Seven Town Board candidates lineup for 2019 election Q&A

Two years ago, candidates running for Highlands Town Board ran unopposed. This year there will be seven candidates on the ballot – three incumbents and four contenders.

Running for re-election are Commissioners, John Dotson, Eric Pierson, and Brian Stiehler. Opposing them are Marc Hehn, Nick McCall, Michael Rogers, and Hank Ross.

Each candidate has been asked to answer six questions. This week we will feature answers to Questions 1 and 2 by the candidates in alphabetical order.

Question 1:

Why are you running for Town Board and what credentials and/or skills can you bring to the Town of Highlands community? If you are seeking re-election, why do you want to run again?

And Question 2:

Highlands is feeling the effects of the increase of tourists visiting our community. As a nonprofit, do you think Highlands is entitled to some of the room tax money the chamber/visitor center receives each year to address needs like, parking, sidewalks, parks and recreation upgrades, infrastructure upgrades, entertainment venues, restrooms, garbage receptacles, etc.?

John Dotson
Question 1:

I am seeking re-election because I feel the current make-up of the Town Board is a cohesive group of folks when it comes to the betterment of Highlands. I am certainly grateful to the voters of Highlands to have been allowed to be part of that group and the process for the past 12 years.

While each of use comes from a different field and perspective, it is that difference that makes for a strong group.

Certainly, we do not always agree on style, but when it comes to the good of Highlands and its residents, I think we all agree on substance.

Question 2:

Years ago, when the room tax money was designated to go the Chamber of Commerce, I don’t think anyone anticipated the funds to be anything more than an advertising subsidy for the Chamber.

Highlands has indeed seen a substantial increase in tourism over the past 10-15 years and therefore an increase in revenue from room tax.

The infrastructure of the town has been put under greater strain due to the increased tourism. From streets to sidewalks to public restrooms to garbage – all have seen pressure from additional tourism. At this point, that addition monetary strain is born by our taxpayers.

My personal feeling is that the Town Board, as representatives of the taxpayers of Highlands, needs to take a hard look at the current room tax revenue and make adjustments as required. We cannot continue to burden our taxpayers with expenses related to others

Marc Hehn
Question 1:

I have offered to serve on the Town Board of Commissioners because I am very concerned about healthcare on the plateau. And, I feel that my 45 years of local governmental experience will be of value to the town. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration, a Master’s Degree in City and Regional Planning, I am a Full Member of the International City Management Association, I am a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a Class A Potable Water and Class A Wastewater Operator and Nationally Certified as a Landfill and Recycling Manager.

Question 2:

State Law requires expenditures from the 3% Occupancy Room Tax to be approved by the local Travel and Tourism Authority. Currently the funds are only used to promote travel and tourism. I have seen these taxes used in other jurisdictions for overtime for police during festivals, construction and maintenance of regional recreation complexes plus the costs to ensure the festivals were in compliance with Fire Codes. The Travel and Tourism Authority would need to authorize such expenditures going forward. The town’s representative on the Travel and Tourism Authority only makes up one third of the membership on the Authority so that person would need to make a strong case for funding assistance for tourism related expenses to the town.

Nick McCall
Question 1:

I am running for a seat on the Highlands Town Board because I believe it is time for change and I am cautious of the current direction we are focused on heading. I love this community and town and I am passionate about Highlands and our future. I am a 6th generation Highlander and I own a business in downtown Highlands so I understand both the needs of the local community and commercial district.

I would like to see more transparency and oversight on the Town Board. I would like to see more consideration given to the effects on the business community from decisions made by the Town Board. I also want to represent the people of Highlands and be honest with them about issues. I want to give the local community a voice that matters and I will listen and vote according to what they want and not what special interests want.

I have owned and operated an Internet company so I know first-hand how important this issue is and through my experience can bring insight and knowledge. I feel it is very important to get Internet to Ravenel, Queen Mountain and other outlying areas.

I went to Appalachian State and studied political science. My grandfather was a former Mayor and Town Board member and my father served on the Town Board as well. This afforded me the privilege of growing up with two incredible mentors from whom I learned so much. We are all incredibly blessed to live in this beautiful town, and to be a part of such a loving and selfless community. Change and growth are both parts of life, but we need to be ever mindful of changing the who we are out of who we are.

Question 2:

I do not know if I would use the term entitled, but I do feel the town should receive a portion of the revenue. It just makes sense that if the town is tasked with providing services like sanitation and maintaining the roads, and the wear and tear on the water treatment systems, that some portion of the money should be used for compensation.

A major need we should address immediately is the installation of sidewalks down NC 28, NC 106, and US 64. Not only is it good to connect the community, but there has become a major safety issue with pedestrians walking inches away from traffic. Something else that we cannot ignore any longer is that Highlands has a parking problem. A parking solution, whether a parking deck or a lot of some kind has to be addressed. These projects could be funded with the town’s portion of this revenue, saving taxpayer’s money.

