Haywood County residents told commissioners just what they thought of funding reductions at a hearing last week over the county’s new budget.
Thirty people came to the meeting, where commissioners took comments on the 2011-12 budget, which decreases funding to schools by 3 percent.
Though fewer than a third of the crowd voiced their opinions, many who did either opposed the education slashing or chided the board for its increasing debt load, proposed increase to the tax rate and recent property revaluation.
Some, like Marietta Edwards, questioned where the county’s money was going.
“We need money for the schools. We don’t need fancy buildings, we don’t need these high expenditures,” said Edwards. “We need to be careful how we spend our money.”
Others came to plead only for the reinstatement of school funding, which they said was vital to the county’s educational success.
“We’re doing good things here in Haywood County,” said Tuscola High School Principal Dale McDonald. “But the budget has the possibility of losing some assistant principals. In five years, I will not be a principal at Tuscola High School. I’ll be retired. But you’ve got to have somebody ready to step in and fill those shoes.”
Commissioners noted that they weren’t responsible for line item cuts to school budgets. They just provide the funding figure, not specifics on how that money is used.
But school advocates said that regardless of where the cuts come from, they’d still be detrimental to the effort to school the county’s kids.
Commissioners countered the complaints — they understand, said board members, that cuts are never fun or easy. But when state is slashing around 10 percent, there are few options.
“This board takes handling the county money seriously,” said Commissioner Bill Upton, a former Pisgah High School principal and long-time superintendent for the county’s schools. “When I was in schools, it was how you handled the kids that was the most important, and now as a county commissioner it’s how you handle the billfold that’s the most important.”
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick assured the assembled crowd that setting a higher tax rate — 54.13 cents as opposed to 51.4 cents last year — wasn’t a flippant decision by the board, but it’s how they’ll stay revenue neutral after a property revaluation as the whole state faces dire economic straits.
“What we have to do is weigh what we think is necessary and needed and try to establish the best budget possible with that. We don’t sit up here and establish a tax rate that we’re not going to pay as well,” said Kirkpatrick.
Though the hearing was a chance for citizens to voice their pleasure or grievance with the proposed budget, it was also a forum for commissioners to defend their decisions and fact check some ill-founded constituent complaints, such as the claim by one man that the county was subsidizing a cowboy church at the fairgrounds.
The proposed budget hasn’t yet been adopted by commissioners, but they’re expected to discuss it at their next meeting on June 20.
Above national average. Above state average. Highest regional composite ranking.
These are a few of the phrases that stand out in a recent letter from Haywood County Schools Superintendent Anne Garrett and Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte.
The missive is not so much an informational paean, extolling the school system’s triumphs as an offensive tactic, as a rebuttal to the call for across-the-board school reform. And more specifically to the local group that’s advocating it.
Tea for Education is an advocacy group whose central tenet is school choice. It’s headquartered on Walnut Street in Waynesville, and earlier this month, the group sent Haywood County Schools, along with county commissioners and local media, a white paper on school reform, accompanied by a letter requesting that it be read “with an open mind.”
And, said Nolte, that’s exactly what they did. But they’re pretty sure they’re fine without the paper’s suggestions, thanks.
“We very often have people come to us and say, ‘You need to use this program that’s used by so-and-so school and so-and-so state,’ but usually when we look at it, we’re outperforming the folks that they want us to be like,” said Nolte.
Bruce Gardner, a school reform advocate behind Tea for Education, said he was disappointed in the quick rebuff the school system shot back with.
“They’re right in being proud in their accomplishments. But if they think there’s no improvements can be made, well, you can always improve on anything,” said Gardner.
But from where Nolte sits, it did not take long to determine Haywood County is already doing more with less — and doing it better.
“When we have people who seriously ask us to look at something and consider something, we try and give them a response,” said Nolte. “I cannot pretend to know why they sent that to us. I don’t know if they’re asking us to change. But the point that I would like to make is if you want high-performing schools that spend less than almost everyone else, then we’re your school system.”
Tea for Education, headed by Haywood County residents Gardner and Beverly Elliott who are also active in the local Tea Party, put out the paper at the same time that they hosted screenings of the documentary Waiting for Superman, a recent lightning rod of controversy in the national school-reform debate.
The paper was put together by a Colorado group called the Centennial Institute, and lists tactics such as abandoning class size reduction, cutting administrative spending and revamping standardized testing, among others. The main idea is this: school budgets have increased over the decades, but test scores haven’t, so change is needed.
