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CoastLine Candidate Interviews: Brunswick County Board of Commissioners - Democrats

On this edition of the CoastLine Candidate Interviews, we hear from the three Democrats seeking seats on Brunswick County’s Board of Commissioners.

There are five members on the Board – one representing each district in Brunswick County.  The four-year terms are staggered, and elections are held every two years.  This year, Districts 3, 4, and 5 are in play. 

Nearly 82,000 residents in Brunswick County are white, almost 9,000 are black, less than a thousand are Hispanic and about 3300 fall into a category called “other.”  The majority of registered voters, 35,000, are Republicans.  Unaffiliated voters make up the next largest category – at 32,000, and registered Democrats make up the third group at just shy of 27,000 people. 

Segment 1:

Wesley Hickman

In District 5, Democrat Wesley Hickman is challenging Republican Incumbent Frank Williams.  Wesley Hickman is a pharmacist and serves as a consultant for Brunswick County’s Drug Treatment Court.

Segment 2:

William Flythe

William Flythe is seeking the seat in District 3 and challenging Republican Incumbent Pat Sykes.  Dr. Flythe is a retired chemist who worked for 20 years at Pfizer / ADM in the lab; later, he taught chemistry, physics, and physical science at North Brunswick High School.  He has served on Brunswick County’s Planning Board and was the Treasurer of the Brunswick County Democratic Party.

Segment 3:

Brenda Faye McMillian

In Brunswick County’s District 4, the incumbent decided not to run again, which means a newcomer will take the seat.  Democrat Brenda Faye McMillian is taking her second run at this office.  She worked for 32 years at the Department of Social Services and that, she says, gives her a special understanding of the needs of seniors and people who are disabled.

Segment One: Wesley Hickman, Democratic candidate for Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, District 5

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Wes Hickman, welcome to CoastLine.

Wesley Hickman: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

RLH: Let’s start with why you’re running for the Board of Commissioners in the first place. What do you think you would bring to local government that no one else does?

Wesley Hickman: I think what I bring to local government is my experience as a businessman, what I’ve done with my industry. Currently I’m a pharmacy manager at a CVS in Brunswick Forest in Leland. I’m proud to say that we’re currently #5 in the entire nation in our company as far as customer service metrics and profitability. I want to bring that to local government as well.

RLH: What does that mean? How does that translate into policy?

Wesley Hickman: With a corporate budget structure, you’re commonly given very little money to do certain things. So I’m used to working under very confined budgetary constraints, which I’d like to pass on to government as well. I don’t think we need to be having irresponsible spending. Tax dollars are very valuable to us, and I would not like to see them wasted. So I think I can bring that to government.

RLH: Along those lines, you’ve actually lobbed some fairly serious allegations at the current administration in terms of almost financial mismanagement. You told the Star News that more than $80,000 was wasted by the Economic Development Commission. What do you mean by that?  

Wesley Hickman: Well, I actually would like to clarify that statement. I’ve been educated since then about that issue. Those actually were not taxpayer dollars. That was donated by various businesses, such as ATMC, Brunswick Electric, and businesses such as that, which would be monies that were spent on alcohol and types of things that taxpayer money should not be spent on. I would like to retract that statement as far as that goes because I have been educated on that point there. But there have been other instances of wasteful spending. If you look at the Holden Beach land purchase, I believe $3.2 million was spent on that piece of property that was formerly owned two hands down from a previous commissioner. I feel like that kind of expenditure isn’t really in the best interest of Brunswick County, in light of the drug problem in this county. I think we have areas that we could spend money in a better, more effective fashion.

RLH: We’ll talk about economic development for a moment. Are there opportunities that you think the county is missing? Where do you see opportunities for growth along those lines?

Wesley Hickman: Basically, we need some big jobs in this county. The three biggest employers are currently Duke Power, Brunswick County Schools, and Brunswick County Government. I don’t really think you can have a healthy job base if those are your three biggest job providers in your county. If you look at the northwest industrial park, we have ample opportunity to develop those areas with multimodal transportation systems that are being developed. We’re going to have rail running from Wilmington all the way through the northern end of Brunswick county into Charlotte, so we have an opportunity there for having a large number of jobs that could potentially be based out of there. We already have infrastructure that’s in there. Water’s already run, power’s running to it. All we need are the people to move down here and provide those jobs. So what I’d like to do is provide tax incentives to help bring those industries into this area.

