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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

2020 Election: Skip Watkins (R), candidate for New Hanover Board of Commissioners [Free read]

Former New Hanover County Commissioner Skip Watkins is running for a seat on the board. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Skip Watkins)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Former commissioner Skip Watkins is vying for another try at the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Watkins was elected to a four-year term in 2014 and lost his re-election bid in 2018. He easily advanced in the spring primary, earning the most votes among six Republican candidates to secure a spot on the November ballot.

Three seats are open on the board; Watkins will appear as one of six total candidates for voters to choose from.

Early voting begins Oct. 15. Same-day registration is available during the early voting period, which ends Oct. 31. Election day is Nov. 3. Check your voter registration and county elections office to confirm polling locations, dates, and hours.

Port City Daily emailed all commissioner candidates the below questionnaire and will run their responses ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Port City Daily edited responses for spelling and grammatical errors only.

Port City Daily (PCD): The county added a new Office of Diversity and Equity in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in May. How would you rate the county’s (i.e. NHC Sheriff’s Office’s) response to the protests? What ideas would you bring to ensure the new Office of Diversity and Equity serves marginalized communities and under-represented voices effectively, equitably and equally?

Skip Watkins (SW): Very Strong.  On May 31, when protesters closed off Third St., the joint Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office verified there were protestors with backpacks full of rocks and they were wearing gloves. Our LEO de-escalated the situation and prevented possible/probable property damage and violence.  I support Freedom of Speech but never violence.

As for the Office of D&E, we need to give it time. They will report to us at the commission with recommendations, more than likely.  We will listen to their recommendations and hopefully act in support of New Hanover County with a holistic response.

PCD: New Hanover Sheriff Ed McMahon said, “Every year, my commissioners, our commissioners hold me accountable through the manager’s office.” As a commissioner, would your priorities differ from what’s currently expected of the NHC Sheriff’s Office?​ ​Explain.

SW: No. As everyone knows, I served as a county commissioner from 2014-2018.  There has always been an open-door policy between the sheriff and the commission. I met with the sheriff and his chief deputy several times on specific issues (opioids and related crime) and law enforcement in general.  I am confident the sheriff and his leadership team will address any current issues should they arise.  I will gladly communicate directly with him if necessary.

PCD: How would you rate the county’s economic development strategy? ​​​What changes would you make to it? What types of jobs would you want to attract and how?

SW: Every community from Carolina to California all want the pretty high-tech and high-paying jobs. Our county has a very strong incentive program and a great partnership through Wilmington Business Development and supporting groups. We need white-collar and blue-collar jobs. I was a part of bringing water and sewer up our industrial corridor, Highway 421. We do have strong banking and pharma startups here.  Obviously, we should leverage those. We also need to be flexible in our high schools and [at] CFCC to provide a workforce that will help attract employers. Our business environment must also be welcoming.

PCD: How satisfied are you with the level of citizen engagement in the county’s planning process? ​​What changes would you make to improve public involvement?

SW: Throughout the planning process, citizens have many transparent opportunities to get involved; most projects have public meetings, the county planning board and commission meetings. It is incumbent on the citizens to involve themselves. I am very satisfied the opportunities to engage are available.  I just hope citizens get involved early on in the process.  I will also speak directly to any citizen about any project except special use permits, which is prohibited.

PCD: How familiar are you with the county’s planning process? Are there any areas you think you need to learn more about?

SW: I am very familiar with the process.  In my prior term in office, the entire Uniform Development Ordinance, the Land Use Plan, and even the customer experience were updated.  That work is still ongoing where needs are recognized.

PCD: Do you think the county’s current plans adequately anticipate future environmental issues? How would you address sea-level rise and the increase in hurricane activity? 

SW: Yes. As a commissioner I visited several New Hanover County homes that were flooded.  I worked with our engineering staff to develop a starting point for a Storm Water Plan for the unincorporated area. This past July the commission implemented that plan. We have all chosen to live on the coast. As such we will continue to be subject to storm-related flooding during extreme events.

PCD: How well do you think the county balances development with “livability” (i.e.moderated traffic, preserved greenspace, etc.)?​ What changes would you make to the county’s approach?

SW: People are moving here by the tens of thousands. The county has addressed density, as well as mixed-use zoning to help alleviate many related problems. Being a coastal county, we have geographic encumbrances to traffic. Our ordinances provide for tree protection and quality-of-life requirements for new development. We have many parks in conjunction with the city.  We have high quality beaches. 

Could we do better? Perhaps, but I am pleased with our livability. We must acknowledge, though, as we grow, issues will arise. But “if you’re green, then you are growing; if you’re ripe then you are rotting.”

PCD: How concerned are you about New Hanover County’s environmental quality? ​What other environmental issues concern you, and how would you address them?

SW: With all of the recent news and the passing of time, GenX is no longer “front page” news. I am very concerned about the fact this is still an issue.  Unfortunately, it will remain one for a good while. From the first day I knew about it, I have fought to get the polluters to take responsibility. As a former CFPUA board member, we filed legal actions. Despite what many extremists might say, we are a nation of laws. The remedy for New Hanover County will most likely come through the court system.

PCD: How well do you think local officials have handled public transportation? ​What ideas will you bring toward its evolvement?  

SW: Public transportation will never be profitible any time soon, if ever.  While a commissioner, I tasked staff with determining the best vehicles to use.  All things considered, the shuttles were best for most routes.  The city and county assist in WAVE funding significantly. Until WAVE is run like a business and efficiently as possible, more and more funding will be requested. Some have suggested an additional tax in the county to fund WAVE. I prefer efficiency before any additional taxation.

PCD: Do you think the county’s supplemental funding to the school district is appropriate? ​In what areas would you increase or decrease funding?

SW: Every year I was a commissioner we increased school funding. I know of no area to decrease. The county has an increasing-per-student amount, supplements to teacher pay and provides capital funding for projects and equipment. Hopefully, the emerging “Community Foundation” will be able to assist, as K-12 has been targeted in its mission. It is easy to, say, spend more, but there is only so much money in the county budget, and education is the largest percentage already.

PCD: Would you have voted in favor of the hospital sale?​ Explain.

SW: I served on the NHRMC Board of Trustees from 2016 to 2018. Several issues were emerging that threatened revenue and an independent future.  BlueCross BlueShield and Medicare and Medicaid are headed to reduced reimbursements. The Certificate of Need is threatened. The hospital was not positioned for the upcoming capital needs. NHRMC could not use borrowed money outside of New Hanover County. Something had to be done while we are still strong and desirable.

PCD: Are you comfortable with the $1.25 billion community foundation being private? ​Explain.

SW: Yes. If the commission controlled the foundation, the local government commission would have legally forced us into investment instruments with a traditionally very low rate of return. Being a separate entity, they can pursue better yields. This should be able to provide $40 to $50 million per year for deserving programs in our county.  As for the “new” hospital trustees having 6 of 11 appointments, the money can only be used in New Hanover County. They cannot usurp the money and whisk it away. There are more details, but the word limitation limits my response.

[Ed. note: Port City Daily didn’t put a word limitation on answers.]

PCD: Was the public adequately prepared, included, and briefed on the sale of the hospital?​ Would you have done anything differently through the process of the sale? If so, what specifically?

SW: There were multiple PAG meetings open to the public with multiple news reports. Initially, the PAG was far from unanimous in its opinion but ended up unanimously endorsing Novant with the UNC School of Medicine.  Many folks have stirred up controversy for their own benefit against the sale but based solely on emotion not facts. Legally, it could not be put to a referendum.  I believe the 130-month process was properly handled, despite criticism.

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