Sylva might hear its local AM radio station WRGC back on the air — but the company involved wants a loan of $289,000 from Jackson County’s economic development fund to make it happen.

Roy Burnette, the CEO of the hopefully formed, embryonic 540 Broadcasting Co., said that he wants the future WRGC to intensely pursue the local part of local radio. But having said that, the geographic designation of “local” for WRGC would change, Burnette said.

Burnette wants to expand the range of WRGC allowing 540 Broadcasting to reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County — if he is able to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission for the extra power. The future WRGC would broadcast at 5,000 watts. Asked to explain the expansion of the Sylva-based radio station for the not-so-technical minded potential radio listener, Burnette suggested one mentally compare the light received from a 1,000-watt light bulb to a 5,000-watt light bulb.

“We want to offer in-depth service to Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood,” said Burnette on his plans for extensive regional radio reach.

Burnette has been in regional radio for years, including stints in Bryson City and Sylva. Additionally, he worked as a radio instructor for Southwestern Community College.

The Sylva radio station went dead in late August, a victim of dwindling advertising revenue dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. If no one buys it and claims the frequency within a year, the license for that frequency would be lost.

It’s the expansion possibility, which promises a wider net of potential advertisers, that’s attracting notice at the county level.

“The 5,000-watt license is the big interest since the signal area would be substantially greater than current coverage area,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

And that, Wooten added, would “provide an opportunity to generate significantly more advertising revenue.”

Regional radio personality and Sylva resident Gary Ayers earlier had expressed interest in buying WRGC. Ayers retreated from the idea after he said local advertising interest seemed tepid.

“I talked to the owners the other day and said if this guy can make it go, then great,” Ayers said Monday. “If not, then let me know and let’s talk again.”

Art Sutton of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. declined to comment for now on the evolving deal.

Ayers said the most important point to him is that Sylva regains a local radio station.

“We are going to put a huge focus on community-based programming,” Burnette said.

Burnette said he hopes to have WRGC on the air by Dec. 10.

 

What price local radio?

540 Broadcasting Co. submitted a request for a $289,000 loan from Jackson County. Of that, $250,000 would be used to purchase the radio license from current owner Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., and $39,000 would be used to acquire equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. 540 Broadcasting would provide an additional $100,000 in working capital. Payments on the county loan would be deferred until May 2012, and then be paid over ten years (40 quarterly payments) at an interest rate of 2 percent. Jimmy Childress (WRGC’s founder) would rent 540 Broadcasting the building, equipment and property where tower is located; collateral for the loan would be the radio license and equipment.

A public hearing on the loan will be held Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. at the county’s boardroom. Commissioners are scheduled to meet that same day at 2:15 p.m. to consider the request.

Source: Jackson County

Bryson City leaders will turn to residents to help solve their own disagreements over the severity of proposed appearance standards for new development downtown.

Town leaders will host a public hearing on the ordinance, which would stipulate aesthetic standards such as architecture, building materials and landscaping, for the town. A majority of the regulations, however, apply only to the downtown area.

Bryson City does not have any guidelines for new commercial or residential buildings downtown — it’s anything goes right now. But the town began looking at adopting some standards after a building that clashed with the town’s quaint appearance served as a wake-up call.

The planning board spent three years drafting proposed regulations, but when they were presented to the town aldermen, they didn’t get a particularly warm welcome. Mayor Brad Walker believes the public does want them, however.

“There are a lot of people fighting for this,” Walker said. “I haven’t heard any negativity (about the standards) except from the board.”

The board of alderman, which have final say over whether the ordinance is passed, decided to hold a hearing to gauge public sentiment.

Alderman Jim Gribble said that the town does need some standards but described the proposed guidelines as “pretty restrictive” and “over and above what I would desire.”

Aldermen Kate Welch and Tom Reidmiller declined to comment on the standards until after the public hearing. Alderman Stephanie Treadway did not return calls for comment.

People began lobbying for some official appearance or building standards, in part, because of a tan metal structure erected on Main Street in 2006.

“We don’t have that much land anymore, and we have to take care of our land,” said Walker.

At the time, residents and business owners expressed their dislike for the building, saying it clashed with the character of Bryson City’s historic downtown.

But, landowner Tom Hurley was well within his right to build it, Walker said.

“We didn’t have any ordinances to stop that,” he said. “We decided that we didn’t want that to happen anymore.”

For a while, local shopkeepers and the Chamber of Commerce have worried that new businesses would not fall in line with the unofficial standards of the town, said Karen Proctor Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce.

“We do feel that it is important” to have standards in place, she said. “The code was kind of designed around what the town already looks like.”

The town’s Main Street is characterized by its brick façades and small local shops. Without any regulations, property owners could install large, obtrusive signs or paint their buildings neon green.

“It’s probably a good thing to have some sort of codes to regulate,” said Town Manager Larry Callicutt. The standards are “not real restrictive,” he said.

The planning board has worked on the land use regulations for about three years.

The standards are similar to those of other town’s, Walker said.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

Town leaders are waiting to hear feedback from residents and business owners before making any possible changes.

“They should be the ones having most of the input,” Callicutt said, adding that there is nothing in the ordinance that would prevent the town from passing some version of it.

 

Want to weigh in?

What: Public hearing about proposed Bryson City land use standards

When: Nov. 21 at 6 p.m.

Where: Swain County administration building.

 

What the proposed standards say

Although most town leaders agree Bryson City needs guidelines to regulate the appearance of new commercial development, they cannot agree on whether the proposed standards are too strict.

Here are some highlights of the 27-page draft under consideration:

• Builders are prohibited from using synthetic stucco, preformed metal siding, vinyl siding, artificial brick and exposed or painted concrete blocks.

• At least 75 percent of a storefront’s façade should be glass windows and/or door. The windows must be at least 10 feet tall and no more than three feet above the sidewalk.

• A building’s main entrance should face the adjacent street.

• Sidewalks shall have an at least five foot “clear zone.” Light poles, bicycle parking, trash cans, plants and benches are permitted between the clear zone and the curb.

• Mobile homes or trailer parks are not permitted in the central business district, but public institutions and commercial or industrial businesses may be allowed in the area pending review by the board of alderman.