The research behind the paper is directed specifically at Colorado schools, but Gardner and Elliott believe that it holds lessons that can be applied anywhere.
“What our goals were in sending out the package were to send out information that has been developed in terms of improving education. When organizations spend a great deal of money working on how to improve a system, it makes sense to read and share it,” said Gardner, who noted that he was disappointed by what he saw as the schools’ failure to even give it a second look.
“I saw no instance from where they may have derived any kind of idea from it. It’s great to be proud of achievements, but I don’t understand their ingrained reluctance or fear of competition,” said Gardner.
Nolte, though, counters that, when it comes to school reform, why reform something that’s succeeding?
“We’re very supportive of school reform. We think low-performing schools should do better. We just hope and pray that people will not lump us in with schools that don’t perform well and ask us to make changes that will hurt our students,” Nolte said.
This means deeper cuts than the $5 million the system has already weathered and more staff axed than the 90 they’ve lost so far. Slashing more, or toying with proven models, said Nolte, will only diminish their pupils’ success. As of 2009, their per-pupil spending — $8,929 per kid — was already in the lower half, 65th out of 115 districts in the state. Administrators say this, combined with their test scores and other rankings, should be proof that they’re already doing more with less.
But Elliott and Gardner maintain that there’s always betterment to be had. They believe that widening the educational field will bring better options to what they see as a monopoly.
“We think the parent needs to have a complete menu of ways to educate their child,” said Gardner. Besides, he notes, it’s not the local school systems they’re focusing on. Their eye is on the broader, national debate, on affecting educational change on a systemic level. If Haywood schools are doing well, then that’s a win for everyone, and one less hurdle they have to jump.
“Then why are they showing Waiting for Superman locally, if they understand that we’re nothing like those schools?” queries Nolte.
And that’s a central piece of this debate, the documentary that has sparked fervor in school-reform advocates and fury in some educators.
The film is a look at the state of the nation’s public schools by director Davis Guggenheim, well known for the environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
It highlights the country’s low performance in areas like math and science as compared to other developed nations — 25th in math and 21st in science — and puts the spotlight on notorious schools with dismal graduation rates and sinking test scores, as well as the lottery system used in larger cities for admission to the few flourishing schools.
The movie supports, in part, the school-choice mantra chanted by Tea for Education, especially with regard to public charter schools.
Right now, Haywood County has no public charter schools, and, said Gardner, the system could probably benefit both financially and academically if a few popped up. He and Elliot point to numbers saying that state- and nation-wide, charter schools can educate students for less than system schools, which would take some of the fiscal burden from districts facing deep cuts.
Nolte said he’s not against charters — as long as they can keep pace with the rest of the county’s schools in performance.
“Our job is to be really, really good and not use a lot of resources. If someone wants to start a charter school in our community, then we would say that they need to perform as well as we do with the same students that we do,” said Nolte.
Tea for Education isn’t fighting that point. Yes, they say, accomplishments should be lauded, and schools should be judged by them. But despite assertions by Haywood Schools that they are doing more with less, it’s still not enough — private schools and charter schools manage to do it for even less per student.
“We’re spending a tremendous amount of money on education, and this is not the answer,” Gardner said.
Bruce Gardner, founder of Tea for Education, will speak about school choice at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 7, at the Mountain High Republican Women’s Club luncheon. The luncheon will be held at the Lake Toxaway Country Club.
The Haywood County Democrats will hold a rally for education at 12 p.m. on Thursday, June 2, on the courthouse lawn in downtown Waynesville. Representatives from the community and various organizations will speak on behalf of public education.
In Haywood County, the tax rate would have to bump up three cents for the county to bring in the same amount of money as last year.
Overall, the property values in the county were down following the recent revaluation, the first countywide appraisal in five years. To offset the slightly smaller tax base, the county would have to raise the tax rate from 51 to 54 cents.
County Manager Marty Stamey presented the budget to county commissioners at their meeting Monday, where he painted a picture of fiscal austerity.
“We’ve got less people working than in ‘05 and we’re doing the same amount of work, in some cases we’re doing more work,” said Stamey. “This is the new norm, doing more with less.”
Here’s what the new tax rate would mean based on how your property performed in the revaluation:
• For residents whose property values dropped by at least 5 percent, tax bills will be less.
• Those whose values were perfectly stagnant will see around a 5 percent increase. So for a home valued at $100,000 — both in 2006 and this year — the bill will go up by $27.
• Properties that increased in value will also see a hike in their tax bill by about the same percentage.
