Commissioners’ race highlights county’s struggle to attract business, foster a qualified workforce

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Editor’s note: Traditionally The Macon County News provides candidate profiles during election season. The series continues with the Macon County Commissioners’s race.

Abraham Mahshie

Contributing Writer

Two seats are in contention on the Macon County Board of Commissioners, and three of the four candidates submitted responses to eight questions posed by The Macon County News. 

Questions ranged from positions on economic development and education to how to fill the county’s empty buildings. Republican contender Ron Haven did not return phone calls or respond to questions left at the Macon County Republican Party Headquarters. Incumbents Republican Gary Shields and Democrat Ronnie Beale’s responses along with challenger Democrat Betty Wallace are below. Responses have been modified for grammar. Early voting began Oct. 17.

Experience and priorities

Three-term Commissioner Ronnie Beale lists schools, law enforcement and veterans as his priorities and said he would support them by working with his fellow commissioners while maintaining Macon County’s low tax rate.

Beale previously served as president of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, and he touts his 30 years’ experience as a business owner as “invaluable in budgeting taxpayer dollars.” 

First-term Commissioner Gary Shields named continued support for public safety, health services and education as priorities because they make up more than 70 percent of the county budget. He specifically cited reducing county debt in order to support a strong fund balance and said he would make sure citizens stay informed about the proposed Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) buyout of Mission hospitals.

Shields clarified that he is “not building a resume for political ambition,” and cited his 37 years in public education, including 21 years as principal of Franklin High School. He was elected to the Macon County Board of Education in 2010, and the Board of Commissioners in 2014.

The Vietnam veteran serves on a total of 13 boards and committees, and said he is motivated by the mottos of public service and civic responsibility inherent in the Vietnam Veterans of America and Rotary Club.

Challenger Betty Wallace, a former Macon County Schools associate superintendent and current tree farmer, named schools, retiree services and “services for families with children” as her priorities. She also called for public referendums to decide where to invest large capital expenditures “rather than continuing to expand recreation, entertainment, and the airport.”

Wallace proudly includes in her resume that she “lived [her] entire life on one stretch of road” in the Union Community. She did get away in 1981 when she finished her Doctor of Education in Administration at the University of Georgia. Wallace also served two terms as state secretary of the North Carolina Democratic Party.

She claims her school district superintendent and public service administrative credentials provide “a lifetime of preparation for running for Macon County Commissioner.”

How to Spend

Wallace believes the county should live “within one’s harvest,” by setting priorities according to public debates and citizen input. She also said the county should create and invest in a “permanent fund,” to return dividends to citizens.

Wallace lamented the “top-down authoritarian model of local government,” calling for a “more centrist position” in local politics and government. She opposes any new sales taxes, including on Internet purchases, and believes the county should review its employees’ salaries to retain talent.

Shields called for a “healthy fund balance” to enable the county to borrow, and he said he relies on the county manager and chief financial officer to make financial recommendations to the commissioners. “County funds should be spent or invested with the utmost concern for the taxpayers of Macon County,” he said.

“The reserves belong to the citizens of Macon County,” said Beale, who called for investments that “best benefit” taxpayers. He gave examples of the two public schools constructed during the economic downturn which he said saved millions of dollars “due to lower construction cost and lower interest rates.”

Creating Jobs

“I think we are in a dilemma regarding our workforce,” said Shields. “For job opportunities and economic development to happen in Macon County, a new cadre of young people must believe and want to be a part of our economic stability.”

That means building a qualified workforce with the help of local partners. In public schools, he praised the “tweaking” done by Franklin High School’s Career Technical Education program, and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program in grades 6-12. Shields also praised the county’s broadband committee, the Economic Development Commission (EDC), and the Southwestern Commission Council of Governments’ North Carolina Workforce Development Boards, but did not cite specific examples of achievements.

Beale also underscored the need for a well-educated workforce, and said Macon County has “great incentives for new businesses.” Nonetheless, he said more work needs to be done to improve the three most requested assets businesses seek: healthcare, education and recreation. Beale praised Southwestern Community College as a “valuable partner in training our future workforce.”

Wallace’s assessment of the county’s future was much bleaker. “Macon County has fallen into a downward economic spiral,” she said, citing closures of large industries and boarded up storefronts. She referred to Macon County’s multi-year economic distress ranking as determined by the North Carolina Department of Commerce. Wallace said the lowest, Tier I ranking factors into a business’s decision to locate or not in Macon County.

Wallace believes economic development can be derived from a new focus on production, rather than consumerism. She called for financing projects on the arteries leading into Franklin, not just on Main Street. Wallace went on to cite problem areas, including extra-territorial jurisdiction and annexation, “ad hoc” water and sewage line construction, “haphazard” alcohol and business license permitting, and said that “convoluted taxation affects the entire county.”

Filling Empty Buildings

Beale thinks the improving economy will lead to increased demand for business space. The Economic Development Commission (EDC) liaison added, “We continually work with these property owners for possible tenants.”

Wallace called for industrial recruitment presentations and “aggressively” contacting a wide range of businesses and industries through associations and commercial publications. 

“We can certainly offer tax incentives and negotiate long leases,” she said. “But we should quit deeding away plots of our prime county-owned commercial property to private companies that thrive for a while, then sell the property and move elsewhere.”

She added that Macon County’s “‘Dollar Store’ economy,” crime statistics, “welfare queen” numbers, and “sporadic support for education” do not impress potential employers.

Shields said he hates to see “buildings and shopping centers leave,” but he understands “profit and loss scenarios.” The Republican commissioner referred back to Macon County’s need for a qualified workforce and underscored the county’s 4 percent unemployment rate.

“I hear the same rumors as others,” he said. “But business/industry who are seeking new or expansion ideas have a need for confidentiality.”

Education

On education, Wallace asked rhetorically, “Would adults be happy going to their jobs without adequate tools and meals?”

“Our basic education needs should supersede all other aspects of our county finances,” said the co-author of the 1995 book, “Poisoned Apple: The Bell Curve Crisis and How Our Schools Create Mediocrity and Failure.” Wallace called for using local funds to pay for “all necessary supplies and instructional materials not provided by the state,” and to cover the cost of meals for needy students. She also said the county commissioners should plan for reconditioning middle and high school facilities and initiate long-term planning to decentralize large elementary schools.

Shields, a school board member for four years who retired from the Macon County School System in 2010, highlighted the county’s “brick-and-mortar” role. He drew attention to new rooms added to South Macon Elementary, and further upgrades planned in the 2018-2019 budget.

Shields also said school safety was a priority that was supported with funds to train school personnel and provide more security.

Beale highlighted the “positive line of communication” between the commissioners and the Board of Education and said, “The education of our children depends on our great teachers.”

To that end, he said the county should continue to pay teachers a 2 percent supplement. The payment accounts to a lump sum of $700 for first-year teachers, according to the Macon County Board of Education. Beale also said commissioners need to “continue to impress on the N.C. legislature” the importance of funding schools “at the proper level.”

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