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CoastLine Candidate Interviews: New Hanover County Board of Commissioners - Republicans

From Left to Right: Derrick Hickey, Patricia Kusek, and Woody White

New Hanover County’s Board of Commissioners has three open seats this year.  Here are the three Republicans vying for those spots – which carry four-year terms.

Guests in order of appearance:

Derrick Hickey, seeking first term

Patricia Kusek, seeking first term

Woody White, seeking second term

Segment 1

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Woody White is a lawyer and former North Carolina Senator who served out the remainder of Patrick Ballantine’s term after Ballantine stepped away to run for governor in 2004. Woody White is completing his first four-year term as a county commissioner, and he is seeking a second. During this first time, he served as Chairman of the Board for two years. Woody White, welcome to CoastLine.

Woody White: Thanks for having me.

RLH: You waited quite late before you finally announced your candidacy. On your campaign website, you say that the decision was a difficult one. Where was the difficulty in this decision for you?

Woody White: Well, for me, my experience has been very rewarding in many ways. I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot of things, and I've certainly always stood up for what I felt was right, asked the tough questions, and taken positions that sometimes weren’t popular. But when it boils right down to it, the things that come first for me are my family and my business, and this was a huge sacrifice. Tammy and I talked about this for a long, long time. I tell you, nobody expects to serve in these offices and get attaboys and thank yous and pats on the back. I certainly don’t expect that from people I see in the community.

But you also expect the negativity not to be as in-your-face as it can be. I don’t know why other people run for county commission. I guess, for me, it wasn’t to be somebody. I don’t have to be a county commissioner. I’m very blessed and successful in other ways. I just felt like it was necessary to have some steady leadership on there with someone who can see both sides of an issue and be open-minded. But on the personal side, sometimes it takes a toll. It’s a real sacrifice, but we did decide to try again because we have some things that I want to accomplish and some goals and a vision for this county.  

RLH: Do you think another run for Congress is in your future?

Woody White: Oh boy, I didn’t expect that question. You know, I’m 47. My kids are in high school. I work very hard at my law firm representing people. I don’t know what the future holds. I certainly don’t expect that any time in the next four years. I think the way the districts are drawn and the folks serving in them now is something that’s going to stay for a while. I tell you what, I don’t relish the idea of going through that and taking on Washington again because Trump’s right about one thing: it’s a rigged system. And I watched firsthand how the folks that pull the levers up there came down here and picked that seat up for somebody that was going to support the establishment.

RLH: You’re talking about David Rouzer.

Woody White: Yeah, and David’s doing a good job for us, and I’m obviously proud to support him as a fellow Republican, but in the context of that campaign, it was a rigged system. They knew Woody White wasn’t going to go up there and vote for the failed leadership and [Rouzer] was, and now lots of things have changed since then and Boehner is gone, and we could talk about that for an hour, but it was an incredible, eye-opening experience.

RLH: Let’s get to what is probably the single most controversial issue in the county and probably the most watched issue—just about every question that we’ve gotten from listeners has touched on this in one way or another—and that is the Special Use Permit. The business community, environmental advocates, county staff, the planning board, all these different sectors of the community seem to have their own ideas about how this is supposed to go. There was a point, Woody White, where you pledged to eliminate the Special Use Permit. The Garner report identified the SUP as one of the blocks to economic growth. Where do you stand on that issue now? How do you want to see this develop or evaporate?

Woody White: Let me start with a qualifying comment, and I might get accused of political-speak, but listen to the words: We have to have a real balance—in this community more than anywhere else in the state—between business and economic development and protecting our natural environment, our water and air quality. What does that mean? The key thing is the balance because when you use the word “balance,” you can visualize a fulcrum, a see-saw. There are so many interests on both sides, and if you let one side take over, and the see-saw goes far over to one side or the other, then it’s not in the best interest of the community. Right now what we have is an unbalanced process. We have a process that’s not transparent, that’s not certain for someone trying to bring a job or a business here or for the community, for that matter.

RLH: It’s subjective. There’s no telling how long this process will take or if someone will come out a winner or a loser in the end. Everyone agrees on that point. But do you think that to get back on the site selector lists, the county should eliminate the SUP?

