Macon County closed the application window last week and will soon begin paring down applicants in search of its next county manager.
By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer
Macon County welcomed its new County Manger Jack Horton back to Western North Carolina earlier this month. Horton, 57, returned to Macon County to fill the county manager position after the retirement of former manager Sam Greenwood. This is Horton’s second stint in the Macon County manager’ seat, having held the same job from 1985-1991. In a recent interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Horton discussed some of the issues the county is facing.
Smoky Mountain News: What’s it like to be back in this part of Western North Carolina?
Horton: It’s great to be back in Western North Carolina. This is probably — of all the places you could live in the world — the most beautiful place that I know of. And that’s just the scenery. The people here are great too. Over the past almost 30 years that I’ve worked in public administration most of it comes from the western part of the state.
SMN: Macon County has changed a lot since you were here last. One of the big issues the county is dealing with is growth?
Horton: Macon County has changed a lot. The population has grown and a lot of people have moved in here to retire or to raise their families, and the population continues to grow. I think what we will see in Macon County probably will be somewhat of an example of what lies in store for all of Western North Carolina when it comes to growth and natural resources.
SMN: County commissioners have begun talking about finding a second water supply for the county? How do you feel about this issue?
Horton: One of the things that we really have to have and that is getting more and more precious everyday is a good, clean, stable water supply. I think we are going to see over the next 20 years that water is going to be critical, and if you are going to have any type of growth, development or a sustainable economy, you’ve got to have a good water supply. It’s critical not only for the economy but also for environmental reasons.
We’ve been blessed in this part of the state for a long time with an abundance of pure and natural water. We have so much available property around here and a good watershed area I think some of the leaders of the past have been very visionary in their efforts to create and maintain water supplies. One of the projects that people point to on this topic is the water project in Waynesville that happened in the 1970s. That has really paid dividends, and I think that every municipality in this region — and throughout the state, for that matter — has got to take a look at their water supply and how they are going to meet the needs of their county and to meet the needs of their economy.
SMN: Macon County just formed an occupancy tax committee to redistribute the county’s lodging tax. The committee members are eager for you to come on board and are looking forward to your ideas. How do you see the county allocating its occupancy tax?
Horton: I was in Macon County when the occupancy tax was instituted back in the late 1980s, and at that time it was decided that the best way to administer that money was to promote travel and tourism through the Greater Franklin Area and the Highlands Chamber of Commerce because they had two different types of clientele that they were trying to reach through travel and tourism.
I haven’t seen the report or talked to anyone yet that has been on the committee about the changes in the occupancy tax and the creation of a TDA. I can’t really comment on it because I don’t know anything about it.
But I am familiar with the TDA. We had a TDA in Haywood County. In Caldwell County the chamber of commerce partnered with the economic and development commission and promoted tourism and travel. I’ve seen chambers of commerce handle the occupancy tax, I’ve seen TDA’s handle the occupancy tax and I’ve seen a combination of both, so I don’t have any predisposed position on it. I’d like to see what the folks here have to say about it.
SMN: The failure of the school bond referendum was very disappointing for the board of commissioners. How do you see the county financing projects like the 5-6 and k-4 schools?
Horton: The bond referendum for the schools was an opportunity to finance the school improvements through a bond issue. The board of county commissioners and the board of education have made the commitment toward new school facilities. We are looking at ways to finance these projects since the bond referendum failed. The need still exists for new school facilities. I think the county is continuing on with its commitment to fund the schools and I think the first action towards that goal is the acquisition of that property for the new 5-6 school. I anticipate that we will be working on ways to figure out a method of financing the school through alternative methods and try to maintain a reasonably low tax rate at the same time.
I think that’s one of the things most people are concerned with — what is it going to do to my property taxes? We’ll evaluate all those things and move forward with it. Macon County is not a large county but it’s a fairly prosperous county and the general consensus is that the county should be able to fund the critical needs of its schools.
SMN: There is some speculation that there may be an increase in property taxes in order to pay off the debt the county is incurring from the capital improvement projects?
Horton: There are several factors when you talk about property taxes. The county has got the lowest tax rate in the entire state right now — 24.5 cents per hundred dollars. The tax rate is extremely low and the reason it’s extremely low is that there’s been a lot of investment in the county. Real estate prices have risen because a lot of people want to live here and buy property.