RLH: From the county?

Wesley Hickman: From the county, yes. I’d also like to get the state to help out as much as possible. I don’t think it should be entirely shouldered on the county, but if we can do things like give them a tax cut on the county level, but say that 80% of the employees live in Brunswick County, I think we can recoup some of those losses so it would be a net gain to us, with the county having more people living here, a larger tax base on the residential side, and providing cuts for businesses.

RLH: What would you say to people who are philosophically opposed to the idea of financial incentives because they say that’s government picking winners and losers? What do you say to that?

Wesley Hickman: To a point, it kind of is. I can see how that’s a valid concern, but the current way we’re doing things isn’t working. Brunswick County is a retirement community currently, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m very happy to say I definitely serve a lot of those people who are retired that come down here as a pharmacist. But the current way isn’t working, and we need to do something different. If you look at the film industry, the state cut the tax benefits to them, and the film industry left for Georgia. That impacted the Wilmington area. You can see where those types of incentives do have benefits and potential harm if you do take them away, if you look at Wilmington as a case study.  

RLH: Have you ever held elected office before?

Wesley Hickman: No, I actually have not. I’m proud to say I’m a newcomer to the race.

RLH: How did this emerge? What made you say, “This needs to be me. I’m doing this.”?

Wesley Hickman: There’s a few things. I think as you get a little older, you start to understand that you can’t just complain about everything in life; you have to actually do a bit of hard work to try to change the world. I always believe in the mantra, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” That’s what I’m trying to do. Being a father has changed my point of view as well because I have a responsibility to future generations, and I see my child growing up and the current condition of the Brunswick County Schools. I think we can do better. I have a lot of friends who went to Hoggard and the New Hanover County school system, and they had quite a leg up on me at UNC-Chapel Hill. My best friend actually still lives in Wilmington: he had almost 30 credits going into UNC-Chapel Hill, where as in West Brunswick, I took as many AP credits as were offered, and I only had 15, I believe. That was a shortfall with the Brunswick County school system. It’s something we can do better.

RLH: So what do we need to do with the Brunswick County school system? We have low-performing schools, like Jessie May Monroe Elementary, Supply Elementary, and a couple of middle schools. What does the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners need to do to help the school system?

Wesley Hickman: The biggest thing we’re responsible for is capital improvement and capital needs. I’d encourage everyone to vote yes to the school bond come November 8th or early voting, if you have not already voted. That’s something that’s very important. I would like to point out something my opponent, Frank Williams, said in the Star News about six or seven months ago in relation to the school bond. He was questioning the expenditure of 22 million dollars on the Town Creek Middle School, saying he doesn’t want a Rolls-Royce when a mid-level Chevy will do. I don’t know about the listeners out there, but I don’t think $22 million for a middle school that is vastly needed in that area is a Rolls-Royce by any means. We’re talking about the future of our children, the future of our society. If we don’t educate our children, we’re going to be in serious peril twenty or thirty years in the future. I’d like to reiterate: We can build schools. We can alleviate overcrowding and give them a 21st century learning environment.

RLH: On your campaign Facebook page, you cite a verse from the book of Genesis as your favorite quotation. It says, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” What does that mean to you and why is it your favorite?

Wesley Hickman: Basically, it means that we are the keepers of the planet. We have a responsibility to make sure that future generations have this beautiful creation that God’s given us. The environment is one of the most important things. It’s the biggest draw to this area. Tourism is our biggest draw. I do feel like it’s our biggest industry. We have a responsibility to preserve that, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite Bible verses.

RLH: Where do you stand on offshore drilling?

Wesley Hickman: I’m 100% opposed to offshore drilling. I don’t think we need to be focusing on the power plants of the 20th century. We need to be looking forward to the 21st century. If you look at people like Elon Musk, he is doing wonderful things with solar energy, battery development, and electric cars. We need innovators like that in this world who are going to help drive our future away from the types of fuels that are polluting our planet. Just as a side note, the one or two trillion dollar spent on the Iraq War, if we’d spent that kind of money on infrastructure to make ourselves truly energy independent from the Middle East, I think you’d see a much better world over the last ten to fifteen years that we could be living in right now instead of the quagmire that we have right now, both militarily and socially with the Muslim population. We could have definitely stepped away from that over the past ten years if we would have made some wise choices as far as that goes.