Woody White: I believed that before. I think now most folks understand that it is a good tool to have in our toolbox. I would not support an outright repeal of it. I would unequivocally support looking at it and making it better, which is what we tried to do a couple of years ago. What troubles me right now is we’re having political pressure brought by some of our commissioners onto the planning board to try to do this right now, right now, right now. We’re in the midst of election season when everyone else is paying attention to the national and the state elections, in going back to school. No one is really engaged in this process so I’m thankful that the planning board has decided wisely to step back. I want to keep my eyes on the rest of the commission to make sure that we don’t take this up in a political, election environment.

RLH: And so you’re saying this would be better taken up again after the November 8th election.

Woody White: Absolutely. Because one of two things are going to happen. We do know that one of the commissioners is a lame duck right now and the voters have rejected her. So in December, I think there’s either going to be a team of Woody White, Patricia Kusek, and Skip Watkins or some of the Democrats, one or the other. But whatever it is, it’s going to reflect the will of the local people.

RLH: Well, you’re talking about getting a majority on the board, and that’s one way to get things done. What if it didn’t work out that way? What if there wound up being a Democratic majority on the Board, and what if you’re part of it? How do you then approach policymaking?

Woody White: You would like to think that the Special Use Permit isn’t partisan. It doesn’t really matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican. However, it’s become a pro-business, anti-business thing, and I don’t know why. I know in the Garner process, before he made his recommendations, it was very important to me and to the Mayor— In fact, the Mayor and I were recommended to be the co-chairs of that, and I said, “Bill, why don’t we ask the university and the community college guys?”

Now, looking back on that, maybe that was the wrong decision because of those folks, but we thought it would be better for academia to push that forward, not politicians. The Garner report came out and said we need to repeal it. I think the takeaway was it recognized that there is an imbalance right now.

We have a duty not just to continue to recruit the Castle Branches and the Live Oaks, expanding GE and Corning and all these great, clean industry jobs, but we have a duty to people graduating from the community college that need manufacturing and industry to make $12, $14, $16 an hour. Those are great wages, and if we forget that and refuse to focus on attracting and retaining those kinds of jobs, people are going to move and we’ll be left with a service and retirement community, and that’s a devastating combination for a vibrant community like this.

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?

Woody White: I’ve emailed and communicated with Dr. Parr at least on one other occasion in recent weeks. I think he knows where I stand on that. What I will say is that I think the more information the community can have is always better, but in the past, we’ve seen information be misconstrued—false, misleading.

So, I think we just simply need a process that’s fair to everyone, whether you’re for something or against it, and that recognizes that site selectors need to know and advise their clients, “Hey, New Hanover County is open for businesses.”

We want the right growth here. We want the right industries here. But can’t all get Google and Apple. Everybody in the country is recruiting for those kinds of jobs. We want them too. But we also need to be diverse in what we offer the local labor force.

Mary (email): I attended the September 6th Board of Commissioners meeting and witnessed firsthand the frustration of the Board when presented with last-minute, thick-paged, detailed studies for the passing of an applicant’s permit for business in New Hanover County. Do you support a proposed clarifying pre-checklist for applicants in the future, and do you support mandatory community information meetings for heavy industry applicants prior to review by the planning board?  

Woody White: I think I’ve communicated to her as well. It sounds to me like some of the interested parties have sent you a few emails trying to stake us out. I’ll just repeat what I’ve said: I support a balanced and open process but one that is not geared towards repelling job creation and job growth. We know that the present Special Use Permit is doing damage to our local economy, and we need to revise it.

RLH: The county passed a budget with a tax increase this past June. You were very vocal about your opposition to that increase and that version of the budget. As explained by the county staff, that tax increase was largely to pay off old debt, going back as far as ten years. If you didn’t have to build consensus and you could have just written your own budget and said, “This is the budget that we’re going with,” what would that have looked like? How would you have managed a new budget without that increase?

Woody White: You’ve got to go back about three years. You can’t do it in one year. I’ve been very specific to staff about this. One of the facts you cannot overlook is in the last forty months or so, our revenue collections have increased over $27 million. I mean, that’s almost 10%—sales, property. Organically, not with tax raises—before tax raises.

