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Displaying items by tag: jackson

Times are tough, and in response Jackson County department heads have been ordered to reduce spending by 3 percent between now and June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

Additionally, a hiring freeze will continue and the use of part-time employees will be curtailed as much as possible to save dollars, interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told the Jackson County Board of Commissioners this week.

Every county in North Carolina has braced for upcoming cuts as a result of the state’s $3.7 billion shortfall. But Jackson County is having problems just getting through the next few months, at least in terms of meeting its projected revenues and expenditures for the current fiscal year.

Wooten, who took over the county’s top paid slot in January on a temporary basis after serving as Western Carolina University’s finance officer for 30 years, crunched the budget numbers and determined Jackson County was facing a shortfall of its own: $336,004, to be exact.

Property taxes haven’t been collected at the rate projected, and the failure of residents to pay vehicle taxes compounded the problems, he said. Jackson County’s budget for this year assumed a property tax collection rate of 95.4 percent. The actual collection rate is running about .62 percent behind.

Wooten instituted these additional steps:

• Travel to conferences and for professional development will be approved only when it is necessary to maintain a license or certification. All travel must be approved in advance, and out-of-state travel is out, unless it involves licensing.

• Equipment not yet purchased has to be approved by Wooten before being bought, and the purchase won’t be approved unless it is absolutely necessary.

• Employees have been asked to avoid stockpiling supplies, and to buy only what is needed to get through the year.

County employees must submit lists of budget savings to Finance Officer Darlene Fox by Feb. 11, according to a memorandum sent this week by Wooten to department heads.

“In addition to these immediate budget actions, I will be evaluating other county policies and practices to determine if budget savings are available by implementing modifications,” he wrote.

Wooten warned county employees that the new budget for fiscal year 2011-12 would likely reflect an expected three to five percent reduction in tax and locally generated revenues, and to plan accordingly.

“It is apparent that our tax base will not increase at levels similar to past years,” Wooten wrote.

A meeting to form a new Friends of the Green Energy Park organization in Jackson County is set for 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18.

“In order to continue operating and moving forward, the Green Energy Park will need a lot of volunteer help,” said Timm Muth, the park’s director.  “We can use help with everything from working on equipment to pulling weeds, and a whole lot in-between.”

Muth will share long-range and short-term plans, and lead a discussion about the future form of the park.

Jackson County commissioners have discussed weaning the Green Energy Park from county subsidies over five years, which translates to about a 20 percent cut in county funding annually until that goal is reached. Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since it opened in 2006.

The Green Energy Park uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio.

Volunteers with skills are needed — or an interest and willingness to learn — in the following areas: bookkeeping, giving tours, planning art classes, marketing, fundraising, gallery operations, landscaping, equipment maintenance and more.

The meeting will be held in the new Jackson County Senior Center off Webster Road near Southwestern Community College.

There aren’t any strip joints, dirty bookstores or other adult establishments currently in Jackson County, but Sheriff Jimmy Ashe wants regulations put in place ... just in case.

Passing an adult establishment ordinance, Ashe said this week to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, is “more of a preventative matter” at this juncture.

“I think we are just getting ahead of the game in case this is ever facing us,” the sheriff said. “It may never happen, or it may happen in five years.”

Besides, Ashe added, “I think this is the Bible belt of North Carolina, and we have traditions and cultures here.”

And those traditions and cultures apparently don’t include off-color shim-sham shops.

Ashe said he became concerned about the lack of regulations in Jackson County when Harrah’s Cherokee Casino started work on being allowed to serve alcohol. About that same time, the state loosened laws on alcohol-serving clubs, and Ashe said he started getting concerned.

The Jackson County Planning Board put together an ordinance with the guidance of County Planner Gerald Green. Commissioners decided to hold a public hearing March 7 at 1:30 p.m. on the proposed regulations.

Green explained the ordinance, if adopted, would require businesses pay a $5,000 fee to open up, and entertainers $2,500 each to strut their stuff. The county-issued licenses would be good for one year before requiring renewal, at 50 percent of the initial fee. Other requirements would include criminal-background checks, buffers from institutions such as churches, and standards on “touching” and “covering.”

The Green Energy Park would stand on its own financially within five years if Jackson County adopts recommendations made last week by interim County Manager Chuck Wooten.

The park, which uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio, touched off a storm of criticism and a corresponding groundswell of support recently after county commissioners questioned expenses.

In particular, new Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, has wanted to know when — as promised by the previous commissioners — the Green Energy Park would be financially self-sustaining.

