Today, we continue with our CoastLine Candidate Interviews, and on this edition, we’ll hear from two of the three Republicans 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. Today, we’ll meet Mike Forte – who hopes to win District 4 – and Frank Williams – who is seeking a second term as the representative for District 5 on the County Board. The third Republican candidate, Pat Sykes, declined our invitation, so we are going to spend this first segment talking with two seasoned local reporters who have both spent time reporting on issues that concern Brunswick County as a whole – as well as issues affecting municipalities within the county.
Julian March is the Editor overseeing Brunswick County coverage at the StarNews.
Adam Wagner spent a year as the Brunswick County reporter for the StarNews. He currently covers local government in the City of Wilmington.
In District 4, Current Board Chair Scott Phillips is not running again and so two newcomers are competing for that seat. Mike Forte has served as a Commissioner for Boiling Spring Lakes. He’s also the current Board President of the Foundation of Brunswick Community College and he is a founder and producer of the Cape Fear Italian Festival.
Mike Forte, Republican Candidate for Brunswick County Commissioner, District 4
Frank Williams, Republican (Incumbent) Candidate for Brunswick County Commissioner, District 5
In Brunswick County’s District 5, Republican Frank Williams is seeking his second term. He runs his own small business: a marketing and communication firm called Pioneer Strategies, and he’s served on the board of Communities in Schools in Brunswick County, the North Brunswick Chamber of Commerce, and was President of the Leland Area Rotary Club. Frank Williams grew up in Brunswick County.
Segment One: Julian March & Adam Wagner
Check back for a full transcript...
Segment Two: Mike Forte, Republican candidate for Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, District 4
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Mike Forte, welcome to CoastLine.
Mike Forte: Thank you, Rachel.
RLH: Tell us why you’re running for Brunswick County’s Board of Commissioners. What do you think you bring to local government that no one else does?
Mike Forte: Well, I think I’m certainly a different candidate than what the county has been used to over the years.
RLH: And what to you mean by that?
Mike Forte: First of all, listen to this accent. I sound like Andrew Dice Clay.
RLH: [Laughs.] You’re not from around here. Tell us where you’re from.
Mike Forte: I am originally from Yonkers, New York. I spent 30 years in New York, 20 in New Jersey, and now 11 here.
RLH: And you have been a small business owner for most of your life.
Mike Forte: All my life. I bought a Carvel ice cream store when I was 19 years old. I did that until I was 30. I sold that and started a pest control company in northern New Jersey. I’m very proud to say that my wife and I built that up to the largest independent company in the state of New Jersey. We were blessed. God was good to us.
RLH: And then you sold that and moved down to North Carolina.
Mike Forte: I moved here to take care of my in-laws. They were getting old. I knew my mother-in-law had some issues. So yes, I’ve spent ten years taking care of my in-laws. I retired to come down for them. My mother-in-law passed away last October, and then my father-in-law followed right behind her in early December. I found myself no longer a city commissioner, no longer having my in-laws to care for, and I told my wife, “Oh my god, what am I going to do with myself now?” I went down the next day, and I filed to run for county commissioner.
RLH: What is it about your background, that unique set of experiences, that you think is different from the people who have served on the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners in the past?
Mike Forte: That I am a businessman. I still am to this day. I own rental properties. I look at everything with a business sense. I think that gives me an advantage, particularly at budget time. I have no problem getting out my marker and scratching this line item out, that line item, and “Eh, we can live without that.” I am quite fiscally conservative. I border on being cheap. I’m pretty socially moderate, but fiscally I’m quite conservative.
RLH: Talk to us about that because one of the things your website says, one of your goals is cutting the fat from budgets. What fat do you think exists in the Brunswick County budget?
Mike Forte: There’s been some things that have been done in the past that I look at and I think, “We could have lived without that.” Not that I’m anti-parks, but we spend an exorbitant amount of money on parks in the county. How many do you need? I live in Boiling Springs Lakes. Just in my city, there are seven small parks. They’re always empty. I drive by them. I live around the corner from one. They’re always empty. Now, we have all of these county parks. Now, I love Town Creek Park. It’s spectacular. The new Smithville in Southport looks great. The new one down in Ocean Isle is terrific. It’s spectacular. Okay, let’s slow down with the parks. Let’s take care of some other stuff.
