I admit to being slightly irked when I initially thought about writing this column. It has been about a year since Jeff Seiler retired as the director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service for Swain and Jackson counties, and more than three months since a panel interviewed applicants to replace him.

I know this because the extension service was unwise enough to let me serve on that panel.

Lest anyone think less of these state employees for including a news reporter in such an important decision (or on any decision, for that matter), let me offer in their defense the following explanation. This all took place while I was earning my keep as a full-time farmer’s market gardener, not as a newspaperwoman. Thus, in the eyes of the state’s finest, my disreputable and seedy journalistic self was cloaked in robes of agrarian trustworthiness and dirt-under-the-fingernails wisdom.  

Whatever. Three months is too long a stretch between candidate interviews and the state actually selecting a director.

The situation is unfair to the extension staff in Swain and Jackson. It is unfair to the farmers and hobbyist gardeners who rely on their expertise. It is probably most unfair, however, to Heather Gordon, the 4-H agent who has so ably served as interim director.

Not that I asked Gordon what she thought, because she is not, in my experience, given to unseemly and employment-endangering bursts of opinion. I knew she would simply give me a smile and proffer a publicly acceptable response, something along the lines of “I’m happy to serve in any capacity.” For all I know, Gordon actually might enjoy bossing around people she’ll have to work alongside again soon, simply as a colleague.

Sure doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

Even given my rightful impatience with the delay, however, I’m forced to acknowledge that filling this particular job poses unusual difficulties. In this case, the extension service’s pick must serve a multitude of masters. The director will work with two county managers and two sets of county commissioners. Additionally, they will oversee a staff stretched thin by service to residents living in two counties. Ever driven from Little Canada to Needmore in a day? How about from Balsam to Big Cove? Swain and Jackson combined represent a huge chunk of land.

Dan Smith, director of the extension service’s West District — that’s the state’s 17 westernmost counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation — told me state budget woes for a time delayed almost all extension hiring. That’s not the case now. In Macon County, longtime horticulturist Alan Durden was recently tapped to fill that county’s top extension position. Durden, however, was a non-controversial hire, one virtually guaranteed to please Macon farmers and politicians alike.

Smith would only say when lightly pressed (this isn’t exactly Watergate I’m investigating, after all, and Smith seems a nice-enough guy) that he believes the state will fill the position soon, he knows the hire is a priority and everyone involved is eager to see things resolved.

It’s probably important to note why this issue merits attention.

There aren’t many farmers left in Swain and Jackson counties, and not much farmland, either. All the groceries we can consume are available at supermarkets. The state and the nation have huge economic problems, and one could argue the extension service simply isn’t a priority.

I think that’s shortsighted. For one thing, a nation’s ability to produce food is vital to national security. Michael Pollan, writing in The New York Times Magazine, made the case succinctly: “When a nation loses the ability to substantially feed itself, it is not only at the mercy of global commodity markets but of other governments as well.”

The extension service was formed, and continues to serve, as a vital link between farmers and research. Without extension agents, what happens in the laboratory probably wouldn’t trickle down to those really needing the information — the farmers growing our food. Additionally, the best agents help set local food agendas in the communities they serve.

A few years ago, two agents — Sarah McClellan-Welch, who is on the reservation, and Christine Bredenkamp, the horticulturist for Swain and Jackson counties — formed a bee club in response to the honeybee decline and people’s interest in their plight. These same agents were instrumental in starting farmers markets in Cherokee, Sylva and Bryson City. Renee Cassidy, another extension employee who has since left the agency, helped set up a food-voucher program at the Swain County Farmers Market.

These folks deserve our backing and support. The agents in Swain and Jackson counties also deserve a leader who will help them help us — and the sooner that happens, the better.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Bryson City merchants can expect some relief from the downtown parking crunch once the old Swain County Jail is torn down in the next two weeks.

The crumbling jail was abandoned a couple of years ago for a new multimillion-dollar facility since it no longer met state codes. County commissioners have opted for the low-cost option of converting the old jail site into a public parking lot once the building is demolished.

“There is a need for downtown parking, especially in the summertime,” said Commissioner David Monteith. “A lot of merchants don’t have a place to park.”

“You’ve got to run yourself to death to find a parking space,” said Commissioner Glenn Jones. “It’s no different from any other town. Parking is always at a premium.”

Tourists riding the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad exacerbate the problem. Some train riders hunt for free on-street parking rather than paying to park in the train’s lot, tying up valuable downtown spots for hours.

There could be up to 20 additional parking spaces to accommodate downtown patrons now, and also future visitors to a museum planned nearby.

“We’re going to need a lot more parking for that project,” said Kevin King, Swain county manager. “The county doesn’t need another building.”

Commissioners are also planning ahead for a greenway with picnic tables at the edge of the parking lot along the river.

The historic courthouse, which is adjacent to the old jail, will one day house a heritage museum, along with a visitor’s center and store run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit that supports the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by operating bookstores in the park’s visitor centers.

The visitor’s center will take up about a quarter of the first floor of the old courthouse, according to Monteith. The cultural museum will showcase the history of Swain County and its people, while the visitor’s center will increase the nonprofit’s presence in North Carolina.

