The big field is par for the course in Swain’s Democratic commissioner primary. In a county where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, the lineup emerging from the Democratic primary nearly always sweeps the general election in the fall, making the Democratic primary the pivotal race in determining the county’s next commissioners.
Only two Republican candidates are running, and they automatically advance without a primary.
This election is the last that all five seats will come available in the same election. The county commission will switch to staggered terms following the outcome of a 2012 ballot question. The top two vote getters in November’s election will serve a full four-year term, while the candidates coming in third and fourth will serve only two years before their seats come up for election again. After that, a four-year schedule will resume with staggered terms in place.
For now, though, the candidates are sounding off on the issues most important to the voters in hopes that they’ll be given a chance to move on to the general election.
Putting Swain to work
Highest on the list of candidates’ priorities is bringing jobs to Swain County. Swain County’s unemployment rate sits at 11.4 percent, nearly double the statewide average of 6.6 percent.
Each candidate has a slightly different idea of how to address that reality. Some point to tourism as the savior. Others advocate for industry, and still others support a hybrid of the two.
Bushyhead: “I think there are some manufacturers of goods out there that their needs would fit well within Swain County. Tourism has been good to Swain County, but we’ve got to look beyond tourism if we’re going to grow Swain County.”
Cody: “I would work with [industry] to get them to expand more into the county if possible. Tourism can help, but it cannot sustain this county. Tourism’s still needed. It’s integral, it’s something that you need, but we need to get away from totally focusing on tourism.
Dixon: “I’d say both [tourism and industry are important]. [It will take] a lot of hard work and investigation. A lot of phone calls. There is a lot of companies up north that are moving south. They are good paying jobs. The only thing we can do is try, and we will try hard.”
Moon: “I think tourism is part of the future. It’s really hard to attract industry in Swain County anymore. We do need to take care of what’s already here. We need to make sure that ConMet and Shaw are happy and want to stay here, because they are part of the economy of Swain County. We need to make further inroads working with the tribe.”
Monteith: “Yes, we want industry, but it’s hard to compete with counties that have a larger workforce than we do. Tourism is our number one, so we really push and promote tourism to get as many jobs as we can in all fields.”
Simonds: “Either one, [industry or tourism]. Whichever one works out.”
White: “We have to rely on the tourist industry. We got some pretty darn good manufacturing going on down here, so we have to hold on to what we’ve got and if possible put another small manufacturing place down here.
Gunter: “We’re going to have to look at all options and actually try to promote the area to small business, start-up groups, anyone who’s interested in the recreation prospects we have, and sell ourselves like that.”
Managing a budget
Historically, Swain County has struggled to make its income meet its budgetary needs. That’s partly due to the fact that 87 percent of Swain County land is federally owned, such as national park and forest land, and exempt from property taxes. The county has a miniscule property tax base as a result.
Last year, commissioners voted to raise the property tax three cents per $100 of property value, putting it to 36 cents. It was the first property tax rate increase in over two decades, one that sitting commissioners cite as a necessity to keep providing vital services in the wake of state and federal cuts.
But as the race unfolds, voters want to know how candidates would handle any future budget crunches or new spending priorities: raise taxes, cut services and spending or find a third way?
Bushyhead: “If a tax increase is needed, the public needs to be informed as to what that amount is, what it will be used for, and if the people can afford that. I think an informed populace makes good decisions, and it should not be done in private or without a lot of public input.”
Cody: “I would definitely not increase the taxes because the folks don’t have enough money as it is. If anything, there’s a few salaries in Swain County that need to be cut. I’m not going to be specific about that. I think people can figure that out on their own. The last things at this very moment we should be doing are anything that’s a facelift-type project, anything that’s making something look good.”
Dixon: “Public and private partnership. Taxes, absolutely not. I mean, that is a big ‘no.’ Because the people are taxed enough right now.”
Moon: “We are still tied for the fifth lowest tax rate in the entire state, and we are doing that on 13 percent of our land is taxable. 87 percent of this land is not taxable, and we are maintaining a wonderful standard of living on 13 percent of the tax base. Three cents on our value is a small price to pay. It was an unfortunate necessity, but it was a necessity.”
Monteith: “I think they’re totally high enough now. I did not want to support the 3 cents that we done last year. I was very reluctantly on it. Probably the only reason I did support it was because of the state and the federal cutbacks. We’d cut all we could cut.”
Simonds: “I don’t want no more higher taxes. Definitely not. There’s other solutions that you could probably go to to get that money rather than having the people of Swain County pay it out of their pockets. [Restaurant taxes] would get you the tourist dollars coming in right there and paying for it.”
White: “You need to really look at the situation. It might be one of those things where you could do some things with personnel that are getting ready to retire. If it meant that we had to provide absolutely necessary services, then I’m not at all opposed to raising taxes if it be the case. We might take a harder look at making sure we’re collecting all of our money. I don’t think we’re collecting 100 percent, so it behooves us to make sure we’re collecting our dues and everybody’s paying their fair share.”
Gunter: “We had the seven-year property revaluation plus a tax rate increase, which is a double increase last year. We are not spending money in a manner which would promote the county.”
Working with the schools
Whether it’s teacher pay, test scores, building projects or school security, working with the school system is part of the job of a county commissioner. Each candidate has a different idea of what that relationship should be and what the issues are. Swain currently ranks last in the state in its per pupil funding of schools.
Bushyhead: “It’s like anything else. Could you use more money? The answer is always yes, you can. We as county commissioners need to be able to work with the school system to make that happen. There’s got to be other funds out there somewhere. We’ll find them.”
Cody: “If [teacher raises] are something we’re going to have to do in the future, then that can be dealt with, but before we even consider anything like that, we have got to get the money issues in the county under control.”
Dixon: “I think they got all their ducks in a row. They’re doing good, and we get along great with the school system.”
Moon: “I think it would be wonderful if we can increase supplements to our teachers, but sometimes that is not possible, especially with the current condition in Raleigh.”
Monteith: “I think we have one of the finest school systems in the state of North Carolina, but we have to deal with that and do that on the money that we have to put into it.”
Simonds: “To me, I think that teachers deserve more money. I think the resource officers, the commissioners have agreed to help them and they backed out of that deal.”
White: “If we could give a small [teacher salary] supplement I’d be much in favor of that, provided the money is not needed for more pressing things. I think that we can improve our school performance. I think we do pretty darn good, but I’m not satisfied unless you’re up almost perfect.”
Gunter: “We need to make long-range plans before we start pumping money into buildings. We need to get the biggest bang for our buck using taxpayer money and not just run off willy-nilly trying to improve something that may not need to be improved at this time.”
Democratic county commissioner candidates: pick four
• Ben Bushyhead, 66, retired United Methodist Church pastor
• Vida Cody, former county finance director
• Donnie Dixon, 69, machinist at ConMet, sitting commissioner
• Steve Moon, 63, retired tire shop owner, sitting commissioner
• David Monteith, 67, retired market manager at Ingles, sitting commissioner
• Thomas Ray Simonds, 43, foreman at Owle Construction
• Robert White, 74, retired superintendent of Swain County Schools, sitting commissioner
• Correna Elders Barker *
• Danny Burns, Pepsi-Cola technician*
County commission chairman candidates: pick one
• Phil Carson, family plumbing business, sitting chairman*
• Boyd Gunter, 63, retired medical technologist
(*Barker, Burns and Carson did not return multiple messages seeking comments for this article.)