Bushyhead challenges Carson for chairman seat
After serving as chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners for two terms, incumbent Phillip Carson will be challenged by fellow Democratic commissioner Ben Bushyhead.
Since both of the candidates are Democrats, they will face off during the May 8 primary election and the victor will claim the seat without a Republican challenger to face this fall.
No matter the outcome, Bushyhead and Carson will have to work together for another six months. It could make for some awkward board meetings, but the candidates said they’ve agreed to be civil.
“It might be a little awkward, but Ben and I have a good relationship. We both agreed to be good to one another and run a decent campaign and just let the people decide,” Carson said. “If I’m not re-elected the right thing for me to do will be to just shake a hand and say good luck. At the end of the day I really just want what’s best for our county.”
Bushyhead said he planned to run an honest campaign and hopes to build on the support he had during his last campaign in 2014 in which he was the top vote-getter out of six candidates.
“I will run my campaign open and honestly and people will vote for me or not,” he said. “I hope I carry forward the same support — I think leadership they have seen from me is easily transferred to the position of chair.”
Leading the county
Carson said he first decided to run for chairman after his first term as commissioner because the then-chairman was retiring and he felt the job should go to someone with experience.
As chairman, he said he takes on more responsibility than other commissioners — overseeing county expenses and revenues.
“I oversee the check writing and the numbers coming in and coming out. I make sure we’re paying our debts as well as making sure enough money is coming in and that we’re meeting budget deadlines,” he said.
Carson said it’s the chairman and the county manager’s job to make sure the board is informed on issues and has accurate and complete information before making decisions.
As Bushyhead finishes out his first term as commissioner, he said he’s learned how important it is for the board to have a good leader to be proactive about issues facing the county and do research before the board meetings.
“I’ve served as a commissioner for three years and one of things I’ve personally noticed is we have no assertive leadership and I just feel it’s so necessary,” Bushyhead said. “We have a short period of time to get Swain’s agenda moving and we need that kind of leadership to make it happen.”
For Bushyhead, the chairman should be responsible for educating the commissioners on important background and context surrounding issues coming before the board instead of relying on the county manager to present the agenda items during the meetings.
“Sometimes we need more aggressive leadership and we’re not getting it,” he said. “I do my own research and get various input. I think that’s the chairman’s responsibility — he needs to bring issues to the board that he foresees as maybe becoming a problem for the county in the future.”
Carson said his current term has been a productive one with many accomplishments for Swain County. First and foremost, the county finally received a $4 million payment from the federal government from the North Shore Road settlement agreement. It’s the first payment the county has received since the $52 million settlement was reached in 2010.
Carson said it was the board’s decision to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior that eventually led to the government coughing up the money it owes Swain for not rebuilding the road that was destroyed when Fontana Dam was created. Even though the breach of contract lawsuit was dismissed because the federal government has until 2020 to pay the total settlement, Carson said it showed those in Washington, D.C., that the county was serious about getting what is owed.
If elected, Bushyhead said his priority would be to get the rest of the settlement money before the agreement expires in 2020. He agreed with Carson that the lawsuit is what got the attention of the Department of Interior and lawmakers.
“It was instrumental in shaking up the department and the senators that oversee the budget — I think that’s why we got it,” Bushyhead said. “It cost us $100,000 to get it but I think it was well worth it. It’s on the books now, so if in 2020 we don’t see the complete funding, it’s already on the record.”
Carson said he’s also proud that the county was able to purchase nine acres of Inspiration Park to turn into an outdoor event center for residents and visitors to use. The loan to purchase the property is being paid back with occupancy tax revenue, which is collected on overnight stays at hotels and inns in Swain County. The revenue has to be used to reinvest in tourism-related projects and marketing.
“We’ve never had a place for a county fair, circus, rodeo or any big outdoor event, and now we do,” he said.
The county was also able to acquire the mostly-vacant federal building on Main Street in Bryson City thanks to a historic monument designation through the National Park Service. The plan is to move the county administrative offices into the federal building to make more room for the court system in the existing administrative building on Mitchell Street. The Bryson City Police Department and the school central offices also plan to move into the federal building and share the cost of renovations and utilities.
Aside from those tangible accomplishments, Bushyhead said his goals for his first term included improving communications between the county and residents, the town of Bryson City, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — of which he is an enrolled member.
“One thing I told people while campaigning is if I’m going to ask them to elect me to represent them, then I need to know their concerns and I have to be available to them to address those issues,” he said. “That’s the thing I think I’ve done — made myself available via phone and by being at their community events.”
Bushyhead said building better relationships with the community members makes them more comfortable approaching the commissioners with their opinions and concerns — something he says has been lacking in the past. Keeping open lines of communications with the town and other stakeholders like EBCI and the GSMNP creates more opportunity for partnerships that can benefit everyone.
“My goal it to return the government to the people. We have several of the commissioners who have invited people to approach us at a meeting without a confrontational relationship,” he said. “In the future I’d like to get commissioners out to speak to various civic group and at events where they ask our attendance.”
Progress is being made in Swain County, but there are still several important issues that need to be tackled.
While the county’s tourism industry is thriving, there’s still a shortage of living-wage jobs, and the recent closure of ConMet resulted in the loss of about 400 manufacturing jobs. With a tight budget and little developable land for industry, Swain is hard pressed to attract large businesses to the area. Limited broadband access presents another challenge to growing the economy.
Commissioners did approve a transit program that would shuttle ConMet employees to the plant in Canton, which enabled many to keep their jobs.
“ConMet is trying to sell the property — hopefully it’s purchased by someone who will create jobs,” Carson said. “We’ve talked with folks who make plastic shutters who could use the facility, but right now it’s only speculation.”