• Buildings in the central business district may have a front porch, stoop or awning with a minimum depth of eight feet, a balcony with a minimum depth of six feet or a bay window with a minimum depth of four feet.

Though perhaps it’s not exactly the moveable feast Ernest Hemingway discovered in the cafés of Paris, the ambiance of The Coffee Shop in Sylva suits local writer Dawn Gilchrist-Young just fine.

It is here, in this 84-year-old, family owned, down-home restaurant strategically positioned near Sylva’s paper plant, Jackson Paper Manufacturing, that the Swain County native writes much of her work. One short story is now garnering national attention. “The Tender Branch” is this year’s winner of the High School Teachers Writing Award from the Norman Mailer Center.

Each morning, for two or so hours, The Coffee Shop customers such as Teresa Coward would notice the slim, studious-looking woman in one of the café’s bright orange-plastic booths, drinking cups of coffee with cream. A cup of coffee costs $1.25 at The Coffee Shop, including a refill; a side of apple, cherry, coconut, lemon or chocolate pie adds $2.50 to the tab.

“It’s home here,” says Coward, nodding in ready understanding as to why a writer would choose The Coffee Shop over some of the town’s more uptown, upscale café options.  

Gilchrist-Young, caffeine satiated, would move on to write until noon at the public library. She didn’t want to command a table in the small café for too much time each day, inconveniencing owner Phyllis Gibson or waitresses such as Chessa Hoyle, livelihood-dependent on collecting the quarter and dollar tips left by appreciative, but working-class, customers.

This café is no stranger to Western North Carolina’s literati, at least the homegrown kind. Hoyle serves Sylva writer Gary Carden everyday. The late John Parris, of the “Roaming the Mountains” Asheville Citizen-Times column fame, was a regular here, too.

 

The award

These days Gilchrist-Young calls the Village of Forest Hills in Cullowhee home. She lives there with her stonemason husband, Eric. Their daughter, Aaron, is attending Warren Wilson College.

The Norman Mailer award will put this unassuming writer, who has worked as an English teacher at Swain County High School for 14 years, on stage with former President Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and Tina Brown, Newsweek’s editor in chief; and conceivably even Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones fame. Like Gilchrist-Young, Richards is a recipient of a Norman Mailer Center award, in his case for his recent book, Life.

Gilchrist-Young and the other Norman Mailer award winners will be at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City on Nov. 8. Additionally, she won $10,000 and a month next summer at the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony in Provincetown, Mass.

Gilchrist-Young is a meticulous craftsperson. Her story was one of but two written a couple summers ago. Each story required two months to complete, the length basically of this schoolteacher’s annual summer break.

“The Tender Branch” delivers on the tenderness promised in the title. But the story is equally rich in the horrors attendant for women immersed in domestic violence. That violence is presented here simply as True Fact: the story seems to say, ‘You see, this is how many women live, but that is not the whole of them.’

Gilchrist-Young’s story is set in Haywood County: Canton, to be exact.

“My grandma was mean, but I’m not mean like her, just vengeful like her, vengeful like a cat you’ve left locked in the house all day and thinking everything is fine until you come home and there’s a pile of shit right on your pillow,” her character says in a moment of raw self description.

 

Giving back

Gilchrist-Young writes only in the summer. The remainder of her time is spent — and this is not purple prose, not hyperbole, but simple conveyance of more True Fact — giving of her talents and herself to the kids attending Swain County High School. She was once given a year’s sabbatical from Swain to teach at Western Carolina University, a 12-month gift, she says, from then Swain Principal Janet Clapsaddle and the local school board. They wanted this talented woman to find herself, to assess whether she’d be happiest teaching at the university level, or returning once again to Swain’s classrooms.

Gilchrist-Young opted for the latter, deciding that the high school needed her, the college did not; she notes this must mean she needs to be needed.

So Gilchrist-Young, each school day, walks into Swain County High School. And by her simple presence demonstrates that a homebred girl, who would marry at 18 and who was raised in a singlewide trailer in the Euchella community with four brothers and sisters by working-class parents, Wretha and Robert Gilchrist, is at the same time a sophisticated, highly educated woman. Her resume includes Columbia University and an MFA from Warren Wilson. And, of course, and maybe this is the most important True Fact about Gilchrist-Young, is a living, breathing, in-the-flesh writer the kids can talk to each day.

One’s upbringing is a part, not the whole; it is through parts, however, that we create a whole — that is Gilchrist-Young’s message to her students and one seemingly delivered through her writings.

“This is a Southern Appalachian woman,” Gilchrist-Young says of herself, an exclamation point on a conversation that includes discussions about stereotyping of mountain people, the suffocation of being dubbed a “regional” writer, and the equally True Fact that Swain County and other local school systems were (often but not always perhaps for everyone) truly wonderful places for aspiring writers, artists and musicians to find themselves growing up.

 

A work ethic

Finding the energy to both teach high school English and write is clearly a family hand-me-down, “the Gilchrist work ethic” personified, as husband Eric Young describes it.

Her father, now in his mid-70s, gets up at 4 a.m. and does masonry until his body gives out, sometime in the afternoon or evening.

“If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t feel like he’s living,” Gilchrist-Young says.

Her mother stayed home with the children, three girls and two boys, plus worked some in local factories and in the school’s cafeteria.

When the couple built a room onto their trailer, her father added bookshelves on either side of the fireplace. He and wife Wretha ordered a set of “The World’s 100 Greatest Classics” to fill the shelves. This was, for the most part, a family of readers.

“We were surrounded by these great writers,” Gilchrist-Young says. “Dostoevsky, Austen.”

The young girl would select books based on her attraction to the titles. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” she found offensive; “Sense and Sensibility,” on the other hand, had an attractive alliteration, and she discovered through that simple siren song the world of Jane Austen.

Her father, a Zane Grey zealot, passed his love for Grey’s Westerns and adventure stories on to his daughter, and “Riders of the Purple Sage” would become, as would her mother’s Ellery Queen mysteries, future literary touchstones.   

There were nightly Bible readings. The sonorous prose of the King James version of the Bible became yet another touchstone for Gilchrist-Young. It would influence her writing ear as it has so many others. More deeply imbedded than even her parent’s love for literature — and the Bible, which in that household was not literature but True Fact — was the Gilchrist code, which goes something like this:

“There is an authority that is higher than law, and a goodness that is more important than anything else.”

