CoastLine Candidate Interviews: New Hanover County Board of Commissioners - Democrats
New Hanover County’s Board of Commissioners has three open seats this year. On an earlier edition of CoastLine Candidate Interviews, we met the Republicans. On this edition, we meet the Democrats vying for those spots – which carry four-year terms.
As of last year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated New Hanover County’s population to be a little over 220,000.
One of New Hanover County’s commissioners with an expiring term, Republican Beth Dawson, lost the March primary and is not on the November ballot. That leaves two incumbents -- one Republican, Woody White, and one Democrat, Jonathan Barfield -- fighting to keep their seats.
Candidates in order of appearance:
Segment 1: Julia Boseman
Segment 2: Nelson Beaulieu
Segment 3: Jonathan Barfield
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Julia Boseman is probably best-known in the Cape Fear region for serving three terms as state senator from District 9, beginning in 2005. Before that, she served on the Board for which she’s running now, the New Hanover County Commission, from 2000-2004. In her first Senate term, Julia Boseman was ranked by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research as the 20th most effective senator, giving her the highest ranking ever for a first-term female senator and the second highest for a freshman. Julia Boseman, welcome to CoastLine.
Julia Boseman: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
RLH: These rankings are based on input from your former legislative colleagues, reporters, lobbyists. Why do you think your colleagues in the Senate found you to be so effective, and how much did the fact that the legislature enjoyed a Democratic majority have to do with that?
Julia Boseman: Well, that certainly was part of it. I think the first year was really big for New Hanover County and southeastern North Carolina. We were able to accomplish great things: bringing in the new ports, the new cranes to the Port, the school of nursing. I believe I started right off in my first term with the film incentive, which we kept having to refund about every year that I was there. We were able to do a lot of great things for this area and for the state, and I’m proud of my service in the Senate.
RLH: When you look back at the film incentive and then where we are today, what do you think about that?
Julia Boseman: It’s disheartening. When I was a child, I can remember walking around downtown and it was a lot of adult book stores. When the film industry came—I can remember the first film, when Drew Barrymore came and filmed Firestarter—the whole culture of our community changed. There were more forward-thinking people. It was a wonderful thing then. Unfortunately, we had to get into the incentive game to be competitive. We brought thousands of good paying jobs to North Carolina without the need for infrastructure, and they didn’t pollute. It’s heartbreaking to me to know that we’ve had hundreds of families have to move away to Georgia because there’s no work here for them anymore. The film incentive, as they have it now, just isn’t working. You can’t do it year by year with production. I traveled to L.A. and we recruited films. It’s heartbreaking to see all of those jobs leave our area and North Carolina.
RLH: The state legislators from this area lobbied hard to try to keep the film incentive as it was structured, as a tax rebate versus a grant, and they failed. Is there anything to be done at this point from the level of the county?
Julia Boseman: I don’t think there’s much the county can do as far as the film incentive. You know, we can continue to lobby our legislative delegation in Raleigh and others, but the county is not rich enough to do a film incentive here over five years. There are things we can do to help bring jobs here, but unfortunately, it’s not going to be the One Tree Hill series for a number of years like we’ve had in the past until the legislature steps up and reinstates a realistic film incentive that Hollywood can bet on and will come here.
RLH: Because you were an elected official, a public figure, you suffered through some personal crises in a very public way. Now you’re seeking to be a custodian of public resources once again—a voice for constituents, a shaper of policy. How do you explain to listeners the trajectory from well-respected, extremely popular senator to Chapter 7 bankruptcy, defaulting on multiple property loans, two nasty child custody battles, and in 2008, a family that had financed their home through you found out that the bank was calling in the loan and they had no more rights at that point than renters and they were, when this was first uncovered, in danger of being ejected from their home after thinking they were in the process of purchasing this home from you. How do you explain that?
