A race for Jackson County commissioners this fall has come down to a contest of the Joneses.

The similar names on the ballot — Mark Jones versus Marty Jones — will no doubt keep voters on their toes when they walk into the polling booth. The views of the two candidates, however, are anything but identical.

fr jacksonflagWhen it comes to Southerners, there are a few topics that get their blood pressure elevated — and one of those topics is flags.

They represent everything from historical ties, bloodshed, peace, pride and Nascar. They’re flown everywhere from government buildings to front porches to Wal-Mart.

fr civilwarflagsAbout 20 Southern heritage supporters lined a bench of Haywood County’s historic courtroom in Waynesville Monday, a show of force county commissioners were likely prepared for as they took on the perpetually controversial issue of Confederate flags: are they a symbol of hate or of heritage?

When it comes to staying well fed, the Macon County commissioners are leading the pack. From finger food and pizzas to fortify them during regular meetings to huge sit-down dinner spreads with fellow boards in the county, commissioners in Macon County have eaten $9,651.80 worth of food in two-and-a-half years.

This type of eating by public officials used to be more common in Western North Carolina. But most other commission boards have gone on a Spartan diet as the economic times have worsened and fiscal austerity have become county watchwords.

“We do it as little as possible,” Swain County Manager Kevin King said, adding that on occasion during the yearly board retreat the Swain County Board of Commissioners might order in a pizza.

The same is true in Haywood and Jackson counties, too. Neither board brings in food for regular night meetings as does the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

“We might have a bottle of water,” Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said. “And we don’t do a lot of luncheons. If we’re having a really long work session we might have some small sandwiches. But we don’t do a large meal spread.”

The Macon County Board of Commissioners has one night meeting a month. Board Clerk Mike Decker said the county brings in chicken tenders, sub sandwiches or pizza for those meetings.

Commissioners also meet with other boards on a regular basis for eating meetings, from their counterparts with the town of Franklin to the county’s own planning board. So far this year Macon County commissioners met at Fat Buddies restaurant in Franklin three times and picked up the check: once with the school board, once with the planning board and once with the boards from the two towns in Macon County, Highlands and Franklin. The towns and the county take turns picking up the meal tab; this latest time it was Macon County’s turn.

The price tag for meals so far this year by Macon County? Try $1,367,78 and counting.

“We’ve got to keep our girlish figures,” Commissioner Ronnie Beale said with a laugh. “Is this the best thing you’ve got to write? If so, you go right ahead.”

Beale and other commissioners defended their eating ways, particularly the joint eating meetings with other boards.

“When you have everybody there it is a lot of people eating, but it’s worth it,” Beale said. “It’s been productive and puts you face to face. Besides, without a meal you probably wouldn’t get them there.”

Commissioner Ron Haven said he’d never thought about the amount of eating being done in Macon County.

“I’d look at anything there is to save money. I know it sounds high, and I’m surprised to hear that, but I haven’t priced it to see. I haven’t looked at it so I’m not saying it’s wrong or anything,” Haven said.

Like Haven, Commissioner Jimmy Tate said he was surprised to hear such a high dollar number for the board’s menu bills.

“I’m curious now that you’ve put a bug in my ear,” he said, adding that he planned to talk to County Manager Jack Horton about the bill.

Chairman Kevin Corbin, who has been on the board for about a year, said he believes that eating meetings are a good method of developing rapport with another board’s members. He particularly cited the recent joint meeting held with the planning board at Fat Buddies.

“We need the ability to sit and talk with them a bit other than in a meeting setting,” Corbin said. “There was the most need for that with the planning board because it’s been contentious.”

Jackson County commissioners butted heads with local activists at a meeting this week, refusing to lend their philosophical support to a movement over whether corporate power should be reined in.

A local offshoot of the Occupy movement called on commissioners to pass a resolution of support for their cause — namely to reduce corporate influence and power and instead make government beholden to the common man. But, commissioners voted 3-2 along party lines not to sign on.

