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Watauga County Commissioner Candidates Speak Out on the Issues

By Nathan Ham

Six candidates are vying for three open commissioner seats during the 2018 general election.

Democratic incumbents Larry Turnbow and Billy Kennedy are seeking re-election while David Blust (R), Tim Hodges (R), Tommy Sofield (R) and Charlie Wallin (D) are hoping to get on the board.

Each candidate appeared as the Meet the Candidates Forum held at the Watauga County Courthouse on Tuesday to answer questions and share their thoughts on how to improve Watauga County.

Kennedy is being challenged by Hodges in the District 3 race, Turnbow is facing Blust in the District 4 race while Sofield and Wallin are vying for the seat in District 5.

Billy Kennedy

“I am a 38-year Watauga County resident, organic farmer, woodworker and public servant. I’ve been married to my wife, Becka, for 29 years and I raised my three children in Watauga County. I have served as a Watauga County Commissioner for six years and sit on a wide variety of boards and teams through this role. I believe Watauga County needs honest, reasonable, compassionate people in office, and I look forward to the opportunity to continue serving Watauga County residents.”

Why he’s running: “Many Watauga County residents have asked me to continue working for them. When serving this community, I think of all people and all groups that call Watauga County home. I work every day to serve them all. I was fortunate to be able to raise my family in Watauga County. My mission in serving is to make that possible for everyone in our community. I want our residents to be able to stay in Watauga County instead of having to leave to work, raise a family or get basic services. I look forward to seeing our current projects, like the recreation center, school improvements and greenway trail expansion, continue progressing. I’m running for commissioner so we can keep moving the needle on making Watauga County the best place to live in North Carolina.”

On the Issues

  • “Provide our teachers and schools with the resources needed to nourish our children.”
  • “Keep Watauga County beautiful for all who live here and those who visit.”
  • “Make sure that government is fair, honest and efficient while working for everyone.”
  • “Create an environment where businesses can thrive and create jobs.”
  • “Continue the sound fiscal policy we’ve demonstrated over the past two years.”

Tim Hodges

“I am a native and lifelong resident of Watauga County. I live on a small farm in the Vilas community with my wife of 35 years, Delora Hayes Hodges. We have three married children and five grandchildren, who all live in Watauga County.  Both my wife and I are graduates of Appalachian State as are our children and their spouses. Being a lifelong resident of Watauga County gives me a unique perspective of the county and the needs of its citizens. I attended local public schools and graduated from Appalachian State University. I have been a small business owner in Watauga County for over 30 years. I have been active in the community serving on various boards, coaching youth sports teams, involved in local church mission efforts and currently serve on the Board of Directors of the Boone Area Chamber of Commerce, Watauga County Economic Development Commission and the Watauga County Cooperative Extension Advisory Board. Through these life experiences, I have been blessed to develop lasting relationships with a broad spectrum of county citizens. Over the years, I have worked with contractors, farmers, business leaders, government leaders, education leaders, App State students, law enforcement and area visitors to name a few. I feel that in order to serve all citizens well, a good leader is able to development relationships that will foster productive discussion and positive solutions. I believe my business and life experiences, knowledge of the area, the ability to form relationships/partnerships and my deep affection for the county give me a unique ability serve Watauga County well. My mission is to serve all Watauga County’s citizens to the best of my ability. I understand the great responsibility that comes with serving as a County Commissioner and would not take the job lightly or desire to serve with a particular agenda. I feel it is of utmost importance for a commissioner to be respectful, a good listener and carefully evaluate each decision made for the citizens.”

Why he’s running: “I decided to run for county commissioner because I want to have the opportunity to give back to a community that has blessed both me and my family. I believe we are in a unique position to prosper economically, educationally and culturally if we are unified and use conservative common sense principals. We’ve got a lot of the pieces of the puzzle in place I just think we need leadership where we can bring all the pieces together and make this work for the county and I believe I have those abilities and the experience to do that. I firmly believe that every citizen has a responsibility to serve their community in some way. My family has been blessed to have lived in Watauga County for 11 generations. We have enjoyed many wonderful benefits of living in the High Country. Therefore, I feel this is the time in my life to accept the responsibility and ‘give back’ to our community by serving in local government.”

