Video & transcripts: Chatham Commissioner candidates answer questions at Carolina Meadows forum

by Gene Galin

Chatham County, NC – About 120 people attended the candidates forum at Carolina Meadows on the evening of Monday, October 1. That night’s forum featured four of the candidates running for the Chatham county commission. In District 3, the candidates are Diana Hales and Brian Bock. In district 4, the candidates are Jim Crawford and Neill Lindley.

Current Chatham County commissioner Walter Petty is running unopposed in District 5.

After a five minute introduction by each of the four candidates, the moderator asked the candidates four questions. Below are the videos and transcripts of their responses.

Question 1 – Growth and development in county

Moderator: I wanted to kind of explain the format. It’s going to be … because there’s about a half an hour. And so what we’re going to do is have each answer be just two minutes, and we’ll start at this end of the table, and then it’ll be the same question for all four of you. And then the second question will be the second person on the dais and so forth and so on.

So the first, let’s see … the first question is what are your major concerns about development in Chatham County? And you can stay at the table. There are microphones there. Diana.

Diana Hales: Sorry. Okay. Let’s move this so I don’t … the question is, major concerns with development. My largest concern is, frankly, water, and our infrastructure. Both of our towns have infrastructure backlog in terms of improvements that must be made. So in the case of Siler City, it’s the Rocky River. I happened to live on the Rocky River, but that is their primary source of water. And out here in the eastern part, it’s of course being served by Jordan Lake. So for me, the water and, as Jim was saying earlier, infrastructure, you don’t cut ribbons. But infrastructure is essential. So we have some very large lifts in front of us, and that includes the town of Goldston, Siler City and Pittsboro in terms of how will the county assist.

We recently, the county has added $750,000 towards Siler City’s wastewater treatment plant renewal. That whole project, the price I heard is about $20 million. So these are very large ticket items, and it also includes we’re looking at a new water intake on Jordan Lake, which will be regional and will involve Alossa, Cary, Durham and Raleigh … we don’t know yet, but perhaps.

But in any case, just building a new water treatment plant is a gigantic investment, way over $150 million. And what we also need to look at is the treatment of that water because Jordan Lake is very polluted, but it is a source of water for, the last number I heard is about 400,000 individuals.

Brian Bock: Thank you. Obviously, infrastructure is a big issue. I’m not going to re-hash what you just heard, because I think we’re on the same page with that. But what you heard was the tremendous dollar figures that all of that takes. Regional partnerships, obviously, play a big role. That has been started many years ago and continues, and I’m happy to see that we’ve got continuity there with past commissioners and current commissioners making sure those kind of partnerships are in place. But that still leaves a very large price tag, and that’s where I want to keep coming back to, because it’s going to come from somewhere. We have to have the services. We have to have the infrastructure. And with the growth that we have, it is definitely being outpaced on the residential side, as I said, and we’re out of balance with our commercial tax base.

And we’ve all sat up here and we’ve talked about how we want jobs in the county. But it can’t just be talk. There are lots of things that go into place, and lots of votes that happen in order to make a mega-site. And I know Jim mentioned our mega-site out in Siler City. For years, we worked on that to get it certified by the state so that it could be in place and ready to go to help attract a major manufacturer. And our goal was, and then my goal still is, is to get an auto manufacturer there, something like a Toyota.

But when the rubber hits the road and the votes come about, some uncomfortable votes have to be taken, like do we approve an option to buy the land? Now, fortunately, that happened. And as Jim correctly outlined, because of his vote, we were able to make that happen and we’re in place. Unfortunately, my opponent voted against that. So it takes courage to be able to do those types of things and not just make a political point. So I say we’ve got to take those steps that are uncomfortable to make the success happen, to change that balance between residential and commercial. Thank you.

Neill Lindley: Well, I would just mimic what Brian said. But we do have a huge responsibility for the future growth. I think it’s already been said enough tonight, but I won’t to expand on that too much, but I was asked to run and work with the EDC and Planning Board. And hopefully, we can work with the state as well and get some incentives for business to come to the mega-sites. They’ve been far empty far too long. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but we have to entice people to want to come to Chatham County.

