BAKERSVILLE – Ten candidates vying for three seats on the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners attended the Chamber of Commerce Candidates’ Forum Tuesday, Feb. 18, at the Historic Courthouse in Bakersville.
Questions submitted by Chamber members and the public were drawn randomly from a pot by the panel of three questioners, Bruce Ikard from WTOE and WKYK, Brandon Roberts from the Mitchell News-Journal and Brian Barrier from the Blue Ridge Christian News.
The candidates, all Republicans, were seated alphabetically, and incumbents Danny Burleson, Jeff Harding and Jacob Willis were joined by challengers Raymond Cantrell Jr., Wayne Godfrey, Chad Greene, Aaron Hoilman, Harley Masters, Brandon Pittman and Wesley Vaughn. Challenger R.L. Hoilman did not attend due to a death in his family.
The main topics at the forum were the county’s need for a new jail and sheriff’s office, the department of social services, jobs and activities for youth.
“My goal is to keep our money in Mitchell County, and we can start doing that by building a jail,” said Greene. “It would create jobs, and we could make money by housing inmates from other counties. A jail would provide inmates to pick up trash. I’d like to see a new sheriff’s department.”
Aaron Hoilman said a lot of changes are needed in the county, and some issues need addressing.
“We need a jail, something for children to do and places for people to stop,” he said. “We have a new four-lane coming through, do we want people to blow on by or stop and spend their dollars here. We need to promote our festivals and events we have throughout the year.”
Harding is seeking his second term as commissioner. He said the sheriff’s office being in a 20-year-old FEMA building is a “disgrace.”
“(What) we ask our officers to work in every day is unsafe,” Harding said. “And, I’m going to be honest with you, it’s a disgrace to them and to this county that we ask those guys to work in those conditions.”
Cantrell said the best idea for improvement he has heard while campaigning is building a new jail but added the county needs a children’s home as well.
Several questions drawn by the panel were related to the county’s department of social services. The current board of commissioners voted 4-1 this past October, with Harding voting “no,” to let DSS director Sara Ross keep a $12,000 moving allowance after she chose not to move, calling it an “incentive” payment.
“With the DSS, the $12,000, or the $500,000 savings, it’s not as much to me about the money, but it’s those children,” Burleson said. “We went from about 90-something, almost a hundred kids in foster care to now we have around 50 or less. These kids were being jerked up and placed here and there, and now they’re being adopted and put in homes that love them, they are put with kinship placement. We’re looking after these kids. Don’t worry so much about the money. If I had to do it over again and it saves one kid, one time, then I’ll vote the same way I did.”
Cantrell used a rebuttal card to respond to Burleson.
“What does a $12,000 moving allowance to move from Hendersonville have to do with kids?” Cantrell asked. “It sounds to me like it’s for moving an employee from another place. For $12,000, you can rent a lot of U-Hauls – you can move from California for $12,000.”
Masters, who is a small-business owner and a North Carolina Guardian ad litem, said $12,000 is a lot of money.
“At the end of the day, if it was a moving bonus, there’s no reason it should have been switched to a performance bonus,” she said. “She didn’t move here; she shouldn’t have gotten the money.”
Jobs, economic development, attracting tourists and something for young people to do were also discussed often.
“The average household median income is at $40,000 annually for the first time in the history of Mitchell County,” Willis said. “That’s higher than Watauga, Avery and Yancey counties. BRP has a $4 million expansion, Sibelco is planning $40 million expansion over the next 10 years and the prison’s begging for people to go to work at a very reasonable wage. There are jobs in Mitchell County if people will work.”
Godfrey addressed the commissioners’ recent attempt to withdraw from the Toe River Health District, saying an offer was made to stop the effort to withdraw from the district in exchange for the termination of certain TRHD employees.
Masters, in her closing statement, cautioned candidates who are running on a specific issue.
“That can be very dangerous,” she said. “You can’t have tunnel vision going into a position like this because if you forget about other departments in this county, they suffer, and that means we all suffer. My generation and the generations to follow are the future of this county.”
Pittman closed by saying he knows he doesn’t have all the answers.
“But I promise I will listen, I won’t make hasty decisions, I treat people fairly, and I’m self-reflective,” he said. “I will lead by example.”