• BRANDON ROBERTS/Mitchell News-Journal Republican candidates for Mitchell County Commissioner take questions this past Tuesday during the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce Candidates’ Forum in Bakersville. Pictured, from left, is current Board of Commissioners chair Matthew “Vern” Grindstaff, candidate Jeff Harding, current commissioner Ken Hollifield and candidate Steve Pitman.

The race is on

Candidates take questions at Chamber forum

BAKERSVILLE – Candidates for the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners met at the historic courthouse in Bakersville this past Tuesday for the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce Candidates’ Forum.

Republican incumbents Matthew Grindstaff and Ken Hollifield attended as well as Republican newcomers Jeff Harding and Steve Pitman, both of Spruce Pine.

Democrat Bruce Koran of Bakersville was invited could not attend due to a family emergency.

Like the state candidates before them, each participant was given two minutes for an introductory statement before a panel of three moderators asked questions to each candidate, which they had one minute to answer.

The questions were submitted by Chamber of Commerce members and were drawn randomly from a bowl.

Candidates also had three rebuttal cards to use to speak outside of the answer period. After the question-and-answer period, candidates had two minutes to make a closing statement.

The deadline for voter registration is Friday, April 13, and one-stop voting begins Thursday, April 19, and ends May 5. Election Day is Tuesday, May 8. Three seats on the Board of Commissioners are up for election.

After the opening statements, Grindstaff fielded the first question, which dealt with whether the Board of Commissioners should take a position on the sale of Blue Ridge Regional Hospital.

“Mitchell County could take a position but it won’t do us any good,” he said. “Mission Health will do what they want to do. We did take a position on labor and delivery. We wrote letters and we spoke out. In short, if we feel as a board that it’s appropriate, we certainly can.”

Harding spoke about his desire for people in the county to work together when asked about what strategies could get travelers to stop in Spruce Pine after the widening of Highway 19E is complete.

“I think it involves the whole county,” Harding said. “We all have to work together to get a marketing plan. We have to put out there what we have to offer. As it stands right now, our plans and goals are very limited. If we’re going to be successful, we must have goals and we must all work together.”

After Hollifield answered a question about whether the Board of Education should have its own tax base, Harding and Grindstaff flashed rebuttal cards and talked about their commitment to helping local education.

Hollifield said he didn’t know much about the Board of Education and would have to do more research to answer the question completely.

Harding said funding education is very important.

“I totally agree we need to set more money aside for education,” Harding said. “It’s the growth of our children and they are our future.”

Grindstaff agreed and pointed out that in his time on the board, the commissioners funded the 1:1 initiative to put laptops in area schools and helped fund the STEM program.

“I pledged when elected to be an advocate for public education,” Grindstaff said. “If elected again, I’ll continue to serve our children.”

Pitman and Grindstaff were next asked questions about economic development. Pitman was asked what the purpose and role of the Mitchell County Economic Development Commission is while Grindstaff was asked if he was in favor of expansion strategies.

“I think it’s huge,” Pitman said about the EDC. “I think we’ve made a right step in hiring a new EDC Director. It takes that partnership to be successful. We have to partner with them.”

Grindstaff said the board has already started looking at incentives. He added expanding local recreation is important.

Harding was asked if the county was justified in getting a third ambulance. The county approved a property tax increase this past summer to help pay for the ambulance after an option to raise sales tax was not approved by voters in the November election.

“Any time you talk about public safety, you can’t put a price on it,” Harding said. “I don’t think the commissioners had any choice but to raise the taxes to provide the service. Nobody likes paying additional taxes. It’s simple. But you want that service when you need that service.”

Grindstaff used a rebuttal card to defend the decision to obtain the ambulance.

“I fought very aggressively for the third ambulance,” he said. “You need it and I need it.”

The ambulance came back into the discussion later in the forum when Hollifield was asked about the toughest decision he made as a commissioner during his current term.

Hollifield was the lone commissioner who voted no on the property tax increase.

“I didn’t vote for that,” Hollifield said about the $0.05 tax increase. “We need better government, not bigger government.”

Grindstaff and Harding both used rebuttal cards.

“When we vote on the budget, we have to make difficult decisions,” Grindstaff said. “It’s not an easy decision to raise taxes because I have to pay them, too.”

Harding pointed out all department heads should be present and responsible during the budget process.

“Taxes are tough,” he said. “We need to hold all department heads accountable.”

Hollifield followed with a rebuttal card of his own.

“If we need it, that’s something else,” Hollifield said. “I agree department heads need to be held responsible. What bothers me is putting the burden on the taxpayers. We didn’t need that increase. That didn’t sit good with me.”

Sheriff Donald Street also attended the forum. He is running unopposed for Sheriff.

In lieu of a question-and-answer period, Street spoke to the attendees for two minutes.

He said tackling the area’s drug problem is one of his top priorities.

“I love the job I do,” Street said. “I get up every morning and I don’t dread going to work. The one issue facing the county is the same facing every county – the drug problem.

“We’ve got to come together as a community and try to stop this. The only thing we can do right now is put them in jail. We need to pray and work with them and see if we can help them overcome it.”

The MItchell News

Mailing Address: PO Box 339 
Spruce Pine, NC 28777 
Phone: 828-765-7169
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