Less than two weeks after the Bryson City Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to fire Fire Chief Joey Hughes, state officials searched his home as part of an ongoing investigation into whether he misdirected funds.

Investigators with the North Carolina Department of Insurance and State Bureau of Investigation seized paperwork, two computers and a collection of checks, stamps and envelopes from the Hughes’ home on Hyatt Creek Road in Bryson City earlier this month.

The town has since named a new fire chief, Brent Arvey.

Hughes is under investigation for misusing money donated to the fire department’s fundraising arm. Suspicion around Hughes’ actions arose after he repeatedly ignored requests from town officials to see the financial records after being tipped off to problems by a whistleblower within the department.

Records reveal that:

• Money collected during fundraising drives went unaccounted for and otherwise disappeared from the books.

• The fundraising arm did not have a board of directors. A sham board existed only on paper.

• Hughes singly acted as treasurer of the fundraising accounts and denied repeated requests from volunteer firemen during the years to share financial information.

The following is an account, taken from three search warrants, of the town’s mounting suspicions and the subsequent investigation into Hughes’ off-the-books accounts.

May 14

Town officials were tipped off by a whistleblower that Hughes might be misappropriating donations to the fire department. A former volunteer firefighter, Mitch Cooper, who had left the fire department in June 2010, came forward with concerns and was interviewed by Assistant Police Chief Greg Jones.

“Cooper stated concerns that donated funds, as well as other monies obtained by the fire department were not being maintained, accounted for, or properly used as intended,” according to a sworn statement from Jones.

The former fireman also said monthly financial reports were not being given to members of the fire department, as required, and the documents were not available upon request either.

Jones then followed up with the former fire department treasurer Teddy Petersen, who said he stopped handling the finances after Hughes transferred all the funds to a different bank. During that time, Hughes and local town officials had a dispute over how the fire department was run.

According to state law, all funds given to the fire department, including donations and money from fundraisers, are supposed to be kept by the town. However, Hughes refused to provide the town with the department’s financial records, according to Jones’ statement.

June 9

Town Attorney Fred Moody submitted a written request to Hughes asking him to provide the town Board of Aldermen with seven years of financial records from the Bryson City Fire Department and its local relief fund, the fundraising arm for the fire department. Donations were funneled into one of two accounts: “Friends of Firemen” or “Bryson City Volunteer Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary.”

June 13

Hughes replied to the town, saying the fire department had not had a bank account since Jan. 1, 2000. His letter conflicted with reports filed with the N.C. Fireman’s Association over the past decade, which listed Hughes as the treasurer. The reports stated that donations to the local relief fund were invested in a money market account, although failed to list an account number.

July 15

Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker asked Police Chief Rick Tabor to look into the Bryson City Volunteer Fire Department’s accounts. Walker said citizen had inquired about the run down fire department and their donations.

August 19

Police seized bank records, including statements, signature cards and canceled checks, associated with the accounts “Friends of Firemen” and “Ladies Auxiliary.”

During his investigation, Jones found several checks written to the fire department had been deposited into these bank accounts without the town’s knowledge or proper accounting.

“This account is being used to secret fire department funds from the eyes of the Town Alderman and or the public,” Jones reported.

Jones also found that only Cylena Hughes, the fire chief’s wife, was able to access the “Ladies Auxiliary” account. Wendy Peterson, Heather Wiggins, Cylena or Hughes could sign for a separate “Friends of the Firemen” account that had recently existed at United Community Bank.

September 23

The town board unanimously votes to fire Hughes.

September 26

The district attorney’s office asked the State Bureau of Investigation to assist in the investigation.

September 29

As part of the investigation, Tom Ammons, an official with the State Bureau of Investigation, interviewed current and former Bryson City volunteer firemen.

Wayne Henry Dover, a volunteer firefighter for 17 years, told Ammons that after he was named to the department’s executive board in 2010, other firemen approached him with questions about financial records and where the department’s money was spent. When Dover brought their questions to the Hughes, he was told that everything was under control and he did not need to see the records.

About one year ago, Hughes informed the board that both of the accounts were closed. Then, in August when Dover asked to review the bank statements, Hughes gave the department’s executive board handwritten notes about the accounts.

Dover also stated that Hughes lied when he said the department had only raised $600 during Fireman’s Day in October 2010.

David Zalva, a member of the department since 2008, helped count the funds raised on Fireman’s Day. The fire department had collected about $4,800, said Zalva in an interview with Ammons.

According to Ammons’ statement, Cooper also inquired about the department’s finances and received only fabricated pieces of paper stating what was spent and how much money was left, according to his interview.

Most of the firemen interviewed said they did not know the Bryson City Fire Department had a relief fund.

However, Douglas Woodard, a volunteer firefighter since 1998, said Hughes led a strike over the account eight or nine years ago.

As of 2002, Hughes was listed as treasurer of the Relief Fund Board, according to annual reports filed with the State Fireman’s Association. Charles Killebrew was listed as chairman of the board.

Killebrew told Chet Effler, an investigator with the State Department of Insurance, that Hughes asked him to serve on the board. Killebrew stated that he never attended any meetings for the board, however, nor saw any annual reports or ever acted as chairman.

“Before the strike, bank statements could be seen, and Ed Watson was the treasurer,” according to Ammons’ statement. “After the strike, account information was never submitted to the membership for review. There was no treasurer.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park might finally get a place to store its sizeable cache of historical artifacts, but it almost certainly won’t be in Swain County.

Earlier this year, when the park broke the news about what it’s calling a curatorial collections facility to be built in Townsend, Tenn., Swain County residents were unimpressed.

They packed a Swain County commissioners meeting to vent their spleen, asking why such a trove of historical treasures weren’t going to be located in the county that claims the lion’s share of the parkland.

“Was any consideration given to the fact that Swain County gave more land and our people were given more broken promises than any other county in the park?” Linda Hogue wondered rhetorically. She and others asked commissioners to pitch Swain County as a better location for the place. They pointed out that Swain residents, when displaced by the park’s creation, donated many of the artifacts that would be housed in such a facility and wanted them to be housed locally rather than in Tennessee.

