Monday, June 27, 2022

Primary 2020: New Hanover Board of Commissioners, Democratic candidate Steve Miller [Free read]

Steve Miller, Democratic candidate for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

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.

Steve Miller, Democractic 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 have lived in the area for six years, having moved here from the Washington, DC area. I have been retired for seventeen years. I was born in Brooklyn, NY and grew up in Queens, NY. I graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in chemistry and then went on to Georgetown University in DC where I received my Ph.D. in physical chemistry. I remained in DC and was fortunate to have been offered a job at the headquarters of the newly formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where my efforts led to the agency’s decision to require the auto industry to put catalytic converters on their vehicles. The result of that action has been safe and breathable air for America and most of the developed world. 

After two years at the EPA, I started my own consulting business focusing on numerous environmental issues. My clients included Corning, the EPA, and the Department of Energy. Subsequently, I became Corporate Director of Government Relations/Marketing at Gould, Inc, a Fortune 150 company. I co-founded (and was CEO) of a biometrics firm (BII), where we developed state-of-the-art biometrics for personnel time clocks and access control systems. Later on, I was Sr. VP for Business Development/Marketing at Savi Technology, which pioneered the use of intelligent RFID tags for tracking shipping containers. We had a sole source contract with the Defense Department. 

Once I moved here to Wilmington, I began volunteering. I have volunteered at the Miracle League (and served on the Board of their parent organization, Access of Wilmington), the Full Belly Project (also serving on the Board), the Cape Fear Literacy Council, the Teen Court of New Hanover County, A Safe Place, and have served on the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s (CIE) and WHQR’s Business Advisory Boards. I also mentored 17 young men and women at UNCW’s Cameron Executive Network in the university’s Business School. 

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 of all, let me be clear. The process involved in the sale has been absurd. I’ve been involved in many billion-dollar government procurements. They usually proceed with a Request for Information (RFI) from potential bidders. Information is gleaned from the responses which results in a draft Request for Proposal (RFP). The RFP is then subject to public scrutiny with a public question and comment period. Then a bidder’s conference is called where all potentially interested bidders meet, ask questions and make comments. Only then is a final RFP issued. That procedure was not followed at all. The County has gone straight to an RFP with no public input. It receives some guidance from a small group of local individuals. That group, known as the Partnership Advisory Group (PAG), is comprised of some well-credentialed individuals but is not truly representative of the overall public, which will be significantly affected by this most important action. 

Now I will address the substance of the sale. We have NEVER been given a clear explanation for the WHY. It seems that there is a great fear of the future. I call it the “Chicken Little” syndrome. The sky is falling but there is no hard data to back up that assertion. The group advocating for the sale argues that more Medicare recipients will mean lower revenues; that Medicaid expansion will also reduce revenues; that changes to Medicare reimbursement policies will reduce revenues. In addition, according to the proponents of the sale, there are other vaguely-stated potential health care reimbursement changes that will also affect revenues negatively. Therefore, their argument goes, we should just rid ourselves of these unproven concerns and pass them onto some other organization. The hospital is the largest employer in the region (more than 7,000 employees) by almost a factor of two. 

If these fears of lower revenues are true, how would a new owner react? They will act to cut costs, which means layoffs and cuts to free community services (such as mammograms and smoking cessation classes) that we currently enjoy. I have argued for an independent group to do a full-fledged cost-benefit analysis of the potential sale, but that will not happen. The ball is rolling fast. Our best hope to reverse the Commissioners’ decision to sell is for the “Save our Hospital” group, or another similar group, to file a lawsuit which will hopefully delay the sale until the 2020 election when we might get a new group of Commissioners who will reverse the decision to sell. 

If the current hospital management is not up to the task of dealing with the changing health care landscape, and the County owns the hospital, the Commissioners can get rid of them and bring in a team that can better manage the situation. That way we can retain community control of the hospital and have a management team wise enough to deal with whatever might be coming along in the future. If a new owner comes in and cannot handle the situation, we residents would be at the mercy of the new owner whose actions might be detrimental to the well being of all of us, and we could do nothing about it. 

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? 

I am a realist when it comes to development. There are those who want to hark back to the days when Wilmington was a charming, quiet seasonal beach destination. Some have talked about a moratorium on new development. That might be a nice dream but it is not at all realistic. Many retirees are moving here from distant locations. UNCW’s student and faculty population continues its rapid growth and many university graduates want to remain here after graduation. The region is growing rapidly and it’s projected that, in 20 years, another 100,000 people will be added to the County’s existing population of about 240,000. 

