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Swain County is outsourcing medical care for inmates at the county jail to an independent firm that specializes in the niche field of health care for prisoners, and move the county hopes could save several thousand dollars a year.

The county currently spends between $105,000 and $150,000 on health care for its inmates each year. The new contract with Southern Health Partners could mean a savings of $20,000 annually.

The fate of state-subsidized preschool for at-risk, low-income 4-year-olds rests in the hands of the next General Assembly. The state currently does not provide enough funding to serve the estimated 67,000 children who meet the definition of at-risk.

This year, a 20 percent budget cut to NC Pre-K (formerly known as More at Four) further reduced capacity of the program — which currently serves only 26,000 children — and has lengthened waiting lists.

coverArmed with a stack of folded construction paper, Charlotte Rogers ushered a four-year-old child to sit down at a pint-sized writing desk, take up a pencil and scratch out the words “I love you” in crooked letters on the inside.

fr electionmoneyCounties in North Carolina are being forced to shoulder the burden of electronic voting machines alone after the General Assembly turned down federal aid that would have greatly offset the costs.

Maggie Valley’s mayor and Board of Alderman voted quickly Monday to cut the tax rate by three cents and approve an amended version of the town’s budget — even though one alderman said she was not privy to the last minute budget changes.

The Maggie Valley Police Department will see minimal cuts to its new budget despite multiple discussions about whether the small valley has more officers than it needs.

The budget was cut by $55,000 to $854,000. The town will postpone replacing two police cars.

Suppose this was your household budget:

• Annual family income………………....$23,400

• Money family spends annually….....$35,900

• New debt added to credit cards……$12,500

• Outstanding credit card balance ..$154,000

• Total cuts to family budget………….......$385

Looks like the budget from hell, right? This household with its skyrocketing debt stands precariously on the brink of bad credit, bankruptcy, and ruin.

Now add 8 zeros to all of the above numbers, and you have the current U.S. federal budget (World Magazine, May 19, 2012).

Or shall we say the current financial situation of the United States. You see, we Americans haven’t seen a real budget, balanced or otherwise, in years. The Republican House under Paul Ryan recently proposed a plan that would balance the budget by 2040. The Senate shot down that plan, but offered nothing in its stead. In fact, the Democratic Senate hasn’t offered a real budget in four years. This spring President Obama sent his own recommended budget to the Congress, where in March the House defeated it 414-0. Last week the Senate followed suit by a vote of 99-0. Congress apparently found a few flaws in the president’s proposals.

Both Congress and the president have drawn up other plans for fixing the deficit. Some of our elected officials have called for raising taxes on the wealthy. This sounds like a good idea because the truly wealthy possess so much more money than the rest of us, and they probably don’t deserve it, and anyway, we need it more than they do. So goes the reasoning of some of our citizenry. But eventually we realize that the amount so raised amounts to only a pittance of the debt we owe and such an increase will result in a shift of capital overseas, leading to even less wealth and fewer jobs here at home. (If we are honest, we might also tell ourselves that some talented people have worked hard for their money and that we are thieves to steal it away).

Others call for making cuts to the budget. Some want to reduce miliatary spending and foreign aid. Why, after all, should the United States give $2 billion to Egypt again this year? Why can’t something be done about our wasteful military? Some want to cut or change social programs. Why do we require a Department of Education for the nation when every state in the union already has such a department?

Here the legislators who wish to cut programs face different obstacles than the tax advocates. They are met on one side by political opponents who decry their lack of compassion for the poor and the elderly, and on the other side by lobbyists who are all for cuts as long as they aren’t aimed at those who employ them. Try extending the age of eligibility for Social Security, and you’ll have the American Association of Retired Persons slicing you into small pieces. Propose reducing military benefits or closing overseas military bases — we have hundreds of them — and the lobbyists will take you apart.

