Swain County has lost more than $17,000 a month from their coffers, and that financial gouge may become a lot bigger following a suit filed by Graham County last month.
Graham and Swain county are at odds over property taxes collected from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fontana Dam and its hydropower equipment and generators. For 67 years — since the dam was built — the two counties split the revenue equally.
But Graham argued it deserves more, since more of the dam and generators are on its side of the county line. Graham succeeded in convincing the N.C. Attorney General’s Office of their position last fall, resulting in a new formula for divvying the TVA proceeds. The result: Swain gets $17,700 less a month, which is now going to Graham instead.
The October ruling stated that, according to the original channel of the Little Tennessee River, which has long been the boundary between the two counties, more of the dam and its taxable equipment belongs in Graham. And the Attorney General agreed that, if this was the case, they should get more of the money, as well.
Upon hearing this, Graham County commissioners decided not to rest on their laurels content with their newfound cash flow. They marched right up to the Graham County Superior Court and filed suit against their neighbor for 67 years of back tax revenue that Swain County gained on the erroneous measuring formula.
The suit doesn’t put a number on how much they want back, but Graham officials have pegged it at $15 million, according to an article published in the Graham Star last month. Graham named the Department of Revenue as a co-defendant to ensure they provided a formula and a number for how much Graham would be owed.
Raleigh mayor and tax attorney Charles Meeker is leading the charge as Graham County’s attorney, and he said that discussions about a possible filing started to be bandied about following the Attorney General’s October ruling.
He said the county is simply trying to recoup what was always rightfully theirs, but has long been distributed inequitably.
“Because of incorrect information from the TVA, the Department of Revenue had not distributed those payments correctly for years,” said Meeker. “We don’t know the exact amount, but the lawsuit requests the Department of Revenue to make that calculation.”
Swain County has yet to respond to the suit, but has requested a 30-day extension to file their response.
Swain County Manager Kevin King told the Graham Star last month that his county would be looking into a countersuit, seeking damages for the 51,000 acres of land lost to the Fontana Dam’s impounding in 1943. King maintained that they were never fairly compensated, especially stacked up against the mere 4,000 acres lost by Graham County. He said the county is planning a robust battle against the suit. They are due to respond in mid-February.
Technically, the TVA payments to the two counties are called Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, since government entities are not required to pay property taxes. But like property taxes, the payments by TVA are based on the value of the hydropower operation determined by the N.C. Department of Revenue and the tax rate set by the county.
Swain County’s West Elementary School will be getting a classroom expansion thanks to $1.8 million handed to them by Swain County commissioners in a special session on Monday.
The elementary school will gain eight new classrooms to deal with its burgeoning student population, though most won’t be completely new space.
“We’re replacing four modular classrooms,” said County Manager Kevin King. “We’re taking the trailers out and replacing them with classrooms,” which is in line with the steps a 2007 steering committee recommended the county take to alleviate the crowding that has plagued all of its schools over the last decade.
Next on the list of committee recommendations is Swain East Elementary, followed by a suggested new high school to be built on a plot near the current school purchased several years ago. Commissioners, however, didn’t discuss the timeline for bringing other suggested improvements to fruition.
Although the committee was formed and recommendations made four years ago, the projects were stalled slightly when financing options became scarce.
With the unanimous vote at Monday’s meeting, however, the board successfully secured a financing contract and will now be bringing in Kearey Builders of Statesville to start the construction.
Editor’s note: Here is The Smoky Mountain News’ annual Year in Review, but ours comes with a nod and a wink — and an award. News is serious and sometimes tragic, but in hindsight we can at least try to find a little humor in what the newsmakers endured and we all read about in 2010.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is sentenced for eternity to roll a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top.
The mountain gods showed a similar attitude toward human inhabitants this year, showing a particular inclination to shut down major thoroughfares. At one point, the three primary routes through the southern mountains into Tennessee were blocked with rock slides: Interstate 40 in Haywood County, U.S. 64 between Murphy and Chattanooga, and U.S. 129 running from Robbinsville to Maryville, Tenn.
The only passage was U.S. 441 over Newfound Gap through the Smokies, and even that route was temporarily reduced to one lane following a rock slide of its own.
Mountains have been running amok on the residential side as well. The biggest and most high profile was in Maggie Valley below Ghost Town amusement park, but there were also slides in the Water Dance development in Jackson County and the Wildflower development in Macon County that destabilized road grades and took out lots, as well as a slide in Macon County that led to a man’s home being condemned.
The construction crew restoring the historic Jackson County Courthouse could have used more spinach before tackling the structure’s crowning cupola. The domed top had to be taken down for restoration in June. But when a crowd of onlookers gathered at the bottom of courthouse hill to watch the day it was scheduled to come off, repeated attempts failed. Crews ultimately had to bring in a stronger crane the following week.
The $7 million restoration of the historic courthouse and construction of a new library adjacent to it was supposed to be finished by year’s end, but has been pushed back.
When the U.S. Small Business Administration announced $1.4 million in loans for businesses hurt by the I-40 rock slide in Haywood County, business owners far and wide began hungrily licking their chops.
The October 2009 slide shut down the Interstate Haywood County for six months, choking off tourism traffic and commerce. Gas stations and hotels had to cut hours and even lay off workers as business dried up.
But of the 15 businesses that landed federal SBA loans, few were located in Haywood County. Among the more puzzling recipients: the Fun Depot in Asheville, an indoor kid’s amusement center; and an excavating company in Sevierville, Tenn., a business that hardly seems contingent on passersby on the interstate.
