Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
Macon County Board of Commissioners District II seat is up for election this November, and when incumbent Kevin Corbin announced he would not be seeking re-election to the commission but rather vying for the North Carolina House of Representatives, both Democrats and Republicans filed for the open seat. After a primary race, Karl Gillespie won a spot on the Republican ticket and Charlie Leatherman won the Democrat ticket.
Karl Gillespie is a fifth generation Maconian, starting National Communications, Inc. (NCI) with just one technician in 1999. NCI has since grown to become a regional company providing the installation and maintenance of all types of low voltage services, including phone systems, security, camera, fiber optic and IT services.
“Serving on the Macon County Board of Commissioners is an opportunity for me to give back to the county that has been so good to me,” said Gillespie of his reason for seeking office.
Gillespie is active in the community, serving as a member of the Macon County Planning Board, Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees and Macon County Farm Bureau Board of Directors. Gillespie is also a member of First United Methodist Church. He is married to Janet Taylor Gillespie and together they have one son, Logan.
Charlie Leatherman was born and raised in Macon County and served in the United States Army, serving for three tours of duty overseas. He graduated from Western Carolina University with a degree in Education. Leatherman is retired from the Macon County School system and has also worked for Mars Hill College, Macon County Department of Social Services. He currently works for Drake Enterprises and owns Leatherman Tax Service. Leatherman is married to Melissa and together they have three sons, Lucas, Michah, and Gabriel.
“My decision to run was a combination of multiple motivations,” said Leatherman. “Many people from both parties have asked me to file. I think it is because people who know me understand I am not a politician and don’t play the games. So, confidence of others is a part. I like being a member of something that has the opportunity to improve services for people living here and the quality of life. Being a member of the commission allows one to understand the needs of the county and advance improving services like the education system, providing emergency and social services to our citizens, keeping the health department up to date, keeping law enforcement adequately supplied. It is the idea of service to the public at the county level providing for a better living environment. It is about planning for the future and having a vision for what we want Macon County to look like in 25 years.”
Leatherman previously served on the Macon County Board of Commissioners for two terms from 2004-2008 and again from 2008-2012. Leatherman served on the board as vice chair of the board from 2008-2012 and as chairman from 2010-2012. Leatherman also served on the Region A Council of Government from 2004-2012 and was elected to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners for District 17 for two terms. He was also nominated as Commissioner of the Year in 2008 by the NCACC and was one of three commissioners selected by the NCACC to represent North Carolina at the National Association of Commissioners Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program in Washington DC in 2009. Leatherman was selected to serve on the Future Teachers of North Carolina Scholarship selection committee and was appointed to the SCC Board of Trustees in 2012.
Provide your outlook on prominent issues currently facing Macon County.
1) Public Education: With the state continuing budget cuts and passing the buck to local government, how far or how much do you think the county can take on before having to take drastic measures to compensate the school system? Do you think there is a point to where the county will have to say no?
Gillespie: “Education is our future.The low point in state funding was 2010. Since that time, overall funding has increased as has the number of students, taking the per-pupil cost over the past five years from $9,475 to $9,020. The number of employees has been reduced from 609 to 507. These cuts have created an extra burden on the local county budgets. While some of that has been restored, more can be done on the state level. Fortunately, we have had a group of county commissioners and a county manager that supports our K-12 schools as well as a school board and superintendent that has taken appropriate steps.”
Leatherman: Citing the state legal statutes that although by law, the state is responsible for providing the operational expenses of schools and the county government is responsible for the brick and mortar, Leatherman also cited state statutes that says if the school board doesn’t have adequate funding, it can sue the county government for additional operational expenses. Leatherman noted that if elected, he would work to develop a budget that would benefit both entities and avoid the courts.
“I would ensure a joint discussion between the local board of education and the board of commissioners to search both budgets for possible revenue. In the absence of found revenue, being convinced of the need by the local board of education and fully understanding the legislature will not meet their requirements, for if they had this situation would not exist, and avoid a court case, I would raise the revenue needed for the school system. The state legislature has been doing a disservice to the state educational system from the primary level to the university level of learning for students and teachers.”
