Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
The Macon County Board of Commissioners Franklin district will appear on the November ballot, with one Republican and one Democrat seeking the open seat. Betty Cloer Wallace, a democrat, and Josh Young, a Republican, are both vying for the seat left open when Karl Gillespie announced he would be running for the N.C. House of Representatives.
Young, a local business owner and father of five said that he is running for office because he wants to take a more active role in shaping the future of Macon County.
“I’m running for public office because I care,” said Young. “I have a deep love for this special place I call home. I want to be a voice for all of Macon County. I feel that I can bring a breath of fresh air to our board of commission. A typical commissioner meeting has very few participants other than our county affiliates. I want to encourage other Maconians to become involved. I have found it is easy to complain about problems and issues plaguing Macon County. Instead of complaining, I decided to file for office.”
Young is a fifth generation Maconian and has been married to his high school sweetheart for almost 12 years ago. The couple has been blessed with five children.
“I was taught how to work at a young age on our family’s Christmas Tree Farm and that work ethic has molded me into the person I am today,” said Young. “I spent eight years as a lineman for Duke Energy before I stepped away in pursuit of the ‘American Dream.’ I started Young Tree Service in May 2015 and have been blessed beyond belief with great employees and an incredibly supportive community. I am active in our community as I serve on many youth athletic boards as well as coaching numerous youth football, baseball, softball, and basketball teams. I enjoy the outdoors, spending time with family, and cooking.”
Wallace is a sixth generation Macon County farm family and is retired from education and government. Wallace is a tree farmer who has planted 14,000 native hardwood seedlings and wildlife preservationist. She is also the author of “Tuckaseegee Chronicles,” a historical series set in Little Tennessee River Valley.
“My lifelong experience and credentials in public service administration have been a lifetime of preparation for serving as a Macon County commissioner,” said Wallace. “I want to work toward practical and sustainable change and to up-end the status quo voting bloc that has controlled our board of commissioners for many years. We must change our current economic and social trajectory if we want to keep our young families here and move forward as a county. I’m an advocate for a strong multi-party system to maintain balance in our local government as in all other areas of our lives. At the moment, Macon County is clearly out of balance, lop-sided toward the ‘tea party’ far-right while a contingent of far-left ‘progressives’ pull in the opposite direction. This extreme divergence on both extremes of our local political spectrum has split our local political parties into five distinct factions, which is hurting our ability to sustain a moderate common ground in local government that we need, and must have, to move forward as a viable and economically competitive county. We must work toward a transparent local government by and for the people, rather than by special interests and top-down authoritarianism.”
Wallace has served as the associate superintendent, Macon County Schools; director of Western Regional Education Center; Superintendent of Vance County Schools (15 schools, 1,100 employees); Deputy Assistant State Superintendent, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction; U.S. Department of Education Fellow, Washington, DC; Associate Superintendent, Northwest Arctic Borough School District; Adjunct Professor, Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College; served on numerous boards and commissions for industrial recruitment and school facilities planning in Macon County and WNC; author of “Poisoned Apple,” and the “Bell-Curve Crisis” (in our schools).
Local government relations are crucial for Macon County as the county, the town of Franklin, and the town of Highlands work closely on several projects. What are your thoughts on these current relationships and how can they be improved?
Young: “We are all in this together,” said Young. “It is important to keep a good rapport with other local municipalities within our county and outside our county. There is always room for improvement. I want to see our local infrastructure support business growth and local development within our county. I would like for it to be easy for businesses to plant seeds here.”
Wallace: “Our county commissioners have pleasant social relationships with the municipal governments of Franklin and Highlands with annual meetings for discussion, but practical interaction and joint planning are scarce,” said Wallace. “A serious study of overlapping responsibilities is needed in order to eliminate duplication, inefficiency, and confusion about who is responsible for what; and many citizens are especially confused about the overlapping governments of Macon County and Franklin. Issues needing better county-town cooperation include facilities and space needs, water and sewerage management, broadband equity countywide, and better public information communication regarding the TDA and TDC tourism development groups, the Economic Development Commission, and town and county planning boards and committees. The large Nantahala community should consider working toward incorporating itself as a town in order to have a more influential seat at the table for funding and oversight along with Franklin and Highlands.”
