Wake County Board of Commissioners Candidate Questionnaire
Name as it appears on the ballot: Shaun Pollenz
Campaign website: www.shaunpollenz.com
Party affiliation: Democrat
Profession or occupation: Attorney
Years lived in Wake County: More than 20
1. In your view, what are the three most pressing issues facing Wake County? If elected, what will you do to address these issues?
Affordable Housing may be the biggest crisis facing our county right now. When elected, I will be the only commissioner who does not currently own their own home. Having this perspective on the board right now is crucial. We are THE hotspot for real estate in America. While current homeowners have gained tens or hundreds of thousands in wealth as their home values increase, those who do not yet own a home face unprecedented market forces as they attempt to achieve the American Dream. Instead of pricing out our friends and neighbors, we must build an inclusive and welcoming Wake County for all.
What can we do? Generally, we must build new affordable units, protect existing affordable units, expand programs that help first time home buyers, and expand tax exclusion programs that protect our most vulnerable residents from losing their homes. We must also work together with the 13 municipalities to update our existing smart growth plan to account for unforeseen market forces driven by the pandemic.
More specifically, I would support an affordable housing bond at the county level, or a series of local packages at the municipal level. Wake County reached its 5-year goal of 2500 new units in only 3 years but did so using temporary Covid relief funds. Moving forward, we will need a more long-term source of funding.
We will need to do more, however, if we are going to get ahead of this issue. We need every solution possible. To that end, we must get creative. In Canada, for example, some areas tax homes that sit vacant for more than 6 months of the year. This is designed to encourage homeowners to own homes as primary residences rather than investment or vacation properties.
We could also (for a change) use our HOAs to help us rather than send us passive aggressive letters about how short we trimmed our bushes. HOAs can enact policies that prohibit the renting of a home for 1 year (or more) after it is purchased. Again, this will cut back on speculative investment and will help level the playing field between humans who need homes and the corporations who want to make that as difficult as possible.
We must also use our powers as commissioners, through zoning regulations and public-private partnerships, to create as much “missing middle” and affordable units as possible.
Education has always been a priority of mine. Not only did I attend and benefit from our public schools, but my mother was also an 8th grade English teacher here in Wake County for more than 2 decades. As commissioner, I will work with our school board and staff to determine what we can do for our schools, and make sure we find the best ways to fund those projects moving forward. If elected, I will particularly look for ways to impact our early education and K-3 literacy programs.
I pledge to meet our school system’s needs each time we vote on a budget, and to support a bonds package to fund a backlog of school maintenance and construction needs. We currently have $1.1 billion in capital needs over the next 5 years, and $3 billion over the next 10 years. When we fail to invest in our school buildings, we run into situations like at West Millbrook Middle School in 2018 when sewage would regularly flood school property and their gym smelled like urine. How could this happen? The school was moved down the repairs list year after year, ensuring that a small problem turned into a huge problem that ultimately cost more to fix and impacted our students’ learning ability. We must be responsible stewards of our school buildings.
Also, I support raising our supplemental pay to WCPSS. Adjusted for inflation, we pay $326 less now for students who are seniors than we did when those same students were in kindergarten. To me, that’s unacceptable, particularly when we know our school are underfunded. It’s time to raise our supplemental pay to at least match previous levels.
I will also continue the great work of connecting our K-12 students with opportunities through Wake Tech, making job pipelines accessible for all. Wake Tech is a key pipeline for talent and creates incredible and mutually beneficial partnerships with the business community. Wake Tech is a treasure in our community, and I will continue to make investments in their programming.
Finally, I will remind the NCGA of their habitual underfunding of public education and will work hard to keep the Leandro ruling and its mandates front and center.
The Economy in Wake County is strong, and Wake County is a top destination for employers and entrepreneurs. As a result, we continue to see record job growth and investment in this region. While I look forward to helping Wake County maintain its competitive edge, and remain a leader in jobs, employment rates, wages, and quality of life, I also want to make sure that our rising tide is lifting all boats.
While wages and home values have risen during the pandemic, those increases have been offset by inflation and across-the-board cost of living increases. Housing, gas, and even dinner cost more than ever before, and our friends and neighbors are feeling the strain. People are struggling in our community.
When elected, I will continue to invest in programs that help folks in need. I’ll help food insecurity by expanding food pantry programs to include senior centers and by encouraging community gardens and sustainable urban agriculture. I’ll support job training and placement programs, particularly through Wake Tech. I’ll support programs that help people keep a roof over their heads. And I’ll continue investing in our great county staff, including first responders, and support permanent raises for our school staff.