But with the courthouse dating back to 1908, major repairs are needed to render the building safe for use. Monteith says the upstairs floor must be taken out and rebuilt, according to a study done early on in the project.

“That is why we had to literally stop before we got started,” said Monteith.

“It’s a laundry list of repairs and improvements,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “But the historic value of that building is something that we cannot ignore. We need to preserve that all we can and do the best we can with it.”

King estimates it will cost about $800,000 to renovate the courthouse, significantly lower than the $4 million originally estimated. For now, the county has $150,000 in its hands, much of which came through grants from the GSMA, King said.

Several other grant applications are still awaiting responses.

Attorneys in the state’s seven westernmost counties sent a message to the governor this week that they don’t want a temporary fill-in as judge before the November election.

The retirement of longtime District Court Judge Danny Davis would typically trigger an appointment. But with a contested election for the judge’s seat just three months away, members of the N.C. Bar Association didn’t recommend anyone for the post.

Fifty-five of the 242 bar association members gathered Monday night at the Swain County Administration Building to vote on potential nominees. None of the lawyers, however, submitted their names as potential candidates, said Elizabeth Brigham, a Bryson City-based lawyer who serves as the bar’s current president.

Rather than using secret written ballots to select their top three candidates for Gov. Bev Perdue to review, bar members instead voted by a show of hands to accept a motion they make no recommendation.

“We really didn’t see any point in filling the vacancy for such a short amount of time,” Brigham said. “It didn’t make any sense.”

Davis, who served as judge for 26 years, stepped down July 31. Steve Ellis and Roy Wijewickrama, both Waynesville residents, are vying to fill the post in the nonpartisan race.

Perdue has the final say-so on whether there will be an interim judge named. Even if bar members had recommended candidates, the governor could have selected someone else not on their list. The timing is tight, however. It seems unlikely that Perdue could — even if she wanted to — find a lawyer willing to shut down their legal practice for the short time the post would remain unfilled.

Neither Ellis nor Wijewickrama wanted a nominee. They had both asked fellow bar members to leave the seat vacant until the November elections.

Brigham plans to send the results of the bar vote to Perdue this week. If the governor, as expected, doesn’t name a stand-in, Davis will continue to fill the vacancy as needed in the capacity of “emergency” judge.

By the end of this year, nearly every student in the six westernmost counties will have unprecedented access to technology in the classroom.

Thanks to a collaborative project called WNC EdNet, high-speed Internet will become a reality for all public and charter school classrooms in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain Counties, along with the Qualla Boundary.

WNC EdNet recently got the go-ahead to connect The Highlands School — the last remaining school to join the regional network.

As late as 2000, schools in Western North Carolina could only transmit 1.5 megabyte per second. Now, schools with fiber can enjoy 100 megabyte per second connections.

Once these high-speed connections are in place, star pupils from far-flung schools can join together in a virtual classroom to take advanced courses that aren’t normally offered at their own schools. Live video will allow for face-to-face interaction between students and teachers.

“It’s not like an online class,” said David Hubbs, CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, which implemented the WNC EdNet project. “You’re speaking to or interacting with a teacher in real time.”

Linking up to the state network creates access to The North Carolina Virtual Public High School, which already offers 72 courses including Advanced Placement and world language classes.

The widespread reach of fiber across North Carolina to even the most rural schools holds the promise of creating a level playing field for students, according to Bob Byrd WNC EdNet project manager.

“That’s our big push now, to narrow that digital divide,” said Byrd.

Moreover, fiberoptic technology makes professional training more readily available for teachers. Once colleges are hooked up to the statewide K-12 network, student-teachers at Western Carolina University or other colleges may observe teachers in actual classrooms without interrupting lessons.

Being on the same fiber network also decreases overhead for school systems, which only have to pay one Internet bill for all their schools, Hubbs said.

 

Jumping hurdles

 

The WNC EdNet project has traveled down a long road to get to where it is now.

Nearly 60 schools have been hooked up to their central office in the county via a fiberoptic line, which makes broadband Internet possible and also provides an important backbone for communication between the school district office and individual schools.

A separate project by a nonprofit called MCNC is in turn connecting these school district offices to a statewide fiber network, the North Carolina Research and Education Network. Now, MCNC is also working on linking colleges up to the state network.

WNCEdNet piggybacked onto the larger BalsamWest project, which has installed hundreds of miles of fiber underground to promote economic development in the Western North Carolina.

The mountainous terrain was a major obstacle BalsamWest had to overcome while installing equipment underground.

“The very things that we love about our rural area create challenges for technology,” said Hubbs.

Constructing in the remote area between Cashiers and Highlands was another challenge. BalsamWest had to speak individually to every property owner to get permission to build.

“We had more private easements between Cashiers and Highlands than we did everything else put together, over 300 miles,” said Hubbs. About 15 grant applications had to be submitted to lock down funding for the $6.1 million WNC EdNet project. The project was partly funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation, which chipped in $2.2 million, and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which contributed $1.7 million.

Even with 12 different partners — including Southwestern NC Planning & Economic Development Commission, the Western Region Education Service Alliance, seven school districts and three colleges — WNC EdNet was smoothly coordinated.

