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A former Jackson County funeral director has been charged with fraud for swindling people who paid for their own funerals in advance.

Ronnie and Thomasine Riddle, 55 and 56, of Sylva systematically defrauded as many as three dozen funeral customers out of tens of thousands of dollars over a nine-year period, according to an ongoing investigation. The couple was running Melton-Riddle Funeral Home at the time but are no longer affiliated with the business.

The victims paid the Riddles up front to cover the cost of their funerals when they eventually died — but the money is now unaccounted for and the funeral services never provided, according to the charges.

So far, the Riddles have been charged with defrauding 13 people of $50,000.

But that’s only part of the picture.

The charges at this point represent only a portion of the funeral home’s customers whose money went missing after being paid to the Riddles, according to records on file with the N.C. Funeral Services Board.

In all, more than three dozen people have come forward saying they prepaid the Riddles — for a total of more than $150,000 that was not properly deposited into funeral accounts and is now missing, according to funeral board records.

The investigation appears to be ongoing, but it is unclear whether more charges could be forthcoming.

“The investigation into these activities is continuing and will be continuing as allegations come forward from people who may have been affected,” District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said.

Funeral homes are supposed to follow strict guidelines when people pay for a funeral ahead of time. The person who paid for their funeral upfront won’t exactly be around to make sure they get what they paid for, giving rise to clear state laws on how the money for prepaid funerals should be handled. The money must be set aside either in a designated trust fund or through an insurance policy. Either way, it essentially goes in a lockbox ensuring the money will be there to provide the services.

SEE ALSO: Tombstone buyers in grave situation with Moody Funeral Home 

All the charges filed to date against the Riddles involved insurance policies — or rather the lack of insurance policies, according to warrants. The Riddles gave customers fake paperwork, leading them to believe their money had been put into an insurance policy when in fact no such policy existed, according to the charges.

“They wrote these contracts, accepted the people’s money and gave them receipts, but the money was never sent to the insurance company,” said Tom Tucker, the new owner and manager of Milton Funeral Home, who has condemned the Riddles’ actions.

The current charges are all the result of a two-year investigation by fraud officers with the N.C. Department of Insurance and deal only with cases that involved fake insurance policies.

But there are potentially another two dozen victims who prepaid for funerals whose money was supposed to be placed in a designated trust fund but now can’t be located, according to the N.C. Funeral Board. These did not fall under the purview of the N.C. Insurance Department but instead would be investigated by local law enforcement or prosecutors.

Bonfoey said he could not comment other than to say “The investigation into the entire sphere of this activity is continuing.”

Tucker said he would not be surprised if more charges came along at some point to hold the Riddles responsible for all the additional victims.

“It looks to me like there would because there is quite a number of those,” Tucker said.

The N.C. Funeral Services Board doesn’t have a law enforcement arm and can’t launch a criminal investigation of its own. It did send two letters to District Attorney Mike Bonfoey in 2009 alerting him to evidence of felony embezzlement and fraud by the Riddles. The letters offered to help in an investigation should Bonfoey chose to initiate one.

“We reported to the local district attorney as required by law when ever there is embezzlement of premium money,” Harris said.

 

State fund re-pays victims

In the meantime, the N.C. Funeral Services Board has forked over $60,000 to pay back victims, and more is likely coming.

“We are still dealing with potentially $100,000 or more in claims,” said Paul Harris, head of the N.C. Board of Funeral Services.

Paying for funerals in advance is fairly common. Sometimes people don’t want their funeral expense to be a burden on their family. Others are trying to spend down their assets in order to qualify for Medicaid. And some are simply hedging their bets, locking in the cost of their funeral at today’s rates.

The N.C. Funeral Services Board tries to act as a check-and-balance, ensuring that people who pay cash upfront for a funeral will actually get the service they’ve paid for when the time comes.

A record of every prepaid funeral transaction is supposed to be filed with the state funeral board, which checks to make sure the money got deposited where it was supposed to be. The Riddles did not file paperwork with the state as required, however.

Failure to file the paperwork can result in a funeral director losing the ability to sell prepaid funeral services — and that’s exactly what happened to the Riddles in 2006, although evidence suggests they continued to do so anyway.

Harris said every couple of years there seems to be a dishonest funeral director somewhere in the state who pockets people’s money.

The state has a restitution fund to pay back victims in this predicament. The pool of money comes from a $2 fee tacked on to all prepaid funeral arrangements made in the state. The fund is taking a serious beating in the Riddle case, Harris said.

Harris said victims are pleased the state has such a safeguard in place when the money they thought they put toward a funeral is stolen by a funeral director, but ideally the funeral director would be held criminally responsible and have to pay restitution if the case can be proven.

 

Funeral home founder devastated

The Riddles ran Melton-Funeral Home for almost a decade before losing their license from the N.C. Board of Funeral Services. The license was revoked in 2009.

The funeral home was taken over by Thomas Tucker, a longtime funeral director in the region who had been working at the funeral home part-time. Tucker dropped the Riddles’ name from the business and went back to the original name of just Melton Funeral Home.

The turn of events has been heart-wrenching for the funeral home’s original founder, Frank Melton, Tucker said.

“Oh my goodness, it has hurt him,” Tucker said.

The Riddles worked for Melton for several years before becoming partners in the business. Melton even added their name to the business making it Melton-Riddle Funeral Home.

When Melton was forced into retirement after a heart attack, the Riddles took over the business completely.

Although Melton “when all this started breaking lose,” was no longer involved in daily operations, he was devastated, Tucker said.

“It just sent him into a tailspin,” Tucker said.

