A bill by Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, that would force the National Park Service to turn over the $4 million intended for Swain County cleared a critical hurdle this week. It was heard by the Public Lands subcommittee in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, and airing before a committee is a good sign it will advance to the House floor for a vote.
“Due to government bureaucracy, the residents of Swain County are still waiting for funds that were allocated to their county,” Meadows said.
The $4 million is merely one installment of the larger $52 million cash settlement promised to Swain County by the federal government for breaking its promise to rebuild a road flooded long ago in the construction of Fontana Dam. (See related piece Stiffed Again.)
There’s no indication of when the bill to free the hung-up $4 million will go to the House floor, but Meadows said if the bill made it to committee, its chances of final passage would be high.
It will actually be the second time Congress has appropriated the same $4 million check for Swain County. The money was first appropriated by Congress in 2012 as part of the National Park Service budget.
But the National Park Service claimed that wasn’t good enough. Park service officials in Washington, D.C., wanted a specific, standalone authorization by Congress to turn over the $4 million.
Out of the hundreds of line items in its budget, this one is the only one for which the park service insisted on a second layer of authorization beyond the budget document itself.
“It was certainly clear the intention of this appropriation. My comment to the park service is, ‘Either send it to Swain County or send it back to the federal treasury,’” Meadows said. “Four million dollars was appropriated and sits there and sits there.”
One question now is whether the park service still has it laying around.
“It is not in a particular bucket that says, ‘This is Swain County’s money,’” Meadows said.
But they should still have it, barring rumors that it was spent fixing earthquake damage to the Washington Monument.
Meadows has been trying to break the logjam over the $4 million since he took office in early 2013, picking up where former Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, had left off before him.
This week, Meadows and Shuler appeared side by side at the subcommittee hearing to make Swain’s case.
During his time, Shuler asked the General Accounting Office to render an objective opinion on whether the park service could turn over the money in its budget without a specific vote by Congress saying it was OK. The verdict: the park service could release the funds to Swain County if it wanted to.
“It was within their discretion to do so,” Meadows said. If it comes through, the $4 million will join the existing $12.8 million received to date from the Road to Nowhere settlement, which is held in a trust fund safeguarded by the state with the annual interest being remitted to the county.
Stiffed again, and why does the government owe Swain money?
When Fontana Lake was built for hydropower in the 1940s, it flooded homes, farms, churches, cemeteries, schools — and a long, windy, dirt road leading from Bryson City to Tennessee. The government promised to build that road back one day, but one day never came, stymied by not-so-small details like a half a billion dollar price tag or traversing 30 miles of Great Smoky Mountains National Park backcountry.
After decades of bitter fighting, Swain County gave up its claims to the long-promised road in 2010 and instead settled for a $52 million cash payout — an amount derived from the monetary value of the road when it was flooded and adjusted for inflation and interest.
Unlocking the $4 million currently held hostage by the National Park Service for the past two years will only be a modest victory for Swain County in the 70-year-long dispute over the North Shore Road.
“That is just back money,” said Swain County Commissioner David Monteith. And not all the back money at that.
The federal government agreed in 2010 to pay Swain County in installments over the coming decade. But after an initial down payment of $12.8 million that year, Swain hasn’t seen a penny since.
Twice, the annual $4 million payment was appropriated for Swain County as part of the National Park Service budget — but both times it failed to actually reach Swain County.
• In 2011, the payment was appropriated but then rescinded mid-year after being caught up in an across-the-board clamp down on earmarks by Congress.
• In 2012, the payment was again appropriated, but the National Park Service refused to release it, claiming it lacked clear authority to do so.
• In 2013, the payment never made it in the federal budget.
• In 2014, again, the payment never made it in the federal budget.