By Pete Zamplas-Jeff Collis seeks a third term on Hendersonville City Council, touting himself as a voice of reason against taxation and what he sees as some competitors’ overly pro-developer interests.
Collis, 44, a local native, fought against a proposed high-rise apartment downtown six years ago. Then, voters affirmed a height limit, and it was not built. This was months before the recession burst the housing bubble.
Now, he is wary of a much smaller apartment project, proposed for the Grey Hosiery Mill site the city owns. He prefers seeking optional projects, via an auction. The project’s advocates rip him as sounding too closed-minded. But Collis said he is cautious, protecting taxpayer money and interests.
As a parole officer, Collis gauges if convicts are abiding by restrictions. This helps the former Desert Storm Air Force veteran read people, in dealing with Council colleagues and the public. “In investigative work and surveillance, you observe your surroundings,” he explained. “You size people up. What they say and do can differ. I have a good sixth sense on what motivates actions. It’s played me well, especially with the height issue.” In that case, he checked into developers’ dealings elsewhere.
Collis finished third among six, in the two-seat Council race’s primary Oct. 8. Merchant Jeff Miller was first decisively, and Councilman Jerry Smith second. Collis gets a chance to make up ground along with Diane Caldwell, as among four finalists Nov. 5. Councilman Ron Stephens is challenging Mayor Barbara Volk for mayor.
Miller says business fees and rules are too strict. Collis said that view can go too far. He warns against Council changing its Jeffs (so to speak), or if Stephens unseats Mayor Barbara Volk. Either way, he said, the balance of power could shift and thrust Council into pro-developer overload. Collis said “when people have this development mindset, they get this gleam in their eye, that ‘oh, that’ll be great’” and do not scrutinize projects enough such as for viability or safety.
Miller affirms his pro-business, anti-tax sentiment but also independent thinking. He and Stephens assert the three incumbents are not doing enough for business, to give breaks in the recession.
Collis said he stands firm for the city’s overall benefit, and speaks out. “My Dad taught me to ‘tell it like it is.’ I’m saying things other people might not say in public” but tell him.
He campaigns door-to-door and with Facebook messages, turning down friends’ donations “on principal,” he said. Collis is registered politically as unaffiliated. “People know I’m right in the middle,” he said. “I’m more progressive than others. That makes some people cringe.”
Pepping up the Race
Collis ignited a crossfire by saying many Stephens and Miller campaign donors eye favors, and are fervent activists of business interests via the Partnership of Economic Progress (PEP) conservative watchdog group. Collis said collectively, “these folks are dumping thousands into this election. The majority of their members were lobbying me to go along with that high-rise. In 2005 when Ron was (first) running for mayor, all I heard Ron say in forums was it’s a great project.”
Stephens said he backs commercial projects on their own merits, and for his own views.
Miller crafted a pro-development record as city Planning Board chairman for a decade, in contrast to Caldwell when she was on Council, Collis said. He fears a popularity contest favoring former congressional candidate Miller. He launched HonorAir treks to D.C., for WWII veterans. “That’s all I hear. He’s done a great thing. But we’re not talking about that.”
Collis claimed 90 percent of Miller campaign donors “absolutely hate what I’m most proud of” in controlling business growth. “Jeff says they just want an ear. But these folks fight the city on some of the tiniest things, while 99 percent want to play by the rules.”
He said “the largest ($1,500 according to public record) contributor to Jeff Miller is the person we fought the most.” That CVS property developer successfully contested a state traffic safety analysis. It urged allowing no left turns at the site, just north of Spartanburg and Greenville highways. “It’s a hazard, right by the busiest intersection in the whole darn county. But DOT caved.” He said “if being concerned people could get killed (in crashes) there makes me ‘anti-business,’ I guess I am. Yet Jeff Miller said we did the right thing.”
Collis said of Miller’s personal beef over business fees, “Jeff said he fought the city for seven years. But he never called me. If roles were reversed, I’d be ringing his phone constantly.”
On the tax rate, Collis is “for not having any tax increases. I don’t see us doing so. We’ll still try to afford to do things, without raising taxes” by using reserve money. In his eight years on Council, “I’m proud we’ve weathered such an unbelievable economic downturn, with no tax increases whatsoever. We didn’t lay off a single employee. We still have city services second to none, in North Carolina. Even though we lost a lot of sales revenue,” from business closings and less consumer spending. “I’m proud for having my hand on the steering wheel.”
Until the economy strengthens, he is for dipping into reserves as Council did to prevent a tax increase in 2013-14 or gutting programs. He calls it false election “spin” to claim taxes will go up 6-7 cents per $100 of evaluated property, unless spending is slashed and projects nixed. He calls that figure bloated in two ways. The first is the bond referendum for Berkeley Mills Park, if approved, allows borrowing up to $6 million. In full, that costs 3 cents in taxes. But the latest project cost is four-fifths of that, in two phases. Thus Collis said it might cost “one or two pennies,” potentially offset by using reserve money.
The other presumption behind the tax hike scare is fully replenishing the fund balance to the city’s usual lofty 45 percent level, as Stephens suggests, Collis said. Collis instead wants that threshold lowered. The state mandates 8 percent. “It’s good stewardship of taxpayer money, to at times dip into our savings,” Collis said. “It’s a rainy day fund.” And he feels drops falling with “major infrastructure projects and capital costs such as for Main Street, and the Jackson Park interceptor.”
Collis favors the park referendum. Project savings were made by nixing the amphitheater, since only a “swamp” had room for it, Collis noted. He helped at the annual Mad Mountain Mud Run in Berkeley Park. He said such family events “attract younger people here.” The Rhythm and Brews festival is for adults. Collis said, “we’re becoming part of the beer capital of the Eastern U.S.”
Collis is proud of the city’s recent $20 million upgrade of its 1960 water system. Stephens attacked the cost of a second city fire station, versus its initial plan. Collis said there is “no major cost-over,” and the property cost little. Stephens “voted for it, then turns around and says ‘they’re spending like crazy people.’” He said of Stephens’ call for closer project oversight, “we’re not there to micromanage. We hire good people (the city engineer, et al), to do that for us.” He added, “we don’t let contractors dictate to us” project details.
He defended the oft-compatible policy views of himself, Smith and Volk. “We had failing infrastructure on Main Street. We could have torn up and patched up everything. Ron said that’s what he’d do, until the economy gets better.” Collis and Smith pressed for mile-long Main to be repaved and landscaped twice as fast as the original seven-year plan. It was finished this summer.
Downtown Hendersonville also benefits from the Main Street Program for economic development and event promotions. Collis said he pushed to switch its director from a “stagnant” private group to a city employee, Lew Holloway. “On my own dime, I traveled to towns that have very successful Main Street programs” to better develop local strategies.