Our failures have been not to live within that organic growth and not to budget and plan accordingly. We didn’t wake up one day and realize, “Oh my gosh, we have all this debt.” It’s basic cash management. We put into place debt management policies and fiscal priorities my first couple of months as Chair. It was very important to me when I was elected, and we did that. Let’s look back on it now. Are we keeping too much of the citizen’s cash? So that would have been one day—

RLH: So you’re talking about then using some of the fund balance—

Woody White: The savings account. Correct.

RLH: But this fund balance is what allows the county to have a Triple-A bond rating.

Woody White: That’s right, and I was the one who pushed for that.

RLH: So then why would you spend it down?

Woody White: Well, because the bond rating companies and bond council will tell you we get reviewed every two years. We’ve never missed a payment. We’ve never been downgraded. We have an impeccable credit rating, one of 75 counties out of 3,200 in the country. We have a good track record. Managing our cash to not go borrow more money— because a credit rating is only important if you’re borrowing money. If we’re moving toward a cash and a pay-as-you-go system, then it doesn’t really matter.

RLH: Right, and that sounds really good. I mean, theoretically, that sounds like a really smart, responsible way to manage one’s money, but the things we borrowed for are the public school system, which is overcrowded and falling apart. There’s no question that there’s a need there.

Woody White: All I was saying and will always continue to say is that if you look at the last twenty years of our county’s growth, our population has increased 62% and our debt has increased 750%. It’s out of whack. You can’t sustain that level of per-capita debt per citizen much longer. You can’t change this in one budget cycle. I’ve never suggested that. But you can methodically go through it. Buncombe County, they don’t have debts for schools. Did you know that? Because someone thirty years ago said, “We’re not going to do it that way.”

All I’m saying is, let’s look over the next twenty or thirty years and try to slowly turn this battleship a little bit more. We’re always going to be in the debt market; that’s fiscally responsible too, to borrow money at very low interest rates and invest in our community. But we didn’t need $22 million of new tax dollars, and staff believed we did, and they were wrong. Our debt service was going up about $3 million. Our debt service, the cash we had to use to pay our Visa cards, so to speak, wasn’t going up $22 million. It was going up about $3 million.

RLH: But we’re talking about old debt, really old debt.

Woody White: Right, that we had managed up to now without a tax increase.

RLH: So then if you’re sitting in that seat the next time the budget session comes up, how are you going to handle that and are there things that we could cut now?

Woody White: There are a lot of things we could cut now, including welfare expansion that we’ve done. We could have better projections of our sales and property tax growth that we know is occurring.

RLH: Because this last projection was a little optimistic.

Woody White: Well, it was on one and it wasn’t on the other. It’s been consistently under-reported the last four or five years. Moving to a per-pupil funding model for schools results in a huge, huge increase with no identified project or classroom. There are a lot of things that we can do to manage our cash better.

Segment 2

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Patricia Kusek has been a member of the Cape Fear Public Utility Board and has served as its Chair for the past two years. She has also served on the New Hanover County Commission for Women, Cape Fear Hospice Board, UNCW Cameron School of Business Executive Advisory Board, and the Cape Fear Chapter of the American Heart Association as the Heart Ball Chair in 2012. Patricia Kusek, welcome to CoastLine.

Patricia Kusek: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

RLH: Patricia Kusek, I want to start with a remark that you made when we spoke before the March primary, months ago. We were talking about the county travel policy, and you said something that captured the community conversation for several weeks or months after that. You said that if you were elected as a county commissioner, you would not get reimbursed for travel expenses even when doing the county’s business. Do you stand by that statement or has your thinking changed on that?

Patricia Kusek: Well, certainly I stand by what I said during the primary election.

RLH: One of the issues that came up around that was, it’s great that you can afford to do that. Do you think that all county commissioners should take on that expense?

Patricia Kusek: I think we should have a travel policy for the commissioners that mirrors what we have for our county employees. I think it’s a personal decision whether a county commissioner decides that they want to apply for reimbursement and how much they travel or to take that payment out of their own pocket. I think that’s a personal decision.

RLH: We’ve had a lot of questions from our listeners about the Special Use Permit. This is something that’s come up lately. The planning board recently met, and at the end of their meeting, as the Greater Wilmington Business Journal reported, they essentially said they are not at a point to recommend any version of the Special Use Permit to the Board of Commissioners. Do you think this is something that should be discussed now or should it be put off until after the November 8th election?