One local loan recipient was a bar in downtown Waynesville — a standard that would seemingly qualify every restaurant in the entire county.
Despite a recession, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino barreled ahead with a $630 million expansion. The casino rolled out a major addition to the gaming floor, debuted a 3,000-seat concert venue and topped off a 21-story hotel tower. A 16,000-square-foot spa in the works is a testimony to Harrah’s mission to transform itself beyond a casino to a full-service resort.
The casino’s two existing hotel towers are consistently full.
The casino hit another milestone this year when it began serving alcohol for the first time in its on-site restaurants and at a new bona fide bar and lounge on the gaming floor.
The expansion began in 2009 and is slated for final completion in 2012. A 400-seat Paula Deen Kitchen restaurant also opened at the casino this year.
Solar panels. That’s what Haywood Community College and the Haywood County commissioners spent the better part of a year at loggerheads over.
HCC wanted to include green features, from rainwater collection to solar hot water in the design of a new $10.2 million creative arts building that will house its famed craft programs like woodcarving, pottery and jewelry making. But Haywood County commissioners accused the eco-efforts of driving up the cost of the building, and as a result threatened to veto the project. The college spent months trying to convince commissioners the building as designed was both frugal and necessary, while commissioner played hardball in an attempt to send the college back to the drawing board. The biggest sticking point were proposed solar panels on the building, which the college claimed would pay for themselves while commissioners remained skeptical.
In the end, the college won its quest to build a sustainable flagship creative arts building.
To Sylva business owner Dodie Allen, who fought back against being ticketed for parking a van outside her downtown auction under the town’s new law designed to free-up prime parking real estate for visitors and shoppers.
Allen protested the citation — and the $50 fine it carried — for 45 minutes at a town board meeting, saying it infringed on her rights and hampered her ability to make a living. Allen argued she was simply loading and unloading at her auction house on Main Street.
Ultimately, Allen won her battle when it was discovered a key paragraph, the one specifying business owners and their employees can’t park on Main and Mill streets, wasn’t included in the ordinance passed. The town was forced to hold another public hearing and vote again on the town law, this time with the correct language intact.
Haywood County social workers will soon enjoy new digs. They are trading in a decrepit former hospital dating back decades for an abandoned Wal-Mart store being retrofitted for offices. Their new stripmall-esque working quarters will be a vast improvement over their current accommodations: a four-story brick building that’s cramped and crumbling, with makeshift offices in storage closets, perpetual leaks and rusted window jambs.
The Wal-Mart makeover project will cost the county $12.5 million — about half that to purchase the building and the other half to convert it into an office complex. Critics decried the move as an unnecessary cost in bad times. But county commissioners said the poor state of the DSS building could no longer be ignored, and scoring a bargain price for the old Wal-Mart made it the most attractive solution.
In addition to the Department of Social Services, the renovated building will also house the county health department and the planning department.
Initial construction bids came in higher than expected, so the county trimmed elements of the project to get costs down and then went back out to bid.
When the public learned Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe was funneling money seized in drug busts to youth sports teams — and as it happened to teams his own kids played on — he claimed it was all for a good cause.
Drug bust money by law must go toward drug crime prevention and enforcement, and Ashe argued that supporting wholesome diversions for kids keeps them off drugs.
The justification gets a little hazier though when it came to other uses for narcotics money by Ashe, like $20,000 to replace carpet in the sheriff’s office or $400 to get himself listed on a national “Who’s Who” list.
Ashe enjoyed an unsupervised, free rein of how to spend the narcotics fund. He failed to get approval from the county on the expenditures, violating state statutes governing fiscal controls for local government. The state Local Government Commission made Ashe comply with new accounting procedures after media reports brought the issue to light.
Haywood County nearly had its own version of the infamous wardrobe malfunction when a river rafter protesting pollution by the Canton paper mill threatened to pull down his pants and bare his buttocks during a public hearing. He was one of several Tennessee river guides at the hearing who claimed to have sores and skin cancers from being in contact with the Pigeon River tainted by chemicals from the mill, and was willing to prove it until the hearing moderator advised him against such public displays.
Evergreen Packaging is seeking a new water pollution permit for the Pigeon River. The state was forced to ratchet down pollution levels in the proposed permit following objections by the EPA. But it wasn’t enough to abate environmentalists, who have filed a lawsuit to impose even tougher limits.
Evergreen is also facing a class action lawsuit by a group of Haywood County landowners. Downstream landowners in Tennessee have won similar class action suits against the mill.
The paper mill sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — and then dumps it back in the river again.
It was a dismal election year for Democrats, but U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, managed to hang on to his seat despite his conservative-leaning mountain district. He handily smashed Republican challenger Jeff Miller and advanced to the next round where he took on none other than House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. He went into the challenge with the intention of losing — or at least knowing he’d lose — because the loss gave him incredible national exposure.
What’s next for the former football player from Swain County? He’s not saying, but former communications director Andrew Whalen left a coveted job as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party to rejoin Shuler’s staff. Something’s afoot with this fiscally-conservative Blue Dog Republican Democrat, that’s for dang sure.
To the Village of Forest Hills, which incorporated in 1997 for the express and unabashed purpose of keeping rowdy, drunken Western Carolina University students from taking over this residential community, is now considering annexing land at Chancellor John Bardo’s behest so that some unknown developer can build a town so students will keep going to Western Carolina University (there’s a little retention problem) because, finally, they won’t have to drive to Sylva to — is this for real? — get good and soused. They’ll instead drink beer and wine and shots of liquor within walking distance of campus as God intended for university students to do.