A similar project in eastern North Carolina had failed due to infighting, according to Leonard Winchester, chairman of the WNC EdNet technology committee.

WNC EdNet coordinators were asked to come to Raleigh and explain how their particular project ended in success. Winchester said cooperation was key.

“We had a group of people that trusted each other,” said Winchester. “That trust, you can’t give to somebody else.”

The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River members and all who are interested in clean mountain streams are invited to the WATR Summer Public meeting on Wednesday, July 21, at the Sylva Town Hall in Jackson County. The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River will meet at 6:30 for socializing and with the regular meeting starting at 7 p.m. The meeting will feature two speakers.

Fred Grogan of Equinox Environmental will speak about the riverbank restoration along the Tuckasegee River at the old Dillsboro Dam site.  Next, Dave Cozzo of the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources (RTCAR) program will present “Stalking the wild river cane: Finding canebrakes in the Tuckasegee Watershed.” The talk will be followed by a brief breakout session for group planning. Come join us, and leave knowing what dates and where you can help work for a healthy Tuckasegee River.

On Friday, July 23, WATR will have its Annual Walk ‘n Talk at Deep Creek in Swain County.  At 5:30 p.m., WATR will meet at the parking lot at the Deep Creek Entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a leisurely walk to a nearby waterfall. Glenn Liming and Dan Patillo, retired WCU professors, will be the leaders. Patillo will answer biological questions and Liming will assist.  Afterwards members will go to a local restaurant for dinner.  Check the website WATRnc.org for directions.

For answers to questions and to sign up for the Walk ‘n Talk, call the WATR office at 828.488.8418.

When a $4,000 payment showed up in the mail to cover a $1,195 bill, Jim Freeman knew something was up.

Freeman, owner of Freeman’s Motel in Almond, made his way to Google and learned he had just narrowly avoided a sophisticated scam.

Earlier, Freeman had received emails from Nicole Bloomer, supposedly a 38-year-old accountant in London looking forward to a relaxing vacation in the mountains.

“Bloomer” was friendly, adding personal touches to her emails to increase her legitimacy. “Have a great day and God bless,” she wrote at the end of her first email.

After Freeman’s response to her inquiry, there was a delay. Bloomer wrote back later saying her dad had just undergone a triple bypass operation.

“It’s been a very nervous period for my family and I. Thanks to God he is awake today and responding well to treatment,” Bloomer wrote.

When it came time to reserve the room, Bloomer said her employer Shell Oil Company would send a money order paying in full. The money order Freeman received far exceeded the original bill, however.

Bloomer wrote again saying the finance department had made a mistake, instructing Freeman to return the remainder. To expedite the process, she even included the address of the nearest Western Union location in Robbinsville.

Freeman Googled “Shell Oil Company” in Stockton, Calif., where the money order came from. He learned from an actual employee that it was a scam.

The money order was counterfeit, which Freeman would learn only after sending the alleged overpayment from his own account.

Freeman immediately notified the Sheriff’s Office and was told to file a complaint with the FBI online. He then alerted the Swain County Chamber of Commerce to ensure other businesses would not be duped by the scam.

“If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” said Freeman. “Don’t be greedy. That’s what scam artists prey on, someone that is either greedy or trusting.”

Karen Wilmot, director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, admits that scams are getting much more sophisticated, especially with the poor economy.

“Everyone needs to be vigilant, more so than ever probably,” said Wilmot.

The most common scam Wilmot comes across is a poor quality map of the region that claims to be affiliated with the Chamber.

“It gives them a tinge of legitimacy,” said Wilmot. “We publish our own maps and do not work with other agencies for the most part.”

 

Measuring the overall health of a population at the local level is an elusive and cumbersome task. As a result, there have been few statistical studies historically that hint at how Western North Carolina stacks up.

But this year, an unprecedented study compiled health rankings for every county in each state across the country.

The results weren’t good news for Swain County, which ranked in the bottom 10 percent in several categories. However, Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties went against the stereotype of poor health in the Appalachian Mountains and ranked in the top third.

“The western part of the state is a good deal older. When you control for that, the east part of the state seems a good deal unhealthier,” said Dr. Tom Ricketts, past director of the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Compiled by the University of Wisconsin, the study divided heath rankings into two broad categories: health outcomes and the health factors that cause them.

Swain County ranked 91st out of 100 counties in the state — the lowest ranking of any county in WNC when it comes to health factors. Meanwhile, Jackson, Haywood and Macon Counties are ranked in the healthiest third at 31, 19 and 15 respectively.

Diet, smoking, drinking, exercise, access to quality health care, social and economic factors, and the physical environment all play into the ranking.

“Health and health behaviors and care are all tangled up in a multi-complex system,” said William Aldis, a World Health Organization representative to Thailand who lives in Sylva and has taught health classes at Western Carolina University and at a university in Thailand. “You can never completely separate these things.”

Aldis said he notices the difference in health as soon as he steps off the plane and into the airport terminal when he returns to the United States.

“It surprises me when I come back how sick people look here compared to other countries,” he said.

While the University of Wisconsin study took on an enormous task, the rankings are not universally accepted by public health officials.