The group has been taking their message on the road, visiting town and county boards, as part of the nationwide Move to Amend movement. Their goal, along with other chapters across the nation, is to spark a groundswell of support that could ultimately prompt Congress to pass a constitutional amendment limiting corporate spending in the electoral process. The Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited amounts in campaigns, prompting fear that politicians will become even more indebted to corporate money.

Locally, town boards in Franklin, Highlands and Bryson City approved Move to Amend’s resolution. The group has asked to come before the boards in Dillsboro, Sylva and in Macon and Swain counties and hopes to do so soon.

While Move to Amend has seen unanimous support from leaders of other boards they appeared before, they weren’t so lucky in Jackson County this week, the home county for many of the activists.

Commissioner Joe Cowan made a motion that Jackson County approve the amendment submitted by the group. Rising to his feet, Cowan rendered a somewhat impassioned speech against the original Supreme Court decision.

“It basically said money can have a voice,” Cowan said. “And that corporations are people. And I don’t agree with either of those propositions … somebody is buying influence and we don’t know who that is.”

Cowan, a Democrat, said that he did not believe this was a Democrat versus Republican issue, though that’s exactly how the debate promptly framed itself. The resolution failed by a 3-2 vote.

Commissioner Doug Cody said that he wouldn’t vote for a resolution that singled out corporations unless it also included such groups as political action committees, labor unions, lobbyists — and even the Canary Coalition for that matter, the group headed by Avram Friedman, a member of Move to Amend.

“I will not be a party to something or of legislation that calls for the discrimination of any people or group,” Cody said, adding that he found such an idea “despicable.”

“If someone will come back with a resolution that asks for barring all lobbyist and PACs, I’ll sign it,” he said.

Commissioner Charles Elders said that he agreed with Cody. Chairman Jack Debnam simply described himself as “tired of being browbeat” by the Move to Amend folks over the issue. The group has been vocal in their quest to get face time with the commissioners, raising a ruckus when the county initially would not put them on.

Friedman thanked commissioners for placing the issue on the agenda though he described himself as disappointed by the resulting vote.

“This is truly a nonpartisan issue,” Friedman said, adding that the resolution would cover other groups such as the ones described by Cody. Friedman also made the point that as a 501(c)3 nonprofit the Canary Coalition can’t make political donations anyway.

Another Move to Amend group member, Lucy Christopher, also described herself as disappointed and said that she hoped discussion over the issue would continue.

“I hope that we can sit down around a table and talk,” said Christopher, who lives in Jackson County.

That, frankly, seems unlikely to happen, however.

A feeling of déjà vu swept over the Haywood County Board of Commissioners meeting Monday as they reviewed more than $19,000 worth of changes to the Haywood Community College’s creative arts building project.

These were not the first, or even the second, design issues that have arisen during the already controversial project. The construction has racked up more than $300,000 in changes, which has left the commissioners wondering how much more money they will have to shell out and, more importantly, how much of that they will get back.

The project is still within its $10.2-million budget. A contingency fund was built into the price tag to cover unexpected costs that crop up during the course of construction. There is still more than $300,000 in the fund.

The conversation between the commissioners and Bill Dechant, HCC’s director of campus development, seemed rehearsed the third time around as Dechant described some additional work that needed to be done to a steel structural column.

“Was this a design error?” asked Board Chairman Mark Swanger.

“It was a design omission,” Dechant said.

“It will be taken up with the architect?” Swanger then queried.

“Yes,” Dechant replied on cue.

The college has already begun negotiations with the architect regarding mistakes that have arisen during the project. Architects from the Raleigh-based Innovative Design have taken responsibility for some of the problems, and HCC hopes that the firm will reimburse the county for the cost of those errors.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick asked the college to provide the board with updates on the reimbursement negotiations with the architectural firm and a local surveyor.

“I really hope you all put the pressure on the architect and the surveyor,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells.

