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County Commission candidates talk taxes, water and I26 at CIBO forum

By Catherine Hunter –

While most of the Buncombe County Commission candidates said they would not consider raising taxes, District 1 incumbent Democrat Holly Jones said she would have to, “look at the numbers.” District 1’s other Democrat Brownie Newman, said he would consider raising the occupancy tax before property tax rates.

District 2 incumbent Democrat Carol Peterson said, “We need to have the lowest property tax rates we can have while providing the services needed.”

The candidates stated their ideas during the November 1 Council of Independent Business Owners forum Thursday. In addition to questions about remaining revenue neutral, the candidates answered questions about the water system, the ETJ and zoning. Audience questions included what would they do differently from the current commission, how they would promote the I26 connector and would they provide more funds for workforce housing.

Regarding the taxes, most of the candidates said they did not believe in raising property taxes. “We spend money like it’s water,” said District 2 Republican candidate Mike Fryer.

District 2’s other Republican, Christina Merrill, said much of the problem was that the county did not re-assess the property values when the market bottomed out. “The tax payers should not bear the [current] debt,” she said.

Another hot topic for the candidates was, of course, the water issue. “Having four people from Eastern North Carolina deciding this [water control] is wrong,” Newman said.

District 3 Democrat candidate Terry Van Duyn, said having the state tell Asheville and Buncombe County what to do about the water system was not conducive to a resolution. Joe Belcher, Republican running for District 3, said he supported whatever was best for the taxpayers.

Another topic hot enough to spark agreement between the candidates was the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) of Asheville. District 2 candidate Mike Fryer said the city was using the ETJ as leverage for annexation and it needed to be done away with as soon as possible.

“People in that area don’t know who to call when they need something,” said District 2 Democrat candidates Ellen Frost and Peterson agreed, saying the county needs to take the area back.

The Interstate 26 connector topic also inspired strong agreement with all the candidates saying it was time for the county and city to work together on the project.

“We need to be the squeaky wheel with Raleigh,” said District 1 Republican candidate Don Guge. “There are things we can do to push this up the [Department of Transportation] list.”

District 3 Democrat candidate Michelle Pace Wood said there would always be someone who is not happy with whatever plan they agreed upon, but the communities needed to decide on something to send to Raleigh.

“I agree,” said David King who is the other Republican running for District 3. “We need to hammer out a local plan we can agree upon.”

When asked about making more funds available for affordable housing development, Frost said it was more effective to talk about increasing living wage jobs in the area and building up rather than out. Merrill said it was more important to reduce taxes and regulations, thus giving the private sector more of a chance to produce jobs and affordable housing.

During closing statements, Fryer said working across party lines on all issues would help save tax dollars. Jones said she would continue to ask the hard questions, be a voice and listen to everybody.

“I was the best soldier, the best cop and best business owner I knew how to be,” Guge said. “I’ll be the best commissioner I can be.”

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