If you visit Macon County, keep your head down — there’s a war over property rights in progress.

In this community of 33,922 people that presses hard up against the Georgia border, a place with a long history of attracting hardliners, militants and people whose politics are unabashedly to the right of the mainstream Republican Party, development has led to two distinct groups of people battling about what’s best to do.

One of those groups would set some controls, put brakes on what, to date, has been virtually unchecked growth. The other group — a very organized set of people, unlike the first group, which is simply a loose affiliation of planning supporters — wants nothing remotely resembling rules or regulations passed.

The latest battle was fought last week over a proposed comprehensive plan, a set of recommendations for long-range land use to help guide future development. The Macon County Planning Board — a lightening rod for members of the Property Owners of America, which drummed up an opposition turnout for a public hearing on the recommendations — compiled the plan with assistance from numerous citizen subcommittees.

Much of the plan is not particularly controversial. There is one recommendation to support “a proactive Economic Development Commission.” There’s another that seeks to ensure law enforcement services grow proportionally with the population.

But there are also land-development recommendations, including one that might put the planning board to work on regulations for construction and development on slopes. And a suggestion the county consider developing a stormwater runoff ordinance.

“They will NOT stop!” an emailed flier sent out before the public hearing, by the Property Owners of America, proclaimed. “There are people in all levels of government who want to control you, me and everything we own and do! Even though the economy is strangling, they never stop trying to expand the size and scope of government and regulation. If you love your freedom – PLEASE attend!”

Loretta Newton, a member of the group, told commissioners at the hearing she opposes the recommendations because “plans can turn into policies.”

“Let me be clear,” she said. “I’m against all zoning and against all regulations of steep slopes and it is for a very fundamental reason. Our property rights are derived primarily from the Constitution, the Fifth Amendment. I encourage you to effectively accept the current regulations we already have in place.”

Bill Vernon echoed those thoughts, though he did so in the context of claiming general support for planning — certain kinds of planning, that is, but not this kind of planning.

“Planning for sewer and water (is) a smart thing to do. Planning to accommodate growth,  … I think we could have had a good plan here,” Vernon said. Then he argued that “land-use provisions” is really “just a new word for zoning.”

“And I came away thinking, this is just chock full of hidden agendas,” Vernon told commissioners. “The economy has tanked. The last thing we need is a bunch more regulations. Keep the regulations off our backs.”

The 164-page comprehensive plan took nearly two years to complete. There were community meetings, surveys and a multitude of subcommittees to the planning board involved. County commissioners have the ultimate say on whether the plan is adopted. The previous board of commissioners sanctioned the plan, directing the planning board to tackle it. Two of the five commissioners are new to the board since then.

They will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. May 31 to review and discuss the plan.

Supporters of the plan urged the five-member commission board, a 3-2 Republican to Democrat lineup, to move forward with planning for growth.

“This comprehensive plan is a moderate, thoughtful look at the future and is the work of hundreds of Macon County citizens over several years,” said Bill Crawford, a Macon County resident who represents WNC Alliance, a regional conservation group. “The alliance supports and commends the plan as an example of good government.”

And Kathy Tinsley, who grew up on a dairy farm in Macon County, also urged commissioners’ support.

“This shows such foresight and responsibility and just care for all of us that you’ve shown in the development of this document,” she said. “As elected leaders, I very much urge you to adopt this comprehensive plan — I am sure this is a step in the right direction.”

The same for and against crowd (about 70 people turned out last week) can be expected to assemble again as Macon County heads toward considering steep-slope rules. A steep-slope subcommittee late last week brought recommendations to the planning board, which is now considering whether to endorse the proposals.    


Guiding principle of Macon’s comprehensive plan

“Work together as Maconians to create a dynamic plan that will guide long-term growth and development within the county. Through taking the initiative to plan now, we insure the integrity of our mountain heritage will be preserved, welfare of the citizens will be maximized, our natural environment will continue to flourish, and the economic vitality of Macon County will be sustained, all in ways that benefit the current population as well as generations to come.”

