BLOWING ROCK — To help voters make informed decisions as they vote in the election this fall, the Blowing Rock Civic Association sent questions to all the candidates who are running for election as Watauga County Commissioners. They were given a week to respond, and all did except Billy Kennedy. Below are the questions and the candidate’s answers.
Do you support or oppose county-wide expansion of 24/7 ambulance service to provide service for all of the citizens of Watauga County within the national standard of reaching a 911 caller within 9 minutes of receiving the call. Explain your answer.
Todd S. Castle (District 1): I completely support the ambulance base expansion. I ran very passionately on this issue in 2020 and my feelings haven’t changed. If elected I will work tirelessly to make this happen. All our citizens deserve the very best medical care regardless of geographical location.
Angela Laws King (District 1): I absolutely support countywide expansion of 24/7 ambulance service to provide service for all the citizens of Watauga County. Many hours and meetings have been spent researching and discussing this topic. I’ve met with our town and county leaders as well as Will Holt, Director of Watauga County EMS; Dino DiBernardi, Caldwell County EMS Chief; and Craig Sullivan, Watauga Medics owner. My favorite quote from these conversations is “We don’t balance the budget on public safety”, Chief DiBernardi, Caldwell County. Watauga County should strive to emulate this philosophy and the top-notch ambulance service and training in Caldwell County. Partnerships with UNC Healthcare, Appalachian State and Caldwell Community College can play a vital part in not only increased training but funding as well in Watauga County. As county commissioner, my role would be to facilitate these collaborations. I will work diligently to ensure that all residents of Watauga County have access to 24/7 ambulance care that meets or exceeds the national standards.
Braxton Eggers (District 3): Yes; I support improvement in our 911 call response times. For our municipalities which border other counties, we should have an interlocal agreement with the neighboring county so that one ambulance can serve both sides of the county line. We can also partner with Mountain Ambulance, which provides substantial grants for ambulances for our mountain community. Blowing Rock should have the same benefit of ambulance response times that are currently in place in Boone and Beech Mountain. It is my intent to bring the right parties to the table to implement this, rather than talk it to death as has been done in the past.
Melissa Goins Tausche (District 4): Yes, I do. According to their statements in 2020, the current commissioners wanted the rec center in town close to the other ball fields because they thought it was too far to go between schools when we hosted a tournament. It could be an hour from Bethel to Parkway or 45 minutes from school to school. Likewise, it is too far to expect an emergency transport vehicle to save someone’s life when having to go a long distance into the county.
Larry Turnbow (District 4): I support this expansion. We continue to extend emergency services throughout the county as our budget allows, based on call and response data for each area. We strive for the best service for all citizens, though given the nature of our geography, it’s by no means certain we will be able to achieve a 9-minute response in some of our more remote areas.
Do you support or oppose continuation of the current modified ad valorem sales tax allocation method that benefits smaller incorporated towns in the county. Explain you answer.
Larry Turnbow (District 4): I have answered this question quite clearly in the past. However, I have been advised not to make a further response at this time on the advice of the County Attorney, because our current allocation method is the subject of a lawsuit that has been continued to the NC Appeals Count.
Melissa Goins Tausche (District 4): I support this decision especially since it gives more funds to the various fire districts.
Braxton Eggers (District 3): The current distribution of sales tax revenues is much fairer to all members of our community than the lopsided per capita distribution. I support keeping the distribution as it is, because it benefits all of the municipalities and the rural fire districts which we depend upon for their volunteer services.
Angela Laws King (District 1): This question is very difficult to answer. I’ve discussed this issue with many town and county leaders, as well as the county attorneys, as I’ve attempted to educate myself on this topic. The legality of the change from per capita to ad valorem in our county is still the subject of an ongoing legal battle. Until this issue is resolved in the court of appeals, I cannot make a statement on whether to support the current method. My understanding from the county attorneys is this ruling will most likely not occur until 2023. I can certainly understand the Town of Boone leaders’ dismay at the change from the per capita to ad valorem method of sales tax distribution in April 2013-from the manner in which the change was instituted to the resulting loss of revenue for the town. Boone contains about 1/3 of the county population not including the many county residents who are employed in and use the services of Boone and raises the majority of sales tax in the county (historically, 60 to 70%). Change always brings some degree of positive and negative impacts. As I’ve met with town and county leaders, I’ve learned that the change has been beneficial for the fire districts, other towns and the county while creating a tremendous revenue loss for Boone. Ad valorem traditionally benefits rural areas while per capita benefits urban areas. We have a unique situation with a university town and resort towns surrounded by rural areas. Counties in North Carolina are generally evenly split between the two methods of sales tax distribution. Towns and the county can have interlocal agreements to minimize these impacts. These agreements don’t have to be monetary – towns can provide services instead. The goal of these interlocal agreements is to create an equitable solution for everyone – all the towns, fire districts and the county. I believe that our leaders are willing to have these discussions. With collaboration between leaders, I believe we can reach a solution where our sales tax distribution, whether ad valorem or per capita, can benefit everyone, not only the Town of Boone but the other towns, fire districts and county. I want to be a part of the solution to move Watauga County forward.
Todd S. Castle (District 1): I completely support the ad valorem tax structure. The funds distribution greatly benefits Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain, Seven Devils, and other unincorporated towns benefit from a revenue windfall. Tax distribution based on population only benefits Boone. I think it is a great way to allocate tax money and I have no plans to reverse it.
What are your top three priorities for the County Commission to address in the next two years?
Braxton Eggers (District 3): My top three priorities upon being elected would be to 1) address the mental health and substance abuse problems facing our community in a proactive manner; 2) renovating or improving our school infrastructure for all schools, including the HVAC systems and capital assets of each of our elementary schools, and 3) being a steward of our tax dollars so that we get the best outcome for our citizens tax payments while being mindful of the burden taxes place upon our hard working families.