RLH: What opportunities do you see for economic growth in Brunswick County?
Mike Forte: I have sat in one quite a few economic development meetings. I know, just from the experience of doing that, is one of the first questions that a company asks is, “How are your schools?” We lag a little bit. I’m big on education. If I was a Fortune 500 company, and I looked at Brunswick County, I’d say, “Holy moly, this is where I want my employees to be. You got the beach. You’ve got agriculture. You’ve got everything. You’re thirty minutes from Wilmington, less than an hour from Myrtle Beach.” Who doesn’t want to live here? Perfect, ideal weather. But when they look at certain things we have in our county, they say, “Eh, how can I ask my employees to come?”
RLH: Have you actually seen that happen? Have you seen companies take a hard look at Brunswick County and have that be the deciding factor for rejecting it?
Mike Forte: Not just schools, but some infrastructure issues that need to be addressed. Yeah, it comes up. That’s why I fight for schools.
RLH: What does that mean? What does the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners need to do to improve the school system?
Mike Forte: I wish I had an answer for you, Rachel. I know we have an 81% graduation rate. Not good enough. It should be 99.9% graduation rate, and when a student comes out of the high school, they should be totally proficient. Not that they get to Brunswick Community College, for example, and have to take remedial math because they’re not up to par. It’s unacceptable to me.
RLH: How do you feel about the $152 million school bond on the ballot?
Mike Forte: I absolutely support it. It’s actually part of my platform. Because I live in Boiling Spring Lakes, there’s been over 90, I think it’s 97, new construction permits issued this year. That’s probably 50-60 additional kids. Where are we going to put them? We need classrooms. The trailers on the school grounds on campus—they’re not safe. God forbid, if something happened on a school campus, how are you going to get those kids from the trailer into the school where you can get them into a safe area? The overcrowding— The $152 million, most of it is brick and mortar, to build classrooms. I absolutely support it.
RLH: You talked about improving the public education system as one of the attractors to that area. You’ve talked about working on infrastructure issues. What kinds of industries would you like to see come to Brunswick County? What do you think is realistic? And what would you go after?
Mike Forte: We need full-time, year-round jobs. Right now, the only economic engine of the county is tourism. That’s part-time, minimum wage jobs. I have two sons—24 and 20 years old. They need full time work. Warehousing, manufacturing, industry— We need real jobs.
Allen (email): You are a supporter of conservative judges in Brunswick County. Please share what leads you to lean toward conservative judicial decision making.
Mike Forte: I am a traditionalist at heart. My wife will tell you I don’t like change. I’m a law and order guy. I strongly support our police, fire, and EMT. I want a judge that’s going to look at whatever is going on and make the correct, preferably conservative decision.
RLH: So you’re also a social conservative. You said earlier that you were socially moderate and fiscally conservative, but you’re saying you’re a social conservative too.
Mike Forte: With the courthouse yes. Other issues, I support a lot of issues that most Republicans would not.
RLH: Can you give us an example of an issue?
Mike Forte: I have gay family members. I support gay rights. I support gay marriage. To each their own, you know. I don’t have a problem with it.
RLH: Do you have a position on HB2, the bill that was passed earlier this year that has caused an outcry from across the country and put us on the national stage?
Mike Forte: I think the whole thing is insanity. My personal standpoint? I don’t want to be in a bathroom and have a woman standing next to me. I’m not that proud. [Laughs.] I’ll tell you what. I spoke to a gay member of my family, and I asked him, “How do you feel about going in a shower or a bathroom with a woman?” He said, “That’s not what I’m into. I don’t want to see it either.” I know they’re saying it’s a gay rights issue, but it really isn’t because if you talk to most of the LGBT people, they’ll tell you, “I don’t want it either.”
