Jerri Jamison (left), news director at Clear Channel Asheville, moderates a candidates forum Monday night featuring candidates for Buncombe County Commission chair. David Gantt (center), the current chair, will face J.B. Howard (right) in the upcoming election. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

Current Buncombe County Commission Chairman David Gantt and challenger J.B. Howard discussed their stances Monday night on the economy, education and the role of government at the first of four candidate forums hosted by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County.

The event at the Ferguson Auditorium on the campus of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville also featured a “meet and greet” session for citizens to talk with candidates running for other offices in Buncombe County. Carolina Public Press is a co-sponsor of the forum series.

Gantt, a Democrat who has served on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners since 1996 and works as a practicing attorney, said the board has a responsibility to making sure people have job opportunities and that the county offers a good quality of life.

Howard, a Republican and U.S. Army veteran who worked for the N.C. State Highway Patrol and currently owns an investigations business, characterized the present leadership in Buncombe County as having “failed miserably” and “catering to one specific group in this county.”

Questions on education funding

J.B. Howard. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

When asked by forum moderator Clear Channel Asheville News Director Jerri Jameson how important education funding is, Howard said, “building new buildings does not educate children.” He stressed that everyone at every level of a school – from the teachers to the custodians to the lunchroom personnel – is involved with educating children.

“I see nothing more important than educating those children because they’re going to be the taxpayers someday,” he said.

Gantt responded that 28 percent of Buncombe County’s current budget goes toward education, and “the way Raleigh is assaulting public education, we’ll probably have to pay more.” Gantt said the county has to have facilities that have technology for the 21st century and that the county has to continue to support A-B Tech.

David Gantt. Matt Rose/Carolina Public Press

“Nothing to me is more important than education because it leads to jobs,” Gantt said.

The candidates were asked what they were the most important expenditure areas for Buncombe County. Howard responded with the four-word answer, “Paying down the debt.” Gantt said 81 percent of the Buncombe County budget is spent on human services, public safety and education.

“What we’ve got to do is probably put more money in education,” Gantt said.

Future of greenways, small business

Gantt and Howard were asked if they support holding a bond referendum next year to fund work outlined in the county’s greenways and trails master plan.

While he said he supports greenways, Gantt said he was not sure the bond referendum was something that could be done next year but that the county needed to talk about it and figure out how to address this in the future.

“I agree with most of what Mr. Gantt is saying,” Howard said. “However, I have always been told if you play you pay.”

He said he wondered why Buncombe County taxpayers should be burdened with building bike trails, walking trails and picnic tables when there are churches and civic groups that could build these.

A question was posed to Gantt and Howard about how county government is working with businesses and schools to meet the needs of local employers.

Howard said he has a lot of friends with small businesses and that they have pled with the county commission to reduce regulation requirements that he described as “nothing but moneymaking” for the county.

“We need to keep companies coming from other states out of here,” Howard said. “We need to give our small businesses preferential treatment so they can hire local people.”

Gantt talked about how he is a small business owner and how he is a member of the Council of Independent Business Owners in Asheville and of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and how working together with those groups is important.

“We still have to have rules to keep our quality of life, but we don’t need to strangle small businesses with them,” he said.

When asked to expand on the idea of giving preferential treatment to small businesses, Howard said requirements put on local contractors are not passed on to contractors not based here.

“Nobody checks the immigrants to see if they’re legal,” Howard said. “We’re not checking to see if they’re paying taxes. We either need to check them all or check none of them to compete.”

Gantt said the county doesn’t have the right to control immigration policies but does have the right to control whether businesses are offering things like living wages and insurance for their employees and said, “we need to continue to do that.” Buncombe County needs to listen to small business owners to see how to help them, Gantt said.

“The county doesn’t want to get in the way,” he said.

Incentives, property reevaluations and more

The candidates were asked if they support tax incentives to get business to locate in Buncombe County, to which Howard simply responded, “No.”

Gannt said, “Yes, it’s a necessary part of getting in the game.”

He said that companies won’t even consider the county as possible site without incentives being offered. Gantt said incentives have been part of the reason Buncombe County has had 2,300 jobs coming into the county since 2009, which he said has amounted to $650 million in investments.

Gantt and Howard were asked how the board should address the issue of tax increases related to upcoming property reevaluations.

Gannt said the board’s analysis will involve looking at the fair market value of property, the tax rate and the county budget.

“We’re probably going to have to be revenue neutral, but we won’t know until we set the budget,” he said.

It’s been seven years since properties have been reevaluated, Gantt said, and in the spring, he said the board will have the new fair market value information for Buncombe County properties.

“Once we get that info, then the board will consider what the rates will be and what the budget should be,” he said.

Howard said, “If you analyze that budget and cut the waste out of it, you won’t have to raise the taxes.”

Upcoming forums from the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County:

  • A District 1/N.C. House District 114 Candidate “Meet and Greet” and Forum from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Oct. 1, at the Lord Auditorium at Pack Memorial Library at 67 Haywood St. in Asheville.
  • A District 2/N.C. House District 115 Candidate Forum from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Oct. 8, at the Black Mountain Library at 105 N. Dougherty St. in Black Mountain.
  • A District 3/NC House District 116 Candidate Forum from 6:30 8:30 p.m., Oct. 15, at the Skyland Fire Department at 9 Miller Road in Skyland.

Call the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County at (828) 258-8223 or visit for more information. Carolina Public Press, 880 The Revolution, Mountain Xpress, News Radio 570 WWNC and The Urban News are co-sponsors of the forums.

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Kathleen O'Nan is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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