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Wednesday, 01 June 2011 19:08

Swain citizens might get seat at the table as North Shore money trickles in

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After a decades-long battle to get it, the first interest payments on Swain County’s North Shore Road settlement are finally starting to trickle in.

Now to figure out what to do with it.

Of the $52 million payout, given to the county by the federal government as a consolation prize for a road that was promised in the 1940s but never built, $12.8 million is already in the bank. There’s another $4 million that’s promised this year — it’s in President Obama’s budget, anyway — although it could be a while until it finally makes its way into the county’s hands.

But after the long and arduous negotiations that led to the settlement, and speculation from all sides over what should be done with the money, there is, as yet, no plan for the interest that’s accruing on the settlement cash that’s already in the bank.

When an agreement was reached last summer, the idea of a steering committee peopled by community members was bandied about, with the intent of directing the county on the best use of the money.  County Manager Kevin King said it’s a concept that has been mentioned in the intervening year by a few commissioners and community members, but no one’s formally proposed it in the commissioners’ twice-monthly meetings, so the cash is still sitting there. No committee has been formed, either.

But, said King, there’s not much money to spend yet, anyway. He estimates the fund will make around $200,000 in interest this fiscal year, which will be paid out at the end of June.

“Of course right now, with the economy, it's not drawing a lot of money,” said King. “It'll take a while to increase to the point at where they could do something with it.”

The funds are held in trust for the county by the North Carolina Department of the Treasurer, with only the interest remitted to the county each year. This year the interest has averaged less than 2 percent.

“If it was making more interest, it would probably be further on the front burner,” said Leonard Winchester.

Winchester is the chair of a group called Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, and he’s been instrumental in getting the money secured for the county and wants to see citizen input on how it is spent.

“I am in favor of a committee doing it. It's just that there's not that much interest there to be dealt with and so it's not been a hot topic,” Winchester said.

Commissioner Robert White concurs. He’s one of the commissioners in favor of a citizens group.

“We haven't accrued enough yet, but I assure you what I would love to see would be a citizen committee to look at this particular situation,” said White.

His vision is that the money would be used for special projects in the county, things that could never be done otherwise.

“My vision for that North Shore money is once we get enough accumulated, I want to see things that are going to improve Swain County in whatever manner that it may take. You also really have to look and see about things that could really step the county up another level,” said White.

A small portion of the interest money has already been spent, going to erect five commemorative granite pedestals in front of the county’s administration building, one detailing the North Shore Road saga. The project cost around $20,000, with $7,500 covered by a National Heritage Area grant and the rest of the bill footed by the interest money.

Nothing bigger, however, has been proffered as a potential project.  King said he’s in no hurry to rush a decision on the funds, especially in this economy.

“At this point, we're just trying to let this grow,” said King. “And with the economy like it is, it's almost impossible to bank on any investments right now.”

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