At Macon Barber Shop, you can get a haircut for $10 and a shampoo for $5, but the talk is free for the asking.

In between snips of her scissors and reaching, on occasion, for the electric razor used to get that nicely topped-off look her clients have sported for more than four decades, Frankie Bowers tried to find the right words: About how it's really important that everyone, including communities such as Franklin, get the top medical care available. But also about how saddened many in the community feel about losing the local part of "local hospital."

Last week, in the latest of a handful of consolidations that have reshaped Western North Carolina's hospital industry this decade, Angel Medical Center agreed to move under the Asheville-based Mission Health System umbrella.

"It really does make me sad," Bowers said. "It's been a good hospital for Franklin, and the Franklin people have benefited from it. I have very mixed feelings — I'm not against it per se, but things just keep on changing."

George Hasara, a longtime-ago-move-in to Macon County, has a different take. Hard at working kneading dough at his Rathskeller Coffee Haus & Pub, he was friendly but direct in his assessment of the deal, which will see Mission take over management of Angel.

Mission is the sixth-largest health system in North Carolina. This means the community could benefit from more competitive bidding and pricing, more access to capital, and other perks that come with being a big guy in a medical world that is geared toward big guys with deep pockets.

"If it improves services and helps lower costs, it's a win-win for everyone," Hasara said, then hesitated and added that the "if" is an important element of his assessment.

Angel Medical Center had its inception in a clinic established by Dr. Furman Angel in 1923. The construction of the current facility, in large part, was made possible through community contributions. Angel was, in every sense of the word, a local hospital — formed by the community, built by the community and patronized largely by people living in that community.

Although Angel is a small hospital averaging just 16 inpatients a day, it is still a major economic player in the community. It has an operating budget of $800,000 a week. It employs 430 people, with salaries that are a cut above average wages for the county.

Angel leaders have stressed the agreement signed with Mission last week merely formalizes an already existing partnership.

"I don't think doctors, patients or employees will notice anything any different today over any other day," Angel CEO Tim Hubbs said.

But most people in Macon County believe the move defines a different path for the hospital, a place that has played a central role in so many people's lives here.

And, not just a central role for people native to the area — take Sue Dalgleish, owner of The Attic on Palmer Street, a place for bargain and antique hunters, who has been a Macon County resident for 17 years. She got here like so many in this community, by way of a lengthy stop in Florida. Dalgleish grew up in western Pennsylvania.

Her mother was pivotal in helping that community establish its own hospital, getting a business owner in Pittsburgh to donate the needed property. Dalgleish, like her mother before her, believes in the importance of community.

And, like Bowers, she's saddened by Angel's management agreement with Mission.

Angel, Dalgleish said, had really worked on its image, and the general perception in the community of the medical institution's services was positive.

"What I hate to see is the profit motive (driving decisions) in the entire health industry," she said.

And, Dalgleish is truly afraid Mission might mess up the food. Angel, remarkably, serves up hospital food the community raves about — it even caters, according to Dalgleish.

"You've never eaten there? You have to eat there," she said, adding that people go to the hospital not only for medical needs, but to eat breakfast or lunch — the trout is reputed to be out of this world, and the cheese biscuits are excellent, too.

Angel Medical Center in Franklin, one of the last, small independent hospitals in the state, is now part of Mission Health System in Asheville.

After months of negotiations, Angel last week came under Mission’s management umbrella — likely a temporary arrangement on the road to full merger. The move does not come as a surprise. Angel has had a close partnership with Mission for years.

Angel CEO Tim Hubbs equated the deal signed last week to getting engaged after years of dating.

“I would call it the engagement period. I think in short order we might say ‘Let’s go ahead and get married’ but we haven’t set that date yet,” Hubbs said.

Hubbs would not say what would trigger an acquisition by Mission, only that it would be based on certain outcomes being realized over an undisclosed length of time.

