NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The primary election on March 3 will narrow a crowded field of candidates running for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners from six Democrats and nine Republicans to three from each party; winners in the primary will compete for three open seats in November.
Of three Board of Commissioners candidates with terms ending in 2020, only one — Jonathan Barfield — is running for reelection. Commissioners Woody White and Patricia Kusek have both opted not to seek additional terms.
All candidates in the 2020 primary were asked the same questions; candidates were not given word limits and were encouraged to broach any subject we didn’t ask about in the final two questions. Answers were edited only for typographical errors and for formatting.
Skip Watkins, Republican candidate
1. Tell us a little about your background: how long have you lived in the area? What profession do you work in / come from?
I transferred to UNCW in 1978 after two years at Wayne Community College. I won an academic scholarship that allowed me to save a great portion of the money at WCC then use the rest here. I earned my BS in Business Administration in 1980 and my MBA IN 1988 at UNCW.
Valerie and I met on Wrightsville Beach in 1979. She swam for UNCW. We raised our two adult children here.
I have been a Financial Advisor since 1990. I also teach Economics for the University of Mount Olive. I have been the Manager of the Cape Fear Fair and Expo and volunteer with the Azalea Festival.
2. First and foremost top-quality care must be maintained at NHRMC. The employees MUST also be a top priority.
I served on the Hospital Board of Trustees for the last two years of my term as a County Commissioner. I learned a lot about the big picture. This was prior to any conversations about a potential sale or partnership. Some of the issues that have evidently brought us to this point need to be explained. So here we go.
One issue is the Certificate of Need. This came about when in the mid-1970s, Congress intended to control healthcare costs. The CON basically limits competition. Right or wrong this has allowed publicity owned Hospitals to stay in business. The CON is currently being challenged in Court in Forsyth County. The N.C. Legislature has also looked at abolishing it. If abolished competition could move in and strip the profitable procedures from NHRMC. Since its inception, the Hospital has operated without County Tax Payer dollars. Currently, approximately 25% of revenue is written off for charity and indigent care. Medicare and Medicaid account for around 50% of the revenue and Blue Cross Blue Shield for about 25%. These revenue streams are compressing due to reimbursement changes. So that is a big future issue that must be addressed in some manner.
Another issue is in N.C. publicly owned hospitals cannot borrow money for facilities outside their County. It would be a strategic defensive move against the loss of the CON to establish facilities in neighboring countries. But as we currently exist that is not possible.
A number of around $100 million has been mentioned as capital needs over the next ten years to keep up with the area growth. Currently, NHRMC has approximately $20 million in additional debt capacity without jeopardizing the Hospital’s bond ratings. These numbers may not be exact but represent a real concern.
All of these issues are intertwined. We must address the future of NHRMC to continue the quality care we all expect and that helps ensure the quality of life for our Families. Your Hospital is mandated to care for our citizens regardless of their ability to pay. God forbid the Hospital’s finances decline and they be forced to look to New Hanover County Tax Payers for subsidies. Yes NHRMC is doing well now but down the road, who knows?
I am encouraged by the PAG. This group’s composition is diverse and eclectic. This group is bipartisan, demographically and professionally broad-based. Their early work was to put out an RFP. Now as they wait for these proposals, they are evaluating how our Hospital might be able to stay independent.
I have no clear opinion on the future. I look forward to seeing what options and information the PAG brings forth. But we must be proactive. Just like in 1967 when our new integrated Hospital served all citizens, it took vision. Let us use that same vision and base any decisions on well thought out fundamentals.
3. The county is completing its UDO, which will shape development on thousands of acres across the county. How will you balance a potential development boom with concerns about traffic, school overcrowding, and stormwater?
During my previous term on the Commission, we approved NHC’s Comprehensive Plan and the first iteration of the UDO The current work is tweaking the UDO to better serve the County. So my work towards Smart Growth has already started.
First, allow me to address Stormwater. While in office, we Commissioners would receive many phone calls and emails on various topics. One in particular was flooding/stormwater. I cannot recall exactly how many yards I stood in wearing my black rubber boots. Many homeowners suffered the same issue, little or no drainage. Two main issues contributing to the problem was debris build up over the years from hurricanes. Also homeowners were responsible for keeping drainage on their property flowing and often were unable or unaware. The City of Wilmington has a Stormwater Program. I met with the County Engineering Staff multiple times. The result was the Stormwater Plan that was unanimously approved by the current Commission. Now we must also realize that we love living on the Coast. Well, water flows our way and in the event of storms or hurricanes we will have water accumulation. But the Stormwater Plan I initiated (you are welcome) will make things better.
