For the four-year term, voters will choose between two Democrats — incumbent Danny Burns and newcomer John Parton — and two Republican newcomers, Holly Bowick and Kevin Seagle.
For the two-year term, voters will choose between Democrat Roger Parsons, who was appointed by the board to fill the seat until the election, and Republican Carolyn Bair, who made a couple of unsuccessful runs for the board in 2014 and again in 2016.
Tell us about yourself and why you’re running for commissioner?
Bair: I was raised on a farm and I started working at 15 years old and worked until two years ago. Back when we were on the farm, my parents raised all four of us children with moral high standards. The common sense — that’s what we need a lot of. The kids coming up these days, they’re not coming up with the morals we had and the common sense we had. I go to the commissioner meetings and I see a lot going on that I wouldn’t have approved if I was in there.
Bowick: I was born and raised in Alabama, but I moved to the mountains in the late ‘80s and I started working at the Nantahala Outdoors Center. After my career at NOC, I did a lot of volunteer work with Swain Qualla Safe and I decided that was more of my calling. I started working with Safe and stayed with them for 10 years. Then I had the greatest opportunity to go work for the District Attorney’s Office, so for the last 17 years I have worked in some type of legal field so I feel like that’s why I wanted to run. More than anything I’m a community member, I’m a mom and I’ve always been involved.
Parsons: After high school, I went to Western Carolina University and graduated from there, but I wanted to live here, I wanted to stay in this community and raise my family here. I was fortunate enough to find a job that provided that for me so I went to work for UPS and I worked for them for 37 years and retired a couple of years ago. I’ve been on the board for a year and a half or so and I’m seeking re-election for that seat. My love for this county, and I mean that sincerely, and its people — this is my home and I want to do everything I can to serve my home.
Parton: My family is from Swain County — my parents, grandparents and great grandparents are all from here. I think my qualifications and experience, which includes working for the governor of North Carolina for three years and the governor of South Carolina for six years, would qualify me for a commissioner’s job. This is an opportunity to give back to the county, the county’s been good to me.
Seagle: I decided to run for Swain County commissioner because I really wanted to be able to give back to a county that’s been good to me. I live in the county, I own a business in the county. I love the community and I love the people.
If elected, what are your top three goals and how do you plan to accomplish them?
Bair: If I get in there I’m going to fight for the elderly and for our children and our schools to the best of my ability. We need housing for our elderly. They need affordable housing. Medicine is a top priority among the elderly right now. The second is our children — they need substantial housing. We need to be in contact with other counties, especially on the reservation. We need to help each other. The third is taxes — I think as far as taxes are concerned, after you get 70 years old, I think if you live in Swain County you shouldn’t have to pay automobile taxes and you shouldn’t have to pay property taxes, or even get a reduced rate.
Bowick: My number one goal is something we’ve seen in the news repeatedly is the opioid epidemic. It has many tentacles — it reaches out and it touches so many lives. We’ve seen a rise in crime, we’ve seen a rise in domestic violence, we’ve seen that our health care is pretty much non-existent and we’ve also seen the lack of mental health choices for treatment facilities. I feel like our county has done a tremendous job in tackling it — our sheriff has tackled it and there is no tolerance — but it just doesn’t stop there. We do need to educate our county commissioners and our educators and our community because this epidemic is so huge.
I’ve always said our children are our future. We’ve got to teach a trade — every child is not geared for college …. but if they do go to college, we need them to be able to come back and have jobs that will allow them to be sustainable and be productive.
The third thing I’ve always said is industry. Do I think GMC is going to move into Swain County? Absolutely not, but I believe that if we could look outside of the main area of Bryson City I think we’re going to see we can target some smaller industries.