Throughout the budget process, commissioners have said they’re committed to a neutral tax rate.
“I think that’s fair because the county’s taking in the same amount of money if they’d not done a reval,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley. “I don’t know any other way to do it, except keep [the rate] the same, and then we’d have to make a lot more cuts than we have now.”
“We’ve made cuts the last three years and it’s bare bone,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.
While the property tax side of the budget will remain constant, wilting sales revenues mean the county will still have to make some cuts. Most notably, education — both Haywood County Schools and Haywood Community College — will be slashed 3-percent.
Sales tax is the county’s other main money spinner — it accounts for 15 percent of revenue — and it’s down 3 percent over last year. Thus the cuts to schools, which claim a large share of the county’s budget — about 25 percent of the county’s entire budget goes to education.
While a 3-percent cut may sound small, it is indeed a hit, given that the school system asked the county for an increase on what they were given last year. Instead, they’re now losing $430,000.
Stamey said he realized the schools’ need and asked them to dip into their fund balance to cover their losses from state and local defunding.
“These are difficult decisions, ones that we don’t like to make, but we have to do it to keep a revenue neutral budget,” said Stamey.
For the schools to get that money back, commissioners would need to tack another two thirds of a penny onto the property tax rate.
Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 31, with a vote scheduled for their regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, June 6.
Tax base before revaluation: $7.258 billion
Tax base after revaluation: $7.086 billion
2010 tax rate: 51.4 cents
2011 tax rate: 54.13 cents
A revenue-neutral tax rate means the county will bring in the same amount of revenue despite changing property values. Usually, property values increase so the tax rate can come down. But property values on average went down slightly in the recent countywide revaluation. The tax rate will go up to compensate for the smaller tax base.
The official revenue-neutral tax rate allows for a minor increase from newly built homes and buildings that are added to the tax base year to year.
For both teachers in the classroom and local administrators, this is shaping up to be the most challenging budget year in North Carolina history. At times like these, those of us who value a quality education system will be left to rely on the expertise of these professionals to do more with less. There’s simply no other option.
Last week we published a story detailing the budgetary challenges Haywood County schools will face in meeting the needs of its students as it deals with a loss of potentially $4 million. As most teacher assistants disappear, textbook money is cut drastically, and more local dollars will have to go toward buses — along with myriad other cuts — there’s just no need for hand-wringing.
Haywood Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte, discussing the state House budget proposal and what might happen locally, summed it up very matter of factly:
“I don’t think we can, in good conscience, expect the (county) commissioners to come up with revenue that they don’t have,” said Nolte. “It’s impractical, in my professional opinion, to say to our county commissioners, ‘Hey, the state cut all of this; fund it.’ There is a worldwide economic crisis, and to our knowledge, our commissioners do not have new revenues that would make up for any state cuts to any agencies.”
What it comes down to is this: teachers, already strapped for resources and perhaps overworked, will be asked to do more with less. Especially those working with young children in first, second and third grades, where teacher’s assistants are destined to be cut. Haywood has a pot of money it will use to try to keep assistants in the younger grades for at least one more year, but in many counties those assistants will disappear.
This is happening at the same time money for the More at Four pre-K program is being cut, meaning many children will enter kindergarten less prepared.
As all the peripheral dollars are being cut, perhaps this is an opportunity for certified teachers — those actually doing the hands-on work in the classrooms — to get more attention. Studies have shown that teachers in all those countries that perennially outscore us on all those standardized tests are treated much better than teachers in the United States. They earn more, are treated more like professionals, and more of the good ones tend to remain in the profession for longer.
For many years there has been teacher shortage in this country. That’s because it hasn’t been a career that enticed the best and the brightest. Anyone who wonders why Finland, Japan or Korea outscore us need only look at who becomes teachers in those countries. When we take the same approach, there’s little doubt many of our education problems will disappear.
Money will be tight in public education for years to come as we struggle through this recession. Perhaps it is a good time to focus on teaching and use the resources we have to entice the brightest among our college students to spend their lives in the public school classroom.
Under the newly verdant trees shading the lawn of the historic Haywood County Courthouse, 29 people silently lined the sidewalk last Friday, sending the message that they were “struck speechless” by slashed state funding proposed by House Republicans.
Their signs bore slogans decrying the deep cuts handed down to schools, universities, the elderly and environmental programs, among others.
Pacing in the sun on the courthouse steps behind them, Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was anything but speechless. He’s the group’s spokesperson, and it’s probably fair to say that he’s livid about the cuts.