RLH: So as a Brunswick County Commissioner, how does your respect for the environment translate into your role in that capacity? If you were elected, what would you be doing to preserve the environment?  

Wesley Hickman: Well first, I wouldn’t be passing worthless resolutions like the current commission did that supported offshore drilling. I wouldn’t be focusing on those kinds of things. I would make the opposite statement and then let it go, move forward. Basically as an advocate to state and federal entities, I would be talking to them, but as far as what I can do here locally, I’d like to see development of offshore fishing reefs, things such as that. We could possibly purchase old boats, old train cars and sink them off the coast to develop natural fishing areas as a tourist draw to this area. I feel like that’s something that would be a wise expenditure of our money and help further fund the tourist industry in this area.

RLH: So then going back to economic development, does Brunswick County need to develop some sort of vision or policy to balance what tourism brings to that economic vision versus what heavy industry might bring? Does Brunswick County need to develop a balance? Do you ever get concerned about the kinds of industries that might arrive in Brunswick County?

Wesley Hickman: Yeah, of course. You don’t want to see a Titan Cement come in here and damage our environment. I think we need to be conscious of what kind of industries that we give incentives to. If I were commissioner, I would definitely favor those along the clean manufacturing, green energy. Those are things I would hopefully be pushing for as your county commissioner.

RLH: Of course, the downside of that is what some might call a quagmire in New Hanover County, which is now, people say because we haven’t taken a balanced approach to economic development and an all-industry approach, now New Hanover County is no longer on the site selector list.

Wesley Hickman: Right.

RLH: Is that something you’ve thought about?

Wesley Hickman: To be honest with you, no. I have not thought about that as a possible downfall. I will acknowledge that is a possible downfall there. You have to take a balanced approach to most things in life, a yin and yang. You have to look at both sides of the issue. I would like to focus on the clean, green industry. If we can get some kind of warehouse facilities, light manufacturing— As long as it’s not directly harming our environment, I would be in favor of bringing in those kinds of jobs. I just think what we have with our tourism industry and environment, it’s more important to protect that. That’s more valuable than money.

RLH: What’s it like to be a Democratic candidate in a predominantly Republican area?

Wesley Hickman: [Laughs.] It’s interesting. I actually grew up Republican. My family is predominantly Republican, but when I went to UNC-Chapel Hill, I kind of changed my views. I was in the liberal arts college. You do get opened up to a broad variety of different ideas. I think that gives me a well-rounded, moderate view, I would say. I do feel there are some things that are Republican that I agree with. I actually went to the Donald Trump rally, and I did hear one thing he said that I 100% agree with. He was talking about veteran’s benefits, and how we could give every veteran a card, and they could go to any doctor in the country and have their bills taken care of. I think that’s something I could get behind. So I do view myself as more of a moderate. But being a Democrat in Brunswick County is an interesting prospect. You know, you do what you can. You get told no a lot, but you keep fighting the good fight.

RLH: The State Fire Marshal has put the Leland Volunteer Fire Department on probation for not having sufficient staff to serve its jurisdiction. It’s become sort of complicated. There’s a county review underway now. What would you do to restructure the way Brunswick County residents are served by fire departments?

Wesley Hickman: I have a firsthand example of this. My father-in-law is a volunteer fire fighter for Boiling Spring Lakes. Just going around and talking to the fire chiefs like I have, they’re definitely underserved. They need more. And if everyone on the ground is telling you that they need more, we need to do something about that. We have a responsibility to take care of our volunteer firefighters and our paid firefighters. I think we need to go away from the current system. It should be based on the value of your home. If you own a $200,000 home, you should have a flat-fee associated with that. If you have a $2 million home, you should be responsible for a little more, but the same proportion. It should be like our property tax structure. I think that’s how we should go. It fairly distributes the burden on the population. If you can afford to buy a $2 million house, you should have to pay a little more to pay for our fire departments. That’s something we grossly need. I would like to add that it would lower our fire insurance as well, so it would be a wise investment.

