Mark Swanger tucked into his leather armchair beside a roaring gas fire, an expansive view of his Fines Creek family farm unfurling beyond the bay windows of his log home.
Calm, cool and collected as always, he was ready for another round of a marathon interview aimed at capturing the sweeping tenure of his 20-year political career in Haywood County.
Editor’s note: This is a letter former FBI agent Mark Swanger Jr. sent to current FBI Director James Comey. Swanger is the current chairman of the Haywood County Commissioners.
As a retired FBI Agent, I write to express my view of your recent actions regarding the so-called email scandal involving Hillary Clinton.
Haywood County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger publicly announced this week that he plans to retire from elected office next year and won’t be on the ballot when his seat comes up for election in fall of 2016.
Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger has found himself in a comfortable old seat after taking over the chairmanship at the board’s Monday meeting.
It was the first meeting of the newly-elected board, though it bears only one new face — Michael Sorrells, who snapped up the seat vacated by the departing Skeeter Curtis.
Ahead of the vote for chairman, Kirk Kirpatrick, who spent the last term as chair, asked not to be nominated again. He cited a busy family and work schedule that would leave little room for the extra work of chairman.
“I do enjoy it but it is difficult,” Kirkpatrick told the crowd before pulling his name from consideration. He was, however, voted vice chairman, a position he accepted.
After a quick, unanimous vote, second-term commissioner Swanger was appointed to the post, which he held during his first term from 2002-2006. He also has a tenure as school board chairman under his belt, garnered during his six-year service there.
Swanger expressed thanks and support for Kirkpatrick before taking the helm of the meeting.
“Over the last two years, he has done an exceptional job and had he chosen to continue, I would have enthusiastically supported him,” Swanger said.
When asked where he intends to lead the board over the next two years, Swanger cited the economy as continuing to be the most pressing issue facing Haywood County.
“I think that probably the biggest challenges we’ll have, of course, are the budget issues and finding ways to provide services to the citizens of the county,” said Swanger in an interview. “The recession is allegedly over, but revenues certainly don’t support that notion.”
Swanger said that the board will have to navigate the uncertain waters of the state budget, which is likely to change — and possibly change the game for counties and how they operate.
“It will be a challenge, and much of that challenge will depend on the state budget, how it affects counties,” said Swanger. “Will there be a transfer of responsibility from the state back to the county, will there be cost sharing that was not previously a part of the challenge?”
One of the other big projects on the new board’s plate will be getting the Department of Social Services and the health department into their new home in Clyde’s former Wal-Mart while pushing through the revamp of their old digs into housing for low-income seniors. Swanger said he hoped the new board would make this a priority.
As he takes on this new role, Swanger, who just turned 60, said he’s not sure if there’s an end in sight to his public service career.
“I’ve been in public service my entire adult life, with the military and FBI and school board and two terms as county commissioner,” said Swanger. “I don’t know when I’ll say enough’s enough. I’ll just have to see.”
County commissioners claim the $10.2 million price tag on the new creative arts building is too high. College leaders claim they have cut all the costs they can without starting over completely or compromising core functions of the building.
“What’s disappointing is the commissioners have expressed that we want the building costs to come down, but they just keep coming back with the same plan. It’s like they don’t even hear us,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.
HCC President Rose Johnson says the college board of trustees went over the design with a fine-tooth comb before bringing it to the county commissioners.
“We had gone through a cost reduction process already, and there was nothing else we could do other than go back and totally redesign the building,” Johnson said.
The college trustees don’t want to do that. But commissioners are questioning whether the trustees have tried hard enough.
“It has always been my experience that an architect can find ways to reduce costs if instructed to do so,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Obviously it is better to be conservative during the design process to keep the costs down, but I have never seen a case where architects couldn’t go back and find savings if instructed to do so.”
Swanger has been intimately involved in the construction of several new schools and county building in his 12 years as an elected leader on the school board and county government.
Terry Gess, chair of the Creative Arts Program at HCC, said it would be a mistake to shortchange the new building. The college has a national reputation for its craft program. Meanwhile, the craft industry has an economic impact of $206 million in Western North Carolina.
Gess said the building will be a showcase for the importance of craft in the region and a source of pride.
“It will maintain Haywood Community College’s place as a leader in the professional craft industry,” Gess said.
A major sticking point in the debate is over environmental features of the new building. Under Johnson’s leadership, HCC has become a leader in sustainability, from campus operations to course curriculum. Likewise, the new creative arts building incorporates many green features.
Commissioners have repeatedly questioned the cost of those features, in particular the alternative energy components like solar hot water and solar panels.