Julia Boseman: Well, if you had told me sixteen years ago that I was going to face these custody battles, unexpected bankruptcy, and a battle with addiction, I wouldn’t have believed you, but going through this has made me a lot stronger and will make me a better commissioner. The family you’re talking about were made whole. You know, I have suffered through some difficult times, but I didn’t just survive them. I’m thriving now, and I think that I can better relate to people who do suffer. I know what it’s like to battle addiction. I know what it’s like to have financial problems. I understand people are suffering. It’s made me a better attorney in my practice, representing folks in their domestic cases, and it will make me a better commissioner. One of the things commissioners do is fund drug treatment court and DUI court. These are important things because I think that we need to not only treat the symptoms but treat the actual cause. The commissioners have invested money in Trillium for addiction and bought twenty-three beds, which I think is a step forward, but I think we need to make sure the sheriff’s department has the resources they need to keep our streets safe and to fight these gangs and the violence and DSS has the resources they need. People look at DSS, which is the county department, and think it’s just about food stamps, but that’s not what it’s about. We have over 600 children in the custody of DSS who are in foster care. A lot of these kids are in foster care because their parents either have addiction problems or there’s domestic violence in the home. We have many adults in adult protective services; we’re not talking about just elderly people, we’re talking about 18- or 19-year-olds who are developmentally disabled. The county is an extension of the state, and I had six years of experience in the state legislature and four years as a commissioner, and I understand how it works and what needs to be done.
RLH: At what point did you understand that there was a substance abuse problem? Is that what you’re saying drove these other crises?
Julia Boseman: Partly, but I think the bankruptcy was the crash in the real estate market and being away in Raleigh and not being able to work as much, but the crash in the real estate market was the main reason. The addiction problem— I voluntarily checked myself into treatment on February 13, 2013. I went to the Farley Center in Williamsburg for almost three months. I wasn’t required to do it for my law license. I had no pending legal matters. I just decided that’s not the life I wanted, and I made a choice. I made a choice to seek a better life for myself and my children.
RLH: That was about three and a half years ago. What’s changed for you since then?
Julia Boseman: I’m a lot stronger now. I have a more spiritual outlook on life. I’m grateful for the things that I have and not the things that I don’t. You know, everything’s a gift. I have a totally different outlook on life and the gifts that I have in my life. Every day I wake up, I’m grateful for it. When I go to sleep, I’m grateful for that too. My focus is on being grateful and thankful for all the gifts I have in my life instead of concentrating on the negative and the things I don’t have anymore.
RLH: Why do you want to run for public office again? What do you think you’ll bring to the New Hanover County Commission that other people cannot?
Julia Boseman: Well, I certainly bring some real life experience. That’s the thing other candidates are not going to bring. I’ve had a lot of experience. Wilmington, New Hanover County has always been my home. I was born here. My mother’s still here. I have a child here in first grade. It’s not only my home, but it’s where Angie and I have chosen to raise our kids, Lucas and Jack. I think the county plays an important role in shaping local issues. One of the things the county does is help fund the schools. They pay a teacher supplement, which is in addition to the state salary. Last year, I volunteered in my child’s kindergarten classroom once a week, and I saw first-hand the challenges that these teachers face in their classrooms. I don’t know how they do it. It’s amazing. So, not only for my child, but for everyone’s children and the future of our community, we need to make sure that the teachers have the resources they need. The big thing for me with education that the county is looking at is the vocational high school because I believe that kids need to be college-bound or career-ready. This will give some kids a different track. I think the paper quoted that there’s 23, 43 different career paths that these kids could take. Kids need options and kids need hope. And that’s something that I think I can help deliver if I’m elected to be commissioner.
Dr. Reid: The first two-thousand days of a child’s life is the time of most significant brain development. Therefore, many children already have significant delays by the time they begin school at five years old. This means the school system invests money and resources to catch these students up, often unsuccessfully. What’s your plan to support children in the first five years of life?
Julia Boseman: I think that’s something we’ll have to do with the Board of Education because, again, we can give them money, but we can’t tell them how to spend it. I totally support that, and I’m fortunate that Lucas, my child, was able to go to pre-K because when I did volunteer in his classroom, I saw the differences between kids who had not had any type of formal education and the kids that had. It was a world of difference, and so they’re already starting off in kindergarten behind. I think that early childhood education is extremely important. Something we can do is support nonprofits in the county, which we do, to help pick up the slack where the county can’t provide these services. So, support nonprofits that can provide this early childhood education and support the school board. Again, I can’t tell them how to spend the money we give them, but we can certainly, hopefully work together for the common good of the kids.
