Political factions help define Haywood race
Two well-defined political factions emerged early in the Haywood County commissioners primary and have only grown stronger in the countdown to election day on May 2.
On one side is the county commissioner chairman Mark Swanger, who is running for re-election, and Bill Upton, former school superintendent. One the other side is Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, also running for re-election, Bill Noland, a former commissioner who lost re-election two years ago, and Skeeter Curtis, a state insurance department worker from Canton.
Battle lines were drawn as early as January over the firing of the former county manager Jack Horton. Horton’s forced departure upset some people so much they formed a political action committee to endorse candidates running against Swanger, who they see as the instigator behind Horton’s ousting. They claim Swanger is a micromanager and wanted Horton gone to gain power for himself. This is where Noland and Kirkpatrick squarely fall, and Curtis to a lesser extent.
On the other hand, the majority of sitting commissioners — Swanger being one of them — felt Horton was a loose cannon of sorts, making unauthorized decisions that weren’t always in the best interest of the county and failing to be candid about county affairs when reporting to the commissioners or the public. Upton is found on this side.
While the most recent source of contention revolves around Horton, the dividing lines between factions can be traced back further than that. Today’s political allies and foes mirror those during a bitter drawn-out dispute over a new $22 million justice center and parking deck in 2001 and 2002.
Supporters said the justice center was overdue for the crowded court system and good for progress. Opponents claimed it was a run-away project that was too big, too expensive and unattractive. Horton openly supported the project. Swanger led the opponents. Allegiances formed accordingly. Kirkpatrick and Noland backed the justice center, for example, while Upton didn’t.
But the dividing lines between factions go back further still to the countywide fight over a school bond referendum in the mid-1990s. Swanger led opposition to that referendum, which was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin, and then ran for school board chairman. After his victory in that race, a major shake-up in the school system central office led to the departure of the top two administrators and Upton’s promotion to superintendent.
Curtis is perhaps best known for a barbeque restaurant in downtown Canton called “Skeeter’s” until the floods of ’04 submerged it. While Curtis was often seen helping out at the restaurant, it was actually owned and operated by Curtis’ son, whose name is also Skeeter Curtis. To avoid confusion, the two are often referenced in conversation among friends as Big Skeeter and Little Skeeter.
Curtis was thrown into the limelight in 2004 during the Canton Papertown scandal. Canton Papertown was a town-supported non-profit charged with promoting Canton merchants. Growing discontent among Canton merchants with the group’s leader, Gail Guy, prompted scrutiny into Canton Papertown finances, revealing discrepancies in how Guy claimed she spent money and how it was actually spent. A criminal investigation resulted in Guy pleading guilty to embezzlement.
When allegations of financial mismanagement surfaced, Canton town leaders asked Curtis to lead an effort to revitalize Papertown. Curtis was not involved with the group during the period of mismanagement, but became the spokesperson for Papertown during an attempt at re-organization. During the accounting probe into Papertown, Curtis urged the public to give Guy the benefit of the doubt until the investigation was complete.
“There was a lot speculation in the community about what had happened. What I was trying to do was say ‘Wait until the audit is in and everything is in until you pass judgment.’ The bookkeeping was a mess and the financials were a mess, but I didn’t see anything at that time that said the money was taken for personal use,” Curtis said. “I still don’t see where any money was taken for personal use. I do see bad financial management of the organization, which should not have happened. I never denied that.”
Curtis said his main platform is property taxes, namely finding a way to reduce them.
“I think the commissioners have to address the property tax issue in Haywood County,” Curtis said. “One of the ways we can look at that is to grandfather property values for certain people.”
Every four years, property is appraised to reflect the going price for real estate. The estimated property value is adjusted accordingly. That value is used to calculate property tax bills.
Curtis wants to find a way to keep people’s property values from being re-adjusted as long as they continue to live in the same home. Curtis said only certain demographics would get the exemption, such as the elderly. Known as a homestead exemption, this property tax break is now available in North Carolina only to a very small number of poor senior citizens and those who are disabled, and it is only available for a portion of their property’s value. Curtis thinks county leaders should lobby state leaders to change that.
