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Six candidates compete in Swain commissioner primary

Clockwise, from top left: Holly Bowick, Vance W. Greene, Kevin Seagle, Johnny Parton and Danny Burns. Not pictured: Wayne Dover. Clockwise, from top left: Holly Bowick, Vance W. Greene, Kevin Seagle, Johnny Parton and Danny Burns. Not pictured: Wayne Dover.

Six candidates for Swain County commissioner — three Republicans and three Democrats — will appear on the May 8 Primary Election ballot. 

Residents can vote for their top two choices in each party. Republican candidates are Holly Bowick, Vance Greene III and Kevin Seagle; Democrat candidates are incumbent Danny Burns, John Parton and Wayne Dover. 

The top two vote-getters in each party will move on to the November election ballot. The Swain County Commission chairman race will also appear on the primary ballot — Democratic challenger Ben Bushyhead, a sitting commissioner, is challenging Democratic incumbent Phillip Carson for the seat. 

Swain commissioner candidates Roger Parsons (Democrat) and Carolyn Bair (Republican) will be running against each other on the November ballot to determine who will fill the remaining two years of the late David Monteith’s term on the board. 

Five of the six candidates recently took the time to discuss the top issues facing Swain County and how they would address those issues if elected. 

 

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State of the economy

As residents of Swain County, all the candidates said they are concerned about the local economy. With the closure of the ConMet plant in Bryson City earlier this year, the county lost hundreds of good-paying manufacturing jobs and candidates said they would work diligently to find an industry to replace it. 

Burns, who is finishing his first term on the board this year, said the county’s economic development director Ken Mills is looking for a good fit for the existing building but it’s a hard sell given Swain’s rural location and limited water and sewer infrastructure outside the town limits.

“It’s difficult. We’re talking about drawing in industry and business but with limited infrastructure and land we’re handicapped,” Burns said.

Many in Swain County don’t want to see the county economy solely dependent on the tourism industry, but others say it’s the one thing that’s going well and growing. 

Seagle said tourism brings in new people to buy and build homes, which creates jobs in the construction business. Tourism also brings in entrepreneurs that open small businesses and employ residents. 

“We did lose ConMet and that took a big hit on us as far as jobs,” Seagle said. “We need to continue to look for people to fill that building but we can’t put all our eggs in one basket either — tourism is our biggest base economy even though a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. We’ve got to use what we got.”

Parton agreed that tourism is the major draw to Swain County. He said the county should work to protect its natural resources to be able to continue to grow the local economy. 

“I know the economy of Swain is based on tourism and I know people come here because of the beauty of the area,” he said. “I’m an environmentalist and we have to preserve our air and water quality or you’re killing what your income comes from. You address those issues and people will come and the economy will grow and we’ll have more funds.”

Greene said the county commissioners could also try to improve the local economy by supporting existing small businesses. 

“They can’t cut costs like the big retailers,” he said. “The biggest thing we can do is to encourage people to buy locally to keep those businesses going and so they can grow.”

Bowick agreed that having a large industry to replace ConMet would be great but that the county commissioners need to help sustain small business as well and work on the larger issues that impact the county’s ability to attract an industry — like having an educated or skilled workforce to fill those future positions. 

Bowick said she also had a problem with the county’s economic development director not living in the county he’s supposed to help promote. Mills recently moved from Swain County to Haywood County; however, Mills is also getting ready to retire next year. 

“What are his incentives to go after grants and jobs? There are none,” she said. “I believe if you’re going to be a top-level person for economic growth you need to live in the county.”

Burns said he would prefer the next economic director live inside the county and that perhaps the commissioners can make that stipulation in the next director’s contract, but it was not included in Mills’ contract. 

 

County wages

All of the candidates for commissioner have made it a priority to increase wages for county employees, but many are still unsure as to where the additional revenue can come from. 

As a former county employee himself, Greene said he’d like to see the commissioners increase wages to improve employee retention. 

“I left for a better job and pay and that seems to be a trend that goes on in our county. We put people to work but because we’re so small we can’t afford to pay them a lot because of the small tax base,” he said. 

With the loss of ConMet, Seagle — who is still a part-time county employee — said the county is now the largest employer and should work to give those 200-plus employees a living wage to keep them in the county. Investing in the employees would be an investment in the local economy because then employees will have more money to spend locally. 

“We need to work on jobs and try to keep people in the county,” he said. “And the people already here, we need to make sure they have the education and the benefits to stay here.”

