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.
John Lyon, 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 recently retired after 44 ½ years with AT&T, the last 15 years being here in Wilmington. My career with AT&T included positions in Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Human Resources, Purchasing, Government/Legislative Affairs and Community Relations. In my time with AT&T in Wilmington, I was in charge of External Affairs for 40 counties in eastern North Carolina. Thus, I was developing positive relationships with key legislators on both sided of the aisle. Following my retirement from AT&T, I am now Vice President of New Hanover Printing & Publishing here in Wilmington. My education background includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and a Masters of Business Administration, with special certification in Human Resource Management.
2. Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first: Where do you stand on the potential sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Weigh in on what’s already happened if you like, but please tell us where you would like to see NHRMC go in the future.
First off, when someone is elected County Commissioner, they take on a huge fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of the County. And in that respect, all operations of the County should be periodically reviewed to see if they can be improved upon. So as great as the NHRMC is, the hospital staff and the County commissioners were absolutely correct in wanting to view what options are out there that “might” make the NHRMC even better. Now the optics of the rollout of this review has been horrible, as while it was not the intent, the wording of some things made it sound like “the hospital is up for sale and bids are going out and we will sell to the highest bidder”. That obviously isn’t how things were worded, but somehow the public perception was that was what was happening. The current process is pretty open-ended, as the RFP allows respondents to reply back with a wide range of proposals, at one extreme an outright sale, or on a much less intrusive scale, maybe a partnership of some sort. Until those RFPs come back, I will withhold any judgment. I consider NHRMC to be a crown jewel of our community’s image as it provides excellent patient service, at reasonable costs. And in the current environment it is not a tax burden on our citizens (although that could change going forward even if we don’t consider any of the RFP proposals). What I will be looking for in the eventual returned RFPs, and in priority order, will be quantifiable data on patient care, short & long range projections of patient costs and what type of local control of the hospital might be included. There would have to be very compelling data in these three areas for me to consider an outright sale. Maybe none of the proposals are viable and the best direction is to stay exactly like we are. Or, instead of an outright sale there might be some sort of partnership arrangement that would allow for continued growth of the hospital without impacting patient care or costs.
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?
We have over 200,000 residents today in NHC and another 50,000 are projected to arrive in the next decade. So, it is not a question of if we are going to be hit with a large population growth, but when. From a road perspective, funding for roads does not come from the County. That funding comes from the state and local cities & towns. But the county should be proactive in working with all of these entities to blend all of their plans so we can get a realistic picture of where the county feels potential road problems exist so we can address those problem areas up front. We need to continually review our county zoning plans to ensure it is properly configured, and we need to work with the city and towns to understand their local plans as well. We need to balance the needs of the developers regarding density issues with those of the citizens who are going to be directly impacted by the influx of traffic that will be created. We need to build into our plans now, as much as possible, our projections for additional schools so we can move quickly to break ground on any needed new facilities. We need to come to a decision on our bridge issue with Brunswick County. Every year we wait and kick the can down the road towards a possible resolution which only results in it becoming more expensive. Additional funds need to be expended to address stormwater runoff. The County took a great first step in this direction by recently imposing a new assessment for residents in unincorporated sections of the county, similar to what the cities and towns currently impose on their residents, to be used for ensuring our drainage areas remain clear of any debris.
4. Speaking of housing, how would you address the state of affordable housing in the region?
Affordable housing is an economic development issue as many prospective businesses look at cost of housing in anticipation of their needed workforce. So, we need to be addressing it now so it is in place already when businesses come a-knocking.
First, I would consider density variances, but only after meeting with and getting input from neighboring residents. Second, and I am not sold on this, but I would consider working with developers on possible tax incentives, much like we do with incentives in trying to attract new business to the area. These incentives would have to be tied to key housing affordability metrics that, if not met, would result in the immediate return of the incentive. Third, I would consider a new concept being tried in other parts of the country, that being affordable housing bond issues.
5. Let’s talk about affordable 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?
I disagree with the Garner report. We have a great model for economic development today for New Hanover County with Wilmington Business Development. It is a focused organization that derives most its funding from private investment, resulting in the county and the city paying pennies on the dollar for economic development initiatives compared to other areas of the state. Neighboring Brunswick County has been a dumpster fire with their government-run economic development initiatives over the years and we don’t need to go down that road.
6. How would you steer the county in addressing environmental concerns?
Of primary concern is our water quality. The recent Chemours dumping was a wake-up call that we need to be more vigilant in knowing what is happening with upstream businesses. We need to ensure proper legislation is in place regarding appropriate levels of contaminants. And this legislation needs to be clear that any infraction will result in stiff penalties, one of which would be that any cleanup costs must be paid for by the offending entity and that those costs can not be passed along to the consumers.
7. What other county initiatives would you like to see created, continued, or scaled back?
I would like to see continuing efforts to address stormwater runoff issues. The recent implementation of an additional fee to unincorporated area county residents, to be used for maintenance of ditches, etc., is a good first step. Our recent increase to our school budget (a 16% increase from 2019 to 2020) is laudable and we should continue to provide additional funding to ensure our students are properly educated, with the latest technology, and are being educated in a safe environment.
8. What else would you like voters to know?
I have extensive background in government & legislative affairs, having spent the last 12 years of my 44-year AT&T career working with the legislators in Raleigh, as well as the federal government. In this role I developed positive relationships on both sides of the aisle. As County Commissioner, I will utilize those relationships to advocate for every available resource to benefit New Hanover county. And in addition to my wide-ranging business background that will benefit me in helping to lead the county, I have also been extremely involved in giving back to the community through community service. I am on the UNCW Cameron School of Business Executive Advisory Board, the Cape Fear Boy Scout Board, and the Cape Fear Communities in Schools board. I have served on the Wilmington Business Development Board and was an Ally member of the North Carolina’s Southeast economic development organization (both of these organizations are dedicated to recruiting new businesses to the area). I served on the Wilmington Chamber board, the Communities in Schools of North Carolina board and the Junior Achievement of Cape Fear board where I served as chairman. Thus, combining my business background with my community service involvement, I think I bring a lot to the table in being able to represent, and lead, the people of New Hanover County as your county commissioner.