While the deal falls short of a full merger for now, most of the benefits of affiliation will be realized right away, Hubbs said.

The move will be financially advantageous for Angel. The hospital can get bulk rates on medical supplies, push for higher reimbursement from insurance companies and get better deals on equipment or contracts thanks to the buying power and leverage that comes with being part of a larger institution like Mission.

Mission already came to Angel’s aid on the monetary front two years ago, when the hospital was about to see its interest rate on some $14 million in debt jump substantially. The debt dates back to renovations and expansions over the years, Hubbs said.

SEE ALSO: The passing of an era? Residents in Macon County say goodbye to independent hospital 

Faced with pressure from the national credit crisis, the bond holders reassessed Angel’s risk level and planned to adjust the interest rate accordingly. Mission stepped in a guaranteed the debt, akin to co-signing for a loan, and allowed Angel to keep its interest rates reasonable, Hubbs said.

Tapping new capital is not a reason for the affiliation, Hubbs said, although at some point that may be a possibility.  

Small hospital challenges

A very costly undertaking for hospitals, and one that has driven other small, independent hospitals around the state to affiliate, is the transition to electronic medical records. The cost of computers and software to go from paper charts to integrated electronic patient records is astronomical, according to Janet Moore, the marketing director of Mission Hospital.

Moore said small rural hospitals have it tough these days. They usually have a high percentage of patients on Medicare and Medicaid, which pay less than private health insurance plans. There’s also a higher percentage of people who can’t pay and have to be written off.

“It leaves them in a real bind,” Moore said.

Mission can provide expertise in the increasingly complex world of hospital management. Picking the right medical code in the maze of billing bureaucracy can make a substantial difference on how much insurance companies or Medicare reimburses for a particular service.

Mission also has experts that can help Angel with best practices, from preventing falls to reducing infections among hospitalized patients, Moore said. It is not just a matter of patient safety, but Medicare and Medicaid won’t pay for infections or injuries picked up during a hospital stay.

“The federal government has said, ‘We are not paying for that anymore.’ They say, ‘That happens in your hospital you eat the cost,’” Moore said.

Another benefit: Angel can now lean on Mission’s reputation when recruiting doctors to locate in Franklin.

“I do think if you are recruiting a physician and you can be part of Mission’s system, it does feel differently for them than just a solo hospital,” Hubbs said.

That’s what inspired Transylvania County Hospital in Brevard to sign a management contract with Mission recently as well.

“What they are looking at is how do they continue to attract specialists and doctors to come there and live and work,” Moore said.

A few doctors affiliated with Mission already hold satellite office hours in Franklin, providing access to specialties otherwise not available in the community.

“We have been able to bring specialists and subspecialists to enhance what the community already has,” Moore said.

Despite fears to the contrary, Mission does not plan to siphon care out of Franklin and send patients to its flagship in Asheville.

“We’re looking forward to working more closely with Angel’s leaders, physicians and staff to help ensure the continued delivery of quality care close to home by this outstanding community hospital,” said Ron Paulus, CEO of Mission Health System.

The hospitals in Spruce Pine and McDowell County both saw both their revenue and the number of doctors practicing in their communities increase substantially following their mergers with Mission.

Angel has long partnered with Mission, both formally and informally. Angel serves as a western base for Mission’s emergency medical helicopter. The two recently embarked on a joint spine center.

Last year, Angel’s board made public that it was pursuing a formal affiliation with Mission. The terms of the contract signed by Angel’s board of directors last week are not being made public. Both institutions are private and not required to disclose details of the deal.

Hubbs would only say that the contract is long-term, longer than just a few years. The financial terms are private as well, such as the management fee Mission may be getting or benefits Angel expects in return.  

Mission facing challenges

The deal comes amidst debate over Mission’s presence in the region. Detractors claim competition from Mission amounts to a monopoly and should be reined in. Supporters counter that Mission is merely trying to provide the region with access to the best health care possible.