Linda White, director of the Swain County Health Department, has not used the information in any strategic planning because she thinks the data may be skewed.

She often compares Swain to Graham County in her planning because the populations are similar. But she noticed the study reported Swain to have the highest percent of smokers in the state while failing to report a percentage of smokers in Graham.

“It causes me to question the validity of the data,” White said.

Macon County Health Director Jim Bruckner said some counties may need to look harder at some of the statistics to determine their quality because of the sampling methods. But Bruckner said the health department has a lot it can glean from the statistics.

Every three years, the health department uses a variety of statistics to create a “snapshot” of health outcomes and contributing factors in Macon County. Bruckner said the county health rankings will now be included in the project.

“We hope to use this report to shed light on what more we can do to help residents lead healthier lives and to mobilize community leaders to invest in programs and policy changes that will improve Macon County’s health,” Bruckner said.

 

Health behaviors

 

The University of Wisconsin study looked at key health behaviors — which will ultimately affect people’s health in the future — such as diet and exercise, tobacco use, unsafe sex and alcohol use.

The study uses obesity as the measure for a county’s commitment to diet and exercise. Although obesity is a problem across the state, Jackson, Macon, Haywood and Swain Counties are no worse than the state average, according to the County Health Rankings.

North Carolina is the 10th most obese state in the nation with an adult obesity rate of 29 percent, according to the Trust for America’s Health “F as in Fat” 2010 report.

And North Carolina has grown heavier. In 2009, North Carolina was the 12th most obese state, 16th in 2008 and 17th in 2007.

“Obesity is one of the most challenging issues and has had the more lasting impact on our society,” said Carmine Rocco, Haywood County Health Department director.

Reducing childhood obesity is a big focus for health departments in Western North Carolina.

“We’ve attempted to combat that for years,” White said. “It’s a lifestyle change. Kids will eat what’s offered to them.”

White has worked with schools in Swain County to get healthier food on the menu. Between five and six years ago, the health departments removed the deep fryers from the school cafeterias and purchased them ovens instead, White said.

But it’s other health behaviors that earned Swain County its low ranking. Swain has the highest percentage of smokers in the state and one of the highest teen birth rates, which is used to indicate unsafe sex tendencies.

Dr. Mark Engel, a family doctor in Swain County, said he thinks part of the problem with Swain’s health is that preventative care has not been emphasized until recently and that Swain has been more isolated than the counties to the east.

“Swain has been socially isolated long enough,” Engel said. “It will be an uphill climb for better health.”

He’s noticed higher social support for both smoking and teen pregnancy, he said, adding that it will take generations to change the population’s attitudes.

Forty percent of adults in Swain County smoke compared to 23 percent across the state.

“We’ve come leaps and bounds,” White said, who questioned the accuracy of the statistics. “We work on lessening those numbers regardless of what they are.”

Both Dr. John Stringfield and Dr. Michael Brown, who are family doctors in Waynesville, said that they’ve seen a decrease in the number of smokers in their offices even though the study reports that Haywood still has a higher percent of smokers compared to the state average.

“There’s been an increase in education and peer pressure against smoking,” Brown said.

Only Macon County with 19 percent of the population being smokers falls below the state average.

Ricketts said that there is a strong correlation between smokers and more rural environments. He suggested that smoking might be a form of entertainment where few other options exist.

“It’s hard to explain,” Ricketts said. “It just is.”

 

Clinical care

 

Another key component in assessing an area’s health is the availability of healthcare. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin examined several factors, including the percent of uninsured adults, the number of primary providers in the area and preventable hospital stays.

Jackson and Swain Counties have poor clinical care rankings at 86 and 93 respectively while Haywood and Macon Counties are both in the top 15, according to the study.

“In the early ‘70s, the main problem was that there’s been a misdistribution between urban and rural areas with primary care physicians,” said John Price, director of the N.C. Office of Rural Health and Community Care. “The issue over the years has changed a little. The issue is economic access to care.”

Three of the four counties — with Haywood being the exception — have more than 22 percent of adults without health insurance.

That portion is noticeably higher compared to about 15 percent of American and 17 percent North Carolinians who are uninsured.

The Good Samaritan Clinic in Jackson County is a free clinic that treats uninsured adults. A volunteer doctor at the clinic, Dr. David Trigg, said there are often misconceptions about who the uninsured are.

“They’re not unemployed. They’re just uninsured, and they certainly aren’t lazy,” he said,

But in the clinical care rankings, other factors have a role in bringing down Jackson and Swain counties’ rankings.

Swain County has a high rate of hospitalization for typical outpatient services, according to the study. This suggests that outpatient care in the area is less than ideal or that the people overuse the hospital as the primary source of care, the researchers wrote.

A strike against Jackson County’s ranking is a low percentage of diabetic Medicare patients getting annual blood sugar control tests. The tests are considered a standard of good healthcare — a standard at which Jackson is the lowest in the state.

“One reason that could be lower is the way it’s recorded,” said Paula Carden, the Jackson County Health Department director. “Whether all the numbers get reported or not is hard to say.”

