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Wednesday, 25 October 2006 00:00

Swain challengers question spending

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All five seats on the Swain County Board of Commissioners are up for election this year. The winners will serve for four years.

 

The county board will have at least two new faces. One of the sitting commissioners was ousted in the May primary, and one isn’t seeking re-election. With two of the seats facing no competition from incumbents, it’s more difficult than normal for political observers to predict the potential outcome.

The race for chairman of the county commissioners — elected separately from the four commissioner seats — is attracting lots of attention. Both candidates have served in the seat before and have name recognition as county leaders. Glenn Jones has been chairman since 2002 and is running for re-election. Jim Douthit was chairman for four years before Jones, but chose not to seek re-election in 2002 due to a promotion at work that required more of his time. Now the two are squaring off against one another.


Swain County commissioner chairman: two candidates running for one seat

Glenn Jones, 66, Democrat. Retired A&P grocery manager

Jones said he wants to continue with the progress of the last four years. Under Jones’ leadership, the current board of county commissioners has pursued numerous improvements and initiatives that have equipped the county to provide better services to residents in the 21st century.

“These were things that needed to be done and we tackled it as a board,” Jones said. “We are in charge of running the county and these are things we thought needed to be done so we just stepped up to the plate and did what we needed to do.”

Here are some of the accomplishments of Jones’ first term.

• New building and offices for the Department of Social Services. The county got a deal on the old Smoky Mountain Mental Health building.

• New building and offices for the Health Department. The county relocated the health department to a building next door to Swain County Hospital.

• New EMS building. The county built a new headquarters for emergency management services.

• New recycling center that has proven to be a model facility. “People come from all over the state looking at the recycling center to model it after us.” In addition, the parking lot where trash is dumped was paved so people don’t get their shoes messy when dropping off trash.

• The county switched the way it handles trash. Instead of using a landfill locally, trash is shipped to Georgia, which cut costs nearly in half.

• Bought land for a new jail and sheriff’s office. Construction is under way to replace the dilapidated jail. The county got a low-interest 40-year federal loan. The new facility will also include 911 dispatch services.

• Bought land for a new senior citizens center building. It will be moved out of its current location in the historic courthouse, which is not easily accessible.

• Bought land for the school system. It will be used for a new middle school and the existing middle school will be turned into a new elementary school.

• Repaired the swimming pool.

• Numerous recreation improvements, such as a new playground, new soccer fields, new lights on the girls softball field, concession stand at the girls softball field. The girl’s softball field can now host state tournaments, which is an economic benefit to the county.

• Raised salaries for county employees.

• Facilitated economic development incentives for Consolidated Metco, which led to the addition to 150 jobs in the county.

• Added a four-acre site to the industrial park with broadband Internet access currently being marketed to recruit new business to locate to Swain County.

While Jones’ challenger is questioning county spending, Jones said the projects were overdue.

“When we took over we had buildings that were leaking. There had been no work done on the pool in 20 years. There had been no work done on the playground in 20 years.” And the jail was in danger of being condemned it was in such disrepair. Many of the projects were aided by grants.

“I think most people would like to see us continue with the progress we have been making,” Jones said.

In the annual independent audit three months ago, the auditor commended the board of commissioners on the best report the county ever had and saw no issues with the county’s debt load. In addition, the county has the fourth lowest tax rate in the state of North Carolina, running counter to claims by Republican challengers criticizing county spending and the tax rate.


Jim Douthit, 56, Republican. Utility line designer with Duke Energy

Douthit served as county commissioner from 1998 to 2002. He was also on the school board for eight years.

Douthit said one of his top concerns is the level of county spending. He said he wants to restrain spending. It will be tough, however, because the current board of commissioners have saddled the county with debt, he said.

“I think they have overspent. They have lost the trust of the public,” Douthit said. “We’ve done a lot but sooner or later the debt will pull us down. Whoever is on that new board, they are going to have to control spending now. They are going to be paying off tremendous debt. Our credit card is maxed out.”

One purchase Douthit questioned was the selection of a new site for the jail and sheriff’s office. The county selected a site across the street from Ingle’s grocery store.

“That came with a high price tag,” Douthit said of the prime commercial property.

Other sites were available outside of town that would have been far cheaper and were located near an exit off U.S. 23-74, thereby giving deputies quick access to the four-lane highway running through the county. Plus the land was flat instead of sloped, so building would have been cheaper.

“They took prime commercial real estate in the town of Bryson City. The town lost that potential tax base. That was unfair to the town to have it there,” Douthit said. “They could have bought land outside the city limits that was cheaper.”

In addition, Douthit questioned whether the county is overbuilding the new jail and sheriff’s office. It will cost $10 million. Haywood County built a new jail and sheriff’s office for $12 million, and Haywood has more than twice the population of Swain.

