October 25, 2012

Candidates for Hyde commissioner positions
discuss issues at Ocracoke forum


Candidates for three Hyde County commissioner positions talked about issues affecting the county at the October Ocracoke Civic and Business Association in the Community Center.

In attendance were John Fletcher, who’s running unopposed for Ocracoke Township; Sharon Spencer, incumbent and board chairperson, and Earl Pugh Jr., both of the Lake Landing district, and Anson Byrd, incumbent, and Lindsey Mooney, both of the Fairfield District.  Incumbents Dick Tunnell, Swan Quarter, and Barry Swindell, Currituck Township, are not up for re-election and did not attend.

Candidates relayed their views via a question-and-answer format, moderated by Carol Pahl, OCBA treasurer.

Fletcher said he wants to be commissioner to cut down on government. Although he said he has e-mail, he “doesn’t pay much attention to it,” and told the more than 30 people who attended that he’d rather talk in person or on the phone.

Spencer noted that it has been hard to maintain the governmental services that are already in place.

“We’ve struggled not to go backwards,” she said. “We have spent a lot of time fighting the ferry tolls and to keep the state and federal regulations from infringing more on us.”

“Regulations seem like an impediment to business and making a living,” noted Byrd.  “Making a living today is hard and there are a lot of challenges when it comes to government.”

Mooney said the county needs to be economically frugal. “If we spend more than what we take in we’re in trouble,” he said.

Fletcher, who was the Hyde County attorney for 15 years, said he believes in keeping a lean budget.  “If someone asks for a dollar, we need to have it. We all have our tricks to getting money, like our former EMS director who tried to get money from another place when it was in the budget.”

As to the greatest challenge facing the county, Byrd said ferry tolls will still be an issue. Also, combining fish and wildlife resources is a “disaster.”   Tourism is our lifeline, he said.  Pugh concurred about the ferry tolls and noted that fishing regulations are killing the commercial fishing industry.

“It hurts my feelings when I have to pay to go out to the beach and watch the sunset,” Mooney said. “We have to keep our tax base low enough so people will come here.”

Fletcher said the tax rate is a chief challenge. “The county has to be run efficiently because Ocracoke bears the brunt.”

Pugh said challenges he sees are regulations killing commercial fishing and ferry tolls.

Spencer noted that she has been to a lot of regional meetings to drum up support for the ferry toll issue. 

“The (people in the rest of the state) don’t get it unless someone is out there talking to them,” she said, adding that water on the roads is another issue.  “We’ve done a lot, but changes don’t happen overnight.  When you’re a commissioner you find out there’s a procedure and a process, and these take time.”

Regarding the differences between mainland and Ocracoke, Fletcher noted that “you have to have balance,” and he’s not in favor of Ocracoke voting for its own commissioner. 

All county voters should vote for all the commissioners, Pugh said.

Fletcher said he thought three commissioners for the entire county should be sufficient. Currently, the county has five elected commissioners.

Spencer said the key to working on a county board of commissioners is cooperation and that might not happen if commissioners represented only their townships.

“We’re elected to serve everybody,” said Byrd.  “If each district elected its own commissioner it would be divisive.”  Mooney concurred.

East Carolina Bank will be sold to another bank, Pahl noted. He asked whether this depress Hyde County to the point of non-viability and should the county reach out to other counties for cost-sharing? 

Pugh said he did not know how the pending sale will affect the county economically, although Fletcher said the sale will be a blow to the county and, he added that “someone who knows,” predicted that at least  25 and no more than 80 jobs would be lost.  Pugh noted that other businesses are showing interest in locating in Hyde County, such as RPA, a remote-controlled aircraft testing company and a cement plant.

“There are opportunities for growth,” Pugh said. “I’m not sure merging with another county is the right way.”

Spencer said that any time the county has seen fit to share services with other counties it has done so.  “We have been doing that,” she said. “We’re viable.”