On the Issues

  • School safety: “I believe you can’t put a value on life. I think we need to be proactive instead of reactive and we need a school resource officer in every school. It’s very important that our students have a safe learning environment, I know the school board is doing a great job with the funds that they have with double vestibules and cameras and all the things they’re doing, but I firmly believe we need school resource officers in every school.”
  • School funding: “Hardin Park is at 125 percent capacity, Parkway is at 92 percent capacity, we definitely have some school needs. I would like to work diligently with the school board on a long-range plan to fund new schools. We need new schools. I know we fund the schools tremendously here in this county and I think that’s a great thing, that’s one of our great investments. I think as we move forward we may need to look into a bond referendum to fund those schools.”
  • Affordable housing: “I work with young families all the time looking for affordable housing and it’s tough. It’s an expensive place to live, it’s expensive to build here. It’s a tough situation and I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to this question but it is one that I think is on the mind of the community and I have faith in our community that if we put our mind to it we can come up with the answers but it’s going to take all of us working collectively on that.
  • Economy: “I believe a plan for strong economic growth should be a priority. The county must be creative in developing a business environment that encourages existing business to expand, new business to relocate and start-ups to begin. We have extremely talented students with great ideas graduating from Watauga High School, Caldwell Community College and Appalachian State as well as a skilled local workforce. My interest is to promote smart economic growth that will provide well-paying job opportunities to those students who want to continue living in Watauga County as well as provide better jobs for families who now reside in the county. Watauga County is in the process of building a state of the art Community Recreation Center for our citizens and currently has 99.6 million dollars in school infrastructure needs. Funding these requests as well as many other infrastructure, educational, employee and county service needs, requires serious stewardship of taxpayer funds. Smart economic growth will generate revenues that can assist in controlling taxes.”

Larry Turnbow

Larry is a retired applied environmental biologist and a United States Army veteran who has worked for both local governments and private industry. He was elected as a commissioner two years ago and is running for a second term. He and his wife, Marjory, have been married for 35 years and moved to Watauga County 20 years ago. All three of their children attended and graduated Watauga County schools.

Why he’s running: “Since I was elected two years ago, we’ve increased funding for our schools and improved school safety. We’ve broken ground on the Community Recreation Center Wataugans have talked about for 40 years. Watauga County employees are finaly being paid a fair wage, saving money in the long run by increasing retention and cutting turnover. We’ve stood with the citizens fighting the asphalt plant in Deep Gap, trying to protect our clean air and water.”

On the Issues

  • School funding: “We’ve been working with the School Board on long-term planning for school repair and replacement. I’m looking forward to helping them make those plans a reality.”
  • Rec center: “I’m looking forward to completing the Rec Center and giving our children, families, and seniors a safe place to make friends and get healthy.”
  • Small business: “With the Economic Development Commission, business-oriented non-profits, the business community, ASU and CCCTI, we’ve spent a year and a half planning for small-business development. I’m looking forward to taking it from of the planning stage into action.”

David Blust

David came to Appalachian State in 1974, graduated in 1978 and never left. David and his wife, Cindy, have been married for 37 years and have three sons. He has been a very active member of Harvest House Church since 1994. David is a former member of Boone Jaycees for 10 years and former Club Manager at Hound Ears club, working there 11 years. He helped run Independence Therapy Services with his wife for 15 years, employing over 300 employees at one time. 

Why he’s running: “I love being a public servant to the citizens of Watauga County.

I have had the privilege of being elected County Commissioner on three different occasions, being able to serve the citizens of Watauga County for 10 years. I can honestly say that the number one issue during my tenure was always knowing that the money belongs to the citizens. I always voted with that in mind. Not one time during those ten years did I ever vote to raise your taxes.”

