Mayor’s Race 2022: Woodby, Humphrey and Buck share thoughts on challenges ahead for Carter County
Published 5:11 pm Monday, August 1, 2022
The Republican incumbent faces two independent candidates in the Carter County mayoral election on Thursday.
Mayor Patty Woodby is challenged by independents Devon Buck and Leon Humphrey Jr., both in their first bids for public office.
“I believe people’s voices need to be heard,” said Buck. “It seems like a lot of our public officials are running for their own agendas, and I want to be a servant of the citizens.”
Humphrey, the son of former mayor Leon Humphrey Sr., is only 28 years old, but he believes his youth is an asset. “I’m a young person, and I see a lot of young people being excluded from our local government,” he said. “I see a lot of people getting a great education and then leaving after high school or college because the government is not doing anything to help them get a job here.”
Woodby, who was appointed to the position after the death of former mayor Rusty Barnett in September 2020, said her experience and ability to build partnerships set her apart from challengers.
“I have worked to build partnerships with the other mayors in our region, with our legislative delegation, and with state officials. Through these partnerships we have been able to accomplish great things for Carter County,” she said, citing the development of a dual enrollment CTE campus for high school students. Initial cost estimates for renovations on that project were $20 million. “Through the partnerships that were built, the Tennessee Board of Regents decided to support the project fully by paying for the renovations needed to create the Carter County Career Center. … Building these types of relationships is what it takes to be a strong and effective advocate for our community. For most of my life, I have heard the saying that the governor and legislature seem to think the state stops at Knoxville and that our region is often forgotten by those in power. I am working to remind our governor and our state leaders that we are here, and we deserve the same opportunities and attention they provide to larger communities.”
In talking with the public during this campaign, Buck said he has been reminded of the issues facing the wide number of residents across the county. “They are different issues for people living in different districts,” he said. “There’s been a lot of money spent on a lot of different wants … but we need to get back to the needs.”
And, Buck added, some issues facing the county will impact residents of all districts. “The landfill is getting full,” he said. “And we have a lack of staffing of the sheriff’s department. And then there’s the animal shelter; every year that comes up and it seems like we need to get it resolved.”
Buck said determining how the county will deal with its near-capacity landfill is critical, as county officials must decide whether to invest in expanding the landfill or in transporting waste elsewhere. “Bristol is seeking kind of the same issue when it comes to closing their landfill … and it’s going to cost us, no matter what we decide to do,” Buck said.
Getting staffing “right” at the sheriff’s department also will cost the county, he said. “When school starts and there is a shortage of school resource officers” residents will be upset,” he said. “We need to protect our children and our citizens.”
With a background that includes 20 years in law enforcement, Buck believes he brings a unique understanding to those issues. “This is going to be challenging for the new sheriff, no matter who he is,” Buck said.
Humphrey agrees with Buck about the challenge of resolving the animal shelter funding and operations, but also sees two other issues facing the county: the rising cost of living coupled with questions about Carter County taxes, how revenues are spent and broadband internet access across the county.
“According to the most recent Census, 22 percent of our population is 65 or older,” Humphrey said. “They’re retired or about to retire … and with the coming recession, these people are wondering ‘am I going to be able to afford to retire?’ I want to take a deep dive into the budget to find out where the spending has been wasteful and cut as much as can be cut.”
Then, Humphrey wants to hire a grant writer to help the county source more public and private grants.
And when it comes to access to broadband internet – a necessity for work and education – Humphrey said Carter County faces an uphill battle. “A lot of our area does not have high speed connectivity. It’s as important today as the interstate highway system was in the 1950s.
“We’ve got to have it, and it’s got to be affordable for people.”
Humphrey said while some voters have confused him with his father – a former mayor – having that exposure to the office is a benefit. “I have an eight-year-long reference as to what I should and shouldn’t do as a mayor,” he said.
Understanding the role of the mayor is one of the most critical issues in this campaign, said Woodby, the incumbent.
“The biggest issue is a lack of understanding on what the role of county mayor actually is and confusion as to what the mayor’s authority and duties are,” she said. “In talking with voters, several have asked me about lowering property taxes, cutting wasteful spending, or increasing funding to certain departments. As mayor, the only budget I control is my own, which includes my office operations and the budget for buildings and grounds maintenance. Each elected official has control over their own budget.”
And the budget for the county – as well as the county’s property tax rate – is set by the county commission. “While I can advocate to the commission for cuts in spending or lowering the tax rate, I do not get a vote in the matter. I do have the power to veto the budget once the commission approves it, but it only takes a simple majority of the commission, which is 13 out of 24 votes, to override any veto I sign,” she said.
Woodby added that she frequently receives calls from citizens who are unhappy with another county office. “As mayor, I have no authority to tell another elected official how to run their office and I have no authority over their employees,” she said. “There is a common misconception that as mayor, I am above the other elected officials in a chain of command when in fact, under the Tennessee Constitution, we are all independent elected officials answering only to the citizens who have elected us to represent them. This misconception of what a county mayor’s duties and abilities are can cause voters to be disappointed when someone seeking the office says they will cut spending or lower taxes but in reality, all they can do is advocate for those things because they are outside the mayor’s power to actually do. Even I didn’t truly understand the actual scope of the mayor’s duties and abilities when I first stepped into this role.”
Instead, she said, the mayor’s role is to serve as an advocate for the county and its citizens.
Woodby sees the challenges of workforce development, substance abuse and economic development as the biggest challenges facing Carter County in the next four years.
“These three issues are intertwined and will take a multi-faceted approach to see any progress. To attract business or industry we must have a skilled and trained workforce to support them. In conversations with industry leaders and economic development professionals, we have identified there is a skills gap in our current workforce,” she said.
The development of the CTE campus in partnership with TACAT and Northeast State is one way officials have worked to resolve that gap. Providing a way to address systemic drug abuse issues also helps the workforce, she said.
“One of the common issues (employers) report facing is difficulty in finding workers that can pass the pre-employment drug screen. They also face issues with employees who are battling substance abuse such as lost time on the job and decreased job performance. The regional partnership spearheaded by Carter County to create a long-term in-patient substance abuse treatment facility at the old Roan Mountain Work Camp will help provide our community with a much-needed resource to help our residents overcome their struggle with addiction,” she said, adding that Drug Recovery Court and the Caring Workplaces initiatives also address addiction issues.
“By addressing those two issues, we are making our community better prepared for economic development and a more attractive place for businesses to locate or start up. We are making steps in the right direction, and it is crucial that we continue moving forward in the coming years to effect real change for our community,” she said.
Woodby described her time as mayor “as the honor of my life” and said she wants to be able to continue to serve and bring projects to life for Carter County.
Polls open at 8 a.m. on Thursday and close at 8 p.m.