More than two years later, Tucker said he is still sorting out the mess. People continue to walk through the door following the death of a loved one believing they had squared away arrangements years ago — not only putting down cold, hard cash to pay for the funeral but working out details of the service, like who the pallbearers would be, which casket they wanted and what verses they wanted spoken.

“Of course, we have no record of it,” Tucker said. “I am a lost ball in high weeds. It has been a nightmare.”

While the Riddles no longer have a role in Melton’s funeral business, Ronnie Riddle has continued to work occasionally as a gravedigger.

“But that will be no more,” Tucker said. “I’ve had people tell me they didn’t want him even at the graveyard.”

Tucker has been in the funeral business for more than 40 years, including serving as the manager of Wells Funeral Home in Waynesville.

In town and county governments there are those dedicated members of the public who speak out and stand up to help hold elected officials accountable … and then there are gadflies. Marie Leatherwood, with a history of flinging wild accusations of thievery and wrongdoing against Jackson County’s leaders, seems squarely in the latter camp.

Last week, Jackson County commissioners clearly had enough — at least enough of Leatherwood’s signs. The 83-year-old, who is less than 5-feet-tall and must rely on Jackson County Transit to get to meetings, was told that she could no longer bring signs into the boardroom. She can display them outside in the hall, however.

The dispute between Leatherwood and Jackson County’s elected officials appears a simple matter of free speech rights versus political leaders’ duties to conduct public business. But the situation isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

Legal experts are divided on whether signs alone constitute disruptions. And then there’s the Leatherwood factor: her attacks are highly individual, even vile by most people’s standards. The accusations are at times untethered in reality. She uses an allotted three minutes of time, given to any member of the public who wishes to address the board at meetings, to abuse her chosen target’s character, personal integrity and ethics.

Leatherwood can weave a tapestry of conspiracy out of a single cat’s hair, with just about as much evidence to support her claims. She routinely exceeds her three minutes, requiring constant prodding by Commission Chairman Jack Debnam to finish talking so that others have an opportunity to speak. And under a different chairman and previous board of commissioners, Leatherwood once left the meeting room escorted by sheriff’s deputies.

About two years ago, Leatherwood began using props, holding up signs in the board room during meetings.

 

‘It’s a disruption’

Debnam’s decision to ban Leatherwood’s signs follow an initial decision made a few months ago to remove her from  “press row,” an area reserved for county employees and members of the news media. Seated then directly behind county administrators, Leatherwood chatted distractingly to anyone nearby while business was conducted.

Leatherwood had her signs then, too. Debnam said that he hoped to hinder her ability to distract by asking that she sit in the publicly designated area.

That certainly didn’t work, he noted. Leatherwood promptly took up a new post, standing in the aisle to one side of the board room, signs in hand, in an even more prominent position than before.

“I don’t have anything personal against Mrs. Leatherwood,” Debnam said Monday. “We give her the three minutes to do what she wants to do. I don’t care if she brings an 8-by-10 signboard and props it up while she speaks, but I don’t think it’s fair to allow her to stand in front of everybody during meetings and hold up a sign. I think that’s a disruption, and that it’s uncalled for.”

State law gives elected officials the right to conduct meetings without disruptions. Backed on his legal reasoning by County Attorney Jay Coward, Debnam pulled the plug on Leatherwood’s signs. Leatherwood, predictably but perhaps not entirely inaccurately, cried foul.

“It’s a violation of free speech,” Leatherwood said, adding that she had been shocked by Debnam’s action.  

Leatherwood’s signs are generally slightly larger than a desk calendar. They display points she wants emphasized and often excerpts the state’s general statutes. The content varies according to who serves as her latest target.

 

Violation of law?

There’s no doubt Leatherwood’s behavior is difficult, and that her accusations are hostile and, to date, mostly unfounded. But that’s not the issue, according to longtime N.C. Press Association Lawyer Amanda Martin.

Here’s the bottom line, as Martin framed it: would Leatherwood be allowed to hold her signs if she had a history of delivering verbal flowers, kisses and accolades to commissioners instead of flinging wild accusations?

“Is bringing a sign disruptive? I don’t think that simply having a sign is disruptive,” Martin said. “It could be because they don’t like it, that it’s just bugging the commissioners. And that’s not disruptive. I don’t think that’s a violation of the law.”

Debnam said in response that he doesn’t care what the signs say, whether they are in favor of him or against him or for fellow board members or against them.

“I don’t want her to hold anything up,” the Jackson County chairman said.

Leon “Chip” Killian, Haywood County’s lawyer since 1971, supported the neighboring county board’s decision to deem signs in the boardroom disruptive.

“I don’t think my board would look kindly upon someone holding up signs anymore than we would someone interrupting,” Killian said. “I think a sign is a major interference.”

But John Nowack of Sylva, who was an eyewitness to the events unfolding in Jackson County’s boardroom, said that he believed the county’s leaders fell short in understanding and compassion. And, Nowack said, of upholding the simple “human dignity” of an aging, elderly resident.

“I was surprised,” said Nowack, adding that this had been the first commission meeting he’d attended. “They really presented themselves poorly in the way they handled this.”

 

A difficult task

Longtime Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, who previously served as chairman of that county’s board, said balancing free speech with the need to conduct business can prove a delicate undertaking.

“But that’s the privilege of being in America,” Beale said. “You don’t want people to disrupt, and there’s rules to cover that. But if they want to be a part, we welcome them in this community.”

Beale isn’t joking. During one commission meeting in Macon County, the then-board chairman had a speaker during public session flop down onto the floor, apparently making a point that escaped the reasoning of others present in the room.