On the Issues

  • School safety: “All schools need an armed resource officer. There are a lot of bad people out there, and when the bad guy comes, I want the resource officer to be armed. I want the child protected, I want the teachers protected. There are a lot of state and federal grants, there are a lot of ways to do this where you’re not putting the total burden on the county.”
  • School funding: “We’ve got roughly $90 to $100 million in school needs over the next few years. A bond referendum is needed, we have a lot of other schools that have major capital needs. To me, schools are a priority. Some of these other things don’t tend to be priorities, they tend to be wants.”
  • Affordable housing: “It’s going to be very difficult, if you can work to keep taxes low, which taxes are relatively low, but the values that we place on things are very high so it’s a very expensive place to live. I just think government does not need to be in the business of working to make affordable housing, but to work with other people. I know a number of business owners in the construction business that don’t mind giving things at a reduced rate. You’ve got to have enough people that want to put their land up at a decent price. It’s going to be a difficult solution.”

Charlie Wallin

“For 30 years, I have lived and worked in Watauga County. I have been employed in food service management and am currently the Director of Catering at Appalachian State. I am married to Shelley Wallin and have a 10 year old daughter. We are active members of Grace Church where is am the Church Council President, an usher, lector, and Assisting Minister. We are also active members of the Parkway School PTO. I believe that it is important to become involved in your community in order to understand the needs of that community. I served as the Vice Chair of the Watauga County Planning Board for eight years and was the Chair of the Plan Oversight Group which wrote the Citizens Plan for Watauga County. I am the current chair of the local ABC Board, I have been a member of the ASU Board of Trustees though my work as the President of the Staff Senate, I have served on the committee that wrote the Strategic Plan for ASU. I have served for the past 14 years as a member of the POA Board for my neighborhood and have held every office. I am a member of the Diversity Celebration and Unity Festival planning committee, Chair of the Occupational and Safety Committee, and a member of the University Safety Council. I coordinate the delivery of unused campus food to the Hunger and Health Coalition, assist with meal preparation for the Hospitality House twice a month, and dedicate as much of my time as possible to OASIS. I am the current Chair of the 5th District Democrats of North Carolina, and serve on the State Executive Committee, and the State Executive Council.”

Why he’s running: “I am running for County Commision because I have spent a lifetime being a servant to my community and wanting to always work to make an area better then I found it. Watauga County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the State. Conversely, our poverty rate is one of the highest in the state. We as a county have to work on preserving and improving our quality of life by focusing our economic development on better rather than bigger. One way to achieve that goal would be to find ways to promote and attract small to medium size businesses. As Chair of the Committee that wrote the strategic plan for the county, we outlined a detailed, step by step plan to achieve this goal. We need to continue to reach out to businesses that can use the assists that we have and provide the growth that we need. I also wish to continue the momentum that has been started with the groundbreaking of the new Recreation Center, the increased funding to the Sheriff, fire departments, ambulance services and the school system.”

On the Issues

  • School safety: “I believe that we need to work and do everything we can to keep our schools safe and to keep our children safe. I do have a child that is currently in the school system and I value what she’s able to go to everyday at Parkway, I’ve seen the changes that have been made in the six years she has been at school there. This year with all the reinforced doors and security, it’s just hard to explain how far we have come in a short amount of time to secure these schools. I want to continue that, I want to continue to see us reinforce these schools and to get where we can have school resource officers and we do need to have more social workers, guidance counselors and nurses. It takes a village to make sure that our children are safe, it can’t be just one thing or two things, it has to be a whole village of things.”
  • School funding: “Part of the tax increase that went into effect was to go towards the schools to offset some of the costs, but it’s not going to offset all of it. We’ve watched as our next door neighbors have gotten $15 million each to apply towards new schools so we do need to go out and work with our legislators both in Raleigh and in D.C. to secure more funding. It’s not just replacing schools, there are air conditioning needs in a lot of the schools, there are roofs that need to be replaced, there are parking lots that need to be replaced. You can’t just look at replacing whole schools, there is upkeep on these buildings that you have to maintain or you’re going to be in trouble if you just start neglecting them and just trying to fund replacement schools.”
  • Affordable housing: “This is a problem that has been going on in this county or 40 or 50 years. We talk about it a lot as a county and we talk about we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that but it never materializes. If we’re going to be serious about this, people have to be serious about it, the community has to be serious about it, builders have to be serious about it, we have to have buy-in from everyone in this community. People are going to have to give and take on this issue and we’re going to have to make some sacrifices. No one has wanted to make that sacrifice, we have to work together as a community to come up with a solution that’s going to work for everybody so that we can have affordable housing. Until serious conversations and serious concessions are made, we’re never going to have affordable housing in this county.

