By Pete Zamplas- Board of Commissioners Vice-chairman Tommy Thompson looks again to represent apple country and the rest of the county with what he describes as a blend of prudent budgeting with doing priority projects.
Thomas Hubbard “Tommy” Thompson turned 63 on April 22. He served most of his life (32 years) as local Clerk of Superior Court, from 1974 until retiring in 2006. He started at age 23, then the youngest court clerk in the state.
As the clerk he developed skills in detailed analysis and objective and deliberate decision-making by holding “thousands of hearings” as probate judge, his other role. “I was dealing with people in crisis situations” such as foreclosures, boundary disputes and mental competency, he said. Since then, as a certified mediator he has helped settle lawsuits in Superior Court. His degree is in business administration.
As a commissioner “I have always weighed the issues, and voted for what I believe is the most beneficial for all concerned.”
Thompson won all eight clerk races, then his first try for commissioner in 2010. This is his 10th local election. This time he has a challenger, in retired law enforcement officer Tim Griffin.
Thompson represents District 4 in northeast Henderson County, including Edneyville. He succeeded Mark Williams, who could not run again after moving out of that district. Colleagues chose Thompson as vice-chairman, and as chairman between stints of Mike Edney and current Chairman Charlie Messer.
Thompson has served on 10 local committees, with such focuses as agriculture, transportation, school facilities, elderly and Pardee Hospital. He is on Association of County Commissioners’ panels for economic development, criminal justice, and state policies. He chaired the Dana Community Plan Advisory Committee
He was a force three years ago in hiring an agribusiness director, Williams, who helps “make farm-related industry boom,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to be proactive in bringing in new business related to agriculture,” such as two wineries. He said Williams helps some farmers expand markets or diversify. He noted farming accounts for 18 percent of local residents’ gross income, and more than 5,000 employees.
Thompson is among three commissioners whose terms expire in December. With no Democrats on the ballot in fall, all three races will be decided in the GOP primary May 6.
Looking back on his first term, Thompson stated “we have worked diligently to bring in industry and jobs, expand county services and facilities, build a rainy day fund, and not increase taxes.”
Property tax rates are adjusted after county reappraisals of properties every four years, including next year. This brings in the prior amount of tax revenue, for a “revenue-neutral” budget that provides a basis for budgeting.
A burning question is how feasible it might be to lower the rate for 2014-15 that begins July 1, from 51.36 cents per $100 of county-appraised property value. Thompson said it is too early to tell until a month or so, when final 2013-14 leftover money is clearer and better yet after the final audit. So far “we’re over $800,000 above the estimate” on tax revenue. In 2012-13, “$5.5 million less was spent than was budgeted,” he said. “When you’re so frugal, that money goes back into the coffers.”
That can grow “fund balance” reserves. Thompson said there is “possibility” of dipping into that money, to lower taxes. But he said keeping an extra-healthy level maintains a sterling bond rating, which results in lower interest rates on debt. He said, “Our bond rating is superior to that of 95 percent of counties in North Carolina.”
Above all “I will not vote in any way, shape, form or fashion for a tax increase.” He further told The Tribune, “We’d love to lower the taxes. We should always explore the opportunity to lower the rate. But we also have to provide what’s needed. We might stick with what rate we have.”
He noted by lowering the rate one penny, for someone whose property the county assesses at $200,000 “you’re saving that person 20 bucks. That’s not a huge boost to their wealth” if cut. He added, “When you add it all together, it makes a tremendous difference in money we have. This enables us to take care of services and capital improvements that people are demanding. We have a lot on our table.”
The county typically borrows for new projects in amounts similar to what debt it pays off, he said. He said by June 30, $980,000 in debt payment expires then about $3 million more in two years following.
Thus the county is moving ahead on a $16.2 million health education facility near Pardee Hospital. A likely project soon is renovating Hendersonville High School and building an addition onto adjacent, former Boyd property the county bought last year, he noted.
Thompson strongly advocates for emergency services and law enforcement. “We need to definitely move the EMS people away from the hospital, and also move the rescue squad,” he said. “We could combine them in one facility, to share equipment and training.” Its feasibility study is due by late May.
He supports aiding non-profit Flat Rock Playhouse, but noted the $100,000 the county gave this year is not necessarily “a recurring figure.” The county got state legislators last summer to authorize an extra one percent of room occupancy tax in the county with that money dedicated to FRP. This raised the motel tax to the state limit of six percent.
Commissioners have debated how much public aid if any to give the playhouse to help it stay afloat and gradually pay off debt. This season, FRP has been turning the corner toward profit such as by getting more donors, selling more tickets, and reducing number of productions and thus costs, according to Managing Director Hillary Hart.
Thompson told The Tribune that FRP, the state’s official theater, draws tourists and locals to town who also shop and dine here. “That money goes to motels, gas stations, and restaurants and is astronomically high.” Updates of a Western Carolina University impact study of FRP put the total amount at an estimated $14 million, he said, though some question that amount. “That’s huge, compared to other tourist ventures.”
He added, “when you have such an economic driver, we need to keep it alive and thriving. People who complain about this move, inform us how else to keep it viable. The playhouse has a great part in our history. When people talk about Henderson County, they talk about apples and about the Flat Rock Playhouse.”
He points to tax and other incentives bringing in Sierra Nevada and other industry, providing jobs and helping reduce the jobless rate in the county to 5.1 percent.
On the recreation front, the county last year converted former Hendersonville Christian School facilities and classrooms into the public Athletics and Activity Center. “That center is being used daily,” and provides county recreation’s first gymnasium, Thompson said. He said the county bought it for under a million dollars, on a “short sale considerably cheaper than it was worth.” A state park trust grant paid for an artificial athletic field.
He noted public surveys cited as among major needs more soccer fields, and basketball indoors. “Idle hands is the devil’s workshop,” he said, “Children need something to do.”
Since Jackson Park’s landscaping drainage and entrance road were improved, the park has drawn more tournaments and revenue, he said. The county recently spent $750,000 to improve its parks. Such money joined private donors in Etowah, Edneyville, East Flat Rock with Dana next, he said. He said a $300,000 Tuxedo-Zirconia public park is replacing a mill “infested with rats and snakes.”
He cited such other county achievements as a new Waste Management and Recycling Center, higher teacher supplemental pay, getting Wingate University local classes, and securing UNC Health Care to manage county-owned Pardee Hospital which has reduced expenses.
The East Henderson High School alumnus and his wife Sherry Staton Thompson live in Dana, near Upward. Their grown children are Thomas C. “T.C.” Thompson of Boyd Auto, and Amanda Thompson Vavalle. The Thompsons have four grandchildren. For more information, check electtommythompson.com.