2) County finances: What is your vision for the county’s budget plans and finances in the future? All politicians say things like “lower taxes” and if that is something you believe in and want to work toward, explain how you plan to do so. Be specific.
Gillespie: “Every dollar must be spent wisely. We must constantly work to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government. This can be done while providing the citizens of Macon County all the services they are accustomed to, while keeping taxes as low as possible. We currently have the fourth lowest tax rate in North Carolina. This was done through sound financial decisions. As an owner of a local business since 1999, I have always tried to make sound financial decisions and would do the same as a county commissioner.”
Leatherman: When I left office, Macon County had the lowest tax rate in the state. I was not the sole reason for that, but I was part of that reason. The boards during that time had planning sessions. We met with the board of education. Meeting with that board is important because it is the biggest expense ticket on the plate. The last two years that I was on the board, we actually started at zero except for debt services that had a beginning amount. Employee expense and human resources were next and each commissioner met with the departments we were assigned and the budget worked up from there. That practice of having commissioners and departments involved from the very start of the budget process gave everyone a good concept of costs and revenue generation. Having and keeping a healthy fund balance is important for emergencies. I do not mean to protect the fund balance, but to use them as intended. Macon County has an undesignated fund balance and because of that balance the county was able to use some other balances to pay off and refinance separate debts at a lower interest rate which saved tax dollars. So those processes of zero departmental planning for budgeting is something I would strive to keep in place.”
3) Economic Development: Everyone wants to create jobs. No one is going to run for office and not say “We need jobs.” But how do you think the county should do that? What specific plans of action or paths should Macon County take to ensure job growth and economic development? Be specific.
Gillespie: “We should promote an economic climate in Macon County that attracts new business and encourages our present businesses to expand and grow. We must be as aggressive as possible in competing for new businesses. Sustainable employment coexists with economic development, jobs and opportunities expand when the economy expands. We should work toward he development of good and decent jobs that allow citizens to grow and better themselves.”
Leatherman: “I would first ask every employer what can be done to continue to keep their business in Macon County. The N.C. Rural Commission has been dissolved so one source of help in the area is gone and I do not think anything is being planned to help our area. Macon County does not have a state approved commercial site, so I do not think traditional large industry and production is in our immediate future. I feel most employment will continue to be in retail businesses. One area that could be developed regionally between western counties would be to promote tourism. That is an old idea, but perhaps specific marketing of seasonal activities in conjunction with Macon and surrounding counties would produce travel to our area.”
4) Are there any issues that you think are pressing in Macon County that you would like to address? If so, what is it and what is your opinion and view point on the matter. What are your plans to approach it?
Gillespie: “Two of the most important issues we face are education and Economic Development. I touched on both of them.”
Leatherman: “Additional issues I am concerned about are water reservoir, tax credits, Franklin High School and how I will use my county commissioner salary. Most people who run for office at the county say they want to give something back to the community. I want to give back also and some of my giving will be financial. While a commissioner, the board gave an additional 2 percent supplement for school system employees. The board of education figured that amount and who got it. The county commissioners ensured it was received around Christmas. I was working in the school system at the time. To prevent criticism from PACs about receiving the bonus, I donated mine to the Macon County Academic Foundation. As it was a bonus, it was not a financial hardship. It was a donation to a well-intended good cause, and nonprofit. While I am like most people and can always use the money, I look at the commissioners salary as additional income. If elected, I will give 15 percent of the earnings to the Macon County Academic Foundation, 15 percent to the Macon Citizens for the Handicapped, 15 percent to veterans, and 15 percent to emergency services to be used by volunteer firemen, law officers, and service workers however they decide. The community funding pool is a superb way of funding nonprofits and I will continue to support that by giving to the county. There are a lot of good causes, If elected, these are the causes I will support by giving back more than half the earnings while I am a commissioner.”