NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Republican Deb Hays is running for a seat on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.
In 2015 and 2017, Hays ran unsuccessful bids for Wilmington City Council.
Three seats are open, and Hays will appear as one of six total candidates for voters to choose from.
Early voting is underway. 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 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 underrepresented voices effectively, equitably and equally?
Deb Hays (DH): First of all the county’s response is far more reaching than one single department. To the point of our local law enforcement officers’ (LEOs) team that consist of the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO), they have on numerous and documented occasions done their job of protecting the citizens of NHC and used a common-sense approach, while demonstrating considerable restraint in not using force.
Recently, at a standoff situation with an armed, barricaded person, the LEOs were quick to respond to protect the neighborhood full of families and children; keeping calm, diligent and not escalating the situation, they were able to resolve the standoff with no one getting hurt—particularly the innocent citizens of the neighborhood. How many potential violent incidents have been avoided due to the awareness, diligence, and creative law enforcement strategies that have been employed by our local LEOs? Have we had violent protests that resulted in damage to citizens or properties as in other cities, including NC cities? NO! Our local LEOs have been incredibly successful in maintaining a peaceful presence, while ensuring that our COVID-struggling small businesses in the heart of our downtown central business district have not had property damage, looting, fires or other unnecessary violent acts.
Let’s look and deal with the facts: Our LEOs are doing their job and keeping us, the citizens and our businesses, safe. Is there room for improvement? Always! Are there areas that need to be addressed and worked on? Absolutely!
I have great confidence in Linda Thompson as Chief Diversity and Equity Officer. Once her analysis and assessment of the county’s needs have been done, the then-current county commissioners need to work together to create a strategic investment that will ensure diversity, inclusion, fairness and respect for all for generations to come. This can take many forms via education, training, process implementation, oversight, and public input; I am excited to roll up my sleeves and delve into this opportunity. I am committed to supporting and growing this valuable mission for all the citizens of our county.
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.
DH: To appropriately address this question, it is necessary to understand what is currently required of the NHCSO. To that end, the mission statement for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) is: “To serve and protect the citizens of New Hanover County with integrity and enforce the laws of North Carolina and the United States of America.”
This is a strong statement that is broad reaching. The underlying goals, objectives, and desired outcomes further clarify and narrow the focus. To paraphrase: reduce crime, employ high standards of professionalism, responsibility, accountability, and integrity through training, enhanced community relations, volunteer outreach, and mentorships; promote professional growth within the sheriff’s office through technology, best practices, and accreditations; reduce inmate recidivism while enhancing inmate personal growth through education, healthcare, and assisting with community re-entry; ensure and enhance a safe learning environment for our schools; ensure and enhance proper animal care within our county; all the while maintaining relationships with the community to build trust and improve the quality of life of the citizens. And this is the short version!
I restated this to show the depth and breadth of the requirements and expectations of the NHCSO on a daily basis—their stated accountability to the citizen population is well-defined. They are ranked and reviewed according to these goals and objectives. In order to provide guidance and direction on any additions or changes to these stated goals, I would need to understand the level of attainment for each item; then working with the Office of Diversity and Equity, the sheriff’s office and other county departments, rework and revise areas of need, and add in any new opportunities to further enhance the growth and development of officers and staff, while providing greater community involvement and outreach.
One idea to build community cooperation and outreach is in addition to the current citizen academy for people 18 and over, establish a junior academy for at-risk children to learn another way and garner a better understanding of Law Enforcement relations. This brings young citizens right to the core of community policing efforts and also allows the officers an opportunity to establish a real connection with our youth.
So the answer is, yes, to continually look for new and better ways of policing through mutual education and awareness of the community, outreach, and LEOs—and, no, to completely changing course and direction, as many of the priorities are valid and 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?
DH: I would implement the following FOCUSED APPROACH: a united marketing and economic development effort including all our tourism authorities, economic development entities, chambers, associations, and the airport authority to adopt and present a comprehensive and common marketing approach for our area. This would deliver a collaborative and consistent theme about our quality of life, the enjoyment lifestyle, our history, arts, festivals, film, food, theater, beaches, riverfront, music, sports, education, etc., and showcase an impactful recurring message for all to use, whether it be for recruiting companies, jobs, tourist, students, etc
FOCUSED EFFORT – Research, realize, and agree on what type of companies and jobs we need and want, then target our efforts accordingly. For example, our region is most competitive with small to mid-sized companies with 50-plus-or-minus employees. These size companies have proven to thrive in our region and want to come here—Live Oak Bank, Castle Branch, nCino, Tek Mountain to name a few. They can and will grow with our community and spawn tech startups to provide a continual incubator. Once we have them here, they will stay—proven! Clean industry with vital jobs that bring opportunity housing!
