Hendersonville voters return Jerry Smith to Council, change Jeffs, and reject park bond
By Pete Zamplas-Hendersonville voters on Tuesday reelected Mayor Barbara Volk and Councilman Jerry Smith, but switched Jeffs from Collis to Miller to very possibly shift balance of power and thus some policies.
They also rejected the Berkeley Park bond referendum, making the park apt to be developed in phases and perhaps less extensively than planned.
Volk defeated Councilman Ron Stephens in the mayoral race 59 to 40.8 percent, by getting 1,354 votes to his 936, in the unofficial tally Tuesday night. “I’m very grateful to all of the folks who voted,” the mayor said, “and to those who helped the campaign outside the polls and by such ways as mailings.”
Stephens remains a Council member, mid-way into his four-year term and intent to remain a budgetary watchdog. He already has a staunch ally in that regard in Councilman Steve Caraker, and gains one in Jeff Miller. Caraker donated to Miller and Stephens campaigns, campaign records show. Caraker voiced support of them to help restrain spending, debt, taxation and some regulations.
Miller (37.65 percent) and Smith (28.62%) won the two seats, displacing two-termer Collis (18 %), and defeating former Council member Diane Caldwell (15.5%).
Smith’s policy initiatives include getting a second student resource officer (SRO) for the four high schools, to boost security.
Miller got 1,588 of 4,218 votes cast. He said rival candidates were “very kind, in wishing me the very best” Tuesday night. He will take office at the monthly meeting Dec. 5, not the one today (Nov. 7) starting 5:45 p.m. He already removed his campaign signs at all 13 precincts, on election night.
This is Miller’s first public election victory. As the GOP candidate in 2010, he was neck-and-neck with incumbent Heath Shuler. Then a late blitz of television attack ads portrayed the fair tax Miller simply said he would consider as his idea. That was part of having “more than $4 million aimed against you.”
Miller called the Council election as much more civilized, “relaxing and enjoyable. I felt I can come in and quickly make a difference. I brought up issues such as the water system development charge. Even before I got elected, Council has made some corrections on it” such as no longer charging a tap-on fee for simply moving a business within the city.
Miller said voters indicated to him they want on Council people who are “honest, transparent and who’ll ask tough questions before decisions are made.” Though he is well known-for launching and running HonorAir flights for World War II vets, Miller said voters seemed to warm most to his common-sense business perspective. He runs the Miller family laundry and dry cleaning service. “I don’t want Jerry and Jeff painted as anti-business,” he emphasized. “They just didn’t have the same skill-set as I do in operating a business, to make certain judgments” affecting city finances.
As a specific example, “I heard from voters they want more oversight of city projects,” he said. “So there is not excessive spending that people identified with the new (satellite) fire station. So there are fewer cost overruns, such as on the Main Street project.” He also wonders whether newly-installed electronic-read meters will take too many decades to pay for themselves. “It’s costing $14 million, with borrowing,” he said. “I’m suspicious when you base decisions on (timetable) payback projections of the people making the product.”
Berkeley Park Phases
Meanwhile, voters rejected by referendum authorizing up to $6 million in general obligation bonds to develop city-owned Berkeley Mill Park, by 53.38 to 46.62 percent. Now, the city is apt to pursue park amenities in phases starting with most essential work of widening the road and improving bathrooms, Mayor Volk said.
Miller said he is behind those steps, to “make the park usable.” He told The Tribune he will consider Jerry Smith’s idea for a state-of-art playground. This is after weighing optional plans and costs, and “as long as we’re not borrowing money to do it” nor resurrecting a city recreation department.
Jerry Smith calls for a “destination playground” better than others in Henderson County, as cornerstone of a “highly-developed park with great amenities.” That could draw people who might also shop and dine for a few hours, he said. “It has to be so nice, people are willing to drive there.” Picnic shelters and a memorial tree garden are other early priorities up for discussion.
As for outside funding, Mayor Volk is “not planning on big (if any) funding from the county. They have parks of their own, they’re working on. It’s worthwhile discussing it with them them.” The budget-constrained county backed out of buying Highland Lake Golf Club, and so far is not helping the Village of Flat Rock buy or develop it as a park. Covering a fourth of those costs in 2013-14, Flat Rock secured a $475,000 state park grant. Grants are an option for Berkeley.
Miller suggests private sponsors for the park. “There are many ways to raise money, other than to raise taxes.”
Mill Site: Auction?
In Council’s meeting tonight (Nov. 7), a hot issue on the agenda is the historic Grey Hosiery Mill site. Council will possibly vote whether to sell it, and by which method. The evolving consensus is the city should get to turn down the top bid, if it is ridiculously low.
Mayor Volk said ahead of a report by City Manager John Connet and City Attorney Sam Fritschner that “my understanding is that no matter which method we choose, we can always reject a bid. There is not obligation to accept.” Smith said private bidding will clue the city about the mill’s true market value. Miller agrees “it’s a good measure.”
Volk said “we’ll look at the possibilities” of three optional sales methods, after staff reports. One is the “upset bid.” Once each bid and monetary deposit are submitted, others have 10 days to upset the latest bid by at least 5 percent. This is the most calculated method.
In contrast, in a live public auction the price can be bid up by competitors in heat of the moment, or remain stagnant and very low. Sealed bids are a more deliberate yet blinder guessing game, that could also drive the price to an extreme either way. A live auction is most transparent. Sealed bids by being private can draw more interest. These methods do not require disclosing planned use of the site as when the city earlier fielded offers and “we were prejudging what they’d try to do,” Smith noted.
Smith told The Tribune Tuesday morning that sealed bids appeal most to him, initially, but he will explore options Thursday. And he is open to a buyer stepping in ahead of an auction, with an enticing offer. “We owe it to the taxpayers to make the best use of that property.”
Miller cautions the top bid may be low. He said that rather than demolish the century-old mill, if its eventual developer “renovates it, it’d cost you a lot of money” though grants help. “You’d have to buy it very low, to have a chance of breaking even.” He said a new environmental study can give a clue about contamination cleanup costs.
Miller said if there is an auction, the option to reject a bid is crucial. Yet he also does not want that as an excuse to snub a viable project such as one proposed for apartments, if it is the lone one showing interest and at an acceptable price. He said, “You’d better be really good explaining why, if you don’t accept the high bid.”
If opinions are mixed a vote on how to proceed could be tabled until next month, when Miller replaces Collis who has supported a sale. Stephens and Councilman Steve Caraker have supported awarding the site for apartments. Stephens, last month, voted against even examining an auction. Several Council members are on record that if an auction begins before Miller takes office, the final decision on which bid wins will include him.
“I don’t think they’ll try to hijack anything,” Miller said of the first step, of choosing how to sell the site. “They’ll do what’s right, to let the new Council take over that discussion.”
Other Municipal Winners
Only three races were contested, in other municipalities within Henderson County. Fletcher Mayor Bill Moore fended off Dennis Justice, by 76-34.5 percent.
In Laurel Park, Paul Hansen (43.7%) and Dona Mennella (42.4%) were reelected as commissioner, beating Lou Lunardoni (13%). Finance officer Mennella starts her fourth term. The Mills River Council District 2 open seat went to Billy Johnston, 58-42 percent over James Cantrell.
Unopposed victors were Mills River Councilmen Larry Freeman in District 1 (D1) and Shanon Gonce (D3); Fletcher Council members Eddie Henderson and Sheila Franklin; and — Sheryl A. Jamerson (D1), Anne Guerard Coletta (D2) and Albert Gooch Jr. (D3) for Flat Rock Council open seats.