RLH: The county planning board, the business community, and environmental advocates have all been recently working on new versions of the special use permit. At the last meeting of the planning board, that body essentially said they cannot yet make a recommendation to the commissioners of a draft of this that’s viable. If you could pick this up, the special use permit, and single-handedly decide this issue, how would you handle it? Where does the SUP need to go?
Julia Boseman: I think that it does need to be modified in order to attract businesses that will work with our environment and not wilt away under unchecked regulation, like Titan or offshore drilling. I think that we do need to do something with it to make it more attractive to businesses, but I mean, under no circumstances would I support any version of it that would allow a business in here like Titan. I fought Titan for a decade with members in this community. While I was in the Senate, I introduced legislation. We fought and we fought and we fought. People think that Titan is gone. I disagree that Titan and those businesses are gone. I think that if Republicans have the majority in the county commission after the election that you’ll maybe see the Special Use Permitting process either go away or it’s going to be much friendlier for businesses like Titan, which may bring a few jobs but the damage it will do to our environment is astronomical and beyond repair. That’s a huge thing this election. If Republicans take control, we’re going to have businesses like Titan.
RLH: One of the key recommendations from the Garner Report—which was an economic analysis and study commissioned by the county for $100,000—was to get rid of the SUP because it impedes the flow of business into the county. It means we don’t even make it to the short list for site selectors. What do you say to those people?
Julia Boseman: I say no. I’m not just going to have an open door. Can we accomplish the same thing by having specific businesses that are prohibited from the county? That is possible. When speaking to the Garner Report, I would also like to point out that they did recommend that the county have an internal job development department, which is something that I do support. The cost was a little over $100,000, and I think that we need to be doing whatever we can to bring jobs back to New Hanover County. So I think that recommendation is extremely important because I’m all about trying to bring jobs back to this community given the number that has been taken away with the loss of film incentives. We need to be aggressive in bringing the jobs here. That goes hand in hand with the vocational high school also. If we can train the workers here, if we put infrastructure at 421 for the businesses, then we’re bringing jobs back home.
RLH: We’ve heard stories across the state about companies that have failed to meet benchmarks for financial incentives that they’ve received from cities and counties. Do you think incentives work? We’re not talking about the state-level film incentive at this point but incentives that might be meted out by New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington.
Julia Boseman: I think incentives do work. When I was commissioner the first time, we helped bring Verizon wireless here with a combination of county and state incentives. So, I think they’re a necessarily tool in our toolbox. I don’t like that we’ve had to use them statewide or in the county, but unfortunately, in order to be competitive with other states and even other cities in the state, we have to offer incentives. So, I do think that they work, but we have to be careful about how we structure those.
RLH: There has been a noticeable level of division on the Board in the last several years. Was it like this when you were a county commissioner? How will you deal with partisanship in this way?
Julia Boseman: Well, when I was a commissioner before, I was the only Democrat on the five-member Board, and there was still a lot of discourse. It seemed that I was the swing vote a lot of times on the Board, so I enjoy being able to work with people on both sides of the aisle. People look at me and because of my personal life, they think I’m a liberal, and that’s not true. I’m very fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and I’m going to focus on jobs, education, and keeping our families safe.
RLH: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Julia Boseman: Thank you for having me.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Nelson Beaulieu served six and a half years in the military as a military police officer. He did a year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan. After an honorable discharge, he moved to New Hanover County with his wife and two daughters. That was in 2008. For the past four years, he’s taught history and political science. He started at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He now teaches at Cape Fear Community College. Nelson Beaulieu, welcome to CoastLine.
Nelson Beaulieu: Thank you, Rachel. Pleasure to be here.
RLH: Let’s start with the single most controversial and talked about issue that our listeners have written in about: the special use permit. The county planning board, the business community, and environmental advocates are all working on different versions of the special use permit. At the last meeting of the planning board, that body said, essentially, they’re not ready to make a recommendation of a version to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. If you could single-handedly pick up this issue and take it somewhere, where would you take it? Where do you think it needs to go?
Nelson Beaulieu: That’s a very complicated question. I think the special use permit isn’t just about balancing the interests of business and the environment. That’s one way to look at it. I think what is lost in this conversation is the importance of the special use permit to our residents. Just as a citizen in Monkey Junction or Castle Hayne should have a voice in determining whether or not the city of Wilmington annexes that area, so too should every resident be able to decide whether they want to live near heavy industry, what the zoning is going to look like. It’s not just about competing interests. It’s about our citizen’s interests.