Let me remind everyone that we have multiple independent entities that determine zoning and handle re-zoning applications. The City of Wilmington (and the other small beach cities in the County) have their own independent Planning Commissions and City Councils, while the County has its own Planning Commission and County Commission. They are not required to work in concert and often do not. Many people have asked me about developments in the City of Wilmington and how I would deal with them. When I tell them that, other than having a microphone, I would not, as a County Commissioner, have any authority, many are surprised at the somewhat dysfunctional division of authority in this most important functional area of local government. 

In regard to water, we are in reasonably good shape regarding the future. The CFPUA has extended capacity to the 421 Corridor. As far as the PFAS issue is concerned, we have two treatment plants serving the County. The Sweeney plant gets raw water from the River. That’s where PFAS levels have been too high. The CFPUA is spending $43M for an activated carbon system that will adsorb the chemicals and other bad chemical actors as well. This system, once implemented in 2022, will bring our drinking water to more than acceptable safety levels. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we will be stuck with the bill, including the $2.9M annual operating cost. The State DEQ should hold Chemours accountable for those costs and require them to reimburse us fully. They have interceded on behalf of Bladen and Columbus Counties to require Chemours to provide alternative drinking water sources and they should be helping us as well. It’s something I would work hard to accomplish. 

Our road situation is not nearly so rosy. We are limited in many ways. First of all, the State is responsible for building and maintaining our roads. The City of Wilmington and the County each have proposed new road construction and road expansion projects to the NCDOT. Each project is given a grade by NCDOT to determine its priority for action. The lead times for our proposed road projects can be as long as a decade, if they make the list at all. Gordon Road will finally be widened, but the project will take a few years to complete. The Military Cutoff extension will take some pressure off of Market St. Although Market St. is currently being improved with median turn lanes, its vehicle carrying capacity cannot be enlarged. Adaptive, intelligent signaling software (with sensors) to smooth traffic flow is available from the State, but the City of Wilmington is not scheduled to receive it from the NCDOT for seven years and the County, to the best of my knowledge, is not yet in line to receive it at all. 

Partial solutions to road congestion include: 

• Improved mass transit—WAVE is currently dysfunctional and requires a significant overhaul. 

• Carpools can be encouraged by the County and by employers for persons commuting to work. 

• Mixed-Use Developments, where people live, work and play can take traffic off roads so that the residents can walk, bike or travel short distances by car to their destinations while avoiding highly congested roads. 

Given that the region’s proposal for a new Cape Fear River bridge has been rejected by the NCDOT, there are certain measures which could be taken to alleviate congestion on the existing bridge, but the State would have to approve and implement them. They might not be popular but would be effective and not too costly. These include: 

• Toll Lane—Create a highspeed toll lane with time-of-day pricing for commuters 

• High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lane—HOV lanes are used in many urban areas as an incentive to get commuters, in particular, to carpool. If a vehicle has two, or sometimes three or more occupants, it can use the high-speed lane. Others would be required to use the more congested lane(s). 

4. Speaking of housing, how would you address the state of affordable housing in the region? 

The lack of affordable housing is a major problem for our region. It significantly affects construction and service workers, as well as teachers, who are often forced to live an hour or more from their jobs. If the problem persists, we might find ourselves with major labor shortages for essential services. 

As I see it, there are three major (and one minor) approaches for affordable housing. 

• Public Housing– Paid for and owned either by the City or County and managed by the City or County or a management company. A County bond referendum would be required for the County to borrow the funds for this activity. A long-term bond was used to finance the Wilson Center and expand the Cape Fear Community College. Because of our County’s excellent credit rating (better than that of the U.S. Government), we could borrow long-term money at quite low-interest rates. 

• Public/Private Partnership–Developers could build market-rate housing and include affordable housing as part of the project. This might be incentivized by providing a rezoning allowance in return for the inclusion of some affordable units, or the County might cover the difference between market-rate and affordable rental units. If County funds were used, a bond referendum is the most likely way to raise the money to cover the County’s payments to the landlord. 

• Building Higher—When land becomes scarce and very expensive, the best way to mitigate that cost is to build “up.” That might be controversial but, in appropriate locations, it is a good solution to keeping down the overall cost/unit because it limits the impact of land cost on the overall per-unit cost. In such cases, building height restrictions would need to be changed. 

Recently, I met with someone heading up “The Backyard Housing Group.” This group is doing a pilot operation to finance small dwelling units in the backyards of older individuals with limited incomes. The backyard dwelling units can generate a small income for the property owner while providing low rent for the person who lives in the unit. There are obstacles to this approach, but it could be a win/win—income for the homeowner and low rent for someone with a low income. 

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? 