The phrase that he keeps returning to, and indeed the one that he has trotted out on the House floor throughout the budget debate to characterize the Republican’s approach to cuts, is “ready, shoot, aim.”
There’s no money, he said, he gets it. But there must be a line drawn somewhere, and he is concerned that the money-slashing sword is being drawn too quickly and wielded too loosely.
“We’re talking about fundamental services that are being cut to our people,” said Rapp. “These cuts are draconian, destructive and deeply disappointing.”
The ones he seems most viscerally worked up about are the ones that affect children and the elderly — the House plan calls for $1.2 billion to go from school funding and 50 percent of the money senior centers get would be taken away. Project Care, an in-home service for the elderly that got its start in Haywood County, would be eliminated completely. More at 4, a preschool program would take a big hit, as would its early development companion, Smart Start.
Rapp tends to refer to such educational reductions as “eating our seed corn,” and, he said, he thinks it’s going to have a negative impact on the future.
Rapp and his fellow Democrats have a plan to stave off some of the slash-and-burn that would sweep across the state if a similar budget emerges from fiscal wrangling in the Senate later this month. Rather than cutting the state’s sales tax by a penny, keep the sales tax at its current level. A one-cent sales tax billed as temporary to solve state budget shortfall two years ago was set to expire this year. Keeping it in place would at least defend schools from some of the more painful and deleterious blows.
“Nine-hundred million of that $1.2 billion could be erased by simply continuing that one-cent sales tax,” said Rapp.
The idea, though, isn’t likely to get much traction in a General Assembly that’s ruled by Republicans, many of whom ran on a no-tax-increase platform of fiscal conservatism, or at least promised a lightened tax load.
Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who bumped out incumbent Democrat John Snow last November, is one of Rapp’s Senate counterparts. He’s not going for the sales tax extension, and his Republican colleagues, he said, are unlikely to do so, either.
“It was a temporary tax for two years and it expires June 30, and if they thought that they needed a tax for longer than that, they should’ve voted for it,” said Davis.
If all goes to plan, he expects that he and his Senate colleagues may be proffering their own budget — similar, he said, to the House offering — within a few weeks.
Davis concedes that these cuts aren’t easy to swallow, but he maintains that, for now, they’re necessary.
“We’re not too excited about cutting good programs, but there’s only so much waste, fraud and abuse in the budget,” said Davis.
Davis said that he is hearing pleas from constituents, however.
“The magnitude of this problem is significant. I have lots and lots of people calling me, writing me letters, emailing me, telling me that they know we have some serious problems, but don’t cut my programs,” said Davis. “This is not easy.”
For Davis, the loss of legitimate programs is lamentable but necessary to right the state’s listing fiscal ship. He’s hopeful that things will soon get better, good programs can be restored and rainy day funds replenished. But today, even a great program may not be great enough to stay around.
“We cannot fix our state budget without touching those items, so some programs are really getting the ax,” said Davis. “But you know, nothing is a good deal if you can’t pay for it.”
Rapp, however, said the cuts have become unpalatable.
“I don’t think the average citizen anticipated the depth of cuts that they’re making,” Rapp said.
The state’s bloodletting has begun, and for Haywood County Schools, the losses might add up to more than $4 million siphoned off next year’s budget.
School officials have been steadily crunching numbers since the state House of Representatives offered a look into its proposed budget this month, and their calculations paint a fairly grim picture for some of the system’s programs.
Line-item cuts from the state that target specific budget items range from a 5 percent reduction in transportation funding to 100 percent pulled from things like dropout prevention, school technology and staff development.
Those cuts, trimming from 17 categories, total $2.4 million and mean a loss of 46 positions, many of them teacher assistants.
Then there’s the $1.6 million more in “discretionary reversion,” which means that the school system can work out on its own where that money has to be saved, but it’s got to somehow.
Altogether, the proposed House budget would cut 13 percent from the school system’s budget.
Meanwhile, courtesy of another state mandate that governs how much the school system pays into its employees’ retirement and health benefits, they’ll have to spend an extra $138,403 to cover those expenses. And since the percentages they pay into those funds are set by the state every year, they’re stuck with those increased costs.
There are other increases, too, that the school system has identified as needs, but they’re realistic about the likelihood of getting them. From a guidance counselor for Haywood Early College to two school nurse positions to rotate among the schools, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte is careful to say that they’re not just wants, but things the system might need to fund from somewhere.
“We may have to, or lose programs or even lose accreditation,” said Nolte.