Bushyhead said the commissioners have to rely on county staff, including its economic development director Ken Mills, to advise them on ways to create jobs and improve the economy.
“If they don’t do their job then we run into problems, but also the amount of land available for jobs is very limited, he said. “I think all the commissioners definitely would support growth of any kind.”
The commissioners did form a broadband committee to explore ways to improve service by working hand-in-hand with providers. Increasing high-speed internet will make it easier for small business owners and telecommuting professionals to work from home.
“Tourism is still our go-to and individual entrepreneurship, which is why we’re working extremely hard to get the broadband accessibility,” Bushyhead said.
Carson agreed that tourism is extremely important to Swain County’s economic future. Even though many of the jobs associated with tourism may not be the best paying, the industry has a ripple effect.
“I think tourism is our biggest industry in Swain since we’re limited in the amount of floor space for manufacturing jobs,” he said. “But it’s amazing how many visitors we have come in and then they want to come back and make this their final destination when they retire. Those people invest in a home or they want to be able to rent it out before they move here full time and rentals help generate dollars being reinvested in tourism.”
School safety is on everyone’s mind since the last mass shooting and the school threats that have followed. Swain is no exception — just a week after the Parkland, Florida, shooting, Swain County Schools were placed on lockdown because of a threat made on social media.
The county has completed renovations and expansions at East and West Swain elementary schools in the last several years, but the Swain middle and high schools are still in need of millions of dollars of upgrades — many of which would improve safety protocols.
Swain County Schools proposed a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the last election ballot to help increase revenues to go toward school infrastructure. The increase from 6.75 percent to 7 percent sales tax would have created about $300,000 of additional revenue annually, but the referendum didn’t pass.
So how can the county address the needs of the school facilities with Swain’s low property tax base?
“A little bit at a time,” Carson said.
He would like to see the sales tax referendum placed back on the ballot this fall and work hard to get it passed. He understands residents’ resistance against any tax increase, but tourists also help pick up the costs when they shop in the county and gas and food is exempt from the tax.
“It should have passed,” Bushyhead said of the referendum. “But we have to sell it to the public. The idea is to educate the community as to why we need the increase and how it will be used — and you have to set a time on it. It can’t be forever.”
In the meantime, Carson said the county is taking steps to better secure its schools. Sheriff Curtis Cochran already requested funding for two more school resource officers — one more for the middle school and one for the high school. The county will apply for the COPS grant again to fund the positions.
“Safety is of the utmost importance,” Carson said, adding that he would also like to see SROs at the elementary schools as well.
A new library project has been in the works for several years. A couple donated land on Fontana Road and the Marianna Black Library Campaign Planning Committee has been working toward its goal of raising $1 million toward the project. The problem is the committee is looking for a major financial commitment from the county before construction begins. It’s a commitment commissioners haven’t been able to make.
“I understand it’s an important thing in our community, but we’re trying to find funding for it,” Carson said. “We were presented with a library plan with a cost estimate of $7 million. I think the majority of the board would like to see the plan scaled back. Maybe have a building we could expand later when funds become available.”
The library committee has been putting pressure on the commissioners to make a financial commitment soon because there is a time limit on the land donation. When Don and Toni Davidson donated the 9 acres in 2014, they stipulated the land would revert back to them in seven years if the library project hasn’t gotten underway.
After talking to the donors and library committee, Bushyhead said that 2021 deadline is not as concrete as previously thought.
“We don’t have the money to build a library or help them — it’s not in the budget,” he said. “The idea of a new library took hold very quickly, but there was no research into what happens if we don’t get it.”
Bushyhead said even though the current library has some limitations — it needs roof repairs and more parking — it can be utilized for another five years with some small investments.
Carson and Bushyhead both said they are open to the idea of using some of the interest off the North Shore Road settlement account to put toward the project, but that they can’t commit to funding the majority of the project. They would like to see the committee seek out grant funding to make it happen.
“We just can’t do a five-year funding guarantee. The library just thinks we just need to write them a check for $7 million and we’ll have a new library,” Bushyhead said.
Swain County’s lack of animal control was an issue Bushyhead wanted to tackle when first elected.
The county doesn’t have any local regulations, animal control officers or a county shelter. PAWS — a nonprofit animal rescue — is the only shelter in the county and the aging facility struggles to keep up with the demand.
Though it’s always a controversial subject with strong opinions on both sides, Bushyhead formed an animal control committee that held community meetings all over the county to gather information and draft an animal control ordinance. A draft ordinance was completed in 2016, but the board of commissioners has yet to bring it up for discussion or hold a public hearing on the issue.
“I spent a year on that. It should have come to the commissioners,” Bushyhead said. “We have a lot of people for it and against it — that’s why it needs to come to a vote and commissioners need to make themselves aware of the concerns to address them or if they oppose it they need to let the people know they’re in opposition to it.”
Carson said the animal control issue hasn’t come before the board because of the negative reaction from the public. He said most people don’t want Swain to adopt any more regulations for animal control other than what the state has on the books.
“From talking to lot of folks that’s all they want — there’s not a big push for animal control,” Carson said. “If the county ever built a shelter, I’m afraid it couldn’t be a no-kill shelter — euthanasia would have to be part of it but folks don’t want to see that either.”
Swain County Commissioner race
• Hometown: Swain County
• Age: 70
• Professional background: Retired Methodist minister
• Political experience: One term as Swain County Commissioner
• Hometown: Swain County
• Age: 55
• Professional background: Licensed plumber, 34 years as a rescue squad member, paramedic.
• Political experience: One term as a Swain County commissioners, two terms as chairman