While university leaders are nervously hoping state lawmakers will pass a budget that looks something like the Senate version, many K-12 school officials are openly rooting for the House version.
Seeing public schools and colleges compete for the same budget dollars is not unusual, especially during this recession.
John Bardo, chancellor for Western Carolina University, said the budget would ideally not pit educational systems against each other.
“We cannot get good students in our institutions if the K-12 sector or the community colleges aren’t doing their jobs,” said Bardo, adding that lawmakers should consider the various entities as one system that builds competitiveness for North Carolina.
Bill Nolte, associate superintendent for Haywood County, added that he understands the dilemma leaders across the board face during this recession.
“We know it’s not the mayor’s fault or the state superintendent’s fault. It’s just the state of the world economy right now,” said Nolte.
According to Nolte, the governor’s budget is the least desirable for K-12 schools. To prepare for the worst, that’s the version Haywood County schools is working with in crafting its budget.
Last year, Haywood County’s school system lost 44.5 positions. This year, Nolte estimates Haywood will lose around a dozen more.
“Out of 1,200 plus, it’s a lot, but it could be a lot worse,” Nolte said, citing the total number of school employees. About 10 of the 12 positions would be absorbed through retirement and resignations, avoiding actual layoffs but impacting staff levels nonetheless.
Other budget cuts will likely limit textbook purchases, replacement of school buses and staff training.
While state lawmakers make mandatory cuts for all public schools, they also require individual school systems to decide where to make additional cuts. Under the governor’s budget, Haywood has to come up with $2.3 million in additional cuts, compared to $1.4 million under the House budget.
Gwen Edwards, finance officer for Jackson County Schools, said the K-12 school system will probably have to make $750,000 of its own discretionary cuts above and beyond what state lawmakers slash.
Federal stimulus money may make up the difference this year, but that money, which has eased the pain of state cuts for two years now, will dry up come the 2011-12 school year.
“We’re anticipating that that’s where a lot of hurting is going to be,” said Edwards.
Jan Letendre, finance officer for Swain County Schools, said many have likened the cutoff in federal stimulus money to a “funding cliff.” What’s also worrying for Letendre, though, are state cuts in funding for custodians, school secretaries and substitute teachers.
Letendre pegs the discretionary cuts for Swain’s school system at about $575,000 this year.
Duke Energy wants an option to buy land at the Swain County Industrial Park with the intention of using it as the alternate site for an electrical substation, which was originally slated for the Ela area.
According to Jason Walls, Duke’s spokesperson, the company has offered to pay the county $15,000 to reserve an option to buy the 13-acre site of the proposed Swain County IT building at a price of $400,000. The option would give Duke six months to consider whether to follow through with the purchase.
In addition to the $400,000 price tag, Duke Energy would give the county $1.1 million in community development grant money to help with the cost of relocating the IT building, which has been in the development stages for nearly a decade.
“It’s part of our commitment to continue to work towards an alternate site,” Walls said. “We haven’t settled on an alternate site, but we continue to examine a few sites very closely.”
Duke has been in negotiations with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Swain County over relocating the substation after both entities voiced their disapproval of the current site.
The substation project is part of a massive upgrade of Duke’s West Mill transmission line, which serves parts of Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The upgrade entails replacing the existing 66kv line mounted on wooden poles with a 161kv line mounted on 120-foot steel towers and constructing new substation facilities to accommodate the increased amount of power.
Duke began work on a substation on a hill near the Kituwah mound in the picturesque valley of Ela between Cherokee and Bryson City in November 2009, but this March, Swain County imposed a moratorium that halted the project after both the EBCI and a citizens group opposed it. Protests by citizens are also playing out before the state utility commission.
Should Duke follow through with the purchase of the land and the relocation of the substation, it would signal a monumental compromise between the energy company, the tribe and the county over a sensitive cultural preservation issue.
In March Swain County commissioners voted to enact a moratorium that put a halt to Duke Energy’s substation project on a hill overlooking the Cherokee mound site, Kituwah.
The moratorium was passed amidst a heated dialogue between the county, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and Duke about the location of the project. It was intended to give the county time to develop an ordinance that would regulate the construction of telecommunications and utilities facilities on county land.
The Swain County commissioners will convene for a public hearing on the draft ordinance at 1:30 p.m. on June 7. County Attorney Kim Lay wrote the draft ordinance, and County Manager Kevin King said it is the first of three ordinances that together will give the county the power to enforce zoning regulations on building projects.
King said the document that will be considered at the June 7 meeting is a “policing ordinance” that gives the county the right to make sure utilities and telecommunications construction projects comply with its land disturbance regulations.
King said the county would work with outside legal counsel to develop two additional ordinances that would impose certain types of zoning regulations on public utility and telecommunications projects.
The major proviso of the first draft ordinance is its requirement that any project that involves the “construction and demolition of certain structures not otherwise subject to the North Carolina building code” and requires a land disturbance permit must wait six months from the date it files its application to begin work.
Homes, because they are subject to the building code, are not affected by the ordinance. But the language does mean that Duke Energy would not be able to resume the work on its substation for six months, should the board adopt the draft ordinance.
