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Wednesday, 14 April 2010 17:37

Swain candidates address task of pulling county out of the red

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Nine Democrats and four Republicans have set their sights on four open commissioner seats in Swain County. A primary on May 4 will decide which four Democrats will advance to the November election. All four Republicans will automatically advance, along with one Libertarian candidate. Another primary will determine which Republican candidate, Bill Lewis or Mike Clampitt, will go head-to-head with sole Democrat candidate Phil Carson in November for the chairman’s seat.

*Democrat Jerry McKinney dropped out of the race to serve out his term on the school board.

The question on everyone’s mind

Swain County commissioners presided over a historic decision this year, signing an agreement with the federal government to settle once and for all a dispute that has been raging for more than six decades.

Swain will presumably receive $52 million in exchange from dropping its claims to the North Shore Road, a 30-mile road the government flooded 66 years ago and never rebuilt.

Swain will get $12.8 million now and the rest in increments over the next 10 years. The money will be placed in a locked trust fund with only the interest remitted to the county each year. Interest could amount to $800,000 for just the $12.8 million already in hand. Candidates discussed how they’d like to see that money spent.

Steve Moon (D) said the cash settlement is a great deal for the county. Moon is in favor of setting up an emergency fund to make sure that the county doesn’t dip too far in the red in the future. “This money will help prevent really bad times in the county. It’ll be a godsend.”

Tommy Woodard (D) said the North Shore Road should have been put to a vote many years ago. Since the issue has been decided, Woodard supports using the money for the school system and public safety.

Raymond Nelson (D) said a good portion of the settlement money should be used to improve walking trails on the North Shore Road to make sure families removed from the park territory when the lake was created can visit graveyards that are barely accessible now.

Donnie Dixon (D) said he’ll believe the settlement money is coming when he sees it. “I’m afraid it’s going to be another ‘if and when funds are available.’” If the money does come through, Dixon would place it in an emergency fund to keep the county running in case the economy worsens. Dixon added that it should be only used for the betterment of Swain County and a portion should be used to recognize that part of Swain’s history.

Robert White (D) said if citizens helped formulate a strategic plan for the county, the board could look at their ideas in deciding how to spend the North Shore money. White says the interest money should go into big projects, rather than being deposited into the general fund or used for recurring expenses.

Judy Miller (D) is in favor of setting up a grant with the North Shore money to fund projects in the long-term. “We should not expect to use that money for our basic needs. That money should be something that is extra and should not be wasted or frittered away.”

Janice Inabinett (D) says the community should have input on how the North Shore settlement money is used. “I think community dialogue is more important than the money itself.” Inabinett would like to see the money used to focus on the needs of the county’s youth.

David Monteith (D) is highly skeptical about the North Shore cash settlement. “It’s only on paper, that ain’t in the bank.” If the money does come through, Monteith would love to see a heritage center built in Swain County. He’d like to set up an emergency fund with the remainder.

Billy Woodard (D) believes Swain will eventually receive the North Shore money, but says it’s up to county commissioners to push representatives to make sure that happens. Woodard wants to set aside some of the money for emergencies for now. When the county is back on a good financial footing, it can build a heritage center to honor families who lived on the North Shore.

Woodard believes that the money belongs to every taxpayer in Swain County, and should not be doled out to special interests.

John Herrin (R) asked for all communication on the North Shore cash settlement. “I refuse to allow these people to have a half-assed closed-door soap opera.” But Herrin received only a handful of emails between the county manager and the attorney — none from county commissioners to each other or anyone else.

Herrin said the county sold itself for “less than a cup of porridge,” but says the North Shore money should undoubtedly be devoted to education.

Andy Parris (R) said he doesn’t think Swain County will receive the North Shore money, and the only chance of getting another appropriation is to see President Barack Obama re-elected, even though Parris admits he’s not an “Obama fan.” Parris said the money that the county has received should be used to create jobs so young people don’t have to move somewhere else to make a living.

James King (R) said the cash settlement should benefit every single taxpayer in Swain County in a direct way. King said the issue is settled, but it might take years to get all the funds promised by the federal government.

Jerry Shook (R) said the cash settlement could be used to build a “fun factory” to retain tourists and give local kids something to do afterschool. The county could hire talented high school students to work at the fun factory and use profits to fund scholarships.