State regulators are reviewing Mission’s anti-trust regulations to determine whether they should be tightened or loosened. Meanwhile, a bill has been introduced by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, that would bar Mission from expanding pending a state-commissioned study. If it passed before Angel inked a deal with Mission, it could have derailed it, but not now.

“There is nothing in the bill that would create an unwind situation,” Hubbs said.

The bill could still hurt Angel from realizing the full benefits of the affiliation. It aims to limit how many doctors Mission can employ, for example, undermining its ability to recruit new doctors to Franklin.

The loss of autonomy, whether perceived or actual, is a likely side-effect of a merger. Two other hospitals that have merged with Mission — namely McDowell County Hospital and Blue Ridge Regional Hospital in Spruce Pine — have preserved a balance of power, however.

The local hospitals kept their own board of directors, although some board members are now appointed by Mission. The local hospital board has hiring and firing authority over the CEO, but the CEO also reports directly to Mission. In essence, the CEO has two bosses. And if he got conflicting orders?

“That has never happened,” Moore said.

Moore said Mission has never expected the CEO to make decisions that benefit Mission to the detriment of the local hospital, thus it’s never been an issue.

That’s what Angel is counting on as well.

“The focus of this agreement is to maintain, enhance and increase access to health services here locally, while maintaining local input,” Hubbs said.

Macon County’s proposed budget manages to keep taxes at 27.9 cents per $100 valuation — the second-lowest rate in the state — yet give employees a 3 percent cost-of-living raise.

“They have worked hard to do their job without complaint as they continue to help us hold the line on spending while delivering essential county services,” Macon County Manager Jack Horton said in support of the proposal.

Commissioners have started a series of work sessions on the proposed $42.4 million budget, which Chairman Brian McClellan described as probably involving more “tweaks” than large adjustments.

He said he has not decided whether to endorse a pay raise, but is waiting to hear discussions on that possibility by the other four board members.

“It has been three years since there’s been a raise, but on the other hand, inflation hasn’t been very high, either,” said McClellan, who is a financial advisor in Highlands.

Commissioner Ronnie Beale said he would support a pay raise for employees if the numbers proposed hold up at the end of commissioners’ work sessions. Additionally, Beale said, he’d like to see Macon County’s deputies’ pay be brought up to the same level as their counterparts in the region.

Horton noted Macon County “finds itself in an enviable position compared to many counties in North Carolina. The county is in sound financial condition … our fund balance is stable and allows the county to have in reserve an amount equal to three months of operating expenditures. This provides a strong degree of confidence in terms of being prepared for unexpected emergencies or a shortfall in revenues due to circumstances beyond our control.”

Mike Decker is retracing the steps he made 11 years ago when he left county government for a job across the street in Franklin’s town hall.

Decker is returning to county government as human resource director and deputy clerk to the Macon County Board of Commissioners — essentially a jack-of-all-trades who keeps county government running as a right-hand man to the county manager. Decker worked as the Macon County planner for seven years, then the Franklin town administrator for 11.

County Manager Jack Horton lauded Decker’s experience and familiarity with county and municipal governments, saying the longtime public servant had exactly the right set of complex skills needed for the dual job.

“We’re very happy to have Mike step in,” Horton said.

Decker follows Wilma Anderson, who retired as HR director and assistant to the county manager last month after 36 years.

As director of human resources, Decker — a newspaper reporter and editor before getting into local government work — will help oversee about 360 fulltime employees. As deputy clerk to the board of commissioners, he is responsible for keeping minutes for the elected board and notifying reporters about times and places for the meetings.

“I’m grateful to be here, and I’m very grateful to have had time to work with Wilma before she left,” Decker said.

This fall, Macon County will have to fill another key government position when longtime Finance Director Evelyn Southard retires.

Decker is not the only one who’s played musical chairs between county and town government. When former County Manager Sam Greenwood retired from that job, he was soon hired by Franklin as the town manager.