Duke has initiated a $79 million upgrade of its West Mill transmission line, which serves parts of Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The upgrade entails replacing the existing unobtrusive 66kv line mounted on wooden poles with 17.5 miles of 161kv line mounted on 120-foot steel towers. The proposed 300-by-300-foot substation on a hill overlooking Kituwah mound is part of the line upgrade.
Duke has been in discussions with the county and the EBCI and both King and Principal Chief Michell Hicks have expressed their opinion that the dialogue has progressed to the point that they expect the substation to be moved.
“We’re all working toward the end of the substation project being up there,” King said.
The substation would mar the viewshed of the Kituwah site and the picturesque valley that lies between Bryson City and Ela along the Tuckaseegee River. Both the county and the EBCI have offered Duke alternative sites for the substation.
An election watchdog in Swain County is protesting the tallying of early votes before the close of polls on Election Day, claiming it could have given some candidates an unfair advantage if those results be leaked.
The results from early voting are often an indication of who’s winning and losing. In the 2008 general election, some mountain counties saw nearly 50 percent of those who cast ballots do so during the two-week early voting period.
While state law allows election officials to get a jumpstart by tabulating the results from early voting during the afternoon of Election Day, Mike Clampitt of Swain County thinks it leaves too much room for corruption.
The results from early voting can’t be announced until after the polls close. But it is technically OK for those on the board of elections to call a few friends, party officials or even select candidates and share the results that afternoon.
“I would prefer they not talk about it outside the board office, but that is not publicizing or publishing the results,” said Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the N.C. Board of Elections in Raleigh.
Sharing the results indiscriminately with the public, such as releasing them to the media or posting them on the wall in the elections office, would be illegal. But a single phone call to a particular candidate to tell them how they fared is not illegal, McLean said. Besides, McLean doesn’t see what a candidate could do with that knowledge in just a few short hours.
“About the only thing they could do would be contact their supporters and ensure that they have gone to vote,” Mclean said.
Precisely, Clampitt countered.
Clampitt said there are still three to four hours left to drum up voters for your candidate once early votes have been tabulated. In a small county, where elections can easily be decided by less than 100 votes, that knowledge could make a difference.
Clampitt has filed a formal complaint over the tallying of early votes in Swain County, although the process is similar to that used in other counties and conforms with state law.
The counting of ballots, including early voting ballots, is a public process and can’t be done behind closed doors. Per state election law, any member of the public is allowed to witness the process. Technically, those present could overhear election officials talking about the results as they are printed out, or even catch a glimpse.
In Haywood County, Election Director Robert Inman said he would be disappointed if election officials tabulating results shared them outside the office. They don’t give verbal cues that would reveal results to those present as observers. In fact, they make a point of not even studying the tallies as they are printed out, according to Inman.
“We do all we can to not see them,” said Inman. “We do our utmost not to know.”
It is difficult to do, however.
“There is no way you can count without knowing the totals,” said Lisa Lovedahl, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections. “The board members are human.”
The human factor also makes it impossible to guarantee that the results stay within the four walls of the election office.
Clampitt witnessed the counting of early votes in Swain County and says election officials mulled over the results, as would most people in the same position.
“If a person has access to something, don’t you think they are going to do it? That is just human nature,” Clampitt said.
Though both commissioner candidates running for re-election in Swain County have safely landed a spot in November’s election, a newcomer earned the top spot in Tuesday’s primary.
With only four commissioner seats up for election, all four Republican candidates automatically advanced to the November election. Democratic voters had to choose four out of nine commissioner candidates running in the crowded primary.
Democrat Robert White received the most votes in that race, with about 15 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Commissioners Steve Moon and David Monteith both received about 14 percent of the vote.
“I was a little surprised, let’s be frank about it,” said White, on election night. “This is my first venture in politics, and I really didn’t know what to expect.”
As a retired superintendent, White emphasized his experience in Swain County’s school system during the race, emphasizing that he’d spent countless hours creating a balanced budget and creating a strategic plan for the Swain’s schools.
If elected as commissioner, White promised to create an ad hoc committee of citizens to look at Swain County’s needs in the long-term.
Donnie Dixon, the fourth Democrat to move forward to the November race, received about 12 percent of votes cast in the Democratic ballot.
Dixon, a tool and dye maker and machinist, focused on bringing high-paying jobs to the county, creating a more open government with televised meetings and also focusing on setting long-term goals.
With Swain County’s reserve funds dipping dangerously low in the last budget cycle, Dixon vowed to bring financial stability to the county if elected. He served as commissioner in the 1990s when a similar budget crisis occurred and was able to help rectify the situation.
Monteith said he would be more than happy to work with all four Democrats primary winners should they win the November election.
“That, to me, would be a great bunch of people to work with,” said Monteith. “If this is the pick of the people, I would love to have this to work with.”
Monteith said if elected, his top priority is to develop an assisted living senior center in Swain County, which would not only help the elderly community but would bring jobs to the area.
Democrat – top four advance
Robert White: 929
Steve Moon (Incb.): 877
David Monteith (Incb.): 856
Donnie Dixon: 741
Gerald (Jerry) McKinney: 629
Billy R. Woodard: 612
Tommy Woodard: 611
Judy Miller: 427
Janice Inabinett: 328
Raymond Nelson: 136
*There are also four Republicans and one Libertarian running for commissioner, all of whom automatically advance to the fall primary.