Dechant moved onto the priciest of the three change orders, re-grading and repaving a parking lot — a nearly $16,500 cost. The revision was to solve drainage problems that resulted from a lack of information on a topographical survey.

It was not an omission or an error, Dechant said. “It just did not have enough detail.”

However, Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a surveyor by trade, said the survey should have included enough information to prevent the problem.

“They should have gotten that information. A survey should pick this up,” Ensley said. “It’s an omission.”

When asked who the surveyor was, Dechant laughed uncomfortably and admitted that he could not recall at that time. The same survey led to additional costs last month related to the repaving of a sidewalk to prevent other drainage problems.

Although the commissioners seem increasingly exasperated by the repeat visits, Dechant repeated that the amount of revisions is minor considering the scope of the $10.2 million project.

“It’s a complex building, and we have had very few change orders considering,” Dechant said.

It looks like even more change orders are in the cards, however. Another round of change orders were considered by the college’s Board of Trustees at their meeting last week — six change orders in all valued at nearly $12,000.

Change orders first go through the college trustees, then on to the commissioners, so commissioners are likely to get this next batch eventually. The list also reflects more than $7,000 in savings because of various changes to the project.

In January, Dechant went before the Haywood County Board of Commissioners seeking approval to use more than $262,000 in contingency funds. Most of it went to a water pump needed to provide adequate water pressure for the building’s sprinkler system.

Architects from Innovative Design erred when studying the water pressure earlier in the planning process. They tested the pressure in the main water lines running through campus a few hundred feet below the building site. As water flows up the hill to the new building, it loses pressure — a fact the architect did not factor into his plans, Dechant said at a previous commissioners meeting.

In April, he returned to the Board of Commissioners asking for a little more than $25,000 to widen a doorway, reinforce an outside deck and construct a retaining wall as well as pay for a couple of minor miscellaneous items.

Last year, the commissioners and college administrators battled for months about the scope of the creative arts building project, before settling on a plan. Commissioners insisted that the college slash the price of its plans, while administrators argued that the building construction and amenities had been whittled down enough already.

The new facility will house studio and classroom space for students studying the creative arts, such as pottery and woodwork.

Money to pay for the new building is coming from a quarter-cent sales tax approved by county voters more than four years ago to fund improvements to Haywood Community College’s campus.

Haywood County is looking to off-load a few of its now vacant office buildings and is searching for help to do it.

The county has been playing musical chairs with several departments during the past year, consolidating county functions once spread out over three separate satellite office buildings into more centralized locations.

Rather than attempt to sell the resulting collection of empty buildings itself, which has yielded no results so far, the county plans to contract a real estate agency to do the job.

“Just putting up a ‘for sale’ sign and hoping someone drives by, there is no real advertisement happening and no connections in the commercial real estate community. We don’t have access to that market,” said County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger.

It’s unclear just what the county can hope to get in the current real estate climate. Although the county is paying for basic maintenance and upkeep of the buildings until they sell, the county can simply wait until a decent offer comes in, said County Manager Marty Stamey.

If the county decides to accept an offer, there is a mandatory upset bid process,  giving other buyers a chance to make a higher offer.

There is an exception, however. The county can enter an exclusive deal with a non-profit wanting to buy the building, without going through the upset bid process, if the entity is proposing a use that serves the public good.  

But for now, the county soon will be seeking proposals from real estate firms to help it market and sell the properties. During a recent meeting, Haywood County commissioners discussed what they will look for in the prospective agencies.

“I want to see their track record,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said.

Swanger agreed, adding that the county would want to discuss each agency’s marketing strategy and what fees the county would incur.

The county ended up with a collection of vacant office buildings after remodeling a vacant Walmart to house everything from the Department of Social Services and the Health Department to planning and erosion control.

The now-vacant buildings lie along the Old Asheville Highway.

Here’s the county’s “for sale” list:

• Former board of elections/planning department/erosion control/tourism agency: $1.15 million

• Former health department: $730,200

• Former DSS (old hospital): $1.25 million

• Former Haywood Mountain Home residence on Henson Drive: $269,700

The Macon County Planning Board has been given one simple task: review the subdivision ordinance with the intention of making it more user friendly.