“I tried to be cordial and respectful, but I said (name of flopper) ‘If you fall on that floor again, I’m going to call 911 and have you carried out of here,’” Beale recounted.

Problem solved, at least in that particular case, Beale said. After that, the flopper remained standing and spoke respectfully.

“It’s a lot how you handle things. If you are antagonistic, it’s not going to get any better,” he said.

That said, Beale heavily underscored the absolute need and right for boards to avoid disruptions by members of the public.

Sylva’s interim Town Manager Mike Morgan echoed Beale’s thoughts. He said that striking the correct balance is difficult. Many board regulars are simply grandstanding, Morgan said. He noted that when Buncombe County, which televises its meetings, opted to turn the cameras off during the public comment segment, the number of people angling to address that board plummeted.

When Haywood County was being inundated by public comment at its commissioners’ meetings two years ago — with the same line-up of speakers taking 90 minutes at the start of nearly every meeting — the county likewise contemplated taking the public comment period off the air to discourage grandstanding. Instead, the county began more strictly enforcing the three-minute time limit and quit answering questions posed by speakers at the podium, a practice that tended to lead to prolonged exchanges.

So far, Leatherwood has reserved her protests for the county, although last week she showed up at Sylva’s town board meeting with a sign in hand. The town has not taken any action to ban signs.

Morgan said that while serving as town manager of Weaverville he cautioned his former staff to listen closely to those who spoke to that town’s board, no matter how familiar and boring it might seem. Every once in a while, Morgan said, board gadflies knock the ball out of the park.

Or, in other words, the fool sometimes emerges the Shakespearean fool: wiser, that is, than the rest of us.

Maggie Valley has been rallying allies in its fight to save a small but perhaps precious sliver of its struggling tourism trade: pass-thru business from travelers en route to Cherokee.

A highway sign currently proclaims Maggie Valley as the proper way to reach Cherokee for tourists coming from Interstate 40. But Maggie could be stripped of this coveted status.

A new sign has been proposed that would lay-out two possible routes to Cherokee: one through Maggie Valley and one that continues through Jackson County.

The Maggie route is shorter distance-wise, but follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The route through Jackson County is longer, but sticks to a four-lane divided highway.

Maggie leaders perceive any change in the signage as a threat, potentially diverting tourist traffic away from their doorstep and into the welcoming arms of Jackson County instead.

Maggie Valley Mayor Ron Desimone said directional signs shouldn’t be hijacked as a tool to promote one town at the expense of another.

The push for new signage came from Jackson County leaders and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. As a result, the N.C. Department of Transportation has been studying the issue for several weeks, comparing traffic counts, drive time, crash statistics and scouting the roadside for where a new sign could go.

While tourists’ wallets are clearly an undercurrent in the tug-of-war over the Cherokee sign, DOT maintains that won’t influence its decision.

“Economic development is not going to be a factor,” said Cece Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t carry any weight to say it would hurt economic development in our county if they changed the route. Their number one is safety.”

As a result both sides have resorted to arguing their route is the safest or most direct.

But clearly that is not what drove Jackson County to try to wrest the Cherokee sign away from Maggie Valley in the first place, Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth said.

“They said it has nothing to do with business, but it has everything to do with business,” Barth said.

“I’m sure their motive is the same as ours,” agreed Ron Leatherwood, chairman of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.

 

Much ado about nothing

Just how much Maggie stands to lose if the sign is changed is anyone’s guess, but to the struggling mom-and-pop motels and diners lining Maggie’s main drag, losing even one room night or one table is one too much in this economy.

Thus, Maggie pledged earlier this month not to give up without a fight, and since then has sprung into action.

A meeting of key players in Haywood County’s business and tourism sectors, along with town leaders from Waynesville and Maggie, held a strategy meeting Monday to craft their own lobbying campaign.

The attention the debate has garnered had some in the room scratching their head over how much difference it will really make.

“I don’t think anyone is going to see a blip in their business one way or the other,” Leatherwood said. “I see it as much ado about nothing. But there are 10 of us in here having a meeting about it so it must be something.”

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown also questioned whether directional signs really influence the route travelers take.

“If you want to go to Cherokee, you already know how you are going to Cherokee,” Brown said.

Waynesville was put in the middle of the debate early on. Technically, Waynesville stands to gain by a new sign. Right now, Cherokee-bound travelers who take the Maggie highway exit never make it to Waynesville’s doorstep. Jackson County leaders assumed that Waynesville would like the idea of a new sign, encouraging Cherokee visitors to instead stay on the highway and giving Waynesville a shot at capturing some of the traffic.

But Waynesville, it appears, has put its allegiance with Maggie Valley as a fellow Haywood County town first. Rather than join sides with Jackson, Waynesville has sided with Maggie Valley.

Brown isn’t sure how much tourism business Waynesville would really pick up from pass-thru traffic heading for Cherokee, except for gas stations right near the highway exits.

“I think the gain for Waynesville would minimal, but it could hurt Maggie,” Brown said. “I am not going to stick them when they’ve got problems.”

While it’s easy to ascribe an ulterior motive to Jackson County’s posturing, Haywood’s leaders were puzzled why the tribe has weighed in.

“That’s what I want to know — what’s it in for them?” DeSimone asked.

While U.S. 19 slides undramatically into the backside of the reservation with little in the way of an official welcome, Cherokee sees U.S. 441 as more of a bona fide gateway to the reservation, passing by the doorstep of its signature golf course and bringing tourists in closer proximity to the heart of downtown Cherokee — before eventually arriving face to face with the towering casino entrance. For tourists who come over Soco Gap on U.S. 19, their first view of the casino is its parking deck.