Republican – one winner advances
Mike Clampitt: 435
William (Bill) Lewis: 220
*The winner will face Democrat Phil Carson in November.
Despite widespread criticism of the job he’s done, Swain Sheriff Curtis Cochran proved unstoppable in this year’s Republican primary. Cochran buried opponent Wayne Dover in a landslide with more than 77 percent of the vote.
In November, Cochran will go head-to-head with Democrat primary winner John Ensley, who had an impressive run with nearly 29 percent of the vote despite competing with a whopping seven other candidates.
If the primary is any indication, the November race will be close. At the end of Tuesday’s primary, Ensley walked away with 513 votes, while Cochran received 525.
“I’m just in awe of how may people came out and supported me,” said Ensley. “There were a lot of great candidates.”
Cochran said he had been hoping for a landslide, and characterized the win as evidence of success during his first term.
“I think the support shows that the people are pleased with the job we’ve done,” said Cochran.
Ensley said his emphasis on community involvement in the sheriff’s office, more education for officers, outreach programs in the school system and better networking with surrounding counties all contributed to his win.
During the primary, almost all candidates emphasized their experience in law enforcement, drawing a sharp contrast between them and Cochran, who had no prior law enforcement training before being elected sheriff.
But Cochran has retorted that he is the lone candidate with on-the-job experience as sheriff. He has undergone training and participated in seminars since taking office as well.
Cochran said despite many candidates touting their experience, no one could ever say they’ve had enough training. “It’s a learning process every day,” said Cochran. “We run across something new just about on a daily basis.”
Ensley is the owner of Yellow Rose Realty but is also a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer. He has worked as a jailer in Florida and worked for Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years as well.
Controversial issues were not few or far between during Cochran’s first term as sheriff: a suspected murderer escaped from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran sued Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for discriminating against him by essentially reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchased a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail continued to sit half-empty.
Candidates were lining up and campaigning more than a year before the actual primary. Now, the focus will be on the upcoming general election.
Ensley plans to emphasize his 18 years of business experience, in addition to his law enforcement training. “You need to know the law, but also be an administrative and PR guy [to be sheriff],” said Ensley, adding that he knows how to run an organization and build working relationships.
Ensley says he will also cooperate with county commissioners if elected as sheriff. “It is imperative that we do that,” said Ensley.
Cochran said he hopes both Republicans and Democrats will come together to support him in November.
Similar to his last election campaign, Cochran will focus on eradicating drugs in Swain County.
“We have taken a stand against drugs from day one, and we’re going to continue that,” said Cochran.
Democrat – one winner advances
John Ensley: 513
Mitchell B. Jenkins: 285
David Thomas: 236
Julius F. Taylor: 218
Steve Buchanan: 197
Steve Ford: 150
David Franklin: 119
Chuck Clifton: 53
Republican - one winner advances
Curtis Cochran: 525
Wayne Dover: 156
Haywood County sheriff
Bobby Suttles*: 3,720
Dean Henline: 966
*The winner will face a Republican challenger in the fall.
Democrat – one advances
George Lynch: 965
Richard Davis: 776
Ricky Dehart: 114
Swain County citizens might have been more thrilled about a candidate forum that was held Thursday, April 22, than the people actually running.
About 75 residents came to forum to see candidates candidly answer questions submitted by fellow citizens. It was an unprecedented opportunity to get directly acquainted with candidates.
But only four of the 10 sheriff candidates showed up, and only one out of three candidates for county chairman made it to the forum. Nine out of 14 commissioner candidates came that night to speak to citizens on pressing issues.
Among those who were missing were elected officials, including Sheriff Curtis Cochran, Commissioners Steve Moon — who had already agreed to attend a Chamber of Commerce dinner that night — and Philip Carson.
Sheriff candidates John Ensley and David Franklin committed to the event but didn’t show up. Sheriff candidate Steve Ford sent his regrets, as he had to undergo an unforeseen medical procedure, though he expected to be released a few days later.
Commissioner candidate Jerry Shook openly expressed his disappointment with those who did not participate in the forum.
“Everyone has been cordially invited to this,” said Shook. “There is some who chose not to be here, chose not to share their opinions with you, chose to keep their ideals behind closed doors...We didn’t, and I will not.”
Several citizens expressed the same sentiments as Shook.
“I’m disappointed more candidates didn’t turn out,” said Valerie Harrison, a senior advocate in Swain County. “If you’re running, why weren’t you here tonight?... This, to me, is important. I would like to have seen this place packed.”
Despite less than full participation by candidates, the evening was full of healthy discussion about issues ranging from animal control to open government to Swain’s drug problems. Citizens said they were grateful for the opportunity to meet the candidates.
Bryson City resident Mary Ann Byrd said she’s usually skeptical of media coverage in general and wanted to see how the candidates answered questions, unmediated by the press.
“I want to hear it from their mouths,” said Byrd.
Bill DeHart, 62, said the night was a golden opportunity to learn more about candidates and he couldn’t imagine why any Swain County resident would miss the forum.
When asked what he looked for in his leaders, he replied, “Somebody that doesn’t bullshit.”
“I think that’s the highest priority,” said DeHart. “If you say you’re going to do it, do it. If you can’t do it, don’t say you can.”
John Howard, a 37-year-old Swain County resident, said he was concerned about the relationship between the sheriff’s department and the county commissioners.