Additionally, WCU suggests the Boca Raton, Fla.-reminiscent name of Forest Hills be lost in favor of the name Cullowhee. We can only assume the town sign painted in pastels on U.S. 107 will have to go, too, folks.
Where else would a county board of commissioners appoint a man who openly doesn’t support land planning to the county’s planning board, except in Macon County?
In a move so audacious in its sheer lack of thought and concern for regulating unbridled development, we salute the Republican (and one rogue Democrat) commissioners in Macon County for the appointment of Tea Party member Jimmy Goodman to the planning board. Never mind that he’d not been reappointed to that same board for (allegedly and all that) obstructing the other members in, well, their efforts to plan, those rascally planning-board members.
We take our hats off to you, Macon County, and offer sincere thanks for being in our coverage area. You help us remember that we still can be surprised by what actually does take place sometimes on the local political level.
Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College since 1997, retired this year and headed to Texas for a relaxing retirement close to the grandkids.
“As for everything and everyone, there is a season. My season has now come,” Groves said of his departure from SCC.
Three months later, Groves announced his return to the area to be the CEO of Balsam West, an entity that controls a 300-mile fiber broadband ring looping the six western counties. Groves helped create the fiber ring while at the helm of SCC and considered it one of his biggest accomplishments, but with few users, it is struggling to realize its potential.
In Maggie Valley, the new mantra is call on the name of beauty and ye shall be saved. Residents and businesses alike buried thousands of daffodil and tulip bulbs this fall in hopes that the bursts of coordinated color will swoop in this spring to help save the struggling city from economic depression and the gaping financial hole left by the death of Ghost Town.
The idea is being coupled with another aesthetic assault from the town government’s camp. In November, the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to impose a set of design standards for renovations and new builds that follow a general design plan town planners call “mountain vernacular.”
Officials hope that the visual double whammy will spruce up the town’s face which, they seem to be admitting, is a less-than-pleasant sight to behold.
“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen …OK, I guess I’ll stay a little longer.” That’s the tune sung this year by Maggie Valley’s Dale Walksler, owner and curator of the renowned Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum.
After several years in its current location and several more bouts with local officials over the museum’s value to the town, Walksler threatened to pack up his collection and ship out to another, more friendly, but as yet unnamed, locale. This fall, however, he decided to make those empty threats and chose to keep the storied – and probably unrivaled – collection of American motorcycle memorabilia nestled snugly into its Soco Road home.
No word from local officials on how they’re reacting to the decision, but since sharing his thoughts with us in October, it’s been all quiet on the Walksler front. So maybe 2011 will see a happy ending to the animosity?
They say bigger isn’t always better, but Swain County’s Marianna Black Library isn’t so sure about that. After catching a glimpse of Macon and Jackson counties’ new, improved and enlarged library digs, they couldn’t help but want to gain some growth themselves.
So this October, the library system embarked on an exploratory campaign of their own, seeking input from local residents and guidance from the same consultants used by their neighboring counties. Patron suggestions ranged from expanded collections and more special events to requests for outdoor fire pits, presumably not to be stoked with the library’s contents.
Whether the county’s case of library envy has abated remains to be seen; the consultants won’t be back with final recommendations until the new year. But with Jackson County’s new facility opening up soon, it’s easy to hear cries of “but I want one, too,” on the not-too-distant horizon.
To earmark, or not to earmark – that, of late, is the Congressional question. And for residents of Swain county, it’s the $52 million question. That’s how much they’ve been promised to repay the cash they laid out on the nonexistent North Shore Road over three decades. When the road was flooded for the war effort in 1943, the county took it on the chin, along with a pledge from the federal government that they’d put it back. But time went on, the county kept paying on the road loans and the promised new road was never to return.
Earlier this year, the county agreed to take a cash settlement from the government in lieu of a road they no longer needed, after laborious negotiations and a good bit of lobbying from Swain County native Rep. Heath Shuler.
But those dollars are in danger now that Congress is swooping in to slash earmarks. To some legislators, that’s just what the North Shore money is, an earmark designed to funnel federal money into local projects. But local proponents counter that it’s not just funding, it’s debt service paying off a 66-year-old IOU.
Whether the money will keep rolling into the county hasn’t been decided. But much rests on convincing Congress members that the settlement is an obligation, not an option.
County leaders refused to stop praying in Jesus’ name during their public meetings, despite a federal court ruling that such overt prayers were tantamount to government endorsement of Christianity over other religions — and thus were unconstitutional.
A federal judge in Forsyth County found that specific references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioner meetings “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government.”
But county commissioners in Macon and Swain counties were undaunted.
“If there was a law that said how I could pray, I think I would have to break it,” said Swain Commissioner Phillip Carson.
Or as Swain Commissioner David Monteith put it, “I guess they would just have to arrest me.”
Macon Commissioner Ronnie Beale said Christian prayers reflect the vast majority of his constituents.
In Haywood County, commissioners chose to drop references to Jesus and stick with more generic, and thus legal, references to Lord or God. Jackson County does not hold a prayer during its county meetings.
This is exactly where homeowners down slope of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley found themselves this year. A massive landslide screamed down Rich Cove mountain in February, uprooting yards and bumping into houses on its way. While some residents remain without a well for drinking water and one couple still has not been able to return to their home, they had been unable to hold anyone accountable to cover the damages so far.
But Ghost Town’s liability insurance was canceled a week before the landslide due to late payments, according to the insurance company. Court documents verify that Ghost Town received warnings to pay up to risk cancelation, and eventually received a cancellation notice.
