This year’s election for Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will come down to a battle between incumbents and newcomers. In District 2, Democrat and attorney Martin Moore will try to unseat Robert Pressley, the board’s only registered Republican; in District 1, incumbent Democrat Al Whitesides will face Republican and former Commissioner Anthony Penland; and in District 3, Democrat Amanda Edwards will face conservative activist Don Yelton.
At a Sept. 9 forum hosted by the Council of Independent Business Owners, all six candidates staked out their positions on a range of issues central to Buncombe County residents.
Bonds on the ballot
Candidates were split on the two bond referendums that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. The first would authorize the county to raise $30 million for spending on farmland and open-space conservation initiatives, as well as greenways. The second would allow the board to raise $40 million for affordable housing projects. Together, the bonds are projected to increase the median homeowner’s annual taxes by $32 dollars for the next 20 years.
Several candidates saw the bonds as worthy long-term community investments.
“I support the affordable housing bond referendum,” Edwards said, adding that, “as an inaugural member of the Affordable Housing Subcommittee, I have seen firsthand just how dire the situation is in our community for affordable housing. It is dire. And we do need this, on referendum, to address the issues of affordability and livability in our community.”
“It will give us the shot in the arm we need,” Whitesides said, “hopefully, to get affordable housing off the ground and to do more to help the citizens of the town.”
Other candidates pointed out that the bonds will lay an unnecessary burden on taxpayers who are already grappling with property tax increases.
“Do I support affordable housing? Absolutely. We all do. How we get there is where we’re going to differ,” Penland said. “A typical household right now is going to pay $32 [a year]. … We cannot continue to burden the taxpayers. Thirty-two dollars to some may not be much. But to others, $32 is maybe all they got.”
Pressley said, “I don’t think it’s my opinion to approve or disapprove of this bond. My job is to explain to everyone what it really means. … We could go up on taxes [immediately] or we could do the bond. Either way, we’re paying for it.”
Taxes and reappraisal
The candidates were asked to evaluate the county’s property tax appraisal process, which some consider unfair to low-income residents and communities of color. All of the candidates agreed that the process needs an update but differed on how to address the issue.
“We need to focus on two primary populations,” Moore said. First, those who are retiring and, second, “our historic neighborhoods, the folks who have lived here who might have been low income. A lot of historic Black neighborhoods are a good example of that. Let’s put some programs in place that will actually support that, put real money behind it, so we don’t create further evictions and homelessness problems.”
Pressley focused on keeping assessments accurate. “If we have a house valued at $700,000 but it sells for $1 million. [A]fter it’s sold, it goes back to being taxed on $700,000. Why can we not just raise [taxes on] that house? It sold for a million, and that’s what it should be taxed at.”
Edwards said, “One thing that I have supported … will continue to support is affordable homeowners initiatives, where people who do qualify can apply for a grant to help offset the cost of their increased property taxes. It’s a first step and not the only step to helping support local county residents.”
Equity and inclusion
Buncombe County has taken specific actions on equity and inclusion over the last several years, including declaring racism a public health and safety crisis in 2020 and passing a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2021 that prohibits discrimination in employment, businesses and institutions that are open to the public. Without specifically mentioning those efforts, candidates offered varied views regarding the county’s role in promoting equity and inclusion.
“I am a firm believer that we all are created in God’s image and I will treat you as such,” Penland said. “I don’t look at people’s skin color to make a decision. And it should never be that way. If we have programs in place that are doing that, it needs to stop now.”
“When you start talking about equity, you’re already forcing something that is not equitable,” Yelton said. “You’re [already] looking at the situation and designing specific programs for specific people; that is not equity.”
For Moore and Whitesides, who are Black, equity and inclusion at the county level means fair access to opportunities and resources, particularly when it comes to education and workforce development.
“We want diverse workforces,” Moore said. “Let’s make sure that people have the skill set they need to be contributing members of the workforce. And then when the time comes, we’ll look at fair access and fair opportunity, making sure that everyone has an equal chance to be hired and considered for the jobs that we have.”
“For me, equity and inclusion has been a lifelong struggle,” Whitesides said, adding, “But I’ve found now that it starts with education. You’ve got to be educated in order to take advantage of a capitalistic society.”