Sylva leaders want their Jackson County counterparts to lease, for $1 a year, the old library building to them, citing space needs and a heightened Main Street presence for the town’s police department.
The Sylva library is in the process of moving to a building beside the newly renovated, historic Jackson County courthouse. The grand opening is set for next month. This comes as Sylva’s 15-member police department jockeys for space in 1,000 square feet the town can allot to it. The Sylva Police Department is next to town hall on Allen Street, several blocks from the downtown.
Lack of space “makes it very difficult to investigate cases, interview witnesses and interrogate suspects,” town board member Chris Matheson, a former assistant district attorney, told county commissioners at a meeting this week. “It is imperative at this point we try to find a location for them.”
County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said they’d consider discussing the town’s request during a budget work session next week.
The town has eyed the former public library for a police department at least since the spring of 2009. Then Police Chief Jeff Jamison contacted then County Manager Ken Westmoreland at the town board’s request. Westmoreland told Jamison the county would be willing to sell or lease the building, but didn’t specify the town’s cost for either of those options.
That was then, and this is now: Jamison is gone, Westmoreland is gone, and a new majority of commissioners took control in last November’s election. It’s unclear what they want to do with the old library building, if they even know, at this juncture, themselves.
Matheson characterized the town’s desire for the centrally located building as something of an “equity issue.” She pointed out Sylva shares 50 percent of its ABC revenues with the county. A vast number of cases investigated by the town police involve people who have been drinking alcoholic beverages, Matheson said.
ABC dollars totaled $139,890 this year alone in revenue gains for Jackson County.
“What have we done that makes Sylva want to be so good to us?” Commissioner Joe Coward asked Matheson about the town’s willingness to share the ABC wealth.
The councilmember responded she believes Sylva simply didn’t — at least initially when it agreed to share the wealth — realize how significant the revenue stream would prove. After voters approved the sale of mixed drinks at bars and restaurants in a 2005 referendum, sales at the Sylva ABC store went up more than 40 percent.
This 50-50 split between a town and county is an unusual arrangement, Matheson said, and is mirrored by just five or so other municipalities in North Carolina.
Franklin keeps 100 percent of its ABC revenues; Bryson City keeps 90 percent and specifies the remaining 10 percent go to parks and recreation; Waynesville keeps 64 percent and gives 18 percent to the schools, and the remaining 18 percent is funneled into Haywood County’s general fund.
Matheson, drawing on her legal skills to weave a persuasive sticky web commissioners might find difficulty disentangling from, continued gently but firmly pressing for the coveted downtown space. She pointed out that Sylva officials were kind enough to rent to Jackson County a town-owned building for use as a senior-citizen facility — $1 a year for 15 years, and before that, for free. And, additionally, the town provided a building to house the chamber of commerce — again, Matheson noted, free of cost to the county.
What the town offers in return for the old library building, Matheson said in summation during her closing argument, is an opportunity to protect and serve all the residents of Jackson County who come, in large part, to conduct the county’s business in Sylva. And that could best happen if the space-crunched police department is in the old library; for, she said, a nominal fee a year accompanied by a long-term lease consisting of at least 25 years. And the town will even pay for renovations and repairs, which she estimated could total $150,000, Matheson said, adding a possible enticing carrot.
County commissioners thanked the town board member for her presentation, but did not commit one way or another to her request.
Carl Iobst, a regular member of the public at county meetings, told commissioners during the public-comment session that he wants the town to reimburse the county “a fair and reasonable amount” for the building, saying in these fiscally trying times, $1 a year is too little an amount for such a prize.