Carden said doctors are responsible for reporting the screenings when their patients come to get them. The codes used by doctors in Jackson to report the data may be different from those in other counties.

In one aspect of clinical care, the number of primary care doctors per capita, the study found all four counties at or above average.

But some of the physicians are counted twice, inflating the number of doctors for Western North Carolina. Many doctors in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties practice across countylines — with their main office in one county but a satellite office in the other where they hold weekly office hours. These doctors appear to be counted in both counties.

“Even if there are enough providers to the population by the numbers and they appear at the right levels, they’re not,” Good Samaritan Clinic director Becky Olson said. “The problem is that Jackson County doctors don’t just serve Jackson County alone.”

The study also fails to take into account the influx of seasonal residents and tourists to the area. Doctors in Western North Carolina said they can tell when the part-time residents begin to arrive in the spring.

“It’s an elusive number, hard to quantify,” said the Haywood County Health Department director Carmine Rocco. “But it’s a reality we have to deal with when we plan health care. If something happens, we have to be able to respond.”

Flu and respiratory illnesses keep his schedule filled during the winter, and during the summer, he sees an influx of seasonal residents. Some older residents who come for four or five months in the spring and summer have chronic conditions that require a physician’s monitoring, said Dr. John Stringfield, a doctor at Waynesville Family Practice.

“What keeps me busy is different for each season of the year,” he said.

But Ricketts said he wouldn’t call seasonal homeowners or tourists a stress on the Western North Carolina healthcare system.

“For a rural place, it generally does pretty well on physician supply,” Ricketts said.

He gave the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., as an example of something that would cause stress on the system. In 2008, the rally brought more than 400,000 bikers and three rally related deaths to the small town.

“[Tourism in Western North Carolina] doesn’t necessarily provide stress but provides income,” Ricketts said.

 

Social & economic factors

 

Research has shown that social and economic factors also play a key role in determining health.

“To have an overall picture of health, it’s affected by economic factors,” health director Carden said. “If you don’t have enough money for the good health care, your overall health is affected. … Economics plays an important role in our overall health whether we like it or not.”

According to the University of Wisconsin study, Swain County has the lowest high school graduation rate, fewest college degrees, highest unemployment and most single-parent households compared to the other three counties.

“More educated people are in a much better position to analyze health choices,” Aldis said. “Education is a powerful tool in expanding people’s health choices.”

Aldis said that in his work in foreign countries where the populations are less literate than in the United States, women who can read are more likely to get their children vaccinated even if they haven’t had any medical training.

But even less educated patients are attentive and willing to learn how to make better health choices, Trigg said about his patients at the free clinic. But without the clinic, they don’t have the same knowhow about getting health information, he said.

“They don’t get on the Internet and look up health information the same way someone from the university would,” he said.

Hand-in-hand with education, poverty also limits a people’s health options in that they can’t afford the best or at times adequate care, said Stringfield, a Haywood doctor.

“Those in a lower social economic status may tend to have more medical problems,” Stringfield said. “Sometimes that has to do with access to care or access to medicine. Many simply can’t afford to fill a prescription.”

Poverty also influences people’s food choices. Fruits and vegetables are expensive compared to a value menu at the local fast food restaurant. Snack food is also cheaper but contains unhealthy ingredients such as excess salt and high fructose corn syrup, Aldis said.

“There’s not a sense of autonomy of choice,” he said. “We have a very interesting inversion going on. Obesity is a disease of the poor.”

To learn more, visit www.countyhealthrankings.org/north-carolina.

 

 

How WNC stacks up


The University of Wisconsin ranked all counties in all states by health outcomes and health factors. Within health factors, four subcategories determined the rankings: health behaviors (30 percent), clinical care (20 percent), social and economic factors (40 percent), and physical environment (10 percent).
There are 100 counties in North Carolina. A ranking of 1 would denote the healthiest county while 100 would signify the unhealthiest in that category.

Health Factor Rankings denotes overall health. The others show what went into determining the rankings.

Health Factors Rankings
Macon    15
Haywood    19
Jackson    31
Swain    91


Health Behaviors Rankings
Macon    12
Haywood    35
Jackson    39
Swain    97

Clinical Care Rankings
Haywood    11
Macon    14
Jackson    86
Swain    93

Social and Economic Factors Rankings
Haywood    16
Jackson    19
Macon    33
Swain    79

Physical Environment Rankings
Swain    14
Jackson    35
Macon    51
Haywood    72

Percentage of Smokers
Macon:    19%
Haywood    27%
Jackson    28%
Swain    40%
State Average    23%

After decades of bitter division among Swain County residents concerning the North Shore Road controversy, people on both sides have come to a surprisingly easy agreement in its aftermath.

County leaders and citizens all agree that an advisory committee must be created to decide how the cash settlement is spent.

“It would be nice if you would have a committee chosen from different walks of life,” said Linda Hogue, a long-time supporter of building the road. “That’s not usually the way it happens around here. A certain few decide what’s going to happen, and that’s what happens.”

Leonard Winchester, a fierce advocate for the cash settlement, likewise said a well-chosen group should accept written suggestions then pass along recommendations to county commissioners.

“If we do that, we can really do some great things in Swain County,” said Winchester.

