Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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April 27, 2014

Mercer County Commission: Six vie for nomination

BLUEFIELD — Five Democrats and one Republican are vying for their party’s nomination May 13 in the closely watched race for a single seat on the Mercer County Commission.

All six candidates, including Democrats Terry Basham, Robert W. “Bob” Carter, Phillip B. Ball, Lyle Cottle and John Sommers, and Republican Greg Puckett, met with members of the Daily Telegraph’s editorial board last week where they discussed a variety of issues, including the duties of a county commissioner, economic development, whether a county administrator is needed, lodging for the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, fire fees and the King Coal Highway.

The various questions, and candidate responses, follow:

• Please give a brief introduction.

“We are the gateway to the south,” Sommers, a resident of Rock, said. “We should capitalize on that and what we have here. I want to see us build something as a community and a county to maintain a workforce and maintain our children’s children.”

Sommers said it is important for the Mercer County Commission “to have a strategic plan.” He also said: “I believe there is major room for improvement” in the Mercer County Commission.

Sommers, a native of Matoaka, is presently the assistant chief of the Matoaka Volunteer Fire Department. Sommers, who is also the Mercer County Medical Examiner, is certified as a master critical care paramedic training officer, as well as a master critical care EMS trainer. He works full time as a critical care paramedic with the Princeton Rescue Squad and is a veteran of the U.S. military.

“I said this six years ago — the county needs to be run as a business,” Carter, a resident of Athens, said. “I see all too often a knee jerk reaction where the county throws money at (something) as opposed to taking bids and competitive shopping. The big box stores, warehouses and hotels and motels are only providing minimum wage jobs. There is no room for expansion or to have a future. We need to encourage trade schools here and we need to revitalize our airport again.”

Carter is a veteran of the U.S. Navy with six years of service as a hospital corpsman. He founded Allegheny Consultant Services, Inc. in 1994 and Carter Properties in 1995. He and his wife own a 65 acre farm near Athens where they grow pork, poultry and produce. He served one term as Mercer County Surveyor of Public Lands from 2004 to 2008.

“I think the main reason I’m running for the county is we do have these problems and we have had them for several years,” Ball said. “But I think my education and work experience provides me with some abilities to make this happen. I want to focus on economic development. And as Bob said we need to run it (the county) as a business.”

Ball enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1986 and served four years in active service with the 82nd Airborne Division as an airborne infantry ranger paratrooper. He participated in Operation Just Cause in 1989, the capture of Manuel Noriega during the invasion of Panama. Ball reached the rank of sergeant and is a disabled veteran as a result of injuries sustained in service. He has worked for the past 17 years as an associate and then as a partner in the law firm of Smith, Lilly and Ball, PLLC in Princeton.

“The reasons I’m running for the county is I think jobs are needed,” Cottle said. “And a commissioner who is willing to get in their car, make an appointment, present their resume and tell them why coming to Mercer County would be a winning deal. And also a commissioner who will work with the cities. I believe jobs are the number one thing. I would like to see my children come back to Mercer County.”

Cottle currently lives in Spanishburg.

“I have lived in Mercer County for 55 years and am proud of the area, the people, the businesses and the potential that Mercer County has,” Cottle said. “I am also a member of the Spanishburg Ruritan.”

“It comes down to four issues,” Puckett said. “I’ve seen a lot of change in Mercer County mainly due to the substance abuse issues we see. We are at an epidemic level. Unfortunately, people are going to look at us because our substance abuse rates are so high. People can’t bring their workers here. Years ago West Virginia had a reputation of if you wanted hard workers, you go to West Virginia.”

Puckett said the county’s economic development directors should be on the road “365 days a year” looking for jobs. Puckett is the current executive director of Community Connections. He has worked with communities across the region in recent years on special projects and initiatives aimed at preventing the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs among youth and family. He spearheaded the charge in 2006 to support funding for teen courts throughout the state and has advocated for the establishment of local community-based coalitions in every county. Puckett also helped with the formation of the local Creating Opportunities for Youth community coalition, which was recognized by America’s Promise as a four-time winner of the 100 Best Communities for Young People awards from 2005 to 2010. Puckett also serves on several state and national committees, including the Governor’s Committee on Crime, Delinquency and Correction and the National Coalition Advisory Committee for the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America.