Swain and Macon commissioners believe a state plan to widen and pave a 3.3-mile gravel road along a remote stretch of the Little Tennessee River goes too far.

Leaders of both counties have unanimously called for a scaled down version of the full-blown design suggested by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The DOT plan would widen the narrow road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

The estimated price tag is $13.1 million, which environmental groups have termed a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. That said, many of those same environmentalists have called for some type of surface treatment because of river-damaging sedimentation from the gravel road. The Little Tennessee River is within spitting distance of the road, and dirt is spewed routinely into the water, damaging the fragile aquatic balance.

The resolutions by Swain and Macon commissioners for a compromise design received rave reviews from those same environmental groups. Julie Sanders of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association offered “many thanks” for the wisdom shown by both boards.

“We appreciate Macon and Swain counties’ leadership on this issue and feel that this is an important move,” she said. “It shows that both boards care about Needmore and that they listened to the community.”

Some residents along Needmore Road, however, believe the scaled down version backed by county commissioners falls short of what’s required to actually make the road safer.

“Needmore will essentially remain an unsafe road,” said Stephen Poole, one of those few people who actually live in the remote area. “Those of us who actually use the road would like to see it paved and made safer. We also would like to see this done with extraordinary care for the environment the road passes through. We not only live in the area, we love it.”

Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said he believed that the two county boards, via the resolutions, walked the line between protecting the area and helping residents have a safer byway to and from their homes. The resolutions (with wording agreed on beforehand by representatives from both counties) noted: “both … agree and support efforts to improve and pave in place … with modifications including river-access areas and guardrails at specific needed locations.”   

Additionally, commissioners from Macon and Swain counties called on state officials to include only “minimum lane width” and “minimum shoulder widths.” They pointed out that the primary purpose of the project is to improve the quality of travel for local residents and to reduce sediment to the Little Tennessee River, which McClellan said the counties’ proposals would do.

“We suggested let’s meet in the middle on this one, and try to do something that might be the most feasible for everybody involved,” he said. “For the people there, this would be a much-improved surface without mudholes and potholes, and this would minimize runoff into the river and maintain the rural character of the area.”

Poole said paving is a priority for the people who use the road regularly so that the dust in the summer and the quagmire in the spring are eliminated.

But it is not the only problem residents face with the road, he said. During heavy rains, the road floods in spots, and those areas need to be raised “so that we aren’t stranded until the water recedes and the roadbed repaired.”

Also, the road should be widened where it is too narrow for two vehicles to safely pass, Poole said. During a 2009 traffic count, an average of 320 vehicles a day used the road.

Julia Merchant, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the next step is a concurrence meeting. Transportation officials and representatives from other state and federal agencies “will choose the least environmentally damaging, practicable alternative for the project,” Merchant said.

That meeting is tentatively scheduled for July in Raleigh. If the past is any indication of the future, agreement might be hard to come by. State and federal environmental agencies for more than a decade have questioned the need to make substantial improvements to Needmore Road. They’ve also repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of serious environmental damage and worried about public reaction, based on a review of road documents by The Smoky Mountain News last fall.

Construction at the level proposed by the transportation department would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed.

The transportation department has maintained that the acidic levels of the rock are low, and that at those levels, runoff would not be considered “hot.” Furthermore, any runoff that did occur could be neutralized.

Merchant said that as part of the decision-making process, officials would take into account the commissioners’ votes as well as public comments received. Two public hearings were held, one in Macon County at the specific request of commissioners there.

McClellan said he’d find the situation very odd if transportation officials chose to ignore a “100 percent agreement” among elected officials in two counties on what should be done to improve Needmore Road.

“With every elected official in the counties involved unanimous on what’s to be done, I wouldn’t quite understand what’s then not to like,” McClellan said.

 

What, and where, is Needmore Road?

