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.
Matt Rhodes, 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 was born in New Hanover County and after seeing some of the world I decided this would be my permanent home. My father had me much later in life at the age of 63 and he was both a World War II veteran and a well-respected lawyer. I come from a line of lawyers and police officers and despite having a degree in Criminal Justice Administration I chose the health and wellness industry, becoming a personal trainer when the industry was just starting locally in the early Nineties. I used regular exercise to help me focus in school and cope with dyslexia. It became a successful business for over twenty years.
I also started to teach the CCW [concealed carry] course for North Carolina in 2009 to offset the loss of clients due to the real estate crash. It was useful to help with therapies for my son (who is high-functioning autistic) that insurance did not cover. Also, if a person owns a gun they should be responsible in the safe handling and the laws of justified self-defense.
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.
I went to one of the first meetings about the potential sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center in July of 2019 and I did not know what to expect. The audience was not happy with the idea of selling our hospital. I kept hearing prices going up and quality of care going down. Following that, I started to research similar hospital sales and in a vast majority, this is exactly what happened. Another thing I discovered is that in many cases hospital staff was cut to increase profit. When you that NHRMC employees close to 7,500 local citizens, a loss of jobs would be a loss of dollars being spent in New Hanover County.
I do not want to sell our hospital and I have said that all along. It is a way to grow New New Hanover County because people from other parts of the state and country can come here and have medical procedures done in an efficient, cost-effective manner. If it were sold we would lose local control of our own healthcare and as health coverage changes we need to have leverage to deal with upcoming challenges. Most people are not aware that NHRMC has around $65 million in an emergency account and that hospital operating rooms are at 98% efficiency and that is where the hospital makes their money. People ask me if it was sold, who would win? The buyer would win by increasing prices, cutting the local workforce, and dropping quality of care. The loser would be the citizens of New Hanover County. This is why as a commissioner I would not sell NHRMC.
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?
New Hanover County is a wonderful place to live but we do have our problems. One concern is the lack of infrastructure. We have a traffic congestion problem in regards to what some believe is overbuilding. The reality is that for many years the infrastructure was an after though and the development was the priority. The county planners have a long-term plan that over time — not overnight — will fix this issue. You need leaders elected that will listen to them and take this plan to the citizens. I would need to see the infrastructure first before any ground is broken. This way we can have responsible growth that does not overwhelm the area.
There is a potential quick fix for traffic issues. The current traffic light system is outdated and is not set to be updated until 2027. If this update was done today you would see a far better traffic flow. It would be a short-term fix but congestion would be alleviated until the infrastructure was on track.
Living in an area where hurricanes are the norm, stormwater is something that terrifies residents. Florence showed us that flooding is a reality even if you live at a very high point in the county. The stormwater services program was created to keep ditches as well as pipes in the county clear and in the event of a large rainstorm. There is, of course, a fee associated with this of around $5.65 a month and I believe this is tax money well spent to avoid issues of flooding that always cause damage.
The school system has many problems. The first is over 17 years old and it involves teachers allegedly sexually abusing students who in most cases are minors. You cannot handle this type of issue ‘in-house.’ Law enforcement must be made aware of these accusations and see if there is any credibility to them. The principals need to be aware of the situation but the police are in charge of the investigation. The first priority of the school system is not education but the safety of the students. It should be the safest place they go to all day and this has not been the case.
The schools are overcrowded and I would like to see more charter schools and I support school choice. If a teacher has over 40 students in the class it is easy to see how they and the students can be overwhelmed and in many cases left behind. In a perfect world, I would like to split a large class in two and have smaller classroom size.
You would need to hire more teachers or make use of the ones actively employed but not teaching on a regular basis. Another issue is, do we have the space? The county budget needs to be investigated to see if money is being wasted on something that can be used to stop overcrowding issues in school for a better learning environment.
4. Speaking of housing, how would you address the state of affordable housing in the region?
There is a great need for affordable housing in New Hanover County. Many people tell me this and then they say “just not in my neighborhood.” To get past this stigma that this will decrease property values and make an area a potential high-crime location you need to make sure just like any rental that there are strict codes of behavior and a certain level of upkeep expected by the housing authority. If you don’t respect the rules you can be made to vacate the property. We have plenty of unoccupied buildings that could be converted to affordable housing. The infrastructure must be in place to handle the extra traffic as a result. Developers could receive federal tax credits to make the projects a reality.
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?
For an area to be successful you must have a solid economy and the infrastructure to support growth as a result of that. For too many years we have not made infrastructure a priority. If you have local elected leaders who will listen to the county planners about a vision of responsible long-term growth the infrastructure will not be an issue anymore because a long-term plan will be in place and followed. We will still be able to build and grow as our community is economically based in real estate and at the same time attract new business to the area.
6. How would you steer the county in addressing environmental concerns?
You can not neglect the environment. If a community like ours does this we will no longer have a community. We must take care of our beaches and I believe in beach renourishment and the Army Corps of Engineers would give me insight into this process. For us, a healthy beach means a healthy economy and you want to protect the natural beauty.
We must have clean drinking water and the citizens need to be made aware of the condition of the water. This problem has been going on since the early 1980s and that is in all reality a crime. There needs to be a multi-purpose filter in place to handle any natural or man-made catastrophe.
7. What other county initiatives would you like to see created, continued, or scaled back?
The finances of the county must be balanced. There is always financial waste and this needs to be stopped because there are better ways to use these funds and taxpayer money should never be wasted. In New Hanover County I would like a long-term plan to fix the infrastructure to cut down on traffic congestion while maintaining responsible growth. I would also like to see our local schools made safer from outside threats as well as internal ones. I would have a very secure school building with multiple cameras and the very best trained SROs [school resource officers]. Each school would have one detective for any school-related investigation. Elected officials have a responsibility to keep citizens safe.
8. What else would you like voters to know?
I was born here and this area is in my blood. I love it dearly as well as the citizens. I want to protect it and see it grow. We have many issues facing this area and I will not stop until they are resolved. Many elected officials forget that they serve the people. I will never forget that. I have only one special interest group and that is the citizens of New Hanover County. If I am elected as a county commissioner and you come to me with a problem I will do everything possible to find a solution regardless of your party.