John Burns—Wake County Board of Commissioners, District 7 (Democratic Primary) | Candidate Questionnaires - Wake County | Indy Week
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John Burns—Wake County Board of Commissioners, District 7 (Democratic Primary) 

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Name as it appears on the ballot: John Burns
Campaign website: www.burnsforwake.org
Phone number: 919-306-6906
Email: john@burnsforwake.org
Years lived in Wake County: 1997-99, 2001-present

1. In your view, what are the three most pressing issues facing Wake County? If elected, what will you do to address these issues?

Wake County’s most pressing issues are almost all related to the same unavoidable fact: we are the second fastest-growing large county in the United States. For many years prior to my election in 2014, this County failed to prepare for that growth in the name of never raising taxes. As a result, we fell behind in education spending, public transportation and delivery of human and emergency services. In many ways we are still catching up to the consequences of that inaction.

The three most pressing issues that growth imposes are:

(1) Improving our educational system from pre-K through community college – The rapid growth in our area, combined with the General Assembly’s complete abdication of its responsibility to public schools, places an increasing share of the burden on county taxpayers in order for us not to fall behind our competitors. If re-elected, I will continue the progress we have made: We became the first county in the state to directly fund Smart Start for pre-K. We increased the county contribution to the Wake County Public Schools by over 30% in just three years, and improved local teacher pay by 41%. We agreed to a seven year rolling plan for school construction and renovations and a plan for funding it. And we have greatly increased the size and scope of services offered by Wake Tech, which is the best Community College in the country. I will work to continue that progress in a fiscally-responsible manner in order to preserve the public appetite for such measures, ensure that bonds pass, and continue to fill the gap until the General Assembly does its job.

(2) The affordable housing crisis and gentrification – Our growth is not evenly distributed, and our prosperity is top-heavy. Economic mobility is limited in Wake County, despite our tremendous success. As a result, the rising tide is not lifting all boats and is indeed swamping some communities. We and our municipalities absolutely must take every possible step to preserve existing affordable housing stock, assist those in need of supportive housing (such as those suffering from chronic behavioral health problems) and incentivize the private sector to build additional resources where we need them. This Commission’s transit plan and affordable housing plan are aimed at doing all of that, and we need to continue to push them forward.

(3) Preparing our infrastructure, including transit, water supply and parks, for the growth to come – A drive on I-40 on a Friday afternoon or an attempt to book a playing field in Cary on a Saturday will show you that all of our infrastructure, including roads, utilities and green infrastructure like parks and recreational spaces, will be completely overwhelmed by the additional million people we expect by 2040. Through the buildout of our transit plan, we can take some of the burden off the roads and channel affordable development along transit corridors, where people can use those services and save money and remain in their communities. Through adoption of green infrastructure as a water-conservation method, we can clean and maintain our water supply while gaining additional public spaces such as parks and nature reserves. All of this is doable, and we have made significant progress on each front, but we need to remain dedicated to the task and not, as some would have us do, become so focused on one concern of government that we lose sight of all that needs to be done.

2. If you are challenging an incumbent, what decisions has the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are an incumbent, what in your voting record and experience do you believe entitles you to another term?

This Commission has made remarkable strides: historic increases in education funding, the passage of the first ever comprehensive transit plan for Wake County, addressing food insecurity in the public schools, restructuring County government to more efficiently deliver social services, recruiting thousands of new jobs, preserving several thousand additional acres of open space, the adoption of a long term affordable housing strategy, and much more. That record is one I am proud to run on.

As for my personal record, I have chaired the county’s Growth, Land Use and Environment Committee since 2015. In that role, I have personally overseen the development of new solutions for communities facing abandoned streets and water quality issues, the founding of the Wake County Water Partnership to bring stakeholders together to develop a 50-year water quality and quantity and green infrastructure plan for Wake County, and the development of new energy performance standards for county construction that will be the most cutting-edge standards in the country when adopted this month.

In addition, I have stood up for Wake County against an overreaching legislature and against policies in Washington and on Jones Street that are contrary to the values of this community. On redistricting, equality, immigration and refugees, and gun policy I have tried to speak up for what I believe the values of our community are. I will continue to do so.

Finally, I have been a voice on this Commission for moderation in what we ask of the Wake County taxpayer. There are some in the community who call for more rapid and substantial tax increases than what we have imposed. I disagree with those voices. It is important that we be predictable and answerable to the taxpayer, and that the success and cost-benefits of our policies are measurable and reportable to those taxpayers. The tax increases we have passed are supported by specific programs and improvements in services, and the public has supported them. My background as an attorney helps me to disagree agreeably and to build coalitions within our board and in the community. That behind-the-scenes work is the hardest and most important part of this job.

3. The county is by most accounts prospering and growing. What do you think Wake County has done effectively? What policies would you like to see put in place to ensure growth going forward?

This area has remarkable unity among government officials, the private sector and the citizenry about the importance of economic growth and the strategies for accomplishing it. Wake County in many ways sells itself, but that success came from a lot of effort by many people for many years.