Bowick said the wages county employees receive, especially law enforcement, were “horrendous” while upper level county administrators are probably making too much money. 

“Taxes don’t need to be raised to do it and I don’t want to count on the Road to Nowhere money,” she said. “We need to look at the budget. Allocations can be changed — we can pull monies from other places to pay for it.”

Burns said that’s easier said than done. As a commissioner he’s now going through his fourth year of working through the county budget, and he says there’s little “fluff” to be found nowadays. He is in favor of implementing a new pay scale for the county employees. He serves on the personnel committee to try to move that initiative forward, but admits the budget has little wiggle room for an ongoing expense. 

“Our tax dollars haven’t increased but a lot of our bills have. We have five mandates for things we have to fund and everything else we have to look at are we using it in the best way to take care of needs of county,” Burns said. 

Parton said addressing issues like mental health and substance abuse would help cut down on the number of law enforcement officers needed in Swain and then that funding could be put toward increasing wages for officers. Ideally, he said he’d like to see county deputies be more “good will ambassadors” in the county instead of having to focus on the drug and violence problems. 

 

Budgeting and taxes

Swain County has a long list of needs but doesn’t have the tax base or revenue streams to get them all done since the federal government owns about 80 percent of the county land. No one wants to talk about increasing property taxes and a referendum to increase the county sales tax from 6.75 percent to 7 percent in order to fund school capital projects failed on the ballot last fall. 

On top of limited revenue streams, Burns said the county is constantly fighting for state and federal funding and looking for grant funding to keep the county and the school system running. 

“A big part of my job as commissioner is education — educating the public when they ask why we can’t do things. Very few people have an idea of what the budget is. We have about $6.4 million in ad valorem tax revenue,” Burns said. 

Parton said with his past experience working for the governor’s office in South Carolina and in North Carolina, he thinks he can be of assistance in finding new revenue streams whether it’s from the state, federal government or other grant opportunities. 

“Swain County is really pressed for money and it’s really a challenge to meet the needs of Swain County, therefore finding other funding sources I think is critical for Swain to reach its potential,” he said. “I don’t propose to have all the answers, but I have background to examine the problems and look for solutions.”

Seagle agreed that it is important for the county to go after grants and other government funding to supplement the county’s budget. 

“We don’t want to put the burden on the people. Raising taxes should be the last resort,” he said. 

Bowick said the county also needed to be better stewards of the money it receives. For example, she said Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, secured about $35,000 for Swain County for infrastructure and the county spent it on a tourism project to construct the new trout museum and aquarium instead of using it toward a school infrastructure project. 

While Greene admits that not many candidates get elected by saying they’ll raise taxes, he said he wouldn’t be opposed to looking at increasing taxes on visitors instead of Swain County residents by increasing the sales tax, room tax on accommodations and a tax on the fishing industry. 

All candidates said they’d like to see the quarter-cent sales tax referendum go back on the ballot soon to increase revenue for school capital projects. The quarter-cent increase is estimated to bring in an additional $300,000 a year for the school system. 

If it makes it back to the ballot, candidates said it needed to be better explained to voters beforehand. 

“People just saw an increased tax rate — they didn’t know what it was for,” Greene said. “If we have something like that, there needs to be district meetings so people can see what it’s for and how it will be spent.”

Bowick agreed that the referendum wasn’t promoted enough by the school system or the county and that it needs to be revisited for the sake of the schools’ needs. 

Burns said the county commissioners haven’t been approached again by the school system about the sales tax increase, but said if it comes up again, there needs to be more time to promote it and educate the public so it will pass. 

While Parton believes raising taxes should be a last resort, he is open to increasing the sales tax to benefit the school system. 

 

Road to Nowhere settlement

Swain County leaders have been fighting for years to get the federal government to pay out a $52 million settlement owed to Swain County in lieu of not rebuilding a road from Bryson City to Tennessee to replace the old road that was flooded in the 1940s to create Fontana Dam. 

The county received a $12 million payment when the settlement was reached in 2010 but has been given the runaround in Washington, D.C., over the last eight years trying to get the rest of it. It wasn’t until the county sued the federal government last year that the issue finally got some more attention in Congress and Swain County finally received a $4 million payment. The recent payment has given the commissioners a renewed hope that the settlement will be paid out by the 2020 deadline, but Burns said it will still be important for commissioners to stay on top of the issue. 