“I was appointed in October,” Basham, who was appointed to fill the commission vacancy created by the death of the late Joe Coburn, said. “Since I’ve been on the commission I’ve worked well I think with the other two commissioners, and we’ve worked well on paying down our budget and our regional jail bills, and working with the development authority to try to get other business in the county. We are also still seeking grant funding for water (projects). The animal shelter people have done a good job there on rescues and getting animals out of the shelter. The job issue at Exits 14, 9 and 1 — I think we have some areas that are developed. We just need to work to get some businesses in there. There will be a hotel/motel going into Exit 9 this summer, and we met last week with another business interested in coming into Mercer County.”

Basham is a former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates serving Mercer County from June of 1987 to January of 1991. During his tenure in the House, he served on various committees, including Judiciary, Education and Roads and Transportation. He worked for the West Virginia Department of Highways District 10 office in Princeton from February 1991 to October of 2013 as an office manager for resurfacing while also serving on various projects as an inspector, project supervisor and officer manager. Basham also is a former coal miner who worked as a wireman, certified electrician and fire boss for Consolidated Coal Company.

• The candidates were asked to define what they viewed as the duties of a county commission, and to elaborate on whether or not they think Mercer County needs a county administrator. They also were asked about past violations of state Sunshine Laws when two commissioners acting as quorum made a decision to put down a large number of animals at the Mercer County Animal Shelter in 2011.

“Mercer County in the past I think they’ve probably had a county administrator maybe three times at different times in the past,” Basham said. “It lasted a while and went back to where we have a county coordinator, Vicky Reed, and she does an excellent job. Someone is normally there all of the time from the county commission. You are just creating another layer of maybe $80,000 to $100,000 you need to spend with a county administrator. I sort of like the hands-on approach of the county commission. “

Basham said all decisions of the county are made during regular meetings. If a decision has to be made after a regular meeting has concluded, Basham said a special meeting will then be called.

“I believe it is crucial to have a county administrator,” Puckett said. “I think it has worked quite well in Tazewell County, and it works quite well in other counties that are less than our area. If you had someone running the day to day and really focused on running the day to day. There is going to be cross collaboration that needs to happen in the county. I think the county administrator can basically feed that information back (to the commission). Terry made a very valid point about the money. I think you need to look at prioritization.”

“A county administrator would be a big expense, but we commissioners are part-time, and to avoid any problems with the Sunshine Law, a county administrator would be the best thing to have to work with everyone, and the cities and city councils,” Cottle said. “One thing I see they need to do is have a night meeting. It’s hard for people in the county to get to a 10 a.m. meeting if you have a regular job. They need to have more in the evening for people to attend. If you get enough people together who are interested in how the county runs, I think you will get some better ideas. A county administrator could schedule those meetings.”

“I believe a county administrator would be very beneficial,” Ball said. “I think what this county needs is a professional development officer, not necessarily meaning the economic development authority, but someone who knows how to get out and meet with people and business people — a professional. It is an expense. But we could have an expense now that could bring back ten fold later on. It could be a county administrator — I don’t know if you want to title it that.”

As an attorney, Ball said it is critical for the commission to obey state Sunshine Laws.

“I am an attorney, and  know how things are,” Ball said. “Recently, there are almost always pretty much two (commissioners) up there. And I know before Terry came on board, a couple of them made a decision without a meeting. And when two commissioners drive up to the animal shelter and make a decision — that’s not a good thing.”

“I spend a couple of hours everyday at the courthouse,” Carter said. “I know practically everyone of the 120 employees that work there. They are hardly making ends meet. They live paycheck to paycheck. Adding another position, a county administrator, I think it just adds another layer of expense when the employees can’t get a pay increase. I think Bill Draper may have been the last county administrator, and I think he got paid $70,000 when he left. Vicky Reed, I’ve known her for several years, is very capable.”