2. With Wake County’s rapid growth comes challenges related to suburban sprawl, transportation, and affordable housing. What have been the county’s successes in managing this growth in recent years? What about its failures? What would you do differently?
One thing I like about Wake County is that we have a “smart growth” plan called PLANWake, which was created in conjunction with all 13 municipalities. By collaborating with the entire county, we can move forward together and work as a unit to achieve our goals.
I went to college in Washington, DC and law school in southern California. These are two very different regions and living there taught me a great deal about smart growth. I understand the need for a robust transit system. DC had a decent system and I lived there 5 years without a car. The first thing I did when I moved to California was to buy a car. I want to make sure we envision our best future, and that requires looking at the big picture without skipping on the details. Our community already looks a lot more like southern California than it does DC. If we don’t start making better choices, we will wind up missing the boat on building ourselves a comprehensive network of rail and bus lines.
To avoid the same fate as southern California, we must build a light rail system that services the entire community. Stations must be easily accessible to the overwhelming majority of the county, and walkable whenever possible. Regional and rapid bus routes must be used to fill in the gaps. Currently, the only rail proposal on the table is a $2 billion line running from Clayton to RTP, servicing neither southwest Wake, north Raleigh, or any part of eastern Wake. It would only service an estimated 12,000 riders daily and wouldn’t even open until 2030. Even worse, it doesn’t include a stop at the airport. Washington, DC has a stop at the airport, and Los Angeles does not. Los Angeles’s airport experience is a nightmare. Washington’s is smooth and convenient. We MUST become more like Washington, DC and less like southern California if we are going to remain one of the best places to live. Unfortunately, I do not think our current leaders have the lived experience to understand this pressing need.
If elected, I would push the Airport Authority to allow a train station at RDU and would support replacing Wake County’s 2 Airport Authority Board members if they will not support this plan. We need forward-thinking leaders, not obstructionists.
I would also support creating a county-wide transit plan for light rail instead of the piecemeal approach currently being favored. Comprehensive planning is required at this point. Further delay will only increase the price tag and make execution less likely to occur.
Finally, I would support reevaluation our 10-year PLANWake growth plan, as it does not account for the unforeseen market forces driven by the pandemic. We must always remain flexible and adapt when necessary. Our growth rate has accelerated during the pandemic and our plans must adapt accordingly.
3. 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?
Affordable housing is a huge responsibility for the county, and I think I’ve addressed that sufficiently in previous questions. Simply put, we’re doing a lot, but not enough. When Jessica Holmes spoke up about this issue many years ago, she had foresight that many on the Commission lacked. We should have listened to her and started making these investments earlier.
The County works with the municipalities to create a county-wide smart growth plan, including considerations on affordable housing. I also discussed this in a previous question. While we are all moving forward together on this issue, that plan is ripe for reevaluation due to pandemic-related market forces. It’s certain time to consider what updates we should make to our plan, and what else Wake County can do to help. While property tax assessments are revenue neutral, that doesn’t guarantee that some residents won’t get hit with huge tax increases. I support expanding tax exclusion programs to assist people living on fixed incomes and help keep them in their homes. No one should lose their home because their property tax went up.
4. The Wake County Public School system is asking for a $56 million budget increase next year to hire more employees and raise teacher pay. Given the General Assembly’s longstanding reticence to adequately fund public schools, does this seem like a reasonable request to you?
Yes, this sounds like a reasonable request. Frankly, I respect the school system’s restraint in not asking for more. My mother was a teacher for more than 2 decades in Wake County and retired during the pandemic. I know what it is like for our teachers and students in those schools because my mom never failed to tell me. They need more help. If we don’t invest in our schools now, we will continue to see staff leave for other districts or the private sector.
I ran for school board in 2018 to be a voice for teachers. If elected to the Board of Commissioners, I will continue that mission and be a fierce advocate for public education.
5. Wake County has received $216 million from the American Rescue Plan and so far has allocated about half of those funds. Has the county done a good job investing that money into its COVID-19 response, healthcare, housing, public safety, and other community initiatives? What would you like to see the county do with the remainder of those funds?
I think the county has done a good job of dispersing those funds. We’ve invested the money in everything from broadband access to affordable housing to pay raises for county staff, EMS workers, and others.