The directive came in a relatively brief get together and make-pretty joint meeting with the Macon County Board of Commissioners, held over barbecue dinners at Fat Buddies restaurant in Franklin. The pleasantries exchanged were a far cry from the controversies that have embroiled the planning board for the past year or so.

Macon County’s subdivision ordinance already has been reviewed four times previously. The planning board will start the review process of the subdivision ordinance May 17, and at that same meeting will elect a chairman and vice chairman. Lewis Penland has served as chairman for four years.

“I’m debating back and forth about it. I’m still undecided,” Penland said Monday about whether he will seek the chairman’s post again. “But there’s part of me that’s stubborn and stupid and that wants to do it again.”

Penland also said that several of his fellow planning board members have asked him to remain on as chairman.

Penland, a professional golf-course developer, has been a lightening rod for criticism as the pro-planning and anti-planning factions in Macon County have warred over the past couple of years. Penland is an unabashed supporter of some form of steep-slope regulations and a proponent of construction guidelines for developers. Neither of those Penland-led initiatives have passed muster with the conservative-dominated Macon County Board of Commissioners, however.

The steep slope ordinance seems now to be dead in the water, and not a peep about construction guidelines were heard during the joint meeting. The construction guidelines would have set very basic requirements for developers on such things as hillside excavation and compaction of fill dirt. The guidelines went to commissioners for consideration some nine months ago and haven’t been heard from since.

Instead, commissioners are opting to go back and review its existing ordinance.

None of that tension and backroom drama was in evidence at last week’s meeting. Instead, everyone seemed eager for now to put a happy, smiley face on planning in Macon County.

“We’ve had some controversies in the past,” said Kevin Corbin, Republican chairman of the commission board. “If I have a task as chair of this board it is to move things forward. Planning isn’t just rules and regulations — planning is about planning.”

Democrat Ronnie Beale agreed, saying “we need to move ahead.”

Beale did emphasize that while he supports the review of the subdivision ordinance he wants it fixed and not destroyed.

“The key, the challenge, is to have effective regulations but not gut it,” said Beale, who is a builder by trade.

Republican Jimmy Tate, the new liaison for commissioners to the planning board, said he hopes “everyone will set the needs of Macon County above personal feelings.”

Tate was on the planning board until being appointed about three months ago to the board of commissioners.

Larry Stenger, a nine-year member of the planning board and the current vice chairman, told commissioners it is up to them to set the tone and the course for the planning board.

“If the county commissioners don’t have the vision then the planning board doesn’t have any direction,” Stenger said.

To that end, the planning board was instructed by commissioners to provide recommendations on changes to the subdivision ordinance for interim County Attorney Chester Jones to review. Jones said that he is willing to meet with the planning board as necessary to facilitate the review process.

After the planning board completes tweaking the subdivision ordinance, commissioners said that they’d assign a new task. No deadline was set for the completion of the review.

The planning board will review a list of issues that include:

• Clarifying the language and amounts on surety bonding. If developers want to sell lots before completing subdivisions they are required to put up a monetary bond, intended as a safeguard in case developers walk away and leave unstable, partially graded slopes behind that need fixing.

• Road design standards. A general cleanup of definitions plus consider meat and potatoes issues such as road-turning radius when switchbacks are involved, required road widths, pullouts and general compaction standards.

• Whether to allow the technical review of subdivisions to be handled by county staff instead of the planning board, in large part to expedite the process.

• Clarifying the language about access roads into subdivisions when they cross other people’s property.

The creative arts building at Haywood Community College has hit a few more snags on its way to completion — much to the chagrin of county commissioners.

The college will once again tap into its contingency fund to correct miscalculations resulting from either a lack of communication or a design faux pas. The project is still within its original budget, however.

