Tuesdays night’s candidate forum was organized and hosted by Indivisible Wilkes, a local non-partisan group.
Jerry Swaim, former Wilkes County school principal and former member of the Wilkes Board of Elections, was moderator and asked the questions. Candidates received copies of the questions in advance and had two minutes per answer, with Indivisible Wilkes Chairman Gwen Shafer as timekeeper.
About an hour was allowed for the North Wilkesboro race and the same for the Wilkesboro race.
The four candidates for two Wilkesboro councilman seats and the two candidates for Wilkesboro mayor this fall answered questions in a candidates’ forum Tuesday at Wilkes Community College’s Pit Auditorium. Participants were mayoral candidates Mike Inscore (the incumbent) and Dallas Handy, and councilman candidates Andy Soots, Greg Minton and incumbents Gary Johnson and Jimmy Hayes.
Questions and portions of answers follow:
“If elected, what single issue is most important to you?”
Andy Soots: Having adequate “clean, usable water” is the number one issue. “The other thing is bringing Samaritan’s Purse to our area…. We all can benefit so much from having them in our area. They have over 100 acres in our city limits…. If I’m elected, I’m going to push again to do everything I can to get our part of the pie from North Wilkesboro.” (Editor’s note: The 100-acre Samaritan’s Purse tract off Edgewood Road is just outside town limits, but town officials say it could easily be annexed.)
Greg Minton: Implementation of the “superstreet” plan for U.S. 421 in western Wilkesboro and having adequate water. He said the superstreet project is needed to improve safety. Adequate water is needed “to maintain our continued growth…. We need to capture and process as much water as possible.”
Gary Johnson: Concerns about the Superstreet plan for U.S. 421 in western Wilkesboro hurting businesses there and getting more single family and multi-family homes. Something is needed to improve safety on U.S. 421, but the Superstreet plan “is not designed to maintain our business (traffic) flow. It’s designed to flow traffic that will not stop.” Samaritan’s Purse “told us they can’t bring more people to Wilkesboro and Wilkes County until we get more homes built here.”
Mike Inscore: First is remediation of the sinkhole problem on and near the Taco Bell property along U.S. 421, second is protecting natural resources, especially quality of water and third is workforce housing. “Tyson (Foods Inc.) is losing employees who are being transported up here from the Triad.”
Dallas Handy: Trying to draw small businesses (15 or fewer employees) and help existing small businesses be successful, including through the ways they are impacted by regulations and fees.
Jimmy Hayes: Continue upgrades to the town’s raw water treatment plant and wastewater treatment plant to keep pace with the growth of Tyson Foods. Also, continue to repair and extend sidewalks.
Do you support elimination of pay and other compensation for members of the Wilkesboro Town Council? Why or why not? The mayor is budgeted to receive $6,000 annually in pay and the councilmen are budgeted to be paid $5,000, annually. Some elected to receive a reduced amount. They also have the option of receiving medical insurance through the town.
Jimmy Hayes: Serving on the council isn’t about money, but “I do think the council should be compensated because there are a lot of hours put in. If it gets to the point where the budget is pushed, eliminate it.”
Dallas Handy: Financial gain is the wrong reason to run for elected office. “As far as benefits (insurance), I think they should be compensated in some form because they are putting in a lot of work and hours.”
Mike Inscore: He said he learned that the mayor was paid $10,000 a year when he first took office and decided that was too much so didn’t take it. “Today, I draw $176 every two weeks…. If I break that down by the number of hours I spend weekly on behalf of town business, that’s just a pittance in compensation. But I don’t do it for the money. I don’t charge the town any stipend for using my car to go to out of town meetings.”
Gary Johnson: He answered with one word, “No.”
Greg Minton: “If you eliminate any and all forms of compensation, only the truly wealthy can donate their service and time to serve in this way…. The pay is not worth the effort, so it is about service…. If you eliminate the salary, the benefits should stay. One or the other.”
Andy Soots: He said that when he served one term on the board starting six years ago, council members were paid for each meeting they attended and some went to more meetings than others. “I brought this up to the board and we accepted and voted on” having a set salary instead and this passed. “I’ve already spent on my campaign this year what I’ll make this year if I’m elected…. I would do it for nothing.” He said that at one time, the town paid for the insurance of council members and their families for life if they were in office 12 years. This no longer is done.
What steps can municipalities take to address the impact of climate change on a local level?
Andy Soots: There’s really not a whole lot we can do, but the town could build retention ponds to help precipitation soak into the ground and replenish groundwater.
