The seven Republican candidates for the Polk County Board of Commissioners answered four questions at a public forum last Thursday. The forum was sponsored by the Tryon Daily Bulletin and the Polk County News Journal and moderated by Janet Wooley of the Polk County Chamber of Commerce.
Candidates George Comparetto, Harry Denton (incumbent), Karl Kachadoorian, Bill McKaig (incumbent), Ted Owens and Tom Pack attended the forum. Republican candidate Jerry Halford did not attend.
At the July 20 primary, voters will choose three Republican candidates to vie for the three open seats on the county board of commissioners. The three Republicans will face the three Democratic candidates, Johnny Metcalf, Benny Smith and Virginia Walker, in the November election.
The six who attended were given six minutes each to answer all four questions. They had no knowledge of the questions prior to the forum Thursday.
The questions and the candidates’ answers to them are printed below.
1. Some citizens say the current county manager has more influence in the county government than past managers. What is your view of the county manager’s role and if elected would you retain the current county manager Karim Shihata?
Harry Denton: “The county manager serves at the pleasure of the board of commissioners,” said Denton. “The board of commissioners draws out what I call a road map for him to take to go forward with.”
He said the majority of commissioners also set the speed the county is running, whether it’s slow, medium or fast.
“Sometimes I say let’s go medium and maybe my fellow commissioners say let’s go faster,” he said.
Karl Kachadoorian: “Commissioners have tarnished the image of Polk County government by allowing the county manager to run rampant over their constituents,” said Kachadoorian.
Kachadoorian said the current board and manager have “gone from truthfulness and arrived at ruthlessness” in the way people are treated.
“There’s a lot of deceit and underhanded tactics to their way of doing business,” he said. “My problem with the county manager is the lack of character, a lack of being able to talk straight. The man can’t tell the story straight. And why this board puts up with it, I don’t know. They tried to take a vote one time to oust him and they gave him a contract and a raise.”
George Comparetto: “Based on his attitude and actions, I kind of lean towards replacing him,” said Comparetto. “But, I don’t know the man.”
Comparetto said if he is elected and Shihata quickly demonstrates his ability to do the job, becomes responsive and polite to citizens, then he might give him a second opportunity.
“But under no circumstances would I ever vote for him to have a contract,” he said “You might say, if he’s willing to carry the commissioners’ wants, instead of them carrying his, he might be all right.”
Tom Pack: “I look at the Polk County government as a business,” said Pack. “And like in any business from time to time you’re going to have changes in upper management.”
Pack said that may be what happens when three new commissioners are voted to the board in November.
He said whenever new management comes in, those elected officials will review any positions that report directly to them, such as the county manager.
“They will look at the county manager’s past record and determine if he is an asset or a liability to the county,” he said.
Ted Owens: “The law says that the county manager and the county attorney serve at the pleasure of the county commissioners,” said Owens. “The question here is a little bit wrong. It says the past county managers have not had that much influence; they have.”
Owens said there are only two jobs that he knows of in the county that can be eliminated or terminated without any questions asked.
“I agree that we need to look at the situation when we are elected and decide on merits and decide if we can work on a proper relationship or not,” said Owens.
If not, he said, as any business organization should do, then changes have to be made.
Bill McKaig: “We hired this county manager and I don’t think there’s a person in here who can say he’s done something wrong, he’s done something illegal,” said McKaig. “He’s done his job at the direction of the county commissioners and he’s doing an outstanding job as far as I’m concerned.”
McKaig said Shihata was selected from a number of candidates for county manager and commissioners went through and asked them all the same questions.
“And I’ll stick with him forever,” he said.
2. General fund expenditures in the county’s new budget are up about $1.2 million from the current year, or about $1.9 million when including expenses for the new solid waste fund. Some citizens have said the spending is needed to catch up on long overdue projects; others say it is too much too fast and a large tax increase is likely in the near future. What are your views on the county’s spending?
Harry Denton: “Expenditures have gone up this year,” said Denton.
Denton said unfortunately the current board of commissioners were faced with a lot of needs.
“And when I got elected I said at that time that this board will have to do more and make tougher decisions than in the history of Polk County, which is true,” he said.