The total project cost was estimated at about $10.2 million. A contingency fund was built into the price tag to cover unexpected costs that crop up during the course of construction, half of which has now been spent to fix several snags.

The commissioners agreed to allocate a little more than $25,000 to widen a doorway, reinforce an outside deck and construct a retaining wall as well as pay for a couple of minor miscellaneous items.

Rectifying the size of a doorway will consume about one-third of the money. The entry was too small to fit an absorption chiller, a piece of machinery that will allow the building to use solar energy to power its air conditioning.

“The architect has admitted an error,” said Bill Dechant, director of campus development. “When it is a (building) designer error, the architect or the designer is responsible for that item.”

However, the county will have to foot the bill for now. Possible reimbursement is not negotiated until the end of a project. While the architect will likely repay the college some amount, it is not known how much money HCC will receive or even what mistakes the architect will claim.

“It’s hard to say” how much, if any, money the college will recoup, Dechant said.

The architect has been forthcoming in admitting errors, Dechant added.

Unfortunately, the sizing mistake was not caught until after the doorframe had already been installed.

“I don’t understand how they would have missed that,” Commissioner Mike Sorrells said at a county meeting last week, when the college came before commissioners asking for a budget adjustment on the project to tap contingency funds.

Although the widened doorframe is the priciest error, the board seemed most concerned about an inaccurate topographical survey that mapped how water drained around the building and where it should pave sidewalks. The contractor identified discrepancies between the survey and the land’s actual conditions, and a new survey needed to be conducted — a $2,000 cost.

HCC had hired the original surveyor, but when discrepancies were found, it did not ask the company to redo its survey for free or refund the money. The contractor’s on-hand surveyor reviewed the land at cost.

Commissioners agreed that the original surveyor should have returned and reevaluated the property at no cost.

“If the survey was wrong, you need to get the surveyor out there and correct it. That’s what I would do,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a surveyor by profession. “And, I wouldn’t charge anybody for doing that.”

When Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger made a motion to approve the added funds, none of the other commissioners immediately offered to second the motion.

“I am not hearing any explanation as to why someone else has not attempted to get someone else to pay for these things. And, I think that is what we want to here,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, after an awkward moment of silence.

Considering the scope of the project, Dechant said the total amount of change orders thus far is below average. Of the total project cost of $10.2 million, the construction contract is $8.6 million.

“In terms of an $8.6 million building, the amount of change orders on this project have been extremely low so far,” Dechant said. “I think overall I have been pleased with the amount of problems that we have had on this job.”

In the end, the county board voted to release the money.

 

Change orders take II

These were not the first design issues that have arisen during the already controversial project.

In January, Dechant went before the Haywood County Board of Commissioners seeking approval to use more than $262,000 in contingency funds. Most of it went to a water pump needed to provide adequate water pressure for the building’s sprinkler system.

Architects from the Raleigh-based Innovative Design erred when studying the water pressure earlier in the planning process. They tested the pressure in the main water lines running through campus a few hundred feet below the building site. As water flows up the hill to the new building, it loses pressure — a fact the architect did not factor into his plans, Dechant said at a previous commissioners meeting.

Last year, the commissioners and college administrators battled for months about the scope of the creative arts building project, before settling on a plan.

The new facility will house studio and classroom space for students studying the creative arts, such as pottery and woodwork.

“I know there was a lot of discussion about the building, and ‘Why this? Why that?’ And, I know my opinion, and I am sure the rest of the board’s opinion is too, is ‘How much more?’” Sorrells said.

Money to pay for the new building is coming from a quarter-cent sales tax approved by county voters more than four years ago to fund improvements to Haywood Community College’s campus.

Haywood County commissioners this week gave their blessing to a $10 million line of credit for the MedWest-Haywood hospital, ending a delicate dance in the finer points of contract law that has spanned the past three months.

The loan was needed to solve a serious but short-term cash flow crunch brought on by a concatenation of unexpected costs. MedWest-Haywood had turned to the powerhouse of Carolinas HealthCare System, a network of 34 hospitals that Haywood is part of, to help bridge the gap.