Howard added, “I’m tired of the good ol’ boy system. People need to be held accountable.”
His wife, Leanne Howard, 44, said curbing the drug problem should be a first priority, as should making law enforcement’s response to crime more consistent. Howard said she’d once called in to inform the sheriff’s department of a suspicious car in the neighborhood. “They called the SWAT team,” said Howard. But when she informed them of an identity theft case, in which she lost $1,500, she never got a call back.
Bryson City resident Beth Zimmerman said she was concerned about unemployment in the county. She supported sheriff candidate David Thomas’s idea of hiring staff locally.
Meanwhile, Harrison said she wished candidates had paid more attention to senior citizens. Only commissioner candidate Raymond Nelson and sheriff candidate Steve Buchanan mentioned the elderly in their speeches.
Harrison said there’s a significant senior citizen population in Swain County that needs to be attention from county leaders.
“These are people who’ve been here for generations,” said Harrison.
Formulating the forum
Two Swain County citizens, Robin Hamilton and Vickie Crews put together the forum after going through an election cycle in Swain County without knowing any of the candidates.
Hamilton said she’d initially hoped other citizens would lead the effort. “I was hoping someone else would take the ball and run with it, but nobody did,” said Hamilton.
So the duo got to work contacting candidates, lining up a venue, recruiting Smoky Mountain News Publisher Scott McLeod as the moderator and publicizing the forum.
Citizens and candidates both said they were grateful for their hard work.
“This was a tremendous service,” said Harrison.
All candidates were given time for opening and closing speeches. Supplanting the usual format where all candidates answer the same questions, each Swain candidate was asked a different question.
Below are some notable comments from each candidate:
Wayne Dover, Republican sheriff candidate: “I will give you my word — There will be an officer 24/7 dedicated to nothing but animal control and animal care.”
Steve Buchanan, Democrat sheriff candidate said being a newcomer is a positive: “I haven’t lived here my whole life... As a sheriff’s candidate, I don’t owe anyone anything, I don’t have to repay favors.”
David Thomas, Democrat sheriff candidate: “I’m going to have an open door policy with all the commissioners and citizens of Swain County.”
Chuck Clifton, Democrat sheriff candidate: “How can you be a leader of a law enforcement agency if you have no knowledge? There is no substitute for experience and education in law enforcement.”
Mike Clampitt, Republican candidate for chairman: “My one and only promise is I will be accountable to you because you are the ones that put me there... This county will be a team. Public service will be our business.”
Tommy Woodard, Democrat commissioner candidate: “What we need is openness and honesty, Swain County reunited with a common vision and a common goal. This board of commissioners has the ability to start that process.”
Raymond Nelson, Democrat commissioner candidate on interest from North Shore road settlement: “We need to have an input on what you want done with it. Use it wisely, use it frugally, use it for the benefit of all and not a few.”
John Herrin, Republican commissioner candidate: “Elect me because I’m going to come hunting you down, and we’re going to run this government together.”
William (Neil) Holden, Libertarian commissioner candidate: “As a Libertarian, I owe no allegiance to party politics. That is one thing that sets me aside from all these good folks you see here today.”
Gerald (Jerry) Shook, Republican commissioner candidate: “I don’t take the backseat. I’m not afraid to face any issues... We need to stand up and stop taking the bullying, and we need to start fighting for the community.
Judy Miller, Democrat commissioner candidate, in direct response to Shook: “Fighting’s good, but consensus is better.” Miller supports public involvement in creating a long-term plan for Swain County.
David Monteith, incumbent Democrat commissioner candidate after being asked whether he supports the county manager style of government or the older style, where department heads reported to commissioners: “I would like to go to the other style of government. I think it better keeps commissioners more involved in all of the decisions. The more commissioners know, the better decisions they can make.”
Billy Woodard, Democrat commissioner candidate: “We got to capitalize on what little revenue we have, promote our beautiful mountains, our quiet lifestyle, and our small business.”
Andy Parris, Republican commissioner candidate on the budget and tax increases: “I want to see what we have, what we can do with it before we go pushing anything else on the people.”
In the lead-up to the primary elections on May 4, criticism of the current administration is stewing underground in Swain County.
Most commissioner candidates admit reluctantly that much of that frustration is directed toward County Manager Kevin King, though few would openly criticize King themselves. Others have heard complaints that county commissioners seem to sit back while King makes decisions for them.
Complaints include concerns over King’s close family relationships with his uncle, Philip Carson, a sitting commissioner who is running for chairman; and Sue Carson King, Kevin King’s mother, who is running for clerk of court.
Still others protest what they perceive as a lack of transparency and entrenched partisanship in county government.
King characterized the criticisms as being baseless and simply a routine part of the usual election cycle.
“The county manager is always looked at,” said King. “[But] he is the one that is basically following through with the orders of the board.”
Moreover, King said the economic downturn is playing a major role in citizens’ dissatisfaction. “In this recession, everybody’s wanting to point the blame,” said King.
Since political backlash goes with the territory, county managers are offered hefty severance packages that discourage politically-motivated firings.
