By Pete Zamplas – Buncombe County commissioner Robert Pressley said he will keep fighting for better school security if reelected Nov. 6, and also for restrained and prioritized county spending.
This is the first full week of early voting, which is 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and then 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3. Buncombe County has 11 voting sites including Leicester Library in District 3, where Pressley is challenged by Democrat Donna Rogers Ensley. Ensley, who lives in Arden, beat two other women in her primary while Pressley was unopposed.
So far, early voter turnout seems far ahead of the pace four years ago in the last mid-term election, Pressley said. “It’s closer to a presidential election year.” The election has been tabbed as a battle for congressional supremacy, referendum on Pres. Donald Trump and locally to decide the balance of power and who can best represents constituent interests.
Pressley won his first-ever run for public office two years ago. The populist, conservative Republican unseated David King, who ran as a Democrat. Former NASCAR driver Pressley got over 26,000 votes county-wide, for 57 percent of the tally. King previously was a Buncombe commissioner in 2012-14, as Republican. But he lost the GOP primary in ’14 to Miranda DeBruhl. DeBruhl then won the seat, but stepped down ahead of the 2016 election to focus on more out-of-state business.
Thus, when Pressley beat King in the ’16 general election it was for DeBruhl’s remaining two years. Now, Pressley seeks his first full four-year term and to continue a blend of providing for priority county needs but with budgetary and regulatory restraint. He supports more school resource officers (SROs), and continued county supplemental pay raises for educators.
Buncombe’s three districts each have two commissioners. Joe Belcher and Pressley represent D3 in western Buncombe County. It includes Enka and Leicester. Pressley, 59, is a lifelong resident on his family’s property in Bent Creek, near the N.C. Arboretum. The ’77 Enka alum went to the Enka-Erwin football game last Friday. “Erwin was my rival,” for Enka. “But both schools are in my district. We work for everybody. We also get out to the schools, fire departments and churches.”
Compared to the 2016 campaign, “we’re working even harder. We know what a difference we’ve made. We want to continue that. There are jobs to finish. We do not take anything for granted.”
Similar to on-track adventures, “as a county commissioner, you have to expect the unexpected. Much can change — every lap, or every week,” he said. Pressley was 25th best in NASCAR Cup (top circuit) points in 2000 and again in 2001. He ran 205 Cup races in nine years, in 1994-2002. In racing and in governance, “you have to stay on top of everything. Be aware of what’s in front of you, and what’s beginning to come up on you.”
But his racing takes a backseat to his business profile. “I’m still known mostly as the Celebrity Hot Dog guy (owner). I’m the guy everybody knows. Just like everybody knew Andy Griffith” in Mayberry, he said. “Second, I’m known as a county commissioner. People say they appreciate” his service. “Third is I’m known for racing.” He has run Celebrity for 14 years; it is at 1409 Brevard Road (N.C. 191). It draws 500 customers per day, including school athletes he roots on.
His opponent Donna Ensley calls for land-use restricts within a “calculated, strategic approach to growth” coordinated with the City of Asheville, Metro Planning Org. and Connect Buncombe which promotes greenways. She is endorsed by the environmental Sierra Club of WNC, area AFL-CIO and Buncombe County Assoc. of Educators. Ensley was MANNA FoodBank’s chief development officer, retiring two years ago. She has served as board president for the Rotary Club of Asheville and YWCA.
The Commission’s balance of power is at stake. There are often 4-3 votes. Pressley said he, Belcher and Mike Fryar are conservatives. He said Al Whitesides tends to side with liberal commissioners and decides 4-3 votes, but “at times breaks up” a liberal majority by siding with conservatives such as for more school resource officers.
The board’s liberal majority would get much firmer, if Ensley unseated Pressley and if Democrats retain an open seat. “Buncombe County for 30-some years has been run mostly by Democrats and progressives,” Pressley said. He said currently the board’s liberals are Chr. Brownie Newman, Ellen Frost, and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. Whitesides, like Pressley, is up for reelection after filling the last two years of a term. He was appointed to fill Newman’s District 1 seat, once Newman won election in 2016 as chairman to succeed David Gantt. Whitesides is unopposed, for reelection.
The second contested race affecting the power balance is Frost’s open D2 seat; she declined to run again. Democrat Amanda Edwards, 40, of Weaverville, is executive director of the A-B Technical Community College Foundation. She has led the local Literacy Council and Red Cross. Her husband, Derek Edwards, is Claxton Elementary principal. She won a four-person primary.
GOP hopeful Glenda Weinert, of Alexander, teaches business, accounting at UNCA and AB Tech. She has MBA and accounting degrees, and urges greater county fiscal responsibility and transparency. She owns a Firehouse Subs, and has helped run Little Beaver Child Care Centers. Weinert has chaired the N.C. Childcare Commission for the past six years, and was a board officer for the N.C. Education Advocacy Council.