I think you’ve heard tonight our motives and intentions there. I think another thing that has to be addressed, we have to make sure we have the emergency and the fire and all that in place as well. So that’s another cost that’s coming our way. And so I would address those as well, and that’s about all I could say to that.

Jim Crawford: Is this okay? Okay. I think the question is what’s the most important element of growth. My biggest concern and it’s affordable housing. We are doing a great job in Chatham County building houses that over $300,000 to purchase. But someone who’s making under $50,000, especially if that’s the entire family budget, is going to have a hard time securing a mortgage to buy that kind of house. And so what we are trying to do, what we have been doing as a board for the past four years, is to pursue many different options on affordable housing.

In particular, we are able to use county property. For example, the Henry Siler School in Siler City, an old elementary school, is going to be converted into affordable housing for senior citizens but also young families as well. And it’s very well located in the center of town. And that would not have been possible if we did not a.) the county, hand over the property for the development and b.) something called a Community Development Block Grant came to our county based on an application process. The project had to be fleshed out, and we were a player and so that helped. And that’s exactly the kind of thing that last year, President Trump zeroed out in his budget. He didn’t cut it. He put a budget up to Congress to zero it out. Luckily, better heads prevailed in the Republican Party, and that money was restored so that places like Chatham can meet this need dead on.

My opponent, or excuse me, Diana’s opponent mentioned that she did, in fact, voted against the option, but that was the first time around. Because of her opposition, we were actually able to negotiate a better form and an extension on the option, where we did have a unanimous vote. And so even though she did oppose that, I believe in the long run, her opposition helped us get a better policy and a better deal to the county and open the door for an option that we have on the mine cure site where we’ve paid $1 to secure the option and get that $4 million back.

So I just wanted the record to show that even though she did vote in opposition, she had good reason, and I think the purpose was borne out.

Question 2 – Educational expenditures

Moderator: … provide an education that prepares students for 21st century jobs. You have two minutes.

Brian Bock: Well, I don’t have a dollar figure that would answer that question, but I will say this is, I keep saying this, but this is one area you’re going to see very little daylight between commissioners or commissioner candidates of either party.

We currently have, I think it’s the fourth highest supplement in the state. Orange County’s higher, and Wake County’s higher, and probably Mecklenburg. Every year, that number keeps going up. We’ve made sure we put that in the budget. As a matter of fact, when I was commissioner, we put that in the budget even when the school board didn’t ask for it, because we realized that teacher pay is very significant.

We also realized, in addition to what we can do with the supplement, we wanted to find a way to have a merit based bonus system on top of that supplement. Working with the school board, working with the superintendent, we were able to put a one of a kind bonus system in place that worked for the one year that we did it. Then during that year, we realized, or the superintendent of the Board of Education realized that it needed some tweaks, that it was very hard to administer, but the idea was good, and wanted to continue that type of a bonus system. I think there’s still something in place today that kind of grew from that idea. We need to focus, not just on the supplement, but other ways to help compensate our teachers.

Neill Lindley: Well I knew if I were commissioner, I would have to come through. We got a lot of educators in my family, my daughter-in-law in particular. One thing I hear mostly is supplies. It seems like teachers everywhere are having to [inaudible 00:02:20] on and get their own supplies. That would be one area that I think the bonus would really help if we could do that, as Brian mentioned.

I understand that we have come up quite a bit in state rankings as far as teacher pay in North Carolina, but I think here in Chatham, I think we got extra demand on us with the new schools and new school bonds and all. That needs to be one of our top proprieties when it comes to jobs and new jobs. That would be top of the list for me. That’s our future, our kids. I realize that.

Jim Crawford: Thanks. Because we’re so close to Durham, Chapel Hill and Wake County schools, the problem we face is that many of our teachers leave Chatham schools and go and work there. At least that’s the potential threat. Even though we’re close to these counties, we don’t have the same tax base nor the same tax rate, so it is hard for us to compete with our supplement.