As an elected official – how would you improve educational opportunities for Macon County?
Young: “Our kids deserve the best. Period,” said Young. “We have to work with our state legislatures to ensure we have the proper funding to keep our kids on the cutting edge of education. As I understand the county is responsible for the brick and mortar (facilities) while the state furnishes the education. However, the county is constantly helping assist Macon County Schools system fund many areas in which our state allotment does not cover. As commissioner I want to work closely with our school board and teachers and most importantly, listen.”
Wallace: “Our Early College and SCC programs are doing well and leading the way toward showing the need for expansion of broadband internet access, but our PK-12 schools need expanded and more adequate facilities,” said Wallace. “County commissioners are responsible for providing school facilities, while state and local school boards are responsible for operation of our schools, albeit our local school board is often reduced to requesting additional funding from our county commissioners simply to stay afloat, which should not be necessary every year. Together, these two boards and ‘we the people’ have a moral obligation to our children and grandchildren to do better, to provide schools that give every young person the best chance for a successful future. Decisions are long overdue about improving facilities and infrastructure at Nantahala, Highlands, and Franklin High School in a fair and equitable manner. We spend far too much time plugging holes rather than long-range planning and setting priorities. As our state legislature continues its juggernaut toward privatization of our public schools, we cannot simply blame the state for cutting our funds. As a county, we must fill the gaps to the degree that we can financially do so, and go even beyond the basic essentials to the degree that we can afford it. Unfortunately we have consolidated our elementary schools so that the majority of young students are taken out of their home communities and must commute long weary miles elsewhere. Many adults would not suffer through such long hours of busing to get to their workplace every day, but yet our children are forced do it. We could initiate long-range planning to decentralize our large elementary schools and return students to smaller community schools, while at the same time plan for reconditioning our middle and high school facilities in Franklin, bringing them up to standard and expanding them. It would take time to decentralize, but that’s what long-range planning is for; and we should consider restructuring grade-level offerings at each school level, which is not as formidable as it might seem if done in conjunction with facilities planning. Our basic education needs, including technology, should supersede all other aspects of our county finances, if we expect to meet our moral obligations and prepare our children for a future here in Macon County or elsewhere, depending on what they want to learn and do. Having the basic education to allow for choices is the most important legacy we can provide for our children.”
What is your stance on Macon County’s current broadband issues and how would you address it?
Young: “I have spent years in the utility industry and have a deep understanding of the many challenges we face in rural America,” said Young. “We just don’t have the population to ensure large corporations can guarantee a return on their investment. We have lots of hard-to-access neighborhoods, lots of rock (underground) and hard to maintain rights-of-way that may only service a few potential customers. This drives the cost each customer would pay through the roof. During our virtual learning period, we had a horrible time with my children connecting to the internet. If we had any, it was slow. Covid has put a huge spotlight on our broadband service and Rep. Kevin Corbin is actively fighting for us on a state level. He is helping to remove some of the barriers between State and local governments to minimize some regulation and bring more funding to Western North Carolina. Broadband is so important to help keep our local business competitive.”