However, that same focus was lacking in how to prepare the area for the consequences of that growth. As a result, our school system suffered, our transportation infrastructure was inadequate, and we have gotten behind in providing adequate housing for all levels of society. This Commission has made some great strides in recovering from that lack of planning and preparation, and I think we will continue to improve. If we do not do that, then eventually we will strangle on our own success and start to lose opportunities to areas that have done the preparation.

Specific policies I would put in place include the complete build-out of our ten-year transit plan, revisiting our Uniform Development Ordinance and developing a Wake County Comprehensive Plan to make sure that all county plans are consistent and do not work at cross-purposes. We also need more targeted economic incentives to benefit areas of high socio-economic need. Our prosperity is very top heavy, and specific efforts to ensure economic mobility through the creation of jobs in the areas of our county where there currently are not many available will be key to sharing that prosperity. In addition, the continued strengthening of the Wake County Public Schools and Wake Tech is crucial to attracting industry that is drawn by a well-prepared workforce.

4. With that rapid growth, of course, comes challenges related to suburban sprawl, transportation, and affordable housing, among other things. In your opinion, what have been the county’s successes in managing this growth in recent years? What about its failures? What would you do differently?

As mentioned above, affordable housing is one of the key concerns I have for the upcoming term. With the adoption of the transit plan and the affordable housing plan, Wake County has finally begun to place resources where they are going to be needed. Properly implemented, the transit plan will direct additional development along rapid transit lines and incentivize affordable development near transit stations. Greatly increased bus services in areas of need will also assist people in finding work and getting to work, in better jobs, and thus allow them to afford more housing and spend less of their income on transportation. The housing plan will make county and city resources available for affordable and supportive housing, while incentivizing the private sector to provide housing stock at all income levels.

Our main failure is not getting to this point 10 years ago. The effects of rapid economic growth and the attractiveness of this region were evident then, but prior boards did not adequately prepare. This board has moved the ball forward on many fronts, and it remains to be seen whether we will be able to make up the lost ground before growth overwhelms neighborhoods and constituencies before they get a chance to participate in the prosperity.

5. What should be the county’s role in addressing issues of economic inequality, such as gentrification and affordable housing? Do you believe the current board is doing enough to help its municipalities manage Wake County’s growth in order to prevent current residents from being priced out?

As discussed above, both the Wake County Affordable Housing Plan and the 2016 Transit Plan are key elements to addressing this problem. Wake County cannot solve this problem by itself, and the General Assembly has taken away many of the tools that counties and municipalities in other states use to address these issues, such as inclusionary zoning and impact fees. However, we have laid out a plan which will capitalize on the massive infusion of money for infrastructure which will come with the transit plan, and encourage developers who build near that infrastructure to build affordable units into their projects. Moreover, the County has called for municipalities to allow Auxiliary Dwelling Units (ADUs) or “Granny Flats” as of right. That is a necessary change to allow people to meet the demand for more affordable accommodations by using their own property.

Growth is coming. It is inexorable. The question is how we are going to prepare for it. Policies that seek to stop it or shut the door on certain areas only drive the cost of housing higher and transfer the pressure to other areas of town – usually areas which are less politically powerful and more vulnerable to market forces.

6. How would your experience―in politics or otherwise in your career―make you an asset to the county’s decision-making process? Be specific about how this experience would relate to your prospective office.

As an attorney, I represent my clients in disagreements for a living. Negotiating and seeking resolutions of tough and seemingly intractable problems is an essential skill that I have had to develop over the last 20 years. In addition, it is my job to zealously and passionately advocate for my client’s interests. I use those skills every day as a County Commissioner – working to build voting majorities on the Board, to build coalitions in the community and with surrounding cities and counties, and making a public case against the General Assembly when it treads on the rights and interests of my constituents. I love this job.

7. Last year saw some tension between the county commission and the school board over school system funding. Ultimately, the county gave the school system less than half of the new funding it asked for. But from the county’s perspective, it has raised property several times in recent years to benefit the school system. Do you believe Wake County needs to commit more funds to its schools? If so, would you be willing to ask taxpayers for more money?

In the last three years, I have voted three times for school budgets that were larger than the budget proposed by the County Manager and I have raised taxes to do it, each year. As of the last budget, the County contribution to the public school budget is now almost $100 million higher than it was the day I took office, which is an increase of over 30%. Those increases allowed for a 41% increase in the local teacher supplement, making our teachers the highest paid in the state by far. I have shown that I am willing to ask the taxpayers for more money to support the schools.

Nevertheless, it is also the job of a County Commissioner to be careful with public money and to make the case for such increases in a way that the public will support it. I have been very careful not to overstretch the people’s willingness to pay. It is hugely important that Wake County pass the upcoming education bond to meet our responsibilities to build schools. If the bond fails, the schools will need to be built with more expensive money, resulting in even higher taxes without the benefits of the programs and policies we could have used them for. Therefore, I have made sure that my votes were for careful, moderate and justified tax increases that supported responsible budgets. Prior boards said no to everything to preserve low taxes. I have been willing to raise taxes to support needed investments, but I have been careful not to overdo it.