Both the tribe and Harrah’s direct travelers to come in on U.S. 441 — and specifically advise travelers not to take U.S. 19 — in their tourism literature and web sites.

“They are already doing everything they can to drive traffic that route,” Hipps said referring to U.S. 441.

Only about 3,500 vehicles a day on average make the climb over Soco Gap, but it fluctuates widely given the seasonal nature of tourism in Maggie and Cherokee.

“That number can be pretty high in the summer and pretty low in the winter,” said Reuben Moore, technical services engineer for the DOT regional office in Sylva.

Meanwhile, about 15,000 vehicles a day frequent U.S. 441 near the Cherokee exit.

 

A new sign

The cost of a new sign would be about $100,000 minimum — and perhaps double that depending on how much information it attempts to convey about the two dueling routes.

It’s unclear whether those requesting the new sign could be made to pay for some portion of it.

Maggie leaders expressed frustration that DOT is trying to fix what ain’t broke, but N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, pointed out that this landed in DOT’s lap.

“DOT didn’t invite this. They don’t want it,” said Rapp, who represents Haywood County in Raleigh. Jackson County and the tribe forced the issue with their requests to DOT.

“They have a responsibility to respond to that. They can’t just blow it off,” Rapp said. “I think they are trying to find a compromise that will satisfy everyone.”

But Moore, the DOT’s staffer who came up with the alternative sign, doesn’t like to call it a compromise. That would imply DOT’s goal is to satisfy the whims and wishes of dueling tourism interests.

Rather, DOT is merely acknowledging that there are in fact two ways to Cherokee.

“I hesitate to even call it a compromise, so much as from my point of view a position that correctly communicates the travel options,” Moore said.

The new sign would list each route followed by driving distances: 35 miles through Jackson County and 24 miles through Maggie.

But the sign wouldn’t stop there. A series of footnotes and disclaimers would caution drivers that U.S. 19 through Maggie has “six miles of steep winding road” and is “not recommended for large vehicles.”

There’s plenty of additional factors drivers might like to consider, however. Elderly drivers whose hand-eye coordination and reaction time isn’t as keen as it once was might prefer sticking to the four-lane highway. For any cell-phone addicted drivers out there, it’s worth noting the route over Soco Gap has a whopping three-mile dead zone with no reception. But if you’re craving boiled peanuts or in the market for pottery, the roadside stands of Soco are a must.

But alas, when it comes to additional footnotes, there just isn’t room on the sign as it is. Besides, the DOT won’t get into judgment calls like this and instead is sticking to the empirical data — which route is most direct and which is safest.

U.S. 19 through Maggie wins for being the most direct route, hands down.

“It is a beeline. A curvy, windy beeline maybe, but it is the shortest distance,” Moore said.

So which route is safer? The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route.

But Desimone said the crash rate difference is negligible.

“We are really splitting hairs here to get to the safest route,” Desimone said. “There is no compelling reason to change that sign.”

However, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to express concerns about wrecks on the narrow, two-lane mountain road, Moore said, especially when it comes to large vehicles, like campers, RVs and motorcoaches.

Moore said he plans to study a breakdown of wrecks in more detail, particularly the large-vehicles that seem to be a source of greater concern.

While each side in the case clamors to pull off the best lobbying campaign, Moore said that won’t factor into their decision, nor will who carries the most political weight.

“Absolutely not,” Moore said of directional signs. “That is a DOT responsibility.”

 

The great Cherokee sign debate

Haywood and Jackson counties are butting heads over the privilege of being the preferred route to Cherokee — a tagline that carries with it a shot at enticing Cherokee-bound travelers to drop a little change on their way by.

With 3.5 million visitors a year, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the largest single tourist attraction in the state. Couple that with hundreds of thousands of additional tourists coming to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and it’s easy to see why neighboring communities would be fighting over what at first glance seems like little more than crumbs. All those crumbs can add up.

 

Turn-about is fair play

No longer resigned to playing defense, Haywood County’s leaders decided to mount their own push for a second sign to Cherokee — one that would be placed in Jackson County letting tourists know they can get to Cherokee by coming through Waynesville and Maggie.

To cater to travelers from the Atlanta region, Haywood wants a highway sign on U.S. 441 near Dillsboro letting travelers know they can get to Cherokee by coming up and around through Haywood County — even if it is a far more circuitous route.

Ron Leatherwood, chairman of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce said if Jackson is asking for a second sign in Haywood, Haywood can ask for a second sign in Jackson.

“We should ask DOT to do the same study. If they are doing it for one, they should do it for us,” Leatherwood said.

The DOT will soon be getting formal letters signed by the county tourism board, the Haywood County Chamber, the Maggie Chamber, the towns of Maggie and Waynesville, the county’s economic development commission and perhaps the county commissioners asking the route through Maggie remain on directional signs for Cherokee. They hope their letters will counter the letters DOT has already received from Jackson County and the tribe.

While a proposed room-tax hike in Jackson County has been sidelined at least for now, the idea of merging the county’s two tourism entities has been tapped for further study.

Jackson County commissioners plan to appoint a task force to study forming a single tourism agency for the county. Currently, Cashiers has its own tourism agency in addition to the countywide tourism agency based in Sylva. Each are affiliated with the chambers of commerce offices, too — one based in Cashiers and one in Sylva.

There are simply too many players involved in county tourism efforts, to hear Commission Chairman Jack Debnam tell it. He says that a single entity would be more effective and reduce costly and unnecessary duplication.

“I do believe in one (tourism authority) myself, and maybe some advisory boards,” Debnam reiterated to fellow commissioners last week. “I’d like to see us finally act like we are one county. With the people coming off the board, it’s the time to look at restructuring.”