RLH: Well, there is the bathroom issue, which is about who goes to what bathrooms in public buildings, and then there is the ability of people to file lawsuits on discrimination grounds.
Mike Forte: Now, that I’m fine with. To have put it all into one basket and lump it all together, that’s the part I have a problem with. Particularly the high school showers. Come on, we’re going to let sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys share the showers with girls? Raging hormones? That’s craziness.
RLH: I’m not sure that’s what’s been suggested.
Mike Forte: That’s part of it.
RLH: What is the biggest challenge then, in your opinion, facing Brunswick County right now?
Mike Forte: Jobs.
RLH: Okay, so it really all goes back to economic development for you.
Mike Forte: Education and jobs are, I think, the two priorities.
RLH: Earlier in this show we talked about the tension between a couple of municipalities in the county, Leland and Belville. There have been tensions over ABC Store territory. There have been tensions over the development of Belville’s riverfront. Is there anything you could do as a county commissioner to help make peace, alleviate those tensions, and make it a more cooperative environment?
Mike Forte: I would love to act as a mediator between Mayor Boseman and Mayor Allen, sit them down, knock their heads together and say, “Come on, let’s come to an agreement.” Let’s figure this out, something that’s amicable for both towns. I don’t want to hear one town say, “Well, we’ll just annex you.” And the other town saying, “The heck you will.” Let’s find a peaceful solution.
RLH: Most people agree that another crossing over the Cape Fear River, between New Hanover County and Brunswick County is important, especially for the growth of Brunswick County, one of the fastest growing counties in the state. What could you do as a county commissioner to facilitate or accelerate that process?
Mike Forte: Well, it’s my understanding that the county commissioners have nothing to do with it. We don’t build roads. We don’t build bridges. That falls on the state. I’m in agreement that we absolutely need another river crossing of some sort. I’ve heard the numbers. A billion dollars to build a bridge? Holy cow, that’s a lot of money. And there’s plans to make a bridge similar to the one going in to Charleston, it’s got to be pretty. I’m not so concerned with pretty; I just want to be able to drive over it. I don’t know that I have the answer. I know that I will go to Raleigh. I’ll fight. I’ll go talk to my state senator and my state representative and the others that I know up there, and I’ll scream, holler, and yell, “We need a bridge. Give me money.” But as county commissioners, they have nothing to do with that.
RLH: So let’s say that you are elected to this seat. This is a four-year term, so it’s now 2020 and you’re looking back at your first term in office. How has Brunswick County changed as a result of your having been on the Board of Commissioners?
Mike Forte: I pray that it would be in a positive way. I pray that we could find some big companies to come in and provide those very necessary jobs. I don’t want my sons— I have a grandson now who is eleven months old, and I don’t want him to have to go to school and move out [of town] the minute he gets out of school to have a livable wage. So that’s big. I expect our schools to be considerably better than they are today, and I’ll fight tooth and nail for that. Education is the way out of poverty, and I’ll fight for that.
RLH: WNCN reported on a study that mapped out the top 25 worst cities in the United States for opioid abuse. North Carolina shows up four times on that list. The report from Castlight Health found the worst city in America for opioid abuse was Wilmington, which of course spills over into Brunswick County. How would you address this health crisis as a Brunswick County commissioner?
Mike Forte: Just a month ago, I had this happen in my own family. I lost a member of my family to a drug overdose. Crushing. It’ll bother me forever because he was such a great, great kid. I don’t know. I know I have spoken to our sheriff. I know that we live in the heroin alley here. Route 17 is the highway for it. I don’t know the answers. I’m not in law enforcement. But I will certainly support the sheriffs in whatever needs to be done. It has to stop.
RLH: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Mike Forte: Thank you.
Segment Three: Frank Williams, Republican incumbent for Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, District 5
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Welcome to CoastLine.
Frank Williams: Thank you for having me.
RLH: Why do you want this job on the Board of Commissioners for a second term? What do you think you bring that other people can’t?