“I’m weary and I’m sure you are, too, of singing a same song, different verse. I’m asking you to go to bat for us. We have land right here close to Bryson City for such a facility,” said Hogue.

Park brass, however, have said that a venue change is unlikely, especially since Swain County already has the park’s only cultural museum at the newly christened Oconaluftee Visitors’ Center at the Smokies’ main North Carolina entrance outside Cherokee.

That, said Swain County Manager Kevin King, is a misconception that has been circling around the project since its announcement. And indeed, many who voiced opposition to a Tennessee location cited the economic benefits of having an added visitor attraction in the county.

But even if the center were located in Swain County, the artifacts in question wouldn’t be set up for public viewing anyway, said Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson in a letter to commissioners.

“What is proposed is a storage facility not a museum,” said Ditmanson, in the letter.

Currently, the Native American spear points, logging equipment, farm implements, period clothes, weaving looms, moonshine stills and various other relics from the area’s pre-park days are scattered around. Most live in a hard-to-reach facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The new facility would bring them together and provide a safer home that would keep them in better shape for longer, and avoid paying rent on a place to house them in off-site.

The real reason the storage house is staying in Tennessee, however, is financial. The park is partnering with four other national parks in that state to split the costs and the space, and a donation of 1.6 acres has already been made for the facility’s footprint. Plus, money was allocated in 2009 and 2010 to build a facility in Tennessee.

“This would be really convenient for us to be able to operate and manage and work with the other parks,” said Nancy Gray, a spokesperson from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s public affairs arm. “It would benefit everybody to get all of the artifacts into a central location.”

King agreed, saying that if and when Swain County gets a museum up and running in the historic courthouse — as is on the long-term to-do list for the county — getting some items on loan from the park would be a lot easier, were they in one locale.

Still, said Hogue, having the county’s historical assets in Tennessee is a travesty in the first place.

“A facility of this type would mean so much more to our people than just a building with old things cataloged in it,” said Hogue. “I have talked with many elderly Swain County citizens and they relayed to me that they had donated items to the park with the assurance that they would remain in Swain County.”

The park is still awaiting federal funds for construction, and it was missed out in this year’s allocation. So central storage is still a good few years away. But when it comes, Swain County probably won’t be its final destination.

Bryson City has a new fire chief, after a police investigation spurred the ouster of long-term fire chief Joey Hughes last month.

Brent Arvey has been named as the new department head, replacing Erwin Winchester, the Swain County fire marshal who stepped in to temporarily fill the post after Hughes was fired.

Arvey is an 11-year veteran of the Bryson City Fire Department and rises to the top position from the post of 1st assistant chief, the second in command.

Though the department now has a leader at its helm, the controversy surrounding it has not subsided.

The Bryson City Police Department began an investigation into the firehouse and its finances in August, and preliminary results led the town board to fire Hughes as they continued to sort out the details.

The probe has now been turned over to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, which will work with the district attorney’s office in the county to see if charges need to be filed.

“Due to the number of questions that were found, that’s why the SBI was called in to do this,” said Assistant Police Chief Greg Jones, who has led the investigation. “I thought we had enough discrepancies to call the district attorney and bring in the SBI.”

Not only was the investigation uncovering more questions, it was also becoming too unwieldy for Jones and the small, seven-member police department to manage on its own, while trying to simultaneously juggle regular patrols as well.

The only documents currently filed in the case are two search warrants for the fire department’s Friends of the Firemen and Ladies’ Auxiliary bank accounts. Though it would seem likely that these two accounts would take charitable donations on behalf of the department, neither is legally equipped to do so, lacking a 501-c3 designation that allows tax-deductible charitable donations.

It’s unclear what, exactly, is in the accounts and who controls them. As a town fire department, all money that comes in — even fundraiser returns and charitable donations — are supposed to come to the town for audit and allocation. But these two accounts, said Town Manager Larry Callicutt, have never been controlled by the town.

The battle between fire department and town did not start with this investigation. In June of last year, the town board voted to take a GMC Yukon away from the department, citing allegations that it was being put to improper, non-department use.

Then-chief Hughes maintained that he’d never been approached by the board concerning the truck, and said to the board and on the fire department’s Facebook page that it was used as a first responder vehicle.

Later in the year, a firefighter told the Smoky Mountain Times that he resigned his post in protest of the way the department’s finances were handled.

The county also got into a spat with the fire department over what it was paying for fire services.

Last week, the firehouse on Main Street was shuttered while local and state investigators inventoried and audited the equipment there. With that phase finished, the inquiry by the SBI continues, with no word yet on whether charges are forthcoming.

Food stamps and food pantry vouchers are finding their way into the farmers markets in Jackson and Swain counties, putting local produce into hands of the needy who are often quick to cut healthy, but more expensive, fresh fruits and veggies from their diets and budgets.

The Bryson City Food Pantry is in its second year of a program called Farm to Family, handing out $5 vouchers to the weekly Swain County Farmers Market. The initiative started with a surplus of funds that the food pantry needed to spend.

Because the pantry’s premises are pretty tight, it had never been able to offer produce before. There was no refrigeration for it.

So when the idea was floated that the money be put toward the farmers market, it seemed perfect.

“I mean, we could have given them vouchers to go to the grocery store and find produce,” said Renee Mulligan, who helped start the program, “but we wanted to support the local farmers.”

Mulligan now works for Cherokee Choices, a health program with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, but she used to be a cooperative extension agent, where she helped get the idea going.

For families who visit the food pantry, what they’re getting is dry or canned goods and many can’t afford to buy fresh produce.

“For health and disease prevention, it’s extremely important, but it’s also a matter of access in rural areas,” said Mulligan. “It’s important for them to have access to fruits and vegetables in a way that’s convenient.”

With that in mind, the food pantry gives out the vouchers on Friday, the same morning that the farmers market is open just down the street next to the old courthouse.

There, under a smattering of canopies, farmers and crafters set up to peddle their products each Friday in season.

Don and Belinda Carringer said that they’ve been pretty pleased with the new customers they’ve gotten through the program. They sell produce at markets in both Swain and Macon counties.

“We love the program because it’s great for us and it’s great for them, they get fresh produce,” said Don Carringer.