Parsons: Right now we have one of the lowest property tax rates in the state. I’d like to be able to keep it low so it’s an affordable place to live. I would like to make sure everybody knows that I’m doing this for them — that I’m employed by them to represent them. I feel like I’m always open to hearing their ideas and their opinions. One of my goals is to continue to work on our infrastructure — our sewer system, our water system, Wi-Fi and broadband and all our systems. Those are big issues and a deterrent to business and people who want to work out of their homes. We’ve learned how to pinch pennies. We’ve been very frugal with money and I take that responsibility of using the taxpayers’ money seriously.
Parton: I think the county needs a long-range plan to establish what their needs are for the next 20 or 30 years and try to set priorities for those needs and then try to determine how they would fund those priorities. Swain County is a very small county with a $15 million budget. It can be difficult to address all the needs of the county. The current commissioners have done a very good job, but I’d like to be able to get in and examine where we are and see if I can help determine where we’re going. As far as goals, I think broadband internet is paramount, developing a long-range plan — those are the kinds of issues I’d like to look at.
Seagle: My number one goal is community involvement. We have a lot of elderly people that need some things to do and we also have the younger generation that we need to encourage to get involved in more stuff outside of school.
Economically, I’d love to see the ConMet building occupied with a full-time staff so people can invest in their retirement and invest in their future. We have to make sure we have the infrastructure for internet technology. If people at their homes can get better broadband internet, it helps such a broad scheme of things — the elderly and our students. We really need to focus on our future and invest in our next generation.
There are a few controversial issues that the county commission continues to kick down the road. What is your position on the county financially supporting a new library, passing an animal control ordinance and increasing wages for county employees (especially law enforcement officers)?
Bair: I don’t think we need a new library because the one we have is efficient enough for our county. It’s in town, they have enough parking. I’d rather see the county build a new shelter for our animals because the one we have is not big enough. I’d like to have a county maintained shelter. I’d also like to see a control ordinance in town.
We’re losing a lot of employees — they come here and train which costs us about $30,000 then if they find a better job in another county that pays more they’re automatically going to leave. I say give them enough to where they have the incentive to stay.
Bowick: You’ll never get me to say I don’t think we need a library, but do I think it is it the number one thing on our list? Absolutely not. I think we need to prioritize where does it fall in the big scheme of things when we’re looking at the resources that are going to allow us to increase wages for county employees and that is something I am very much in favor of.
The animal ordinance — that’s a hard one for me because again it’s going to require resources. I’m an animal lover so I do see the need but is it a need we need to tackle right now? I’m very open to suggestions of how we would allocate the money and that’s looking at the budget. It’s a tight budget.
Parsons: The library is something near and dear to a lot of people’s hearts and to be quite frank it’s not a big issue with a lot of other people in this county. I’d like to partner and help them anyway we can but that committee is going to have to come up with a lot of money — how we can help them is with grants and fundraising. I don’t think the county is ready right now to build a $5 million or $7 million library when our annual budget is $15 million.
Animal control was brought up before I was on the board. I think it’s important we take a step in that direction. We can start with getting all dogs licensed and registered with tags that way you’d have an ID and rabies tag around every dog’s neck. At least start a process of trying to get this under control.
As far as salaries, I’ve been through two budget cycles so far and I have been a strong voice for pay increases for all our county employees. The first year we gave a one and a half percent raise across the board — the only negative thing about that is that some people at the top didn’t need it as much as the people at the bottom. This past budget cycle we gave across the board raise — the same amount for everybody ($500). We’ll always have issues with retention like a lot of counties in the state but we have to at least make an effort to show we care and make it a good place to work.
Parton: I’ve met with the library committee and I’m very impressed with what they’ve done and what they’re trying to achieve. They’re well aware of what their funding problems are and they’re trying to address those. I’m going to support them anyway we possibly can — it will go back to this master plan.