“I think the time has come where we can’t sit back and say these are mandated situations and required. We got to get out of the box and come up with good sound planning and present it to our local delegation and get something changed,” Curtis said.
Curtis said another part of his platform is economic development.
“We don’t have any good quality jobs for our young people to remain in the county,” Curtis said.
When asked how he would create jobs, Curtis said the first step is to recruit companies.
“What we need to do is get economic development and all these people together and identify what these businesses are and put out an all out effort to start recruiting,” Curtis said.
Curtis said he supports incentives like tax breaks. Curtis also suggested the county could buy land for businesses. Curtis also suggested working with the community college to train workers in specific fields.
“We need to make sure we have an educated workforce,” Curtis said.
Curtis’ ideas — such as recruiting businesses in targeted fields, offering tax breaks, finding land for companies and partnering with the community college — are already part of the county’s economic development strategy. Curtis said he was aware some of the programs already existed.
“We have a lot of that in place,” Curtis said. “We need to make sure everyone is working on the same page.”
After a career as a teacher, principal and superintendent of Haywood County Schools, it seems natural Upton’s platform revolves around education.
“My biggest issue is to keep our children first,” Upton said.
Upton is particularly concerned about the teacher shortage looming on the horizon.
“We’re in great shape now. We had great test scores when I was there,” Upton said. “But things can drop off very quickly if we don’t keep good qualified teachers in the classroom.”
Upton said competition for good teachers is about to get tougher.
“Our university system is not graduating enough teachers to give us the supply we need,” Upton said. “We are going to have to retain our good teachers. Recruiting efforts are going to have to be expanded to find outstanding teachers.”
Upton supports a pay raise for teachers known as “supplements.” Supplements are a local bonus on top of the state teachers’ salary. Counties that kick in larger supplements have an easier time recruiting teachers. Upton said Haywood is losing good teachers because it can’t compete with the supplement being offered elsewhere — including neighboring Buncombe. Haywood offers a supplement that is an additional 3.5 percent of an educator’s state salary, which compares to a 10 percent supplement in Buncombe.
Four years ago, county commissioners agreed to increase the supplement by half a percent a year until Haywood was on par with the state average. The formula was lauded by both school and county leaders for ending the annual fight over whether and how much the county commissioners would increase teacher supplements.
But Upton says it isn’t enough. While Haywood gradually raises the supplement half a percent a year, other counties are also increasing theirs, so the discrepancy in pay isn’t really improving, Upton said.
“I think we are going to need a good bump for teachers,” Upton said. “If we don’t watch it, we are going to get further behind.”
Upton’s stance breaks ranks with the other candidates who laud the formula, including Swanger, who hired Upton as superintendent when he was school board chairman.
During Upton’s eight years as superintendent, tests taken by third- through eighth-graders went from 69 percent of students meeting expectations for their grade to 91.3 percent. SAT test scores used as a barometer for college admissions were the highest in history with a 1030 average. Upton said credit for his accomplishments in the school system should go to all school employees, however.
Part of Noland’s platform is helping Haywood Community College. Noland wants to lobby the state legislature to give counties the option of enacting a 1/2-cent sales tax to fund community colleges. If OK’d by the state, a countywide vote would determine whether such a 1/2-cent sales tax was enacted here. Noland said the optional sales tax would ease the property tax burden while helping the community college.
Noland, like most candidates running for office, wants to bring more jobs. He said creating flat building sites in industrial parks could help recruit jobs.
“Some people can’t see how they are going to build on the side of a mountain. If you have a level field, people with the vision of building a plant there can see it better,” Noland said, adding that a ready-to-build site can be offered as an incentive as well.
“We need to stay tuned in to the bio tech thing,” Noland added.