Douthit has also questioned the purchase of 45 acres of land for $2.5 million for new school expansion. Douthit said the price tag was far too high for that acreage.

Douthit, along with Republican candidates running for commissioner, is questioning the property revaluation conducted last year.

“I think there were some flaws in that process. I think it needs to be reviewed,” Douthit said.

It was the first revaluation the county had done in eight years to reconcile property values on the books with actual market value for property tax purposes. The county decided to go from an eight-year to four-year cycle to reduce the sticker shock of long time spans between revaluations. Douthit disagrees with that.

“It doesn’t matter when it is, you’re going to have sticker shock. I think with all the spending they’ve done they are looking to get revenue quicker,” Douthit said.

Douthit said one of the proudest accomplishments of his term as chairman was supporting the preservation of the 4,400-acre Needmore tract.

“We preserved that for the community for everyone to use and enjoy without having a no trespassing sign on it,” Douthit said.

The Lemmons Branch boat dock and the Old 288 Park were both launched during his term. Zickgraff Lumber, with more than 100 jobs, was recruited during his term by then EDC director Ronnie Barker. The old Pepsi building was purchased to provide an indoor youth recreation facility.


Swain County board of commissioners: seven candidates running for four seats

David Monteith, 59, Democrat. Retired manager from Ingles grocery store, currently works as a school bus driver

Monteith has been a commissioner for eight years. Monteith has been skilled at coordinating special projects to improve outdoor recreation. Monteith was instrumental in securing grants and developing a system for clearing up houseboat wastewater previously dumped straight into Lake Fontana. He also spearheaded improvements the Old 288 Park, from securing federal grants for lights, bathrooms, picnic facilities and a boat ramp to working alongside inmate labor to build a trail system at the park. His latest project is coordinating grants for a park along the Tuckasegee River outside Bryson that will have canoe/kayak put-ins, restrooms, horse stables, a pavilion and handicap fishing trails

Monteith said he is now lobbying for grants for an assisted living center as his “next big project.” While it would be a private enterprise, Monteith believes the county can recruit an assisted living center by facilitating grants and locating a site.

“I feel assured we can make that happen here,” Monteith said. “I’m going to do it or I’m not going to start it.”

Monteith said his community activism and involvement sets him apart.

“I have not seen the other commissioners out doing projects, period,” Monteith said. “They need to do more than just go to the meetings and vote ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’”

Monteith also advocates a board that is more responsive to the public.

“They should be more concerned with what the public wants them to do than they are about politics,” Monteith said.

Monteith voted against the tax rate and the budget last year, claiming the tax rate was not lowered enough to offset the impact from a property revaluation.

“We can tighten our belt and not wasteful spend our money,” Monteith said.


Steve Moon, 55, Democrat. Owner of Steve Moon Tire Co.

Moon said he does not have any particular issues that inspired him to run or initiatives he wants to address as a commissioner.

“I am not a one-issue candidate,” Moon said. “I feel like the county has been good to me. I love the county and the people here and I want to give back.”

Moon said he was persuaded to run after being asked by Democratic Party leaders.

Moon is one of the most accessible candidates. Citizens can find him at his tire and automotive store nearly every day of the week. There are vacant chairs in the waiting room for anyone wanting to talk.

While there is dissatisfaction among many over the effects last year’s property revaluation had on their taxes, Moon said he doesn’t know what the commissioners could have done about it.

“It had to come. The sitting commissioners usually suffer because of it but it had to come. It’s a fact of life,” Moon said.

Moon has served two terms on the school board. The county recently bought 45 acres outside Bryson City to build a new middle school and central office. The existing middle school will be renovated for a new elementary school. Those projects will likely get under way in the next four years and will require cooperation between the commissioners and school board. Moon said his experience on the school board will make him a good asset.

“I would be supportive to the needs of the school board. I feel like I have made good friends in the school system and on the school board,” Moon said

Moon said he would support a local contribution to boost teacher salaries over and above what the state pays, a practice increasingly used by counties to compete for scarce teachers.

“We’re going to have to,” Moon said of these salary supplements. “We are losing too many good teachers to other places because of that.”


Phillip Carson, 43, Democrat. Plumber with family business

Carson did not return numerous phone calls left over several days in time to be interviewed for this story. These comments are from an interview six months ago during the May primary election.

Carson said he doesn’t have a specific platform.

“I am not a politician. I am just an honest, hard-working person.”

Unlike some challengers, Carson said he does not have an issue with the property revaluations or the tax rate.

“I think everybody’s taxes increased because our property value increased. It had been so long since the last reval it caught everybody off guard,” Carson said. “I think it would help our elderly, but for continued growth you can’t cut it too low, because what is going to make up the budget?”


Genevieve Lindsay, 65, Democrat. Former register of deeds and tax collector and assessor

Lindsay has been a commissioner for four years. She did not return phone calls to be interviewed for this article. These comments are from an interview six months ago during the May primary election.