We call it a supplement, because the state primarily pays the salary of its teachers. During the Republican takeover of the legislature of the past 10 years, they’ve reduced the number of teaching assistants and other supportive positions, so our teachers are working a lot harder for the salaries that they do have, and so it’s critical that we’re able to increase the supplement. We’ve met the supplement this year only because the plan from Raleigh to make classroom sizes smaller in elementary schools was not enacted, so we’re living on borrowed time right now for our supplement. Next year, were going to have to confront this question head on.

I’m in support, if it’s necessary, to keep and maintain our salary supplement, and maybe even close the gap on the supplement that our neighboring counties have of increasing revenues, that is to say, increasing taxes for the purposes of improving our salary standing. Why? Because if we don’t, we’re going to lose a lot of our best qualified teachers to neighboring counties.

A longitudinal study done by [inaudible 00:04:41], where they studied cohorts of students over the course of 20 to 30 years, shows that it’s the seniority, the experience of the teacher in a classroom that is the best indicator, above socioeconomics, gender, any other indicator, to show how much that child learns in the 180 days of a typical school year.

It’s vital to us, and it’s really priceless, that we’re able to maintain the best teachers that we have here now, and also attract others to come in who have experience. I think the teachers’ supplemental pay issue is a very critical one. I’m glad that everybody acknowledges its importance on this board. It shows we have good people running for office.

Diana Hales: I could just say ditto, because the teacher supplement is a critical part of our budget. We certainly encourage our school board and our superintendent to do the very best job they can in budgeting, but we respond with what they really need, so don’t shortchange your schools.

We are, as Jim mentioned, we are building, and we just borrowed money to build two new schools. The first high school since the 1970s-

Speaker: Early 1970s.

Diana Hales: … early 1970s in Chatham County will be built on Lake Jordan, south of highway 64 on Seaforth. This is a major, a huge budget item. We’re also building a new elementary school right in Briar Chapel area. Those are two schools, because we can’t add any more trailers anymore. Mobile units, they’re not called trailers, but mobile units. We don’t have room, physically, to add another mobile unit in the Chatham school system. We are in construction mode. We hope to have the new elementary school within two and the high school open within three years.

Our teacher supplements, as Jim Crawford said, we want our teachers to stay. They’re staying if they like the school system, and they feel well served by the school system and the county government. We want them to continue here, because that seniority, length of time, makes them better teachers. We do not discourage supplement, and we will certainly never nickel and time our school system to cut a penny here, because every penny invested is dollars in the future. So yes, support the supplements.

Question 3. – Protecting Chatham’s water supply

Moderator: The next question is, what should the county do to protect our water supply? And Neill, we’ll begin with you.

Neill Lindley: Okay. Well, I’d have to go back to 2010, 2014. I know that commissioners at that time not only adopted new policy to protect Jordan Lake, but they also went to the state and asked that this be statewide so that the water we receive from upstream, they had to abide by the same principles that we do.

I would definitely do the same, and as far as monitoring, that would have to be in place as well. I’d personally like to see … sorry … more testing done locally. I mean, we use a lot of water on the farms there for livestock and poultry and I never really know our water levels or … We do test for Grade A milk, but it’s a random test and it would be good if we had a little more testing in place there, because everything on the dairy … we’re on Class B animal waste operations so we have to test our soils and everything before we [inaudible 00:01:40] and all that so I could speak to the agriculture side of it more so than the other side, but water, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve already said it. That’s our future biggie there. I think it’s real important. I would do everything I could to make sure it stayed that way. Okay.

Jim Crawford: I would immediately push for the instatement of the Jordan Lake Rules. They were passed in 2009 but suspended by Raleigh after the election of 2010 and what that would do would make it a statewide effort for Burlington, the rest of Alamance, into Guilford. Actually our river starts in Forsyth County and the entire watershed to basically watch its p’s and q’s in terms of what’s flowing in so both your municipal water systems … Burlington had a pretty bad spill a couple years ago, need tighter running, and also the runoff that comes from a lot of homes and a certain number of the farms. There just needs to be an encouragement in making public goals to adopting the best practices to keep the water clean in the first place.