In addition to the jump in operating expenses, school officials have found around $1.6 million in capital improvements that will need attention sometime soon. Some of those, like window tinting and new blinds, aren’t particularly urgent.
Some, like exit doors stuck shut by warped sidewalks, can’t wait.
All this at a time when the county, too, is looking at its budget, trying to trim fat in anticipation of its own cuts from the state.
It would seem, then, that the schools are in a predicament. And that is the pitch education officials gave to county commissioners this week when they met to float their potential budget and test the waters on what kind of support they’d be getting from commissioners this year.
Though they didn’t pin down an exact percent increase on what they got last year, they’re looking to commissioners to at least stick to the funding formula they’ve been using for the last few years, and any extra on those capital projects and operating increases they could scrape up wouldn’t hurt, either.
They’re not looking for any help, though, in making up the difference cut by the state because, said Nolte, they’re well aware that more cash from the county just isn’t there.
“I don’t think we can, in good conscience, expect the commissioners to come up with revenue that they don’t have,” said Nolte. “It’s impractical, in my professional opinion, to say to our county commissioners, ‘Hey, the state cut all of this; fund it.’ There is a worldwide economic crisis, and to our knowledge, our commissioners do not have new revenues that would make up for any state cuts to any agencies.”
But with finances tight on every front, what they’re asking might still be too much.
“If we fund you at your requested level, that would be a 1.5 cent increase on the tax rate. That’s what you’re asking us to do,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the board’s lone Republican. Ensley told school officials that, while he understood their problems, he was committed to a revenue-neutral budget, which would be a hard feat to accomplish while doling out extra money.
When asked what they would do if the county couldn’t fund them with any extra dollars, Superintendent Anne Garrett said they’d make do.
“Well, we would have to make it work because we wouldn’t have a choice,” said Garrett.
But even if the county does pony up for as much as the school needs, it will still mean some pretty painful slashing next year.
Last year, of the school system’s $72.5 million budget, the state picked up the tab for 62 percent of it. They’ve been reducing funding pretty steadily since recession came into full bloom in 2009; the system has lost $5.2 million since that year.
But this year, they will, at one time, be losing 77 percent of what they’ve lost in the past three years combined.
In terms of real jobs, the biggest hits are coming for teacher assistants. A whopping 49 percent of state funding for those positions is going right out the window, which translates to 32 assistants.
While the state suggests that every class through the third grade have a dedicated assistant, Haywood County can’t reach that threshold with the resources it has now. Apparently, no one can, according to school officials.
Right now, they’ve got assistants in all the kindergarten and first-grade classes, with a few rotating in second and third grades. If the House cuts go through, that would whittle that number significantly, essentially down to just the kindergarten aides.
Nolte said they would probably be able to stave off that particular carnage thanks to some forward planning last year. They got a slice of a federal money pie called EduJobs and then promptly squirreled it away for just such an occasion. They can now dip into it to fund some positions in the coming year.
Here’s the problem with that, though: it’s only enough to fill in that gap for one year. And depending on the state of the financial world this time next year, they could be back in the same place.
“Basically, what we’re doing is trying to do one more year and hope it comes back,” said Commissioner Michael Sorrells.
In other places, though, they don’t have the caches to shore up the gaping funding holes the state might leave.
Some school bus replacements will have to be put on hold and dropout prevention, staff development and several other programs will be scuttled altogether.
One pretty high number on the House cuts list is the 68 percent of textbook funding they’d pull. But, said Nolte, that’s not the big hit that it seems, as Haywood schools have been moving away from textbook reliance for a while now.
It makes sense — in a digital world, it’s unlikely that the classroom will be the only bastion of traditional paper texts. It helped their test scores, said Nolte, and now it’s helping their bottom line, too.
If the Senate’s budget is anything like the austerity of the House’s, school officials said that next year will be tough. But they’ve been preparing for this situation since 2009, having been forewarned by economists and government sources alike that the upcoming school year would be the nadir of the crisis for public finances. It’ll be rough, but they can probably ride it out.
There are a few stashes here and there that the school system could raid if things got dire, their yearly lottery payout being the fattest. But with 16 schools and even more offices, Nolte said they’re protecting that money to use for maintaining the buildings and grounds, since all the other pools that once paid for those improvements are drying up.
“We have 1.47 million square feet under roof, and it just takes some revenue to fix the pipes and the valves that start to leak and the roofs that wear out,” said Nolte.
Plus, he said, that final pot may soon be gone, too, diverted to other state needs. Two years ago, the school stopped getting ADM funding, which gave them money based on their schools’ pupil population.
