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Competition scant so far in Haywood commissioner race

Two seats are up for election on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners this year, and both Mark Swanger and Kevin Ensley are looking to retain their seats.

Both incumbents seemed relatively unconcerned about this year’s election.

“I’m optimistic,” Swanger said.

While the candidate sign-up period just started this week and continues until the end of the month, Swanger and Ensley were the only ones who had declared they would run by press time Tuesday.

Ensley, 50, has been on the five-member board for eight years and is currently the only Republican on the board. Swanger, 61, has also served as a commissioner for eight years.

Both commissioners listed the board’s response to the recession and the privatization of its solid waste operations among the most important measures taken by the board during their recent terms.

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“I feel like the board as a whole has had a good handle on reacting to the economy,” Ensley said. “My first term there was money and revenues coming in. This term … the decisions have been harder because of the economic downturn.”

The county is operating on less tax revenue and has found ways to function more efficiently, he said.

But it has cost jobs.

Early last year, the county cut jobs for the third year in a row to help offset a budget shortfall — eliminating five full-time positions and freezing four vacant posts.

There have been 50 county jobs cut in three years. In 2009, Haywood County employed 557 full-time staff members; it now employs 507.

“I think the most difficult decision that the board did was reduce the number of employees,” Swanger said. “I think our board has done a very good job navigating the economic recession.”

Ensley added that more cost cutting measures could be in Haywood County’s future.

Ensley cited a bill being considered by the state legislature that would allow counties to combine their health and social services departments as a way to trim costs, save on overhead and eliminate any redundant services.

“Now that we have those under one roof in Haywood County, we could realize several hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings,” Ensley said.

Swanger agreed that the board must continue to look for ways to provide necessary services at an economical rate and take proactive steps to combat shrinking budgets.

Last year, the county signed a contract to privatize its solid waste operations — which will save the county an estimated $800,000 a year.

In addition to cutting costs, the board earlier this year signed a long-term lease with Mountain Projects for the Mountain Area Resource Center, which will act as a one-stop site for seniors seeking various services.

“I am pretty happy with what we have been able to do with our senior services,” Ensley said, adding that he would like to continue to augment the county’s senior offerings and possibly allow elderly-focused nonprofits space in the MARC building.

Although Swanger said most of the board’s future goals are a continuation of past milestones, if re-elected, he plans to keep the tax rate from increasing and continue to work with the Economic Development Commission and Haywood Community College to create jobs in the county.

“I think jobs are real important now,” agreed Ensley, adding that he would look for grants to fund county water and sewer projects, which could create jobs.

For example, Canton expanded its sewer system on Champion Drive, which directly created jobs, and it could indirectly add jobs to the area as new businesses move in, Ensley said.

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