Recent news that the long-time director of the Cashiers chamber and tourism agency, Sue Bumgarner, would retire could make such a restructuring easier. Bumgarner’s retirement will be effective in July and comes following of heightened scrutiny on how Cashiers was spending its cut of the tourism funding pie.

“It seems like an opportune time if we do want to make changes,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

In addition to Bumgarner’s retirement, there are four vacancies coming up on the Jackson County tourism board and two vacancies on the Cashiers tourism board, Wooten said.

Cashiers TTA board member Mike Henry said the board doesn’t know yet whether it will hire a replacement for Bumgarner or wait to see what the task force recommends about a merger.

“We haven’t met yet to form a plan,” he said.

While commissioners haven’t yet appointed task force members, Debnam recommended Julie Spiro, head of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, and Commissioner Mark Jones, who doubles as chairman of the Cashiers TTA; along with himself.

Jones enthusiastically endorsed Debnam’s olive-branch proposal. Jones constituents in the Cashiers area haven’t been happy about the proposed merger of the Cashiers agency into a single countywide one.

 

Room tax hike sidelined

Meanwhile, Debnam squelched the recent push for a room tax hike from 3 percent to 6 percent, however, saying it had been ill-considered.

“I would like to continue to spend some more time on this, to learn more about the impact we may have and exactly how we want to structure this,” Debnam said. “We made an error; we moved a little too fast, we were not informed enough to make the decision we tried to make.”

Debnam and his fellow commissioners faced a phalanx of outraged lodging owners in Jackson County when they passed, 4-1 with Jones voting no, to increase the tax. Commissioners subsequently rescinded that vote because they failed to hold a required public hearing.

Regardless of mistakes made and future plans to be made, finding the correct answers are critical to Jackson County’s economic wellbeing, Commissioner Doug Cody said.

“The decision was made years ago … to hang Jackson County’s economic health on travel and tourism — kind of deemphasizing” other forms of economic development, he said. “If we’re going to hang our hat on tourism, we’re going to have to get out and fight for those tourism dollars. We’ve got to make Jackson County a destination for people, not a pass through for other counties.”

Wooten said that commissioners would need to make their appointments promptly to the tourism committee to enable it to report back to them sometime this summer.

Jackson leaders will likely pushback a countywide property revaluation from next year to 2016 following a strong recommendation by their tax man.

“Truthfully, if you want this thing done and you want it done right, we don’t have an adequate timeline,” Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan told commissioners last week. “The more time we have, the better quality our work is going to be.”

Commissioners had instructed McMahan and his staff to move forward with a revaluation in 2013, which was already one year later than originally planned.

In a revaluation, every home, lot and tract of land is assigned a new property value to reflect the going real estate market — a value that in turn dictates how much people pay in property taxes.

Several residents made a public appeal to commissioners earlier this month to delay the revaluation beyond 2013. Falling real estate prices for high-end homes means affluent property owners will see their taxes come down in a revaluation, and the burden would be redistributed to the county’s middle-class residents.

Most of the property tax burden is currently shouldered by property owners in Cashiers-Glenville area, dominated by high-end resorts and second- and third-homes. Delaying the revaluation means the county could continue could taxing these high-end properties at an inflated book value.

But that isn’t the reason the county is giving for the delay. McMahan said there simply is a lack of sales data — not enough homes and lots being bought and sold — for the county to know what the going rate is for property.

The drop in sales is staggering: there are 444 sales from the past three years that could be considered for the revaluation, noted Commissioner Mark Jones who is from the Cashiers-Glenville area. That, McMahan added, compares to nearly 8,000 property transactions during the last revaluation period.

“It just makes our position of trying to proceed less defensible,” Chairman Jack Debnam, a real estate agent in real life, said of the woeful sales numbers.

The lack of sales makes it difficult to set accurate values that Jackson County could defend in potentially costly legal appeals. Property owners who disagree with a county’s revaluation have the legal right to challenge on a state level. Counties must be able to prove how they arrived at property values by using data from actual sales.

“Would you say the big driver is the lack of sales?” Commissioner Doug Cody asked in reiteration of the shifting county position about when exactly to conduct a revaluation.

“That data is the most important thing you have to have,” McMahan said in reply.

“If postponed, what portion of your work would be in vain? How much of that would still be used?” Commissioner Charles Elders asked McMahan.

“None of it is in vain,” the tax assessor said in response. “You never truly quit, never totally stop working on revaluation.”

“And to do the job you should do, you really need this (extra) time,” Elders said. “You don’t need guess work?”

“Right, you don’t need to guess,” McMahan said in reply.

Tax Assessor Richard Lightner in neighboring Macon County successfully encouraged commissioners there to delay until 2015, the legal eight-year span allowable since the county’s last revaluation in 2007. He, too, cited likely indefensible legal action in his recommendation.

Haywood County, unlike counties farther to the west, moved forward with a revaluation last year after postponing it by just one year. Property values on a whole remained flat, although there was variation between types of property and neighborhood. Haywood does not have nearly the same volume of high-end second homes, however.

Swain County did a revaluation two years ago but tossed the results out. It will conduct a revaluation in 2014.

Jackson County leaders have decided that tradition is overrated.

Six months after the new Jackson County library opened, commissioners have decided whose name to put on a plaque in the foyer — a spot that until now featured a cardboard placeholder.

The verdict?

The names of two different boards of commissioners will be listed on the commemorative plaque for the new library, not just the board of commissioners who took the political heat when it was built.