One thing in which I’d like to see us invest moving forward is a proposed 50 bed mental health facility that WakeMed is hoping to build in cooperation with Wake County and the local municipalities. WakeMed is asking for everyone to chip in as this will be a community benefit. The facility can service short-term and long-term mental health needs. Ask around and nobody will tell you this isn’t something our county needs. We presently do not have the space to meet the needs of patients experiencing a mental health crisis, and our ERs are not the appropriate place to handle such emergencies. This facility will receive my hearty support when elected.
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.
I grew up in Wake County and attended our K-12 public schools. While I was well educated in those schools, I did not receive the support I truly needed. As a closeted gay student, my experience growing up here was very different than what most people experience. I lived my life lying to people every day about a very core issue, about my very identity. Even in the closet, I was still bullied regularly for my perceived sexuality. I even had a teacher tell me, during my junior year, that she knew I was a “deviant.” Imagine having someone say that to your face at age 16 when you are deeply in the closet. It broke me in half.
Having the experience of being a gay man has given me a perspective that is currently lacking on the board. As we fight back against efforts to ban culturally relevant books and a Lt. Governor who has called the LGBTQ+ community “demons” and “trash,” we must continue to elevate voices from diverse communities, so that we can be passed the torch of leadership and begin to defend ourselves with our own seat at the table.
Also, at age 39, I am currently working on buying my first home. My current situation feels awfully relevant to the times. Having the perspective of someone who is experiencing many of today’s most pressing issues firsthand added to our county board is important. I can provide perspective for a board that may not be able to relate to community concerns personally.
Finally, as an attorney with experience in criminal defense work, I understand the need for systemic change, and I am not afraid to make the necessary changes. Over the last year or so, I helped nearly 2 dozen Black Lives Matters protesters get their felony charges dropped, and I am committed to doing the work required to enact real social justice change.
7. 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?
The Dillon Rule hasn’t been working well for the citizens of North Carolina. It is one of the reasons that the bigots in our general Assembly were able to prohibit the passage of local nondiscrimination ordinances for several years after the HB2/HB142 fiasco. It also prevents Wake County from enacting stronger environmental protections than the state requires, or from charging developers impact fees to offset the costs of their development on things like roads, waste management, and clean water. Given the opportunity to switch to a Home Rule state, I would suggest North Carolina make that change.
Since we have a legislature that continues to restrict our ability to help ourselves and build the communities we desire, I am in favor of finding loopholes and workarounds to enact as many progressive policies as we legally can here in Wake County. I am also in favor of using our joint power as local government officials to band together statewide and lobby the NCGA as a unit, with multiple counties and municipalities working together, rather than going it alone as just Wake County. We are stronger together. This is the way.
8. Is the county doing enough to protect, preserve, and maintain its natural resources, including parks, waterways, and green spaces?
Yes and no. We have had some ups and downs in this regard over the past few years. One need only look back to 2018 and the Crooked Creek fiasco to understand that not all of our county commissioners are truly conservationists. Just a few weeks ago, for example, one of our commissioners voted against investing in 3 large nature preserves in historically underserved areas of the county. Continuing to elect people who do not value open space and conservation is bad for Wake County.
As an environmentalist and nature enthusiast, I pledge to continue expanding our efforts to protect and preserve green space, particularly focusing on equity and providing opportunity for the ENTIRE county to enjoy our natural resources. I will also support investment in green technology. As your commissioner, I will strive to make all of our schools and public buildings a source of solar energy which we can use to lower costs and even raise revenue by selling excess energy back to Duke Energy. If we are going to continue being a great place to live, we need to protect our environment. You can count on me to get the job done.
Also, as a dog owner, I can say with confidence that Wake County does not have nearly enough dog parks. Lots of people own dogs. We need to work with the municipalities to fill in the holes and make sure everyone has nearby access to a community dog park. Our best friends are worth it!
9. 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 promise to always tell voters the truth. I am the only candidate in my race who has taken the Pro-Truth Pledge (www.protruthpledge.org). This is not a gimmick. This is a promise I am making to the citizens of Wake County. Whether you like it or not, I am going to tell you what is really happening in Wake County. I won’t tell you just half of the truth, either. While we may not always agree, I will remain open to learning new information and ideas, and will maintain an open line of communication. I hope that the public will hold me accountable for this promise. Keep these receipts, Wake County!
10. What sets you apart from the other candidate(s) in this race?
My creativity sets me apart from my opponent in this race. I was raised by an 8th grade English teacher. She taught me how to use my imagination, think critically, and to challenge my beliefs. When it comes to solving the biggest problems facing Wake County over the next several decades, we will need creative leaders who can bring new ideas to the table. I’m the right person at the right time for this job, and I am ready to take on the challenge.