Patricia Kusek: Well, the Special Use Permit is a very complicated issue. I attended, as an observer, the work session that was held several weeks ago and the public hearing that you are referring to last week. With the county having recently and unanimously adopted a comprehensive plan, that sets the stage for the county, for us, to be prepared for the next thirty to forty years for development and growth in the county. A consultant has been hired and is in the process of doing a total overhaul of all the development and zoning ordinances. That’s in great need of updating. That hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. I think it’s prudent for us to evaluate all of our development ordinances and zoning districts first and then drill down into the other sections. From a public policy standpoint, we need to follow through with that comprehensive plan and fulfill its vision updating the ordinances, of which one, of course, is the Special Use Permit. We need a good balance between economic development and job creation in the manufacturing sector and the protection of all of our environmental assets.

RLH: How do you do both of those things? With the Special Use Permit, we hear a lot of people say that part of this region’s assets is that environmental component, which contributes to the tourism industry. And then we hear other people say the SUP is nothing more than a block to growth because we’re not on the site selectors’ list. The Garner report identified the SUP as a block to growth. Is it? Should it go away?

Patricia Kusek: We have to strike that balance between having adequate jobs for all, so that we don’t have our unemployment and crime rates rise and have to spend more tax money on those areas. Between 2002 and 2012, the county lost nearly two thousand manufacturing jobs, or 26% of its manufacturing base.

We have to create a favorable climate to attract business and industry. While we realize that tourism and our wonderful region is one component of that, we have to have a diversified economy because we saw in the downturn of 2008-2010, when people’s discretionary money was tight, the tourism area suffered for that because the discretionary money was not there.

We would be wise as a community to look at a whole, diversified community so that we can weather the ups and downs of economic cycles, which we know will come in the future.

RLH: So you’re saying that you’re not sure if the SUP should go away at this point?

Patricia Kusek: I’m not saying that. I think it needs to be looked at as part of the overall zoning ordinances as they’re looked at, drilled down into, through thoughtful community engagement, and that is going to be a time-consuming process, I believe, but it is the right path to follow. Whatever changes are made, they need to add certainty and predictability to it.

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?

Patricia Kusek: From my observation and from having lived in the county for sixteen years, I believe it is prudent always to have all the stakeholders—of which every citizen is in New Hanover County—involved as long as we provide forums for our citizens to get involved, I certainly heard in both of those meetings, I didn’t hear pushback from any group on either side for community input.

RLH: The Garner report, which was presented a couple of years ago to the county, was positioned as partly an analysis to New Hanover County’s blocks to economic growth as well as a roadmap. It offered recommendations, with one of those recommendations being, we recognize that there probably isn’t the political will for this, but the SUP should probably go away. But when you talk about economic growth, what does that look in a county the size of New Hanover? It’s geographically a very small county. Is there such a thing as too much development in a place like this?

Patricia Kusek: As with anything, there has to be a middle ground. That’s the whole issue with so many things that we’re facing. Again, providing for diverse business and industry backgrounds, not only to continue to support tourism and the wonderful reasons that people come to this area—both to vacation and ultimately to live—but also brick and mortar, plants that make widgets. I think the polarizing issue is that the two sides, if you will, have been seen as we’re either going to have tourism or we’re going to have smokestacks, but there’s a lot of room in the middle. Again, this is what this is all about. If we don’t work together, then nothing works.

Martha (caller): To balance the budget, would you cut welfare benefits? And if so, what aspects of welfare would you cut?

Patricia Kusek: The budgeting process is difficult. As we just saw, we had a tax increase, and tax increases are not popular in any vein. We have to create an environment where we expand our tax base—and again, this gets back to having more business and industry here so that we can expand our tax base so that we don’t have to cut programs.

RLH: So you’re saying, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t cut anything from the budget.

Patricia Kusek: In an ideal world, we’d be looking at an expanding tax base so that we are able to keep our schools in good shape and to keep our citizens safe, and that’s part of what the county is charged with doing.

RLH: If you are elected to the county board and two other Democrats are elected, so you’re in a political minority, how will you navigate that? People have observed that there’s been a noticeable amount of divisiveness on the Board over the last several years, and it seems to have fallen along partisan lines. That hasn’t always been the case with the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. How would you work with people who are not in the same political party that you’re in? 

