that poses for taxpayers.
The candidates were then asked how environmental concerns might inform their decisions regarding job creation in the county. Van Duyn's response was an immediate reference to meeting Gabe Dunsmith, a young man who suffered from thyroid cancer, which he and his family believe was caused by chemical contamination related to the former CTS electroplating plant near their Buncombe County home (see "Full-Scale Fight," July 18, 2012 Xpress) . "That's not a trade-off I'm willing to make," Van Duyn said, in reference to the job creation parameters she would follow.
Wood, who grew up and still lives in Candler, answered, "It's traditional here. The environment is tourism. It's important to continue that base." But there is also a need to diversify in the economy, she noted. "I would like to see us explore new ideas, more partnerships, agra-forestry ... I'm willing to work with anyone to protect what we can."
Belcher spoke of being raised in West Virginia coal country where "they took the tops of mountains off" and he swam in coal-black streams. He came to Buncombe County 32 years ago and holds a "deep love" for this environment. "I will not let anybody destroy these mountains," he said. But he sees ways to do things to promote economic growth. "You can be practical. Mountains and businesses can exist together."
King, speaking from his years in the manufacturing industry, answered, "We're not going to see any smokestack industry coming into Western North Carolina." The types of businesses that will be attracted to this area now will be primarily marketing, technology, and small manufacturing companies, he said. "It's bad business for companies to pollute," he added, "but we just don't think we're going to attract those people, even if we wanted to."
Van Duyn spoke of inclusive county efforts to support farmers and sustainability, and of her support for targeted incentives — "targeted for accountability," she explained. "We have to have [incentives] to compete," she believes, but incentives have to be also provide "incentive for Buncombe County." The other three candidates agreed with the basic premise of incentives with "accountability." "Every cent has to be audited," said Van Duyn.
The candidates also commented on the issue of support for small businesses — not just incentives for large companies. Belcher's comments included the difficulties he's seen with the ETJ restrictions that caught existing small businesses in the zoning net. Wood agreed, calling the ETJ a problem for a large number of properties, and promising to support incentives for smaller businesses as well as larger.
On the question of what is the most important fiscal issue facing the county, Belcher's answer was "debt." And given the county's pending revaluation, he added that the commissioners "knew this was coming" when — at the same time — incurring new debt. King advocated keeping debt in line with intake, saying he would "work with commission to make sure we are fiscally responsible with money that comes in" while retiring some debt before incurring more.
Van Duyn spoke from a different perspective. "Buncombe County's debt load is extraordinarily well-managed," she commented, observing that the total debt is significantly lower than state guidelines allow. "We could spend money building temporary classrooms for kids or build new schools. We've invested in those schools. At the end of 30 years, we've got real classrooms," she said.
Wood observed that debt can be a vital part of meeting infrastructure needs, especially for public education. "I am open to conversation to look at how to reduce [debt], if we can," she added. King's answer was, "We go back to jobs here, and [economic] opportunity." If those two things happen, the county can "move forward with funding for things we need to do."
The forum was hosted by the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County, which has presented a series of four pre-election meetings — one in each new county commission district, to familiarize voters with both candidates and geo-political boundaries, and one held at the AB-Tech campus for countywide candidates, including those for commission chair and for the county school board. The series has been co-sponsored by press associates Mountain Xpress, Carolina Public Press, and The Urban News, in conjunction with radio associates 880 The Revolution and 570 WWNC.
Videos of the forums are available on the League's website and through Carolina Public Press. Nonpartisan ballot information for the upcoming election is available through the League's national voter information website: vote411.org.
by Nelda Holder, contributing editor