Buncombe commissioner candidates debate

The race is on: The four candidates who are vying for two seats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners faced off for the first time. Photo by Jake Frankel

Differing visions for Buncombe County’s future collided July 30, as the Council of Independent Business Owners hosted the campaign season’s first candidate forum. Four candidates made their case for two seats on the Board of Commissioners.

Sparring for District 2

Incumbent Democrat Ellen Frost faces a rematch with Republican Christina Merrill in District 2, which encompasses Black Mountain, Fairview and Weaverville.

In her opening remarks, Merrill said county government “has failed our most vulnerable citizens” by raising the property tax rate last year. The 15 percent rate hike “hit our seniors who are on a fixed income and our young people … hard. I want get into the budget and trim some of the fat. We need commissioners who will bring a fiscally conservative perspective to our county.”

Frost countered that the commissioners had to raise the rate just to keep the same amount of revenue coming in after a revaluation significantly reduced the overall value of county property. “We were really dealt a hand of lemons, because we had to deal with a reval,” she explained, adding that since 92 percent of the budget covers state and federal mandates, there’s “not a lot of wiggle room.”

But Frost also said she’s proud of the budget, because it funds construction at five schools and maintains a “community that is strong and fair and balanced.”

In a disputed 2012 election, Frost edged Merrill by only 18 votes, giving Democrats a voting majority on the board. Merrill mounted an unsuccessful legal effort to exclude many provisional ballots cast by on-campus residents of Warren Wilson College, who tend to be left-leaning. Since then, she’s been a frequent critic of county spending decisions.

At the CIBO forum, Frost asked Merrill to name specific budget items she would target for cuts. Merrill said she’d scrutinize nonprofit spending while favoring an early retirement incentive program to encourage the county’s most experienced, highest paid employees to leave.

Frost pointed out that at $2.1 million this year, nonprofit spending represents only a tiny fraction of the county’s $367 million budget. She also said the county already has an early retirement incentive program in the works.

Merrill also asked Frost if she “feels any guilt or remorse at all for receiving a raise” while voting to increase the tax rate.

Frost, noting that the raise amounted to $10 per week, added: “Do we want to have only commissioners who are wealthy or retired? This is a full-time job.”

The two candidates also butted heads over zoning. Asked if they would support allowing manufactured homes in more residential areas of the county, Merrill said, “Zoning can be an example of government overreach,” adding that she wants to re-evaluate “all the zoning.”

Frost, meanwhile, said manufactured homes are already allowed in the vast majority of land in the county, and she doesn’t “think they need to be in every [zoning] district.”

In the running for District 3

Republican Miranda DeBruhl is matched up against Nancy Waldrop in District 3, which stretches from Arden to Sandy Mush and encompasses the most conservative areas of the county. Waldrop is mounting an unaffiliated campaign after DeBruhl defeated her husband, incumbent David King, in this spring’s Republican primary.

To get on the ballot, Waldrop needed to collect 2,300 signatures from voters in the district. With the help of over 100 volunteers, Waldrop gathered nearly 4,000 signatures — significantly more than the 2,054 votes DeBruhl received in the primary. Waldrop said she was inspired to run “to give voters a choice.” A political newcomer, she touted her experience as a former Buncombe County teacher and small-business owner.

When she jumped into the race in June, Waldrop cast DeBruhl as “an ultraconservative.” At the CIBO debate, DeBruhl countered that her primary win “undoubtedly shows I have bipartisan support.” (No Democrat is running in this race, and registered Democrats couldn’t vote in the Republican primary, though unaffiliated voters could.) DeBruhl also called it “extremely ironic” that Waldrop changed her party affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated “after her husband lost the primary.”

A nurse and small-business owner, DeBruhl said she wants to serve on the board because she’s “tired of feeling like the average hard-working taxpayer isn’t being fairly represented,” adding, “I will resist government overreach.”

The tension between the two candidates was also apparent when DeBruhl asked Waldrop why her campaign hadn’t included what she called “in-kind donations” from the Sierra Club in its finance reports. Waldrop replied, “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. … I can’t report what I don’t know.”

After the debate, Ken Brame, political chair of the local Sierra Club chapter, told Xpress that he thought the question was misleading. The environmental advocacy group did send out a mailer to its members urging them to help put Waldrop on the Nov. 4 ballot, he said. But the mailings weren’t orchestrated or funded by Waldrop, nor were they an in-kind donation, he maintained, and her campaign is under no legal obligation to report them.

The club’s efforts, continued Brame, were motivated by DeBruhl’s opposition to the county’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent.

Waldrop, meanwhile, asked DeBruhl how effectively she’d be able to work with Democrats on the board in light of some of her statements in the primary stressing the need for a GOP voting block.

“I really don’t know what you mean,” said DeBruhl. “Discussing Republican principles was fitting. Everyone is a taxpayer; tax hikes affect us all. I will represent everyone fairly and equally.”

Despite the evident tension, moderator Rod Hudgins tried to end the forum with a moment of levity, joking, “You all did very well. There’s no blood on the table or anything.”

The candidates also discussed fracking, teacher pay, immigration and whether it’s appropriate for the register of deeds to be an elected position. Watch the full debate (video by Jerry Rice):




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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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