People now running for elected office in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro shared varied views on combining the two municipalities during an Oct. 7 question and answer forum at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace in North Wilkesboro.

Regardless of their personal feelings on merging, they all agreed that it’s a matter that should be left for people of the two towns to decide by voting.

The majority of the candidates indicated support for commissioning a study on advantages and disadvantages of merging. They all spoke in favor of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro working together to address each other’s needs.

Candidates for North Wilkesboro mayor are Michael Cooper, William Hamby, Marc R. Hauser, and Robert L. Johnson. Johnson is the incumbent.

Candidates for two North Wilkesboro commissioner seats are Otis W. Church, Angela J. Day and Joseph A. Johnston. Jonathan Swift’s name is on the ballot, but he said he no longer is a candidate. Day is the only incumbent. Debbie Ferguson’s term is also ending, but she didn’t file for re-election.

Candidates for two Wilkesboro Town Council seats are Nellie Hubbard Archibald, Russell F. Ferree and Lee W. Taylor. Archibald and Ferree are incumbents.

Names of candidates are written as they appear on the ballots.

During the forum, organized by the Wilkes Journal-Patriot, all the candidates were asked the following:

“Do you support authorizing a study to determine pros and cons of combining town services (including water systems) now provided separately by Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro and also to determine pros and cons of merging the two towns. Why or why not?”

Their responses follow.

N.W. mayoral candidates

Hamby said he is in favor of merging Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro, but “the people have to vote and decide if they want to merge or not.” He stated, “We’ve been a North Wilkesboro and we’ve been a Wilkesboro. There’s no reason why we can’t be the Wilkesboros. It’s a much better sounding name. We can all work together and we can grow together.” Combining Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro will bring growth to both and save money by reducing what is spent on water, sewer, fire departments and other services “and that’s what we want.” He added, “We’re all one people,” with a river flowing between what now are two towns.

Hauser said voters should decide on merging the two towns and it wouldn’t happen quickly, but the process of considering this should start. He said tough questions should be asked, including if two separate fire departments and two separate police departments are needed, as well as two mayors, two boards of commissioners, two town managers and two sets of buildings and departments that essentially are the same. It’s a matter of economies of scale, he said. If it appears a merger will maintain benefits for both towns and reduce costs, it should be explored. He said it’s a no-brainer if it improves benefits and cuts costs. “I don’t think the two towns should merge everything at once. We should start with water. That should have been done years ago.”

Johnson said, “We certainly do need to work with the Town of Wilkesboro to merge and we are in that process now with water and working with them on sewer.” He said plans call for North Wilkesboro to extend a sewer line and Wilkesboro to extend a water line to the North Wilkesboro Speedway. He said that for a merger to occur, the state would have to be petitioned for holding a public vote on this. “If the people vote to do it, that’s it…. As far as whether I favor it, it would be okay with me if it would help us progress in the county and serve the people the way we need to serve them.”

Cooper said the two towns should commission the UNC School of Government to do a study on merging in the next couple of years, share the resulting information on costs and benefits with the public and let the people vote on whether to merge. He said he hasn’t decided but is open to the two towns eventually merging. “We should be continuing to look at working together on things like water infrastructure and other services. I do support studying this issue. I think it’s an issue whose time has come…. It probably makes sense to integrate our services.” Cooper said merging isn’t a silver bullet that solves everything. He said it might make services more efficient and help get larger grants, but it won’t solve a number of bigger challenges like the opioid crisis or lack of good paying jobs.

Wilkesboro council candidates

Taylor said what citizens of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro think about combining services or merging the two towns matters more than what he thinks. He asked if either town wants to give up its autonomy, identity and heritage and then answered his question. “I think not. And I don’t think they have to.” He said the two towns already have a symbiotic relationship and rely on each other. Taylor said this relationship includes the ability to share water with each other if needed and for emergency personnel from one town to respond to an incident in the other “faster than you can blink an eye.”

Archibald said a jointly-funded study on interchange of water between the two towns is underway and includes determining what’s needed to make their two water systems compatible. One issue is corrosiveness of one system’s water to the other’s pipes due to treatment differences. She said water rates one town would charge the other must be addressed. Archibald said costs were cut by sharing a 911 dispatcher and agreements in place authorize each fire department to assist the other. “I’m hoping we’ll be talking more about taking turns on big (fire department) equipment purchases” instead of making duplicate purchases. “As far as joining the two towns, I don’t know,” but that should be a decision for the voters.

Ferree said the towns are united, not divided, by a river and “need to start acting that way.” He said it would take a referendum to merge and voters in both towns would turn it down if held now. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t study” advantages and disadvantages of merging and also combining certain services. “We don’t have to merge these two towns, but let’s save money.” He said the only reason for not having the study is fear of what it might show. Aside from the important topic of water, the two towns need to consider buying fire protection equipment they can share. He said Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro should adopt a Unified Development Ordinance so they could have the same land use rules.

N.W. board candidates

Johnston said he is in favor of merging Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro “for the good of our community 25 years down the way.” He said he supports commissioning a grant-funded study on the feasibility and cost-savings and other benefits of combining them. “There are too many things of twos in these towns, these two boros. There are also too many egos…. That’s something a study will prove are wrong.” He noted Wilkesboro Councilman Russ Ferree saying in the forum that he wants to provide a place for young people to return to after college. Johnston said one larger town will help achieve that goal. “Some observations: the Kerr Scott water intake (effort) ended last year after 20 years of haggling…. Energy spent on competition as in music festivals, police departments. We need to merge that energy into one channeled effort. I feel the outside forces in the next 20 years will be more impactful for a 10,000-person town than two 5,000-person towns.”

Church said the issue of whether to merge the two towns “has been going on since I was in diapers. Are we going to merge or not merge? It doesn’t really matter to me. I think we should, but right now we’ve got a good relationship with Wilkesboro” that includes loaning equipment back and forth. He said the egos of political leaders in the two town are too great for this to occur. “They’re afraid to do a study because they’re afraid of the results coming from the study and they also say who will pay for the study.” Church said he said he favors doing the study and added that funds for this can be secured. A merger wouldn’t occur overnight, but citizens of the two towns need the opportunity to vote on this. “You got to make a decision sometime and whatever the study shows, I’m 100% behind it.”

Day said she realized the importance of sharing between the two towns after becoming a member of the North Wilkesboro planning board and later by becoming a commissioner. Day said she was concerned about merging the two towns until then. She said the good relationship between North Wilkesboro Town Manager Wilson Hooper and Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland made a huge difference in the relationship between the two governments. She said an agreement has been reached between them for sharing water. Day said a drought and hot summer could leave North Wilkesboro unable to get the amount of water it needs from the Reddies River, the town’s current source. “We have to take that very seriously and it requires a partnership with Wilkesboro.”

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