Ghost Town has blamed the slide on a company hired to shore up the slipping mountainside with a series of retaining walls, but the contractors blame Ghost Town for a leaking water line buried behind the wall, according to court documents.
As a multi-billion Fortune 500 Company, Duke Energy is used to getting its way. But when it went up against the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians this year and came under fire for desecrating the tribe’s equivalent of an ancestral holy site, it seemed the utility giant had met its match.
Duke Energy had embarked on a $79 million electrical substation on a knoll overlooking an idyllic farming valley in Swain County — a valley that happened to be the home of Kituwah mound, an ancient ceremonial site and political center for the Cherokee. The massive electrical substation threatened to mar the landscape, which Cherokee considered integral to the cultural integrity of the spiritual site.
Duke faced three-fold opposition. The tribe’s government leaders condemned Duke for picking the site and failing to consult with the tribe first. A grassroots activist group formed to challenge Duke before the state utility commission. And Swain County leaders also got mad that Duke had started construction without applying for county permits, and even passed a moratorium barring work on the substation from moving forward.
It didn’t take long for Duke to throw in the towel on the controversial site and instead bought another piece of property in the Swain County industrial park to locate the substation.
Attorney John Lewis may as well have worn a flashing neon sign when he tried to forge a judge’s name in Jackson County.
Lewis forged a court order in a parental custody case, but no sooner had he filed the fraudulent document with the clerk of court then he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk — assuming it was a valid part of the case file — refused. But an agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document. As a last resort, he came around the partition in the clerk’s office, snagged the file himself and put a Post-It note on the document declaring it void, arousing enough suspicion to launch an investigation.
The 31-year-old attorney had also faked the signatures on limited privilege driver’s licenses for at least three clients in Swain County who had their real licenses revoked.
When a recession took hold of the country in 2008, most counties got to work cutting costs to head off impending budget shortfalls. But Swain County was nearly a year late to the party.
Swain County continued with business as usual until summer 2009 when its fund balance dipped so low it was put on the watch list by the Local Government Commission, a state agency that monitors the fiscal solvency of counties.
Counties are supposed to have a savings account, known as a fund balance, that’s equivalent to 8 percent of their total annual budget. Swain’s dropped to only 6.67 percent. The county had to play catch-up to restore its fund balance by laying off workers and imposing furloughs, which amounted to pay cuts.
County Manager Kevin King failed to let the Local Government Commission know ahead of time that the county would dip below the safe threshold, but county commissioners said they didn’t know either until it had already happened.
As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Haywood County nearly doubled its per capita recycling rate in two years under the leadership of a new solid waste director, Stephen King, who is passionate about recycling. The county will save money by saving landfill space in the long run, but in the short run, all those recyclables began to overwhelm the system. Faced with the need for more recycling staff, the county instead chose to simply shut down the recycling “pick line” and laid off workers who manually sorted recyclables before they were sold. Instead, the county started selling the recyclables in bulk without separating them first. They fetch a lower price, but allowed the county to save on salaries.
The biggest election upset of the year was in Jackson County, where Democrats lost control of the board of commissioners for the first time in 16 years.
In a clean sweep, Democrats Brian McMahan, William Shelton and Tom Massie headed to the house, while the conservative ticket of Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody took over their reins.
The new guys immediately started shuffling the deck. County Manager Ken Westmoreland, a target in the election because, among other reasons, he helped institute a pay raise that most benefited longtime employees such as himself, has gone to the house as well. Chuck Wooten, just retired from Western Carolina University, has stepped into his shoes temporarily until a new manager can be found.
As a new form of video gambling proliferated across the state this year, several towns decided to get in on a piece of the action by imposing hefty business license fees for establishments sporting the machines.
The fees were hardly a deterrent given the lucrative nature of the video gambling machines. When the Canton town board voted to set the fee at $2,500, a business owner attending the evening meeting pulled out his checkbook on the spot. The town manager advised him to come back the next morning.
State lawmakers banned video poker, but the gambling industry came up with a reincarnated version called “video sweepstakes,” which wasn’t subject to the ban. State lawmakers followed suit by broadening the language of the ban, outlawing the sweepstakes machines as well, effective with the new year. But not before towns cashed in.
Maggie Valley and Franklin also cashed in on licensing fees.
Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lost his seat in last year’s election, landed a spot back on the board anyway. When former town board member Sarah Graham moved outside the town limits and had to step down, it was up to the remaining board members to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. By a 3 to 1 vote, Hensley found himself back in his old seat, a move that shifted power from the progressive voting bloc to a new majority characterized by a more traditional philosophy.
This marked the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board had to vote to appoint one of their own, the other being the seat of Maurice Moody who left his seat on the board empty after moving up to mayor.
After seven long years, Jackson County finally folded in its protracted and expensive battle against Duke Energy over, well, that’s where things get murky. What started as a noble fight by mountain people to get their due from a utility giant left most people scratching their heads and wondering why Jackson County was still anteing up, long before the game was eventually over.
To casual observers, the fight appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro Dam: Duke wanted to tear it down and the county wanted to save it. But the origin of the conflict was philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams?
Duke proposed removing the Dillsboro dam and restoring a stretch of free flowing river as compensation for saddling the Tuck with a handful of dams, but county commissioners believed they were being short-changed and wanted more, including a trust fund based on a percentage of the hydropower revenues.
Jackson County commissioners hoped to bring Duke to the negotiating table, but Duke repeatedly called the county’s bluff. Instead of folding, Jackson kept throwing in for the next hand until finally calling it quits this year.
