What to know about 4 Buncombe County commission candidates running in March 5 primary (2024)

What to know about 4 Buncombe County commission candidates running in March 5 primary (1)

ASHEVILLE – As the March 5 primary approaches and voters are heading to the polls to cast their ballots early, candidates are vying for spots on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

Voters in Buncombe’s first district, covering the southeastern portion of the county, will vote in primaries on either side of the aisle.

Incumbent commissioner Terri Wells, a democrat, is running unopposed for the second district, which covers much of the northern and western sections of the county. She may face a challenger in the general election if Pisgah Inn owner Bruce O’Connell, who is running as an unaffiliated candidate, collects 2,628 signatures on his petition to join the ballot by March 5. He is just more than 35% away from reaching his goal, according to Buncombe County Director of Elections Corinne Duncan, who emailed the Citizen Times Feb. 26.

Current commissioner Parker Sloan, who is also a Democrat, is running for a seat in the third district of the county. He is running to represent Buncombe’s core and is not facing any challengers.

Current commissioner Amanda Edwards is running for the county chair, now held by longtime chair Brownie Newman who is retiring at the end of his term. Former County Sheriff Van Duncan is also running as an unaffiliated candidate. Corinne Duncan told the Citizen Times Feb. 26 that the former sheriff surpassed the number of signatures he needs to join the ballot.

For the four candidates who will find their names on the primary ballot, the Citizen Times had some questions. On the left side of the aisle, Jennifer Horton faces Matt Kern. For the Republicans, Paul Benjamin faces off against President of the Asheville Fraternal Order of Police Rondell Lance.

In 2020, Lance was found guilty of two counts of disorderly conduct and one count of assault on a female for his role in a melee that broke out following a Black Lives Matter protest. Lance told the Citizen Times shortly after his arrest that he told people that he was police, so officers understood he was trying to help. He said at the time that he was intervening to assist with police.

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Some responses have been edited for accuracy and length.

The basics

Paul Benjamin: Republican. Teaches pastors and preaches across the country but is not affiliated with a local church. Said he lives in the Sweeten Creek neighborhood. Age: 62.

Rondell Lance: Republican. Retired law enforcement. Lives in the Enka Community. Age: 64.

Jennifer Horton: Democrat. Registered nurse and owner of Living Waters Enterprises, the controlling company for five assisted living facilities in Asheville. Lives in Fairview. Age: 38.

Matt Kern: Democrat. Owns a residential green building company. Lives in Riceville. Age: 53.

Buncombe County's planning board is considering regulations on short-term rentals. What are 3 actionable steps you will take to balance affordable housing needs with a growing tourist economy?

Benjamin: To mitigate the high cost of living in Asheville, families should be allowed to leverage their homes through (STR) to generate revenue to support their families. The problem occurs when large companies come into town, buy properties, and use them for short-term rentals. The government needs to do a better job with social programs. The faith community should be leveraged to address the homeless crisis in our region. Asheville is only one City in Buncombe County; we need to address the need for more infrastructure in our surrounding and neglected cities.

What to know about 4 Buncombe County commission candidates running in March 5 primary (2)

Horton: I will prioritize collaborating with the county's planning board to conduct a comprehensive review of existing zoning policies and regulations regarding short-term rentals. This process will involve identifying areas where adjustments can be made to balance affordable housing needs and support the tourism economy. I will advocate for the implementation of mixed-use developments that incorporate both affordable housing units and commercial spaces while also pushing for incentives and tax breaks to encourage developers to prioritize affordable housing projects. Collaborating with stakeholders and community land trusts, we can explore innovative approaches to acquiring and preserving land for affordable housing initiatives.

Kern: I believe we can successfully balance the Affordable housing problem without infringing upon locals who own STRs to earn income to afford their own homes. If you ban STRs you only create the need for more hotels where most of the time the profits don't stay in our community. Three things that can be done to create affordable housing: Expand water and sewer along major highways into county areas to create more density. Expedite the planning, zoning and permitting for multifamily construction along those same corridors and then look into incentives for existing long term landlords to accept housing vouchers.

Lance: In an effort to support affordable housing, I would look at ways to eliminate some of the red tape that local builders face when trying to build properties. Many county residents and builders have expressed serious concerns over high costs and slow processes to get residential homes approved for building. Many people that have short term rentals do so to be able to afford the high cost of living in Buncombe County and are able to maintain family land and pay taxes by having short term rentals. Why would we punish people just trying to provide for their family? For example, the Iredell County Board of Commissioners adopted a zoning amendment implementing certain zoning regulations related to short term rentals. As a result, the courts have stopped the amendment.