Byrd responded that the county has had more mandated costs passed down from the state in recent years that had to be funded. “We’re trying to be fair.”

Among the areas that could be looked at financially are EMS services, law enforcement and the school district, Fletcher said. “We’re running a school system for 650 students,” he said. “The overhead gets excessive.”

Oversight boards, such as Mosquito Control or the Sanitary District (water board), are set up for certain things and probably can’t be combined with other boards, Spencer said.

“If the Sanitary Board just wants to do water, we can’t tell them to do otherwise,” Fletcher said.  As for a water drainage system, that cost would be $2 to $4 million, which would probably require a special assessment of taxpayers and a yearly assessment to maintain, although Hyde might get federal grant help, he said.

“I’m not sure this is a legal thing,” Pugh said about combining authority-type boards. “If it’s working, maybe leave them as they are.”

One of the questions asked how the candidates feel about the current county manager Mazie Smith’s performance.

“She has been a hard worker,” Byrd said. “We’ve supported her in what she’s trying to do.”

“She’s made some decisions I’m not in favor of, but she’s got a board to answer to,” said Mooney.  “Maybe there would be a change with a different board.”

Fletcher said he always finds Smith responsive and cooperative, however, “There’s some friction between her and some of the department heads on the mainland.”

Spencer said that any action Smith has taken has been at the direction of the board and that she has tried to be transparent in her management.  “Mazie is a resident and loves Hyde County. We put someone in place we can trust to do what’s best for the county.”

Ocracoke resident Jim Pierson, after this exchange, told the group he thought this question was inappropriate.

Discussion of the Ocracoke Planning Advisory Board’s development ordinance sparked an exchange between Fletcher and Realtor B.J. Oelschlegel, who is the planning board chair.

Potential ordinances should be studied and then drawn up by an off-island, unbiased professional, Fletcher said. “I don’t like ordinances drawn up by the caprice of the populace,” he said. “You start with the bare bones first, then have a local group come in.”

“We’ve done that,” Oelschlegel said.

“Y’all have married this (ordinance) and now you don’t like it,” Fletcher said.  After a bit of argument between the two, Pahl stopped them.

“Any ordinance that’s written poorly should be redone,” Pugh said.  Byrd concurred, saying if an ordinance is not enforceable, it doesn’t do anyone any good.

Mooney suggested the burn ban needs to be rewritten.

“It’s good to have a cross-section of people on the island on a board,” Spencer said. “Then it’s up to the county to make sure the ordinance is viable. You always have to do these (ordinances) or the state or federal government will come in and do it for you.”

Pierson asked the candidates what they would cut if they reduce the size of government.

“You can’t cut down on government without getting rid of services,” Fletcher responded. “If you have people who can’t do their job, like our building inspector, you should get rid of them.”  He suggested having employees do multiple jobs, such as combining the EMS and fire departments, but others noted that the fire departments are all-volunteer.

“We have a hard enough time filling the EMS positions we have,” Byrd said, noting that Hyde is a rural county that may not pay as well for these positions as other counties.

As for accomplishments the county has made, Spencer noted that her attendance at sea-level rise meetings to dispute studies projecting a 32-inch rise in the near future made had an effect.  “They based this on one set of data,” she said. “We need to get more accurate data.”

She also said the county has tried to be more transparent with its governance and cited the beefed-up county website; telecommunications, for which the county received an award; keeping money in the general fund (as mandated by law), and passing a balanced budget and maintaining the status quo in this hard economic environment.

Byrd cited the new solid waste program, and “the EMS service is better than what we had when we started.”

Fletcher noted that the county has kept up with its buildings.

As for battling citizen apathy in meeting attendance and participation, Byrd noted that the commissioners have heard great ideas from citizens during the public comment portions of the meetings, and he encouraged people to attend.

“People need to stand up and voice their opinions,” Mooney added.

Early general election voting on Ocracoke is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27, in the Ocracoke Community Center. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.
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