Battles in Congress are nothing new. Practically every day that the legislature is in session, there is a fight, argument or debate about something, some more trivial than others. But there’s one issue that residents of Swain County are watching intently, because the outcome of this fight may cost them $40 million.
The issue is earmarks. The new congressional leadership says it doesn’t like them, and some members are looking to axe them altogether. If that happens, county’s massive $52 million North Shore Road settlement is in danger of being classified as an earmark, which means the lion’s share of the money may never arrive.
Leonard Winchester, chairman of citizen group Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County and active participant in the settlement process, said he thinks that’s unlikely. But it’s still a possibility.
“I think it’s more a matter of when, not if, “ said Winchester, of whether the money will arrive.
He thinks that the money will come through, but in the worst case, the county may have to go back to the bargaining table with Congress. Again.
The real issue, said Winchester, is education. The problem is just convincing Congress members that the settlement isn’t an earmark, it’s a debt owed to Swain County.
When the North Shore Road between Bryson City and Tennessee was flooded in 1943 as part of the war effort, there was little complaint in such dire times. Especially because the county came away with a promise from the federal government that a new road would be built. That was a pretty crucial promise, considering the county still owed $695,000 on the road when it was flooded.
The war came and went, as did two subsequent decades, and the county continued paying the loans for 30 years at the expense of the taxpayer for a road that seemed as though it would never come.
Cut to 2010, and fight still raged, both between Congress and the county and within the county itself. Today, many said, the road isn’t needed and cash would be a better deal. Others were adamant that the road was owed and should be built.
But when Congressman, former football star and native son Heath Shuler stepped in, he proved – along with his tireless efforts to persuade his fellow congressmen to his side – to be the missing piece.
A settlement was finally agreed to: $52 million over 10 years, with the county able to use the annual at its own discretion.
The county already has $12.8 million, and the next chunk has been added to President Obama’s 2011 budget. But the subsequent funds will come only if Congress doesn’t slice them out with other earmarks that may go under the blade in tough economic times.
Winchester said he thinks the county has the right amount of power on its side. Not only is Rep. Shuler plugging hard for the money, the Secretary of the Interior and the parks service are behind the measure.
“The Secretary of the Interior does not consider it an ear mark,” said Winchester. “But politics is an ever-moving target. I don’t think that it will be classified as an earmark. Certainly it’s not in Rep. Shuler’s mind or in Sen. Hagan’s mind. But there’s also other things that contribute significantly towards it not being considered an earmark,” and he’s hoping the clout from the interior department will prove enough to pull the settlement out of that category.
Even the money in the President’s budget is somewhat in jeopardy, since no budget has been passed and Congress has kept the country running by passing a series of continuing resolutions. They funnel money to necessary departments but don’t fund non-necessities of the budget — like the settlement.
For his part, Rep. Shuler said he’s committed to bringing this money back home, crusading against its classification as an earmark.
“No matter what happens with the appropriations process, there is a clear path for us to make sure Swain County gets this settlement funding,” said Rep. Shuler in a statement. “With strong support from President Obama and the Department of Interior, we will make sure that Swain County gets the funding it is due.”
Winchester said he’s actively trying to educate key Congress members, but isn’t too worried about losing the funding altogether, a possibility that he sees as highly unlikely. The economy, he maintains, will not be broken forever, and when the financial ship rights itself, Swain County will be on board.
“Once the economic conditions improve, it’s entirely plausible that the rest of the payments will be paid off in one payment,” Winchester said. “But we have to be at a point where the economic conditions are not so severe that everything that goes before Congress has to be compared with how important it is to the defense of the country.”
Opponents of the cash settlement say they are unsurprised by this unexpected turn. County Commissioner David Monteith, who was outspoken against the settlement throughout the process, said he opposed it for that very reason: because it takes control completely out of county hands.
“I was opposed to the settlement to start with,” said Monteith. “It was a bad deal because things like this can happen. It was real idiotic.”
The fight, however, is not quite over. The 112th Congress has yet to come in session, and the proposal to slash earmarks doesn’t have universal support among even one party. But Winchester and Shuler said they both recognize that it’s a battle of education, and to win, they have to get the sentiment of those outside the region on their side.
Having the interior department in their corner is the first step, said Winchester, but it doesn’t stop there. It is a complex issue that, at first blush, seems like a money-funnel straight from Washington for a road that will never even be built. It’s easy to see how Congress sees earmark all over it, and Shuler and his compatriots will have their work cut out for them in the new year.
“That political battle is not something we can say is behind us,” said Winchester. “Once we get that behind us, I think we’ll be OK.”
To Vida Cody, Dec. 6 didn’t seem unlike any other average Monday. She was the finance manager for Swain County, and with the new board of commissioners due for a swearing in, she expected an hour-long pause in her otherwise-busy day.
So when the usually routine appointment for finance manager was called and no nominations came, Cody was a little surprised. As the silence lengthened, a call for alternate nominations was made. A motion to appoint County Manager Kevin King interim finance manager was given, seconded and quickly ushered through unanimously.
Cody, a 14-year county employee who has spent the last three as finance manager, said she didn’t see it coming — especially since the county was coming off one of its best audit years in a while.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Cody said. “I just kind of had to get up and walk off because I thought, ‘did I just lose my job?’”
As it transpired, she had. The finance manager is one of several positions that serve at the pleasure of the board, and a new board can choose to reappoint those holding those jobs or, as in Cody’s case, not do so. No explanation or reason is required.
Cody, however, said that she was sacked for a very specific reason: campaigning during this November’s election.