As far as animal control ordinance, I think it’s needed but it needs to be reasonable. We need to be concerned about our neighbors. If you have an animal, to me it’s like having a child — you take care of your animals. I believe in having animals registered, I believe in having a number where you can be reached if your pet happens to be lost. If you have a dangerous dog, I think you need to control your dog. If you have a dog that barks all the time and disturbing the neighbors, you have to have a noise ordinance. There has to be be ways we can all live with this. I’m not suggesting you have to have a leash law but there does need to be reasonable control over animals for the animals’ sake.
Being a commissioner is not a one way street, it’s a two way street. If the people of Swain County want the employees to have higher salaries, they may be looking at higher taxes. There’s no dancing around it. To achieve objectives you have to be willing to sacrifice. I’m all for people making a living wage so I’ll support improving wages any way I can for county employees.
Seagle: If we build a library it has to be a multi-use facility. It’s not just about putting books in there, it’s about bringing in an IT room and room for elderly and youth activities — more like a community event center library. We look a lot at aesthetics but I think we need to focus on the functionality of it to make sure it benefits the whole community.
An animal control ordinance has been an issue for years and I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this. If have a county shelter you have to staff it, manage it and maintenance it. If you have an ordinance you have to have people to enforce it. Maybe we do need it — I don’t know if we need it as bad as we think we need it. I would have to look at it and see whether it’s feasible.
I’ve been working for the county for 14 years — I saw groceries go up, I saw gas go up, I have to buy school supplies for four kids so my family’s budget has gone up. We have over 200 county employees. If we increase their salaries it increases the economy in the county because if I take 200 people and get them up to where they need to be I’m affecting the entire family. People start spending more within the county. If you invest in people you’ll always see a return.
Swain County finally received the entire $56 million the federal government owed from the North Shore Road settlement. Should the county continue to supplement its budget with the annual interest accrued or earmark it for special projects?
Bair: We don’t need the full amount at one time — just continue to get the interest. It needs to go to the schools, it needs to go to help the elderly and the children. If the elderly need public transportation, I don’t think they should have to pay for it. The county should furnish public transportation for anybody 70 and above if they need to go to the doctor or wherever. I also think some of it should go to our sheriff’s department to have more employees for the schools.
Bowick: I am about controlled growth and I am about controlled spending. I would never be in favor of just taking all the money. We’ve been given what a lot of people worked hard to get. We’re looking at possibility getting two to three million a year from the interest. We’ve got to look at the things that are most important right now and we’ve got to listen to our community members and where’d they’d like to see it. I think we can spend some money on infrastructure, I want to make sure our children are safe in the schools.
Parsons: Right now I’m in perfect agreement with us just using that interest money and I don’t know that t has to be an either or on that — I think it can be a little bit of both. I think we can use that money to help supplement our budget but at the same time take a little bit of that money possibly and put it toward projects we couldn’t do before. I also think we can use that money to help pay down our debt, especially debt where we’re paying a higher interest rate. And also not going into debt when we need to buy things.
Parton: I think for the time being we use the interest to supplement our budget, but again, we need that long-range plan. I’m sure the library would like to have some of that funding, the school board has over $20 million in capital improvement needs. I like it the way it is right now and once we have long range plan we can make a more intelligent decision on how to use that money.
Seagle: We tend to look behind so much but we need to look ahead and see where we want to go — where do we want to be five years down the road or 10 years down the road? One thing with buildings, when you build you’ve got to be able to fund that building but also maintenance it and staff it for the long term. Projects need to be looked at as do they benefit all the citizens and is it a want or a need.
Is the county doing enough for economic development and what do you see as the commission’s role in bringing in jobs and diversifying the economy?
Bair: No. We need to have industry. The schools want someone to come in and teach welding and I know welders get paid well. That’s the skills we need to be teaching. We need to bring more jobs, find industry; we have the land. People need jobs. Our kids when they get out of high school and if they don’t go to college there’s no jobs around here.
Bowick: We have a beautiful place to live. Tourism unfortunately has the spurts of the season. I think we’ve done an amazing job in targeting areas we need to target. What I would like to see is a shift in what are we going to bring in that’s going to be sustainable. The number one suggestion is usually let’s offer (an industry) a tax break for five years, and I am in favor of that but we’ve got to see what they can bring to the table for our community.