King’s contract, which doesn’t expire until December 2013, comes with a particularly generous golden parachute. If he gets fired without adequate cause, he would continue receiving his salary plus benefits until his contract runs out. King’s current annual salary is $65,776. In comparison, Jackson County’s manager makes $144,304.94, while the county manager for Haywood County receives $125,320 per year.
In addition, King would get a lump sum payment equal to a year’s salary and benefits, including car allowance, medical insurance and retirement. The county would also provide major medical hospitalization and life insurance for both King and his immediate family for a year.
If King resigns at the recommendation of a majority of commissioners, he receives the same benefits, but if he voluntarily resigns, he would not.
King said he’d let his record speak for itself in spite of citizens’ grumblings against the county administration.
Almost all candidates admitted that they’ve heard negative comments about the job Kevin King has done as county manager.
“Most of the time, in the heat of emotion, I’ve had several people say that Kevin King was one of the first people that needed to be fired,” said Democrat candidate Tommy Woodard, adding that he has not made his own evaluation on King’s job yet.
Democrat Robert White, who is running for commissioner and is the former superintendent of Swain County schools, said he’s heard people don’t like Kevin King, but admits that King has a tough job to do. White has also heard that Kings is making most of the decisions behind-the-scenes — rather than the elected officials calling the shots. White pledged a more proactive role if he gets elected.
“I think we’ll make the decisions as a board,” said White. “He is an employee, more or less, working under the board of commissioners.”
Democrat candidate Billy Woodard said, “I heard that he runs the county as he wants to, but I don’t know that because I’m not in there.”
For Republican candidate John Herrin, it’s not King who’s the real problem. While Herrin “tends to agree” that King has too much power, he added that King directly reflects what the current board wants.
“If they want to be laidback, be absent from the post, let him carry their load, that’s their prerogative,” said Herrin. “[But] the people did not elect Mr. King. They elected the board.”
According to current Commissioner Steve Moon, who is running for re-election, however, it’s ridiculous to say the board has not been proactive.
“I just don’t see any solid proof behind that statement, that we’re a do-nothing board of commissioners,” said Moon. “Whoever would say that is either a malcontent or don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Current Commissioner David Monteith, who is also up for re-election this year, refuses to blame one person for all of Swain County’s problems. If Monteith did have a problem with King, he would deal with it personally.
“He works for me, and four other commissioners,” said Monteith. “I would not air it publicly. That’s a personnel problem — if there is one.”
Monteith says King has done an “OK” job in his opinion, adding that many who do criticize King have little information to go on.
“Until they put his shoes on and do his job, it’s easy to criticize when you’ve not been there,” said Monteith.
However, Monteith admits there’s always room for improvement in the job that King is doing, and that he would like to be kept in the loop by King in the future. Monteith said he usually has no clue what will come up at a Monday meeting until the Thursday or Friday before.
“Informed people do not create a problem, it’s the uninformed,” said Monteith.
Meanwhile, King maintains that a weekend is plenty of time to review the packet for an upcoming meeting.
Monteith says he calls Kevin King every morning at 8:15 to ask about the agenda and King’s activities. “I should not have to do that,” said Monteith.
King retorted that he keeps all commissioners equally informed of significant developments as soon as they occur. There’s a difference between keeping commissioners informed and bugging them with the day-to-day occurrences or being “micromanaged” by them, King said.
Commissioner Moon said King makes sure he’s fully up-to-date on all the latest happenings.
“He keeps us informed about what we need to know and sometimes, what we don’t want to know,” said Moon, who receives calls from King “quite often.”
Moon said he hasn’t heard much negativity about King’s performance.
“If you look in the right nooks and crannies, you’ll find critics,” said Moon. “Harsh critics, sometimes.”
Most candidates say they just have to wait and see how King performs if they are elected to the board. Republican candidate John Herrin said he would not hesitate to fire King if he did not meet Herrin’s high expectations.
The state Local Government Commission recommends that counties set aside at least 8 percent of their budget for a cushion. Last year, Swain’s reserve funds fell to 6.6 percent, prompting state oversight of the county’s finances.
King and commissioners differ on whether King warned them of the pending financial crisis before it was too late.
In his defense, King said the board was “fully alerted” about the potential that the fund balance would fall below the 8 percent benchmark. King said he stressed the need for additional revenues or to cut additional positions or add furloughs.
“The board chose not to do anything during the time period,” said King. “The board at the particular time wanted to wait it out to see how everything would shake out.” King said anyone who looked at the meeting minutes could see that he suggested the board cut back. King admitted he knew by September 2008 that the fund balance would be compromised by at least $250,000. It ended up being short by $1 million, however, and that information wasn’t made public for nearly another year.
Commissioners say they were not aware of the problem until April 2009, when the LGC contacted them. The commission said Swain County had appropriated more than $2 million from the emergency fund. It was only legally authorized to appropriate about $1.8 million, however.
The letter also admonished King and the board for not authorizing changes to the budget by passing budget amendments. It’s widely known that commissioners must pass a budget amendment even if they spend a penny more than what was appropriated in the budget they passed at the outset of the year.
Contradicting King, Moon said he was not aware that the fund balance was going to fall below the 8 percent benchmark until after the fact. Moon would not comment on whether King should have informed the board sooner about the issue.
“We can’t blame bad economic times on Kevin King,” said Moon, adding both King and Finance Officer Vida Cody have done a good job working to create a balanced budget.
