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Democrat candidates for commissioner weigh in on Swain issues

election timeFive Swain County Democrats are heading for the March 15 primary election in hopes of securing a seat on the board of commissioners.

Two seats currently occupied by Democratic incumbents Steve Moon and David Monteith are up for re-election. The incumbents will face off against three challengers in the primary to narrow the candidates down to two. The two Democrat candidates will then move on to the general election along with the two other Republican candidates for commissioner. 

The 2014 election in Swain County established staggered terms for commissioners. As the lowest vote-getters, Monteith and Moon were elected for two-year terms, but they hope to earn a four-year term this go-around so they can see some of their work on the board completed. On the other hand, challengers think they can do a better job at addressing Swain County’s most pressing issues. 

 

Getting what we’re owed

Trying to get the federal government to pay Swain County what it owes for the North Shore Road settlement has been an ongoing issue for years, but commissioners haven’t given up hope that the money will come through. When the road leading out of Bryson City was flooded in the 1940s to construct Lake Fontana, the federal government promised to build back the road and never did. The county fought long and hard to have the road rebuilt but eventually agreed on a $52 million cash settlement. While a piece of that settlement — $12.8 million — was paid out to Swain County in 2010, the remainder continues to be held up in the National Park Service budget. In 2012, the NPS claimed it didn’t have authority to release the money to Swain and for the last several years, the payment hasn’t even made it into the federal budget.

Time is of the essence now though because if the money isn’t paid out in the next three years, the settlement agreement expires and Swain County is basically out of luck. 

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“The Park Service doesn’t want to turn it loose. If they don’t pay us the rest of it in the next three years we’ll lose every bit of it,” Monteith said. “I was for the road being rebuilt — not the settlement — but as a commissioner I will fight for that money. They owe it and need to pay it.”

If the settlement agreement expires in three years and the money isn’t paid out, Moon said, he would argue that the federal government is once again on the hook for honoring its original promise to rebuild the road — a project that would cost way more than $52 million.

“We’ll just go back to square one and they’ll have to build a road,” he said. “If they don’t, we’ll have to sue the federal government — that’s the only option.” 

Moon said he is hopeful President Obama will come through during his last year in office and the $39 million will be paid to Swain County, but if not, he will support suing the federal government. 

If elected, Gunter said his goal is to see the North Shore Road settlement settled once and for all. He said he is tired of the federal government short-changing Swain County even though it owns 87 percent of the land. Even if the settlement isn’t paid out, Gunter said he supported the National Park Service charging an entrance fee that would go to Swain County. 

“I’m tired of hearing we can’t do this and we can’t do that,” he said. “If the government was paying its fair share we’d be taking in $25 million in taxes each year.”

 

Taxes and budgeting

Gunter said he wants to serve as commissioner because the next several years are going to be critical to the county’s future. With a property revaluation coming up in the next two years, he wants to make sure changes in property value don’t result in another tax increase for residents. 

“The last time we had a revaluation, the commissioners didn’t adjust the tax rates to go down with the property values so we had an automatic increase plus another 3 percent tax increase on top of that,” he said. “The commissioners don’t need to be financing the county on top of the property owners’ backs — we’re already paying too much.”

Gunter said he already has a copy of the county budget at home that he’d been going through line by line so he can be prepared for the next budget process if elected. One way he would like to save the county and taxpayers money is by getting the fire insurance rating lowered for communities outside of Bryson City. 

The fire insurance rating is based on several factors, including the number of fire department personnel available, firefighting equipment and a home’s distance from a fire station or a water source. While residents within the Bryson City fire district have a fire insurance rating of 5, those in outlying areas like Almond or Alarka have a rating of 9. The difference between a 5 and a 9 can mean several hundreds of dollars on a homeowner’s insurance premium. The highest rating is a 10. 

“I tried to get commissioners to address the problem in January of last year but got no response,” Gunter said. “Most of the departments have the equipment but don’t have the personnel needed because they are volunteer.”

Paying for career firefighters to man the stations would cost taxpayer money, but Gunter said it would cut down on response times and also save taxpayers money on their fire insurance.  

The county gives the fire departments some funding each year, but Monteith said he was against the county dictating what those volunteer departments have to do — including steps needed to get the fire rating down. As far as the tax increase in 2013, Monteith said it was unfortunate but necessary to cover a budget deficit. It was the first tax rate hike in more than two decades.  

“As it stands, the budget is going to be tight this year, but I will not support a tax increase. The people of Swain cant afford it,” Monteith said. “We’ll have to tighten up the budget and look for grants and other funding opportunities.”

Monteith said he didn’t have anything particular in mind that could be cut but he said he would continue to do what he does every year — go over the budget line by line and discuss cost-saving opportunities with each department head. 

Because 87 percent of Swain County is national park  and national forest land, Moon said the county has a very small tax base, which makes the annual budget process a constant challenge. With so many expenses mandated by the state or federal government, Moon said the commissioners don’t have as much budget discretion as many would think. 

“We have to provide services and we have to balance the budget, but I don’t foresee another tax increase for a long time,” he said. “Right now financially we’re in good shape.”

 

Building a better economy

Moon and Monteith both agree tourism dollars are crucial to Swain County’s economy. They would love to see more industry in the county, but for right now tourism is the main source of revenue and what is keeping many small businesses afloat and keeping residents employed. 

