Swain bristles at perceived encroachment by Rep. Clampitt
A feud brewing between Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain) and the governments of Swain County and Bryson City reached a new level over the last couple of weeks as officials balked at Clampitt’s plea for the two entities to consolidate their emergency services.
In fact, elected town and county leaders made it clear they didn’t even want to hear Clampitt’s arguments, claiming that such a decision should be made from the “bottom up” and not the “top down.” In an email Clampitt sent to town councilmen and county commissioners in May, he outlined his case, saying it’s necessary to get ahead of future growth and tourist traffic in the area in the coming years.
“It is imperative that we all provide the best public safety at the most affordable costs to the citizens of the area,” he wrote in the email.
Clampitt’s plan included building a new joint emergency response facility that could be used by both Bryson City and Swain County emergency response personnel, as well as anyone else that may be called in to deal with any given emergency, such as the forest service or the county rescue squad. Some features would include a decontamination area, offices, classrooms, emergency operations center, accommodations and a commercial kitchen capable of feeding not only firefighters but also incident command personnel. In the email, Clampitt estimated the cost to be between $3-5 million.
“This may sound extravagant, but in reality it is an investment in the future of our area,” Clampitt wrote in the email.
In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago, Clampitt explained how to pay for the facility.
“As bad as I hate the word,” Clampitt said, “you can call it a fire tax. [Swain County’s] tax base isn’t high enough to fund that adequately on its own.”
To make that possible, county commissioners must call a referendum on the approval of a property tax levy, which will put the proposal in front of voters. Clampitt estimated that would probably come during the 2024 General Election.
“Having a fire tax gives departments a baseline so they would not have to depend on the county,” Clampitt said.
Currently, Graham County is the only county other than Swain west of Asheville that doesn’t have fire taxes on its service districts.
Clampitt scheduled a meeting in Swain County for July 23 and invited media, elected officials and emergency services personnel. However, no elected officials showed up. Clampitt told SMN that the only attendees were about a dozen or so firefighters and rescue personnel. Still, he thought the meeting went well and the people who turned out were attentive.
“They had a great interest in this. They were receptive to all the info,” he said. “There were some questions, but they were addressed by current statutes.”
However, Clampitt was disappointed in the lack of turnout from elected county and city officials.
“The fact that there is a representative from the county in the legislature with knowledge about the legislature concerning finances and funds should interest them,” Clampitt said. “They’re turning their back on a golden opportunity to acquire some of those funds by being short sighted, small-minded and uncooperative.”
In a letter to Clampitt signed by Swain County Commission Chair Ben Bushyhead and Bryson City Mayor Tom Sutton, the case against the unification of emergency services is made. Along with saying it would be more cumbersome to consolidate emergency services than Clampitt was letting on, the letter mentions that the Town of Bryson City recently purchased property and “are pursuing their own Fire Station for the Bryson City fire jurisdiction.”
When asked whether it was worth at least sitting down and listening to Clampitt’s plan, Sutton made his perspective clear.
“We didn’t send him that letter because we wanted to come and think about it,” Sutton said. “I appreciate Mike’s enthusiasm, but we want to have our volunteers onboard for something like that. I was not interested in spending my Saturday afternoon listening to a message that I thought was off the mark.”
Sutton said that after speaking with McGill and Associates, a firm that has built a couple of fire stations in the Buncombe County area, he believes Clampitt’s estimated cost of $3-5 million to be an extremely low estimate. Besides, the town has designs of its own.
“We would like to have a facility where we could locate the police station in the same building,” Sutton said.
Another reason Sutton said he didn’t think such a project was even possible was the ongoing work to bring the problematic wastewater treatment plant and sewer system up to date.
“Our front burner is the wastewater treatment system,” he said.
Sutton ultimately said that he felt such a large-scale solution should come from the “bottom up” and not the “top down.”
“Mike feels like things should be driven from Raleigh down, but we don’t feel that way,” Sutton said.
Clampitt said the notion of overreach from Raleigh in this case is a “total misconception.”
“If they feel like it is a Raleigh overreach and influence that is a total misconception because the city and county have been very difficult to work with and have been less than forthcoming on their needs,” Clampitt said. “Now of all times, wouldn’t it be the best time for the county to engage with the city and compromise for unification.”
As blunt as Sutton was, Bushyhead was perhaps harsher in response to what he perceived as Clampitt’s meddling in local affairs.
“The words from Mike Clampitt on paper don’t mean anything,” he said. “We work together well, the city and the county, and we’ll do what’s right.”
Bushyhead cited another recent example of a time when Clampitt was acting on his own when he submitted H1075, a bill that would have unified the county and city tourism development authorities.
“He submitted that bill without even talking to me as chair of the commissioners or any other commissioner with whom I’ve spoken,” Bushyhead said. “When these bills come up, we have no understanding or knowledge that they’re going to come up. That makes it extremely difficult to work together.”
Bushyhead echoed Sutton’s criticism about Clampitt trying to leverage his power as a representative on the city and county boards, noting that he’d previously had a chance to win a county commission seat before but lost.
“He tried to run for chair of the county and lost it substantially,” Bushyhead said. “One of the things I personally say to people who will listen to me is I will not allow Clampitt to run the county from Raleigh. I will not do it.”