Patricia Kusek: Part of it has to do with how you conduct yourself on a day-to-day basis, prior to even getting in the political arena. It’s about treating people the way you want to be treated, and it’s about doing the right thing and doing what you say you’re going to do. On the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, I’ve had the opportunity to work with both Democrats and Republicans, and I’m doing that still today. Just because somebody has a D or an R by their name does not mean that they’re not logical, reasonable, and have good ideas as well. Again, just like I said before, we have to work together. Nothing works if we don’t work together.

Carolyn (email): Where are the children going to school and how will the sewer and water be expanded to accommodate all of the new developments on River Road? None of the developments are affordable and the apartment developments I see going up on Carolina Beach Road and adjacent areas have the word “luxury” somewhere in their advertisements. Where are people in the service industry supposed to live?

Patricia Kusek: I do know that our development community and the things that I have seen come before the commission for approval and the city council as well have a large focus on having affordable housing. It’s not all “luxury,” to use her quote. And we realize, as potential governing officials in this community, that that is something we need to address, absolutely.

RLH: The Garner report also identified a lack of cooperation among the various economic agencies in this region. Since the presentation of this report in 2014, do you think cooperation has improved? Is there more we can do? Are there efficiencies we can find?

Patricia Kusek: There are always things that we can do to have all of our organizations work better. We have so many people who really do want to do the right thing, and we need to keep from stepping all over each other’s feet to do it. When the Garner report came out, it did identify that there was conflict between so many of our groups that do want to help New Hanover County. I think when it’s pointed out in a report like that, it boils up to the top and it makes people more aware that they do really need to work together.

RLH: That leads right into another observation made by the Garner report, which is the dearth of true leadership. What do you think about that conclusion? Do you think the county is missing real leadership, and how does it need to cultivate that, if so?

Patricia Kusek: You don’t have to look very far around the state and the country to know that there is a need for good leaders in all areas. I think the biggest challenge to being a good leader is knowing that you cannot please all the people all the time. It’s just not feasible to try to do that. Good leadership is about listening to people’s concerns, having two ears and one mouth, and working together, cooperation, and being able to make tough, hard choices whenever that happens. I think we all realize there’s room for improvement in that area.

James (email): What’s your view on HB2, which is losing the state money?

RLH: Now, of course, this is a controversial state law that would have nothing to do with the county commissioners from a policy standpoint, but certainly the New Hanover County Commission has weighed in on other state issues, such as the loss of film incentives, and passed resolutions along those lines. How do you feel about HB2?

Patricia Kusek: For one thing, I think discrimination in any form is wrong. It’s been my observation and it’s my opinion that a lot of legislation gets passed too quickly without proper vetting and consideration. I think that’s one of the issues that happened here. When things have such an impact on so many people’s lives come before our elected officials, I think it’s their responsibility to look as deep as they possibly can and evaluate the consequences of the decisions that they make. Decisions like that do have unintended consequences, and HB2 is a perfect example of that. I think it probably should have been thought out more carefully and thoughtfully when they were in the process of doing this. I believe, after the election, there will be some reconsideration done on that to provide some balance between privacy and personal rights.

Segment 3

RLH: Derrick Hickey is a practicing orthopedic surgeon in Wilmington. He has served on the New Hanover County Board of Education. He’s a past president of the New Hanover Pender Medical Society and the Wilmington South Rotary Club, and he served on the New Hanover County Parks & Recreation Board. Derrick Hickey, welcome to CoastLine.

Derrick Hickey: Thank you. Thank you for doing this.

RLH: Hands down, the questions that we’re hearing from listeners seem to almost exclusively center around the Special Use Permit. This is something that has been under discussion a great deal in the county. The planning board recently met, went over several versions of it, and ended their meeting with, “We can’t recommend any version to the Board of Commissioners at this point.” What’s your view of the SUP? Does it need to go away? Is it a block to business? Or is it something that just needs to be modified and clarified?