RLH: Wes Hickman, thank you so much for joining us today.

Wesley Hickman: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Segment Two: William Flythe, Democratic candidate for Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, District 3

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Welcome to CoastLine.

William Flythe: Thank you, Rachel. Glad to be here today.

RLH: Why are you running for Board of Commissioners in Brunswick County? What do you think you bring to local government that no one else does?

William Flythe: I decided to run for a seat on the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners because of a series of poor decisions made by the current board. First, they paid twice the tax value for a parcel of land in Holden Beach that would be used for a nature park—$3.5 million dollars versus $1.7 million tax value on the books. Secondly, they voted not once but twice in support of a resolution for seismic testing and offshore drilling for oil and gas. Of course, I only recently indicated another concern that I have, which is that we have more than $10 million in delinquent tax payments on the books that we have not collected over the last four years or so. We need to aggressively go after those land developers and speculators. I’m well-qualified to be a member of the Board because I have a diverse background. I taught at North Brunswick High School for a number of years, and I also have some experience teaching college classes. I also spent more than twenty years as a chemist and senior laboratory supervisor at Pfizer, which is a Fortune 500 company. More importantly, I serve on the Planning Board in Brunswick County. During this time, Rachel, Brunswick County was the 14th fastest growing county in the whole country. So I gained valuable experience during that time.

RLH: What was that period of time? What were the years of your service?

William Flythe: 2006-2011.

RLH: Let’s take apart some of those issues that you mentioned about why you’re running. With the Holden Beach property, you’re saying that the county paid nearly double for the land compared to the tax value of the land on the books, what you think it was worth. Was that oversight or was that something more sinister?

William Flythe: My mom taught me that if you don’t have anything good to say about somebody, don’t say anything at all. [Laughs.] I’ve been somewhat reluctant to indicate— And of course, many of the county citizens already know that this land was owned no more than a year or so prior to this sale by the previous chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners. So, I hate to use the word fishy, but that’s somewhat questionable—I’ll put it that way—in terms of the land purchase. Since I served on the Planning Board, I understood that the price or the value of land is dependent upon location. If you’re in real estate, it’s “location, location, location.” It’s also dependent on your plans for this land. If they had planned to sell it eventually to a developer where you would have numerous housing units on this land, then of course you know that increases the value by splitting it into parcels, but that was not the case. The plan was to use it as a nature park. In the case of a nature park, more than likely you have no more than just a few benches. [Laughs.] It didn’t make any sense.

RLH: When you think about your time on the Planning Board and when you really became aware of how fast Brunswick County is growing, what do you think county commissioners need to be mindful of as we move forward? What does the county need to plan for in the future that they’re not currently looking at as closely as they should?

William Flythe: I happened to be on the Planning Board during the time when we were updating the Unified Development Ordinance, which is a county document. This was based upon the state document, CAMA Land Use Plan, Coastal Area Management Act. One of the things I would like to do shortly after I join the Board of Commissioners is to review the state document and then update the county document, the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). I might add that one of the frustrating periods during my time on the Planning Board was the first half of 2009. During the fall of October 2009, the UDO was restricting regulations that would benefit future owners and not to the land developers. We usually met once per month, but we had to schedule two meetings per month in order to approve all of the plans that these developers were submitting. Why were they doing this? Because they wanted to get their plans approved before the stricter, updated UDO would go into effect in the fall of 2009. And I’m sitting there thinking, “This is not right.” But of course, they had the right to get these plans approved on the old document. Now I suspect that some of these same developers who are not paying their tax bill expect us to pay their gambling debt. They gambled on the real estate boom prior to our recession and lost, and we should not, as citizens, have to pay their bill.

RLH: You’re saying there is, on the books in Brunswick County, an outstanding collective tax bill of 10 million dollars?

William Flythe: About 11 million dollars if you go back maybe eight or ten years. But let’s not even concentrate on the last ten years. Let’s just concentrate on the last four or five years. This last fiscal year, 2015-2016, I get my tax bill in August, but then I do not become delinquent as long as I pay the bill before January. I understand they have a policy where you’re allowed up until maybe June of the next year to pay this bill, and if you do not, then you’ll be considered delinquent. So this past year, we still have $3.5 million on the books. Go back another year, $2.5 million. Another year, $1.5 million.