“Can we talk about the plagues?” Chairman Jack Debnam asked fellow board members during a daylong retreat last week, a reference to a typo on the agenda sheet that was supposed to read, “library plaques.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten added, also amused by the typo, “I have not taken any steps to order those plaques. And I just need some direction, and it will be a plague I can eliminate from my agenda.”

The tempest in a teacup first burbled to public notice last summer, when Jackson County in June celebrated the opening of its $8 million public library in Sylva, a project that included renovations to the historic courthouse.

Before new commissioners and a new county manager took office last fall, former County Manager Ken Westmoreland had submitted the design for a plaque with a typical inscription used on new-building plaques in Jackson County. The plaque was to list the names of the political leaders who were responsible for funding the library; the county manager’s name leading the effort; and the names of the architect and general contractor involved.

When three new commissioners took office, that plaque design was placed on hold.

Wooten told commissioners that on his own initiative he decided that giving sole credit to the former commissioners wasn’t fitting. The new commissioners were making a substantial investment in the new library by increasing its annual operating budget. Wooten felt the three new board members should be included, too. But Wooten decided not to include the name of the previous county manager’s name, or his as the current county manager. He did opt to keep the architect and general contractor.

“At that point in time, I said, ‘Well, maybe we should take a different approach to it,’” Wooten said in explanation.

Debnam, in typical fashion told fellow board members that he’d rather take yet a different approach, an even more radical one than that being offered by the county’s manager — Debnam questioned whether any commissioners at all should attempt to claim plaque acclaim.

“Well, I for one have an issue with self gratification,” Debnam said, adding that county buildings are “built by and for the people of Jackson County.”

“What did we do?” Debnam said as he expounded on his individual theory of plaque appropriateness. “It’s not our money we’re spending. I know there seems to be a history of doing this — somewhere it started, somewhere it needs to end.”

It didn’t end this time, though. Commissioner Joe Cowan, who in fact voted against building the new public library at the site of old historic courthouse, agreed that both boards should be included on the plaque. Cowan did not touch on his opposition to where the new library was sited, even though he has gone on record recently reminding people that he had been against the site when predictions of a parking shortage on courthouse hill came true.

But that was then, and before Jackson County residents posted record numbers in library attendance and the facility won a statewide award for general loveliness and excellence.

A plaque, Cowan said as he expounded on his own theory of plaque appropriateness, “identifies who was around, and maybe who had the guts to stand up and build the building, by golly — that you are willing to stand up and put your neck and maybe your next election on the line.”

Cowan said that he believed there’s no shame in credit being given where credit was due.

“I don’t have a problem whatsoever with both boards being on there. In some ways, it’s more reflective of what has happened,” Cowan said in summation, still minus mention that he opposed the new library being built as an add-on to Jackson County’s historic courthouse.

The plaque will cost between $1,100 and $1,900, based on whether it is aluminum or brass, Wooten said, after receiving enough of a consensus from the board to combat this ongoing plague.

The road less traveled

The question ‘which way to Cherokee?’ continues bedeviling the state transportation department, which has been caught in a tug-of-war between Jackson County and Maggie Valley over who deserves a sign pointing the “right” way to Cherokee.

Maggie Valley currently holds title to the sole directional sign pointing motorists to Cherokee via U.S. 19 and over Soco Gap — and would like to keep it that way.

“We are all for helping promote Jackson County, but not at the expense of Maggie Valley,” said Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is “leaning toward” posting a sign indicating that there are in fact two routes to Cherokee — one through Maggie and one that continues on past Sylva.

But by posting another sign, the department of transportation would “take away from one and give to another,” said Alderman Mike Matthews. “There has not been enough information to say you should go this way versus this way.”

Jackson County officials, meanwhile, have lobbied for the second sign, pointing out that the four-lane highway going past Sylva is actually safer and more user friendly than the route through Maggie. The tribe has expressed a desire for a second sign.

“They feel like the two-lane road over Soco is hazardous,” said Reuben Moore, a DOT official who works in the regional office in Sylva.

But DeSimone questioned Jackson’s true motive.

“Obviously, Jackson County did not bring this up because they were concerned for public welfare,” DeSimone said.

Maggie Valley could win out, however, as the DOT has yet to find a place to put the new sign and has not settled on concise wording.

 

Safety and travel time

Moore updated the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen on the status of the sign issue at a town meeting last week.

If the DOT decides to allow a new sign, it would be placed by May before the beginning of the tourist season.

But, posting a new sign faces several obstacles, including where to place it.

“It takes about a mile of signage to properly sign an exit,” Moore said. But the roadside leading up to the Maggie exit is already cluttered with signage.

DOT has not settled on the appearance of the sign. It cannot simply put two dueling arrows on a sign pointing this way or that way to Cherokee.

“That is strictly against policy,” Moore said.

The DOT has discussed making a sign with the words Cherokee spanning the top half of the sign and the mileage for both routes below it: U.S. 74 at 37 miles and U.S. 19 at 24 miles.

Although the route through Maggie is shorter distance-wise, a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken.

“We found that the travel time was very nearly the same,” Moore said.

Initially, Moore wanted the sign to specify that the travel time was about the same no matter which route is taken, but DOT vetoed the idea because traffic or accidents could delay travel along one of the roads.

The department only test-drove the routes three times during the late fall and winter. The times do not account for increased traffic during the summer and early fall months when tourists flood the area. Get stuck behind a slow moving Winnebago, and the trip through Soco Gap could be a grueling one.

The review of both routes showed that the crash rate on U.S. 19 is 10 percent higher.

Alderman Mike Matthews said that the two roads are incomparable when it comes to wrecks because U.S. 19 runs through a town where cars are often slowing down or speeding up and pulling in or out of parking lots. The U.S. 441 route, however, is a four-lane divided highway.