Wooten laid out a solution during a county work session last week. He suggested the county wean the Green Energy Park gradually, reducing support to the park by 20 percent starting the next fiscal year for each of the next five years.

Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since 2006. The county anticipated spending $1 million anyway to deal with methane gas issues related to closing the landfill. Under Wooten’s plan, the county would cover expenses related to the maintenance of the closed landfill that would exist regardless of the Green Energy Park.

Wooten, in prepared comments, noted: “In addition to the gas reclamation, the jobs created at the park, and the educational value provided to the community, the county has also benefited indirectly from the park.”

The grounds department, Wooten said, estimated it saves about $39,000 each year by using the greenhouses at the park for growing annuals and propagating shrubs and trees. Additionally, the park has assumed some of the expenses for dealing with the volatile pollutant that otherwise would fall to the county.

Wooten added that he believes building a volunteer force to help cover costs and needs associated with the innovative project won’t be difficult.

“There’s a lot of support out there for the Green Energy Park,” Wooten told commissioners.

Board Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, told park Director Timm Muth: “The supporters of your park are passionate, and I appreciate that … my question to these people is, ‘What can you do to help us keep the park?’”

Debnam went on to extol the Friends of the Library organization, which has raised the money necessary to build and furnish a new library for Sylva. He suggested that group of volunteers could serve as a model for something similar for the Green Energy Park.

Muth seemed receptive to Debnam’s and Wooten’s suggestions. He went on to apologize to commissioners in the event they believed he behaved less than professionally when questioned by them in a previous meeting.

The director went on to note he believes Jackson has “transformed” the former Dillsboro landfill from “an eyesore to something the county can be proud of.”

Muth, who had earlier noted to commissioners: “I know I just kind of talk and talk,” then proceeded to express his apparent ongoing discontent with news coverage over the five-year history of the venture. He said special events at the park haven’t received the front-page placement in local publications that he believes they merit. Muth concluded his soliloquy with bemusement about how to “engage the media.”

There is one surefire, never-fail method of engaging reporters and getting that coveted front-page coverage: continue having commissioners raise questions about management of the Green Energy Park, and about whether taxpayers’ dollars are best spent underwriting the park and Muth’s $64,626.12 annual salary.

 

The road to solvency

Weaning the Jackson County Green Energy Park from county subsidies in the next five years could be possible under a plan outlined by interim County Manager Jack Wooten.

• Continue a freeze on the vacant administrative support position at the park. Volunteers instead will be found to help Director Timm Muth staff the office and serve as administrative helpers.

• Actively pursue grants in support of the general operations or program expansion at the park.

• Reactivate an advisory committee to guide the director concerning park operations.

• Review and update all operating procedures and policies for the park.

• Develop a comprehensive marketing plan, and put up signs to guide visitors to the park and give them information once inside.

• Seek additional tenants.

• Identify partners within the community and identify new business opportunities for the park.

• Continue providing grounds maintenance and routine building maintenance.

• Have the park’s director provide written quarterly updates to commissioners and appear annually before the commissioners with representatives from the advisory committee.

When Jackson County opens its new library, it will be with a little more than just the usual fanfare. Thanks to the efforts of the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet, the occasion will also be marked by a performance of “Smoky Moutain Fanfare,” a new piece of music commissioned especially for the library’s christening.

The score was penned by composer and teacher David Sampson, a friend of the quartet and a sought-after composer from New Jersey.

Quintet member David Ginn said inspiration for the concept struck him as he was driving by the new facility in mid-construction; he realized that such a monumental and unique project needed something equally unique to commemorate its birth.

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“A project this special, it’s got to have it’s own fanfare,” Ginn recounted, and shortly thereafter, he took the idea to his four fellow members.

Trumpeter Brad Ulrich was scheduled to have dinner with Sampson around the same time, and after a mention of the idea and a little more discussion, the seed of an idea began to spring to life. The rest, said Sampson, is history.

Of his composition, he said he hit the books — and the Internet — for some Appalachian research before diving into the piece. He wanted, he said, for it to have the same unique mountain flavor that makes the Smoky Mountains so appealing and steeped in history and tradition.

Sampson listened to bluegrass, gospel hymns and the shape-note singing that found its genesis in the heart of Western North Carolina. He tried to translate that down-home, celebratory flavor into notes that brass instruments could understand.

“There is certainly a hint of North Carolina,” said Sampson. “Anytime you expand a place that’s designed for learning, it’s a time to celebrate.”