The vouchers are only good for fruits and vegetables, not fish, meat or other market wares like crafts.

Carringer said his patrons with vouchers seemed happy to be able to get their farm-fresh produce, and Belinda said that she often provides recipes to voucher customers, giving them ideas on using what they’ve just bought.

That’s another problem that’s plaguing the country’s low-income families.

“People who aren’t used to having those kinds of things in their diets might not know what to do with those or how to prepare them,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of the Community Table in Sylva.

Her organization has a garden worked by volunteers who give a third of its bounty to the Community Table, which shares the yields with clients who come to them in need of food.

Now, they’re also taking donations from the Jackson County Farmers Market, where vendors can deposit their unsold produce that might otherwise be on the compost pile at the end of a selling day.

The Community Table is working the fresh food into the hot meals it serves, as well as packing it in the boxes sent home with locals strapped for food.

Grimes said she’s seen an increase in interest from her clients in the produce, and in learning how to prepare and serve it.

She hopes that by next year, she’ll have classes running to teach those skills.

Whether it was on the old-school food pyramid or its more modern, streamlined offspring the food plate, we’ve learned since childhood that fruits and veggies are foundational for a healthy diet.

The plates of the needy, however, are far less likely to play host to leafy greens and other garden bounty.

Earlier this year, the USDA released a study that proved what community workers like Grimes have seen firsthand: the closer a family comes to the poverty line, the less they spend on fruit and vegetables.

Americans who make 300 percent more than the federal poverty level — that’s around $66,000 for a family of four — will spend about 50 percent more on fresh produce than families at or just above the poverty line.

“It’s stuff that’s pretty expensive to buy in the store,” said Grimes. “I mean, avocados are two for $5 now.”

Besides what it’s sending to the Community Table, the Jackson County Farmers Market is also opening another option to people who perhaps couldn’t ordinarily afford its local, organic fare.

After a multi-year effort, the Jackson market will soon be able to accept food stamps. An EBT machine, which reads the electronic debit cards issued to food stamp recipients, will be set-up at the market.

“It’ll provide an avenue for people who need it to be able to purchase fruits and vegetables that are fresh and local,” said Jenny McPherson, who manages the Jackson County Farmers Market.

In Swain County, the voucher program is proving to be a win-win for all parties, said Christy Bredenkamp, the extension horticulture agent who is running it in partnership with the food pantry.

“We’re worried about food security in Swain County and really in Western North Carolina. There’s a lot of people who are really struggling financially and the quality of their food is really not as good, so this is a way for them to get fresh produce that’s more healthy for them,” said Bredenkamp. “And the vendors like it because it’s extra income for them, and they’re tapping in to customers they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

In just the first year, they handed out nearly 600 vouchers, and 73 percent were actually used. Similar, federally funded farmers market programs only had a redemption rate of around 60 percent, said Mulligan, who considers the program a success.

In its second year now, organizers hope it will continue to support local growers, who took home an extra $2,150 last year from the vouchers. They’re currently looking for other sources of funding to keep the program going in the future.

There are a lot of things associated with the words “high school football.” Three-a-days. Pep rallies. Weight rooms. The quarterback sneak.

Summer reading club isn’t usually one of them.

Coach Sam Pattillo, however, would beg to differ. He is the head football coach at Swain County High School, and every one of his players has been in a summer reading group for the last three years.

He’s not just going along with a program that someone else came up with, either. The reading was his idea, and he’s the one pushing it with his players.

“It’s building that relationship with our teachers and [the] expectation that academics is first, athletics is below that,” said Pattillo. He wears a lot of other hats at the small school, but he’s known first, at school and in the larger community, as the football coach, and a good one. The students respect him and that’s helped in getting them on board with the unorthodox program.

“Males tend to process things differently, and we tend not to take the time to read like we should,” said Pattillo. “We started it in order to put a focus on literacy and to establish some value for reading. It’s all before school starts, and basically a part of that too is to get them started thinking about school, being together as a team going through this process.”

In the summer before practices begin, the players are given books and Kindle e-readers to get a jump on the material.

The coaches read the books with the boys, and they get helmet stickers for doing well in the program, just as they would for making crucial plays or excelling in practice.

On the reading end of the program is Dawn Gilchrist-Young, the head of Swain High’s English department.

She’s in charge of the books, the post-reading questions players answer and the discussion groups they have after.

The success of the program, she said, is somewhat hard to gauge. One of the defining characteristics of a high school is that the population is different every year. So with new kids always moving in and out, pinning down how much good extra summer reading is doing is a bit tough.

But the message the program sends, she said, is a success in itself.

“Since football gives Swain County something to kind of hang its hat on, having the football team do a summer reading program tells the whole county about what we’re doing here,” said Gilchrist-Young.

The idea being that if Swain is a football county, it’s significant to have the football team saying it’s a reading county, too.

“What you’re saying is academics are important and it’s what will see you through.”

Both coach and teacher say they’ve seen a positive response from the players, even if some are reluctant at first. And, Pattillo points out, this is not what’s normally on the menu for high school football practice.

“It actually is a paradigm change, because it’s not all football,” he said.

“It’s a big deal to ask a kid who is not necessarily interested in taking AP [advanced placement] classes to do summer reading,” adds Gilchrist-Young.

By now, they’re accustomed to what’s coming in July. The second year of the program, the chosen book — Friday Night Lights — was requested by a few players who said they’d like to read it.

While the immediate goal of the program was to get books into the hands and minds of more students, the end game is a broader, more macro approach.

What’s the final goal, asks Gilchrist-Young?

“That all of our students go to Ivy League schools and then come back and commit themselves to the betterment of Swain County,” she said, smiling. “Or another ideal would be that they read to their children, love the tradition, have a kid on their lap at night, reading a book.”

That long game is an approach being taken by not just one teacher and one coach, but by the school system as a whole.

That’s where Steve Claxton comes in. As the community schools coordinator, one of the things in his charge is promoting reading in schools.

“We thought, ‘Well, how early can we start?’” said Claxton. The answer:  “Well, when they’re born.”

The school system partnered with Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, where most Swain County families go to have their babies. Now, every Swain County child born in that hospital goes out into the world with a book.

The system is using the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program founded by the buxom country beauty to increase childhood literacy.