Commissioners Glenn Jones, David Monteith and Steve Moon all support the idea of an advisory committee as well. Commissioners Genevieve Lindsay and Phil Carson did not respond to SMN’s calls.

“A nonbinding committee would be good,” said Moon, who also suggests placing a suggestion box somewhere to take citizens’ thoughts into consideration. “We really need to get more input from the public.”

Monteith agreed that decisions should not be made unilaterally by county leaders.

“I don’t think it should be left up to five commissioners, regardless of who they are,” Monteith said.

Meanwhile, Jones would like to see a grant system put in place with a portion of the money. An advisory committee would review grant applications and make recommendations to commissioners on which projects should receive North Shore funding.

 

Bathrooms and pedestals

 

Despite a cooperative spirit regarding citizen input, the first $30,000 in interest money from the settlement has already been allocated by commissioners in their 2010-11 budget.

So far, $12.8 million of the promised $52 million settlement has been appropriated and is parked in a trust fund. Commissioners can only spend the interest — they can’t touch the principal unless approved by two-thirds of registered voters.

Since interest rates fluctuate, the county doesn’t know exactly how much it will get this year, but it has to estimate an amount and account for in the budget nonetheless.

While some confusion has arisen over how much interest will accrue by the end of this fiscal year, County Manager Kevin King maintains it will come in just less than $500,000. King said that Swain leaders have an opportunity to withdraw from the balance every month.

About $15,000 of the interest has been allocated toward building public bathrooms for Riverfront Park beside the County Administration building.

“We have political rallies, birthdays, weddings, day of prayer, different things out front,” said Jones. With no other public bathroom in sight, employees frequently have to open up the doors to the county building during weekends and holidays to allow visitors to use its restrooms.

Another $15,000 will be used to install five granite pedestals memorializing Swain County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Park Service and the North Shore story.

The pedestals would eventually be included in a historic walking tour of Bryson City.

Winchester said he personally wouldn’t choose to spend the interest on erecting monuments, but he could understand why others would support the idea.

“People put up monuments to recognize organizations and history all the time,” said Winchester. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

But Moon said there are other uses on his mind, especially with county employees struggling under the weight of furloughs and years without a raise.

“It’s been over two years right now … That’s more important than pedestals,” said Moon.

 

Commissioners’ wish lists

 

With a bountiful new revenue source in tow, Swain County residents are bound to have differing ideas on how best to spend the North Shore settlement.

Commissioner Monteith raised a stir when he recently proposed using about $4.5 million of the North Shore funds to give every property owner — except for commissioners — a one-year property tax holiday, along with a 3 percent across the board raise for county employees. It would require dipping into the principal, and to do so requires approval by two-thirds of registered voters.

Some decried the proposal as a vote-buying maneuver, but Monteith emphasized that the tax break would be instrumental in helping residents who have all been hit hard by the recession.

“That’s what I was trying to do, help people of Swain County,” said Monteith. “You can’t just pick out who you want. That’s why you have to pick them all.”

In addition, Monteith would one day like to see a museum built in Swain County that would educate visitors on the history and creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The museum would provide new jobs and attract tourists, thereby giving a boost to the local economy.

Moon’s priority is to refrain from jumping into anything major early on and simply allow the interest money accumulate for the time being.

“We don’t need to jump into something blind and commit to something that we might regret later on,” said Moon. “We need to set goals.”

However, Moon would still like to give all county employees a raise and put an end to mandatory furloughs.

“They work hard. That deserves good treatment,” said Moon.

Jones’s chief concern is to leave the principal untouched and use the interest for non-recurring expenses as opposed to regular county operation expenses, like salaries or power bills. For example, the interest money could be used to buy a fire truck one year or an ambulance the next.

 

What citizens want

 

First on Hogue’s mind is to create better access to the North Shore cemeteries isolated by Lake Fontana. Numerous family cemeteries now lie inside the national park and are accessible only by foot or four-wheel transport. A low-water bridge critical to access some cemeteries has been washed out for more than a year.

“It’s downright dangerous to go to the cemetery,” Hogue said, adding that cemeteries also need better upkeep, seating for the elderly who visit and handicapped accessibility.

That’s all that Hogue would like to see done in the short-term. “I need to see some money come in before making plans,” said Hogue.

At a minimum, the North Shore money should not be used to pay regular operating expenses for the county, according to Winchester.

Moreover, Winchester would like it acknowledged that the money belongs to all Swain County residents, not just those with ancestors from the North Shore. The entire county bore the cost of building the road that was later flooded by the government and deserves to benefit as well.

“It is an insult to Swain County to refer to this money as if somehow or another it belongs to the people of the North Shore,” said Winchester.

If the decision on how to spend the money were up to Winchester, he’d use the interest money to make high-speed Internet accessible to every Swain County resident. Ideally, a fiberoptic network would be made available to every individual and business in Swain. With a strong fiberoptic backbone already in place, Winchester says the bandwidth and infrastructure could be as competitive as those found anywhere else in the country.

High-speed Internet would allow employees to easily access work-related programs from home, doctors to quickly transmit patient files, and much more.