Another thing that’s a threat to Chatham’s water specifically is the prospect of hydraulic fracturing. Where in order to get pockets of gas in Chatham, and mostly in Lee County, they’re gonna have to use tremendous amounts of water from our watershed, and so the Rocky and the Deep river which are approximate to the gas fields are likely to be a source for this water, and that would pose a tremendous problem, not only for agriculture in the area, there’ll be less water they can draw into it, but it’ll change the water table itself. This kind of hydraulic fracturing, and then there’s the question of what to do with the water after it’s been in a well and mixed with all kinds of chemicals in order to make the fracturing of the rock happen. And even though right now we are not getting pressures from the market to exploit this gas field, because it’s been discovered it’s only a matter of time. It may not be between now and 2050, but maybe after that and so our board declared a fracking moratorium so that the county could get some professional guidance and establish some policies that are applicable and legal under North Carolina law in order to make sure that the negative impacts of fracturing, especially as it deals with the water table will be ready for it. Will at least be able to have the proper policing of that effort, so, Jordan Lake Rules, fracturing.

Diana Hales: And about … Jim covered fracking very adequately and we’re … in fact our next meeting will be looking at our language for our ordinances because ordinances on the county level are law. So we have to figure out how we can manage within state constraints and still protect Chatham County because that’s my job as the commissioner is to protect our citizens and do the best job we can, and in terms of the Jordan Lake Rules they are not implemented.

We do have … Chatham has established some buffers because that particular part of the rules were in effect. What is not in effect is how do you deal with new development and existing development. Those are the very expensive parts of the Jordan Lake Rules. As to other strategies, because we do know we’re very rich in water in the Piedmont. We have a lot of streams. We have some major rivers, and we have a lot of creeks and streams and most of which flooded, of course, during Hurricane Florence. So some of those little ephemeral streams that you may not see, they don’t have water maybe a day or two every year, they were all full of water. So we have to be cautious of all our surface waters and protect our surface waters because the surface waters and the ground water … The surface waters replenish the ground water.

The other area that we really need to start addressing and that is storm water. Storm water is what we are going to have going forward because our rain events are going to be heavy, heavy, quick rain events rather than little drizzles that go into the ground. We’re going to have very high volume rain events with climate change. We’re already seeing it. So our storm water has to become has to become an asset we plan for. And this is what I am committed to in the next four years is considering that part of the equation.

Brian Bock: So the biggest challenge I see with water quality is the lack of local control. Chatham County has different challenges when it comes to the water and how we keep it clean and than maybe someone does in the far western part of the county or eastern part of the county. And I applaud the current board of commissioners for the moratorium that’s in place on fracking.

We’ve gotta do everything we can to stop fracking. I think that’s a good first step, but it’s certainly not anything that can’t be easily undone by the state. Same with the Jordan Lake Rules. The law says we can’t be any more … we can’t have any more stringent rules than what the state has. Well that doesn’t make any sense. And so we need a commissioner or commissioners that are willing to go to the legislature regardless of party. Regardless if they’re my same party, regardless if there’s new leadership and it’s a different party. But go there. Not hold up signs, not protest, but lobby them, meet them in their offices, be willing to meet the leadership and right now it’s republican and I’m willing to go up there and I’m willing to say that what they’re thinking as it applies to Chatham County doesn’t make sense.

We need local control and we need to take that from the state. Now we don’t take it from the state. The state needs to give us (laughter) the local control and that’s … we can put little Band-Aids on but unless we have a concerted effort by someone who’s willing to go talk to them, and I’ve done this. I’ve lobbied them on behalf of these issues, but I’m one voice right now and I’m not an elected official. So what I’m saying is the state is our challenge and we need to be committed to working with them and explaining and educating them about why our situation is unique and it’s better to have the local control. So there’s where I would put most of my focus.

Question 4 – Gun use near Carolina Meadows

Moderator:  So this will be the last question, and it’ll begin with Jim Crawford. It’ll be what can be done to prevent the use of guns near Carolina Meadows?