Although he relied on his research to guide him when crafting the tune, Sampson said the process itself was an exercise in spontaneity — once he started banging out the melody, the rest of the piece seemed to tumble out after it.

While he put his heart and soul into the music as its creator, Sampson said he left room — as he always does — for the performers to impose their own take on what he’s come up with.

For this particular fanfare, Sampson said he has such confidence in the talents of the players that he’s sure they can’t help but make it better.

“I know these musicians are very high level,” said Sampson. “When you’re dealing with a group that has a lot of experience, if they bring that to my music it’s going to make my music even richer.”

And he’s not remiss in his judgment of the quintet. All five members are seasoned performance musicians with university-level musical training; many members still actively teach the craft at nearby Western Carolina University.

They’ve traveled extensively, performing not only around the region but around the globe, in locales as diverse as Russia, the United Kingdom and China.

And while Ginn said they haven’t put the finishing touches on their performance of the fanfare just yet, they’re very excited about the one-of-a-kind opportunity to play such a piece. In fact, said Ginn, the June opening of the library may be the song’s first and only chance to come off the page, so they want to get it just right.

“It’s almost like a limited edition,” said Ginn. “I don’t know that this is something that will be performed again in the future.”

The library, Ginn said, is such a special project, built by the hard efforts of countless volunteers, that the quintet is excited to play its part in the excitement of finally seeing it come to fruition.

“There’s a lot of people that have volunteered and dedicated their time to making the library happen, so this piece is kind of dedicated to them also,” said Ginn.

Sampson, whose full resume includes commissions from such impressive outfits as the National Symphony Orchestra and the International Trumpet Guild, along with a plethora of grants and endowments, said he’ll be there for his piece’s inaugural performance when the library opens to – and with – great fanfare in June.

 

A way to support Jackson’s library

Watercolor drawings of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, painted by local artist Eva Scruggs using walnut stain, are now on sale as note cards. The depiction is modeled after a 1914 photo of the structure. Boxes are available at Used Book Store in Sylva, with proceeds going toward the new library complex attached to the historic building.

Good things come to those who wait.

It’s an adage Jackson County library users will need to bear in mind this spring during a month-long closure of the Sylva branch during the massive move into its brand-new, first-class digs.

Librarians face the daunting task of packing up 35,000 books in circulation at the current library and arranging them in their new home. It can’t be done while continuing to keep the doors of the library open, according to Betty Screven, public relations chair with Friends of the Jackson County Library.

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Volunteers with Friends of the Library are lining up to help with the operation. In fact, they’ve already started.

They have been combing the stacks of the Sylva library outfitting each book with a special radio-frequency identification tag. The new tags will take the place of the traditional barcodes used to check out books today.

Radio-frequency tags allow entire piles of books to be scanned at once, not only making it easier to check books in and out but also to keep track of collections. Librarians can inventory of a whole shelf in seconds without ever taking a book off. Library users will even be able to check out their own books.

The technology is considered cutting edge, but making the transition to the radio-frequency tags is too expensive and time consuming for most libraries to tackle.

The new library, which was constructed as an enormous wing on the back of the historic courthouse, will be more than three times bigger than the current one. The county is spending $8 million to build the library and restore the historic courthouse.

Jackson County Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million to furnish the library — from shelving to armchairs to desks — with $400,000 of that devoted to buying new books and materials. Newly purchased library items will come already equipped with the radio-frequency identification tags.

The new library will have a soft opening sometime in May with a grand opening planned for Saturday, June 11.

Local boards are finding themselves on the wrong end of the dog when it comes to putting together budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

In Jackson and Macon counties, at work sessions held by commissioners in their respective counties last week, much of the discussion at these relatively informal get-togethers involved speculation on when — and what — might be expected from the state General Assembly.

The state, as it were, would be the front end of the dog.

North Carolina is facing a projected $3.7 billion shortfall. Thousands of state jobs are threatened, with massive cuts expected to come for health and human services, schools and other critical services offered on the state and local level.

So, what does that mean for counties?

“There are certain things we have to provide,” said Evelyn Southard, finance officer for Macon County.

And not knowing how much money will come down the pike from the state complicates matters, she said. When counties will know the full extent of the financial devastation is unknown, but that knowledge is critical to local boards starting preparations on budgets for the next fiscal year.

Macon County Manager Jack Horton warned his board that even though members of the General Assembly are making happy noises about having their budget passed by the end of June, August is more typical, and the state has actually lagged before into October.

