Candidates for Buncombe County Board of Commissioners: Mike Harrison

Vote for four. The candidates are Mark Crawford, Republican; David Gantt, Democrat; Mike Harrison, Republican; Mike Morgan, Republican; Carol Weir Peterson, Democrat; Bill Reynolds, Republican; Bill Stanley, Democrat; and David Young, Democrat.

Mike Harrison

Age: 58
Address: 252 Martins Creek Road, Barnardsville
Occupation: Business consultant for IBM
Years in Buncombe County: 5
Education: Master’s degree in science, Central Michigan University
Political party: Republican
Political experience: Congressional liaison in Washington, D.C.; staff director, committee of Florida state House; very active in politics

1. What sets you apart from your opponent?

“I think the blend of experience that I have, rather than being narrowly focused in one area. For example, education or law. I can bring a background of leadership from 28 years in the military as an army officer, having served at very senior levels in the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., as well as with tactical units, leading other officers and soldiers. A year of that was in combat in Vietnam. I was highly decorated in Vietnam, with a Silver Star and the Combat Infantry Badge.

“That’s the leadership side. On the business side, I’ve worked since my retirement from the military in 1996 as a business consultant helping companies do two things: identify new opportunities for growth, and two, to improve the efficiency of their operation, so they save money and they make more money. No. 3 is, having not lived in Buncombe County my entire existence, having lived in a wide number of places across the United States, I have seen and been exposed to different ways of doing things, some of which will work here and some of which will not. But it brings a unique perspective that some of the other candidates can’t offer, having been born, having grown up here, having gone to school here and having resided here their entire lives.”

2. What’s the biggest problem facing the county? What would you do about it?

“Based on my conversations with county residents (and I’ve held a series of community meetings across the county), they tell me that continuing job losses are their major concern. What you do about that — based on my business experience, I know — is that businesses are going to go where they find a favorable business environment. They’re going to go where they have reasonable taxes (not necessarily the lowest taxes); where they have good, dependable, reliable provision of county services; where they can find a literate population that can perform needed tasks for their particular business; and where they have a very supportive government that makes it easy for them to do business, rather than one that seems to be hostile to their activities. Frankly, in this county, I’ve heard from many, many businesses that feel they are almost being prosecuted for trying to do business in the county, rather than being encouraged to do business. So we need to change those four things.”

3. What, if anything, needs to change about construction in floodplains?

“I think the market will work there if we don’t insure businesses that build in the floodplains, and if we make it clear to them that any losses they incur will be on their own ticket. I think any prudent businessman, or any prudent homeowner, will decline to build there. The problem is that we subsidize building in floodplains. When the damage occurs, we try to ease the pain. That’s just fighting nature. There are going to be floods in those floodplains; it needs to be recognized. People need to be made aware of that. Unfortunately in this particular case, I don’t think we had the up-to-date maps that enable people to make the right decisions. But if we have the maps — if we know where the floodplain is, and then somebody decides to build there — they need to recognize that it is at their own risk, and they will not get any help when something happens.”

4. Are you in favor of countywide zoning?

“I am not in favor of countywide zoning. I think after a bitterly fought contest, back when we had the nonbinding referendum, people in the county spoke. Although not with an overwhelming majority, they did speak as a majority that they didn’t want zoning being forced on them, and I think we need to honor that.

“The other thing to realize is that zoning, more often than not, fails to accomplish what people think it will accomplish. I don’t [question] the motives of people who support zoning, because they’ve moved here from Atlanta or communities in northern Virginia that were zoned and that seemed to work OK. But we are talking about a county that is very diverse. It’s not a tightly knit, heavily settled county, and what will work in Asheville won’t necessarily work in my part of the county — in Barnardsville, in Fairview or in other parts of the county. So forcing zoning on people would be, I think, an injustice. I will not vote for countywide zoning.”

5. How would you manage sprawl?

“I’m very much in favor of property rights, and I’m very much in favor of people doing with their property what they see as best, as driven by their best self-interest. I think that sprawl is pretty much of a self-limiting phenomenon. Yes, it will occur to the extent that we build highways that will encourage sprawl. But if I have to look at the balance between individual property rights and the damage caused to the county by sprawl, I’m going to be forced to come down on the side of individual property rights. I think people have enough good sense, realizing the beautiful place we have here in Buncombe County, that they are not selfish enough to destroy that. I have a good deal of confidence in the common man as far as managing his own property, so I would be very loath to pass any strict regulations on where people can build and what they can do with their land.”

6. What’s your position on the city of Asheville’s intention to dissolve the Regional Water Agreement?

“I think the Regional Water Agreement has certainly outlived its usefulness, and I can’t take exception with the fact that Asheville wants to dissolve it. The question at this point is where do we go from here? What I want to do is make the Water Authority a truly independent authority run by competent engineers who know what they are doing. Take as much of the political decision-making out of our water supply as we can. That would be primary.

“The second thing we need to do is quit using our water revenue as the cash cow for funding other sorts of government activity. The money that is generated by marketing water to the citizens should be used to maintain that water system — not to maintain ballfields, not to maintain golf courses, not to maintain routine government operations.”