RLH: So do you believe this is an issue that should wait for the new Board to be in place? Do you think voters should be able to have an influence from a partisan standpoint? Because there are decidedly Republican and Democratic positions on the SUP.
Nelson Beaulieu: I think that’s an important thing. I think it’s time for voters to weigh in and to see what they want to do. You know, the Garner report, different reports, they’re wonderful assets, they’re wonderful tools in the belt of any commission, but they require intelligent people with good judgment to implement policy. They’re just words, they’re just reports until they are put to policy and interpreted by politicians.
Dr. Parr (email): Do you support the provision of a community meeting before the planning board and County Commission meetings that would consider any industrial special use permit?
Nelson Beaulieu: Absolutely, absolutely. Our citizens are affected. It’s not just about special interest groups. It’s about our citizens. Let’s hear what they have to say. Speaking of meetings, it’s not just these meetings. All of our meetings need to be more public. I think the Board really needs to look at moving its public meetings from 9AM to a time when residents can attend. 9AM and 4PM, those are not public meetings. My public is working at that time. I think most of the public is working at that time. Any time we are going to decide policy, it really needs to have some community involvement.
RLH: You’re talking about hearing from the voters, but when it comes to certain issues, such as the special use permit, which is center stage right now for so many people, voters would probably like to hear really where you fall in terms of the evolution of this issue because there are some people who say it is a block to economic growth. The Garner report, which was commissioned by the county a couple of years ago, identified it as the single biggest block to economic growth here when it comes to heavy industry. It takes us off the list for site selectors. Environmental advocates say, “We don’t want that kind of growth here. We want other kinds of industry, not necessarily heavy industry.” Where do you stand on that?
Nelson Beaulieu: I think it is a block to growth, and I think there is some growth that we don’t need. We are a very small, ice cream cone county. We need to be very selective about what type of industries we allow into New Hanover County. We have very critical environmental considerations that other communities in southeastern North Carolina have but that really aren’t around other parts of the state. We have things that are unique to our community and our situation.
RLH: This past June, the county approved a budget that included a tax increase. Two of the Board members voted against that budget. They were against that tax increase, and they said we could have gone forward without the increase. County staff has said the tax increase was to deal with past debt. How would you have voted if you were on the Board at that point?
Nelson Beaulieu: I would have voted for the tax increase. I did not think it was responsible to consider cutting essential services at a time when our community is preparing for some very expansive growth. There was talk about maybe holding back on some hirings for child protective services or other areas. If you do that, what happens is that when that growth materializes and you have 125,000 more residents, then you have to hire new people and get them up to speed at a time when you’re already behind the ball. So, I think that the tax increase to support voter-approved debt was absolutely necessary and the three Board members who voted for it made the right decision.
RLH: If you are elected to the county board and two other Republicans are elected, so that you’re in the minority, politically, how will you work with your fellow Board members? So many of these issues seem to break along partisan lines. Will you toe the line with your fellow Democrats or are you someone who is an independent thinker, open minded? Where do you stand on some of the divisiveness that has emerged?
Nelson Beaulieu: You’re absolutely right, Rachel. The divisiveness on the Board has awakened a lot of people in New Hanover County. It’s sort of trickled down from Washington and to the state. For me personally, I think an ideology that you adhere to limits curiosity. I think the key to wisdom and to good public policy starts with humility. When I go into a policy discussion, I understand that I don’t know everything. I have one perspective. I think it’s a very good perspective, but I also know that it’s only one perspective, and I need more information. I’ll vote with my fellow Democrats when I think they’re correct, and I will vote against them when I think they’re incorrect. As an example of the type of commissioner I would be is Chairwoman Dawson. I think she’s a public servant in every respect. She listens, and she makes policy decisions based on facts. That’s it. Analytics. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being analytical in your thinking rather than ideological.
RLH: Why did you want to run in the first place? What is it that you want to do on the county board?
Nelson Beaulieu: I’ve always wanted to serve in public office in some capacity, but as for this election and this specific seat, as you were saying, I teach at Cape Fear Community College, and boy, I just see so much negativity and cynicism. It overwhelms my students.