The status of the loan has been in limbo, however, as county commissioners wrestled with whether to allow MedWest-Haywood to put up the hospital building as collateral. While highly unlikely, if the hospital failed to pay back the loan it could be foreclosed on. The worst-case scenario concerned county commissioners, preventing them from initially signing off on the loan.

Without commissioners’ blessing, the loan was in limbo. The county’s measure of control over the hospital building dates back to its original status as a public hospital — a status county commissioners felt compelled to protect.

Commissioners finally arrived at a series of caveats that would allow the loan to go forward.

“It protects the county’s interest but allows for a way forward for the hospital,” County Commission Chairman Mark Swanger said.

Commissioner Mike Sorrells agreed.

“We wanted to provide the hospital with the means to get over get over this bump in the road, as it is being called, but continue to maintain a viable county hospital,” Sorrells said.

MedWest-Haywood CEO Mike Poore said the hospital is not in dire financial straits, but it is operating under austerity measures and has been forced to lay off some employees as it regains its footing from a series of set-backs.

Poore pointed out that the $10 million loan is the only debt the hospital has — compared to its annual operating revenue of $110 million and a building worth $70 million.

“To have an organization with that little debt ratio in today’s world is really amazing,” Poore said.

 

Collateral with caveats

Swanger stressed that the process has in no way been adversarial between the county and the hospital.

“I think I can speak for everyone up here when I say we want the hospital to succeed and thrive,” Swanger said at a county meeting this week. “We have an obligation to protect the county’s interest and taxpayers’ interests, but the process of doing that has not been adversarial.”

Poore said he would “echo that.”

“The commissioners have been asking the right questions and doing their fiduciary responsibility, but the whole time the interest is how can we help our hospital along,” Poore said.

Specifically, the county agreed to let the hospital put its building up as collateral if the county is given the first right of refusal, so to speak. Should the hospital default on its loan, Carolinas HealthCare System could not foreclose without coming to the county first.

The county would be given the option of paying off the loan itself. The hospital would then be on the hook with the county to pay back the loan rather than to Carolinas.

“Should there be a default rather than just a normal foreclosure, they first have to give the county notice,” explained Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian. “The county has six months after that notice to kind of figure out what they are going to do — to decide whether they want to purchase the note and in fact be the lender instead of Carolinas.”

If the county indeed decides to bail the hospital out, it would have another 12-month window to put together a financing deal to “satisfy and cure the default.”

The caveats written into the loan drew on the best contract-writing skills Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian could muster.

“There is a lot of legalese in this document, but I had to craft this out of whole cloth because I had never seen anything like this before,” Killian said.

 

A ‘perfect storm’

Poore said that the need for a loan isn’t a sign of financial insecurity.

“We had several events that were what I would describe as a perfect storm of cash issues,” Poore said. “The clock ran out on us. There were too many things that hit us at the same time.”

MedWest-Haywood had to spend $1 million to replace a broken generator, $1.6 million on a wrongful firing lawsuit by group of emergency doctors and $8 million on a new computer system to handle electronic medical records.

The hospital also spent an undisclosed sum in the past year buying up private doctors’ practices that were being courted by Mission Hospital in Asheville. MedWest-Haywood feared long-term repercussions of a patient drain if it didn’t make a competing offer.

“It is a lot more complicated than ‘the hospital is in some economic trouble,’” said County Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said. “There have been a lot of hurdles we have had to get over. I hope we are at the point we are making that turn.”

Meanwhile, however, the hospital has already spent $7 million of the $10 million loan. Carolinas Health System had already extended the loan to MedWest-Haywood — and Med-West Haywood had begun spending it — before they realized the county’s blessing was needed for the collateral.

Carolinas could have retrenched and frozen the line of credit when the county didn’t promptly sign off. Instead, Carolinas allowed MedWest-Haywood to keep spending against the line of credit, allowing the balance to grow to its $7 million mark.

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