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Input sought for Swain’s future

Input sought for Swain’s future

All indications show Swain County has a prosperous future ahead, but county leaders are looking for community input to determine what their top priorities should be moving forward. 

Commission Chairman Ben Bushyhead, who was elected to the chairman’s post last November, said creating a strategic plan for the county would be one of his main goals moving into his second four-year term on the board.

“It’s going to be a lot of work because we don’t have anything for the county to look back at — we’ve never had a strategic plan before,” he said. “But there are a couple of state departments that can help us out with the process and Western Carolina University could send us someone to help us come up with a strategy and a comprehensive plan.”

That strategic planning effort is even more important now that the federal government has paid out the entire $52 million North Shore Road settlement to Swain County — something the county’s been waiting on since the settlement was reached in 2012. 

Though getting the money paid out was a major accomplishment for Swain County, it doesn’t mean the commissioners now have $52 million in the bank to spend. The funding sits in an account in Raleigh through the North Carolina Treasurer’s Office and the county can only draw off the interest it accrues each year. 

For years, the county only had $12 million in the account, waiting for the federal government to pay out the rest of the settlement. That $12 million resulted in $200,000 to $300,000 of interest a year for the county to help supplement the budget. Now that the $52 million is sitting in the bank it would stand to reason the county could expect millions in interest each year, but Bushyhead said it’s been more complicated because of how the state law was being interpreted by the Treasurer’s Office. 

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Swain County asked Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, to introduce an amendment to the state law establishing Swain County’s fund that would do two things — clarify the language so that Swain can collect interest on the entire $52 million each year and also allow the state treasurer to invest the money for Swain in a higher grossing account like the Equity Investment Fund. Right now the county can only invest the money into a Bond Index Fund or the Short Term Investment fund.

“The North Shore bill passed so now we can draw down the entire interest we earn instead of it going back into the principal amount,” Bushyhead said. “But the second part of the bill that would allow the state treasurer to invest our money in a higher interest earning vehicle — that part got confused and the legislature took that out of the bill so we have to go back next year and explain that to them.”

With Swain’s low tax base — and commissioners’ intent to keep property taxes low for residents — the North Shore Road settlement money can be a gamechanger for the county. The school system has major infrastructure needs, the Friends of the Library have been lobbying for a new library facility, county employees want raises, the pool at the rec park needs major repairs — the list of needs goes on. 

Bushybead said collecting input from community members on what their top priorities are will help the county through the strategic planning process. 

“Commissioners just sent out a survey with the tax bills asking them to fill it out — we want as many stakeholders as we can to be involved,” he said. 

The survey can also be completed online at www.surveymonkey.com/r/YKCW89Z.

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