“We have accomplished so much during the past four years and there is still a lot of things we would like to complete. The one dark spot is the revaluation, but we had to have it by law. Considering everything, I think we have been able to keep the tax rate relatively low and been as fair and honest as we knew how to be with it,” Lindsay said. Lindsay said it would have been impossible to lower the tax rate any more following the revaluation and still accomplish things the county needed

“I know there is tremendous growth as far as people moving into the county putting strain and stress on all the agencies. With each decision I have to make, I think about all the people out there, the entire county.”


Mike Clampitt, 51, Republican. Retired fireman

Clampitt, whose family owns the Clampitt Hardware store on Main Street in Bryson City, is a newcomer to politics. Clampitt worked for the Charlotte Fire Department until a few years ago when he moved back home.

“My dream was always to return, but I had to go away to make a living,” Clampitt said. Clampitt said that despite being gone for many years he has good name recognition through his family.

Clampitt, along with other Republican candidates, is questioning what he considers liberal spending habits of the current board.

“With the extensive spending they have been doing lately, they obviously have more money than they know what to do with,” Clampitt said. “I think we need a review of current spending.”

Clampitt also takes issue with the way the property revaluation was handled last year. The periodic countywide property revaluation was conducted last year, as required by state law, to bring properties up to market value for property tax purposes. But it wasn’t done right, resulting in “inequities,” Clampitt said. The property revaluation wasn’t thorough enough, and as a result properties were misvalued.

“They didn’t do enough legwork,” Clampitt said. “They made it easy on themselves by using what was on paper.”

In other words, instead of inspecting each property in person, assumptions were made, Clampitt said.

Clampitt, along with other Republican candidates, made a concerted effort to reach out to Cherokee voters this year. The Cherokee voting block has not been actively catered to in previous elections, but a Cherokee candidate who ran in the primary, Ben Bushyhead, brought relations with the tribe to the forefront of the elections.

“I think the relations between the tribe and Swain County could be better. It’s not placing blame on either group but more should be done to work together in a concerted effort,” Clampitt said.

Clampitt said he supports Cherokee voters having their own precinct. There is no voting place on the reservation. Some residents of Cherokee are 20 miles from the closest precinct in Whittier.


James King, 53, Republican. Co-owner of K&B Meat Processing

Like other Republican candidates, King is calling for a reining in of government spending.

“I think we need to find out what is costing the county so much,” King said. King questioned whether there is unnecessary spending. Also like other challengers, King criticized the property revaluation conducted last year. Property taxes are increasingly difficult on landowners who don’t want to sell out to developers, he said

“Things are changing so drastically around us. The taxes have gotten to where it’s eating the local people up,” King said.

King said he wants to be more responsive as a commissioner.

“As far as coming out into the community and talking to the people, there seems to be very little,” King said. “I think there needs to be more community involvement. I am a community type person.”

King is also one of the candidates who has promoted himself to Cherokee voters with campaign events and appearing on tribal television before the tribal council.

During the filing period for candidates in February, King was registered as an Independent. To get on the ballot as an Independent, he would have needed a petition with several hundred signatures. So a Republican, Dale Hogue, signed up to run for commissioner. Hogue then withdrew and the party appointed King to take his place on the ballot.


Deborah Ramsey Patterson, 46, Republican. Retired supervisor of federal subsidized housing program

Patterson said she was inspired to run after expressing concerns at a county meeting last year and getting what she considered a poor response from commissioners. Patterson attended the meeting to complain about the property revaluation. She disagreed with the method used to calculate property values, namely that each property was not appraised individually but instead was pigeon-holed into a flawed formula.

“I didn’t think the commissioners did due diligence,” she said.

When she went to speak to the board about the revaluation, she said she felt like commissioners brushed off her concerns and did not treat her respectfully as a constituent.

For example, Patterson’s property was assigned an extra $25,000 for her view while her neighbors saw no additional property value tacked on for proximity to a creek, a feature that some would consider an equal perk when it comes to property values.

Patterson takes issue with a sort of cronyism in county government. For example, instead of appointing people to county boards based on their merits and conducting an open application process, the commissioners usually hand-pick people they know, she said.

Patterson, who was born in Highlands but left during childhood, moved here from Florida five years ago. Patterson is the only candidate who doesn’t tout being “born and raised” in Swain County. Patterson said she is tired of feeling like a second-class citizen or that she doesn’t really count because she isn’t from here originally.

“You live here, work here, pay taxes here, you are a part of Swain County, period,” Patterson said. “To me, everyone is welcome. We can’t continue to run this county as we did 50 years ago.”

Patterson said there are a lot of initiatives she would like to pursue, such as increasing the salaries of county staff to a competitive pay scale to creating a staffed animal control center to deal with strays and nuisance animals, and addressing roadside litter.

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