Through the program, the brand new babies leave the hospital with their own copy of children’s classic The Little Engine That Could, and they’re then mailed a book a month for the first four years of their life.

By the time they get to kindergarten, Swain County’s 2030 graduating class will all have a personal library that’s 60 books strong.

For kids who were born a little too early to catch that train from birth, the school system went into preschools around the county and offered the program to families.

This year, it cost a little more than they anticipated, around $8,000.

“We have 467 preschoolers in our county, and they [the program organizers] said to expect about 50 in the first year,” said Claxton. But they had 277 sign up. “We’re already halfway through our entire preschool population.”

They also bring high school students into preschool classes as readers, promoting literacy in students on both ends of the educational spectrum.

In addition to building libraries for preschoolers, the school system is giving parents the tools to know what to do with them.

They’ve produced two brochures — one for supermarkets and one for hiking trips — that teach parents how to make reading a part of both situations with their little ones. They’re also working with families who might not be able to read to their children, to foster early reading skills and help parents’ reading abilities, too.

“We have parents in this county who are illiterate. They can’t read to their kids. So we work with our siblings,” said Claxton. “They can take a book home that’s age appropriate for their siblings so they can read to them at night. That’s helping both kids.”

Most of these programs have only been going for a few years, but with the aggressive stance the schools are taking on reading, Claxton, Gilchrist-Young and Pattillo are hoping they’ll prove their value in the smarter more literate kids walking out the school’s doors. The programs are designed not only to get kids reading today, but to imbue them with a love of reading for years to come.

Swain County should finally have a budget by early August, nearly six weeks after the start of the new fiscal year.

Commissioners passed an interim budget to keep the county running over the summer, one of only two counties in the state that didn’t pass a full budget by the July 1 deadline.

That, said County Manager Kevin King, was because he was waiting on the state to adjust what the county is due under a new formula for Medicaid reimbursement. The formula was tweaked recently, and the state and county had to work through exactly how much Swain should get.

After the adjustments, which should be in by mid-August, King expects the county to get a few hundred thousand extra dollars.

Because the deficit would be too great to make up out of the county’s savings, King said he was forced either to wait and hope for the Medicaid money or propose county layoffs or a tax hike.

He chose to wait.

With the numbers now in, commissioners this week got their first look at the proposed 2011-12 budget, which will take effect in September.  

If commissioners approve the budget on August 8, the county will have $14.9 million to work with, up $2.5 million from last year’s budget.

The increase is going to two building projects on the county’s to-do list this year: new classrooms at West Elementary School and the construction of the Swain County Business Education and Training Center on Buckner Branch.

The property tax rate will stay the same, despite the additional spending. The school project is being paid for out of a capital reserve fund where savings had been set aside for school construction.

The training center, a joint effort by Southwestern Community College, the Fontana Regional Library, Swain County Schools and the county, is being underwritten by a $1.1 million grant from Duke Energy.

The elementary school upgrade is coming from a capital reserve fund set aside for school improvements suggested by a committee last year.

Otherwise, the budget is nearly identical to last year’s numbers, but the county will have to take a $158,000 dip into its fund balance to come out with a balanced budget.

That, said King, is because the county has suddenly lost around $300,000 in revenue it has counted on for years from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

As a government entity, TVA doesn’t pay property taxes, but does make “payments in lieu of taxes” for Fontana Dam and its generators. A new formula for the payments has drastically reduced what Swain historically got and diverted the money to Graham County instead.

That’s affected their fund balance too. The county was chastised in 2009 by the Local Government Commission for letting the fund balance, essentially the county’s savings account, dip too low. State law mandates that the account be at a minimum of 8 percent of the county’s annual budget, equivalent to one month’s expenses.

“Last year it was at about 13 percent,” said King. “But we’ve had decreases in our TVA [revenue], so it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10 percent.”

He said he’s not yet certain of the exact numbers, since he is expecting some payments to the county’s accounts soon that will change the account’s balance.

The bottom line, though, is that revenues are down. And unless expenditures start dropping with them, the county must keep returning to the prospect of raiding its savings.

Currently, Swain is taking Graham County to court over the lost TVA monies. King said they hope to have their money back within a year. But Graham has filed a suit of its own, so the legal entanglements might not be so easy to sort out.

The proposed budget will be available at the Swain County Administration Building until Aug. 8, when commissioners will host a budget hearing and then vote on the document.

Swain County social workers in charge of protecting children are paid less and handle more cases than those elsewhere in the state and region, factors that likely contribute to a higher-than-average turnover.

Swain’s Department of Social Services has been plagued by the loss of child welfare workers. It was chronically short staffed for much of last year — seven child welfare workers left over a nine-month period.

Each time one quit, the ones who remained had to pick up the pieces. Their work load increased. Cases were handed off midstream. The number of new hires in the ranks — lacking any formal training or education in the field — only made matters worse.

It was in this climate that the case of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn slipped through the cracks. Despite repeated warnings from relatives that baby Aubrey was being mistreated and neglected, social workers failed to intervene.

When Social Worker Craig Smith finally paid Aubrey’s caregiver a visit last September, the caregiver chalked up bruises on the baby to a fall down the stairs.

Smith told her to take the baby in for a physical exam. But the doctor’s exam never happened. Smith either forgot, or was too busy to follow up. And four months later, Aubrey died alone on a mattress on the floor in the back room of a single-wide trailer in a case that has sparked far-reaching outrage and sympathy.

Smith has since admitted falsifying records to hide potential negligence and failures by the agency, according to law enforcement documents. He claims the orders to do so came from his superiors, and that knowledge of the cover-up went all the way to the top.

Swain DSS is under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation. Its director has been fired and the majority of its board members replaced.

On the heels of the scandal, the state Department of Health and Human Services launched its own competency review of Swain DSS in March. The state audited a random sample of 57 child welfare cases to determine if Swain DSS was properly protecting children.

The state’s evaluation raised a red flag over the “significant turnover” in the past year.

“Turnover does have an adverse effect on the functioning of the agency. Turnover results in social workers being stretched thin to cover the workload of vacant positions,” according to the state review.

Furthermore, supervisors in charge of training new hires were not fully qualified to be in management roles, according to the report.