RLH: Do you have a comparison to other counties? Is that something that would be considered normal and reasonable? Do you know where we stand?

William Flythe: I’m sure that the adjoining counties do not have a tax bill that’s so high, percentage wise because we have a lot of developments in Brunswick County, and I’m sure that most of the delinquent taxes are owed by developers or land speculators. We don’t really have to compare to other counties. We can just look at the last ten-year period, alright? Let’s look at the last five years versus the previous five years. During that previous five-year period in Brunswick County, we’re looking at delinquent taxes that were no more than $100,000-$200,000, you see. Again, you say, “Well, we had a recession,” but during the past five years, we have recovered from this recession, not only in the country but in Brunswick County as well, so that’s no justification.

Richard (email): My question is about the coastline. I have a home on the coast in Oak Island. I often hear the argument that the town and county shouldn’t do anything to protect the coastline and oceanfront homes. I have also heard that the county and municipalities are considering a tiered tax where homes closer to the ocean pay a little more than the inland owner and that increased revenue would go for beach and dune renourishment. My question is, how much of county growth comes from tourism to our beaches, and what would happen if we did not protect the coastline?

William Flythe: It would be devastating to our county economy if we lost the tourist trade. I’ll just use 2015 as an example. Visitors to Brunswick County spent more than $5 million, and I know that the majority of the income came from visitors who were coming to the beaches, and I feel that it should be a joint effort in terms of maintaining or protecting our natural resource, primarily the beaches. Of course, our commissioners should work with the local municipalities to come up with a good plan, a balanced plan in terms of financing beach renourishment because the towns and counties benefit as well from the tourist dollars. We have an agreement in Holden Beach where the city manager presented a very good presentation on beach renourishment. It was a good plan, but I do not think it was appropriate for our county commissioners to approve some financial guarantee. I got the impression that if Holden Beach fails to pay for this beach renourishment plan, then our county would have to pay that bill, and I don’t think that’s appropriate. Why? Because, as they say, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If you are going to do this for Holden Beach, then you have to do it for the other towns, and I don’t think we have the funds to do that.

RLH: What other opportunities, aside from tourism and the growth of that industry, do you see for economic growth in the county? How does the county need to grow?

William Flythe: We should have a balanced economy. We should not depend solely on tourism. I believe that we should pursue companies like solar energy and wind energy farms. I was happy that the Board approved a zoning change in the past month in which they allowed a solar energy company to come to this county. We should develop the industrial park on 74/76, and we have a lot of land there, and I’m sure that it would work. I wanted to indicate that one of the ways that we can draw industry into this area—clean energy and other things not necessarily related to tourism—is to pass this $152 million school bond. Why? Because a skilled workforce would give incentive for companies to come to this area.

RLH: So you think the improvement of the Brunswick County school system is in itself an incentive for companies to move here?

William Flythe: Yes, I strongly support it. In the case of Brunswick County citizens, when I was working the polls the other day, I heard one gentleman tell me that he didn’t vote for the school bond because he doesn’t have any children in the system. I want to make the point that all Brunswick County citizens have a vested interest [in the Brunswick County school system] because you need a skilled person who is fixing your car, giving you an X-ray, or fixing your air conditioner in your home.

RLH: You’re very involved in initiatives to help the youth in Brunswick County. There’s one in which you teach STEM curriculum to minority students. Tell us about that.

William Flythe: I’ve been involved with the Regional Council for the Advancement of Minorities in Engineering for around 30 years, both when I was teaching at North Brunswick High School and then when I retired, I continued to work with this organization to primarily give them an incentive to go into science, technology, engineering, and math fields. A lot of times is spent training the kids to program robots and also build electrical circuits.

RLH: Thank you so much for joining us today.

William Flythe: Thank you for having me.

Segment Three: Brenda Faye McMillian, Democratic candidate for Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, District 4

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Welcome to CoastLine.

Brenda Faye McMillian: Thank you for having me here today.

