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Tom Vanderbeck - Candidate for County Commissioner, District 4

Posted Thursday, November 2, 2006

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Candidate for County Commissioner, District 4


Tom Vanderbeck

E Mail:

Campaign web site:

Age: 55

Education: High School Graduate, plus a lifetime of experience

Marital Status: Married

Spouse: Laura

Children: none

Community Activities: Member of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Owner and member of Chatham Marketplace

Political Offices you have held: None




1. What do you consider the three most pressing issues in the County? What do you intend to do about them?

A. On the November ballot there is a district-voting referendum, which, if approved, could set our county back years. We must defeat it. Currently, we elect our county commissioners countywide but there is a district residency requirement so that each voting district has one commissioner on the board. This referendum proposes that Chatham County abandon county-wide voting and return to the "by-district-only" representation system of the Jim-Crow era. My opponent supports this change; I strongly oppose it, for the following reasons:

"By-district-only" representation encourages regionalism and pork-barrel spending and so will actually prove detrimental to all citizens of the county. Instead of having the ear of five commissioners as they now do, our citizens would have the ear of only one commissioner. It is only human nature that elected representatives will be most responsive to their own constituents – the people with the power to vote them out. Countywide issues require countywide voting.

Approval of this referendum would substantially reduce the chances for African Americans, women and other minorities to be elected as county commissioners. Remember that no African-American was elected commissioner after Reconstruction, and no woman was ever elected, until the adoption of county-wide voting in the mid-1970’s. Since we have had countywide voting, women and African Americans have been elected and re-elected, to countywide office many times.

Changing to district-only voting would divide the county at a time when we need to come together to face the critical issues challenging us today.

Some have argued that countywide campaigns are too expensive for the ordinary citizen. Yet my primary campaign – supported entirely by modest contributions from individual residents – was much more successful than my primary opponent’s, which was backed entirely by large out-of-county development interests. So a candidate does not require large expenditures, from outside interests, to wage a successful campaign. The door is open to all with our current countywide system.

Finally, it is a cornerstone of my campaign that that all five of our commissioners must have the entire county’s needs in mind - not just those of their individual district. The best way to assure this, frankly, is to make all five run for election countywide.

There are, of course, other factors that must be held up to the light here: It is not mere coincidence that the outgoing majority of the board has so hurriedly pushed redistricting and this referendum through, after our victories at the polls in May: The new districts are craftily designed to prevent a fine public servant who has been Bunkey Morgan’s strongest opponent on the board, Patrick Barnes, from filing for re-election in two years, AND at the same time is meant to pave the way for Bunkey Morgan to seek re-election in two years rather than four, in a gerrymandered district where he might actually stand a chance of winning!

For all of these reasons, I ask you to vote "NO" on the referendum.

B. We must shine the light on government decisions and planning for the best interests of all taxpayers. We cannot trust our leaders, or their decisions, when those decisions are made behind closed doors and citizen input is shunned. I bring no hidden agenda to my campaign for commissioner, and I will refuse to engage in backroom deals during my service. I will honestly explain the reasons for my important votes. The citizens of Chatham County are our most valuable asset, and I will welcome their input on all issues. Together, we can make Chatham the great community it has the potential to be.

During the past four years, the outgoing majority of the Board of Commissioners has gone out of its way to accommodate the wishes of large, out-of-county developers. In so doing, it has largely ignored the comprehensive land use plan that the county adopted some years ago. (I use “land use plan” here as shorthand for the county’s Strategic Plan and its Land Conservation and Development Plan.) I will work to put development planning back into the hands of our county. I intend for us to dust off the land use plan and actually follow it in our future decisions about residential and commercial growth, recreational areas and the protection of our county’s agricultural heritage. My opponent wants to continue to study this plan. I will work to ensure that residential development does not outstrip our ability to provide, and pay for, the increased county services the new residents will need. It is only fair that our county require the developers of large subdivisions to shoulder the cost of these additional county services, rather than make decisions which continue to put upward pressure on our county-wide property tax rate.