Johnson told commissioners the technology is needed to meet strict new energy-use mandates for state buildings.
An article in The Mountaineer two weeks ago reported differently, however. The article quoted an associate architect for the project who revealed the building would actually exceed the state’s energy guidelines not just by a little, but by 60 percent. That news caught county commissioners off guard.
“The latest information didn’t dovetail with what I recall being told previously,” Swanger said.
However, there is a logical explanation for the discrepancy, college leaders said.
The building incorporates three alternative energy features. All three together indeed go above and beyond the state mandate.
But one of the three has always been considered optional, namely photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of the building. It indeed isn’t needed to meet the state standard — but it wasn’t included in the $10.2 million cost estimate either, according to the college.
“As for the other two, neither goes far enough to meet the state standard singlehandedly. One is passive energy-saving design throughout the building, like using low-energy appliances and orienting windows away from the summer sun. The other is a solar thermal system for heating, cooling and hot water. Together, they exceed the state standard by 20 percent.
“There was no in between step,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the college explored other energy measures to meet the standard without going over, like geothermal, for example. But the 30 wells needed for geothermal would take up too much land, she said.
The new state standards cap energy use for new buildings based on their size. Since the craft building will house energy heavy trades — from power-hungry woodworking tools to super high temperatures required for pottery kilns and glassblowing stations — the college has an extra challenge to offset the high energy consumption.
How far the college must go depends on the estimated energy use of the building in the first place.
“If the starting point is incorrect, then it can skew the entire project,” Swanger said. “I am afraid they may be exceeding unnecessarily. I would feel much better if I had a third party view of it.”
County commission chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick agreed.
“If they are trying to reach something that is greater than what is required by the state, and it costs additional money, then I don’t think that is necessarily a wise plan,” Kirkpatrick said.
Johnson said the creative arts facility is a semi-industrial building with high-load and specialized features, from air ventilation in the jewelry making studios to the dust collection in the woodworking shops.
“When you analyze the projected cost of the building, it is not more expensive than any other building of its type that is being built in the community college system,” said Johnson. The college has offered up square footage comparisons with five other community college buildings around the state.
County commissioners must ultimately agree to the building’s price tag, something they haven’t done yet. While commissioners have set the wheels in motion to take out a construction loan, they have stopped short of specifying the loan amount.
Swanger said he won’t make up his mind for sure until he sees bids from contractors.
“I want to see actual numbers,” Swanger said. “I need good accurate information and need to know what I am voting on.”
Commissioners feel like the college could be more forthcoming, laying out costs associated with different stages of construction, on what elements the college board has allegedly cut already and, of course, a clearer picture of the energy initiatives.
“They have produced some answers, but everyone is still rather confused about it,” Kirkpatrick said.
Commissioner Ensley, who is most adamant that costs are too high, voted against the loan application despite the caveat that it doesn’t lock in an amount.
Kirkpatrick said the commissioners did not want to cause controversy with the college.
“Do I want to dictate what the college does? That is not my job,” Kirkpatrick said. “As county commissioners, it is my job to ask questions.”
Kirkpatrick said the due diligence should rest with the college board of trustees, whom he trusts are vetting the plans and looking at the same questions.
“I just want to make sure they second guess themselves on what kind of project they are doing and whether it is the most important thing they need to do,” Kirkpatrick said.
Money to pay for the new building will come from a special quarter-cent sales tax. In a countywide election two years ago, voters approved the special tax for the sole purpose of funding improvements on the HCC campus. The vote was seen as broad public endorsement for the college’s role in the community and willingness among the public to invest in its future.
“We voted for the quarter-cent tax and now let’s use it for its intended purpose,” Adam Thomson, a furniture maker who has taken courses at HCC and has now started his own company, told commissioners during a public comment period at a recent meeting.
“I think I can speak on behalf of all commissioners. We certainly aren’t against the creative arts building,” Kirkpatrick responded.
Commissioners are concerned, however, that the college will burn through the lion’s share of the special tax money on one project. The special tax is enough to cover annual payments on a $12 million loan for 15 years. If the craft building is $10.2 million, it leaves little left over for other projects.
“It is my view the entire campus needs to be considered, not just a flagship building,” Swanger said. “In times when money is tight, you would use up a lot of that money.”
Despite the acclaim of HCC’s craft program, the craft building is literally crumbling and too small.
Johnson said it is the college’s most pressing need and pursuing it is “a very wise decision.”
Want to weigh in?
A public hearing on the loan application for the new Haywood Community College creative arts building will be held before the county commissioners at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 16, in the historic courthouse.