Needmore is a rough, one-lane road paralleling N.C. 28 between Swain and Macon counties, but on the opposite bank of the Little Tennessee River.

The attention being paid to such a short stretch of gravel might seem outsized except for a couple of important caveats: Needmore Road runs smack through the protected Needmore Game Lands, which were created after a broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Energy.

The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and the Franklin Bird Club will host a bird outing at the Tessentee Bottomland Preserve on April 15.  

The preserve is located in Macon County, south of Franklin. Birders will meet at 8:30 a.m. at the Tessentee Preserve parking lot and will walk approximately 2 miles along an old wagon road that follows the Little Tennessee River, which lies in the heart of a major flyway. The Tessentee Preserve is stop No. 53 on the N.C. Birding Trail.

The outing will last about three hours and will be led by John and Cathy Sill. Participants should bring water and binoculars. No dogs are allowed.  

To get to Tessentee Bottomland Preserve from Franklin, take the U.S. 23-441 south for approximately 5.2 miles, turn left onto Riverside Road and follow for .5 miles, turn right onto Hickory Knoll Road and follow for about 1.9 miles — the preserve is located off a private drive (2249 Hickory Knoll Road) on the right-hand side of the road. The parking area is on the left, before the farm gate. To RSVP contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.524.2711, ext. 209.

LTLT acquired the 60 acres of bottomland and river bluff land at the confluence of Tessentee Creek with the Little Tennessee River in November 1999. The acquisition was the first land protected along the free-flowing Little Tennessee. Today, more than 5,200 acres and 35 miles of river frontage have been conserved. LTLT’s Tessentee Bottomland Preserve now encompasses 70 acres and includes a granite outcropping above Tessentee Creek with commanding views of the broad Little Tennessee Valley looking south. For more information about the conservation and restoration projects of LTLT, please visit www.ltlt.org.

A 600-foot extension of Macon County’s airport runway is scheduled for completion by mid-May and plans for a ribbon-cutting ceremony are in the works, Miles Gregory, chairman of the airport authority, told local leaders last week.

The $4.5 million project will allow larger corporate jets to land in Macon County. When finished, the runway will be 5,000-feet long, and include a 300-foot grass safety area. About $1 million was spent meeting archaeological requirements for using the site, Gregory said.

Two years ago, the runway extension provoked bitter opposition, with standing-room-only crowds attending meetings and an environmental group threatening to sue and stop the project. An archaeological assessment in 2000 had revealed about 400 Indian burials.

Macon County reached agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, however, and the project was able to move forward.

The extension was opposed by nearby residents who fear the additional traffic at the airport will threaten the rural valley, but commissioners supported the project for its economic development potential.

“Planes that could not land here and be covered on their insurance now will be covered,” said Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

New airport hangars are also in the works, Gregory said. Additionally, there are plans to try to run a 12-inch line and hook into the town’s water.

“We have a well right now,” Gregory said. “If we had a fire out here, we’d be in trouble.”

Bringing Franklin town water into Iotla Valley where the airport is located also would benefit the future elementary school near there. Insurance coverage for both the school and the airport would cost less as a result, Gregory said.

This isn’t the easiest time to be a real estate agent in Jackson and Macon counties, not with the crippled housing market and a customer base that is, in most cases, hard pressed to find the dollars to buy new homes.

Nowhere is it tougher than the upscale communities of Cashiers and Highlands, a market catering to second- and third-home owners. Here, where houses just a few years ago routinely sold in the millions, the bottom has fallen out.

Terry Potts isn’t complaining. But, as the owner of four separate real estate offices in Highlands alone, Potts perhaps is experiencing even greater pain than most agents.

“In most cases, property has been selling for about half the tax value,” Potts said of the market in Highlands, adding that what has sold are, generally, bank foreclosures.

“I think that’s why they put it off,” Potts said. “And I do think the values are going to drop a good bit — if they truly use values of (properties) that have sold.”