School funding

When it comes to salaries, teachers in Swain County are at the bottom of the totem pole compared to other counties. Swain is one of the few that doesn’t offer a local supplement to augment the base teacher’s salary paid by the state.

A steady growth in the student population has led to serious space needs in Swain County schools, especially at the high school. But commissioners have not taken action other than buying property adjacent to the high school for future construction. The candidates debated the need for an additional school in the county.

Steve Moon (D) said the county will need a new school in the very near future, and is unsure whether it will be funded by a bond or a tax increase. Though teachers deserve a higher salary, Moon said the county does not rake in enough now to give them a local supplement. Moon said the North Shore cash settlement might be used toward that problem.

Tommy Woodard (D) said many public servants, not just teachers, in Swain are some of the most severely underpaid in the state. With the current economy, Woodard says he’d be leery of building a new school. “I’m not denying that there is a need for classroom space. I’m just not sure it’s something that we can be doing right now.”

Raymond Nelson (D) said he’d rather see the high school expanded than see a new school built. Nelson said teachers’ salaries could afford to be raised, but would like to see state lottery money used to fund a salary increase.

Donnie Dixon (D) said the county board should closely evaluate whether it’d be more cost-effective to expand schools or build a new one. Dixon said in order to fund a new school, the county needs a bigger tax base and to fight for grants. Dixon says he would favor a salary increase for teachers if it is “practical.”

Robert White (D) said commissioners should work closely with school officials to see how to come up with money to tackle space needs. In the meantime, schools should see if they can come up with funds within their current budget. White says he tried to start a local supplement for teachers as superintendent, but the money was needed elsewhere.

Judy Miller (D) said some of the North Shore money might have to go toward setting up a local supplement to teachers’ salaries. Miller said commissioners will have to take a look at the need for new school construction.

Janice Inabinett (D) would like to set up a citizen involvement task force to research the schools’ needs, pull the issue apart and come up with the best recommendations for commissioners.

David Monteith (D) sits on the school’s planning board, and says the only way to increase schoolteachers’ salaries now is to increase taxes. “I will not vote for a tax increase under no circumstances.” Monteith said the growth in the student population is not enough to push the construction of new buildings.

Billy Woodard (D) says the county can’t increase funding to the schools unless the economy picks up. When the county’s financial improves, Woodard hopes to take a look at increasing teachers’ salaries.

John Herrin (R) says in order to raise teachers’ salaries, Swain must look at increasing its tax base. While this could be achieved with a higher tax rate, he supports user taxes instead. “We need to look at what revenues we’re overlooking.”

Andy Parris (R) said Swain’s schools are in good shape, but teachers’ salaries, as well as salaries for law enforcement, do need to be addressed.

James King (R) said money from the lottery should be used for construction at the new schools. Commissioners should demand information from state representatives on where the lottery money is being used, King said.

Jerry Shook (R) said the commissioners should take a serious look at student population growth at public, charter and private schools in Swain County to see if additional facilities must be built. Shook said the school board is responsible for teachers’ salaries and should make choices in their budget that would allow for a raise.

Serious budget woes

The recession hit all Western North Carolina counties hard, but Swain faced one of the greatest challenges. Commissioners did not adequately plan for a tough fiscal year and were later notified by the state that the county’s reserve funds had fallen to a dangerous low.

The state’s Local Government Commission recommends that all counties set aside a cushion of at least 8 percent of their budget for emergencies — Swain had only 6.6 percent. The LGC immediately began overseeing Swain’s budget, and commissioners struggled to plug the $1 million shortfall on the fly.

Meanwhile, the newly built $10 million jail continues to scoop up much of taxpayer money without bringing in enough revenue. The county is not receiving hoped-for jail fees for housing prisoners from outside Swain because surrounding counties have built their own jails.

Steve Moon (D) said dipping below the 8 percent standard was due to “a series of bad events” and pointed out that the entire economy had been in bad shape. “We had a hard time maintaining that 8 percent.” Moon says the county will have to wait and see on the jail and hope that the sheriff can bring more federal prisoners to the facility.

Tommy Woodard (D) said like many others, the commissioners underestimated the recession. Woodard said the county should focus on vital services, like education and public safety, and make cuts elsewhere.