Traffic is an issue for most communities across our country. Being on the Coast, we do not have a 360-degree circumference to help alleviate some aspects of congestion. Counties in NC do not build roads. So any roadwork is a function of the NCDOT. I served on our regional DOT advisory group. The recommendations from that group carry a small amount of weight with the DOT. Projects are approved on a Statewide point system. Another limiting factor is NCDOT’s budget. There is just not enough money for all the needs. Our region has benefited. One current project still a couple of years from completion is the work around Military Cutoff and Market Street. Combined with the Hampstead bypass, traffic congestion in the northern portion of NHCo will be minimized. The next Cape Fear River Crossing is back to the drawing board. Just over a year ago there was some agreement on the crossing but that has faded. With proper design that can help channel the traffic differently. Development projects with more than 100 cars in a peak hour are required to have a Traffic Impact Analysis, TIA. This triggers the requirement for access and turning lane accommodations.
As for schools, that will require capital funding in the form of Bond Referendums. Currently our School Board favors neighborhood schools and redistricting. I will gladly work with the School Board, my fellow Commissioners and staff to determine any brick and mortar needs. As for development approval coming before the Commission, it has been with me and always will be on a one on one basis.
4. Speaking of housing, how would you address the state of affordable housing in the region?
New Hanover and the City already have a Workforce Affordable Housing Task Force. The marketplace must supply such housing. Zoning and density considerations are in the purview of the Commission. While on the Board, we appropriated $200,000 to the Cape Fear Habit for Humanity project on Daniel Boone Trail. But the set constraints on the County Budget does not allow for significant financial participation. At the recent State of the County Address, NHC is donating 16 acres in Castle Hayne to Habitat as well. There are occasional opportunities for the County to participate.
5. Let’s talk about economic development. Years ago, the Garner report noted that the region’s economic development groups were ‘Balkanized’ — with overlapping and uncoordinated missions and a lack of unified direction. What would your approach to economic development be?
While a Commissioner I/we worked with the State of NC and CFPUA to bring water and sewer to Highway 421 “Industrial Corridor.” This will help attract a balance to the economic growth. The Commission provides CFCC’s budget. I was excited to see the Lineman Program sponsored by Duke Power. To attract quality business we need an educated workforce. I support programs like the Vet Tech curriculum that fill immediate needs. As a side note, though my focus is on NHC, if industry were to land in Pender or Brunswick Counties, well a high tide raises all ships.
NC was recently named the top state in the Union for business. One aspect is the low corporate tax rate. As for our region, our natural beauty and quality of life are in the forefront. Some of the Garner Report was boiler plated, generic, and no longer totally relevant. Having said that we have Wilmington Business Development as a strong advocate. The success we had with Wells Fargo Tournament helped market our area. With Comprehensive Plan and the updated UDO, we will see a more refined focus on areas of Economic Development.
All communities from West Coast to East want the High Tech Silicon Valley jobs. But with the success enjoyed by our Pharma and Banking businesses we are positioned to attract even more. We, like our competition, just have to keep on promoting and recruiting. There is a financial incentive program through the County for companies that bring in jobs with strong wage scales.
6. How would you steer the county in addressing environmental concerns?
The need for Greenspace in coordination with the City and beach communities is a definite need. Though the fight against GenX is a different type of environmental issue, the battle must be continued. Recent guidelines on trees are an improvement. In the Land Use Plan there are already sites designated for environment purposes. As for other environmental support I refer to my Stormwater Plan. That in itself will help with runoff and contamination. I would also coordinate with our Soil and Water Commission.
Obviously some people might think the County could force landowners into conservation initiatives. However property rights are a foundation of our economy, NHC has a Small Area Plan that is separate from the Comprehensive e Plan. An Historic Small Use Plan also exists as well. I am in favor of focusing on our various natural resources.
7. What other county initiatives would you like to see created, continued, or scaled back?
I would like to cooperate with the School Board to elevate Technical and Vocational training, perhaps to even work with CFCC on an ongoing basis. I want to continue to support Beach Renourishment. It has direct influence on our tax base and tourism.
8. What else would you like voters to know?
In closing, I ask for your vote. I am only one of two candidates that has sat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. As a Commissioner from 2014 to 2018, my knowledge is vast and up to date. My relationships are local, statewide and nationwide. I WILL HIT THE GROUND RUNNING!