“It” would be the property revaluations, now scheduled to take place in both Jackson and Macon counties in 2013. Countywide appraisals were last conducted in Jackson in 2008 and Macon in 2007, at practically the peak of the housing boom in Western North Carolina.

Macon County commissioners decided to postpone its revaluation from 2011 to 2013; and Jackson County recently opted to push its back one-year from 2012 to 2013. State law mandates revaluation takes place at least every eight years; both counties had been on four-year cycles.

The issue?

 

‘True’ market value

In both counties, the tax assessors predicted difficulties with calculating true market value when little property has sold. Bobby McMahan, Jackson County’s tax assessor, recently told commissioners one township with 4,000 parcels had just three property sales in three years — hardly enough to establish a baseline.

McMahan wanted commissioners to delay Jackson County’s revaluation until 2015. This would have meant, however, that taxpayers would continue paying taxes for several additional years on what are now hyper-assessed properties. Some residents, particularly those living in southern Jackson County, cried foul — and not just over the possibility of shouldering an unfairly large tax burden, but about the overall level of services the Cashiers area receives back.

“The emotional irritation is that there is a miniscule percentage coming back to southern Jackson County and these townships,” said Phillip Rogers, who lives near Cashiers in the Hamburg Township.

“I’m personally contributing property taxes on two houses … I don’t mind paying the taxes as much as I mind not getting a return on services,” Rogers said.

But even if property values are lowered, it’s unlikely to provide residents such as Rogers tax relief, as he knows. In light of falling property values, Jackson and Macon counties would have to raise the tax rate if they want to bring in the same amount of money.

“That’s true,” agreed interim Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten of the options facing local leaders. “In order to be revenue neutral there would have to be an increase.”

Wooten estimated that staying revenue neutral in Jackson County would require a tax-rate increase of the current 28 cents per $100 valuation to the mid-30s.

The largest drop in property values, not surprisingly, is expected in the Glenville and Cashiers area — the same areas where they had risen so rapidly over the first part of the decade.

Norman West, a longtime real-estate agent, primarily works in Cullowhee, the fastest growing part of the county population-wise, according to the 2010 Census.

Even so, things aren’t good, West said, “but we tend to be a little more insulated than some other communities” because of Western Carolina University.

West said what Jackson County has yet to truly contend with is the crash of high-end developments — granted, many lots in such developments already have been through foreclosure, but he believes there are many more to come. The fallout from the Great Recession isn’t over.

“These are uncharted waters,” West said.

 

Things that roll downhill

Jack Debnam, a real-estate agent who serves as chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, acknowledged local leaders have been placed in an unenviable position.

To offset the lower property values when revaluation starts in 2013, they will either have to raise taxes or cut county services.

Commissioners might face that dilemma sooner than 2013, however. The county already faces a budget shortfall. Wooten has asked each department to cut 5 percent from their budgets in the coming fiscal year.

There is every likelihood state leaders will shift portions of the $2.4 billion budget deficit they are facing downhill to local governments. After that, there’s nowhere downhill to go — again, local leaders are left to slash services or raise taxes.

“We just don’t know where the state’s going to put us,” Debnam said.

In Macon County, Bob Holt, a Franklin resident and real-estate instructor for Southwestern Community College, said during the first quarter of this year, sale prices were running at 63 percent of the assessed value. He expects to see values drop after this evaluation.

Richard Lightner, Macon County’s tax assessor, said his office could ask commissioners to delay the revaluation again, up to 2015, but that he doesn’t plan to do that.

“I think we need to adjust to where reality is right now,” Lightner said. “The whole premise of doing a revaluation is to equalize the market values.”

Lightner said the lower- and median-priced homes are generally stable — it’s the high end, speculative markets that are down.

While some counties bring in a specialized appraisal firm to conduct the revaluation, others do it in-house with their own staff. Macon County has done theirs in-house in the past, but Jackson is contemplating bringing the reval in-house for the first time.