“The lottery is being seriously eyed by the legislature,” said Nolte.
Really, though, what he’s concerned about is what comes next if things don’t get better. There comes a point where only so much that can be cut, and he worries that they’re on the express train to it.
“At some point in time, there’s going to be a straw or two that breaks the camel’s back. There’s really not a lot of cushion left there,” said Nolte. “We’ve lost over 50 positions in the last three years and we’ve tried to spread those, but at some point in time, there’ll be a saturation point.”
Folkmoot festival has lost a vital source of advertising money, jeopardizing its ability to lure visitors to Haywood County during the festival’s two-week summer run.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority announced its intention this month to yank its annual contribution to Folkmoot USA. The TDA has given Folkmoot between $6,000 and $12,000 every year since the festival’s inception in 1984.
Folkmoot President Chuck Dickson made a heartfelt pitch to the TDA board last week, asking them to reinstate the funding.
“Folkmoot has helped put Haywood County on the map and has definitely enhanced Haywood County’s reputation as a tourist destination,” Dickson told the 15 members of the TDA board.
TDA board members cited a still-slumping economy and overhead associated with a new downtown Waynesville visitor center as the culprits.
The festival turns Haywood County into an international bazaar every July, with more than 200 dancers and musicians from a dozen countries staging a series of performances and parades. The TDA funding is spent marketing the festival to audiences across the South.
Last year, Folkmoot only got a portion of what they requested — $6,000 of the $9,000 they were looking for — which covered just under a third of the $19,000 spent on advertising.
Cutting the contribution altogether would hurt Folkmoot’s ability to publicize the festival. Dickson said Folkmoot helps TDA achieve its own mission of luring overnight visitors.
“We put heads in beds — perhaps more than any other event in Haywood County,” said Dickson. “In 2010, 5,000 people attended ticketed events, 2,000 attended free events, and over 50,000 attended the parade and Festival Day, two events for which Folkmoot receives absolutely no money.”
Dickson came armed with both a crowd of Folkmoot supporters and an economic impact study done by Western Carolina University in 2008.
The study walks through the particulars of just how much money and business the festival pulls into the county, but the final total was over $4 million for the 2007 festival.
“These contributions not only increase the appeal of the festival from year to year, but help reinforce the attractiveness of the area in general and that of all other cultural events in the region,” summarized the study.
None of the TDA board members were arguing against that claim. In fact, several espoused the merits of having such a large and unique event housed in the county for such a long time.
However, they weren’t enamored enough to restore the funding.
The TDA board cited the same oft-repeated reason for budget cuts heard at the local, state and national levels of late: it’s the economy, what else can we do?
“It’s more about looking at harsh finances right now and looking at the bigger picture. I would rather give people more money, but we’re just in a situation with the budget and the money’s just not coming in,” said Jennifer Duerr, TDA board member and owner of the Windover Inn.
The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by nearly $300,000 in three years.
This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.
TDA Board Member Ken Stahl floated the idea that Folkmoot lobby Buncombe and Jackson counties for contributions, but Dickson said that tactic was a bit of a long shot, given that they only put on a max of two shows in those counties.
The official suggestion was that Folkmoot apply to special pots of TDA money controlled by individual communities within the county. Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde each get a slice of TDA money to spend on pet projects, from concerts to brochures to micro-level marketing. A quarter of the total TDA budget is divvied up among the county’s five locales.
The TDA board told Folkmoot to take its request to the five committees that oversee the five pots of money.
Folkmoot has historically been paid out of the general fund since the festival is county-wide and holds events in literally each of the five locales, Dixon said. So which one would Folkmoot apply to? The board told Dixon to apply to all five.
The problem there is that those committees won’t have any cash to hand out until autumn at the earliest. In fact, grants for this round of funding were approved later at the same meeting.
Not everybody on the TDA board was in favor of cutting Folkmoot from the tourism agency’s general budget.
Mark Clasby, the county’s economic development director who also sits on the TDA, was vocally opposed to revoking the money.
“The recognition Folkmoot has brought to Haywood County is tremendous, and I disagree with the recommendation that you’re making,” Clasby told board members. “I think it’s wrong.”
Clasby said that Folkmoot is so well-known it’s one of the tools he uses to pitch Haywood County when he’s out courting business development for the county, and that if any organization deserves the money, it’s Folkmoot.
“I certainly understand the budget situation we’re all facing, but at least give them some funding and support,” said Clasby.