RLH: You’re talking about negativity and cynicism coming from your students.
Nelson Beaulieu: Coming from my students about the political process at all levels. I ask, “Do you vote? Are you paying attention.” They tell me, “No, it really doesn’t matter what happens, who wins, who loses.” I think that in 2016, being a cynic is easy. I think cynics make incredible artists, and I think cynicism can be a very healthy thing, but I think optimism takes a lot of courage, especially when cynicism runs the world right now. If you believe that nothing good can happen, you’ve given the game away before you have even stepped on the field. We have to have leaders who believe, even when all evidence sometimes points to the contrary, that good things can happen when people come together and work in government.
Ed (email): Given New Hanover County’s history of brownfields and superfund sites, how you protect New Hanover County from further environmental pollution?
Nelson Beaulieu: Again, I think the key is using analytics and good judgment. When a development project comes forward before the commissioners, I think a thorough environmental study needs to be done. I know people say that the economics don’t work, we’re going to lose business. There has got to be more to this county than jobs. My wife and I moved here before we had jobs. I fell in love twice in my life. Once when I was fifteen with my wife Amanda and once when I first stepped foot into the great city of Wilmington. I came here, not because there was some great industry. There wasn’t. I came here because it’s a great city and a great community. We have to do every single thing we can to protect that.
RLH: The Garner report was paid for by the county and was put forth as a way to identify blocks to economic growth and then make recommendations for overcoming those blocks. You just said that jobs aren’t everything. So what is the Holy Grail here? What’s the vision? Is there such a thing as too much development? Do you think that we need to be seeking out more jobs, or do you think that’s detrimental to the county? What’s the balance?
Nelson Beaulieu: We need to be seeking out more jobs. Obviously, money and jobs are extremely important, but we need to do it the right way. We can be selective. We have a lot of unique assets here. We have, I think, one of the greatest community colleges in the entire country. Of course, I am a little biased.
RLH: As a teacher there.
Nelson Beaulieu: As an instructor there, I am a little biased. But we have the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. We still have a film industry here, we can’t forget that. We have so many unique assets. Of course, we have our natural assets. So we have to make sure that businesses that come in here show an appreciation for that and an understanding for that and are a match for this small county.
RLH: So when you think about that, the kinds of sectors the county should be going after, how do you get past— The growth of the service sector, for instance, has been robust. The tourism industry is doing quite well. But how do you go after some of those other sectors to make it a more diverse portfolio?
Nelson Beaulieu: I think if you bring in some effective incentive packaging, if you show a different industry what New Hanover County has to offer, and it’s a heck of a lot, I really think you can bring some very interesting and innovative industries. We’re a community that does really neat things, and we always have been. We were the first county in the country to go digital. We took that on. We said, “We want that.” We do stuff like that. We have a citizenry here who will not shrink from a challenge. I think we can sell that to a lot of businesses.
RLH: So let’s say you get elected. Now it’s 2020 and you’re looking back, you’re wrapping up your four-year term. What did you do? What’s different about the county now?
Nelson Beaulieu: A big part of the reason I decided to run in this particular race is because, when we moved here in 2008, like I said, it was so special, and with an estimated 125,000 residents coming in, I want to plan for that. There’s not a community that you can show me that has built their way out of massive growth without having a real plan behind it. So, I wanted to bring the perspective of an average, middle-class guy who freaks out when a $500 phone breaks. [Laughs.] It happened yesterday. I wanted to bring that perspective to the Board. And in 2020, I want that to show in the community. I want that to show in the policy decisions that we’ve made. I want to be forward-thinking, looking ahead. I want to look at the possibility of bringing some interesting projects into Wilmington.
RLH: Give me one specific policy decision that would go into place if you could sell it to your fellow Board members.
Nelson Beaulieu: If I could sell it, I would definitely look at the feasibility of an effective mass transit system here in Wilmington and partnering with our tri-county neighbors. You can’t build roads to the point where there’s roads everywhere. We need to do something about this. 125,000 more residents. People say driving is freedom. If you go on Market Street at 5 o’clock, it feels like prison on four wheels.
RLH: Nelson Beaulieu, thanks for joining us today.