Denton said the county’s schools were overcrowded and the current board had no choice but to make a decision.
“It’s not an easy decision to borrow this much money, but as elected officials, you have to make some tough choices; some of them are not very popular.”
“The tax increase – I’m hoping next year our tax increase will be very minimal,” he said. “If I’m re-elected I’m going to try very hard to keep it a minimum.”
Denton acknowledged that there will be a tax increase next year to help pay for items such as the school bond, a new transfer station and to finish up projects such as the health department addition.
“The health department, that was put on our platter,” he said. “It’s been leaking for ten years.”
”Take a look at this board’s record,” said Kachadoorian, “the biggest budget in history at $21.5 million dollars.”
He said the current board has the biggest debt service in history at $2.6 million this year and that figure will go to $3 million next year.
“We’ve got more laws than we know what to do with,” he said.
He mentioned that this year’s recently approved budget added six and a half new employees and has also added “higher taxes,” or new fees.
“Yes, a fee is a tax,” said Kachadoorian. “They keep saying it isn’t.”
“Everything is justified by the old Democratic motto, it’s for the greater good, like daddy taking you out to the wood shed,” he said. “Ouch.”
George Comparetto: “What are my views on spending?” asked Comparetto, “Way, way, way too much.”
He said he decided to run for county commissioner because of his love for the community and his concern about the “reckless way” the current board is endangering the county both socially and economically.
“There’s been a loss of public trust in the current board and I believe I can help turn things around,” he said.
Tom Pack: “I think we are spending more than Polk County can afford,” said Pack. “I worry about the young couples that are trying to start out in Polk County, I worry about the elderly, retired citizens that are on a fixed income, I also worry about the speed at which we’re doing things.”
He said there is no way around Polk County growing and changing, but elected officials need to make sure they are watching what they are doing and planning for change.
“We may overlook important details and have problems,” he said. “The perfect example is the courthouse across the street. We’re going to have to go back and spend more money.”
“We need to slow down and make sure that we look at every detail and make sure we’re doing the right thing for Polk County,” he said.
Ted Owens: “Several years ago, my philosophy was that the county should not outspend its tax base,” said Owens.” In other words, the county cannot outspend its growth.”
He said the county should be conservative and for the years he served as county commissioner in the past, he never voted for one tax increase. He said for the years Buster Wilson was county manager, there was never a budget that called for a tax increase.
“But I will tell you that it will be a very last resort before I vote for a tax increase,” he said. “I’ll look at every other possibility, every other chance we can do without creating another tax increase.”
This is what we have done over the last 18 months,” said McKaig as he addressed charts. “We’ve renovated all schools. Sunny View is the first complete gymnasium in the history of the Sunny View area.”
McKaig reviewed the expected completion of a new middle school in 2005, an addition to the health department, a new transfer station, recreational facilites and jail renovations.
He said all projects have been needed for years, but commissioners are now accomplishing them.
“We have a 30 percent fund balance,” said McKaig. “That’s never been heard of in this county.”
3. The “one-shot,” or “bullet ballot” is a political tactic used when the voter is asked to select three or more candidates, as in the race for commissioner, and cast only one vote for one candidate. This has the effect of depriving the other candidates of support and creating an imbalance for the one-shot candidate. How many of you support this tactic and please state if you are urging your supporters to cast a “bullet ballot” or not.
“The one shot ballot, that’s been around in Polk County a long time,” said Denton. “That is unsportsmanlike conduct in the political arena.”
Denton said he will not “ slingshot” anyone and he will not ask anyone else to do it for him.
“Our forefathers gave their lives on foreign soil for us to vote and it’s up to you to vote for three people,” he said. “Number one is Harry.”
Karl Kachadoorian: “Does advocating a bullet for a one shot ballot sound like someone who has confidence in their record or the board’s record?” Kachadoorian asked. “I don’t think so.”
He said that it appears that the one-shot vote is the cornerstone for McKaig’s campaign. He said other commissioners advocating the one-shot vote for McKaig “don’t have the guts to admit it.” “Real stand-up folks,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, the bullet ballot is not illegal,” said Kachadoorian, “but it sure says a lot about how a person values their integrity and character and says volumes about their lack of confidence and personal abilities in past deeds, or should I say misdeeds.”