“I don’t even see how that could be compared,” Matthews said.

Maggie Valley officials said they want “overwhelming, definitive information” showing that the road through Jackson County is safer.

Does DOT consider U.S. 19 to be safe, Matthews asked?

“Absolutely,” Moore responded.

Aldermen Saralyn Price asked Moore pointblank which road would he take if it was snowing and he was in Lake Junaluska.

“I wouldn’t be out,” Moore said.

The Board of Aldermen argued that the DOT has not provided any information that would validate a decision to post a new directional sign.

“I have not heard anything definite about (U.S. 441) being safer,” DeSimone said.

 

Capturing tourism dollars

Maggie Valley and Jackson County each hope to attract a portion of the 3.5 million people who visit the casino in Cherokee each year.

The idea that Maggie Valley will lose business should an alternative route be posted “presupposes that people are going to do what the signs tell them to do,” Moore said.

Jackson County commissioners haven’t been shy about their desires to funnel tourism traffic through that county. Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten and the five county commissioners expressed surprise last week that their request for a sign had triggered uproars in Maggie Valley.

As they hammered out possible designs for a new welcome sign at the county line, Commissioner Doug Cody joked that they should add to Jackson County’s fantasy sign: “This is the best route to Cherokee.”

A decision will be made based on safety and the speed of traffic, assured Moore, not based on which route is more scenic or needs more business.

According to Jackson County Travel and Tourism, visitors have said that they prefer to take U.S. 441 to Cherokee. But, Moore said he can’t confirm whether that is true.

Jackson County commissioners plan this week to discuss the upcoming property revaluation, though it remains unclear whether they will postpone the process as some residents are requesting.

In a revaluation, every home, lot and tract of land is assigned a new property value to reflect the going real estate market — a value that in turn dictates how much people pay in property taxes. But, the volatile real estate market has led many counties to postpone revaluations.

Jackson County has postponed its revaluation until 2013, but Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan has suggested waiting a couple more years. McMahan plans to give a report on the issue during a commissioner work session Jan. 13.

The market value of high-priced lots and homes are destined to fall in a countywide revaluation. Delaying the reval means the county can continue taxing high-end properties at inflated book value. Going ahead with the reval would shift property tax burden to median-priced properties as those are more likely to hold their value while the high-end properties fall — and that’s what Jackson County residents are protesting.

“You will be negatively impacting the lower-income families,” said Avram Friedman, an environmental advocate in Sylva.

Allen Lomax, a local real estate agent, told Jackson County commissioners a property revaluation “will definitely” have the most wallop on the wallets of the less affluent in the county.

While Macon and Swain have postponed their revaluations for a couple more years, Haywood County went ahead with its last year.

Counties must do a revaluation every eight years, which wouldn’t be until 2016 for Jackson.

Carol Odom of the Glenville community views the situation from another angle. She told commissioners that she’s neither rich nor under-taxed. Odom said she’s seen 75 percent of her income evaporate because of the dour economy. She believes homeowners shouldn’t be paying taxes based on false property values but that the whole county should “share their pain.”

“I hope you do revaluate, and that it gets shared all across the county — everyone should contribute. I’m not here to support other people financially,” Odom said.

A loosely affiliated group of 30 some people have been quietly meeting, more or less each week, in Jackson County on the heels of an Occupy Sylva event held last October.

This confederacy of the self-dubbed “99 percent” has morphed into Occupy Western North Carolina. While Asheville has its own Occupy group, OccupyWNC has become a catch-all for the counties west of Buncombe, bringing in residents from Waynesville, Franklin and farther west who expressed a desire to get involved following the Occupy Sylva rally.

“This is a much broader coalition than just Sylva,” member Allen Lomax, a Sylva resident and Waynesville-based real estate agent who also helps local, small investors connect with local, small businesses or entrepreneurs. “It has become much bigger than that.”

Don’t expect the tents or protests in WNC that you’ve seen elsewhere, or a visible police presence to ensure things stay calm. But, you also shouldn’t let the quiet nature of OccupyWNC’s gatherings fool you. These folks are dead serious about change. And they seem prepared to help make some noise, soon, to get just that. They are seeking results through “all possible nonviolent means of action.”

Gary Stamper, a Whittier resident who moved from Seattle to WNC three-and-a-half years ago, said he believes it’s time for change. And, that the nation is ripe for change.

“My outrage about what is going on is that we are losing all of our freedoms and rights. I can’t sit idly by and let it go,” Stamper said.

Stamper believes that bridges can be built to other groups, including the Tea Party and Republicans, and that the majority of Americans can work together for needed change.

“We have far more in common than not,” he said, adding that anything meaningful that happens will “start with individuals.”

“Really, we are just 100 percent,” Stamper said. “We are all in this together.”

While the OccupySylva rally last fall was organized under the auspices of the county’s Democratic party, the Democratic mantle of that event seems to have lifted, though there are certainly Democrats actively involved.

OccupyWNC is a self-described “diverse and nonpartisan coalition that acts to promote economic and social justice for the 99 plus 1 percent,” according to information provided by Lomax that has been officially approved by this very unofficial group.

OccupyWNC is open to all and seeks consensus through shared leadership, as it’s done on a national level in the Occupy events.

Lucy Christopher of Cashiers said that she became involved because of her reaction to the changes in the Middle East, and a sense of something new in the world.

“That restless unwillingness to continue with the status quo is now alive in my own country and in the neighboring part of my state,” Christopher said in an email interview. “I believe that our national security is threatened from within by its enormous economic disparity. I want a more just world for all of us, including my children and grandchildren.”

