Trifecta of taxes, spending and debt debated in Haywood commissioner race
Haywood voters must pick two county commissioners from a field of four candidates. Both the sitting commissioners are running to keep their seats. Whoever wins come Nov. 6 will serve four years on the county’s highest decision-making board.
Commissioners Mark Swanger and Kevin Ensley hope to defend their seats against challengers Denny King and Mike Treadway.
Here’s a look at some of the issues in the race.
Taxes and debt
King has made taxes and county debt the main topics of the general election, attacking the current commissioners for what he calls high tax rates, too much spending and too much debt.
“I think the property taxes, people are paying quite a bit,” King said.
Last year, the property tax rate rose from 51 cents to 54 cents. King claims this was a tax increase. Technically, however, it wasn’t.
That same year, property values on average went down countywide in a periodic revaluation. While the tax rate went up, since property values on average went down, the county didn’t collect any more in property taxes than it had been.
Still, King sees it as tax raise.
Compared to similarly sized county, Haywood’s tax rate is on average 10 cents lower, Swanger said.
The other challenger in the race, Treadway, doesn’t have an issue with the property tax rate and would work to maintain it if elected.
The county did, however, raise taxes by 1 cent during the height of the recession to help offset budget losses. Nonetheless, the overall size of the county’s budget is lower than it was five years ago, and it has fewer workers.
For both Ensley and Swanger, the elephant continuing to stay in the room is the fallout from the recent recession. Both incumbents noted continuing to live within the county’s means as their top priority if re-elected.
During the last few years, the county has worked to cut out some of its expenses by privatizing its landfill, combining a handful of departments under one roof — namely the old Walmart building on Paragon Parkway — and reducing the number of county employees.
“We have cut our budget just like our families had to do,” Ensley said.
This year’s budget is more than $3 million lower than the county’s budget four years ago.
Swanger agreed, saying he felt the current board did a good job keeping its expenditures under control without letting services suffer.
“If you allow the budget to outgrow revenue, you can do irreparable damage,” Swanger said. “But, that doesn’t mean you stand still. You still need to do things that enhance the lifestyle of our citizens.”
Swanger cited the leasing of the MARC building to a nonprofit group that offers a myriad of senior services under one roof.
Something that continues to haunt the county coffers, however, is its debt, according to King.
The county has about $71.1 million in outstanding debt in 14 different projects, including the justice center, the historic courthouse renovations, the new Department of Social Services building, and numerous schools. King said that amount is too much and has led to the accumulation of millions of dollars in interest that taxpayers must pay off.
“I think we have to find a way to get our debt down,” King said.
Haywood County has less debt than other comparable counties, however.
Swanger replied that Haywood County residents approved more than half of the debt that the county owes. He cited a countywide bond vote to build Bethel Elementary School, the new sheriff’s office and jail, and construction at Haywood Community College.
Haywood County’s unemployment rate has oscillated between 8 percent and 12.3 percent since 2009. The county’s most recent number put unemployment at 8.3 percent.
Although it is lower than the state unemployment rate, commissioner candidates still consider job growth an important matter facing the county during the next four years.
“We certainly need more jobs in our county. We need to work with everything we can to make it easy on businesses to come in,” King said.
The county needs to reduce “some unnecessary rules and regulations that hinder prosperity,” King said.
Attracting new jobs was the biggest concern for Treadway. County schools offer children a good education all the way through college at Haywood Community College, but jobs are scarce for graduates, Treadway said.
“We are educating our kids real good, and they are having to move away to find jobs,” Treadway said.
Treadway said that schools need to focus on training for jobs that are available and the county should work to bring skilled work to Haywood.
“I think we just need to be more aggressive,” Treadway said. “We need to maybe need to talk to people and see what their wants and needs are to come to Haywood County. I am open to suggestions.”
Although Ensley does not completely support incentives for private businesses, he said commissioners have helped Haywood County add jobs during the past couple of years, citing the more than 30 jobs Sonoco Plastics is adding.
“I have mixed feelings about incentives, but these are instances where they worked,” Ensley said. “Our (Economic Development Commission) efforts have paid off some.”
• Because he has not served on the board before, Treadway said he could offer a new point of view.
“I could maybe question some things,” Treadway said.
When asked if he disagreed with any choices the current board made, Treadway shied away from criticizing the commissioners.
“They’ve had to make some hard decisions, and they may have made the best decision. I do not have the information,” Treadway said. “For me to sit on the fence and tell them they have done something wrong would not be right.”
• In addition to taxes and debt, King spoke out against the county’s emergency management ordinance. The ordinance lays out what should happen in the event of a county disaster.
The document, among other authorities, gives the county manager the right to use all available resources to cope with the emergency and to procure or seize items or facilities without regard for any existing law. King said it awards too much power.
“I do have some concerns about the power,” King said. “Could they come burn your house down if they wanted to?”
• Swanger and Ensley both stated that another matter facing the commissioners in the coming months is the possible consolidation of its health department and department of social services. The board will have to decide if and how the two should be combined.
“If I am re-elected, I am looking forward to maybe helping shape that,” Ensley said. “That is a place we can find savings.”
Both incumbents have expressed support for consolidating the two entities to help cut costs.
Meet the candidates
Two of the five seats on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners are up for election. Here’s a snap shot of the four candidates running for the two seats.
Mark Swanger, 61, Clyde
Background: Swanger is a retired FBI special agent. He has served as a county commissioner for eight years and is a Democrat.
Why he is running again? “I just want to try to help the county and the people who live here. I don’t have any rigid ideology I am trying to promote.”
L. Kevin Ensley, 50, Waynesville
Background: Ensley is a surveyor. He has served as a county commissioner for eight years and is currently the only Republican on the board.
Why he is running again? “Even though this term has been hard financially for everybody, I really feel like we have done a good job.”
Denny King, 52, Canton
Background: King is currently an engineer at BorgWarner in Asheville. He ran for county commissioner unsuccessfully one time before. He is a Republican.
Why he is running again? King listed the county’s debt, taxes, and residents’ liberties as three concerns that prompted him to run. King is has been a regular and outspoken critic of the county administration. “I do think I would be a voice for quite a few of the people in our county.”
Mike Treadway, 58, Canton
Background: Treadway works at Evergreen Packaging and has lived in Haywood County all his life. He has never before sought a seat on the board of commissioners. He is a Democrat.
Why he is running again? “I just want to serve Haywood County. I want to give back a little bit. And, I want to try to work to get jobs in Haywood County.” He has no criticisms of the current board.