“I don’t understand it myself, but I think Kevin does a great job,” said Moon.
With the new $10 million jail eating up much of the county’s revenues — and sitting half-empty — many are looking back to how such a mistake could have been made.
Swain County’s previous board decided to build the 109-bed jail, expecting to receive overflow prisoners from surrounding counties even as they planned jails of their own.
Now that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is moving forward with its plans for a jail, Swain stands to lose half of the prisoners it is currently housing in its jail — leaving it only a quarter full.
King was a major advocate of such a large jail and convinced commissioners at the time it was the right thing to do, insisting it would be easily filled with future growth.
According to King, the difference between building a 75-bed jail and a 109-bed jail was only $1 million, accounting to $50,000 in debt payments each year.
“That’s not going to make you or break you,” said King.
But every year, Swain struggles to meet $450,000 in debt payments and an additional $160,000 on overhead and staff at the jail. The new jail annually costs the county $610,000 more than the old jail.
Monteith says he is glad to have voted against the facility, pointing out that he had argued all along to drop the jail to a 75-bed facility. Originally, a 150-bed jail had been planned.
“I stood on that then, I still stand on that,” said Monteith. “It is too big, it’s costing too much to heat, costing too much to cool, costing too much all the way around.”
Meanwhile, Moon said he was not involved in the planning of the jail, but that the county would have to live with the decision that has been made.
King admits that the jail is having a significant negative impact on the budget since it’s not pulling in enough revenue.
But it was absolutely necessary for the county to replace its decrepit 80-year jail, which only had 55 beds and often had to turn away overflow prisoners from surrounding counties.
King said the previous sheriff Bob Ogle wanted a larger jail and had reported that no other counties were planning on building its own jail at the time.
According to King, Swain planned its jail before the other counties.
“We were really the first one at the rotation. We started our process in 2005,” said King. In reality, however, Jackson, Haywood and Cherokee counties were already well on their way to building new jails of their own.
Calls for open government
Another issue brought up by critics is what they see as the county government’s antipathy for operating transparently.
Republican John Herrin said he’s asked for all documents related to the North Shore Road settlement, but received only a few emails.
King retorted that not all board members use e-mail, and they are not required to tape one-on-one conversations. Moreover, King sent all emails in his possession and personally made a request to commissioners to forward any relevant emails on to Herrin.
Monteith responded with about 10 emails, but no other commissioners responded to the request.
Republican sheriff candidate Wayne Dover said earlier that he had asked for records on all DARE program funds. A response letter from Finance Officer Vida Cody, however, states, “I regret to inform you that we will not be able to provide you with any information regarding the DARE program. I have made multiple verbal request [sic] for this information. On Feb. 9, 2009, I was informed by Jenny Hyatt, that Sheriff Cochran had said that this information would not be provided to the county.”
King said he could only make requests to other departments, not force them to make it available.
In recent weeks, King instructed Cody not to speak to the media and to direct press to his office.
“The board instructed me to send everything through the public requests officer,” said King, who as county manager serves as the public requests officer for Swain.
The request came after Cody spoke to The Smoky Mountain Times about her decision to pay for a K-9 dog’s surgery after Sheriff Cochran refused to pay for it with his department’s budget.
King said the new policy will allow him and commissioners to be more informed about what information is given to the press, and to make sure the facts that are presented are accurate.
King said Cody might sometimes give out numbers, without knowing proper background information to contextualize those numbers.
However, Herrin called the recent decision absurd, adding that King should not be a gatekeeper of information.
“That’s foolhardy,” said Herrin. “She’s the finance officer, what should she not know?”
Herrin added that citizens have to ask very specific questions to get public information at times, and other times, no information comes from a request.
“It’s very easy for a request to be sidetracked,” said Herrin. “If we ask for something, we should be able to see it.”
Herrin proposes following in Wake County’s footsteps and posting all expenditures and revenues online for citizens to see.
Billy Woodard said the county government must be an open government in order to suppress the spread of inaccurate information.
“The people are supposed to know what’s going on, but we don’t,” said Woodard. “If we get information, we get information that’s not factual...there’s too many rumors going on around the county, nobody knows the facts.”
It’s all in the family
Critics have raised concerns about the close family relationship between Kevin King and Philip Carson, King’s uncle who is commissioner and running for chairman; and Sue Carson King, Kevin King’s mother, who is running for clerk of court.
Democrat Candidate Robert White said that the relationship had crossed his mind, though he isn’t necessarily concerned about it.
“I can see where people would be concerned about that,” said White. “The criticism is that there’s too many of one family associated with county government.”
White later said the public has full right to elect Philip Carson and Sue King, however, if they so choose.
Moon agreed that the majority will rule on this case, adding that he personally didn’t see a problem with the relationship.
King said when he started working for the county 15 years ago as a finance officer, no one in the building was related to him.
“This is a small county,” said King. “There are a lot of people that I’m related to, and board members are related to. This is something that can’t be helped.”
King said with such a small population, it’s difficult not to run into family members at the county building. He said Hester Sitton, who is also running for clerk of court, is related to at least four people in county government. King said family relations should not hinder a candidate from running, however.
“It’s their own prerogative,” said King. “If they want to run for office, hey, feel free.”