Eric Pierson
Question 1:

I am running for re-election for several reasons, but the most important reason is that my family has a long history here and I care deeply for this town. My children are seventh generation Highlanders. Seeing them grow up here, where my family has for decades, gives me great pride and a feeling of responsibility to do what I can to see that our family can continue to be citizens and stewards of this remarkable place.

Highlands is not what it is today due to happenstance. It is because of the foresight and leadership of the ones before us. I have always recognized this, and therefore done my best to be one of those leaders for Highlands. From early on, I made myself available for the betterment of our town by sitting on most of the boards that govern and make a difference in our community. I’ve spent six-plus years on the planning board and appearance committee, four years on the zoning and ABC boards and over nine years on the Macon County planning board. I have also been (and continue to be) a 23-year member of the Highlands Fire and Rescue Department. Over the last eight years as a Town Commissioner, I’ve worked hard on projects that improve Highlands and ensure its viability in the future (construction of a new, increased capacity water tank on Satulah, upgrades to the lake Sequoyah water intake and water treatment plant, implementation of fiber infrastructure throughout town for future smart utilities, and the future construction of a new fire station that will see Highlands through the next several decades), just to name a few.

So, I am running for re-election to take what I have seen and learned from my years of serving on these boards and continue moving Highlands forward in a progressive and responsible manner for my kids and all the citizens of Highlands.

Question 2:

This is a topic that quite a few concerned citizens have been asking questions about recently (a lot in line with what is posed here in addition to others) and one that we have started discussing in trying to answer those questions that have been posed to us. No where in the state, that I know of, do the monies generated from occupancy tax go directly from the county to a Chamber of Commerce other than here. Most all that I am familiar with go to a local Tourism Development Authority that would typically be apprised of local business persons along with a couple elected officials. Highlands receives a good amount of room tax money (from what I understand, it will be over $700,000 this year alone). The promotion of Highlands is good, but all of those tourists put a burden on our sidewalks, parks, public restrooms, etc. that the town spends 10s of 1,000s of dollars on each year with citizen taxes out of the General Fund. So, I believe this is an issue that needs a good deal of discussion going forward.

Michael Rogers
Question 1:

I am running for several reasons. But first about me. I have served six years on the Zoning Board and I worked well with everyone in my six-year tenure. I am not a drama person; I am a person that works with other people to solve issues from the smallest to the largest. I am 57 years old, I have been self-employed all my life here in Highlands. I am a hard worker and I answer my phone or I will call you back (24/7). I am always available. I was in the paving business for 15 years, the water and sewer business for 39 years; I also run a small landscaping business. I am here to serve the constituents of the Town of Highlands. You will not go wrong voting for me. I have a vision and I am a person you can talk to. I am a meticulous person that will get the job done the right way.

I am running for the Town Board first because I want to see the main sewer line from the Town of Highlands extended out 64E to the Jackson County line so we can get Highlands Falls, Cullasaja Club and Wildcat Cliff CC hooked onto the Town sewer system. The purpose of running the sewer line is to clean up the town’s water (Cullasaja River). As we all know this will require some additional work on our sewer treatment plant and I have a plan to get rid of the treated water and not dump it into the river or on the ground.

We should be able to get help from the State of North Carolina to help cover the majority of the cost of the sewer treatment plant and it would be like no other one in the state. I would like to set a precedent that other counties would follow to clean up our water, our waterways, creeks, streams and rivers.

As you know the current Town Board moved the drinking water supply from having the best quality of water to the worst quality water. I think they were misled by misinformation given to them, as the purpose was they wanted quantity over quality. I feel they have robbed from the infrastructure and have not kept on top of the drinking water situation. Our town drinking water once came from the head of Big Creek, next to the Shortoff Mountain Trail, and now it comes from the dam at Lake Sequoyah. The dam that was once at Big Creek is no longer there. As we all know the Skyline Lodge dam sits in the middle of Big Creek and it leaks. At one time, the owner of the dam at Skyline Lodge was willing to turn over the dam to the Town of Highlands if they would maintain it. This all happened when my father Larry Rogers was part of the Town Board. The Town did not want the liability. I feel like we need to have control of the water up Big Creek as it is the cleanest water coming into Highlands. Where the current water intake is now there are four golf courses, two sewer plants and the whole Town of Highlands running through Lake Sequayah. It is the lowest point in Highlands.

I feel like there is an urgency to get the sewer line run to the Jackson County line to help clean up the water since the water intake is at the lowest point now. This was a major mistake moving the water supply to where it is now, not to mention the $3 million plus/minus that was spent there. We don’t mess around with infrastructure and we stay on top of permitting and we make sure our water, sewer and power is priority. Once the initial money is put out for the sewer infrastructure there will be a profit to be made for other projects.