c. We must encourage real economic development. During the past four years, the outgoing majority of the Board of Commissioners, has been sinking money into an Economic Development Commission (EDC) that is an embarrassment. The nearest the EDC has come to a success is the near-recruitment of a bankrupt California company trying to escape its hazardous-waste woes by fleeing to Chatham. The expensive new industrial park the EDC developed in Siler City has yet to attract new revenue-generating business to the county. As I write this, the majority of this Board of Commissioners is considering providing a huge tax incentive to ISP Minerals, a mining operation that is already committed to come into the County against the wishes of residents in the area where it will be located; that is an unnecessary waste of public funds. Meanwhile, Chatham continues to lose its traditional manufacturing jobs to foreign countries. I intend to make our county attractive to clean new business, offering well-paying jobs with good benefits for our people. Given our proximity to RTP, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham, there are clean industries such as research operations that would be well suited for Chatham. As a small farmer myself, I also see opportunities to strengthen our agricultural base (which still provides something like 60% of our county’s income) by exploring the growing markets for bio-fuels, pharmaceutical crops and high-dollar, “locally-grown” and organic produce.

2. In your view, what are the "pros" and "cons" of the current development that is happening in Chatham County? What types of development do you feel benefit our county the most?

Our county is growing and will continue to grow, but that growth must be guided by our existing land use plan, rather than by the quick-profit motives of mega-developers. There are now something like 15,000 new homes approved or in the planning pipeline for our county – most of them in the northeast. This rampant, large-scale residential development is over-burdening our resources. Our schools are already overcrowded, and our environmental resources are being threatened, all because of a failure to plan and a failure to think through the consequences of unquestioningly approving each and every development application. In other counties, large-scale residential developers are required to compensate the taxpayers in substantial ways for the substantial impacts of proposed developments on county services. By contrast, under the current majority of the Board of Commissioners, only token conditions of this kind have been placed on the approval of huge developments. The result is that all of our taxpayers will be paying to provide county services to these mega-developments. That is not necessary. That is not wise. That is not fair.

It is too late to close the barn door on developments already approved, and that will cost us dearly. Last year the current Board of Commissioners raised our taxes 4 cents. This was directly related to the growth in our population, and will just be the first installment, if we continue to accept an imbalance in our county’s growth.

But, we can do better in the future. We can require large residential developers to pay a fair share of the costs they are imposing on our taxpayers. At the same time, we can work to broaden our tax base. We simply must be smart and diligent in attracting a healthy mix of commercial and business development. We must focus on that kind of development until our county’s growth is back in balance.

3. What specific types of business do you want to attract to Chatham? How do you think this business would benefit Chatham?

We are in an ideal location to attract good-paying jobs with good benefits. The areas around us naturally lend themselves to attracting high-tech research and development industry. There are regional economic development groups that could assist us. We would have to start out small because we lack infrastructure to support some of this activity, but our county has many other assets that make it an attractive place in which to live and work. As I have already said, the attraction of new businesses to Chatham County will increase our tax base, and thus help hold in check property tax increases. Meanwhile, we need to promote tourism that takes advantage of our natural resources, the artistic community that sustains our culture, and our rich and historic heritage.

4. How do you propose Chatham County meet the increasing need for safe drinking water for a growing population? What can Chatham do to hire and retain a Utilities Director?

Chatham County's drinking water comes from Jordan Lake. This lake has been declared nutrient-impaired by the state. Our county commissioners need to avoid making this problem worse. When evaluating applications for development, the commissioners need to consider the cumulative impact on the lake, and its watershed, of more and more wastewater treatment plants with spray application. The same holds true of decisions whether to allow additional impervious surfaces from roof tops, parking lots and roadways. Of course, we also need to enlarge our drinking water treatment plant, which is now at full capacity but is sized below our allotted maximum intake. Recently, the County has decided to spend $32 million to obtain drinking water from Harnett County. I would have preferred to see the Chatham County stand on its own for our supply of water. We definitely need accurate projections of all types of growth to be factored into any decisions the county makes for expansion of its facilities or sources of drinking water.

