Swansea contest revolves around almost $500,000 in town debt

The challengers in the mayor's race in Swansea say the ballot Tuesday is a referendum on a debt of nearly $500,000 that town leaders are struggling to pay off.

The two challengers hold incumbent Ray Spires largely responsible for a bill that stems from court fines the town collected from 2004-07 but did not forward to the state.

The pair - wholesale vehicle dealer David Martin and tax preparer Doris Simmons - also are upset that town leaders gave themselves pay raises, including a nearly $8,000 increase for the mayor.

Martin promises to work free as a start on whittling down the debt and "see where we can squeeze some more."

Simmons says "there's no magic formula for taking care of this" but warns tax and utility hikes appear likely.

Spires, town leader for nine years, blames the debt on bad advice from former officials who spent the money on salaries for the 10-person town staff and unspecified bills.

"A lot of things happened that never should happen," he said.

Simmons, a former ally of the mayor, called that view "an easy out. He should have checked into things."

Officials at the State Treasurer's Office recently withheld nearly $14,000 in aid to start reducing the $473,000 debt.

Town officials are trying to come up with a plan to pay it off in installments, Spires said. Past attempts to raise taxes and fees have done little to reduce the bill.

The mayor's salary also will go up to $18,000 yearly after the election, a raise of nearly $8,000 for what is officially a part-time position.

Spires said the increase is merited because he serves as "de facto administrator" for the town of 600 in southern Lexington County.

Pay for the four council members also rises from $600 to $1,000 annually.

Council incumbents Linda Butler and Woodrow Davis are unopposed.

Town efforts to revitalize its small, ailing downtown also are stumbling. The project is more expensive than planned and it is harder than expected to attract store owners to join in improvements, Spires said.

Despite Swansea's headaches, Spires wants to position the town to be ready to grow by expanding water and sewer service.

"We see it (growth) filtering down slowly this way," he said.