Nine Democrats and four Republicans have set their sights on four open commissioner seats in Swain County. A primary on May 4 will decide which four Democrats will advance to the November election. All four Republicans will automatically advance, along with one Libertarian candidate. Another primary will determine which Republican candidate, Bill Lewis or Mike Clampitt, will go head-to-head with sole Democrat candidate Phil Carson in November for the chairman’s seat.
*Democrat Jerry McKinney dropped out of the race to serve out his term on the school board.
Swain County commissioners presided over a historic decision this year, signing an agreement with the federal government to settle once and for all a dispute that has been raging for more than six decades.
Swain will presumably receive $52 million in exchange from dropping its claims to the North Shore Road, a 30-mile road the government flooded 66 years ago and never rebuilt.
Swain will get $12.8 million now and the rest in increments over the next 10 years. The money will be placed in a locked trust fund with only the interest remitted to the county each year. Interest could amount to $800,000 for just the $12.8 million already in hand. Candidates discussed how they’d like to see that money spent.
Steve Moon (D) said the cash settlement is a great deal for the county. Moon is in favor of setting up an emergency fund to make sure that the county doesn’t dip too far in the red in the future. “This money will help prevent really bad times in the county. It’ll be a godsend.”
Tommy Woodard (D) said the North Shore Road should have been put to a vote many years ago. Since the issue has been decided, Woodard supports using the money for the school system and public safety.
Raymond Nelson (D) said a good portion of the settlement money should be used to improve walking trails on the North Shore Road to make sure families removed from the park territory when the lake was created can visit graveyards that are barely accessible now.
Donnie Dixon (D) said he’ll believe the settlement money is coming when he sees it. “I’m afraid it’s going to be another ‘if and when funds are available.’” If the money does come through, Dixon would place it in an emergency fund to keep the county running in case the economy worsens. Dixon added that it should be only used for the betterment of Swain County and a portion should be used to recognize that part of Swain’s history.
Robert White (D) said if citizens helped formulate a strategic plan for the county, the board could look at their ideas in deciding how to spend the North Shore money. White says the interest money should go into big projects, rather than being deposited into the general fund or used for recurring expenses.
Judy Miller (D) is in favor of setting up a grant with the North Shore money to fund projects in the long-term. “We should not expect to use that money for our basic needs. That money should be something that is extra and should not be wasted or frittered away.”
Janice Inabinett (D) says the community should have input on how the North Shore settlement money is used. “I think community dialogue is more important than the money itself.” Inabinett would like to see the money used to focus on the needs of the county’s youth.
David Monteith (D) is highly skeptical about the North Shore cash settlement. “It’s only on paper, that ain’t in the bank.” If the money does come through, Monteith would love to see a heritage center built in Swain County. He’d like to set up an emergency fund with the remainder.
Billy Woodard (D) believes Swain will eventually receive the North Shore money, but says it’s up to county commissioners to push representatives to make sure that happens. Woodard wants to set aside some of the money for emergencies for now. When the county is back on a good financial footing, it can build a heritage center to honor families who lived on the North Shore.
Woodard believes that the money belongs to every taxpayer in Swain County, and should not be doled out to special interests.
John Herrin (R) asked for all communication on the North Shore cash settlement. “I refuse to allow these people to have a half-assed closed-door soap opera.” But Herrin received only a handful of emails between the county manager and the attorney — none from county commissioners to each other or anyone else.
Herrin said the county sold itself for “less than a cup of porridge,” but says the North Shore money should undoubtedly be devoted to education.
Andy Parris (R) said he doesn’t think Swain County will receive the North Shore money, and the only chance of getting another appropriation is to see President Barack Obama re-elected, even though Parris admits he’s not an “Obama fan.” Parris said the money that the county has received should be used to create jobs so young people don’t have to move somewhere else to make a living.
James King (R) said the cash settlement should benefit every single taxpayer in Swain County in a direct way. King said the issue is settled, but it might take years to get all the funds promised by the federal government.
Jerry Shook (R) said the cash settlement could be used to build a “fun factory” to retain tourists and give local kids something to do afterschool. The county could hire talented high school students to work at the fun factory and use profits to fund scholarships.
When it comes to salaries, teachers in Swain County are at the bottom of the totem pole compared to other counties. Swain is one of the few that doesn’t offer a local supplement to augment the base teacher’s salary paid by the state.
A steady growth in the student population has led to serious space needs in Swain County schools, especially at the high school. But commissioners have not taken action other than buying property adjacent to the high school for future construction. The candidates debated the need for an additional school in the county.
Steve Moon (D) said the county will need a new school in the very near future, and is unsure whether it will be funded by a bond or a tax increase. Though teachers deserve a higher salary, Moon said the county does not rake in enough now to give them a local supplement. Moon said the North Shore cash settlement might be used toward that problem.
Tommy Woodard (D) said many public servants, not just teachers, in Swain are some of the most severely underpaid in the state. With the current economy, Woodard says he’d be leery of building a new school. “I’m not denying that there is a need for classroom space. I’m just not sure it’s something that we can be doing right now.”
Raymond Nelson (D) said he’d rather see the high school expanded than see a new school built. Nelson said teachers’ salaries could afford to be raised, but would like to see state lottery money used to fund a salary increase.