Frank Williams: First and foremost, I think it’s important to have small business owners involved in public service, people who still have to earn a living under the rules they’ve put on others and still have to go out and work from day to day. That’s one thing I certainly bring to the board. The second thing is I think I have a unique perspective in that I am a Brunswick County native, so I certainly understand the perspective of those who grew up here, but I also lived in Raleigh for twenty years, including college. I made the choice to move back here from a place that lots of magazines tell you is the best place to live, and I made the choice to move from there back to Brunswick County because I know what we have to offer, so I can also see the point of view of people who have moved from somewhere else.
RLH: What do you think are some of the rules that small business owners are concerned about within Brunswick County?
Frank Williams: Especially for someone who is opening up a brick and mortar business, there are always rules and regulations—things related to sign ordinances, that type of thing. Sometimes it’s not as much about what the rule says as much as making sure that our staff and our entire county team help them get to a “yes” answer rather than tell them “no.” The attitude that we’ve tried to make sure everyone has—and I believe we’ve certainly done a good job of that—is making sure that our staff believes that it’s their job to help that small business owner get what they want within the scope of the rules, rather than just put up roadblock after roadblock.
RLH: As we see Brunswick County grow and change, and it is one of the faster growing counties in the state, what do you think is important to preserve, as someone who grew up in Brunswick County?
Frank Williams: Our quality of life. I don’t know how government would impact this, but if we can maintain our small-town charm and not lose the reasons that people are choosing to move here. A lot of people are moving here to get away from something. We did a citizen survey about a year ago, and one of the questions was, “What attracted you to Brunswick County?” Several individuals named specific towns up north that they were leaving, as what attracted them here. We don’t want to become what they moved from. We want to maintain exactly why they chose to come here. Part of that is going to be keeping our tax rate low. A lot of people love that we have a low tax rate. I hear a lot of comments about that. Another one is trying to recruit the amenities that people want without having it become overly commercialized. I think that’s a big thing as well.
Maureen (caller): A couple of years ago, the county commissioners decided to remove spouses from the health insurance coverage. They left families in, but not spouses. This has very negatively impacted [my family]. I’m married to a Brunswick County employee. It’s very negatively impacted our income. We lost $7200 by them doing that. I’m wondering, are there any plans to change that decision or provide any kind of assistance to the employees that do a good job for the county?
Frank Williams: That was certainly probably the most difficult decision that I’ve had to vote on as a commissioner. The challenge we had was that the health program was financially unsustainable, and we had to do something. Whatever we did was going to adversely impact some number of our employees. One of the options we considered was something that would have negatively impacted 100% of the employees, which would have been changing their benefits. We wanted to keep the base package for the employees themselves intact. We certainly did not want to impact their children. While we didn’t want to make the change, the spouse change was really the only feasible option we saw to get that program from being completely underwater, and the costs have just gone up as far as trying to provide health insurance in the past four years. If we could find a way to do that and bring it back and have it be sustainable, I would certainly be open to that, but I don’t want to do it just to be able to say we did it. If we do it, we have to be able to sustain it so that we’re not having to go back a year later and go back and forth with it because that would be equally unfair to the employees and their spouses—to bring it back just so we could say we brought it back and then take it away and bring it back. It’s got to be something we can sustain over the long haul. One of the challenges has been that the costs keep going up and up. I can say that because I do not get county health insurance myself, as a commissioner. I pay for 100% of my own health insurance through my business, and I have a deductible on my own plan that’s higher than any of the plans we offer to our employees. I’m actually right now paying off an ER visit from a year ago for a kidney stone, so I understand the pain and the impact, and I’m dealing with it even though it’s not through the county in my own life. It’s something that I think is impacting everyone. This is a little off-topic for a county commissioner, but I think if we could open up more competition in the health market and let people buy across state lines, then there might be more options, but right now, we really don’t have a market to choose from for health insurance, unfortunately.
Mary Ann (caller): Does the commissioner feel that the Brunswick County Government should take over a public utility - H2GO, specifically? What would be the benefits of that?