RLH: Start by telling us why you want this seat. Why are you running for this office? What do you think you bring that no one else does?

Brenda Faye McMillian: As you said earlier, I ran for this seat previously back in 2012, but during that time, I was taking care of my mother. I realized there was a disconnect in what was needed for seniors and disabled adults and what was actually available in Brunswick County. I want to do what’s best, not just for the seniors and disabled, but for everybody who resides in Brunswick County, and I would like to do that by making sure they have all the resources necessary for them to have a good life because we are only passing through, and it’s important that we have what we need to be happy while we’re here.

RLH: What resources do you think are not available that the county should be providing?

Brenda Faye McMillian: One of the resources I really think are needed are jobs. There are lots of people in my community as well as other areas in the county where individuals are unemployed or underemployed. In order for a person to be able to sustain themselves, they must have adequate income. Instead of being somebody that is a liability to the revenue system, they could be contributors. We could evenly spread out what’s needed throughout the county. Now, there are lots of senior citizen centers in the county, but there is a definite need for other types of resources for disabled adults and for senior citizens. I would like to make sure that the interests of every individual is considered, regardless of their political affiliation or socioeconomic level. Having worked over thirty years as a social worker with children, adults, and families, I know what it is to be without because I’ve seen it on the frontline. Sometimes we think we know what people want. Sometimes we think we know what people need. But until we actually have a dialogue with them, we’re really at a loss. That’s one thing that I bring to the table. I’m open-minded. I’m empathetic. And I want to do what’s in the best interest of the county residents as well as the county itself, which means I don’t want to see anything happen to Brunswick County to cause it to be in disrepair.

RLH: And what kinds of things are you seeing happen now? Is Brunswick County falling into a state of disrepair?

Brenda Faye McMillian: When I grew up in the county, we used to have what was called road scrapers. There were lots of roads in the county that were not paved, and there were opportunities for those roads to be leveled as much as possible to prevent unnecessary wear and tear on vehicles. That’s one thing I would like to see occur. In some areas, children have to walk extreme distances, which puts them at risk. In some of those instances, particularly at the southern end of the county, it’s because the road is in such disrepair that the school buses are not allowed to go in them. I’m thinking back to when I worked, and it brings to mind some situations in which we had clients who needed certain services, particularly home health workers, and before the workers could go in, the company mandated that conditions were brought up to a certain level. So even though I had the title of social worker—and I did perform adequately and admirably in that position—there were times when I had to roll up my sleeves and put on my everyday clothes and get a broom, a mop, whatever was necessary to bring the home up to the standard where other people could come in and do what was necessary. I know what it is to work in whatever capacity is necessary to get the job done.

RLH: When I asked you about resources and what resources Brunswick County really needs, you mentioned jobs first. What opportunities do you see for economic growth, and how can the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners facilitate that growth? There is an Economic Development Commission. How are they doing?

Brenda Faye McMillian: The Economic Development Commission has been merged with the Planning Department. I was very disappointed to learn that that had occurred because, as I said earlier, there’s lots of unemployed and underemployed individuals in the county. I realize that the Planning Department and Economic Development Commission have some things in common and need to work together, but in order to facilitate jobs, the Economic Development Commission needs to be a separate entity. On the campaign trail, I came in contact with a young lady who made reference to employment opportunities that were available in an area that she lived in previously, and it was a light bulb moment. She said there was a Pampers factory in the area, and the jobs paid well. They paid livable wages. And I thought, here in Brunswick County, we have lots of senior citizens, and periodically, some of them have health deteriorations and need the incontinence supplies. So as long as we live and life continues as it has in the past, we’re going to have babies and we’re going to have disabled adults, so why not check out the economic possibility and the environmental impact of having that type of facility here in Brunswick County. When I graduated from high school, DuPont was one of the main industries in the county, and I had the opportunity to work there. Compared to the wages that I earned doing farm work, I thought I was sitting on top of the world, as far as income was concerned. So that’s the kind of thing that I would like to see available for everybody here in Brunswick County.

RLH: How do you go about luring, say, I’m not sure if it’s Proctor & Gamble, but one of those larger companies that makes diapers? How do you lure them here? That’s something that the Economic Development Commission has worked at for a long time, and there have been some near misses. Do you know what’s missing in the puzzle that Brunswick County is trying to offer these larger companies?

