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.