Derrick Hickey: I think the SUP plays an important role for our citizens in this county. I think I differ in this regard from my other two Republican candidates who both have stated they wish to get rid of the SUP. But I believe it’s important. We need to balance and growth with protection of our environment. I would actually like to see a more robust SUP that provides greater clarity both for the businesses as well as for the citizens of New Hanover County.

RLH: What does it mean to you when people talk about putting out the welcome mat, saying that New Hanover County is open for business. How does this county need to grow from a business development perspective?

Derrick Hickey: Growth is good, but growth cannot be allowed to compromise quality of life. I’m a staunch proponent of property rights, and I believe you should be allowed to do what you want on your own property, but your property rights end at your property line. What I do on my property shouldn’t be allowed to ruin my neighbor’s property. So I think we need to bring in diverse businesses that have good, high-paying jobs, but we can’t do that at the expense of our environment or our quality of life, which is the reason that most of us have come to live in New Hanover County.

RLH: How would you do that? Are incentives one of the tools in the toolbox?

Derrick Hickey: I think the way to really incentivize business is not to pick winners and losers by giving government money to your friends but rather to fight crime, to have a great public school system, community college, and university system, and to bring the kind of jobs into the community that the community actually wants.

RLH: How do you fight crime?

Derrick Hickey: There’s three ways to fight crime. The first is outreach. We have a major gang violence issue. It starts in the schools. One of the reasons I’m running for New Hanover County Commission is because I’m really interested in children and children’s development, and I was frustrated on the school board because, as you’re aware, the County Commission is the taxing authority for the school board. So there’s so many things the school systems could do if they actually had the resources.

One of the things that people talk about in terms of outreach is having quality after-school programs for children in the inner city. Currently, that doesn’t exist. So, first there’s outreach, and we need to partner with things like Communities in Schools, One Love Tennis, organizations in that regard.

The second is enforcement. Up until this year, the Sheriff hasn’t really been reasonably funded. Finally, we’re starting to fund a gang task force and an opioid task force.

Lastly, it’s empowerment. We need to give these kids hope for a better future. People turn to crime and gang violence when they don’t see themselves being able to get good jobs, and I think it’s important that we support new initiatives like the high school where you get the community college diploma when you graduate—

RLH: You’re talking about the career and technical education high school?

Derrick Hickey: Yes, that’s right, the CTE school. I think that’s important. Again, a three-pronged method of outreach, enforcement, and youth empowerment.

James (email): What is your view on HB2, which is losing the state money?

RLH: This is obviously a state law, a state issue, but in the past, the New Hanover County Commission has taken positions on state laws, the film incentives being one of those. Where do you stand on HB2? What do you think should happen with that?

Derrick Hickey: First off, you have to be compassionate towards everyone. We talked about the fact that I’m an orthopedic surgeon. What you didn’t mention is that I went to medical school at the University of California in San Francisco. I trained in San Francisco at San Francisco General Hospital during the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s, when AIDS was essentially a fatal illness and we didn’t really have drugs to fight it. I took care of many people who were gay, bisexual, and transgender. Many of these were great, loving, caring people. So, we need to not stigmatize these people.

I’ve been disappointed with how all the political leaders in North Carolina have treated this transgender bathroom issue. When I speak to family and friends, I don’t think anyone is actually concerned about transgender people using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity. I don’t know of any episode where any transgender person in the state of North Carolina or anywhere else has ever been accused of doing something untoward in a bathroom. I think all of this legislation has been somewhat of a political football—very confusing, very polarizing.

At the same time, I do think that women don’t want men going into their bathroom. I think that applies to transgender people too. I don’t think that transgender people who feel that they’re women really want men going into their bathrooms. And certainly, when it comes to children, as the father of two children, I don’t want men going into the women’s room with my daughter. It’s a difficult issue, but I think we need to deal with it compassionately and not make this a politically polarizing issue.

RLH: Speaking of political polarization, there has been a noticeable level of division on the Board of Commissioners over the last several years. Some might simply call it the difference between Republican and Democratic principles, but despite those embedded differences, if you go back earlier, we didn’t see that level of divisiveness on the Board. This appears to be a new phenomenon. If you were elected, and let’s say you were elected and there’s a Democratic majority on the Board, how would you work with those who are not part of your political party?  