Parsons: We have a director and an (economic development) board with talented people on there. I don’t know if anybody ever does enough — we can always do more. We partner with Southwestern Planning (Region A), we partner with other agencies and groups around the region. Some of the issues we have with development has to do with our infrastructure. Right now our big economic booster is tourism and we just have to face that. It makes some people upset that’s what we’re relying on — I understand that — but that’s our thing right now so let’s utilize it.
Parton: Again, I think the county commissioners have done a great job. As everyone knows our primary industry is tourism. I’m all for making this a more desireable place to visit. I think cleaning up our county — you drive along seeing abandoned vehicle and litter all over the place, that needs to be cleaned up. I think we need an ordinance to clean up our county. We need the broadband I mentioned earlier to bring in more people and more business. I’m for hiring an expert if we have to because we have to tackle this problem.
Seagle: We’ve had a great Economic Development Director Ken Mills. We’ve been in contact with other counties and resources. We need to look at the infrastructure side of it and try to get more manufacturing in the industrial park. We’re tourism based right now — I’ve seen what tourism can do. Tourism builds houses which puts carpenters to work and that puts laborers to work and that increases sales on equipment and things like that. A lot of people don’t see the ripple effect of tourism.
One thing holding Swain back from attracting new industries is the aging water and sewer system, which is owned and operated by the town of Bryson City — should the county somehow partner with the town to update the system and expand it?
Bowick: I absolutely believe we should partner with the town; at the end of the day we’re one. If we don’t have water and sewer we can’t grow.
Parsons: We need to improve water and sewer and those are costly things and it’s mostly run by the town. We help them as much as we can but we’re going to have to get in and do a little bit more. We’re even working out with a neighboring county some sewer systems on the eastern part of Swain County.
Parton: I think the county has to work with Bryson City, but I also think the county is bigger than Bryson City — you can’t talk about one without including the other. There needs to be a coordination between the two.
Seagle: I think we need to come together as a town board and a board of commissioners and figure out how we can make this work for all of us. How can we broaden our infrastructure? How can we send a sewer line or a water line out to meet the needs of businesses and families coming in. When you do that you increase the value of the land and the homes on that land so when we broaden infrastructure we help people live a little bit better with financial stability when they don’t have to worry about a failing septic system.
Swain County Commissioner candidates
Pick 2 to fill a four-year term as a county commissioner
Holly Bowick (R)
• 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 as a victim services coordinator with the District Attorney’s Office in Macon County.
• Political experience: None, first time running for public office.
Danny Burns (D)
• Hometown: Swain County
• Age: 62
• Education: Swain County High
• Professional background: Retired from Pepsi-Cola
• Political experience: Completing first term as commissioner.
Editor’s note: Burns was not available for an interview prior to press time deadline.
John Parton (D)
• 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.
Kevin Seagle (R)
• Hometown: Spartanburg, South Carolina. Family moved to Graham County when he was 6; lived in Swain County for 25 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. He started a ministry in Bryson City called The Well with a Christian gift storefront on Main Street.
• Political experience: None, first time running for public office.
Pick 1 to fill a two-year unexpired term of former commissioner David Monteith
Roger Parsons (D)
• Hometown: Moved around as a small child when his father served in the U.S. Marines, but the family settled in Swain County when he was in elementary school.
• Age: 62
• Education: Swain County High School, bachelor’s degree in recreation management from Western Carolina University.
• Professional background: Retired from UPS.
• Political experience: Swain County School Board for 16 years; appointed to fill the unexpired term for former commissioner David Monteith.
Carolyn Bair (R)
• Age: 70
• Hometown: Born in Alabama, raised in Rome, Georgia
• Background: Retired from retail/fast food service
• Political experience: Ran for Swain County commissioner in 2014 and 2016