Jim Crawford: Let’s see, well we have ordinances in terms of safety with hunting. The state has a few. So that’s the hunting part of the equation. In terms of people kind of going rogue for various reasons, sadly very little can be done to prevent that. I support and always fund our sheriff’s department. He gets priority, perhaps just under the schools, but if he has a special need. And I support putting a police sub-station in the northeast and expediting that process, hopefully as soon as we have a new facility built near the health sciences building that’s going up on 15501 that will be able to have at least a quicker response from the sheriff’s department in the event something like that happens.

But in terms of prevention, short of having more stringent rules about who gets handguns or other weapons, I really don’t see a whole lot that we can do at the local level. If there were any kind of signs of violence, I’m sure the police deputies would have more routine patrols up here and kind of keep an eye on things before something bad might get out of hand. But sadly, as a county, can’t really pass ordinances that would survive a superior court challenge under not just the U.S. Constitution, but especially the North Carolina Constitution in terms of protecting people’s right to carry arms.

Now we do have a rule as a county, in terms of being basically the largest mental health provider, not directly as county agents but funding and supervising through our public health department, mental health services that, if we are able to as a community identify people who may have volatile tempers or have an ax to grind against a neighbor, that we might be able to send them and have the government, basically, cover the medical health that they would need. But it’s a very thorny question, and I very much am curious to hear what my friends have to say.

Diana Hales: Well, we did have the occasion of a gun range, and we did that was operating in the county. And we dealt with an ordinance about the gun range. But in doing so, we also had to look at state law, and state law, with this particular legislative body, was really bent on lifting all kinds of prohibitions and all kinds of restrictions. They call it regulation. So if you were operating as a gun club, you were exempted. So in talking to the sheriff, one of the … we worked out something with the gun range, mainly because they did not have proper berms. We can control on berms, okay. But that actually stopped that particular activity on that particular property.

But, yeah, people have a … I live in the west. My husband shoots. I hear shooting all the time. And there is no way to prevent specifically somebody from shooting on their own property. And again, unless they are operating as some sort of commercial enterprise, but it’s a sticky wicket, and you’re not the only ones. There’s one at Powell Place also that we tried working through our land records to just deal with the owner of that particular site who had built a deer stand, and it was proximate to high-dense housing. So these are real issues that happen, but we can only do what the law says we can do. But if there’s berms involved, we can step in.

Brian Bock: Okay, here’s where I lose the crowd. It sounded like a very specific question, using guns around here. And since I don’t know the specifics, I won’t necessarily comment on them. But I will say I support the idea of someone being able to shoot guns on their property, in a safe manner. I support hunting. I support particularly, in a rural community like we have, not only should it be supported, there are many benefits to that. And I don’t want to imply to that if I could, I would try to stop people from using weapons on their property safely.

So what I would want to know is if there are unsafe conditions, we can address those one by one, because we want it to be safe. When it comes to gun ranges, I think that’s a case-by-case basis as well. If a gun range is in place, and then someone moves near that gun range, that’s a different situation than if there’s a housing community and a gun range wants to move in. So we have to protect the property rights. We have to protect the Constitutional rights of both sides, and I’m not going to immediately jump in and say we need to start taking gun rights away and hunters’ rights away without knowing more of the details and what that actually affects. So again, I don’t know the specifics here, but safely on someone’s property, I would support.

Neill Lindley: Okay, I think the question was how we avoid a situation, a tragic situation like that. For me, unfortunately, I’ve had experiences in this field. And mental health, to me, there’s a real shortfall there. Too many people end up in jail that need assistance far beyond the jail. They’re going to get turned down or released before they’re ready to be back out in society. And I talked to people about this. Talked to Judge Buckner about it recently, and I think he’s serving on a task force or something along these lines, and he’s addressed this with me.

But that’s an area that I would really pursue, and I know Jim mentioned that we do have the assistance there, but there’s not enough. I know of two instances in Chatham County that they were real close to being dangerous situations, and the parents are totally out of control and that they’re helpless in these situations and they need more help there. As far as the First Amendment rights, I like [inaudible 00:08:07] support that. I don’t hunt. I’m trying to keep animals alive, not kill them. That’s my big thing, but anyway. That’s all I have.

Host: I thought it was great to spend an evening this way, listening to some very important topics that are not discussed on the national news. Thank you very much for talking to us.