TDA Board Member Jennifer Duerr countered Clasby’s view, arguing that it’s just about a change in the way funds are given out, thanks to the economy. The dwindling general fund should be kept for county-wide causes, she said.
“It’s not that we want to not give the money, it’s just not there. Do we give the money to one event, or keep it to represent the entire county?” asked Duerr.
Other members voiced similar views, with Alice Aumen, the board’s chairperson, saying that this year’s budget has been particularly trying.
“It has been one of the most difficult years since I’ve been on the board,” said Aumen.
James Carver, owner of the Maggie Valley Restaurant and board member, said he’d love to give Folkmoot money this year, but that it just wasn’t there.
“I‘ve always been a big supporter of Folkmoot, but money’s down,” said Carver.
In the end, the TDA board gave Dickson and his compatriots their apologies and an invitation to come back and ask again next year, but if they were hoping for a check, they went away empty handed.
“What we would like to leave Folkmoot with is that it is an important event. We all hope it’s going to be a great year for travel and tourism and revenues are going to come up,” said TDA Board Member Sue Knapko, encouraging festival officials to come back again if the committees don’t work out.
The organization many credit with helping to create and nurture Sylva’s vibrant downtown scene is facing the possibility of going belly up over funding issues.
During a budget work session last week, a majority of town commissioners indicated they might vote against giving money to the Downtown Sylva Association. DSA, as it’s dubbed, formed 18 years ago under a different name — Sylva Partners in Renewal — but with the same basic mission: to promote the economic growth and vitality of downtown Sylva.
The group is seeking $25,000 from the town as it moves toward dropping what it claims is an unsustainable funding method — begging for money directly from merchants — developed as a defense during previous funding attacks. DSA has created a wedge on the town board, marked by narrow split votes flip-flopping for or against DSA, depending on the winners in the last election.
The town’s support dropped from $20,000 to a low of $2,000 a year, and surged back to $12,000 last year following a brief shift in power on the board that favored DSA. This amount contrasts, by way of example, to the $45,000 a year Franklin’s town board chips-in for its Main Street program.
As happened previously in Sylva, a fiscally prudent threesome is in power these days, meaning the DSA could get far less than the amount requested. Zero dollars doesn’t look farfetched, in fact, with commissioners Harold Hensley, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen making no bones about their overall unwillingness to continue underwriting an organization they have declared too Main Street/Back Street/and a couple-of-side streets-centric. The same three town commissioners were in power when the town first yanked DSA funding seven years ago, but subsequently lost their majority control.
Commissioners Chris Matheson and Stacy Knotts are expressing support for funding DSA. Mayor Maurice Moody is, too, but he doesn’t get a vote unless there’s a tie. That possibility is not as completely farfetched as it might appear.
Because, in the melodrama that is the Sylva town board, Allen a couple of months ago announced he planned to resign … though he wouldn’t say why, when, or how exactly this exit would take place. If history serves as a guide, Allen’s resignation might not happen at all, or even be mentioned again: A few years ago Allen made exactly the same sort of pronouncement, only to continue blithely on without public explanation about why he wanted to leave in the first place, yet never did.
So, while Moody holds the potential tiebreaker, that might be as close as the mayor gets to being able to demonstrate his voting power.
DSA is fighting back. About 20 merchants turned up at last week’s meeting to demonstrate their support for the group that represents them. Most were DSA members who’ve ponied-up money over the past few years as the town’s financial support teeter-tottered.
One state Main Street requirement is that town programs must have a paid director. DSA’s version is Julie Sylvester, who receives $20,000 a year for 20 hours. She also receives $250 a month for a health-savings account.
Robin Kevlin, speaking for DSA, told commissioners their support is critical.
“We must have active involvement of both public and private sectors for continued growth and prosperity for the town of Sylva,” said Kevlin, who works at the downtown office of Metrostat. “The Main Street program is a proven strategy for revitalization, a powerful network of linked communities, and a national support program that leads the field.”
Kevlin went on to describe downtown Sylva as the “heartbeat of northern Jackson County” and “the reason we move here and stay here.”
Jackson County Planner Gerald Green added his voice in support of DSA, playing off Kevlin’s heartbeat analogy.
“With a healthy heart the rest of the community can remain strong,” Green said in a flash of inspired speechifying.
Sylva in the past has touched on the possibility of forming a special tax district, where businesses pay a surcharge on their property taxes to support downtown initiatives. The idea was not universally supported by merchants or building owners and was dropped, however. In the absence of a tax district, the DSA relies on money from the town and from voluntary membership dues.