Nelson Beaulieu: I appreciate it. Thanks for the time.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Jonathan Barfield is a current county commissioner. He’s finishing up his second term and seeking a third. He has served as Chairman of the Board three times over the last eight years and Vice Chair three times. Jonathan Barfield is a licensed realtor and the owner of Barfield and Associates. He has served on the Blue Ribbon Commission for the Prevention of Youth Violence and on the boards of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, the Children’s Museum, and the Affordable Housing Coalition. Jonathan Barfield, welcome to CoastLine.
Jonathan Barfield: Glad to be here.
RLH: The county planning board, the business community, and environmental advocates seem to have come to loggerheads over the special use permit. This is what everyone’s talking about now. Some people advocate for letting this issue sit on the table until after the November 8th election. What do you think needs to happen with the special use permit process right now?
Jonathan Barfield: With the way it’s going, it’s probably going to be a new board that decides this. But what people don’t talk about is how we got to this point of having a special use permit. Back in 2010, our county was facing what’s called nonattainment by the EPA because of the SO2 emissions here in our community. Myself, Shawn Ralston, and Commissioner Rick Catlin, at the time, left for a two-day trip to Washington, DC, to meet with the number two person at the EPA, who is Gina McCarthy, who is now the actual director of the EPA on the federal level, to talk about the issue here and how we mitigate the nonattainment issue in our community. Had we been deemed nonattainment, we would have had to put a lot of measures in place to reduce the emissions within our community: provide bus rapid transit lane, try to get carpooling to take place in our community, any company that had a smokestack would have to find ways to reduce their emissions. So what we did, we put two additional monitors on the 421 corridor and paid about $75,000 for that to show them that we were not in nonattainment. At the same time, Progress Energy was looking at shutting their coal facility and going to natural gas, and I was there for the groundbreaking and were able to convince them that we were not a nonattainment county. It baffled me that out of one hundred counties in our state, we were looked at as being one of the only ones in our state as nonattainment.
RLH: We are in compliance now?
Jonathan Barfield: We are definitely in compliance now and trying to make sure that we stay that way. The special use permit was birthed out of that process, to make sure that we are protecting our industrial I1 and I2 areas, which really are the 421 Corridor and the Castle Hayne area, Holly Shelter Road in particular. Those are our two industrial zones in our community. I know that our planning board recently decided that they want to have at least one if not two work sessions to hammer through some of the issues to make sure that it’s conducive for the business community as well as conducive the environmental community. The thing that I offer to people is that prior to the special use permit being implemented, we really had no industry looking at our county for ten years prior to. I think that with the negative conversations we’re having, it’s just putting more information out there to those site selectors to say, well, New Hanover County has issues there. Speaking of site selectors, in New Hanover County, it’s been noted that we don’t have sites here. A site is a piece of land that actually has utilities there, water and sewer. So what the Board of Commissioners are doing is we’re putting 12 million dollars on the table to run water and sewer up the 421 Corridor so that we can have sites, so that site selectors can say, “We can look at this community because they have the available utilities.”
RLH: So then does the county still need the gatekeeper of the special use permit if we have these areas that are zoned heavy industry?
Jonathan Barfield: We have the special use permit processes for a range of things, not just industrial development. We have special use permits for people that want to build housing in certain areas of our county as well. So this is just one of the many special use permits that we have, dealing with the I1 and I2 industrial zone areas. To answer that question, for me, the answer is definitely yes.
RLH: So you are not one of those people who would say, at this point, we just need to do away with this because it is too cumbersome and it’s a block to economic growth.
Jonathan Barfield: No, we’re going to continue to grow here at record paces. People will continue to come to our community. People are looking for a certain quality of life here in this region. Those things, we must protect. I’m pretty much a lifelong resident here. I moved here when I was a year old. I got here as quick as I could. My father grew up here in Wilmington. He served as a county commissioner in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the talk of growth and how we manage it has always been a conversation and a rub with some areas.
Dr. Parr (email): Do you support the provision of a community meeting before the planning board and County Commission meetings that would consider any industrial special use permit?