With multiple jail escapes in recent years, Woodard says the county needs to restore confidence in order to attract prisoners back to its newly-built jail. To accomplish that, commissioners must work with the sheriff, Woodard said.

Raymond Nelson (D) said the commissioners have done a poor job handling the budget during the recession and have not spent money or made cuts wisely. “I don’t think you can cut the budget on law enforcement and still protect the people of the county properly.

Nelson said the jail needs more federal prisoners, but said it’s too late to comment on the size of the jail now.

Donnie Dixon (D) earlier came into office when the previous group of commissioners had landed the county below the 8 percent benchmark. The state had threatened to come in and raise taxes, but within a year, the county was able to meet the state requirement. Dixon said instead of fighting feuds, commissioners need to sit down “like they got a little bit of education” and figure out what’s draining the county’s fund balance.

Dixon says Swain jailers should be better trained to keep prisoners from escaping so the county can attract prisoners from outside Swain.

Robert White (D) said commissioners have done a good job with what they had to work with, but the county must gain more revenue in the future. White would also like to see a greater effort to secure grants and possibly add another grant writer to the county staff. Until then, the county should use the money it does have wisely.

White says the jail should also be included in a long-term strategic plan.

Judy Miller (D) said it’s unfortunate that commissioners did not think ahead and initiate cuts as soon as the recession hit. “It’s another instance where planning ahead needs to be done.” Miller is concerned about Cherokee’s plans to build a jail and says the commissioners really need to sit down to come up with a plan to tackle this “big issue.”

Janice Inabinett (D) said she has not studied the budget issue. However, Inabinett wants Swain to better market the area’s natural resources to bring in people, and generate more revenue for the county.

Inabinett says not having enough prisoners to fill the jail is actually a good thing. The county could look for another entity that could be interested in the building, and send its prisoners to other counties’ jails.

David Monteith (D) says the county’s budget mess is due to insufficient planning and wasteful spending on pet projects that should not have been done. But commissioners have tightened their belts, and Monteith says the county is seeing a turnaround. “Everyone is doing their job much better than they were doing a year ago.”

Because federal prisoners have not returned to Swain’s jail despite a new agreement with the U.S. Marshals, Monteith suspects that politics are involved. “It’s hard for a little county to compete with the a big county. We have to take crumbs off the table.”

Billy Woodard (D) says he won’t criticize commissioners without knowing the complete situation, but admits many residents are concerned about the county’s finances and the possibility of a huge tax increase. Woodard plans to examine exactly how money has been spent by current commissioners.

Woodard said the sheriff should work hard to bring federal prisoners to Swain’s modern jail. “We didn’t need such a big jail, but hindsight is 20/20...I don’t think if we arrest every criminal in Swain County that you could fill that jail.”

John Herrin (R) said commissioners should be conservative with their projections for how much money taxes will bring in. They should track the budget at every meeting, and post every expense on the county Web site.

Commissioners should also take a hard look at how to avoid landing in the red.

“If that means more taxes, then that may be where we have to go.” But before taking money out of taxpayers’ pockets, Herrin said the government should exhaust every other option.

Andy Parris (R) said there’s been some irresponsibility on the part of the county board. Cutting the sheriff’s department was a mistake, Parris said. “That was purely a political move...that was a stab at him [Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran] and that wasn’t a very smart one.”

James King (R) said Swain had plenty of money before commissioners went on a spending spree that put them in bad shape. All departments should have a working relationship with the board so that they follow the budget that was accepted at the beginning of the fiscal year. Changes should be made upfront and not in the middle of the year, King added.

The sheriff should work with other counties that don’t have jails of their own and also try to bring federal prisoners from all over the state to Swain County, King said.

Jerry Shook (R) said commissioners must make hard decisions and not be afraid to make cuts in the budget when necessary. Shook said there are some in the county who are getting “personal servitude” and are unjustifiably being paid with taxpayer money.

Shook said it’s a shame how commissioners have treated Sheriff Curtis Cochran. Shook says that the county has served as a training grounds for law enforcement agencies who move on to surrounding counties that pay higher salaries. Shook said these officers should sign a contract to work in Swain for a certain number of years if they receive county funding for training.

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