Downtown Sylva Association will no longer ask merchants for membership money, a financial model that has proven unsustainable, according to Julie Sylvester, executive director of Downtown Sylva Association.
The organization hopes to rely more on funding from the town, but this comes at the same time town leaders are poised to cut funding to the organization.
“The DSA has now reached the point where its solvency will be in danger unless the town acts to provide the level of funding the DSA requested of $25,000,” Sylvester said. “Unfortunately, the funding that has been set aside in the town budget for the DSA has fluctuated over the past several years, forcing the DSA to tap into its dwindling reserves to make up the difference.”
Sylvester said the group deserves money from the town’s coffers given its contributions to the community.
“The Downtown Sylva Association provides events that highlight the beauty of downtown Sylva and its community and attract visitors from both the local area, and from surrounding states,” Sylvester said in a written statement. “Without the DSA, the town of Sylva would not have received $100,000 in grants from the State of North Carolina’s Main Street program in the past year alone.” DSA also led a $120,000 fundraising effort to build Bridge Park.
DSA sponsors festivals and concerts that bring visitors downtown to spend money, helping the economy and generating tax revenue. Other DSA events “help us build a strong, family friendly community,” Sylvester said.
“In the past, the DSA received its funding through a combination of fundraisers, sponsorships, membership driven revenue and local government funding. In light of the current economic climate and the fact that only one or two other Main Street programs out of more than 50 operate with a membership based organization, the DSA made the decision to discontinue its local business membership program at the end of this fiscal year,” Sylvester said. “This has put the DSA’s funding in the hands of local government.”
With Jackson County set to take possession next month of the renovated historic courthouse and new library, commissioners agreed it’s high time to get some ground rules in place for their future tenants.
The county wants formalized agreements not only with Fontana Regional Library, but also with three nonprofits promised space in the historic courthouse: the arts council, genealogical society and the historical society, so that there is “a written understanding on how that building would be used,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said, “and no misunderstandings.”
Jackson County has been grappling with how to pay for the extra overhead associated with the new and bigger library, plus the renovated historic courthouse, in this time of budget restraints. Bigger heating and cooling bills, higher liability insurance and more janitors could cost the county an extra $70,000 to $90,000, Wooten estimated previously.
The three community groups offered space in the historic courthouse had not been asked to share in overhead previously.
“Their understanding is there was no expectation on them to compensate the county in anyway for the space they occupied,” Wooten said of discussions he’s had with those groups involved, adding that he’s putting together a usage and utilities reimbursement proposal based on square-footage usage.
Wooten also raised concerns about liability insurance.
Commissioners agreed that Doug Cody, Mark Jones and Wooten would meet with the other parties involved to reach an understanding.
In other library-related news, Wooten said the county would use a moving company to cart the books and other items from the old building to the new library.
Jackson County Schools isn’t asking for extra money this year from county commissioners despite an expected 10 percent or more cut from the state.
What is taking a back seat in these tough economic times, however, are school-board members’ wishes to build a new gymnasium and fine arts building at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva.
“Our school board is ... unanimous in wanting to finish the fine arts building and gymnasium,” Alie Laird-Large told commissioners during a joint workshop this week, adding that she hopes a “conversation at some point” could take place on that plan. A site has already been prepared.
Laird-Large said she and the other school board members would like to get some architectural designs and plans done, if possible. There were no commitments one way or another from commissioners.
What dominated the bulk of conversation during the work session were the possible state cuts to education funding. Gwen Edwards, the schools finance officer, outlined scenarios if what is currently being considered in the state House becomes reality. As she pointed out, the numbers “are changing by the minute,” so getting a fix on the future is proving difficult.
Funding for teachers assistants, textbooks, school buses and more is on the table, Edwards said. She projected the schools could lose $2.3 million under the House proposal. An additional $1.1 million or so in federal funding, temporary dollars, are also going away this year, Edwards said.
“We knew this was going to happen, it’s not like this was a surprise,” she told commissioners, adding the schools still hope to receive the nearly $6.8 million the county gave the system last year. Everything that could be done to reduce costs has taken place, she said, including not filling vacancies.
“(So) we’re not asking for increase — but if we could get the same amount of money we’d be very happy,” Edwards said.
Additionally, the schools are seeking $235,000 in capital outlay funding, for such items as roof and boiler repairs, more security cameras and a phone-system upgrade.
Commission Chairman Jack Debnam suggested another joint work session take place when the actual extent of state cuts becomes known.