Weinert is “very business savvy,” Pressley said. “I compare her to me, in experience of working on a budget” in the private sector. Before running a restaurant, he budgeted for his race team. “You race for 36 weeks a year, but you have a payroll for all 52 weeks. You have to budget everything out, or you run out of funds.”
School safety and security is a prime issue. Robert Pressley said that among commissioners, “I was the lead person to get an on-school detective for county and (Asheville) city schools” within Buncombe County. Instead of one of the sheriff’s five detectives taking turns on school case, “now we have our very own detective working only on schools and how to make the schools safer.”
Pressley is also proud of helping the county add six resource officers to elementary schools, to total ten SROs for younger students. The board voted last month (on Sept. 4) to do so. “We more than doubled our resource officers” in elementaries, as a step toward staffing each one with an SRO. Each of Buncombe’s six public high school and 11 middle school has an SRO. Now more than a third (10 of 27) of its elementaries each has or soon gets a trained resource officer.
Yet the vote for more SROs was a close 4-3, with Whitesides joining the conservative block. The other three commissioners voted against it. Pressley said they instead “wanted to spend money for mental health” such as seeking another type of state school safety grant. The one in hand was “designated only for resource officers,” Pressley noted. “You can’t use a milk coupon on eggs or bread.”
He calls it “absolutely shocking” there was not a consensus for SROs, considering the national outbreak of violent incidents in schools that Buncombe’s grant application cited.
The application also indicated SROs helped Buncombe in 2016-17 greatly reduce the number of reported incidents of assaults in schools, and confiscation of pocketknives and other weapons. The overall $35 million school safety fund state legislators set up is led by $12 million in state SRO funding (up by $5 million), and $10 million for behavioral health personnel.
Chr. Newman prefers that last option to SROs, as the next step. In commissioner meetings he called for mental health services for students to try to prevent school violence rather than counter it, based on input from principals and teachers. Pressley sees taking both courses over time, seeking state staffing grants for “mental health for our schools. We’ll get with our state legislators on that.”
Newman noted the SRO grant is a temporary aid. Yet Buncombe County can apparently reapply for more aid, beyond the new two-year grant. If it is not renewed, the county’s share rises drastically from year three onward.
That $333,333 grant helps pay for new SROs in their first two years. The county looks to put some of that money to SROs hired on an earlier, five-year grant that expired. The six new SROs are projected to cost more than $400,000 annually longer-term, and $669,030 initially with start-up costs such as $42,576 per officer for vehicles and equipment.
Each new officer’s salary and benefits is budgeted at $68,929, with the state grant covering nearly half ($33,333) of that. Buncombe County anticipates paying $483,073 for new SROs in this year one, then $227,627 in year two — less than half as much, thanks to the two-year grant. Interim County Mgr. George Wood suggested dipping onto reserve money for the county’s share in the first two years, rather than bloating the budget.
An SRO can help on many levels. “Young kids get acquainted with the officer, who can be a friend and gain their trust. So, they tell the SRO if there is bullying, or issues at home. If there is a divorce and single-parent custody, we don’t want the ‘wrong’ parent (the one without main custody) picking up the kid after school” without custodial parent’s knowledge and consent.
The officers can detect a school’s vulnerable access point for strangers, so these can be closed off, he added. Those elementaries not yet staffed with an SRO can still get deterrence such as by a deputy parking a squad car in the school lot while on lunch break.
Combating drugs is a major benefit of SROs checking out schools. “Students watches” are forming, to detect and report suspicious activity on campus, Pressley said.
Opioid pills are among drugs found at schools, he said. He is proud that “Buncombe is the first county in the state to file a lawsuit against pharmaceutical firms,” over insufficient warnings on addictiveness. “We have to solve the source.” That includes urging physicians to prescribe fewer pain pills. “Kids see medication in their grandparents’ home” and swipe it, he said. He said especially in a trusting small town, the family doctor readily prescribes to the elderly patient to replace that supply.
Energy mandates ares a point of debate. Newman, a noted environmentalist, led recent passage of a policy to get all county operations on renewable energy sources by 2030 and private enterprises as well on renewable energy within 25 years. The vote was to proceed, but to reevaluate, Pressley said.
“We’re all looking at fossil fuels and clean energy,” Pressley said. He applauds new schools having solar panels, and retrofitting newer schools with them. “It’s made a big impact.” But he cautions it may be cost-prohibitive to overhaul older schools, which tend to have fewer and smaller windows.
Pressley said colleagues differ on how much clean energy conversion to require, how soon, “how to do it” and at what taxpayer cost. He sees goals as overly ambitious. “It seems mathematically impossible, to get 100 percent” compliance.
The financial burden could threaten small private businesses, he warned. “The economy is the best it’s been in decades, but many businesses are just now back to being profitable.”
For more on D3’s two candidates, check electdonnaensley.com and on Facebook for Robert Pressley for County Commissioner. In the other (District 2) contested commissioner race check Elect Amanda Edwards on Facebook, and glendapweinert.com.