After her initial departure, Cody said County Manager King gave her a letter from the law firm Melrose, Seago and Lay that gave a detailed review of the county’s personnel policy for campaign-related issues. Kim Lay is the county’s attorney.
Lay, the attorney who drafted and signed the letter, stated that “while current policy does not expressly prohibit employees from campaigning for candidates on their own time, it does require the employees to act appropriately and professionally in such campaigning, even on their own time,” and that county staff should not “openly campaign for anyone in a way that would negatively impact the relationship between the current Commissioners and the public in general. “
The campaigning in question was, apparently, a magnetic bumper sticker supporting Hester Sitton for clerk of court and Johnny Ensley against incumbent sheriff Curtis Cochran, and a trip taken to the Almond polling precinct on Election Day, which Cody took off. She set up shop with her pick-up truck and signs promoting Ensley, but said she didn’t approach anyone.
When King handed her the letter, Cody said, he told her it was the reason behind her dismissal.
“He said, ‘if you want a reason, this is the reason you weren’t reappointed,’” Cody said.
She, however, doesn’t agree with the assessment and intends to file a lawsuit claiming that her constitutional rights were violated.
“I was just insulted,” Cody said. “How can you tell me that I am not allowed to campaign for somebody off work time?”
Government workers are, however, often subject to more restrictions and scrutiny in election season. Swain County has no explicit policy against off-work campaigning like many states, and it has nothing similar to the Hatch Act that forbids a lot of partisan activity among federal employees. A memo was circulated, however, encouraging employees to use caution with their election-time activities.
Officially, the separation letter given to Cody cites only the statute that outlines the at-will nature of the finance manager’s position; the officer serves – or doesn’t – at the board’s discretion.
County officials acknowledged giving Cody both that letter and the letter from Kimberly Lay, but stopped short of saying that politics was the impetus for her ousting.
County commissioner David Monteith said that the decision not to reappoint Cody wasn’t discussed by incoming commissioners beforehand and wasn’t a retributory attack.
“I just chose not to make a motion or a second,” said Monteith. “Evidently everybody else chose to do the same thing. It was nothing personal.”
Monteith said they haven’t yet discussed appointing a new finance manager and are relying on King to fill the gap until the can make a decision going forward. King once held the finance manager’s position in Swain County.
Cody, meanwhile, has found a lawyer and is looking for a new job. When asked for her take on the ideal outcome of the pending suit, she confesses uncertainty about even wanting her job back.
“Are they going to do it again?” Cody wondered. “If you put me in a position and the next election comes up, are you going to fire me again? I don’t want to be scared all the time that I’m going to lose my job because I want to support someone.”
A Swain County native now living in South Carolina has won several writing awards from the South Carolina Outdoor Press Association.
Jim Casada writes frequently about the Smokies and is a regular columnist in The Smoky Mountain Times in Bryson City and also contributes regularly to Smoky Mountain Living (a sister publication of The Smoky Mountain News).
Members of South Carolina Outdoor Press Association (SCOPe), their supporters and guests gathered at The Territories Saluda River Preserve near Lake Greenwood for their annual fall conference in November. The members of SCOPe represent South Carolina’s top outdoor communicators from magazines, newspapers, online media and television.
Casada’s awards include:
• Newspaper Feature, first place, “Living Off the Land: A Vanishing Way of Life.”
• Magazine Feature, third place, “Reflections On A Marvelous Madness”
• Column, first place, “In The Good Ol’ Summertime…”; second place, “Musings On Coons, Possums And Other Destructive Critters.”
• Non-game Outdoor Enjoyment, first place, “A World of Wonder: Wildflowers Along the Parkway;” third place, “The Pleasures of Pickin’ — Strawberries, That Is.”
• Editorial/Opinion, first place, “Only Hunters Are Able To Save Hunting;” second place, “Economic Woes And The Sportsman’s World.”
A recent program brought together business owners and outdoor enthusiasts who shared a common desire — to promote birding while also taking advantage of its potential economic impact
Rob Hawk, the new Jackson and Swain County extension director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, presented a program on birder friendly businesses and communities at the Balsam Mountain Inn last Thursday, Dec. 9. Participants included interested citizens, community organizers and businessmen and women.
“It was a good program. I think it was a good way to get resources moving in the right direction,” said Andy Zivinsky and Diane Cutler, owners of Bryson City Bicycles.
Zivinsky said that most of the clientele at Bryson City Bicycles were outdoor enthusiasts and that he believes many would enjoy learning about birding opportunities in the area.
“We’re both birders and we’re outdoors a lot, and I feel like we could point interested bikers in the right direction.”
He said they had even considered outfitting bikes with birding gear or a place to carry birding gear. Zivinsky said that there were great Forest Service roads out there for birding and that biking would be a great way to cover them.
“It’s a lot easier than walking,” he said.
The Birder Friendly Business & Birder Friendly Community programs were created and designed to work in tandem with the North Carolina Birding Trail. Work on the NCBT began in 2003. The trail is presented in a series of three trail guides — the Coastal Guide, The Piedmont Guide and the Mountain Guide.
These guides are great ways for local birders and tourists to find great birding opportunities across the state, from the Outer Banks to the mountaintops of Western North Carolina. The guides provide maps, site descriptions, species list and nearby accommodations and attractions.
Part of the mission of the NCBT is, “To conserve and enhance North Carolina’s bird habitat by promoting sustainable bird-watching activities, economic opportunities and conservation education.” The Birder Friendly programs were designed to help fulfill that mission.