Lightner said Jackson is likely to “have a difficult time” if it does. Macon is well along in the revaluation process — some 30 percent of property values are done. Jackson is just starting.

Additionally, Macon has experience doing revaluations in-house; Jackson County does not.

“They’re starting from scratch right now,” Lightner said. “I wouldn’t want to do one like that.”

If Jackson commissioners insist on sticking to its target of 2013, Lightner said he expects Jackson County tax-office staff will be unable to make as many on-site evaluations as Macon County, and instead will be forced to rely more on computer-generated assessments.

A group wanting to build a Hospice house in Macon County to serve the terminally ill in the westernmost counties says it will continue those efforts despite a recent thumb’s down from the state.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services said “no” to Hospice House Foundation of WNC’s request to build a six-bed hospice inpatient facility. New medical facilities — from hospitals to outpatient surgery centers — require state approval to move forward. The system supposedly prevents too much competition from undermining the financial viability of health care institutions.

But the closest comparable facility is two counties away in Haywood, where a six-bed Hospice house is under construction. The next closest is in Buncombe.

While there are no other hospice houses nearby, Angel Medical Center perceives such a facility as a competitor, claiming there is not enough demand to justify a stand-alone hospice and instead has plans to provide a hospice-like set-up within the hospital itself.

The hospice group has pledge to keep moving forward, however.

“Nothing has changed as far as our mission is concerned in providing this much needed facility for our hospice patients and their families in this part of Western North Carolina,” Michele Alderson, president of Hospice House Foundation, said via email to The Smoky Mountain News. “We are continuing in our fundraising.”

Chris Comeaux, president of Four Seasons Compassion for Life, a nonprofit Hospice group that has worked with the Macon County-based Hospice House Foundation on the project, said last week all options are being studied. Comeaux and Alderson have pointed out the state doesn’t always award a Certificate of Need on first application.

The state’s letter turning down the application noted an appeal could be filed with the N.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. Comeaux declined to outline specific strategy by the Hospice group, citing the legal proceedings.

Four Seasons, based in Henderson County, took over Highlands Hospice and Palliative Care from Highlands-Cashiers Hospital last year.

This triggered a less-than-happy reaction by Angel Medical Center in Franklin and ensuing controversy last year. The hospital administration cited conflict-of-interest concerns and severed ties with local Hospice volunteers who wanted to build the respite house. The hospital forced out five of its volunteers who also served on the hospice foundation, and demanded all of its 40 or so other volunteers sign confidentiality statements and conflict-of-interest disclosures.

Volunteers are the base of Hospice, which provides support for terminally ill patients and their families. Some caregivers sit with patients while family members run errands; others prepare meals or serve in various administrative roles for the organization.

Federal law requires that volunteers provide at least five percent of patient-care hours for institutions such as Angel Medical Center to receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Angel Medical Center CEO Tim Hubbs has been direct about his beliefs that Four Seasons is a competitor in the local medical marketplace. Originally, plans called for Angel Medical Center and the Hospice House Foundation to build the house together, but the hospital pulled out of the project. To continue with its dream of a Hospice house, the foundation had to find another licensed operator to oversee the facility — and Four Seasons stepped up to fill that role.

Angel CEO Tim Hubbs said the hospital “believes the state made a good decision” in not giving the foundation a Certificate of Need.

He said the reasons provided by the state for disapproving the application were consistent with the concerns of Angel Medical Center. The state asserted Hospice House Foundation did not demonstrate adequate need, or the ability to raise the money needed to build the house.

“Plus we knew that many people that supported the Hospice House thought the house would provide residential and respite care for those patients without a caregiver, but the application filed did not include any residential beds and did not project any respite days of care,” Hubbs said.

He said Angel Medical Center has identified two additional patient rooms within the hospital and earmarked them “for enhancement” to meet the needs of hospice patients. The hospital, Hubbs said, will convert two adjacent rooms to help out caregivers and family members of the hospice patients.

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