7. I-26 Connector: Six lanes or eight? Why?

“I’d like to go back to the starting point on the I-26 connector. It is very much a puzzle to me why we want to dump major interstate-highway traffic in the middle of town. I think some think it’s going to bring a lot of business to Asheville; they want those cars and trucks traveling through town. But frankly, I would much rather go back to the drawing board and see if we can’t find some way to build a bypass that will keep traffic out of the middle of Asheville. It will avoid taking people’s property from them for building highways. It will avoid disrupting the town, because building that road is going to take a long time, and it’s going to disrupt life around here for a long time. So it’s not just a matter of six lanes or eight lanes — it’s a matter of where we put that highway. If, in fact, we finally decide to build that highway where we propose to build it through West Asheville, then I would say that building a full eight lanes would probably be the right choice, in anticipation of the traffic that would eventually come there. But I will defer to engineers who study traffic patterns on how many lanes we need. I would just want to make a different decision about where we put that highway.”

8. Is the county’s economic-development policy working? If so, what’s the proof? If not, what’s wrong with it?

“I think that it’s not working, looking at the continuing hemorrhage of jobs we have from the county.

“There seems to be an attitude in North Carolina — I don’t just attribute this to Asheville — that if you offer businesses money to come to an area, that that will be sufficient to attract them. I don’t think that the results prove that. Yes, businesses will take the money; they’ll be glad to do that. But they don’t come to an area because of a one-time infusion of cash. As I mentioned before, they come because of a regulatory environment, a supportive government, a population that has the skills that they need, and a reasonable tax base. So I think that the money we are spending on incentives may be well-intended, but I haven’t seen the proof yet that it works.

“Especially in North Carolina, where our tax rate is so high that businesses find it very easy to move to other places like Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C., where they’ve got a much more favorable environment. They’re not that far away from here. We’ve seen Tennessee and South Carolina do much, much better than we’ve done. So I don’t have a lot of confidence in those incentives.”

9. Should the county’s electronic voting machines be required to provide a paper trail?

“Yes, I am in favor of that. I believe it builds confidence in the process. And since I work for IBM, a high-tech company, I am very well aware of the limitations of computers. I am very well aware of how they can be manipulated, either intentionally or mistakes can be made unintentionally that can give you the numbers that you want. So I’m very much in favor of paper ballots.”

10. Do you think county government is open enough? If not, what would you change?

“I’ll give you one example of how I don’t think it is open enough. That is the lack of visibility to the accounting records of all agencies and organizations that receive county money.

“Let’s take the nonprofit organizations, for example — many of which do very fine work, but they are viewed very skeptically by members of the community because they don’t make their books open and available to the public and subject to periodic audit. So I’ve made a blanket statement that I’ll stand by: Any organization that gets as much as $1 from Buncombe County government should be required to have open books subject to periodic audit, subject to periodic public review of how they spent that money and what the county taxpayers have gotten for it.”

11. What responsibilities should be approached regionally? How would you build regional cooperation?

“Well, I think water supply is a good example of how you need to approach things regionally. Nature did not grow in terms of straight lines on a map; rivers don’t flow in terms of straight lines on a map. They cross regional boundaries, there are different population centers that depend on a water supply, so I think that is an example of where you want to have regional interests represented and some kind of regional cooperation.

“You build regional cooperation by applying common sense to the way you deal with other government agencies. Remember, you are actually dealing with other human beings when you talk about cooperation, and you need to approach those other human beings in a reasonable way. I like to use the words ‘common sense': You deal with other governments the way you deal with people you work with in business. You try to understand their interests, you try to understand why they are behaving the way they are behaving, why they are advocating a certain position. Then you compare that to yours and try to come to some reasonable middle ground. If you approach regional cooperation — or if you approach interpersonal relationships in terms of ‘You always lose and I always win,” then you’re setting yourself up for failure.

“So good common sense, mature judgment, open communication and an ability to compromise (when compromise will produce a reasonable solution) is the way to go. When I say compromise, though, that always means you can’t compromise on principle. There are certain things that can’t be compromised, like honesty.”

12. What does the county spend too much money on? What does it spend too little on?

“That’s an interesting question, and frankly, because government records are not as open as they should be, I’m really at a loss to say, because I’m not sure where all the money is going. I have a suspicion that if we have a more open government and more rigorous audits, we’re going to find places where too much money is spent for the return we get on the money. But I’m not prepared to point fingers right now, until I see the books, and since I’m just a candidate right now, not a commissioner, I haven’t seen those books.

I have read the county budget from page to page and I can tell you it’s not very revealing, because most of the money in that budget is lumped under something called the ‘general fund.’ Well, what does the general fund mean? You’ve got to get into the details to find out where those line-by-line expenditures are being made before you can answer that kind of question. I intend to do that as commissioner, but I’m not privy to those books yet.”

13. How much money do you plan to spend in the general election?

“Well, I don’t know that I can give you a dollar amount. I can tell you this: County commissioner races in this county have become quite expensive, and the incumbents seem to spend anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 to win. That’s for a job that pays about that much money over the course of four years. I’ll be competitive. If it takes $40,000 to $50,000 to win the election, since I’m trying to do the right thing for folks who support me, who are contributing, then I’ll spend whatever it takes to be competitive.”

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