 “I believe in keeping it simple,” Sommers said. “Every organizational hierarchy has a board and the executive director carries out that order. In order to maintain order and to maintain balance, and checks and balances, in no shape or form should we be without an administrator. Because of the Sunshine Law, they could be talking about yesterday’s football game, but if someone walks by and sees them talking, there is also a liability. And I believe a half million dollars for an animal shelter is ridiculous. I believe there is room to cut. That is a waste. I believe the county should move that into a private facility. Get that half a million dollars back into the budge where it can be dispersed into areas where it is needed.”

• The candidates also were asked what they could do as a commissioner to help address the current lodging shortfall along the Hatfield-McCoy Trail system near Bramwell.

“The Hatfield-McCoy Trail system is a tremendous asset,” Sommers said. “I grew up in Matoaka. That is a prime opportunity for the county as a whole to capitalize on this recreation. Encourage safety but don’t over regulate it. The county should be encouraging that (lodging) 100 percent. Get with your Bramwell and Matoaka people. Approach local citizens with property. They have the assets. Your job is to help them grow the assets.”

“I think it is a tremendous asset, and it will just continue to grow,” Carter said. “As far as the people complaining about lodging, there is plenty of lodging in Bluefield and Princeton. There is unlimited room for expansion there (along the trail system).”

Carter said the trail system provides a “tremendous opportunity” for spin off jobs and citizens with specific trades and skills, including carpenters, electricians, ATV dealers, and those shops that provide accessories for ATV riders.

“Everyone is going to say it is a tremendous resource,” Ball said. “What the county commission can do I think to spur lodging. Again, I think it comes back partially to economic development, and having a county administrator or economic development person to go out and locate businesses, or hotels, or as the candidates were saying local individuals who have property. We can work to try to merge them together to form a partnership. I think the county commission should at least be directing that. I also think we have another resource out there with Pinnacle Rock State Park. Have the commissioners worked with the state of West Virginia to see if there is some way to construct or improve the park and to see if there is access to some lodging facilities? The county commission should do everything they can to expand the use of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail.”

“I believe the commission should work with the economic development authority closer because the authority could actually go out and find financing and work with the people who have the property,” Cottle said. “They need to work harder and longer hours in order to ensure not only business for the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, but they need to work harder to find other businesses to bring into town. There needs to be other businesses sought by the economic development authority, such as manufacturing businesses.”

“I think it all goes hand in hand,” Puckett said. “Certainly the statistic show when you grow economic development opportunities the substance abuse rates do go down. I remember when the Hatfield McCoy Trail was first proposed in 1996, and Leff Moore, who was really the advocate for the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, he said look at the opportunities. In terms of bringing in a hotel chain it will be very difficult, and very time consuming and costly. But I think there are some short-term solutions that would work. I think setting up some bed ands breakfast facilities would work, and setting up a campground near Jimmy Lewis Lake. Open up hunting and fishing. But I think the county commission needs to prioritize what they want to do. In the budget I’ve seen tourism got cut. And some funding went to purchase things that are not typically tourism related.”

“In 1988 and 1983, I was in the West Virginia House of Delegates and we appropriated money at the time for Pinnacle Rock,” Basham said. “I think it would be a great idea to expand that for people coming out of the Carolinas. Most people (staying) in Princeton and Bluefield don’t like to have to unload their ATVs and have to got to a hotel. We need cabins and sites. You can look at Ashland. Over there most of the time in the summer that place is packed with the cabins they have. Because people can come in on a Friday and load and unload and not have to leave.”

• The candidates were asked if they would commit to helping the volunteer fire departments in the county by revisiting a more equitable way to deal with fire fires.

 “Yes I will commit to that,” Basham said. “As far I know the county commission is going to act on the petition, but I think the county commission definitely is favorable of looking at it and doing what we can to help.”

“Likewise,” Puckett said. “Without  knowing the budget, and if there are additional trainings that need to be done and are regulated, we would take care of that. I think anything you can do to support them (firefighters). We would certainly support their efforts.”

“I would support that effort 100 percent,” Cottle said. “The fees are going to have to be looked at because at some point they are going to have to be raised.”