Smith, ironically, was not one of the many new hires at Swain DSS. He had been with the agency for four years.

But he was not untouched by the ripple effect of high turnover each time someone around him left.

“That person’s workload gets distributed among the survivors,” said Evelyn Williams, a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work.

Even once a replacement is found, the more experienced social workers often continue to shoulder a disproportionate case load, including the more difficult or complex cases — all the while trying to help the new workers learn the ropes.

The loss of a coworker can be more depressing than the sheer prospect of more work. Child welfare workers in a small agency can be tight knit and get depressed when they lose one of their own.

“It is really hard work to do. It is challenging work to do. It is emotional work to do,” Williams said. “Your coworkers become vital to your support system.”

 

Off the charts

Swain County’s extreme turn-over last year among child welfare workers is more than twice the average turnover in the state.

While worse off than other counties, Swain is hardly alone in its struggle. Statewide, 50 percent of child welfare workers quit within two years. Only 25 percent stick with it longer than five.

“It is not easy to keep and recruit qualified social workers,” said Bob Cochran, director of Jackson County DSS. “It is not an easy job. It can be very stressful.”

Swain DSS has been fighting abnormally high turnover for years.

The caseload carried by Swain’s child welfare workers, even when fully staffed, is higher than other counties.

But its lower salaries are most often blamed as the culprit, as the prospect of better pay in surrounding counties lured staff away.

“The agency has historically provided training to new staff who then move on to better paying jobs,” Swain DSS leaders asserted in 2009 in a “self-assessment” included in the state’s performance review that same year.

It’s a point few could argue.

“Poor counties have difficulty holding good workers,” agreed Ira Dove, director of Haywood County DSS.

But salary is not everything. Social workers who are fulfilled in their jobs are more likely to stick with it.

And that’s where smaller DSS agencies in rural counties should have an advantage.

“Smaller counties have this wonderful work environment to offer,” said Evelyn Williams, a clinical associate professor at the UNC School of Social Work. “The director probably knows your name, there are collegial relationships that are very close and supportive. The whole pace and climate is often different in a positive way that may offset to some extent the lower salaries.”

In rural counties, case workers have a stronger sense of community, which can also make the job more rewarding, according to Patrick Betancourt, Policy Program Administrator at the N.C. Division of Social Services.

“Even though it is a non-tangible thing, it does motivate the worker to strive for the best practices they possibly can,” Betancourt said.

It can not only make up for lower salaries, but larger case loads.

“They can tolerate the heavy work load when they feel like they are making a difference,” Williams said.

However, there is a tipping point.

“The higher the work load, the less able they are to be engaged in a way that might make a difference,” Williams said. And likewise, “if the salary is really low and people don’t feel like it is a fair salary, then it is a major problem that has to be solved before anything else kicks in.”

 

Why stretched so thin?

Swain County child welfare workers routinely work more cases than they should under state standards.

But how many social workers to hire — along with how much to pay them — is up to each county. The state and federal governments pitch in some money to cover social workers’ salaries, but counties pick up most of the tab and set their own salaries  and staffing levels.

The state does, however, dictate a reasonable caseload — one that Swain routinely exceeded. Child welfare workers should have no more than 10 open cases at a time, according to state statute. Some Swain child welfare workers had nearly double that at times.

The state does not check for compliance to determine whether county DSS agencies are exceeding the maximum caseload for child welfare workers.

“Quite honestly, I believe that is a local responsibility,” said Sherry Bradsher, the state director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Bradsher said it’s the job of the county DSS director “to make sure their agency is staffed appropriately.”

The state periodically does a performance review of each county DSS, about every three years or so. But caseload is not an area the state makes a habit of inspecting or asking about.

Bradsher said the state does keep monthly data on the number of child welfare cases in each county, and could feasibly calculate the caseload. But no one at the state level does so as a matter of course.

Besides, there are nuances behind the numbers.

“Just seeing we have 25 open cases doesn’t tell me a lot. How many are going to close in the next day or so? How many children are in each of those cases? How high risk are they?” Bradsher said. “It may be OK to be three or four cases over. I am not sure it is OK to have twice as many cases.”

If Bradsher learned that a county was routinely and egregiously exceeding the acceptable caseload, and she believed children’s safety was at risk as a result, it could trigger some heavy-handed intervention.

The state theoretically can seize control of child welfare functions, hire the necessary number of workers, and then bill the county for it, Bradsher said.

“We didn’t want situations where workers had too many cases,” Bradsher said of the state provision allowing for a take over. “Fortunately, we have never had to do that. Counties are very conscientious about the needs of child welfare. I think what you will find as far as positions across our state is most counties are appropriately staffed.”

However, an issue can arise when workers quit, Bradsher said.

“The problem comes in with vacancies. You have high turn over quite honestly, particularly in child welfare,” Bradsher said.

As the cases pile up, child welfare workers might be tempted to clear old cases from their books  to make room for new ones. But it is unlikely child welfare workers would lower the bar to close cases more quickly and stay within the maximum caseload, according to Betancourt.

“I wouldn’t say there is pressure to let cases slide,” Betancourt said. “But you are constantly evaluating cases for safety and risk. As you start getting nearer your maximum you look at is there continued risk? You start evaluating more closely.”

Social workers could theoretically spend years working with a family.

“That’s part of what drives you to be a social worker. Can you make this family the best it can possibly be?” Betancourt said.

But at some point the social worker has to decide the improvement in the child’s home environment is adequate.

“That is constantly the balancing game that social workers have to play,” Betancourt said.

 

Oversight in the ranks

In addition to case load, the state also sets standards for supervisor-to-staff ratio: one supervisor for every five child welfare case workers.

Many counties exceed the supervisor to staff ratio by one or two workers, but won’t bite the bullet and hire that additional supervisor until they hit three or four over.

With a staff of experienced child welfare workers, pushing the ratio may be fine. When there are lots of new hires in ranks as there were in Swain, the ratio of one-to-five may not be enough.

Finding experienced, qualified supervisors is just as challenging as finding rank-and-file child welfare workers.

Often, those who excel in their job are promoted to supervisor, Betancourt said. But a good case worker doesn’t automatically make a good supervisor.

