Thursday, September 29, 2022

Election 2022: Tom Toby eyes NHC Board of Commissioners seat

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. ⁠— Republican Tom Toby is running for one of two seats available on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners this coming election. He will be up against incumbent Rob Zapple (D), as well as candidates LeAnn Pierce (R) and Travis Robinson (D).

Port City Daily has sent a questionnaire to every candidate appearing on ballots in the tri-county region, ahead of the Nov. 8, 2022, election.

PCD asked candidates to address issues pertinent to the county, from affordable housing to school safety, taxes to population growth.

Toby’s stances on issues are discussed below. All answers are included in full; the candidate’s opinions and statements are not a reflection of Port City Daily. Responses are edited only for grammar, spelling and clarity.

The paywall is dropped on candidate questionnaires to help voters make informed decisions ahead of Election Day.

To prepare, here are a few dates for readers to keep in mind:

  • Absentee ballots will be available Sept. 9 and have a Nov. 1 deadline.
  • Registration to vote will open until Oct. 14; afterward, according to the state board of elections, same-day registration only will be available during one-stop early voting. 
  • Early voting begins Oct. 20 and remains open through Nov. 5 (3:30 p.m.).
  • Election Day polls open Nov. 8, 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Locations to vote early in New Hanover County include CFCC Health Sciences and Learning Center (415 2nd. St.), Carolina Beach Municipal Building (1121 Lake Park Blvd.), CFCC North Campus (4500 Blue Clay Rd.), Northeast Library/Board of Elections (1241-A Military Cutoff Rd.), and the Senior Center (2222 S. College Rd.).

Once early voting closes, voters will need to go to the location listed on their voter registration card.

To see a sample ballot for the upcoming election, fill in voter registration info here.

Port City Daily (PCD): Name three top priorities facing the county currently and how you propose to address them. 
Tom Toby (TT): We conducted a survey on our social media; the top three priorities according to the citizens who responded are: 

1) Over development and over crowding 

2) School issues: Safety, education, elimination of any type of CRT- or EDI-based curriculums 

3) The sale of the hospital to Novant and the ensuing fallout in the failure to maintain the standard of care 

PCD: What is the current board of commissioners getting right? Wrong? 
TT: I think the commissioners were right to deny the rezoning request for the west bank development. Given our location on the Cape Fear, our port, rail, and highway system could be developed into better uses than more condominiums, so I agree with that decision. 

What’s wrong according to the citizens I talk to every day? Let’s start with the continued approval of rezonings for higher density and the aforementioned overcrowding in New Hanover County. The sale of the hospital. That is going down in as one of the biggest errors in county history; the county’s pandemic response: the shutting down of small businesses, forced mandates, unending emergency orders and the continued waste of taxpayer dollars maintaining the Pandemic Operations Center; the fact that we have the ability in this country to impeach a sitting president but not a way to remove a county commissioner from the board; code-named projects involving taxpayer money. The citizens have given me quite a list. 

PCD: Are there any county departments you consider underfunded or overlooked that would receive more attention if you were elected? Explain. 
TT: I would have to look further into departmental budgets to comment. 

PCD: Tell us how you would address areas below that remain of high interest to constituents: 
TT: Affordable/workforce housing: There are several factors that drive housing, such as property costs, material cost, supply, and availability, but the county is not and should not be in the housing business. If the county was, it would be through subsidies either on the front end with purchasing land, materials, etc., or on the back-end, paying rents where all the funding would come from taxpayers.

The other way is through regulation and that gets into property owner rights issues.

The one thing the county can do is lower property tax rates. Unfortunately, though, that would not necessarily correlate to lower rents given the popularity of our area. There are a bunch of factors contributing to our housing costs and there is not a one-size-fits-all, silver-bullet answer for that question. 

Population growth: I have said many times that cities that don’t grow die. That said, explosive growth brings its own issues. The key to our growth, in my opinion, is through density control. We have seen an explosion of high-density apartment and condo construction and the City of Wilmington continues to approve even more.

If we do not start getting ahold of the densities allowed, Wilmington and New Hanover County are going to be a seriously overcrowded, gridlocked, overburdened place to live. It’s already bad enough, according to the citizens, and it’s going to get worse. The future of our landfill is already in question. When it’s full, what then? 

Taxes: The commissioners lowered our property tax rate recently, but with the increase in property valuations, the citizens are not seeing any real savings. Further, we are in a recession and nobody knows how long that will last. Now is not the time to increase any taxes, or add any new ones, like the proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase [that voters will weigh through a transportation tax referendum this November]. 

School funding and safety: The county only provides a portion of school funding. Our local school board is responsible for stewarding the money they are given. One of the areas of school funding I would like to see is returning the trades to the high schools. This would help our non-college-bound students get prepared for careers and success after high school with the ability to enter the work force and earn a solid living.