Greg Minton: There are steps that can be taken to reduce carbon emissions, but considerations should be given to whether this would require expending even more resources. He also cited the need to protect the town’s water source, the Yadkin River, because it is Wilkesboro’s lifeblood.
Gary Johnson: The council passed an ordinance during its last meeting that addressed educating the public about recycling and separating different types of recyclables. He also cited the importance of monitoring wastewater to make sure the town complies with regulations.
Mike Inscore: Encourage people to be mindful of the amount of water they use and be as conservative as possible. Raw water isn’t a given and needs to be protected. He said the town is doing a good job with recycling.
Dallas Handy: Conserve water as much as possible. Make sure recyclables are separated correctly.
Jimmy Hayes: “I’m proud of the steps the town is taking and has taken for our water (treatment) plant and also with recycling.”
Would you support a change in alcohol laws to allow or disallow sales of alcohol before noon on Sunday and why?
Jimmy Hayes: He said he didn’t support allowing beer and wine sale to start at 10 a.m. on Sundays instead of the current noon when it came before the council in February. In a 3-2 vote, the council decided to continue not allowing these sales to start until noon.
Dallas Handy: He agreed with the earlier decision by the Wilkesboro council but said it’s fine that the North Wilkesboro board voted to allow earlier alcohol sales on Sundays.
Mike Inscore: He noted that he broke a 2-2 tie on the issue by voting against earlier Sunday alcohol sales when the issue came before the Wilkesboro council. “I feel like Sunday is a Sabbath and should be treated as such. If a person can’t wait two hours to consume alcohol, I don’t have any sorrow for them. I find my place on Sundays in church and do it for the right reasons—to give thanks for how I have been blessed. I’m quite proud of the stance I took.”
Gary Johnson: “I voted in favor” of allowing earlier alcohol sales on Sundays. “My rationale is that if we’re already selling alcohol on Sundays, who do we think we’re going to prevent from drinking it” by delaying it by two hours. “When they get it is their issue not mine. There are opportunities to go to church from 8 a.m. to noon.”
Greg Minton: “The driving force behind” allowing earlier beer and wine sales on Sundays was economic development. “It needs to be decided by the local population.”
Andy Soots: “I don’t consume alcohol, but I respect the rights of those who do as long as they don’t interfere with my rights or the rights of others. As far as someone consuming alcohol on Sunday morning, as much as I’d like for them to be with me in church…. I think if they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it. It’s going to take something in their heart to change.”
How can a commissioner or mayor help support and improve our schools?
Jimmy Hayes: “I think the best way is to get and be involved.”
Dallas Handy: “Keeping the schools safe and getting involved.”
Mike Inscore: He said being a substitute teacher at Wilkesboro Elementary School is one of the richest experiences he has had. “I think intervention by the general public would be a great asset and attribute that we all could share in and reap benefits three times over.”
Gary Johnson: Speaking from the perspective of town government support, “I don’t think we can do that much” because school funding is the responsibility of the county commissioners and the county school board. “The Town of Wilkesboro supports Wilkes Community College (financially) annually and I have been a big fan of increasing that contribution.” He said the Wilkes Heritage Museum is an important educational asset and it needs to be maintained and used as a tool to train students.
Greg Minton: He agreed with Johnson and said there are two elected boards (county commissioners and county school board) that stand between us and Wilkesboro Elementary. He recommended working with those boards. Minton noted that Wilkesboro police help provide security at WCC and Wilkesboro Elementary.
Andy Soots: He said he’s president of the Wilkes County Cruisers, which he said gave $500 to each Wilkes public school from $50,000 it raised last year. He said this money was given to help meet needs of low income students. He said the club also funds scholarships for students who don’t have more than a C grade point average. “I would really like to see the two towns and the county get behind that (scholarship) effort… because that is your firemen, people who do body work, plumbers, carpenters, tradesmen—people that we all need.”
What would you want your town to do regarding homelessness?
Mike Inscore: The Town of Wilkesboro already provides security for the SAFE House, which is a safe haven for abused wives with their children. “The easiest response to that question is the continued due diligence of the police department to provide protection.”
Dallas Handy: “We need to work together as a community and officials to raise money to get a new homeless shelter.”
Jimmy Hayes: “Everyone needs a roof over their head. If approached, Wilkesboro would provide guidance to help find a suitable location” for a homeless shelter.