Promoting supervisors from within without giving them proper management training was a problem at Swain DSS, according to the state’s competency review of the agency in March.

Child welfare supervisors did not provide adequate direction, coaching and oversight for the rank-and-file child welfare workers, particularly given their lack of training and the large number of new hires.

Tammy Cagle, the former DSS director, had herself risen in the ranks. She started out as an entry level social worker in 1998 and within seven years had worked her way up to director. Cagle made $66,000 a year, on the very low end of DSS directors. The DSS director in Haywood makes $93,000 and in Jackson he makes $106,000.

Cagle had not asked the county to add additional child welfare positions for at least two years, according to the agency.

However, the new interim director, Jerry Smith, told county leaders he needed an additional child welfare supervisor as soon as possible.

“He needs the staff,” County Manager Kevin King told commissioners last week.

Swain County commissioners granted Smith’s request.

Quality supervisors, and enough of them, helps with the challenge of hiring and keeping good social workers, according to experts in the field.

“I think the supervisor to worker ratio is real key,” said Bob Cochran, the director of Jackson County DSS. “That really makes the difference to help people go over cases and debrief and train, especially new workers. They need a lot of face time and support and encouragement. That is real critical.”

Betancourt agreed.

“Having a supervisor that can help in making tough decisions and provide good clinical feedback is important,” Betancourt said.

Swain DSS was suffering from low morale among workers last year, according to the minutes of DSS board meetings.

In January 2010, board minutes referenced low morale among workers and team-building efforts to improve it. In December, one board member noted an improvement in morale, at least judging by the good time staff had at the agency’s annual Christmas luncheon, according to the minutes of the meeting.

 

Proof is in the training

The challenge developing good child welfare workers — both recruiting and retaining them — is the on-going subject of research by Williams at the UNC School of Social Work, considered one of the best in the field.

Williams held a round-table focus group with DSS directors from several WNC counties in Sylva this winter.

All said they suffered from a limited pool of qualified applicants.

“Directors have what is called a grow-your-own strategy in many places and that makes sense. People who already live in the community, have a commitment to the community and understand the community,” Williams said.

The problem, however, is that they lack training or education in child welfare or social work.

The job can be a “rude awakening” for those who have no training in the field, Cochran said. They won’t last long as a result.

The shortage of child welfare workers, particularly those trained in the field, spawned a state incentive program offering college scholarships to students willing to major in social work and put in requisite time on the job after graduation.

Similar to the state’s Teaching Fellows concept, the Child Welfare Education Collaborative offers $6,000 a year for undergraduates majoring in the field. In exchange, they must put in one year on the job for every year of financial assistance.

Western Carolina University was among the first universities to participate when it was started four years ago.

Cochran said it has helped with hiring prospects locally.

“For people who have majored in child welfare or social work, there is a cognitive resonance in what their dreams and aspirations are and what they are doing,” Cochran said. “They are really fulfilled and living their dream and tend to stay longer.”

But for the vast majority who don’t have the degree, on-the-job training becomes a make-or-break factor, Cochran said. It’s best to ease them in to the job, allowing them to shadow other workers at first, then making sure their first solo cases are easier ones.

“That is really key to longevity: the feeling of mastery early on. If they get overwhelmed early, you can bet they won’t be around long,” Cochran said.

Of course, it’s easier said than done when the rest of the staff is over-worked, and eager to have the new hire take on a full load as quickly as possible to relieve the burden.

“If you are low staffed and have had some turnover everyone else is carrying the load and suffering a bit,” Cochran said. While it’s tempting to have them hit the ground running, Cochran refrains in favor of what he considers a “long-term investment” that starts with good training.

The qualifications to be a child welfare worker aren’t particularly tough. It takes a four-year degree in a related field — and what qualifies as a related field is open to interpretation. A basic liberal-arts English degree counts as a related field as far as many counties are concerned. If counties are particularly desperate for workers, the list of “related” fields could be quite long.

“Like many other small counties, Swain County often has to under fill social work positions with persons who demonstrate some abilities, but do not necessarily have the experience and skill level commensurate with the requirements of the position,” according to the state’s competency review of the agency in the wake of the scandal.

All new hires must attend 72 hours of classroom training. The crash course is put on several times a year at a training site in Asheville where all western counties send their new hires.

After that, they are technically certified to start working cases. The training can’t come close to preparing child welfare workers from the things they will witness: children in drug infested homes, children being sexually abused by their own fathers, children going hungry.

“You can see quite a bit of burn out in a job like this,” said Betancourt.

 

Slipped through the cracks

Given the challenges recruiting and retaining child welfare workers, the lack of training for new hires, high caseloads in the face of turn over and generally stressful work, its not hard to understand how cases can fall through the cracks. But the consequences can clearly be tragic.

Smith was not the only social worker that witnessed Aubrey in a harmful environment.

In November of last year, social workers took an older child out of the same trailer where Aubrey lived, citing drug and alcohol use. Aubrey was left behind, however, despite social workers also witnessing extremely cold conditions in the trailer.

An autopsy report ruled hypothermia as a possible cause of death.

That same month, a third social worker made a yet another visit to the trailer, acting on yet another tip of abuse. Aubrey’s caregiver signed a statement promising not to physically punish Aubrey, who was only 13-months-old at the time. The autopsy report cited a previously broken arm and numerous recent bruises on her head.

Despite policies and procedures that are supposed to ensure the safety of children, there is not adequate oversight by the state when something goes wrong, said David Wijewickrama, a Waynesville attorney representing Aubrey’s family.

“The reason children contiunue to die in the state of North Carolina is because the state does not have on-site review that scrutinizes the actions of social workers and holds them personally accountable when it results in serious bodily injury of the death of a child,” Wijewickrama said.

 

Protecting children: by the numbers

Haywood DSS

Number of cases last year    1056

Child welfare supervisors    3.5

Child welfare workers    18

Starting salary    $37,500

Turn-over    4 last year; on par with previous years

Jackson DSS

Number of cases last year    666

Child welfare supervisors    2

Child welfare workers    11

Starting salary    $39,800

Turn-over    4 last year; higher than average

Swain DSS

Number of cases last year    528

Child welfare supervisors    2; soon to be 3

Child welfare workers    8

Starting salary    $33,000

Turn-over    7 last year

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