I have had several conversations with Sheriff McMahon on where I would like to see our school resource officer programs made stronger and, for the most part, he and I are on the same page. There are a few more components I would like to see added, but the sheriffs department has done a lot over the last year to increase the number of resource officers. Now, we have them in every school, and have increased the level and intensity of the training for those officers. 

PCD: Conversations are evolving in regard to the development of the western banks of the Cape Fear River. Do you support conservation and/or small or large mixed-use development in this area of Wilmington? Explain. 
TT: I do not support mixed-use in reference to residential construction on that property. It has historically been commercial/industrial property, which is in short supply in New Hanover County. The reality is that the property will be developed at some point.

Given the attributes of having deep water shipping on one side and access to trucking routes to the entire country on the other side, I would like to see the property developed in such a way that it would enhance our areas already notable shipping and commerce history, while providing good long-term jobs. Typical mixed-use residential/retail on that particular property would, in my opinion, be a waste of the property’s potential to further our area as a shipping and maritime hub. 

PCD: How would you grade the county, A-F, in balancing green space with development? Do you have ideas on improving? 
TT: I would give our area a D, and you only need to look at the Riverlights development to see why. There’s no green space left, and the little they add back does not compare with what was there.

Further, the complete clear-cutting hurts us on stormwater runoff as well. Pine trees suck up a lot of water and, when they are completely removed, that water now has to be dealt with in other ways. I would like to see us adopt some of the development practices from areas of South Carolina, similar to Pawleys Island, Murrells Inlet, and the low country — similar to our coastal area and doesn’t completely obliterate the greenspace on the land where construction is occurring. 

PCD: The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge is nearing its end-of-life span without a firm plan in place to build anew. What would you like to see happen and how do you propose its funding, as it’s not listed a priority on NCDOT’s 10-year STIP? Do you support a toll? 
TT: The bridge is fast-approaching the end of its life span, and the increased growth and traffic are helping it get there faster every day. I would like to see our local elected representatives put bridge replacement near the top of the list, and have our state level representatives start pushing to get it on the DOT’s STIP ASAP.

I am not in favor of a toll bridge. The residents are already paying for it. North Carolina residents pay the highest gas taxes in the southeast. We also pay highway use tax every time we renew our vehicle plates. Those taxes are supposed to go to roads and bridges, so I would not be in favor of a toll bridge. 

PCD: Are there other top-of-mind infrastructure needs you would address as commissioner? 
TT: Setting aside land for new high schools would be one. We keep building elementary and middle schools but are funneling those students to the four already full high schools. 

PCD: Do you support public-private partnerships, most recently Project Grace and the soon-to-open New Hanover County Government Center? Do you think it’s an appropriate use of taxpayer money? Explain. 
TT: Honestly, it would depend on the project and what the cost/benefit is to the taxpayers. 

PCD: There have been concerns with a rise in homelessness in the area. Commissioners voted down an ordinance in April that would have made it illegal for unsheltered populations to sleep on county property. Do you support that decision? How would you propose the county step in to help some of the most vulnerable populations? 
TT: I have talked with the sheriff and the director of the Good Shepherd House about the homeless issue. I am not a fan of allowing the homeless to set up camps, as they have done at the downtown library. It is not a good look for New Hanover County, or the city, and the trash left by the homeless now becomes a county clean up issue.

But we also don’t need to fill the jails up at taxpayer expense either.

The homeless issue is one that has been ignored for a long time, to the point that now there is not a simple answer. There are a lot of substance abuse and mental health issues with our homeless population — and, if the county does anything, it should be in those areas to aid in getting people help and off the streets. 

PCD: Where can the county improve to provide more equitable opportunities and outreach to historically marginalized communities? 
TT: I would like to see the county work more closely with local businesses and industries to promote upcoming opportunities in the area for the residents. I don’t know of any areas that everyone in the county does not have equal access to. 

PCD: Is the county doing enough to hold Chemours accountable for PFAS pollution in the Cape Fear? Explain. 
TT: No, the county and the city should have been much more vocal and even pursued legal action against Chemours for poisoning the water. The answer has been to saddle the taxpayers with increases in fees to cover the filtration system that is needed to remove Chemours’s chemicals from our water. Total ball drop on the part of local government. 

PCD: Citizens have expressed concerns regarding trust with the current board; what will you do to (re)gain it? 
TT: I have lived here for most of my life. I have watched and lived the frustrations of dealing with our local governments. Having been a municipal employee for over 20 years, I have a unique perspective.

I run a small business here and I look at things through a business perspective. My goal is to be an elected representative of the people — not an official, not a leader — but a representative who is transparent and accountable to the people. Commissioners are elected to take care of the citizen’s business. 

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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