Brenda Faye McMillian: From what I understand, some of the companies were not able to come to the county because the infrastructure that was needed for them to operate on such a mass scale was not available. As far as transportation, water, and sewer, those are some areas that the county definitely needs some improvement in because when we have those types of things available, we can do what’s necessary for those companies to even consider us initially.

RLH: One of the things you mentioned on your website was grant funding for water projects. You said one of the reasons you wanted to run is because you want to make sure there’s clean drinking water available for everybody. Where in the county is that an issue? What does the county need to do about that?

Brenda Faye McMillian: That seems to be a problem throughout the county. I was in Leland, and there was a gentleman outside of a business, and he indicated that there was a problem with the drinking water in his area, the Leland area of the county. People who are out in the most rural areas of the county, many of them do not have access to public water. Now in the municipalities, that’s a different thing. When I go to the different stores and I see individuals struggling to lift gallons of water or the 24 [bottles] or whatever the amount of water is in those cases, it makes me shudder to think that we have elected officials who have not taken steps to make certain that all of the citizens are represented well. Whenever a person pays their tax dollars, regardless of where they live, they need to have the same courtesies that people who are in different situations have.

RLH: So what you’re saying is the county has not expanded their water infrastructure far enough, and there’s a whole population of people on well water, and from those wells, they’re not getting clean, safe drinking water. Is that your point?

Brenda Faye McMillian: That is correct. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to tap into the county’s water system. Having lived in Southport and the Shallotte area, I knew it was in my best interest to be able to tap into that water source. Some of my neighbors who live less than a block away have not been afforded that opportunity to decide whether or not they will tap into the system, and that troubles me because I care about people and I want people to have the same opportunities that I have. This is America. Why not make everything possible for everybody that we grew up with or people that have moved here because, as I said before, we are only here for a short period of time.  

RLH: I want to be clear, you said your neighbor, who is just a few blocks away, could not tap into the county’s water system. Is that because the infrastructure isn’t close enough to your neighbor’s home? Is it because your neighbor doesn’t have the resources to tap in?

Brenda Faye McMillian: The reason I was told by the public utilities direction is that the water pressure is not sufficient to run in that particular area. I don’t know what kind of substations could be put in different areas of the county, but it’s certainly something that, as a commissioner, I would be interested in learning more about and perhaps even helping the individual reach out and do things. I don’t want to micromanage anybody and will not micromanage anybody, but I believe that nobody knows everything, and whenever we have some knowledge that can help to make someone else’s life better, we need to, in a respectful way, provide that.

RLH: There is a $152 million school bond question on the ballot for Brunswick County voters. Do you support that?

Brenda Faye McMillian: I definitely support the school bond because education is the key. Regardless of where your station in life is, in the very beginning, with the proper educational tools, with the proper resources, a person can move from one level to the next. A person can remain in whatever level they need to be in in order to have a good life.

RLH: The State Fire Marshall has put the Leland Volunteer Fire Department on probation for not having sufficient staff to serve its jurisdiction. There is a county review underway, but this is more than just a public safety issue. It’s potentially a financial issue for residents if they see their homeowner’s insurance rates go up over this. Do you have any ideas for making the fire departments in Brunswick County more effective and accountable?  

Brenda Faye McMillian: As a young adult, I lived in the Winnabow Fire District, and we had fundraisers which were not only fundraisers but served as a social outlet. Sometimes when we take into consideration that people are not necessarily the best person for the job, instead of playing favorites, we need to be objective in our decision making of selecting people for jobs, and if a person is not effective in a position, then we need to do whatever is necessary to bring them up to the level they need to be or to try to find another area that is naturally their niche or, in some cases, a pink slip may be necessary. I’m sorry, but that’s the way I view it.

RLH: There’s an opioid epidemic that is affecting Brunswick County. What do the county commissioners need to do about that? Anything?

Brenda Faye McMillian: I think the county commissioners need to listen to Wes Hickman. He’s a pharmacist in the Brunswick Forest area, and he has lots of ideas concerning how to manage that epidemic.

RLH: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Brenda Faye McMillian: Thank you. 

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.