A supportive education plan must continue to be enhanced to provide the skills needed for the complementary industries targeted, whether that be welders, plumbers, electricians, or high level tech engineers. This is a collaborative effort with New Hanover County Schools, Cape Fear Community College, and UNCW.
A 5G wireless infrastructure would ensure New Hanover County is positioned to lead on innovation, and our community would be better connected (COVID taught us just how sparsely connected we are at the present). The speed and broad availability of a 5G network connectivity would unlock a new digital economic future for New Hanover County and unleash new educational opportunities.
We need to also look to our region for collaboration amongst our neighboring counties. We have excellent resources that can be shared to bring clean industries and vital jobs to our area.
PCD: How satisfied are you with the level of citizen engagement in the county’s planning process? [Very satisfied/somewhat satisfied/neutral/somewhat unsatisfied/very unsatisfied] What changes would you make to improve public involvement?
DH: This is a two-part answer, in that I am fairly satisfied with the county’s community outreach for the UDO re-write process. I served over three years on the City of Wilmington Comprehensive Plan Committee that created, wrote, and implemented the Create Wilmington Comprehensive Plan—many elements of that plan are a part of the county’s process for the UDO. I worked closed with the county to engage citizen input and review the draft document before it went to the commissioners for approval. There was strong community engagement and support throughout the UDO process!
When implementing the plan, there is always room for improvement on involvement and collaboration. There are many elements of the UDO that are technical and complex, and require engineering review. Throughout my years of service on the planning commission, I was dedicated to letting the citizens speak—especially at public hearings. If people have taken the time and effort to attend a meeting, and want to voice their opinion then I want to hear it and listen to them.
I know how difficult it can be in a public hearing, and it can get very contentious with differing viewpoints, but I believe my role as a county commissioner would be to listen to the concerns, questions, suggestions, and issues of the citizens. There are many times when citizens have voiced their concerns and helped improve the final outcome for a project. Engage them!
With proper parameters and guidelines to follow, this is a positive for all.
PCD: How familiar are you with the county’s planning process? [Very familiar/somewhat familiar/neutral/somewhat unfamiliar/very unfamiliar] Are there any areas you think you need to learn more about?
DH: Very familiar. I served for over eight years as chair of the city planning commission, so I have a strong background and understanding, not only of the planning process but also in reviewing the technical plans. I know what questions to ask concerning stormwater, environmental protections, encroachments, tree canopy requirements, etc. I can start day one with the knowledge and skillset needed to ensure that our precious county’s resources are protected and preserved.
Zoning allocation for infill and redevelopment parcels specifically targeted toward our workforce has the added benefit of reducing traffic congestion and creating “live, work, and play” neighborhood’s that are better connected with more greenspace.
In addition, I helped write the City of Wilmington Comprehensive Plan, so I have true hands-on experience with a thorough knowledge and understanding of the planning process. Continual learning is always part of my personal plan. As a committed civic leader, with years of dedicated experience, I understand these issues deeply and can get to work immediately to serve as your county commissioner.
PCD: Do you think the county’s current plans adequately anticipate future environmental issues? [Yes/No] How would you address sea-level rise and the increase in hurricane activity?
DH: With the increase in population, demands continue to be placed on our infrastructure—storm water, traffic congestion, water and sewer capacity. New Hanover County’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) is the basis for changing and redesigning our land development code, how we use our land. Critical to this is using up-to-date information.
For example, the current soil surveys date back to the 1970s, and these are used for all stormwater plans. Current, updated soil surveys need to be conducted in order to implement a properly working stormwater plan to insure correct drainage and water flow to prevent flooding issues. Existing culverts and drainage paths need to be kept clean and clear of debris for water flow. Future building plans must be reviewed for any negative impact on existing neighborhoods and surrounding areas—both up and downstream of our internal creeks and drainage flow-ways. Protections need to be in place for our environmentally delicate estuaries.
In addition, many of our existing neighborhoods were developed prior to stormwater regulations, and as such need to be reviewed and plans implemented to bring them up to date. This is an onerous task but one that I feel is necessary in order to properly address our county’s environmental impact concerns and future needs.
Our tree canopy is one of our greatest assets, and a necessity for clean air and hurricane resilience. In recent years, I have fought hard for the protection of our beautiful tree canopy and worked to implement stronger regulations on tree size for any tree removal. I will bring this same dedication and attention to the county commission.