Meanwhile, the rest of us watch, enraged at the failure of politicians to find a cure, cursing their knavery and greed. We blame them for our economic woes, for the loss of our AAA credit rating, for a federal government drunken on dollars and corrupted by power. We regard these leaders as fools, rogues, and thieves, and many of them indeed fit those descriptions.  

Yet surely some of the fault lies with us. We vote these people into office; we demand they protect us from the natural ills and woes of life; we want what we want without regard to the cost. We don’t want to pay taxes and certainly don’t want to pay more taxes, yet we want food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, “free” medical care, clean air along with plenty of oil. In 2008, a radio commentator reading children’s letters to candidate-elect Obama best summed up our expectations with this line from a seven-year-old: “President Obama, please make it rain candy.” For decades we have enjoyed that rain of candy. Now the rot of that sugar is destroying us.

Some historians point to Ancient Rome as a warning for us, that crumbling empire with its bread and circuses for the poor, its failed price and wage controls, its unwieldy taxes. But we needn’t stare 1,500 years into the past to see what’s coming. We have only to look across the Atlantic at present-day Greece, Spain, and Italy, all of which are falling apart from the same construct we have erected here: burgeoning social programs, uncontrolled spending, and massive debt. We can look closer to home at California, which while being crushed by enormous debt staggers toward bankruptcy by enacting more government programs.

“Money talks, b***s**t walks,” so the saying goes. We can buy into the lies of some politicians, and we can lie to ourselves, but in the end the figures and the money don’t lie. There’s a bill coming due, and when it arrives, our arguments about taxes and government services won‘t matter. There won’t be enough of us left to tax, wealthy or otherwise, and there will be no more social programs.

It’s time for us to ask every politician, from our mayor to our president, from our senators in Raleigh to those in Washington, what they intend to cut from the budget and how they intend to make government more efficient. If they aren‘t up to the task, then it’s time to elect women and men with long knives, axes, and swing blades, courageous men and women who can chop away at the kudzu of ridiculous regulations, excessive spending, and out-of-control programs. As for the rest of us, we can either pitch tantrums like a three year old when these cuts are made, or we can suck it up and act like grown-ups.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher who lives in Asheville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Rising health care costs were the catalyst for two budget decisions by Haywood County commissioners, one that will hopefully save taxpayer money and the other a stopgap measure to keep up with employee health insurance.

Commissioners were forced this week to pay an additional $150,000 into the health insurance fund for retired employees who are under 65 — twice what was budgeted.

Commissioners seemed surprised over the increase.

“Should we be concerned about this?” asked Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick. “We have a liability, and it is going up. It is more than twice the budgeted amount.”

The rise is due mostly to an increase in the number of retired workers under 65. When the county down-sized its work force during the recession, it offered early retirement options to workers under 65, and so the number of former employees in this category has now risen. The county only pays a portion of the health insurance for employees who retire before 65.

Stamey said the cost for retired employee health insurance would almost certainly continue to rise, however. The county also had to pay an additional $27,000 into the fund for employees over 65.

He hopes switching to almost exclusively generic drugs — unless a brand name is prescribed for medical reasons — could provide huge savings and is working on implementing that change.

Commissioners also voted unanimously to enter into a contract with Southern Health Partners to provide medical care for inmates at the county jail.

This fiscal year, the county will spend an estimated $230,000 on medical care for inmates, from dental work to prescription meds to doctor’s check-ups. By contracting out the lion’s share of inmate health care to a private firm, the county hopes to knock about $25,000 off its costs.

The contract with SHP is $134,888 a year but doesn’t cover everything. In addition to doctor and nurse visits, it only covers the first $30,000 in hospital visits, pharmaceuticals and specialist care. After that amount runs out, the county will be on the hook for whatever additional costs are incurred in those areas.

In addition to the contract with SHP, the county is budgeting another $70,000 for inmate medical care.

Commissioners still hope the contract can save a few dollars.

Haywood’s detention facility averages about 75 inmates a night, and the county is legally obligated to provide medical care for inmates under its watch.