“We have to have the (ability) to take care of the county business whether the state gets their house in order or not,” said Horton, a veteran administrator who has also worked over the years in Swain and Haywood counties.

 

Jackson faces immediate shortfall

In Jackson County, officials were concerned about staying within this year’s budget in addition to preparing next year’s.

Jackson County must either slow its spending, interim Manager Chuck Wooten said, or the county must dip into the fund balance — those are the two choices facing Jackson’s commissioners. An across-the-board cut for county departments seems the most palatable option of the two, Wooten said.

The problem is not enough people are paying their taxes in Jackson County. A gap between the budgeted tax-collection rate for the current fiscal year, and the actual collection rate occurring so far is 0.62 percent off what was originally projected. Sounds tiny, but that adds up to big bucks: there is a projected revenue shortfall for the current year of $336,004, including failures to pay vehicle taxes.

The recession has taken its toll on all counties when it comes to people paying their taxes. Jackson’s budget for this year assumes a property tax collection rate of 95.4 percent. Last year, the tax collection rate was only 94.8 percent, but county leaders apparently banked on it coming back up.

Wooten said as a result this year’s budget is “too optimistic,” though he stopped short of assigning blame. Wooten replaced longtime County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland in January.

In response, Jackson County commissioners indicated they would probably become more aggressive in tackling tax scofflaws.

“Why have we not gone after this?” Jackson Chairman Jack Debnam asked, presumably of the only two (Democrats) commissioners who remain from the previous board.

Debnam then answered his own question: “I know, we’re a small county — they could be friends and relatives.”

New Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, warned his fellow members that favoritism must play no role.

“If we go down this road, it is important to treat everyone equally,” he said.

Macon County leaders, by comparison, were merry about having a mere $34,283 projected discrepancy.

“And I think there’s some room in here for our expenditures and revenues to be even better than is shown here,” Southard said.

In other state-local government news, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners last week passed a list of legislative goals the group wants state leaders to adopt. Beale, who attended the meeting, summarized the top five priority goals of the group:

• Oppose shifting road maintenance from the state to the counties.

• Reinstate Average Daily Membership, a formula that uses school enrollment to determine funding levels, and lottery funds for school construction.

• Ensure adequate mental-health funding by seeking legislation for adequate capacity of state-funded acute psychiatric beds; oppose closing state-funded beds until there is adequate capacity statewide, and seek legislation to maintain the existing levels of state funding for community mental-health services.

• Preserve the existing local-revenue base (don’t take money streams away from already-hurting local governments).

• Authorize local revenue options by allowing counties to enact by resolutions, or at the option of boards of commissioners, by voter referendum any or all revenue options from among those that have been authorized for any other county.

With what they claim is hundreds of thousands in unpaid rent and loans on the line, Jackson County commissioners have ordered three delinquent tenants at county-owned industrial sites to pay up, or else.

Precisely what “or else” means hasn’t been spelled out. But, in a 5-0 vote, commissioners did make clear last week they want the money they believe is owed the county. That would be $92,700 from QC Apparel; $104,550 from Stanton and Stanton; and $83,166.72 from Clearwood Lumber.

The county has been prodding at least two of the industries to pay up since last summer. The former board of commissioners discussed the issue in closed session on more than one occasion.

Their less-than-stellar track record with the county goes back years, however. Their failure to stay current on revolving loan payments portrayed the old Economic Development Commission as being lax in its oversight of the revolving loan fund. That in turn triggered a county takeover of the EDC, but the county hasn’t done much better since it has been at the helm.

In addition to the back rent, QC Apparel has an outstanding revolving loan of $410,094, and hasn’t made a payment since January 2008, interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners. Clearwood has an outstanding revolving loan of $76,716.87, and hasn’t made a payment since May, he said.

Neither QC Apparel nor Clearwood Lumber returned phone messages seeking comment. Wooten said he had not received a response as of earlier this week to the dunning letters sent to any of the three companies.

Charles Stanton, owner of Stanton and Stanton, told The Smoky Mountain News on Monday that commissioners are mistaken. He does not owe back rent, because his woodworking company put in “a lot of money fixing up the building” per a lease agreement. Stanton said he planned to meet with Wooten this week and attempt to clear up the matter.

Stanton said his company has six full-time employees and six to 12 installers working at any given time under contracts.

QC Apparel and Stanton and Stanton are located in the former Tuckaseigee Mills building on Scotts Creek Road. Clearwood Lumber is in Whittier.

Jackson County Development Corp., a nonprofit arm of the county’s Economic Development Commission, originally purchased Tuckaseigee Mills.