The last re-evaluation saw that the county-wide tax base increase by 60 percent, and so the tax rate went down. I think that the board committed to having a revenue neutral tax base, and if we can hold that line I think we can certainly try and do it. You can affect the amount of taxing coming in by raising the tax rate or growing the tax base, and obviously the best choice is increasing the tax base. We’ll have to take a look and see if the tax base will increase enough to pay any debt service on schools before we look at increasing the tax rate.
SMN: Macon County has been in the forefront with confronting the mental health crisis. How do you see the county addressing this issue?
Horton: The state’s decision to reorganize mental health has created a lot of problems in this region that did not exist before. One of the primary issues is how to deal with people that are an involuntary commitment. It used to be that if somebody was committed involuntarily, they were evaluated and taken to a mental health center and within a few hours they were placed in some place or released. But the problem now is that the two- to three-hour wait has become a one- to two-day wait and is tying up law enforcement officers from all seven counties. The problem is that we don’t have enough population to justify getting the private sector involved to provide services for all the mental health needs.
Since the reorganization of mental health, it has taken away a lot of that provision of mental health services and we are hurting for enough professionals to deal with mental health issues in the region.
I think Macon County is really taking a lead to develop a local task force to try and address all the issues affecting mental health. I would expect that the task force — appointed at the Jan. 14 commissioner meeting — will come up with some really good recommendations.
SMN: What issues do you see the county addressing this year?
Horton: I guess it’s going to be the same issues that been facing them the last several years — the growth, the need for educational facilities, some land-use controls in order to preserve the environment and the quality of life. Also look at water, infrastructure and the transportation system — there is a myriad of issues that need to be addressed. I hope to not only look at this year’s plan of work, but maybe we can develop a plan of things we’d like to address over the next five years and work toward those because you have to take the time and put it on paper and commit it to a plan, otherwise people just talk about it and nothing ever gets done.
I think our focus has got to be on the future, on how we are going to be in the next 15 to 20 years. Our goal is to position Macon County to be a leader in the region in addressing these issues. We are going to concentrate on the future. We are going to address all those issues, and we are going to set up a work plan for this year and the next five years and hopefully look on down the road as far as we can to make sure that when we eventually leave that things are better than when we got here.
SMN: Commissioners have talked about forming a better relationship between the county and its municipalities? How do you feel about this issue?
Horton: I think we need to be transparent to the public eye. My goal is to be responsive to the public and to the media so that we get good information out. In order to do that the board has made a commitment to establish a good working relationship with municipalities in the county. That will be a top goal of mine, to work with Franklin and Highlands. We all serve the same people. Everybody in Highlands and Franklin are also in Macon County. Whatever happens inside city limits also affects those outside city limits, so we got to have a good working relationship with our municipal partners.
By Jennifer Garlesky & Becky Johnson • Staff Writers
An influential yet controversial figure in public policy is reclaiming a leadership post in the mountains three years after his forced departure as Haywood County’s manager.
The Waynesville Rotary Club has been caught up in the fallout following the forced resignation of Haywood County Manager Jack Horton.
Horton is president of the Waynesville Rotary Club. Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who voted for Horton’s resignation, is a member of the same Rotary Club.
Haywood County Manager Jack Horton was dismissed from his post in early January by a 3 to 2 vote of county commissioners.
(Editor’s note: Haywood County Manager Jack Horton tendered his resignation to the board of commissioners on Jan. 3. The three commissioners who wrote this letter supported his resignation.)
This letter to the citizens of Haywood County sets forth our views of events that led to the resignation of former county manager Jack Horton.
When Haywood County Manager Jack Horton was asked to resign or be fired last week, it was, potentially, a watershed political event for Haywood County. This upheaval probably won’t have a long-term impact on the prosperity of Haywood County, but it will help shape the political landscape in the near future.
Haywood County Manager Jack Horton resigned today following a ?-hour closed door meeting with the Haywood County Commissioners on Tuesday (Jan. 3) where he was given the choice of stepping down of being fired.
Commissioners Mark Swanger, Kevin Ensley and Mary Ann Enloe supported Horton’s departure. Commissioners Kirk Kirkpatrick and Larry Ammons wanted Horton to stay.