Beach nourishment needs a recurring fund, established to provide for continual beach nourishment along our coast. A review of our room occupancy tax (ROT) to tap into all the visitor dollars coming into our area would assist in contributing viable and sustainable dollars to our beaches. This also alleviates the burden placed on property owners to foot the bill through property taxation. In addition, I have worked extensively with the NC Coastal Federation to create control measures and prevent erosion for shoreline mitigation.
In addition, I would be in support of our county taking the lead on viable solutions for our carbon footprint. The switch to electric vehicles on the surface looks to help lower our emissions, but upon closer review the batteries for these vehicles are not sustainable and need multiple replacements over the life of the vehicle. This adds more damage than it does good. A thorough review is needed and should be a part of our future plan for the County.
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?
DH: Proper planning with strong adherence to correct implementation is the basis for an appropriate growth strategy that is positive for all our citizens; both have been a focus for me for the past several years.
Building anywhere and at any cost is not appropriate. Responsible planning for growth needs to be balanced with private property rights and work in conjunction with surrounding areas and environmental needs. I have worked diligently implementing plans to bring more green space, neighborhood connectivity for walking and biking-ability, placing support services and schools around communities to reduce traffic and increase “live, work, play” opportunities to provide for higher quality of life. These are proven transitions that once implemented will help correct years of unplanned sprawl.
We need to work collaboratively within our region to understand our current and future needs. Growth doesn’t have to be a bad word—it is the result of positive things happening in our county. Well-planned and envisioned growth has benefits, such as stable taxation (no tax hikes), stronger housing values, neighborhood stability with consistent home affordability for current and long term citizens that have invested in our county.
We live in a vibrant area with amenities that continue to attract new residents. We are growing and at a critical point in our vision and plan for the future. Parks, trees, green and blue ways, the works is NOW to enact and implement for the preservation and protection of the charm and essence of our county. I am passionate about our community and am committed to its quality and enjoyment of life.
PCD: How concerned are you about New Hanover County’s environmental quality? What other environmental issues concern you, and how would you address them?
DH: Constant concern. Clean, healthy water is a basic core value. We need to employ all the resources we have on a local, regional, and state basis to address and ensure quality and quantity of water. We must work collaboratively as a region to understand our current and future water needs, and put a plan in place now!
UNCW research has been working closely with CFPUA to address the PFAS in our water supply. They have developed both a short-term fix and a long-term solution. The long-term solution is a project that has begun to add eight new granular activated carbon (GAC) filters to the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant. This project is anticipated to go online in May 2022. Until the new filters are in place, CFPUA has implemented a program to replace media in existing filters. These steps have already resulted in reductions of contaminants. The lawsuits that have been filed against the companies that are responsible for releasing these compounds into our water supply are starting to prove successful and will continue to assist in recovering the costs and damages, so our citizens are not further financially impacted. Ongoing collaboration to ensure our drinking water is clean and clear of contaminants upstream, all the way down the Cape Fear River. We must hold accountable those responsible for contaminating our water and continue to work with our region and state officials for sound policy and focused oversight with tangible results.
Clean Air is essential—and our tree canopy is our first line of defense. In addition, our focus on what industries and businesses to bring to our area must take this into consideration. The approach is to understand the type of businesses we want in our area that will thrive and be a positive addition, not a polluter of our air and water; companies that will bring strong paying long-lasting employment that will add to our tax base and allow us to further our clean environmental efforts.
PCD: How well do you think local officials have handled public transportation? What ideas will you bring toward its evolvement?
DH: Before the reorganization, somewhat poorly. After the reorganization, neutral. Time will tell.
WAVE Transit has been on life support for several years. The actions taken by the City of Wilmington and the county to completely overhaul our transit system are well justified. A recent study of the entire WAVE transit routing system has shown the targeted areas of use are within the denser populated areas of the City of Wilmington, with very little to no ridership/usage in the outlying unincorporated areas of the county, including the northeast campus of Cape Fear Community College. The successful portion of WAVE transit is the UNCW Seahawk Shuttle—and this should be the model for re-establishing public transit in our area. Smaller vehicles with shorter routes and on-time arrivals and departures so that citizens can truly benefit from using the system. We need to start in the corridors that have the greatest needs and requirements for public transit and get it right before expanding.
PCD: Do you think the county’s supplemental funding to the school district is appropriate? In what areas would you increase or decrease funding?
