On Tuesday evening, candidates for the Greenbrier County Commission gathered at Greenbrier Valley Theatre for a forum sponsored by the Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce.
Moderated by Mike Kidd, the event allowed the three candidates, incumbent Mike McClung (R), Brad Tuckwiller (D) and Donna Nickell (Ind.) to introduce themselves to the community and answer questions that had been submitted in advance.
During opening statements, McClung told voters that as the incumbent candidate, his experience as commission president and the improvements made to the commission under his leadership should make people vote to keep him in office.
“There was too much drama before,” he said of previous commissions. “I ask for you to leave (the commission) to the present leadership.”
Challenger Tuckwiller, a former commissioner, introduced himself as a “numbers guy,” and touted his previous successes as commissioner such as ensuring that Beech Ridge paid a minimum of $400,000 in property taxes for its wind farm on Cold Knob, helping fund a sewer plant near White Sulphur Springs, expanding courthouse employees’ hours, and bringing together the animal control department and humane society under one roof.
Newcomer Donna Nickell, running on the Independent ticket, highlighted her years of volunteerism and teaching as a useful background for serving on the county commission. Nickell mentioned that due to the June flooding, the tax base has been decreased, so that the county must be vigilant in its spending.
The first question presented ask what the candidates thought was the most serious need in Greenbrier County.
Tuckwiller said that unemployment, coupled with the decline in tourism dollars after the flood, presents a challenge to the county. He also said that rampant drug addiction has saddled the county with the need for solid recovery programs.
McClung agreed that jobs are needed, but pointed to the need for more small businesses to improve the economy.
“We need several small payrolls,” McClung said. “Jobs are needed.”
Nickell, too, was in agreement. As a teacher at Greenbrier East High School and a mother of young adult children, Nickell noted how disheartening it is to see graduates leave the area to find work.
“We need to bring quality jobs to the county,” said Nickell. She also expressed the need to alleviate the drug epidemic.
The next question was what the candidates hoped to accomplish over the next six years.
Nickell said she hoped to bring a large-scale job operation to the county, remembering when Bendix corporation opened in Lewisburg with the support of the county commission. Also, she said, she’d like to see the opening of an indoor swimming pool.
“Around here, ‘pool’ is a four-letter word,” countered McClung. He proposed that he’d like to oversee the construction of a new courthouse annex, but also acknowledged the expense, citing “30 million reasons” why it may be hard to accomplish. Also, he said he’d like to get a satellite office of the courthouse and the magistrate on the west end of the county.
Tuckwiller said he’d like to see an equalization of employment and affordable housing opportunities in the eastern and western ends of the county. Also, he said, he’d offer continued support of the industries already in place such as the tourism industry, WVSOM, Greenbrier Valley Medical Center and ABB.
When asked about funding the animal shelter and the humane society, Tuckwiller said he wholly supports the animal control entities and would continue to do so if elected. He noted that under his leadership during his previous tenure as commissioner, the two entities were able to merge under one roof and become more efficient and work better together.
McClung countered that while he supports the idea of animal control and the humane society, he believes that the budget allotted to animal control by the county commission is too much to spend on what he characterized as “stray dogs.”
He cited budget cuts to the Child and Youth Advocacy Center, the Family Refuge Center and Greenbrier Committee on Aging, stating that “I think our priorities are out of kilter,” by spending $250,000 a year on animal control.
Nickell said she supported both points of view, and opted for a more middle of the road approach, stating she’d like to cut some of the funding, calling for animal control and the humane society to be “more efficient” in their spending.
When asked about the June flood’s impact on tourism, Nickell said that the bed tax funds that were recently loaned by the county commission to support the convention and visitors bureau’s advertising campaign seemed to be a “double-edged sword.”
McClung argued that the CVB had been offered a nice deal of an interest-free loan of $450,000 to be paid back over a generous time period.
Tuckwiller called the bed tax a “self-funding mechanism,” and said that, considering the county is “sitting on $2.5 million with no purpose,” the loan was a good move for the county.
“We can’t afford to not sponsor the CVB and tourism,” he said.
When asked how to deal with the impact of drug addiction, both Tuckwiller and Nickell said they’d like to see an expansion of recovery services, with Nickell calling for more teacher and student training on drug abuse and prevention and Tuckwiller calling for more services on the west end of the county.
McClung stated that “we’ve lost the war on drugs,” and said that much addiction may be a symptom of economic stagnation. He recommended further drug testing and said that to his mind, drug abuse is “a law enforcement issue.”
The next topic was the ongoing legal dispute between the county and New River Community and Technical College over the failed swimming pool.
“I don’t understand why we’ve gone out of our way to tick off the community college,” said Tuckwiller, who argued that the county owes NRCTC for construction costs. “We need to resolve this and reach an agreement.”
“Litigation is expensive,” said Nickell, “and a burden to taxpayers.” She said she’d like to see the county commission reach a settlement with NRCTC.
McClung reminded the audience that he’d voted against the pool three times, and also said that Greenbrier County has, in fact, gotten its money back. “It’s back,” he said. “A judge required that it be returned to us.
“I’d argue that New River is in the wrong,” he said. “I don’t think we owe them any money.”
McClung then noted that a settlement between the county and the college has been “quasi-agreed upon.”
The next question was in regard to funding non-profit organizations, something the county does through the collection of several kinds of taxes.
McClung cited the lack of tax funds to support many nonprofits. “We need to set priorities,” he said, and mentioned again that programs for people were being cut while the animal shelter remained flush, much to his dismay.
Tuckwiller countered, “County commissions are required to fund certain departments, including animal shelters.”
He also noted that in 2020, the tax increment financing (TIF) for the White Sulphur District sewer system will be repaid, which will free up those tax revenues for other projects.
“There are so many needy organizations,” said Nickell. “I’d hope that some things could be funded privately.”
The next question dealt with a fundraiser held for GVT last year called “Spanxgiving,” an adult show featuring female impersonators and burlesque performers. The question posed to the candidates stated that McClung had taken offense to the fundraiser and led him to threaten to defund GVT if they put on a similar show again. Should county commissions have the power to choose what type to art is displayed?
“No I don’t,” said McClung, “and no, I never threatened to withhold funds. I personally thought it was inappropriate and it mocked Thanksgiving, but I’ll deny that I threatened it.”
Tuckwiller was adamant in his refusal that the commission should regulate art. “The county commission should never censor art. If they don’t want to go (to a show), they don’t have to go. If this facility hosts a performance, it’s not the government’s job to impose its views on GVT or Carnegie Hall or Trillium.”
Nickell agreed, “It’s not the government’s job. We need more arts in this community, and GVT needs to be funded” by the county commission.
The final question was about the funding of parks and recreational facilities, of which the county owns none.
Nickell said she’d like to build a recreational building with a pool, but also acknowledged that a pool is a “money pit,” so she’d look for a private-public partnership to help fund such an enterprise.
Tuckwiller said he’d like to see better coordination with the existing, city-owned parks. He acknowledged the need for ball fields and courts, but first, he said, “We need to recover what we lost in the flooding.”
“I don’t think the county can afford, and shouldn’t manage it,” he said. “We don’t handle employees very well.”
McClung confirmed that the commission has been entertaining an option to buy land and develop an athletic facility made up of outdoor ball fields.
Covington has a great facility, he said, but “People don’t want to go to Covington. They want to come here.” Such a facility would boost tourism and the economy, he said.