Hospitality jobs are inherently low paying. Construction jobs might pay a bit more but are temporary and when the developable land is gone, the construction jobs will shrink. So, what’s the answer? My answer is to enhance what we uniquely have here in the region. CFCC is doing a fine job of training technician level people who can provide expertise at existing companies, but such individuals usually do not create high wage, high growth companies. Of course, we would all like to see a renewed and revitalized film industry, which means, among other things,+ attempting to get the state legislature to increase the amount of grant funding that is currently available to bring film and TV production back to Wilmington. 

We have a number of home-grown success stories here in Wilmington and we should use that industry base to develop our region into a center of excellence in specific areas, which include Financial Technology (FinTech) and Pharmaceutical Clinical Studies via Contract Research Organizations (CROs). 

Live Oak Bank has a small, but unique, niche in the banking world. They offer loans, which are guaranteed by the Federal Government’s Small Business Administration, to small and medium-sized businesses. They have developed a solid business model, but their growth is somewhat limited by that model. However, the software that they developed in-house has been spun out to both nCino and Apiture. In fact, nCino now has almost 25% more employees than its parent company. Furthermore, nCino is also growing internationally. FinTech, is a growth industry. The County should leverage the existing FinTech base, and the talent pool being developed at UNCW’s Business School, to bring more such companies to the Cape Fear region. 

The situation is somewhat similar with pharmaceutical clinical studies. PPD (now a public company) has flourished here. The talent pool has grown and now more pharmaceutical CROs have made the region their home. This includes such companies as Syneos and PRA. A healthy business climate alone is not sufficient to bring companies to our region. A growing talent pool is required and UNCW provides such talent with its well-regarded Clinical Studies programs. 

Finally, a relatively new department has been created at UNCW, which is uniquely positioned to become a leader in the field of coastal engineering. Technologies to model beach erosion, design novel shoreline barriers, develop environmentally sustainable aquaculture facilities, off- shore wind devices, and much more are likely to arise from this new department at the University. The University’s technology and entrepreneurship incubator, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), should be fully supported by the County to aid in transferring concepts from this new department to market commercialization. The CIE can also act as a catalyst to help the region develop a robust “angel” investor network and assist in bringing state and national venture capital funds to the Wilmington area. 

6. How would you steer the county in addressing environmental concerns? 

Our air quality is among the best in the nation. We need to keep it that way. 

Drinking water quality has been damaged significantly by the PFAS effluents released by Chemours. That problem is being dealt with by the CFPUA, but as mentioned in my answer to question 3, we are being stuck with the bill. The County needs to assertively request the State DEQ to remedy the situation by requiring Chemours to reimburse us. 

With the Federal Government removing wetland protection, the County needs to proactively prohibit the now-Federally non-protected wetlands from being dredged and filled. 

Finally, greenspace is disappearing all too rapidly. Development will continue to occur and so the best compromise I can think of to balance development with greenspace is to build “up.” Therefore, the County and City need to rethink height restrictions on buildings. 

7. What other county initiatives would you like to see created, continued, or scaled back? 

• Clearly, I’d like to reverse the hospital sale decision, but that might not be a realistic option by the time the 2020 election occurs. 

• For the schools, I am proposing a County managed volunteer tutoring program for elementary school students and a similar free tutoring program for SAT/ACT prep courses for students whose parents cannot afford thousands of dollars to pay such tutoring. Additionally, although the Commission is not responsible for disciplining (suspending or firing) predatory teachers, it controls the school budget, which is a mighty cudgel to wield against a balky school board. 

• Our public transportation system needs a complete makeover. I would propose hiring an outside organization to study how our system could more efficiently operate to satisfy the needs of the users while keeping down costs. 

8. What else would you like voters to know? 

The hospital sale and an absurd re-zoning request by a developer where I live in Porters Neck were the triggers that made me decide to run for this office. Through the primary, I am self-funding my campaign. 

I am not doing this for the money—about $17K/year for a 30-40 hour work week. I am not doing this because I view this office as a stepping stone to higher office. I am not doing this because my ego needs to be fed. If I had wanted that, I would have become a rock star like my namesake from the Steve Miller Band. (Full disclosure: I can neither play an instrument nor sing.) 

I am doing this because I care about our community. The absence of transparency in our local government and the overwhelming evidence that the County has been dominated for far too long by developer interests has led me to this decision. 

Thank you for taking the time to read about my ideas and proposals for addressing many of the pressing needs of our County. I believe that I have the right combination of expertise to deal with today’s problems and the vision to plan for a better New Hanover County in the future. I am not asking for your donations, just your vote. I would be honored if you cast your vote for Steve Miller for New Hanover County Commissioner. 

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