“That would be a major plus in terms of economic development, in terms of marketing Swain County,” said Winchester. “You always want to get the biggest bang for the buck. We need to look very seriously at the type of projects that leverage this money to get other money.”


What is the cash settlement?

Earlier this year, Swain County ended a long uphill battle over a road the federal government had promised to rebuild after flooding it to create Lake Fontana in 1943.

Swain County residents wrangled for decades over whether the county should pressure the government to rebuild the road or pursue a cash settlement in its place.

In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 to accept a $52 million settlement through installments in coming years.

After violating their own policy, Swain County commissioners convened a special meeting Wednesday (June 23) for a do-over on a vote that gave Health Director Linda White a $15,000 raise.

In the process, the board’s previous 3-2 vote to grant the raise morphed into a 3-2 vote to rescind it a little more than a week later.

Commissioner Steve Moon was thrown into the spotlight after experiencing a change of heart and casting the deciding vote to take back White’s raise.

Commissioners David Monteith and Phil Carson stuck with their decision to support White’s raise, while Commissioners Glenn Jones and Genevieve Lindsay stood by their votes opposing it.

“I don’t think we should give anybody $15,000 at one lick,” said Jones.

Though the Swain board’s first vote was perfectly legal by state standards, it violated county commissioners’ rules of procedure, which require items up for a vote to be listed as such on their meeting agenda.

This allows board members to prepare themselves with information before voting, and gives the public advance notice whenever the commissioners plan to take action on county business.

However, White’s salary raise was listed on the agenda under “New Business,” implying that no formal action would be taken at the June 14 meeting. That was not the case.

County Manager Kevin King said he was later approached by several department heads who questioned the vote.

“I just wanted to clear the air,” said King, who admitted that he had not noticed the policy violation during the meeting. “We should have caught it there, but we didn’t.”

At the special session, commissioners unanimously voted to keep the policy, but it reared its head again at the very same meeting.

Monteith made a motion to discuss a property tax hiatus at the next regular meeting — even though the agenda had already been published and that subject was not listed. (See “Cashing in the cash settlement.”)

Lindsay mistakenly said commissioners could not discuss anything that was not on the agenda. However, commissioners are free to discuss — but not vote on — items not listed in the agenda.

“It’s funny to sit in there, and they don’t know what they were doing,” said Rebecca Davis, a food service manager at Nantahala Outdoor Center who attended the meeting. Davis had hoped to defend White’s raise before a vote was taken, but no time was set aside for public comment.

Debating the salary hike

White had made a convincing presentation at the June 14 meeting, leading commissioners to vote in favor of raising her salary from $64,000 to about $79,000.

All of a sudden, that raise disappeared into thin air.

“I’m very disappointed,” said White. “I don’t know what happened.”

Moon said he switched his vote after witnessing a backlash from both county employees and citizens since the initial vote. Almost all county employees have gone without salary raises since the recession struck. Moon said White undoubtedly deserves a raise, but so does every other county employee.

“That’s not fair, and I want to be fair,” said Moon. “I regret the fact that we did have to take the raise away. That’s not good, but I felt like it was necessary.”

Earlier this year, however, commissioners voted to approve an $8,000 raise for Tammy Cagle, director of Swain’s Department of Social Services.

Commissioner Jones said Cagle got a raise because she took on a new job component overseeing child support enforcement, which was previously handled by the state.

But White points out that she has taken over the responsibilities of two employees who have left the health department, thereby saving the county $37,000 annually.

About 25 percent of the health department budget comes from the county, according to White. White argued that no county funds would go toward her $15,000 raise. It would come instead from state and federal money.

According to county auditor Eric Bowman, however, any increase in the health department budget, including a salary raise, would have to be supported by county dollars unless there is a specific grant to cover the increase.

White says she’s saved the county $454,000 in the past three years. To put things into perspective, the county provides about $390,000 out of the health department’s $1.7 million budget each year.

Meanwhile, White has the fourth-lowest salary of any health director in the state.

Davis, who has known White professionally for 21 years, said she more than deserves the raise.

“I don’t think that she’s recognized for all that she does do,” said Davis. “I feel that if they had to replace her that it would probably take two people or three to do the job that she does now.”

At 9 years old, Italian Joseph Di Lillo lost his leg as a civilian casualty in World War II. He felt he no longer fit in at home or school. After months of self loathing, Di Lillo ran away and found purpose again playing soccer on a team comprised of handicapped children at an orphanage in Rome.

Now Di Lillo lives in Bryson City and hopes to impart the values he learned through soccer to children and young adults in the community, he said.

“He’s very interested in the kids’ welfare. He has a love for soccer, and he has a strong desire to teach that to the kids around here,” said Julie Richards, who has coached a clinic with Di Lillo. “It’s very impressive to see him out there when it’s 90 degrees, and he’s carrying that gear all over the place, especially on one leg.

Having only one leg doesn’t ever stop him, said Romano Michelotti, another coach who’s worked with Di Lillo.

“He wouldn’t quit playing soccer if he had no legs at all,” Michelotti said. “The community is fortunate to have someone like him.”