Todd S. Castle (District 1): With the recent property tax revaluation, a majority of property owners saw a major rise in property value. The average increase is 67%. Unfortunately, this increase results in a tax increase on our hard working families and those on fixed incomes. The current commissioners had an opportunity to avoid a tax hike by going to revenue neutral at a rate of 28.5/$100 but instead used a rate of 31.8/$100. I want to reduce that rate to revenue neutral and reexamine another tax reevaluation soon, as the housing market slows due to unprecedented 40 year high inflation and interest rate hikes not seen in over 20 years. This action can have an effect on affordable housing by lowering home prices that more people can afford. Secondly, we have to expand services to all parts of the county for ambulance coverage and provide tools necessary for our fire departments and law enforcement, which will include placing school resource officers in every school in Watauga County, ideally 2 resource officers per school would be great. Lastly, we need to create good paying jobs to retain our local residents. We are literally pricing our local families out of the area. When we lose our home grown residents, we lose our heritage and identity. The very last place I want Watauga County to turn into is somewhere like Asheville. Sadly, the locals have lost their town. I’d fight every day to keep Watauga County the same look and feel I’ve grown up in and hope my children can raise their kids here if they choose to do so.
Angela Laws King (District 1): The most pressing issue facing Watauga is lack of collaboration. My top priorities for the next two years – county wide ambulance service, affordable housing, and sustainable economic development – will require collaboration form all our leaders to be achievable goals. For much of our county’s history, the business leaders, towns, university, and county all worked together in harmony for the greater good of all. In the last decades, that working partnership has deteriorated – leaving a trail of lawsuits, dissension, and distrust. The many ongoing issues that our county and towns face such as sales tax distribution, the housing crisis, emergency services and sustainable economic development can all be worked on more efficiently, and with a more positive outcome for all, by increasing communication and working collaboratively. As I’ve met with the mayors, commissioners, the school superintendent, App State leaders, town council members, fire chiefs and town managers across our county, I believe the overwhelming consensus is that our leaders are ready to embrace a collective culture. “The Great Connector” – that’s the moniker bestowed upon me from many friends. I’m well known for my ability to make connections between people, businesses, and organizations. Inclusivity is how I live my life – I want all citizens to feel included in and heard on what matters in our county. My mission is to listen, unite, and lead. As I’ve talked to other leaders in our community, I’ve learned that what works best to foster a spirit of collaboration is to listen – to find out what matters to the people who live and work here. I’ve already started those conversations – from my friends to our mayors, with Democrats and Republicans, with members of our community that have never voted – I’m asking that very question. From those discussions, I’m finding out what truly matters – from housing to schools to the environment. I’m learning about issues that I had no idea about – emergency services and sales tax distribution. I’m hearing what county commissioners have done well and what can be done more effectively. From these conversations, I’m repeatedly hearing the importance of unity. Out politics might be different, but our mission is the same – to unite all people regardless of our differences. My skill of connection will help facilitate this unification in Watauga County. My great desire is to utilize my passion for connection at the government level. When elected, I want to continue conversations that I’ve already started between our leaders. These conversations ask – what have we been doing, what’s going on now, what can we do better, and most importantly, how can we work together. What matters to you – the leaders of our county? We live in the most wonderful community – full of passionate, amazing people. I truly believe that we have the capability to collaborate and unite. In unity, we can grow stronger – building a bolder, bright Watauga- where we all work together for the common good. Where everyone has access to safe, affordable housing, where our water is clean, where all can access local farm food – where we balance life for our citizens as well as the many who love to visit us. Building relationships is key-together we can accomplish anything.
Melissa Goins Tausche (District 4): a. Housing – we have to find solutions for our citizens when it comes to long term affordable housing. I have studied some solutions other resort communities have come up with and some are very inventive. We will likely have to work with the General Assembly on some issues because it will be very difficult to make much headway without their support. We also need to look at streamlining the permitting process, especially with the health department and septic systems. b. Responsible spending: We are about to build a new 78,000 square foot school in Valle Crucis with a price tag of $55 million, up from the $35 million estimate that was given a few months ago. Even if you account for 8% inflation, it would have only added 2.8 million. We haven’t even broken ground yet!!! With the current commission’s track record of construction project overruns, I shudder to think what the final price might be. All 8 of our K-8 schools need to be rebuilt or renovated. It simply does not make sense to spend this much on one school. The school needs to be aesthetically pleasing and have everything the children and teachers need for proper learning, but this price tag is by far way too high. There is no reason we have to build schools that are the most expensive in the state. We also have the new 911 call center to build (no estimate yet) and the parking garage that has a bid price of $36,000 per space. Finally, I would like to see more transparency in the spending of our tax dollars, so the citizens of our county are aware of how money is spent. This school, while necessary, certainly does not need to cost 55 million, When the bids come in $20 million more than was anticipated, you go back and see how things and be re-engineered to bring the project back in line with expectations. c. Emergency Services – Making sure that the emergency services, police, fire, ambulance are properly funded and equipped. WE need to upgrade the emergency radios and find a way to make sure everyone in the county receives an equal representation in the services the county provides.
Further develop partnerships with our municipalities and businesses to resolve the issue of affordable workforce housing, which negatively impacts our ability to recruit and retain professionals and employees. Continuing our long-range planning with the School Board and Sheriff’s Department to repair and replace our aging School buildings, improve teacher pay, and improve public safety. This includes completing the new Valle Crucis School. Working with our local environmental groups, such as the Blue Ridge Conservancy and Middle Fork Greenway, to preserve and protect our natural resources and help our citizens connect to the beauty of our county.