George Comparetto: “I don’t support one-shot and I’m not asking my supporters to do it,” said Comparetto. “I think it’s wrong and inexcusable to make up the board of commissioners.”
Tom Pack: “I’m totally against a one shot ballot,” said Pack. “There again it’s not unlawful, but it’s unethical. That’s not the way to get into the position.”
Ted Owens: A one-shot ballot…sort of upsets me,” said Owens.
He said he’s been chairman of the Republican party and likes to see people come out and work together and run for office and be up front.
“No, I’m against one shot,” he said. “It’s not against the law, but it’s unethical as far as I’m concerned. If you are man or woman enough to run for office, stand up and run. I consider it a rigged election.”
Bill McKaig: “I served 21 years in the Air Force in support of my country, for one thing, the right of the citizen to go out at that booth and vote whatever way he wishes to vote,” said McKaig. “That’s his right and privilege. “
McKaig said as long as this country has those individual rights, it’s “in good shape.”
As far as McKaig supporting a one-shot vote, “it’s a privilege to vote whichever way you want.”
He said he has a sister who switched to independent to vote for him as other people have switched to do the same for other candidates.
“That’s a privilege,” he said.
4. What is your advice to taxpayers on paying the $35 availability fee for the transfer station? Each of you is asked if you plan to pay it or not when your property tax bill arrives. Also, do you feel that those served by private collection companies in the three towns, and those who pay a $75 annual fee to haul their own trash should be exempt?
Harry Denton: “Commissioners knew for several years that we were running out of time,” said Denton. “We had to make a tough decision.”
Denton said imposing the $35 for every household hurt him deeply, but the money had to come from somewhere. He said the fee was to pay for the new transfer station, as well as the old Little Mountain Landfill fees.
“I know retirees out there on fixed income,” said Denton. “That $35 can take the medicine off their table. $35 can take the groceries off their table. And that hurts to know you’ve done this, but we had no choice.”
He said the current board of commissioners can take the fee away at its next meeting, but the difference will reflect next year on residents’ property tax bills.
“And as far as the towns not being able to pay, 56 counties do this,” he said.
Karl Kachadoorian: “When I get my tax bill, I will pay my taxes early,” said Kachadoorian. “I will not pay the $35 unless I have to until December.”
Kachadoorian said there is no reason why he should be paying a fee.
“You pay a fee when you get a driver’s license,” he said. “If you don’t want to get a driver’s license, you don’t pay a fee.
“If they want to make it a tax, let’s call it a tax.”
George Comparetto: “The Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) has investigated this,” said Comparetto.
He said CSE has contacted the N.C. Institute of Government and has a report that says the county cannot charge people who have a private contractor or a city contractor who takes the refuse somewhere besides the county transfer station.
“I don’t advocate anyone not paying their taxes, but I do advocate us doing something about this,” said Comparetto.
He mentioned that the statute states an unpaid fee can be processed as an unpaid tax bill.
Tom Pack: “I think that we should look at a different way to pay for this,” said Pack. “We need to slow down.”
Pack said for people on fixed incomes, $35 is a lot of money
“I will look and see how we can sort this fee and limit the costs to the citizens of Polk County,” said Pack.
He said as far as the legality of charging people whose trash is picked up by a private collection company, “if the law says it’s unlawful, then we’ll have to exempt those people. There’s no way around it.”
Ted Owens: “I’ve heard what’s said and I’m sure there’s a need, but listen, anytime you have to pay a fee that you have no choice, it has to be a tax even if it is necessary,” said Owens.
He said a service fee that people have a choice to pay or not is a service fee, but a fee put on tax bills as a tax is a tax. “But again, if it’s there and it’s the law, then you pay it,” he said. “And I will pay it.”
Bill McKaig: “Everybody thinks about it as strictly the transfer station,” said McKaig. “But we’ve got a lot of things.”
McKaig said the county has two landfills, one that is closed and is costing a “bundle to keep up” and another that will have to be closed.
He said the county has a well that has to be monitored and that is all part of the fund as well.
“The transfer station has always cost us extra money than what they take in,” he said. “So, some way we’ve gotta pay for the whole works…two landfills, the new transfer station and all.”