Since we have lost three Utilities Directors in three years, it is clear that something in our system is broken and needs fixing. As an ordinary citizen, I cannot get all the information I would like to have about the specifics of these three cases. However, normally with a turnover rate such as this, the problem lies in either the criteria for the hiring of the person or the work environment. We need the right person, and we need to supply that individual with the necessary work environment to do the job. I consider it crucial that we hire and retain an experienced professional as our Utilities Director, and so, when in office, I will do everything in my power to get to the bottom of any lingering impediments to this. One of our current commissioners, Patrick Barnes has advocated for hiring a County Engineer. I support this idea. A growing county, such as ours, needs to have additional professional expertise on staff.

5. Can growth be managed? Explain.

I risk sounding like a stuck record here, but yes, growth can be managed. Years ago the state legislature granted our county, like every other one in the state, the specific authority to manage growth. It is well accepted that each county gets to write its own rules for prudent and sensible growth, and the developers simply have to follow them. That's what we have our land use plan for, and that’s why we should be using it to plan for the future needs of the county. Our plan integrates all aspects of county growth -- commercial, residential, agricultural, educational, etc. It's a complete plan, democratically adopted, but just sitting on the shelf. Following it, not just promising to review it, is crucial to balancing our growth in such a way as to ensure the future livability of our county. It is also crucial, I repeat, to our efforts to hold in check future tax increases.

6. What are your views on following the original Land Use Plan developed with the input of the citizens of Chatham County? Should the County even have a land use plan?

From my answers above, you can tell I'm strongly in favor of this comprehensive plan. The citizens spent years in developing it, and it is excellent. The current majority of the Board of Commissioners has disregarded our land use plan, and as a result we are seeing unbalanced, unchecked growth and unnecessary upward pressure on our tax rates. We can do so much better by simply following the plan that is already on the books.

7. When is it appropriate to raise taxes?

I do not want to see our taxes go up. There may be times when taxes need to be raised to supply the critical needs of the entire county. But, any tax increase should only be considered only after all other available options have been ruled out and citizen input has been considered. Unfortunately, the current majority on the Board of Commissioners has failed to use the most powerful options it has had to hold down taxes: First, they have unconditionally approved more and more large residential subdivisions whose residents will need more and more schools and services. Second, they have done so without requiring these large developers to contribute in a meaningful way to the construction of additional school capacity. Third, they have focused on residential growth to the neglect of efforts to grow our tax base with new businesses. If elected, I will not make those mistakes. I will consider the potential tax rate impact of every development decision that comes before me. It is simply not appropriate for our commissioners to make decisions that will result in county taxpayers subsidizing the immense profits of mega-developers.

8. What are the best ways to fund the County's growing school construction needs?

Whenever possible, as I have already mentioned, the county commissioners should condition the approval of large new subdivisions on fair and appropriate contributions to school costs by the developers. I am also in favor of a 1% land transfer tax, supported by Commissioner Mike Cross. If Chatham County had state approval to implement this tax on the buyers of property each time title is transferred, then we would have adequate revenue to pay for our school needs as well as other county growth needs. It’s a fair tax, proportional to the value of the property being sold, and would not affect anyone who is not selling their property. It is used effectively in seven counties in the state. Unfortunately, there is a strong lobby of homebuilders in North Carolina who oppose such a tax. Meanwhile, we also need to investigate alternative measures to assist our schools. Our children need to have a proper education, and good facilities are critical to meeting this need.

9. What two things would you like to see changed in the County over the next four years and why? What, if anything, would your election do to bring about these changes?

First, I would like the full Board of Commissioners to embrace openness and responsiveness in government and to welcome citizen input on all decisions. Sadly the outgoing majority on the current Board of Commissioners does not share these values. However, my election, and my vigilance in office, will ensure that those values take hold again in our county government. Second, I would like to see a return to comprehensive planning for the future of this county. When elected, I will work hard to improve our county so it will continue to be an attractive place in which to live and work. I don't have all the answers, but along with my fellow commissioners I will do my very best to keep Chatham the wonderful place it can continue to be.

10. Why should I, as a Chatham County resident vote for you?

You should vote for me because you agree with my analysis of the issues facing our county, feel I am the better candidate and understand that I have your interests at heart.

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