Lomax said that current financial and political situations shaping the nation are “simply not right.” Lomax cited some of the group’s dissatisfactions, including corporate ownership over most media outlets, which members believe means the message is controlled, and corporate ownership of the telecommunications industry, which is leading to increasing attempts to place restrictions on the Internet.

Though not an active conspiracy, the “1 percent,” Lomax said, is a loosely bound group of people who share common interests and, individually, great wealth.

“There’s 400 or so families involved — not that many,” he said. “And they certainly know each other, and go in the same circles. They are openly working to control legislation and are not hiding the fact that they are buying elections.”

Lomax said the Occupy movement has a much more powerful weapon than the money controlled by the 1 percent.

“We have the people,” Lomax said.

 

Rally with OccupyWNC for change

A nationwide rally will have its place in Western North Carolina on the streets of Bryson City at the federal building on Main Street from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m Friday, Jan. 20. Occupy groups across the nation want a constitutional amendment to end “corporate personhood and legalize Democracy.”

 

Attend the next OccupyWNC meeting

The OccupyWNC General Assembly meets most Tuesdays from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Jackson County Justice Center in Room 220.

Get more information by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or visit www.facebook.com/pages/OccupyWNC/243008235753789.

When Merrily Teasley returned for her second first day at the Balsam Mountain Inn in early September, a familiar couple was sitting on the entry room couch — a St. Louis duo who had visited the inn those years when she had owned it. They were there to herald her return.

“I thought, ‘Oh my. This feels good,’” Teasley said.

Teasley bought the historic inn on the courthouse steps in 1990, saving it from foreclosure and owned it until she retired in 2004. She has now resumed ownership after the former owners were forced to declare bankruptcy — and once again rescuing the inn on the courthouse steps.

She first spotted the 104-year-old inn, which sits off the Blue Ridge Parkway between Waynesville and Sylva, while night hiking with a friend. A full moon was shining down on the building.

“It looked magical,” Teasley said. “The bones of the building were just exquisite.”

Looking at the building in full daylight gave her a more realistic impression but it did not quell her attraction. The neglected bed and breakfast was not for sale at the time, recalled Teasley, who lived in Tennessee at the time.

But, when she found herself in the area a year later, Teasley found the inn up for sale. Although she was leaving the next day to go home, Teasley was able to pencil in a 6 a.m. meeting with the Realtor before she left.

“I had five hours to think about (buying) it driving over to Tennessee,” she said.

The 42,000 square-foot, 50-guest-room country inn is now one of seven structures she has restored.

“I love old buildings,” Teasley said.

Because the inn is a historic landmark, Teasley had to work within the parameters of the state historic preservation department guidelines. The structure features a mixture of original aspects, such as its molding, as well as accurate replicas from the early 1900s.

Although it has been moved from its original place, a small sink still sits on the wall in the hallway near the gift shop. It was once said that the water from the sink had healing properties.

Teasley’s particular affection for the Balsam Mountain Inn is apparent as she relayed her first time seeing the inn and how green growth creeps up the mountains as the trees and other plant life begin to leaf out in the spring.

“It’s the prettiest place on earth in the spring,” she said.

 

Revitalization

Teasley officially regained ownership of the inn last month and is busy returning the building to its former glory.

“The book I was reading when I came up here in September I haven’t finished,” said Teasley, who used to read several books a week.

Even her dog is the same as before: Grover is just older now. The white-and-brown shelter dog, Teasley said, didn’t take much time to re-acclimate to his surroundings. He immediately returned to his spot behind the check-in counter, Teasley said.

When she returned to the inn this past September, one of the first orders of business was to let former patrons know she had returned.

Teasley sent out 800 notes to previous guests, telling them that the inn is “going back to the way I used to run it,” she said. Of those, she estimated that she received 220 replies.

Although things are much the same this time around, Teasley herself is more experienced. That’s helped everyone associated with the inn.

“You know what to expect this time around,” said Tom Tiberi from his perch behind the check-in desk.

Tiberi helps Teasley keep the inn. He worked for the couple who owned it during the late 2000s until they were forced to declare bankruptcy. Former regular visitors to the inn had stopped patronizing it, saying the experience had declined without Teasley at the helm.

The staff is “willing to do whatever they can to make it work again,” Teasley said, adding that Tiberi had maintained the inn while it was between owners.

Now, Tiberi’s sister, Mary Kay Morrow, has joined him as head chef of the inn’s restaurant, where dishes are made almost solely from fresh produce. Even some of its fish is shipped regularly from Hawaii, Teasley said. It is caught, packaged and delivered to the inn within 48 hours.

While breakfast is included in the cost of the room, the inn is open to anyone for dinner. The restaurant can seat up to 164 guests in its main dining room and patio. Smaller rooms are available for private dining or meetings.

 

Stay the Night

The Balsam Mountain Inn will remain open throughout the winter months. Check-in time is after 3 p.m., and room rates range from $145 to $225 a night. The inn is located at 68 Seven Springs Drive in Balsam in the Haywood-Jackson county line.

The inn also has a restaurant, which is open to the public for dinner and breakfast daily, year-round. The dining room and patio can seat up to 164 guests, and smaller rooms are available for private dining or meetings. Musicians regularly perform at the restaurant.

855.456.9498 or balsammountaininn.net.

Page 63 of 106

The Naturalist's Corner

Back Then with George Ellison

  • One of the Smokies’ finest poets
    One of the Smokies’ finest poets Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2012, edition of The Smoky Mountain News. Olive Tilford Dargan is fairly well known in literary circles as the author of From My Highest Hill (1941), a delightful collection of autobiographical…
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