Frank Williams: That’s one of those things that’s certainly been a hot button issue. First of all, I want to say that I have nothing against H2GO. I think they’ve probably done a good job, but I do think there would be some benefit and some economies of scale in having more consolidation there. If you look at the little town of Navassa in northern Brunswick County, they have three water providers in that town, I believe: the town of Navassa covers part of it, Brunswick County, and then H2GO. You just got a lot of confusion even among citizens over what H2GO is. I’ve had people who thought it was a private company. To me, it was created to fill a gap before Leland existed and before the county got into the water business, but there’s an old saying that nothing lasts longer than a temporary government program. I think that Brunswick County at this point would be more than able to fill that gap, and I think it would make sense and would provide better service for it to be consolidated.
RLH: For folks who haven’t been super versed in the developments with H2GO—and they’ve been seeking their own reverse osmosis plant, and that has been a source of friction among some—where does that friction come from? Why isn’t this something that could just easily get passed over to Brunswick County?
Frank Williams: I can’t speak for the H2GO personnel and their board. They’ve got their own elected board, and I believe the folks on that board legitimately believe they’re doing what’s right for the citizens, and reasonable people can disagree on things too. I’m not opposed to the concept of a reverse osmosis plant. I do think that one of the challenges they have is that they have a small geographic area in which they operate, and the location they chose is next to a major housing development and a lot of people didn’t want it in their backyard. If the county were to investigate something like that down the road, we would have a lot more area where we could consider putting it, and possibly put it somewhere off the beaten path, whether it’s that or some other type of water mechanism.
RLH: What have you learned during your time on the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners that you really didn’t know when you started four years ago?
Frank Williams: The first thing I’ll say is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and that’s that we have 19 towns, and every one of them thinks they’re the only town that’s left out of everything. But to me, it’s one thing to say what you will and won’t do until you actually have to cast a vote. What I learned is that most of the issues we deal with are not partisan. They’re mostly about what’s right for the citizens. Most of them are nowhere near as black and white as people think when they’re sitting on the outside. You have to weigh what’s good for citizens, and then there are a lot of people who will have equally strong opinions on both sides, and you really have to sit down and make some pretty tough decisions with limited resources. The one thing that really surprised me is the level of our budget that goes to things that are mandated by the state and federal government and how little flexibility we really have over our General Fund budget. About 70-75% of our General Fund budget goes to state and federal mandates. Almost one third of the balance, last time I checked, went to trash pick-up. So there’s not a lot of wiggle room there. The flip side of that is that everybody wants everything, but they want you to do it without raising their taxes.
RLH: Speaking of that, there was a time when voters in Brunswick County were asked to vote on a sales tax increase, and the sales tax increase was rejected. Is that something that, as a Brunswick County Commissioner, you would have advocated for that you think would have helped the county move forward?
Frank Williams: I voted against putting that on the ballot. I was the only vote against it. I didn’t think it was the right time to do something like that. I didn’t think that we had a plan to promote it. The flip side of that is that I did vote to put the school bond on the ballot because that’s a very clear issue. That would likely result in a tax increase if it passes because it’s a significant amount of debt that we would incur for schools.
RLH: Do you support the school bond?
Frank Williams: I do. It’s not perfect. I think I’ve made every motion to put it on the ballot. I grew up in those schools, and some of those schools were old when I attended them 35 years ago, and some of my classmate’s kids are graduating from school there now. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, especially with our growth. We have outdated buildings. We have some safety issues that would be strengthened as far as the way we would do the new buildings. I do think it need to pass. I’ve had about an equal number of people tell me it’s too small or two big, as far as the bond, so that tells me we’re probably in the right area.
RLH: What do you say to people who say, “I want to pay as I go. If we can’t afford this, if we have to incur all this debt, then we can’t afford it.”?
Frank Williams: I hear that. That’s why we do pay as we go for a lot of things. For instance, in the past four years, we moved to pay as we go for parks. I give Commissioner Pat Sykes from District 3 a lot of credit for her advocating that. By paying as we go on a lot of other things, we ensure that our debt service is reserved for things like schools. I would also like to point out that we’ve reduced our General Fund debt service in the past four years by taking that approach, so that when we do go into debt, it’s few and far between, and it’s for a really important cause like schools.