8. Wake County has raised property taxes four times in the last four years. Currently the county is considering three potential bond referenda in November: one for school construction, another for parks and greenways, and a third for Wake Tech. Together, these, too, would likely require a property tax increase. Do you believe the citizens of Wake County are paying too much in taxes?

I believe the people of Wake County are willing to be taxed more to accomplish specific and measurable objectives. As proven by the transit vote, they are also willing to pay new taxes where they see a community-wide benefit and a plan to spend that money responsibly. Part of my approach to budgeting and taxing for the last 3.5 years has been to build credibility for this Board with the taxpayers so that they know that a 7-0 Democratic board is not a tax-and-spend caricature. That preserves the flexibility to address the needs discussed above.

9. The embezzlement scandal at the Register of Deeds office highlighted the fact that the county does not scrutinize the offices of elected officials, such as the Register of Deeds and the Sheriff’s Office, in the way it does other county agencies. Do you believe there are steps the county could have taken—or could implement now—that could catch theft or fraud earlier?

One of the areas of county government that was under-resourced by prior boards was our internal auditing department. In the last three years, additional staff have been added to that department, and a systematic review of cash management practices throughout the many departments of county government was underway when the embezzlement scandal at the Register of Deeds office broke. Unfortunately, that review began in other departments that have more cash handling on a daily basis and thus more risk than the Register of Deeds Office. Had additional resources been available sooner, the auditors may have been able to discover those actions before they were exposed in the way that occurred. However, when brought to light, the auditing department, the County Manager and the District Attorney handled the situation professionally and appropriately.

Since then, the County has adopted a new cash management policy, has engaged in significant personnel training and has implemented a number of structural changes, including a clear Board directive that the County Manager’s staff has oversight and audit authority over offices headed by elected officials.

10. North Carolina is a “Dillon Rule” state, meaning that the only powers municipal and county governments have are the ones granted to them by the legislature. Would you like to see this changed? How would you work with state legislators from Wake County, as well as mayors and council members from the city’s municipalities, to ensure that Wake County, its municipalities, and the state are on the same page regarding policies that affect residents of Wake?

I would support reasonable home rule type reforms. Wake County and other urban areas have become too large and complicated to be governed like small rural towns, and the authority of local government needs to adapt to accommodate that change. As it is, we work closely with our state-level officials through personal advocacy from Commissioners as well as our lobbying team to make sure that Wake County’s issues and those of its cities are heard in the General Assembly. Examples of the success of our efforts include the preservation of regulations protecting river buffers and the defeat of sales tax redistribution schemes. Both of these are results that were fairly unexpected in a Republican legislature, but on which we participated in building effective coalitions.

11. The replacement bill for HB 2 that passed last year prohibits local governments from passing living-wage or nondiscrimination ordinances until 2020. If you are in office in 2020 when the moratorium expires, what sort of nondiscrimination and/or living-wage policies will you push the county to adopt, if any? Do you favor, for instance, a nondiscrimination ordinance that would apply to public accommodations, like the one Charlotte passed in 2016 that led the legislature to pass HB 2? Would you consider raising the county’s minimum wage?

In 2015, I cowrote the Wake County nondiscrimination ordinance which protected LGBT employees and military veteran employees from discrimination for the first time in the history of the county. We also adopted a living wage ordinance. Both apply to county employees and not private employees. However, when the restriction on ordinances that affect the private sector are lifted in 2020, Wake County will be able to show that we have put our money where our mouth is and that such policies enhance productivity, protect our employees, and show that our community values diversity and economic opportunity. I believe as a result, Wake County’s decisions on these kinds of policies will carry more weight and be better received in the long run.

I would certainly support a public accommodations bill, but would likely engage in more community-building in advance of that resolution. In principle, I would support a county minimum wage, but would need to consider all economic and legal angles of the decision in order to set it at the right level through a legal process.

12. Give an example of a time, during your political career, when you have changed your position as a result of a discussion with someone who held an opposing view.

In 2014, I was an advocate for a light rail system in Wake County. Through community meetings and presentations from experts and advocates for outlying towns in Wake County, I became convinced that a bus-first system which added other modes later in the process was best for our community because it spends taxes collected from across the county in a more equitable and diverse way. I believe the plan that came out of that year-long process is a better plan than any that has been proposed before, including the one I ran on in 2014.

13. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.

I believe Wake County should stand for equality of opportunity and equality of treatment under the law for all persons, regardless of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. I have been a consistent advocate for that position and will continue to do so. If that position costs me support from people who disagree with those positions, then so be it. I will work to build bridges and community with those people, but we will have to agree to disagree.

Similarly, the fact that I have a primary challenger is some indication that my position on careful and accountable tax policy at the local level has cost me some support in my own party. However, I believe strongly that our opposition in November would like nothing more than to be able to argue that Democrats waste money and cannot run a government. Wake County is a shining example that that argument is false. I am proud of our record of progress, and I hope the people of Wake County will return me to office to continue that work.

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