When Noland ran for re-election two years ago, he didn’t make it past the primary. Part of Noland’s four years in office were plagued with controversy. To top the list, he backed the controversial $18 million justice center. Noland also kept the same property tax rate despite a significant increase in property values from a revaluation. He also was hit with backlash when the public learned the county manager, allegedly at the behest of commissioners, was recruiting the state to build a maximum-security state prison in Haywood County. The idea was dropped.
Noland also angered many residents in Bethel with a proposal to build water and sewer lines to the semi-rural community. The majority of residents in Bethel feared water and sewer lines would bring sprawl and development to their farming valley. In exit polls conducted by the Smoky Mountain News on primary election day in 2004, some Bethel voters cited the proposed water and sewer lines as driving their vote against Noland. The lines were dropped.
Noland cited several accomplishments from his tenure as commissioner. Construction of the justice center and parking deck, getting started on a new jail and sheriff’s office, running water lines to Balsam, buying land for a new school in Bethel and buying the old Dayco industrial site.
Noland forgot how much the Dayco site cost, however.
“Wasn’t it $750,000? You need to check with (the county manager’s office) down there to make sure,” Noland said. County commissioners actually spent $650,000 on the Dayco site.
Noland also forgot how much the parking deck cost.
“The parking deck was $5 million and the town put in half that money,” Noland said. In fact, the parking deck was $4 million. The town paid $2.5 million while the county paid $1.5 million.
When asked about accomplishments for his first term other than construction projects, Noland cited an ordinance, but forgot the details.
“We did that street paving thing with the 20 percent grade or whatever. It had to do with the roads and the width of the roads and the grade of the road,” Noland said.
The ordinance regulates roads in private subdivisions and is called the subdivision ordinance, but that term didn’t sound familiar to Noland.
“I’m not sure what the title of it was,” Noland said. “I don’t remember the subdivision thing.”
Noland said perhaps the subdivision ordinance was related to the mobile home park ordinance passed during his tenure.
“It had something to do with mobile home parks. It was in that area, but I would have to look back at it and see,” Noland said of the specifics. “I think it had to do I think with space and how many trailers you could put on an acre.”
The mobile home park ordinance does regulate density, but addresses cleanliness, trash receptacles, safety and driveway access in mobile home parks.
An important role of the next board of county commissioners is getting the new county manager started, Kirkpatrick said.
“We’ve got the selection of the new county manager and his initial employment and transition,” Kirkpatrick said. “It is going to set the tone for the term of his employment and how the county is going to be run — whether we are going to have a strong county manager government or revert back to a commissioner-run government.”
Kirkpatrick butted heads with Swanger over the firing of the former county manager in January. Kirkpatrick said Horton’s firing cemented his decision to run for re-election, and he said one of his platforms is tempering Swanger’s power. Swanger has the backing of two other commissioners, enabling him to do anything he wants, Kirkpatrick said. As a result, Kirkpatrick said he sometimes feels left out of decisions.
“Sitting on the board right now, I know I can put as much input into a certain issue as possible, and I still don’t know whether that will factor into how the remaining board members vote,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t know whether a decision has been made in their minds already.”
Kirkpatrick and Swanger have voted differently only twice in four years, however. Kirkpatrick said while he ultimately has voted with Swanger most of the time, he offers valid counterpoints during discussion and secured changes in some of Swanger’s initiatives to make them more palatable. Swanger said that shows Kirkpatrick is involved after all rather than shut out of the decision-making process.
Kirkpatrick said he also does not agree that a commissioner should claim a county initiative as their own.
“Nothing is possible without the entire group or at least part of that group,” Kirkpatrick said. “We are getting a little bit away from how we operate as a government. I’m not going to get out there and say ‘this is my project.’”
Kirkpatrick said he would like to address rising property values that in turn determine a person’s property taxes.
“We have people living here their entire lives and they are having a difficult time paying taxes,” Kirkpatrick said. “That will have to be addressed.”
Kirkpatrick suggested taxing second homes — and any property that is not a person’s primary residence — at a higher rate.
“Basically you put the burden on people who have second homes and can afford to buy second real estate,” Kirkpatrick said.