The second reason is I want to see the town cleaned properly which would be the road banks, the ditches, proper patching and paving of roads. (I like the tree canopy over the road as it does give us a mountain look if the road banks are trimmed back properly it would encourage the wildflowers to grow).

I want to see a sidewalk extended down Highway 106 down to the first entrance of Cobb Road. I would also like to see a rock wall installed to match the town’s rock work at the corner of NC 106 and Spring Street. All of these things cost money and I have a plan to raise money without raising taxes or robbing from the infrastructure. I would also like to see wildflower beds in certain areas along the corridors of Hwy 64, Hwy 106 and Hwy 28.

Third, I want to make this clear that all town employees will be taken care of by me if elected. I realize they all have families and all their jobs are safe but I have a different but better way of doing things. I am not a slave driver but a common person with common sense. Every single business owner on Main Street is important to me, they pay big rent and taxes, I will make sure the sidewalks are clean of snow, leaves and debris and I will make sure the snow removal on Main Street is done properly. This will be priority as our economy is based on visitors to Main Street.

Question 2:

I feel we are entitled to some of the room tax money but we also need to be taking care of the Main Street businesses, because those shops, restaurants and motels are a huge part of what makes the wheel turn. We need them and we have a beautiful town with good people and I will take care of all of you.

Hank Ross
Question 1:

Highlands is at critical time in its growth, and we need all of the knowledge and experience possible to help us deal with these challenges. I have previous experience serving as a Town of Highlands commissioner from 2001 to 2009. Along with that experience, my design and construction background give me skills and knowledge to understand the many responsibilities a commissioner will face on a regular basis. My environmental design education and current practice as a land planner gives me insight into the challenges of protecting our natural resources and greatly helps in understanding town planning issues.

My past occupations include positions as a land use planner, environmental regulatory manager and recreation designer. I am the owner of Ross Landscape Architecture, a local land design firm for 22 years.

I have been involved and served our community since moving here in 1994. Besides serving as a commissioner, my service activities include Rotary Club of Highlands (President 2016-2017), Highlands Chamber of Commerce (Chairman 2000-2001), Friends of Founders Park (Current President/Founding Board Member), Leadership Highlands Class of 2002, Town Planning Board (2001-2003) and the Appearance Commission (1998–2003).

I care very much about Highlands. I want to make sure that the Town Board always takes into consideration the natural and cultural heritage of our community and respects the rich traditions of the people who built this town as well as the people who live here now. We should welcome growth, but it should be growth that keeps Highlands a great place to live, work and visit.

Question 2:

Currently town property owners pay the lion’s share for all infrastructure with some funding from State and county taxes. I feel a reasonable percentage of the room tax proceeds can and should help mitigate the impact from outside visitors on our downtown public services and infrastructure.

Brian Stiehler
Question 1:

It has been an honor to serve the town for the last eight years. I’ve enjoyed my time on the board and hope the residents of Highlands trust me to serve another term. In the past, I’ve served in a number of leadership roles in the community. I served as chairman of the Literacy Council, Chamber of Commerce and Leadership Highlands. I’ve also served the past eight years on the Macon County Economic Development Commission and the past year on the TDC (Tourism Development Commission), which I now serve as chairman. For the last 10 years, I have chaired the Town of Highlands Scholarship Golf Tournament. In those 10 years, we’ve raised nearly $180,000 to fund scholarships for local students. But most importantly, I feel like I did a good job of representing the concerns of local citizens and that is my priority for the next four years. I moved to Highlands in 2000 and this community has become my family’s home. I am so grateful for that opportunity and want to give back to a community that has given me so much.

Question 2:

In 2012, I served as the Chairman of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce. I know and understand occupancy tax and how that total has grown over the years. In 2012, that total topped about $300,000. Today, just seven years later, the total is near $900,000. I was recently appointed as the Chairman of the TDC, which serves as oversight of occupancy tax dollars and how that money is spent. While occupancy tax revenue can only be spent on “things that promote tourism,” that definition can be interpreted in many different ways. I recently spoke to experts at the NC School of Government at Chapel Hill about this very topic.

With that total continuing to grow, I think there is an excellent opportunity for the Visitor Center and the town to work together on projects that benefit the tourism experience as well as those of us who live here full-time.

For example, a public WiFi network is something I envision that we could do. Another possibility is the improvement of Main Street past Reeve’s and along Wright Square. These projects fall under acceptable uses of occupancy tax funds. Of course, we want to continue to support the operation of the visitor center and those activities that are funded by way of this tax. That said, this is taxpayer money and it needs to be spent wisely and with utmost transparency.

  • Next week: Should the Town of Highlands regulate VRBO, AirBnB, and the vacation rental accommodation industry?

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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