The money goes directly into a trust account in Raleigh and the county only draws the interest off the principle. With about $16 million in the account, the annual interest payment, which fluctuates with the economy, isn’t always enough to do any long-range project planning. However, if the county gets the rest of the money and draws interest off the entire $52 million, the county would be drawing at least $500,000 or more a year to put toward infrastructure and other projects that benefit the county as a whole. 

Parton would like to see the community embark in a long-range planning process to determine what the settlement money should be used for to benefit everyone. He also wants to explore what it would take to be able to use some of the principal as well. 

“It will take 75 percent vote of the county population to be able to touch the principal, but at some point the principal does need to be touched,” he said. “We can’t assume we’re in a straightjacket and can’t do anything with it.”

Seagle agreed that a county planning process is needed to prioritize major projects that could be completed using some of the settlement funds. He would prioritize school, water and sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Bowick said she’d like to see the interest from the money go toward addressing the schools’ needs and raising wages for county employees first before looking at other infrastructure needs. 

“Slowly but surely we could take care of our infrastructure, but it needs to be a well thought out plan,” she said. 

In addition to giving employees a raise, Greene said one of his main priorities is to give children and teens a safe place to go after school whether that’s through a program at the library or through partnering to bring in a youth center or YMCA. 

“Our biggest asset is our employees — I’d like to see people be able to make a living,” he said. “I’d also like to see our kids have a way to be educated and safe and have everything they need.”

When asked about the proposed animal control ordinance that may come before commissioners soon, the candidates rated it low on the priority list given that adopting an ordinance without any enforcement in place would be a waste of time. Candidates were also asked whether they supported the effort to construct a new library. While they all agreed a new library would be a great asset for Swain County, it all goes back to a lack of funding. 

“I’d love to see it happen — it’s an essential part of the county — but we don’t have the money there to do it,” Burns said. “We’re looking at a $6 million project.”

As a member of the new library planning committee, Burns said they are looking for grant opportunities and ways to do major fundraising projects to pay for a library.

Parton said the county needed to look at how people use libraries in today’s world of technology. Instead of trying to fund a large library central to Bryson City, he suggested installing computer labs in parts of the county where internet availability is limited like Whittier and Alarka. 

“People want a new one and I get that, but if you look at technology, books are being phased out. People order books online or download them,” Seagle said. “I think if we build a new one, it needs to be more focused on an IT center.”

Bowick said she hasn’t seen enough people in the community fighting for a new library to make it a top priority. She’d like to see more fundraising efforts from the committee and also a scaled down version of the proposed building. 

 

Republicans, pick two

Holly Bowick

• Hometown: Mobile, Alabama. Moved to Swain County in 1986. 

• Age: 52

• Education: Bachelor’s degree

• Professional background: Worked at Nantahala Outdoor Center as a waitress and worked her way up in to management; Opened the Everett Street Diner in Bryson City with Julia Hunt; operated her own catering business; 10 years with Swain-Qualla Safe (a local domestic violence agency); currently works in the District Attorney’s Office.

• Political experience: None, first time running for public office. 

Vance W Greene III

• Hometown: Lower Alarka community

• Age: 40

• Education: Swain County High

• Professional background: Paramedic 

• Political experience: None, first time running for public office

Kevin Seagle

• Hometown: Spartanburg, South Carolina. Family moved to Graham County when he was 6; lived in Swain County for 20 years. 

• Age: 45

• Education: Robbinsville High School

• Professional background: Worked for Swain County for 13 years as the department head of building inspections, now works part-time for the county department. 

• Political experience: None, first time running for public office.

 

Democrats, pick two

Danny Burns (incumbent)

• Hometown: Swain County

• Age: 62

• Education: Swain County High

• Professional background: Retired from Pepsi-Cola

• Political experience: Completing first term as commissioner. 

Wayne Dover 

• Hometown: N/A

• Age: 44

• Education: N/A

• Professional background: Former sheriff’s deputy and detention center officer. 

• Political experience: Ran against Sheriff Curtis Cochran in 2010 Republican primary; ran on the Democratic ticket for Swain County commissioner in the 2016 primary but lost. 

• Dover did not return a phone call for an interview with The Smoky Mountain News. 

John Parton

• Hometown: Whittier 

• Age: 80

• Education: Swain County High, BA in business administration from Berea College, Masters from Virginia Tech in urban and regional planning; law degree from University of Kentucky.

• Professional background: Practiced law in American Samoa; worked for the District Attorney’s Office in Oregon and California; joined private firm in Maui, Hawaii before moving back to Swain County in 1996 to practice. 

• Political experience: None, first time running for public office.

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