Such a system is not currently allowed under state law, however. Kirkpatrick said the county should lobby the state leaders to change the law.
Another part of Kirkpatrick’s platform is a master recreation plan currently in the works that would unite town and county recreation offerings and end the turf battles over recreation programs.
“We have to act together,” Kirkpatrick said. “We might be duplicating recreational facilities. We don’t need to build two of the same thing and not use the facilities.”
Swanger emerged as the top vote-getter in the crowded commissioners election four years ago. Swanger said his platform is the same this year as it was then, which is to advocate for a thorough decision-making process.
“Garbage in, garbage out. If you have a dysfunctional process then good decisions occur only by accident,” Swanger said. “A functional, open and honest process will lead to many good decisions. You go about it in a methodical way. You are soliciting input instead of rushing or pushing something through.”
The pursuit of the existing justice center four years ago was a case study of bad decision making, Swanger said.
“The justice center in and of itself was not the problem. It was a symptom of the problem, which is bad government,” Swanger said.
Swanger said researching issues to make informed decisions is not micromanagement. He pointed to a proposal by county staff three years ago to spend $400,000 on a tax audit of businesses in the county. Instead, Swanger and the rest of the board advocated a program that would educate business owners on proper tax reporting.
“Had we just been spoon-fed, that could have been a $400,000 mistake and mistreated our business community by being heavy-handed,” Swanger said.
Swanger said he wants to continue open government initiatives.
“I want to see the openness of county government become institutionalized. If it is institutionalized, it is very difficult to take backwards steps,” Swanger said. “Open government extends beyond the concept of letting the public know what is going on. It will result in better decisions.”
Swanger said Haywood County government has been generally cleaned up.
“We’ve raised the bar,” Swanger said. “I think people can watch us on television and not be embarrassed by the way their officials do business. Anyone who saw the board of commissioners five years ago and now wouldn’t think they were in the same county.”
Swanger has received criticism for a pledge to lower the tax rate to 49.7 cents to offset the increase in property values this year. A countywide property appraisal this year resulted in an 18 percent increase in the values used to calculate the property tax base. In response, the commissioners pledged to lower the tax rate by 18 percent. While the county won’t collect more property taxes this year than it did last year, some property owners will still see their taxes go up, namely those whose property went up more than the 18 percent average.
Critics claim the move to lower taxes by 18 percent was election-year pandering and prematurely sets a tax rate without first knowing what the county’s needs are. County departments were told to craft budgets based on their budget last year, but critics say that does not give the public a true picture of the county’s needs. Departments should turn in a budget for what they think they need, and commissioners should make the tough decisions on what to cut.
Swanger disagreed. Commissioners made a unanimous pledge to lower the tax rate to 49.7 cents, including Kirkpatrick, even though Kirkpatrick objected verbally to the idea as putting the cart before the horse.
Swanger said he also hopes to continue improving the county’s economic development efforts. Swanger spearheaded a new approach to economic development in the county three years ago.
“They were looking for another Dayco (plant) for the one we lost, failing to realize those large manufacturing concerns no longer existed within the borders of the United States,” Swanger said of the old economic development strategy. “It has been referred to as a buffalo hunt, searching for something that does not exist.”
Swanger said the new approach is four-pronged: recruit small- and medium-sized industry, create an economic climate that supports and stimulates start-ups and entrepreneurs, retain and grow existing businesses, and recognize tourism and retail as a legitimate part of the economic model.
Swanger pointed to success in all four areas, including the recruitment of ConMet, a small industry now employing 140, and stopping two large businesses — Plus Linens and Britthaven nursing home — from moving out of the county with 125 jobs.
The county helped 66 businesses flooded in 2004 reopen with small grants and support. There have been 146 start-ups in four years and 1,008 new jobs created in the county, Swanger said.
“Before we were losing jobs. I think it is fair to say many of the steps we took created a more favorable business climate,” Swanger said. “I am not saying the problem is solved but we are a long way down the road from where we were three years ago.”