Lena Gallitano, who is retired from N.C. State University, and Dr. Stacy Tomas of N.C. State developed the program and taught training seminars across the state until their funding ran out in 2008. Hawk co-facilitated some of the programs in the western part of the state with Gallitano.
Gallitano said she was happy that Hawk had decided to continue to work to expand the birder friendly concept in the mountains. She said she felt like the mountain region had embraced the concept better than other areas of the state.
Hawk said that while he was introduced to the birder friendly concept in his old role as community resource development agent, he thought it was a perfect fit for his new position as Extension Director in Jackson and Swain counties. He said that he hopes the program allows people to look at the landscape in a different way and learn to appreciate and understand the resources that are already here.
Gallitano and Hawk both noted that while the program was geared to mesh with the birding trail the overarching theme of the program is nature tourism in general and birding in particular. Gallitano said that the NCBT guide series is probably the most extensive list of public and private sites across the state for wildlife watching.
And Hawk said that his role as Extension Director was to encourage the wise use and the appreciation of all the natural resources across the region.
David Stubbs, the owner of The Waynesville Inn, was also present at last Thursday’s meeting. Stubbs said he was interested in attending the program to help the Inn focus its marketing strategy.
“We are trying to cater to people who are already interested in the natural beauty of the area and want to sustain that, and birding fits nicely into that concept,” said Stubbs.
He said Hawk’s program helped him learn about who birders are and what their needs and wants are and how to meet them. He said the Inn was currently working on it’s marketing and packages for next season and that the birding community was already a part of that dialogue.
He said that planning was in its “infancy stage,” but that guests might see some sort of birder packages and programs.
• A 2007 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment noted that 81.1 million Americans participate in some form of birding activity.
• A 2006 U.S. Fish & Wildlife study reported that Americans spent nearly $45 billion in 2006 on bird-related activities.
• A 2006 U.S. Census Bureau survey noted that 71 million people spent more than $44 billion across the country in activities related to feeding and/or watching birds and other wildlife.
• North Carolina reported that 2.6 million wildlife watchers in the state spent $916 million.
• According to a North Dakota Division of Tourism report more than 22 million Americans travel each year to observe, photograph and/or study birds. More than $38 billion are spent each year in these endeavors. The report notes that bird-based tourism in Texas and Florida generates approximately $540 million and $943 million, respectively, each year.
• A study done on the economic impact of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail in 1999 noted that birders spent an average of $78.50 per person per day while on the trail.
Robert “Rob” Hawk, a Whittier resident and the former community resource development agent in this region for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, last month became the new county extension director for Jackson and Swain counties.
Hawk replaced Jeff Seiler, who retired in October 2009, after serving as county extension director in both counties for 10 years.
Hawk has held the position of community resource development agent, based in Waynesville, since 2004. He also has worked as an area extension agent for community development, based in Sylva (2000-2003) and as a community development, agriculture and 4-H Extension agent in Cherokee (1997-2000).
Hawk earned a bachelor’s degree in recreation and leisure administration from the University of Tennessee and a master’s degree in parks, recreation and tourism management, with a minor in public policy and resource economics, from N.C. State University.
The Smoky Mountain News asked Hawk a few questions about his plans for Jackson and Swain counties. Here’s what he said in reply:
Q: What administrative changes do you plan on making, if any?
A: Administratively there are no changes to be made at this time, due to a shortage in the budgets for additional staff. Hopefully in 2011 we can regain our family and consumer science extension agent back to the Swain County Extension Center.
Q: What special problems come for a director answering to commissioners and residents of two counties?
A: There is really not a problem serving two counties … I have been an area extension agent for the last 10 years covering 10 counties from Buncombe County west. There may be a slight challenge in doing everything administratively twice instead of once.
Q: There is no one on staff for the extension service in Jackson and Swain counties with particular experience dealing with livestock. Any plans to address this gap?
A: There are plans to hopefully hire a livestock agent in Macon County, who would also serve the counties of Macon, Swain and Jackson, the same area that is covered by the Jackson, Macon and Swain Cattleman’s Association. Until that happens I will cover livestock requests for Jackson and Swain counties. I realize the livestock folks have been without an agent to help them, so we will do our best to serve them in the future because livestock is very important to our two counties agriculturally.
Q: What special areas of interest do you bring to the job of director?
A: My interests are in community and leadership development, in which I provide facilitation and educational programs to help individuals and both public and private businesses to advance their business and mission through improving their leadership skills. Customer service and hospitality education is another interest of mine in working with the businesses in both counties. Another major interest is conservation education with the youth of both counties, and my goal is to help the youth learn to enjoy, appreciate and respect our great natural resources in the two counties.
Q: What is the overall goal of your office staff?
A: Extension educational programming and (answering) individual requests are our means for effectiveness and strength in Jackson and Swain counties. Our extension staff believes in being out in the community helping others learn how to help themselves, which helps makes better communities in both counties.
I don’t particularly remember U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, from our days growing up in Swain County. He is younger than I am by a few years, more my brother’s contemporary than mine.
His father delivered our mail. I don’t remember him at all. Most kids don’t pay attention to their postal carrier, and I was no exception.
I’ve never been an avid fan of the game of football, either. I did, however, take heed of Shuler’s career at the University of Tennessee and in the NFL. Somehow, because he was from Swain County, each time he threw or ran for a touchdown his athletic abilities seemed to reflect positively on us all. Though by then I wasn’t living in Western North Carolina, but downstate in Greensboro.
I remember feeling vaguely saddened when Shuler’s football career faltered and puttered out. For him, for me and for Swain County at large, our shared glory ended ignominiously with his foot injury.