DH: No. I believe education is at the core of everything we do. A strong educational foundation leads to jobs and strong economic vitality, which would greatly assist in addressing housing affordability more than any other singular opportunity. We keep students in school and the graduation rates high, with a combination of both technical and higher education goals; this brings employers as we continue to provide the much-needed workforce and stimulate a vital economy, providing the monies needed for a stellar education system—full circle!
I have always been a strong proponent for our education staff; have been heavily involved in all levels of our public schools from K-12 and volunteer of the year at each school my daughter attended. Yes, my daughter is a product of public education here in New Hanover County. I have actively supported every school bond since coming to the county in 1995. Parent involvement is greatly important, but the most critical component is our educators, and they must have excellent staff to support them. I believe we need to ensure our educators have the best tools available and have a healthy environment, in which to accelerate the educational process. We need to embrace technology at all levels but not let it take the place of learning through socialization. Access to internet for every student and family is a must—and I have been a staunch promoter and driver in getting our area much needed broadband access.
Teachers need to be able to build excitement for learning, which will grow continued excitement from our students, leading to higher graduation rates and stronger knowledge absorption. Provide alternative learning styles starting as early as possible to reach and keep all students engaged. Promote and grow technical education as a strong and positive alternative to the college career path, for those students that aren’t interested or ready for college, providing good jobs and career paths upon graduation—much needed in our current workforce.
We have an incredible college and community college that provides us with excellent educators, but we lose them due to low pay. We must invest in our teachers so they can continue to invest in our children. Let’s incentivize our educators to continue their own education by bringing back and enhancing teacher pay for advanced degrees and specialization certification. We are graduating some of the best educators in our state—let’s work to keep them here!
Our schools are one of the largest parts of the county budget, and targeted for the community foundation funds. Let’s use and apply these funds appropriately to raise the level of education for all our students.
In short, invest continually in our public education, as it is the core around which everything revolves.
PCD: Would you have voted in favor of the hospital sale? Explain.
DH: This vote is done. Stop with the continued fear mongering and sensationalism tactics for political gain. I am about the people of this county. I am a public servant, and it would not be prudent nor responsible to the citizens for me to say how I would have voted, as I was not in the position to have all the years of background knowledge and experience with the reviews of the hospital and county needs to make an educated decision. Stop with the “what-if’s”!
The PAG, a citizen-based committee, researched and investigated all aspects of this transaction and came to a unanimous conclusion—even though many of its members originally had strong reservations against the sale of the hospital. I attended and/or participated virtually all their meetings. They did an excellent job, and recent polls show the citizens of the county overwhelming support their decision.
It is time to move forward, together! The focus of effort now needs to be on the priorities for use of the proceeds—in particular the Community Foundation. This unprecedented opportunity has the potential to benefit the citizens of New Hanover County for generations to come, a true game-changer for our community. This has an even greater potential than the Duke Endowment.
The foundation has been set up so that the monies stay with our county, and it will be one of my top priorities to ensure this happens. We have a responsibility to our current and future generations to create a foundation of community care that is inclusive of all our citizens.
Care, diligence, and attention needs to be paid to every formative step throughout the process and on-going to ensure that the health care needs of our citizens are continued to be met with the highest level of medical care—for all!
PCD: Are you comfortable with the community foundation being private? Explain.
DH: Yes. It has to be set up this way so there are no governmental constraints. A thorough review of the documents provides a true understanding of the depth of knowledge that went into the formation of the foundation, with the intent to provide our community with a vast resource for years to come. The monies stay local and can only be used for New Hanover County citizens. Great care and diligence went into the structure and details of this foundation. County commissioners going forward will need to ensure this structure remains focused on the citizens—that is the task at hand and a top priority.
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?
DH: Both—disagree at the beginning of the process that the public was adequately prepared, but strongly agree that during and at the end of the process, the public was included in the process.
As previously stated, the citizen-based PAG committee and their investigative process was as open and transparent as possible, even in COVID times. The online and virtual public input sessions added opportunities for the public to really get their questions answered. The PAG patiently addressed each question that was asked in all their virtual sessions. They responded to an untold amount of personal emails sent to them by concerned citizens. And the result was an overwhelmingly positive acceptance by the citizens of their recommendation.
I do think the initial start of this process had some strong language that caught many off guard. This caused a negative reaction where many were quick to take sides without adequate information resulting in an emotional response. We are human and this was a natural response to a very emotionally charged issue. Through the in-depth research process the PAG underwent, facts were presented to the public, questions were answered, and the end result was an overwhelmingly positive support for the PAGs unanimous decision. We can learn from this process so that in the future our citizens feel and are a part of the process from start to finish.
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