Swanger, Ensley and Enloe say Horton disobeyed their directives and withheld information from them. It was not the first time, they said.
Horton’s departure was precipitated two weeks ago by a tug-of-war over the small business incubator in Waynesville. Horton is a member of the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation, a not-for-profit economic development group set-up to run the incubator.
Critics claimed the incubator had failed in it mission to support start-up businesses. A plan was hatched to dissolve the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation and transfer the incubator to the Haywood County Economic Development Commission.
Commissioners discussed the benefits of the county owning the incubator at two commissioners meetings in December with Horton present. But Horton voted against the plan at a meeting of the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation.
“I was disappointed because I believe it was not in the best interest of Haywood County,” Swanger said. “When you are employed by Haywood County you must put Haywood County first and our taxpayers first.”
Commissioners questioned whether something else influenced Horton’s vote.
“The way he voted it is obvious the interests of Haywood County taxpayers were not his top priority. There is not other way to interpret that vote,” Enloe said.
Ammons, who is also a member of the Smoky Mountain Development Corporation, voted against the plan as well. Ammons said he’s the one to blame for Horton’s vote.
“He got there late and I briefed him. I’m not sure he didn’t follow my lead out there,” Ammons said of the meeting.
Ammons also argued that it was not clear what commissioners wanted Horton to do.
“Do you really know the commissioners wishes unless we vote on something?” Ammons said.
“There were no instructions and there was no vote on anything,” Horton said.
Enloe said they couldn’t instruct Horton specifically because Horton never told commissioners he was a member.
“Neither Larry nor Jack said anything at the meeting when they were going within an hours to do this vote,” Enloe said. “That was the time for their concerns — when we were making plans to get back for the Haywood County tax payers what they had paid for in beginning.”
That bothered Ensley as well.
“If it had been me, I would have said ‘Wait a minute, y’all, I am going to this vote tonight,’” Ensley said of Horton. “It seemed kind of sneaky.”
“Our board has been very open and we discuss things in a public arena, especially something of this magnitude that could have such a potential positive impact on Haywood County,” Swanger said. “Anyone who had anything relevant in any way, shape or form should have brought it up.”
Ammons and Horton said they, too, want the county to get the incubator and had every intention of voting that way.
“If the county wants the building, I am 100 percent in favor of doing that. It had nothing to do with that,” Horton said.
“I think the building needs to be used for economic development and I don’t think Smoky Mountain Development has been able to accomplish that,” Ammons said. “They need that off their plate. It is in Haywood County so let Haywood County take it and make something out of it.”
But the vote was not that simple. The proposal to transfer the incubator was linked to a plan to dissolve the corporation. A “yes” vote would apply to both.
Once a corporation is dissolved, it can’t be undone. He said there is still merit in the corporation’s other function: making loans for new and expanding businesses through the Small Business Administration.
Also at stake was the fate of $300,000 cash in the corporation’s bank account. The plan to dissolve called for the money to be split among the 10 counties represented by corpoartion for their own economic development initatives.
But at the meeting, the proposal was floated to put the money to work in a revolving venture capital fund for start-up companies. Ammons thought the plan had merit and he decided at the last minute to vote “no.”
“The circumstances changed when I heard the other proposals,” Ammons said.
Horton said he planned to vote “no” until he got to the meeting and other proposal were being thrown around.
“It seemed confusing. There were a lot of unanswered questions. I thought they would have more input from the members. There was a lot of confusion of the whole process,” Horton said.
Some argue Horton should not be penalized by commissioners because his vote would not have changed the outcome anyway. A vote to dissolve a corporation is so weighty and irreversible it requires a two-thirds majority of all voting. In this case, there had to be 12 votes.
“My vote one way or the other would not have made a difference in the passage,” Horton said.
Ensley disagrees. Ammons and Horton were sitting in the front row and like influenced votes of those behind them, Ensley said.
“If I am undecided and I see them vote not to dissolve it, I would think ‘Well, evidently Haywood County doesn’t want the building,” Ensley said.
Ammons said their vote did influence anyone sitting behind them.
“It was pretty obvious to everyone there that there was a significant group that had been part of that for a long time that felt like there were still possibilities,” Ammons said.