Jonathan Barfield: As an elected official, I think the community should always be involved in what’s going on. Right now, if a developer wants to come and build a subdivision and they’re looking at some type of special zoning, they have to have community meetings for those. It’s important, I believe, to get community input so you know what the citizens of your community want. As an elected official, I would much rather ask you what you want than give you what I think you need and it’s not what you need.
RLH: The county passed a budget with a tax increase in June. I know you’re very familiar with that budget, being the Democrat incumbent. Two of the Board members voted against the budget because of the tax increase. How do you explain this tax increase to your constituents?
Jonathan Barfield: There’s this old phrase, “Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” The reality is that in 2006, the county passed a parks bond. In 2008, the citizens voted for a 164-million-dollar bond referendum for the Cape Fear Community College. In 2014, the citizens here voted for a 160-million-dollar school bond project. I think that the car industry and the furniture industry has misled the public. You know, “You can buy your furniture now and no payments until January of 2018!” But you still have a payment that’s due. My second year on the Board of Commissioners, we were facing either a tax increase or finding ways to reduce our budget. So the county, instead of increasing our tax rate, we decided to furlough employees, to lay employees off, to reduce our force, things that negatively affected the county. We even looked at how to close our parks. We limited the hours of our library, all in an attempt to reduce the need to raise taxes. And we put the burden of everything the citizens voted for on the back of the county employees which, to me, was the wrong thing to do. At this point, these bills are coming due, and you have to find a way to pay for those things. What I find is that, when citizens go out and vote for a bond, they are educated enough to know, “If I vote for this bond and it passes, there’s a cost that comes with that and that cost is going to come with me paying a higher tax rate to cover those.”
RLH: So why did the two commissioners then who opposed this tax increase, how do they justify that? If this is really something that was necessary, how could they have voted it down?
Jonathan Barfield: I really don’t understand the justification at all. A couple of years ago, we had a debt policy put in place that we passed, as well as a fund balance policy that the Board of Commissioners put in place. Last year, we actually borrowed from our fund balance, which is our rainy day savings fund—
RLH: And that is also what allows the county to maintain its Triple A bond rating.
Jonathan Barfield: Speaking of Triple A, we have two Triple A bond ratings. Out of over 3,000 counties in the country, I think there are around 30 that have Triple A bond ratings, and we’re one of those. So we passed a fund balance policy, so our rating agencies are looking at how we maintain that. So last year, we borrowed from that fund, which dipped below our 21% that we set for our fund balance. They’re monitoring what we’re doing now. The reality is that we can’t go back and borrow from that again unless we put in jeopardy our Triple A bond rating. When the airport decides to expand, they can borrow based on our Triple A bond rating. When hospital decides to expand, they can borrow based on our Triple A bond rating, and that saves the taxpayers millions of dollars. When we first got our Triple A bond rating, we refinanced a lot of our bonded debt, and with that refinancing, we saved three to four million dollars over the life of the loan, which I think is being a good financial steward of the taxpayers’ resources.
Sarah (email): In all future county accommodations, are family gender-neutral bathrooms something that you would consider putting in place?
Jonathan Barfield: We’re already looking at that right now from a county standpoint, and I know the hospital has done the same thing as well.
RLH: We had a question yesterday about HB2. Again, this is a state law, but again, it does seem to be losing the state money and certainly the county commissioners don’t have any impact on state laws, but in the past, the county has passed various resolutions taking positions. Would you take a position on HB2?
Jonathan Barfield: You know, HB2 is fundamentally wrong on so many levels. The fact that it has cost our state tens of millions of dollars and jobs in a time when we need to have more resources coming to our communities is unthinkable. The fact that the NCAA decided to pull many of their championship functions from North Carolina sends a strong message. We have become the pariah of the United States of America. No longer are we a progressive state. We’ve become a very much regressive state. There are provisions in that bill where people can’t sue if they lose their employment, and for legislators to go into session, not read a bill, and then vote for it, I have a problem with that. Can you imagine me as your county commissioner sitting there, not reading any material at all but voting yes or no on topics that I’m not even educated on? There’s something wrong with that process.
RLH: One of the challenges that has been identified in New Hanover County is that there aren’t a lot of professional level jobs. The service industry is robust due to a healthy tourism sector, but how do you think the county might address this gap?