About three years ago, Di Lillo founded the Western North Carolina Youth Soccer Association. It runs spring and fall soccer clinics for 60 to 65 children. There is no registration fee, and a $1,000 grant from the Asheville Community Foundation covers the cost of shin guards and cleats. The association has also received two $500 grants from Wal-mart and Sam’s Club, he said.

But that’s not enough. The association needs a field to play on, Di Lillo said.

“I’m desperate for a field,” Di Lillo said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to quit.”

Di Lillo has been told a field in Swain will cost at minimum $250,000, and he doesn’t have the money. While he could always leave the county to coach elsewhere, De Lillo wants to stay in Swain. With a high incidence of poverty, kids in Swain County have little opportunity to play soccer, which can sometimes be too expensive to afford.

But finding a field in Swain is not the biggest obstacle Di Lillo has had to overcome.

Di Lillo grew up in Italy during World War II. In his book Soccer: My Life, My Passion, he recounts the struggles and loss his family faced during the war. Nazis forced his father onto a German military truck because they thought he was a “suspicious individual.” The soldiers severely beat Di Lillo’s father and left him abandoned on a country road.

Another day when a convoy of German soldiers headed to Rome, one soldier threw a small parcel off the side of a truck. Thinking it was a can of food, Domenico, one of Di Lillo’s brothers, grabbed it. But it exploded, ripping off his thumb.

Later in the war when Di Lillo and his 5-year old brother Sebastiano headed home from school, the two found themselves in the middle of an air raid. Bombs fell on an ammunition plant near the school. As a result of the plant’s explosion, Sebastiano died from hemorrhaging two days later.

A British military truck hit another brother. At the hospital, doctors said he would die. The family wanted him to die at home so they could have control of the remains. But the hospital would not release the boy, so Di Lillo’s family lowered the boy out of the window in a bed sheet at night. He died the next day at home.

And it was during the war that Di Lillo lost his leg. In 1942 on his way home from school, a Nazi military truck ran into him, fracturing the femur in his thigh. It took seven hours for Di Lillo to receive medical attention. The doctor amputated Di Lillo’s leg to prevent complications and infection.

“At the age of nine, I found myself without a right leg and shattered by the reality of being handicapped for the rest of my life,” Di Lillo wrote. “My best and closest friends withdrew their friendship.”

Some of his relatives thought God was punishing him for poor behavior, and he was no longer able to help on the family farm.

Di Lillo’s father insisted he return to school despite his son’s embarrassment about his lost leg. Although Di Lillo once excelled in school, when he returned he began to associate with street urchins and routinely skipped class.

His uncle found out and told his father. His father beat him and tied him to a tree for two days. No one was allowed to bring him food.

When he was untied, he decided to run away from home and go to Rome. He took the Italian equivalent of $10 for a train ticket and a soccer ball. Di Lillo had never seen a game or played with the ball.

“For unexplainable reasons, holding the ball under my arm I felt I had a companion with me,” he recounted in his book.

Feeling that life had no meaning, Di Lillo wandered the streets of Rome hopeless. Di Lillo thought about jumping off a bridge and drowning in the Tiber River.

At that moment, a man approached Di Lillo and brought him to a headquarters for the Italian Communist Party. He was given a little money and became a temporary foster child before he was placed in the San Michele orphanage.

The orphanage had a soccer team of handicapped boys, and because Di Lillo couldn’t run, he played goalie. The team would play before professional soccer games, and the orphanage would get a small fraction of the ticket price.

“I saved the orphanage quite a bit of money,” Di Lillo said. “At the orphanage there were only two things to do: pray the rosary to save the orphanage or play soccer.”

When Di Lillo was 20, he could no longer stay at the orphanage. He returned home and applied for a visa to come to the United States.

He worked odd jobs and traveled before coming to Chicago where he met his wife, Concetta, at a festival called the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. She spoke little Italian, and he barely knew English. But Di Lillo said it was love at first sight.

The couple married and moved to Iowa, where she started attending graduate school at the University of Iowa. Di Lillo, 26, started attending high school but he never received a diploma.

With the help of an Italian professor, Di Lillo began attending the University of Iowa where he coached and played soccer on the International Soccer Team. He transferred to Northern Illinois University where he completed his undergraduate degree in comprehensive social sciences.

From there, he went on to Southern Illinois University where received a scholarship to coach and play soccer and ultimately graduated with a doctorate in international relations.

“I had such a craving for education, I couldn’t stop,” he said.

After retiring from a professorship, Di Lillo moved to Bryson City in 2002 to be closer to his children and grandchildren. His daughter came to North Carolina first to attend Western Carolina University and decided to stay in the area after graduation.

Di Lillo is no an assistant coach at Swain County High School.

Ben Christoph, who graduated this year, played goalie and received two years of Di Lillo’s tutelage.

“Everything he taught me about soccer and life is summed up by his motto: ‘Give 129 and a half percent all the time,’” Christoph said. “He said, ‘Never ever give up no matter what your circumstances.’ Coming from him, it meant so much more.”

Christoph recalls Di Lillo teaching the team innovative drills and demonstrating some of them himself.

“It was beyond admirable how at his age and his condition how he’d show us the drills,” Christoph said. “It made me give a lot more than I thought I could.”

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