By Kristin Fox
At this month’s regular meeting, the Swain County Board of Commissioners passed an amendment to the original 2019 resolution establishing the Swain County Travel and Tourism Authority (TDA). The motion made by Vice-Chair Roger Parsons seconded by Commissioner Phil Carson to approve the amendment passed with a three to two vote. Commissioners Kenneth Parton and David Loftis cast the two opposing votes.
The amendment adds a county commissioner to the TDA board. As stated in the revised resolution: “the final member shall be a commissioner appointed by the board of commissioners for a commission seat.” The amendment also states that the commissioner seat will for be a one-year term.
Each year, the board will vote on the commissioner to serve on the TDA board for the one-year term.
In compliance with state legislation, the TDA board membership includes three members that collect occupancy tax, five members that are actively engaged in the travel and tourism industry and with the new amendment, one member that is on the board of commissioners.
“Some of the counties around us do this and have a commissioner sitting on the board,” said Vice-Chair Roger Parsons. “We’ve never done that so it’s going to be a little bit different for us, but I am fine with doing that. I’m hoping that the commissioner can convey to and make our voices known and then also be able to bring information back to the board.”
“I don’t necessarily see the need for a commissioner to be on the board,” said Parton. “We know when the meetings are, we can go to the meetings, we can in fact talk and give our input if we choose to.”
Before the meeting, the TDA sent a letter signed by TDA Chairman Jeremiah Wiggins addressing recent concerns regarding board composition and appointments to the TDA board to the commissioners which was read to the board prior to the vote.
“The current TDA board has endeavored in the last term to work seamlessly with the county to continue to leverage occupancy tax collections for the proliferation of the tourism and lodging industry within Swain County while continuing to invest in capital projects that also benefit the community as a whole,” states the letter.
Examples given of what the TDA has funded included Swain County pool improvements, ADA ramps at the Swain County Recreation Complex, EV charging stations in Bryson City, additional improvements at Swain County pool complex, and landscaping improvements at Bryson City town square. In addition, the TDA paid for the building at 210 Main Street, Bryson City and sold it with the proceeds benefiting the county.
The letter went on to state: “It is felt that the overall direction and composition of the TDA are working for the betterment of the county at an unparalleled level, and the current board members are engaged in the success of the TDA mission. Despite this success of the TDA throughout the last term it has been suggested by county government to materially alter a board composition in two ways that would be a detriment to the long-term success of the TDA mission.”
According to the letter, a majority of the TDA participants within Swain County feel including a member of the Swain County Board of Commissioners as a voting member of the TDA and the inclusion of any elected official on a volunteer civilian board could perhaps “skew, intimidate or bias members of the board in an environment where open collaboration and sharing of ideas is necessary for optimum results.” The letter further states “the separation of government influence on TDA financial decisions has provided a good check and balance on the appropriateness of financial allocations.”
Swain County Manager Kevin King disagreed with the letter, particularly on the point of adding the commissioner seat to the board.
“The state law pertaining to occupancy taxes is very vague in lot of different areas,” said King. “The TDA can do a lot of different things with the money. At the end of the day this board has enacted the tax, and we collect it in this building; the TDA is charged with spending it. You appoint the TDA board member to spend taxpayer money, whether they are a local person or an out-of-state person, but this board is in charge of doing that. Their audit is no longer their audit. Our audit is late because of them; we don’t have an audit for last year because our auditors are still auditing their junk, their stuff.”
“I feel a great need and disagree with the letter from the standpoint of a commissioner not being on the board,” he added. “You have just as much vested interest in how that money’s spent and the way it’s spent as any other person, and you actually have more because that’s a part of our audit.”
“As we have said before it is a self-serving board,” said King. “Everybody on the board has a business, everybody spends it for their way, but at the end of the day, it’s not their money. This is taxpayer money they’re collecting on behalf of this board, so this board should have a big voice in it.”
“I think we should have a voice and having a commissioner on the board is the right thing, because I have asked questions like what is the TDA budget and nobody knows the answer,” said Chairman Kevin Seagle. “I think it’s imperative for us as a board to know the things that the TDA are doing, not necessarily telling them how to do it, but just so that when the general public asks us where did the TDA get this money or where is it going, we have an answer.”