Jonathan Barfield: We had a lot of professional jobs here with the film industry. The fact of the matter is that although film incentives have been restored, because of HB2, the film executives are saying, “We’re not going to bring any film production back to your state.” So we’ve got 30 million dollars set aside for film incentives, but the reality is, not much of those dollars have been touched because those folks are not coming back here. At the same time, we’ve grown our clinical research cluster here. PPD, AAIPHarma, which is now Alcami, is committed to growing here.. But I’ve actually had the opportunity to sit down with clinical research, and trying to grow that cluster among many I think is great. GE declaring us the nuclear headquarters of the world is another prime example.
David (email): Over the past year, a debate has lingered within the city and county on furnished rentals. Film has been mentioned multiple times throughout the interviews today, and most of these furnished properties were the byproduct of the film industry and are now facing challenges to continue. Would love to hear the candidate’s opinion on the furnished rental and short-term rental debate.
Jonathan Barfield: I have not heard that conversation about furnished rentals with the county and city.
RLH: What about the short-term rental debate, having to do with whether or not rentals should be allowed on a short-term basis, as with VRBO and AirBnB, in certain residential parts of the city?
Jonathan Barfield: And I don’t have an opinion on that. The county has not been involved with that conversation.
Dr. Reid (email): The first two thousand days of a child’s life is the time of most significant brain development. Therefore, many children already have significant delays by the time they begin school at five years old. This means the school system invests money and resources to catch these students up, often unsuccessfully. What is your plan to support children in the first five years of life?
Jonathan Barfield: It’s been great to see Reverend Dr. Clifford Barnett lead the First 2000 Days summit here in our community for the last three years now. As you know, I serve as the chair of the DSS Board. There’s been so much focus on providing quality day care for kids. I’m elated that our school system has a pre-K program that helps kids get caught up to speed, but there’s so much more that we can do to ensure that a kid has every tool that’s necessary to ensure that, within those first two thousand days, they’re getting the right medical care, the right treatment, the right educational opportunities so they can indeed succeed.
RLH: What role does the county play in that? What can the county do?
Jonathan Barfield: I think a big part, again, is with our Department of Social Services Board. Providing quality daycare is a big part of that, and the daycare centers that we’re looking at funding are those that will actually help teach kids while they’re there, as opposed to someone just babysitting a kid but actually giving some of the fundamental educational tools that they need to succeed. When they get to pre-K, they can know their ABCs and their 123s and be more prepared.
RLH: So what do you say to people who call programs such as that welfare expansion on the backs of county tax payers?
Jonathan Barfield: This book I like to read, it says, “The poor will always be with you.” I think there’s an incumbent responsibility of government to help its citizens succeed. There’s the old phrase: You give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. Our goal is to help people become self-sustaining, but sometimes people just need a help. And it’s no different than when we give incentives to corporations that are coming here to provide jobs. An incentive is an incentive, so when you give a tax break of two million dollars to a corporation coming to our community, it’s no different in my mind because you’ve given those folks a leg up as well to help them be sustainable in the long term.
RLH: There have been some stories recently about companies in other areas—not in this county—that have failed to meet their benchmarks for the financial incentives they’ve received from municipalities. Does that concern you at all? Do you still think financial incentives from cities, towns, and counties are important as a tool in the economic development toolbox?
Jonathan Barfield: It’s not been a concern here. The fact of the matter is, we have callback procedures or policies in place within our incentives so if they don’t meet certain benchmarks, they won’t get a dollar from the county, and until they reach those benchmarks, they won’t get a dime from the county. So although it may provide an incentive for X, Y, or Z company, it may be year 5, 6, or 7 before they see any return on that, but at the same time, they’ve been paying taxes to the county for that whole time. I look at the tax incentives like if you go to Belk and buy a dress or suit, and you give them a 25% off coupon. That’s, to me, what it equates to.
RLH: If you are reelected to the county board and you wind up in the minority politically, how will you move forward? There’s been a noticeable level of division.
Jonathan Barfield: Like I’ve always done. My first six years on the Board, I was the only Democrat on the Board of Commissioners, but I managed to be chair of the Board twice and vice chair of the Board twice as well. The issues we deal with here are not partisan issues. When we dealt with the H1N1 virus, people didn’t care what your political party was, they wanted to know whether you could protect the community from this dreaded disease.