Andy Soots: “Our homeless situation, as everyone is aware, is much greater than it was 10 years ago. In another 10 years, it will be more. Churches and civic organizations give tens of thousands of dollars each year for mission trips” to third world countries. “I believe in spending our money locally first. I think we should take care of the people here, especially kids, with an incentive for them to get out of that house (homeless shelter). I don’t think we should make an attractive nuisance that would draw people from other areas to our area.”
Greg Minton: He agreed with Soots about having steps in place to give homeless people incentives to improve their situations. Addressing mental health needs to also be part of the solution.
Gary Johnson: He said a Wilkesboro resident recently asked him about allowing homeless people to use the public showers at the town’s wastewater treatment plant, which were built to accommodate people camping on that property during MerleFest. “I think that has distinct possibilities for being an asset to the homeless.”
How would you solve the sinkhole problem on U.S. 421? Who is responsible for financing this work and what is the timeline?
Jimmy Hayes: “When this will be fixed I can’t tell you. I don’t think anyone can. The state has to do its part first. With the budget not being passed, that has been pushed back to the spring, hopefully. The town is charged with protecting health and life safety of the public. Once the owner (of that property) didn’t have the ability to protect the public, the town stepped in. The town obtained a court order to take control of this site and fix the problem and charge the estate for all costs.” No tax dollars will be used.
Dallas Handy: “It’s a waiting game at this point” and making sure the site stays safe. “We’re waiting on pipelines to connect,” one from the state first and one from the town.
Mike Inscore: “The Taco Bell sinkhole needs to be remediated and it needs to come from funds from the sale of Mr. (J.C.) Faw’s real estate holdings.” That should provide enough funds to avoid having to use town funds. He said the lack of an approved state budget resulted in DOT funds being frozen and that delayed the state from beginning its part of the project (installing a culvert beneath U.S. 421) for one to two years. There is a plan in the works to remediate the site.
Gary Johnson: “Do you want to take $2 million of your tax dollars to fix someone else’s problem” on private property? “I’m not going to do that.” The town has been dealing with this in a legal process for almost two years. He said the DOT plans to do its portion of the corrective work as part of the U.S. 421 superstreet project. “Our biggest concern is safety—not having water come across U.S. 421 that will create a hazard. The fact that it’s an eyesore, just get over it for a little while because it’s going to get fixed.”
Greg Minton: He said he doesn’t support spending public funds to address a problem on private property and agrees with the way the Wilkesboro council has handled the situation.
Andy Soots: “One of things that needs to be brought up is the depth of that pipe. I believe that pipe is 54 feet down.” He said a very large area has to be excavated due to that depth, and making it even more of a problem is that the culvert goes nearly as far west as the Bojangles’ restaurant. Soots said there also are pot holes and sinkholes on the other side of U.S. 421 near Hardee’s and there was one in front of Wilco.
Dr. Ron Cohn, a Wilkesboro businessman and owner of numerous properties in the downtown area, asked about the undertaking and completion of additional phases of the redevelopment of downtown beyond the first phase, which is nearly complete.
Mike Inscore: He said phase two is on the drawing board. “Our success has been created by a leap of faith and by the outpouring of people who have come downtown and supported our local businesses…. We have appropriated money for entertainment, but we have to create a success first to create the desire from local businesses to be corporate sponsors to help offset those costs. That’s the next step we’re getting ready to embark on for next year’s plans for entertainment.”
Cohn followed up with Inscore by saying work was completed on the north side of Main Street but nothing has been done yet on the south side. “The original plan included all of the downtown. I was part of the committee that worked on that. It keeps being pushed back year after year and the money was committed,” said Cohn.
Inscore said, “We’d love nothing better than to have new sidewalks, but our first option was to put overhead utility lines under the sidewalks but one or more of the utility companies that pay for those lines above have has been very argumentative” about putting the lines underground.”
Gary Johnson: He said the project has four phases and phase one is nearing completion. Johnson said he regrets everything isn’t moving faster. “We’re just working diligently to get through phase one and then we’ll move to the other side of the street” for phase two. He said phase two includes putting utility lines underground and an enlarged parking lot behind the Stroud-Miller building. “We spent a couple of million dollars already easily and we haven’t raised taxes and we have no intentions of raising taxes.”
Greg Minton: He said he doesn’t know the specifics because he isn’t on the council.
Andy Soots: “That question should be directed to the sitting board members.”
Dallas Handy: He agreed with the answers of Minton and Soots, but said he supports the downtown events.
Jimmy Hayes: “I think the mayor and Mr. Johnson pretty well summed it up.”