Derrick Hickey: I can work with anyone, regardless of differences in opinions and views, who is looking out for the best interest for the citizens in New Hanover County. You may have noticed this in the primary, but unlike my other two Republicans, I’m not an establishment Republican. Again, I have different views on the Special Use Permit as a prime example.

RLH: Just to be clear, Woody White and Patricia Kusek today did say doing away with it may not be the answer and it may need some clarification.

Derrick Hickey: Just to be clear, during the Republican primary, Patricia held up a red “Welcome” sign and said we need to get rid of the Special Use Permit, so I understand people change and try to track toward the middle.

The reality is, I think I could work with Republicans and Democrats because I’m running to represent the average person in New Hanover County that wants their government to work for them, to provide a nice place to live. People who just want to go to work and come home and spend the weekends with their children and really don’t want to delve into the little intricacies of government. I want to represent the average person, so I don’t see myself necessarily as a Republican or as a Democrat. I see myself as a citizen of this county who wants to represent everyone.

RLH: So then what makes you a Republican?

Derrick Hickey: I’m a fiscal conservative, and I guess in some respects a social conservative too, in that I believe people should be responsible for their actions and they should be held accountable, that everyone should work to their potential. I believe in individual merits and meritocracy.

RLH: Let’s talk about the fiscal piece of that. There was a budget passed in June that contained a tax increase. Woody White, for one, was very vocal about his opposition to the budget. As county staff explained it at various points, the tax increase was really to handle old debt going back as far as ten years. Is there anything in this county budget that you would have cut, that you would have said, “No, as a fiscal conservative, we really don’t need this”? How would your fiscal conservatism play out on the Board?

Derrick Hickey: As a perfect example, I was quite critical of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority during the primary. I believe since our water and sewer has been transferred to this third-party governmental agency that the citizens of New Hanover County are paying at least twice for water and sewer. We’ve paid increasing rates every single year, increased system development charges, essentially bankrupting in neighborhoods like Heritage Park, while at the same time Cape Fear Public Utility Authority is making record profits and sitting on something on the order of 60 million dollars.  If you look in the current county budget, the county just spent over 2 million dollars to design permits and get right-of-way access for water and sewer up the 421 corridor.

RLH: Which was identified in the Garner report as one of the most important pieces for developing that infrastructure.

Derrick Hickey: Correct, correct. So I think I need water and sewer up there. But the 2.1 million dollars the county has spent on the permitting process, and they’ve also allocated, which they plan on borrowing, an additional 14 million dollars to put water and sewer up there. I guess I wonder why the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority shouldn’t be responsible for putting water and sewer since they’re in charge of water and sewer and all the money they’ve received is from the taxpayers. I think we need to look at these issues. I mean, right there, that’s 16 million dollars. That’s more than cutting a couple of thousand dollars here or a couple of thousand dollars there.

Carolyn (email): Where are the children going to school and how will the sewer and water be expanded to accommodate all of the new developments on River Road? None of the developments are affordable and the apartment developments I see going up on Carolina Beach Road and adjacent areas have the word “luxury” somewhere in their advertisements. Where are people in the service industry supposed to live?

Derrick Hickey: Yes, and that’s been an identified problem: affordable housing. I know you know about this, and hopefully Carolyn has heard about this, but the city and county have actually partnered to look at best practices for affordable housing. I think it really is an issue, and that goes back to jobs too. One of the big problems in this county is we talk about the unemployment rate has gone down, but most of the jobs that have been created have been low-paying, service-sector jobs. And she’s right, you can’t work a low-paying, service-sector job and live in this beautiful community that we live in. So I think the way to approach this is getting better jobs into the community and also, as she pointed out, looking for best practices for affordable housing.

Sarah (caller): As a physician, what is your position on the opioid crisis here in Wilmington? What are you going to do to help end that in the schools?

Derrick Hickey: It’s a huge problem. I’m an orthopedic surgeon with a sub-specialty in hand and upper extremity surgery, and hardly a month goes by when I’m on call that I’m not called on to treat one of these people with abscesses and other medical problems from opioid addiction, and I think it goes back to education. It goes back to enforcement. Part of this is because we live near a port. Lastly, treatment, and along those lines, I’d like to see our medical center start partnering with long-term drug and alcohol treatment facilities.

 RLH: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Derrick Hickey: Thank you for having me.

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.