There is something about a small school that makes you hyper-connect with others who attended the same school. Even now, in my mid 40s, I am the girl who went to Bryson City Elementary and Swain County High School, home of the Maroon Devils. And everyone who did the same, at about the same time, remains a classmate.
Since there were only 79 of us in my graduating class, you’d think it would be easy for me to remember who was there. It isn’t, though. I’m terrible at names and faces. This often proves embarrassing, because others don’t seem to have this problem. I’ll be in a grocery store and someone will say hello and use my nickname. Instantly I know they are from Swain County, and I start sorting through who they might be, hoping this wasn’t a particularly close high school friend I’ve inexplicably forgotten. But even if I can’t dredge up specific memories, the association of having been classmates creates bonds and commonalities.
Including, I must acknowledge, with Shuler, whom I’ve covered sporadically for various newspapers since he first ran for political office in 2006. I suspect he feels something along the same lines. There is a kinship, a shared history, and a common background. No matter that my politics and the congressman’s diverge sharply at points. Or that, as a journalist, my job is to monitor and report on how he performs his job representing us in Congress.
Still, all that said, I can’t help but admit to hoping Shuler does us proud.
The truth is the girl who went to Swain County High School doesn’t want Shuler to embarrass us on national television by saying something particularly stupid. As ridiculous as it seems, his mixing up North and South Korea, sounding like an illiterate hillbilly or doing a Dan Quayle and misspelling potato would reflect poorly on our schooling.
So I’m happy to note Shuler seems to have grown into his job, which is the subject of this week’s cover story. He is becoming an increasingly adept politician.
These days, when Shuler gives a speech, it no longer sounds like an approximation of the English language. There is actually a beginning, middle and an end, and even a message one can generally discern without undo straining.
Although I often don’t personally approve of the political stances he takes, I am happy Shuler is capable of articulating his beliefs. We might not have had debate classes at Swain County High School, or lessons in Latin. But all in all, we were given the tools to make of ourselves what we would. And Shuler, at least, is taking full advantage of every gift and tool he was given.
When Terry Stephenson bought a piece of hillside property on Lower Alarka Road in Bryson City, he expected it to slowly develop into a homestead for himself and his 11-year-old daughter. What he didn’t expect was the headache that the undeveloped hillside has become since he became embroiled in an argument with Bryson City’s Great Smoky Mountains Railway over his right to cross their tracks.
The railroad has 10 acres of Stephenson’s property that encompasses their tracks and the accompanying 100-foot right-of-way granted to railroad tracks, originally intended to allow freight and passenger rail companies space in which to store extra equipment. Stephenson said he would be unconcerned with the tracks if they didn’t cross the single dirt road that is the only entrance to his property.
The crossing that once existed there was excavated and replaced by the railroad, who then offered Stephenson a private right of way agreement that reinstated his right to use the crossing. But Stephenson only got a few words into the 14-point agreement before realizing that he would be coming out bearing the brunt of the burdens if he signed.
“There’s nothing in there for me at all,” said Stephenson. “It might as well have been printed on toilet paper.”
His chief grief with the company is the $3,000-a-year crossing insurance that the agreement stipulates, something he maintains has not been required of anyone else who has been granted a crossing.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t have crossing insurance,” Stephenson said, “and they want me to maintain a $2 million policy and make them the beneficiary.”
The agreement would also stipulate that the crossing is non-transferrable, so when he property passes to his daughter or the next owner, they wouldn’t have the right to use the crossing without entering into a separate, new agreement with the railway.
Stephenson said he has no intention of signing the agreement, but he also knows that the cost of taking the railroad to court over the issue might be cost prohibitive.
“You’re fighting everybody fighting the railroad,” said Stephenson, “but it’s like paying a toll to get to my property, and every month I’ve got a payment to make, whether I can get to it or not.”
When asked for their take on the dispute, Great Smoky Mountains Railway General Manager Kim Albritton responded only that she was “not interested in discussing it with you.” Subsequent calls and e-mails to the railroad’s management were unreturned.
When Stephenson got nowhere in his negotiations alone, he tried bringing the issue before the Swain County Commissioners, who pledged that they would attempt to mediate the situation.
But, said County Manager Kevin King, the county was similarly stonewalled.
“We basically called the train and wanted to discuss that issue with them and they indicated that this is a legal dispute and at this point they would not sit down and talk to the board,” said King. “We asked for a meeting, they declined, and that’s all we can do.”
But even if he tries to fight the railroad, Stephenson will likely have a long and difficult road ahead of him, and there is a chance that the law might not be on his side.
“North Carolina case law generally grants railroads broad discretion to regulate the use of their rights of way by others,” wrote Raleigh attorney Jeffrey Bandini in an explanation of railroad real estate laws called Railroad Property. “This control is justified to ensure safe travel on the rights of way and to protect the physical integrity of the facilities built on the rights of way and the land upon which the facilities are located. Accordingly, whether a railroad company owns its right of way in fee simple or easement, third parties must obtain permission from the railroad company to enter the right of way for any purpose.”
Plainly speaking, that means that Stephenson will have a hard time countering the agreement, since the state has long given railroads a great deal of license in how to use their own rights of way.
Stephenson, however, isn’t averse to a crossing agreement, but feels that what the railway is putting forward is beyond unreasonable.
He said he’d be happy to pay his part for the upkeep of the crossing, but thinks that $3,000 a year is slightly exorbitant, given that his taxes are barely $800.
“I’m not trying to be hard,” Stephenson said, “I just need to get to my property. “