While the coming year’s projected savings are modest, commissioners say the contract should help.

“We all hope this will reduce inmate healthcare costs and provide a solution to overall rising costs,” said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger.

— By Scott McLeod

During budget discussions earlier this year, Haywood County commissioners were adamant about their commitment to give county employees a boost after three years of no raises and frozen retirement contributions.

Commissioners stayed true to their word, based on a proposed budget released this week. The county will partially restore a 401K match, contributing 1 percent of employees’ salaries. The county won’t be giving across the board cost-of-living raises, but will give merit raises to some staff of up to 2 percent. The 401K match for some 500 county employees will cost $195,000.

This will be accomplished without raising taxes. The county’s budget has modest natural growth in revenue of $1.3 million — thanks to construction that’s added to the property tax base and an uptick in consumer buying, which means more sales tax.

The total overall budget is nearly $66.6 million. It is still down by more than $1 million compared to 2007-08, meaning the economy is slowly bouncing back but still is shy of pre-recession numbers.

The 1 percent 401K contribution is a far cry from the 5.5 percent match the county did during the 2008 fiscal year. When the economy went sour, it temporarily stopped contributions to save money.

“We are trying to phase it back,” Stamey said.

Something new this year is a one-time extra bonus for law enforcement officials. Officers will receive a bonus check, equivalent to one percent of their salary, on the anniversary of their hire date. The total cost will be about $38,000.

Haywood County commissioners have increased funding to the county school system this year for the first time in four years, but with cuts in state and federal funding, the boost from the county won’t be enough to help plug the schools’ budget hole.

The county is chipping in an extra $350,000 toward in the operating budget for Haywood County’s elementary, middle and high schools.

But, the school system will see an almost $400,000 cut in state money, the loss of $1.7 million in emergency federal funding extended to schools during the recession, and a reduction in lottery money for building maintenance and construction, said Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte.

“We are starting a couple million in the hole,” Nolte said, adding that schools are grateful for the money from the county.

Haywood County schools will receive $14.3 million next year for operating expenses and $256,000 for capital projects. The county slashed the capital budget for school maintenance four years ago by two-thirds, and has yet to restore it. Schools have a troubling backlog of repairs as a result.

The school system presented a nearly $900,000 wish list for capital projects, listing several critical items including a new school bus and roof repairs at its meeting with commissioners more than a week ago.

Instead, commissioners decided to direct their increase in school funding to operational costs for the schools.

“You will see a little bump,” said County Manager Marty Stamey. “I wish we could do more at this time.”

The increase is designed to get the county back on track with a funding formula that had fallen by the wayside during the recession.

“We were able to go by the formula until the economy went over the cliff,” said Board Chairman Mark Swanger.

About eight years ago, the county brokered a deal with the school system designed to curb what had become an annual fight over how much money the county would pony up.

“It seemed like there was always a fight,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, adding that talks are more agreeable since both parties approved the formula.

Under the deal, the county would use a formula based on student population to determine school funding each year. The formula also built in a 1 percent increase year to year. But, it has been frozen for the past four years.

As the economic prospects have started looking a bit sunnier, officials were grateful for the help from commissioners.

“We would be pleased to be back on the formula,” Nolte said. “The economy is still not recovered so if they have the revenue to put us back on the formula negotiated several years ago, we would view that as very positive and be every thankful for that.”

Unlike the county school system, Haywood Community College did not ask commissioners to increase its operating budget this year but requested that the board would allocate any additional funding to capital projects, such as road repairs and building renovations.

HCC presented the board with more than $2.6 million worth of capital projects at a recent budget meeting on its ultimate wish list, but only asked for $500,000.

“They commented that they knew that that could not be funded, but they wanted to make use aware of what those needs are,” Swanger said.

In the proposed budget, the county will allocate $176,000 to HCC’s capital projects — an increase of $56,000.

Besides the schools, other department’s budgets remained relatively on par with this year’s numbers.

(Reporter Becky Johnson contributed to this story.)

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