More:Asheville rescinds $1.2 million affordable housing loan as developer makes Airbnb pivot

County commissioners recently approved funding for sheriff's deputies to patrol downtown Asheville on Friday and Saturday evenings through the end of the fiscal year. Is this where Buncombe County should allocate its safety resources? What are three actionable steps you will take to improve public safety?

What to know about 4 Buncombe County commission candidates running in March 5 primary (3)

Benjamin: If the Police were not de-funded, we would not have this problem. Police officers cannot afford to live in Asheville because of the high cost of rent. Asheville must use the allocated resources to fund and staff the AVL Police adequately. We must stand firm against rogue groups that are given more rights than our local businesses and citizens. Remember!! Because we are a Sanctuary County, radical groups like MS-13 and other radical gangs are in our County and cities. The safety and protection of our families should be the priority. Instead of releasing criminals from jail to maintain their grant funding quota, the prison system needs to lock up known criminals that the Police arrest and process.

Editor's note: The Asheville Citizen Times could not independently verify the presence of MS-13.

Horton: While the allocation of funds for sheriff's deputies patrols is a step in the right direction, I believe we need a comprehensive approach to address public safety issues effectively. As County Commissioner, I'll advocate for: Strengthening Community Partnerships: Building trust between law enforcement and communities, fostering tailored solutions to local safety concerns. Supporting Mental Health and Addiction Services: Investing in treatment and prevention programs to address underlying issues and prevent crises. Investing in Youth Development: Prioritizing mentorship, recreational activities, and job training to engage youth positively and build safer communities.

What to know about 4 Buncombe County commission candidates running in March 5 primary (4)

Lance: The Asheville City Council created their downtown crime issues with their “defund the police” or anti-law and order agendas, which clearly pandered to the city’s liberal base. As a result of this false narrative pushed by city leaders, the men and women of the Asheville Police Department have been forced to work with limited officers and within a toxic environment honed by the anti-law enforcement sentiment carefully crafted by City Council, as well as the Buncombe County Commissioners. Moreover, the District Attorney's office and judges share the blame when the courts continue to release arrestees and drop charges of those who’ve caused chaos and committed serious crimes in Asheville. To be clear, the Asheville Police Department did not ask for assistance from the Sheriff.

Kern: Yes, Asheville is part of Buncombe County and the safety concerns in the city have an effect on us all. To improve public safety, I would first and foremost support our law enforcement officers and let them know that we appreciate them. Next, I would continue to fund the Sheriff's Co-responder model to allow social workers and mental health professionals to respond with deputies when needed. Another action would be to look at funding more mental health and drug interdiction services to help the unhoused who need these services.

A 1-cent per $100 property tax increase to supplement local school employee pay and a $1 million budget appropriation created $6.1 million devoted to school employees. Local school representatives wanted the commission to increase supplemental pay even more. Do you agree that property tax increase should pay for school employee raises? Should commissioners have gone even further?

Benjamin: The County Commissioners should be lowering the tax burden for our families. The more we tax our families, the more demanding moms and dads have to work to take care of their children. This adds to the Mental Health crisis we see in families and children in our school system. I want to lower the tax rate and burden on our citizens. Too much money is wasted that could have been redirected to address "Merit-Based" pay increases for teachers and other staff positions.

Horton: While the property tax increase was a step towards supporting our school employees, I believe we must prioritize adequately compensating educators for their invaluable contributions to our community. The decision to raise property taxes should be carefully weighed to balance the budget. However, investing in our education system is an investment in our future. As County Commissioner, I would advocate for sustainable funding solutions that prioritize competitive compensation for school employees while ensuring fiscal responsibility and equity for all residents. Education is the foundation of our society, and our educators deserve our full support.

Kern: The county Commission did a good deed to raise teacher pay. I think most people wish it could have been more so instead of blaming the Commission for not doing this let's put the blame where it belongs, on the NC General Assembly. They chose to put over $400 million dollars in a fund for private school vouchers instead of increasing teacher pay. Buncombe County is one of the progressive counties that actually offers a local supplement for teacher pay. I am proud of this and will continue to support this supplement and our teachers when elected.

What to know about 4 Buncombe County commission candidates running in March 5 primary (5)

Lance: I agree that Buncombe County school employees should be compensated fairly and reasonably. They remain an integral part of our school system — charged with the safety, care, and welfare of our children. We expect our school staff to rise to a higher standard; therefore, their diligent efforts and dedication to duty should be reflected in their compensation. Many parents have expressed dissatisfaction with the public county schools. So much so, that many have moved their children to private or charter schools. There is always room to improve the county schools in regard to the proper allocation of taxpayer funds. It is imperative that employees are fairly compensated, while providing a top tier public education for students. Also the North Carolina Education Lottery needs to be addressed.