“Tourism dollars are very important for Bryson City and Swain County,” Moon said. “We did a study that showed without tourism dollars, each man, woman and child would have to spend $12,000 in Swain County a year to offset the loss of tourism dollars.”

Moon and Monteith also know many tourism jobs are seasonal or minimum wage, which is not ideal for the county’s main economic engine. Moon said the commissioners are working closely with Southwestern Community College to plan for expanding programs at the Swain campus so the county has a trained workforce. With the school system and SCC putting an emphasis on mechatronics, he hopes those programs expand so high school graduates can quickly enter the workforce if they decide not to go to a four-year college. 

“I’d like to see everyone be able to get a good-paying job and I’d like to see more industry come to Swain County, but it’s a tough row to hoe,” Moon said. “We’ve got the casino and ConMet has brought in a lot of good jobs, but sometimes they don’t have people to qualify for those jobs so we need a better-educated population.”

Even though the unemployment is down from 11 percent to 7 percent since the 2014 election, Monteith knows it isn’t an accurate representation because so many people have given up looking. While the county tries to encourage and facilitate new industries moving in through economic development incentives, Monteith said county governments couldn’t do much more. 

Monteith said he tries to focus on projects the commissioners can assist with — like completing the Swain County Heritage Museum, a new EMS/911 facility, a new fishing pier on Island Street and a business/education center. Projects like the heritage museum, the steam engine turntable for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and new fishing piers definitely have an impact on tourism revenue. 

“What we have is tourism — I wish we had big industry coming in and maybe it will be different in 10 years, but it’s all we have to go on right now,” he said. 

Gunter understands the importance of tourism, but he doesn’t think the commissioners should be “in the business of picking winners and losers.” In particular, he doesn’t think the commissioners should have taken out a $700,000 loan to pay for the installation of a turntable for the railroad’s steam engine project. Since the railroad company is based in Colorado, Gunter said most of the revenue goes out of the county anyway. 

“A lot of people here don’t like the railroad,” he said. “And if we have that kind of money why do we have to have a 3 percent tax increase?” 

To help the local tourism industry, Gunter said the county should make it easier for entrepreneurs to open their own tourism business, whether it’s a recreational business or an accommodation business like owning a cabin rental business or a campground. 

 

Working hard or hardly working?

One criticism Swain County commissioners often get is that they aren’t pushing hard enough to improve the county. Commissioner meetings are fairly mundane with little discussion about potential initiatives or projects. 

Gunter said current commissioners are unresponsive when residents approach them with ideas for improvement and have been unwilling to discuss land-use planning. Gunter has been at the forefront of grassroots efforts to create the county’s first ever land-use regulations.

His aim is to protect the county residents from development schemes and environmental disasters like landslides on steep slopes, but commissioners have been uninterested in opening that can of worms. 

Monteith said local people didn’t want countywide zoning regulations — only the people moving to the area. He considers himself an environmentalist and wants to educate people on how to take care of their land and natural resources, but he is against more regulations. 

“I’m totally opposed to zoning — we can’t afford it,” he said. “If we follow state and federal rules already in place we’ll have no problem.”

Moon said he is also against land use regulations in Swain County. 

“We have a really beautiful place to live with wonderful people — we all get along for the most part,” Moon said. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” 

Gunter said it’s that kind of thinking that keeps the county from moving forward and exactly why the board needs new blood. 

“Not everyone is having a say-so in the government — they’re not being listened to,” Gunter said. 

For anyone who thinks commissioners are simply keeping the status quo, Monteith challenged them to follow him around for a day. He is at the county administrative building working almost every day and serves on a number of community boards that help to move projects along and secure funding. 

“Honesty is my promise. I’m not going to lie to get elected,” Monteith said. “Swain County is my number one priority and I’m going to lead as a Christian.”

Moon said he doesn’t hear too many complaints from constituents and the board has accomplished a lot by working together. 

“Most people are pretty happy — this board works really well together. We know we have no power individually but we have power as a board,” he said. “I think everyone does a good job. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

 

 

Steve Moon (incumbent)

• Age: 65

• Hometown: Bryson City

• Education: Swain County High School, Southwestern Community College

• Profession: Retired, former owner of Steve Moon Tire Company

• Describe yourself in three words: Honest, trustworthy and dependable

• Why are you running for re-election? I’ve been on the board for 10 years and there’s a lot of things going on I’d like to see come to fruition.

 

David Monteith (incumbent)

• Age: 69

• Experience: Commissioner for 18 years

• Hometown: Bryson City

• Education: Swain County High School

• Profession: Retired, former Ingles Market manager, currently drives a school bus for Swain County Schools

• Describe yourself in three words: Christian, native (Swain County) and (civic) responsibility

• Why are you running? I’ve served on the board of 18 years and there are still projects I would love to see finished for Swain County, and I just enjoy serving the people.

 

Boyd Gunter

• Age: 65

• Experience: Ran for commissioner chairman in 2006 and 2014

• Hometown: Alarka community

• Education: Two degrees from Western Carolina University

• Profession: Retired medical technologist at the VA Hospital in Asheville

• Describe yourself in three words: County-minded, fair, hard-headed. 

• Why are you running? Three reasons – to decrease the fire insurance rating for communities outside Bryson City, get money for North Shore Road settlement, and make sure the next property revaluation doesn’t result in a tax increase for residents. 

Democratic candidates Wayne Dover and David Anthony did not respond to multiple calls requesting an interview. 

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