Tommy Sofield

“After growing up in Virginia Beach I attended Appalachian State University from 1971-1975 in Boone. Here I played Football and was a captain of the 1975 team. I currently reside in Boone with my wife Debbie. We have two daughters Heather and Haley, and one son, Tommy. We have been blessed with five grandsons and two granddaughters. My family and I are active members of the local community and Mount Vernon Baptist Church where I served as Chairman on the board of the financing committee. I continue to support Appalachian State University by serving on the various boards including the Athletics Feasibility Committee, Board of Visitors. In the local community. I serve as a board member of the Watauga County Economic Development Council, and the Board of Directors with First Citizens Bank.”

Why he’s running: “One of the reasons I’m running for county commissioner is that I think we have an opportunity to really grow businesses in the area. I also have a passion for our kids to be able to have better schools, not ones where if we have a rainstorm they get flooded out of 50-year-old schools. I’m excited about all kinds of opportunities we have and look forward to serving the county as much as I can. I’m not a politician, I’ve never run for any office before, but I’ve been blessed here locally in the community and I just felt it was time for me to give back with some common sense leadership. Some of the things that we’re having problems with is the town, county and the university working together and I think I’ve got an opportunity to work with all of them through relationships over the years where we can bring these together.”

On the issues

  • School safety: “I think that a lot of times the mental health we see in the schools, the nurses and the counselors have an opportunity to be on the front line. If you have a child that has some problems and can pick up on that early and hopefully be able to deal with that before it gets to the point where it does become violent. I certainly would figure a way with the state funding and federal funding that is out there, instead of putting the burden just on the school board, there’s way to find money somewhere else and we would work diligently to bring that money into the county to help support where every school had a (student resource) officer.”
  • School funding: “There is a tremendous need for new schools. Trying to figure out how to do that takes some planning. As a businessman, you’d want it planned already five or 10 years ago to make this happen which obviously we haven’t done so now is the time to start. I think that we need to go to everyone in the community and offer to them what our plans are. It’s going to take a lot of money to do it, it doesn’t all have to be done at one time, but we can do it over a period of time with a bond referendum.”
  • Affordable housing: “This is a passion I have. We have an opportunity in front of us to work together as a community to bring the town, county and the university together. Nothing will happen with affordable housing without infrastructure. You’re going to have to get the town to work with us to expand water and sewer further out into the county to be able to get affordable housing. It’s not just affordable housing for people who don’t have jobs, this is for people coming in here to work, whether it be professors or whoever else that want to have housing that is not 300,000, $400,000, or $500,000 but is a $250,000 home that’s a nice home and the only way that will happen is with infrastructure and that’s something we have to continue to work on and work diligently to continue to move that forward.”
  • Jobs: “We have got a tremendous need for jobs, we have been talking about it forever. We need jobs for our children and our grandchildren so they don’t have to leave this county when they graduate from school. Right now how many families are having to leave our county and go off the mountain and get jobs somewhere else? There’s no reason for it and we need to work hard and diligently to have better jobs here, which is something we can go do.”

Video of responses from Turnbow, Kennedy, Hodges, Sofield, Wallin and Blust during Tuesday’s Meet the Candidates Forum can be found below.