RLH: Fellow Republican Mike Forte, who was just in here in the earlier segment, talked about all the money that the county spends on parks and green space. He essentially said, “Enough is enough! We have a lot of parks. Why do we need more? Why are we spending so much money on green space?” Can you answer that?
Frank Williams: It is a lot of money, but at the same time, it’s also a relatively small part of our budget. We do have a lot of people who move here who state the importance of making sure that we preserve some of the natural beauty of the county. To me, our natural beauty is one of our biggest selling points, and also, I’d rather spend the money for a child to go play in a park than a jail for them to be in later. I do think it’s very important, and our schools use the parks. A lot of our seniors use them for pickle ball, and I’m still not sure what pickle ball is, but I hear it’s very popular. I do think that we have a need for parks. Now, we do need to make sure that we watch how much we spend on them, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve gone away from spending debt on parks and have been paying cash for anything we do.
RLH: How do you feel about incentives, and what opportunities do you see for economic growth in the county?
Frank Williams: The best description I’ve heard of incentives was one that one of our legislators who used to be in the restaurant business said, and he said, “It’s like having a coupon when I was in the restaurant business. I hated them, but until the guy across the street quit doing them, I had to consider them.” While I don’t like them, I think they’re a necessary evil if you’re going to recruit businesses. The other thing I would say is the way we’ve tried to structure our incentives in Brunswick County is that they’re also available to existing businesses that grow. Whether it’s a new business or a business that’s already there, if they meet the benchmarks, then they would be eligible to ask for the incentives. So that way, we’re not picking winners and losers, we’re simply providing benchmarks and incentives for any business, new or existing, to help them along the way.
RLH: The Brunswick County Economic Commission has really struggled. There have been a lot of near misses, and some big ones too. What is going wrong there? What isn’t happening? What does Brunswick County need to do?
Frank Williams: I know that at the county level, Brunswick County has stepped up and been willing to really go out on a limb for some of those. I would point out that the things we lost, we didn’t lose to another county in North Carolina; we lost them to another state. One of the things I would like to see our state do at the state level is look at places like South Carolina and Texas and see what they’ve done to get some of the politics out of their industrial recruitment, and I think—
RLH: What have they done? What are some of those things?
Frank Williams: I don’t know the nuts and bolts of that. I just know they seem to have a process that works. We really need to examine that. That’s something that would have to be done at the legislative level. At the county level, we want to make sure it’s a good place to do business. Certainly the schools are something that people will look at, and that’s more of a school board question. We’ve got a great community college, and our community college stands ready to help any of our businesses with their workforce. The biggest thing is that we as a state have to be able to compete with other states. A lot of our state’s big job recruitment seems to have been in urban areas from what I can tell, and we’ve got to do a better job state-wide of recruiting for rural areas.
RLH: Earlier in this segment, you mentioned that one of your lessons was the fact that there at nineteen municipalities within Brunswick County, and they all think they’re the center of the universe—
Frank Williams: I didn’t quite word it like that. [Laughs.]
RLH: You didn’t word it that way, but yes, they think they’re the only ones. We have seen very public tension between Leland and Belville, for instance, over ABC Store territory, and the development of the riverfront. Is there anything that you could do as a county commissioner to help those municipalities develop a more cooperative approach?
Frank Williams: I think there might be some things I could do behind the scenes. Certainly it’s a challenge. I joked about what I said about them, but I think Brunswick County is the center of the universe. So you have to commend them for standing up for their municipality and their constituents. I do wish that things didn’t get so heated between some of our municipalities. The way I view it, I represent the citizens who live in the county, including those who live in the municipalities. I don’t view myself as representing the town governments. I certainly stand ready to work with them, but there may be issues where I disagree with the town about what’s best for our citizens. I’ve had issues where I’ve disagreed with Leland and with Belville on things that involve both of them, and I just try to do what’s best for the citizens.
RLH: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Frank Williams: Thank you for having me.