When Jackson County’s new commissioners announced they would oversee all hiring to determine whether positions should be filled or wiped off the books, the mandate had a fiscally prudent, vigilant-watchdogs-of-taxpayer-dollars sound.

“I have to admit, this is causing somewhat of a problem in being able to manage this,” interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told the board last week, just more than a month after commissioners so tightly grabbed the reins.

Though commissioners control the budget, statutorily speaking the sheriff and register of deeds — both elected positions — have full powers to do the hiring and firing in their own departments, Wooten pointed out.

Wooten also asked: did commissioners really want to clog-up the system (about 4 percent of the Jackson County workforce is currently open) by scrutinizing positions mainly paid for using state dollars, such as at the health department and in social services, which have their own overseeing boards? And, what about contracted and grant-paid positions? Take a transit driver, 85 percent grant funded, as an example of the latter category, Wooten said. Do you need to personally approve who is hired?

Well, no, now that the problems being created by practically their very first official decision as commissioners (during a Dec. 6 meeting) has become clear, it turned out the board didn’t really want oversight of those hiring decisions. In a 5-0 vote, they agreed in those cases to let others — the departments or boards directly involved, or Wooten — make the hires.

Unlike municipalities in North Carolina, county commissioners must vote for their manager to be given hiring oversight. State law gives town managers that right without elected leaders’ say-so. Most of the state’s 100 counties’ board of commissioners automatically extend that power to the county manager hired to, well, “manage” the county.

Jackson County commissioners did, however, retain the review-before-advertising-any-county-positions paid for purely with county money, via the general fund. Though, it should be noted, Wooten advised the five men they might want to reconsider that decision, too.

Wooten was hired as a temporary replacement for former County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who either elected to leave voluntarily before the new board convened in December, or who was shown the door. This depending on whom you believe, Westmoreland (who said he was forced out) or Chairman Jack Debnam (who said “it was his decision”).

Wooten retired Jan. 1 after 30 years of experience overseeing Western Carolina University’s finances. He has said he expects to help commissioners hire a replacement county manager within six months or so.

Jackson County has three new commissioners: Debnam (a conservative independent); Doug Cody (a Republican) and Charles Elders (a Republican). Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan round out the board.

Supporters of Jackson County’s methane-powered Green Energy Park urged county leaders last week not to slash funding to the innovative project.

“What is the Green Energy Park?” Aaron Shufelt, a glass artisan and intern at the park, asked rhetorically during the public session of the county commission meeting, one of seven people who spoke about the issue.

“(It is) a place where creative and passionate people come together to experience the arts. The Green Energy Park is unique because they are dedicated to preserving the arts through education and the utilization of green energy. The result is economic growth for Western North Carolina.”

Jackson County’s new three-man-slate of conservative commissioners have sharply questioned the viability and future of the Green Energy Park. The project was launched about five years ago (under a board totally dominated by Democrats, now just two remain) as a means of capturing methane from a closed landfill in Dillsboro and turning that waste byproduct into energy. Today, methane helps power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing facilities and a large greenhouse, with the artisans paying rent and fees to the county.

Republican Commissioner Doug Cody, a successful businessman in private life, has been crystal clear about his beliefs that the park needs to pay its own way. This isn’t out-of-the-blue posturing on Cody’s part — the previous board of commissioners, too, said they intended for the park to become economically self-sustaining. The sticking point is when, exactly, this should take place.

Green Energy Park Director Timm Muth notes previous commissioners never set a timetable. This year alone, the Green Energy Park is set to receive $218,422 in taxpayer dollars. Total, the park has received $1.2 million from the county’s general fund since 2006.

John Burtner, a blacksmith who has used the park as an incubator to grow his business, credited the venture with keeping him gainfully employed. Burtner said he believes he would currently be out of work without use of park’s shop and tools. The blacksmith has used his two-and-a-half-years there to start equipping his own shop elsewhere, he said.

“This whole time, I’ve been busy, profitable,” Burtner told county leaders.

Commissioners, while deciding the fate of the Green Energy Park, might want to factor in the following. According to the January 2006 minutes of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland noted: “The county had anticipated spending approximately $1 million to satisfy requirements imposed by the EPA and DEHNR concerning the unfavorable release of methane (from the landfill) into the atmosphere. The dollar amount will be expended (in building the park), but for a beneficial use and is a ‘win-win’ situation … because it is so unique, the project will more than likely receive national attention and visits to the area.”

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