Wallace: “High-speed internet access is as vital now and as much a giant leap forward as when the TVA brought rural electrification to our homes in the 1930s and as when highway programs of the 1950s brought us paved secondary roads and interstate highway connections,” said Wallace. “In order to close the distance learning homework gaps among our communities, to provide communication with our healthcare providers, and to provide opportunities for jobs at home, we and our local officials must (1) be knowledgeable of the massive federal technology grants approved by Congress this month, (2) provide local internet infrastructure that can adequately use those grants countywide, and (3) work toward dovetailing federal, state, and local funds with private providers to narrow the digital divide. Private providers large and small are simply not working out for the public, so ultimately we should work toward broadband as a basic public utility such as we have with electricity carried to every house. Congress recognized the digital divide in March, 2020, by passing the Broadband DATA Act, creating a more accurate and detailed map of broadband availability, helping counties such as ours have the information needed to determine our specific focus and cost of deployment; and just this month Congress approved multi-billion dollar legislation that provides funding through FCC, USDA, and DOE for rural high-speed broadband as part of the next stage of federal stimulus relief. So, our local government officials and the private sector must be ready locally with accurate data mapping and local providers identified to ensure that no Macon County community is overlooked. To date, Macon County has made some effort, but not nearly enough; and with federal assistance newly approved, we have no excuse for delay in providing countywide access. Unfortunately, Frontier failed to meet FCC broadband requirements for the Connect America Fund for rural areas that stipulated reaching 80% of rural locations by December 2019, leaving us with several disparate choices, and so we must now look at all current options. We can (1) help Morris Broadband continue to expand in our county, or (2) bring in one or more companies with competitive pricing, or (3) look at satellite access, albeit cost and limited access would be problematic. Fortunately, Congress is asking our largest broadband providers to expand coverage areas and temporarily suspend some customers’ data caps, in order to accommodate access, especially for remote education that requires daily interactive communication; and we can all benefit from that, both businesses and individuals. Looking even further into our future in Macon County, albeit not that far away, we will eventually need to create local 5G infrastructure to be able to handle Virtual Reality (simulated experiences for interactive learning) for our schools and families and for local industry training, not to be confused with our current web-based distance learning or online learning.
What do you see as being the biggest issue facing Macon County?
Young: “I have several issues that really bother me,” said Young. “If you look around, we are overrun with vacant buildings. Lots of large and small shopping centers all over franklin. I also feel that, employees are one of our greatest assets. I feel one of the largest issues facing Macon County are the County employee wages. The private sector pay far exceeds the county pay rate. I also see broadband to be a huge issue. Broadband is imperative to help keep our local business competitive.”
Wallace: “Jobs that pay a living wage plus benefits and opportunity for retirement is our greatest need, and we must analyze the factors hindering us from attracting industries here, large and small,” said Wallace. “Our poverty rate (30.1%), median household income ($39,000), needy schools, children in low-income households (58%), a growing homeless population, reduced medical and health care facilities and professionals, lack of affordable housing, lack of broadband internet access, and growing crime statistics related to drug trafficking are the main factors that prospective businesses and industries look at beyond a potential workforce. Industry scouts considering our current data are not impressed with our general need for education infrastructure, our ‘welfare queen’ numbers, our crime statistics, and our ‘dollar store’ economy.”
Anything else you would like for your voters to know.
Young: “I want to be a county commissioner to represent the people of Macon County,” said Young. “I am not a politician. I am a tax-paying citizen of Macon County. I work with my hands for a living and likely will show up to many meetings with my dirty work boots. I hope to bring an unbiased, independent mindset and a new energy to the board of commissioners. I am prepared to make tough business-minded decisions to represent the taxpayers of this county!”
Wallace: “Facilities are greatly needed for expanded law enforcement detention facilities, additional courthouse space, expanded services for seniors and disabled citizens, and a civic center large enough for graduations, entertainment, arts and crafts fairs, gun shows, and trade shows,” said Wallace. “Space and cost studies should be carried out jointly for these large-ticket projects, public hearings held, and priorities determined by our citizens through referendum by ballot. The most important offerings we have here to entice business and industry are (1) relatively cheap land with large open spaces, (2) a willing workforce, especially young people who want to stay here or who have moved away and want to come back home if they had jobs, and (3) access to transportation systems in Atlanta, Asheville, and Knoxville. But we have to take the initiative to look for new businesses and industries and to let them know what we have to offer.”