“I whole-heartedly support increasing the fees,” Ball said. “John (Sommers) and his brother have worked diligently in restructuring the fire fee into what “we have now. I whole heartedly support it. I think the structures like John and Steve have come up with are very good for the county.”

“Last year firefighters came to the commission, and I was the only non-firefighter who stood up in support of that,” Carter said. “The county commission listened and has done nothing. My response was — guys this is a no-brainer. I think we need to not just talk about this but move on it. We need to raise the fees. The cost of equipment has skyrocketed.”

“At that meeting — I can tell you exactly what happened,” Sommers said. “We went to the county commission in an attempt to get a levy like Raleigh County did. The levy was simple. It wouldn’t have cost as much as a bottle of water for the citizens. But Mr. (Mike) Vinciguerra was concerned for the citizens of Bluefield. He said they would be double taxed. It’s not a double tax. It never went to the people. He (Vinciguerra) didn’t allow it to go to a vote. He cut it off right there.”

Sommers said volunteer fire departments in the county can’t afford new vehicles or equipment for their firefighters on the current level of county funds. “If the county commission doesn’t act this y ear, you are going to find the fire departments disappearing,” Sommers said. “They can’t afford it. The median age of our vehicles is 20 years. It is ridiculous and it is disheartening that the people we elected failed to uphold their judicial responsibility to maintain emergency services for the county. They failed 100 percent and it affects every person in the county. They are going to lose their (fire) insurance or see it go up 100 to 200  percent. If you don’t support the volunteers your fire protection is gone.”

• The candidates were asked if they were satisfied with the current operations of the Mercer County Animal Shelter, and if they supported a leash law or spay and neuter law.

“The animal shelter eats up about 4-and-a-half percent of our budget,” Carter said. “A couple of years ago a couple of groups tried to pass a spay and neuter ordinance, and I was in support of it. But due to misinformation and hype, they packed the courtroom with people in opposition to it. I think a spay-neuter rule is the best bet to decrease the animal population. It will take a few years to go down. A leash law, or animals not running  loose, Bluefield is proposing a dog park. I think a dark park in Princeton would be a good idea too. You can’t really enforce a leash law outside of the city limits.”

“I think the animal shelter is a great operation,” Ball said. “I think they do well with what they have. With every element of government, it should always be reviewed. The big thing is just the misinformation and press out there for spay neuter. I’m generally for a spay-neuter (ordinance), and most cities have a leash law.”

“I’m in support of the leash law in business districts in the city,” Cottle said. “Outside in the county — that’s hard to do. But as far as spaying and neutering, I’m in favor of that. There also needs to be an education program at the shelter to let people know why it needs to be done and why it (the shelter) is full.”

“I concur,” Puckett said. “It is an education issue. I’m in favor of a spay-neuter ordinance. When you get a pet it should be spayed and neutered when you walk away with it.”

“As far as the animal shelter, I think our employees are doing a very good job up there as far as getting animals adopted out,” Basham said. “As far as the leash law, I don’t really have a problem with the leash law.”

However, Basham said it would still be difficult to enforce a leash law in the county. He also voiced support for a spay-neuter ordinance.

• All six of the candidates were in agreement in their support for the King Coal Highway, and all six were asked if they felt the current commission should be doing more to advocate the future four-lane corridor for Mercer County.

“I think they (the commissioners) should be a very vocal advocate for it,” Cottle said. “Anytime you can bring in a four-lane highway that connects you to somewhere else, that is how you are going to bring in business.”

“Yes transportation and infrastructure are extremely important and we need to connect the dots as closely as possible,” Puckett said.

“The King Coal Highway is a project very dear and near to me,” Basham said. “When I was in the House of Delegates, I was one of the first people that introduced the (King Coal Highway) legislation.”

“Yes, I support it 100  percent,” Sommers said. “If I can get on the 73 corridor and go to McDowell County in nine minutes instead of an hour — that’s a good thing.”

“The King Coal Highway is a win-win situation,” Carter said. “It is going to bring in business, increased economic development and tourism dollars. I support it.”

“Yes, push  it hard,” Ball said of the King Coal Highway. “Push the West Virginia legislature. Push the federal delegation. Get everything we can done.”

— Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com

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