Since HCA Healthcare purchased Mission Hospital in 2019, news reports, regulators and lawsuits have chronicled the deterioration of patient care. Buncombe County is a plaintiff in multiple lawsuits against the hospital and one of its staffing agencies. What should commissioners do to improve health care in the county?

Benjamin: We need to have a sit-down meeting with HCA to hear and address critical goals and objectives to create a win-win-win outcome for their company, staff, and the citizens in our County.

Horton: To achieve this goal, commissioners must prioritize transparency and accountability in their oversight of HCA. This includes closely monitoring the hospital's performance, promptly investigating any complaints, and holding HCA Healthcare accountable for any deficiencies in patient care. Furthermore, having a healthcare professional on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is essential. As a Registered Nurse with my extensive background in healthcare and community involvement, I am uniquely positioned to advocate for patient-centered policies and resources.

What to know about 4 Buncombe County commission candidates running in March 5 primary (6)

Kern: HCA needs to fix their culture or leave our community. Besides the mentioned lawsuit, there isn't much legally that the county commission can do to fix HCA besides having the bully pulpit to stay on them. Three things that can be done to improve health care in the county: 1)We need to take a look at how mental health and drug interdiction services are funded and make sure that those in crisis don't end up on the streets. 2)We need to improve EMS response times and expand those services. 3)We need Community based para-medicine that use paramedics to fill the gaps in primary care for rural areas of the county.

More:Federal judge denies HCA's motion to dismiss county and city antitrust lawsuit

Lance: All across the county, on a daily basis, someone invariably shares a story of bad experiences at Mission Hospital, a once fine medical facility. As a matter of fact, the standing saying is “Please, if I need to go to the hospital make sure to take me to Advent.” As I recall, Buncombe County Commissioners lobbied hard for the current HCA healthcare purchase. If they had committed to a thorough vetting process and proper research, perhaps they could have prevented the sale of Mission Hospitals to a beleaguered for-profit company embroiled in litigation elsewhere. The commissioners made a terrible mistake to the detriment of Buncombe County’s citizens and all of Western North Carolina. Moreover, HCA has a disturbing record. It bought a Florida hospital, which ultimately was shut down.

Is there another issue you consider a central tenet of your campaign? If so, what is it and how would you seek to address it if elected?

Benjamin: 90% of our crime stems from young men raised in homes parented by single mom fatherless homes. 40% of Buncombe County are made-up of single mother homes. Car Break ins, Car Jacking, and Gun Violence are up. I train and equip leaders and mentors how to address these problems.

Editor's note: The Asheville Citizen Times could not independently verify these statistics.

Horton: Another central issue of my campaign is promoting equity and inclusivity across Buncombe County. As a community, we must ensure that every resident, regardless of background or circ*mstance, has equal access to opportunities and resources. To address this, I will advocate for policies that prioritize equity in education, healthcare, housing, and economic development. I will work to foster dialogue and collaboration among diverse stakeholders to identify and address systemic barriers to equity. By amplifying the voices of underrepresented communities and centering their needs in decision-making processes, we can create a more just and inclusive Buncombe County for all.

Kern: Besides tackling affordable housing, supporting our public schools and managing growth, I would like to see an expansion of greenways and parks and the protection of our mountains. I will support the fund that the county has to provide soft cost funding for land trusts to acquire the development rights from landowners that wish to do so. I would also like to see more public private partnerships to find a simpler faster way to build greenways and non- paved paths that connect our neighborhoods to the services they need.

Lance: If elected, my focus and priority becomes undertaking a discerning look at Buncombe County’s budget. Many of the more rural residents feel neglected, especially when county funds are dedicated to projects within the City of Asheville and to other special interest groups. It is incumbent upon county leaders to be good stewards of taxpayer monies and to do so fairly, efficiently, and effectively.

More:4 patients died at Mission Hospital due to missteps, federal government report reveals

More:Buncombe County's internal audit department lacked full-time employees for months

Mitchell Black covers Buncombe County and health care for the Citizen Times. Email him at mblack@citizentimes.com or follow him on Twitter @MitchABlack.Please help support local journalism with asubscriptionto the Citizen Times.

What to know about 4 Buncombe County commission candidates running in March 5 primary (2024)
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