Donnie Dixon (D) said the county board should closely evaluate whether it’d be more cost-effective to expand schools or build a new one. Dixon said in order to fund a new school, the county needs a bigger tax base and to fight for grants. Dixon says he would favor a salary increase for teachers if it is “practical.”
Robert White (D) said commissioners should work closely with school officials to see how to come up with money to tackle space needs. In the meantime, schools should see if they can come up with funds within their current budget. White says he tried to start a local supplement for teachers as superintendent, but the money was needed elsewhere.
Judy Miller (D) said some of the North Shore money might have to go toward setting up a local supplement to teachers’ salaries. Miller said commissioners will have to take a look at the need for new school construction.
Janice Inabinett (D) would like to set up a citizen involvement task force to research the schools’ needs, pull the issue apart and come up with the best recommendations for commissioners.
David Monteith (D) sits on the school’s planning board, and says the only way to increase schoolteachers’ salaries now is to increase taxes. “I will not vote for a tax increase under no circumstances.” Monteith said the growth in the student population is not enough to push the construction of new buildings.
Billy Woodard (D) says the county can’t increase funding to the schools unless the economy picks up. When the county’s financial improves, Woodard hopes to take a look at increasing teachers’ salaries.
John Herrin (R) says in order to raise teachers’ salaries, Swain must look at increasing its tax base. While this could be achieved with a higher tax rate, he supports user taxes instead. “We need to look at what revenues we’re overlooking.”
Andy Parris (R) said Swain’s schools are in good shape, but teachers’ salaries, as well as salaries for law enforcement, do need to be addressed.
James King (R) said money from the lottery should be used for construction at the new schools. Commissioners should demand information from state representatives on where the lottery money is being used, King said.
Jerry Shook (R) said the commissioners should take a serious look at student population growth at public, charter and private schools in Swain County to see if additional facilities must be built. Shook said the school board is responsible for teachers’ salaries and should make choices in their budget that would allow for a raise.
The recession hit all Western North Carolina counties hard, but Swain faced one of the greatest challenges. Commissioners did not adequately plan for a tough fiscal year and were later notified by the state that the county’s reserve funds had fallen to a dangerous low.
The state’s Local Government Commission recommends that all counties set aside a cushion of at least 8 percent of their budget for emergencies — Swain had only 6.6 percent. The LGC immediately began overseeing Swain’s budget, and commissioners struggled to plug the $1 million shortfall on the fly.
Meanwhile, the newly built $10 million jail continues to scoop up much of taxpayer money without bringing in enough revenue. The county is not receiving hoped-for jail fees for housing prisoners from outside Swain because surrounding counties have built their own jails.
Steve Moon (D) said dipping below the 8 percent standard was due to “a series of bad events” and pointed out that the entire economy had been in bad shape. “We had a hard time maintaining that 8 percent.” Moon says the county will have to wait and see on the jail and hope that the sheriff can bring more federal prisoners to the facility.
Tommy Woodard (D) said like many others, the commissioners underestimated the recession. Woodard said the county should focus on vital services, like education and public safety, and make cuts elsewhere.
With multiple jail escapes in recent years, Woodard says the county needs to restore confidence in order to attract prisoners back to its newly-built jail. To accomplish that, commissioners must work with the sheriff, Woodard said.
Raymond Nelson (D) said the commissioners have done a poor job handling the budget during the recession and have not spent money or made cuts wisely. “I don’t think you can cut the budget on law enforcement and still protect the people of the county properly.
Nelson said the jail needs more federal prisoners, but said it’s too late to comment on the size of the jail now.
Donnie Dixon (D) earlier came into office when the previous group of commissioners had landed the county below the 8 percent benchmark. The state had threatened to come in and raise taxes, but within a year, the county was able to meet the state requirement. Dixon said instead of fighting feuds, commissioners need to sit down “like they got a little bit of education” and figure out what’s draining the county’s fund balance.
Dixon says Swain jailers should be better trained to keep prisoners from escaping so the county can attract prisoners from outside Swain.
Robert White (D) said commissioners have done a good job with what they had to work with, but the county must gain more revenue in the future. White would also like to see a greater effort to secure grants and possibly add another grant writer to the county staff. Until then, the county should use the money it does have wisely.
White says the jail should also be included in a long-term strategic plan.
Judy Miller (D) said it’s unfortunate that commissioners did not think ahead and initiate cuts as soon as the recession hit. “It’s another instance where planning ahead needs to be done.” Miller is concerned about Cherokee’s plans to build a jail and says the commissioners really need to sit down to come up with a plan to tackle this “big issue.”
Janice Inabinett (D) said she has not studied the budget issue. However, Inabinett wants Swain to better market the area’s natural resources to bring in people, and generate more revenue for the county.
Inabinett says not having enough prisoners to fill the jail is actually a good thing. The county could look for another entity that could be interested in the building, and send its prisoners to other counties’ jails.
David Monteith (D) says the county’s budget mess is due to insufficient planning and wasteful spending on pet projects that should not have been done. But commissioners have tightened their belts, and Monteith says the county is seeing a turnaround. “Everyone is doing their job much better than they were doing a year ago.”
Because federal prisoners have not returned to Swain’s jail despite a new agreement with the U.S. Marshals, Monteith suspects that politics are involved. “It’s hard for a little county to compete with the a big county. We have to take crumbs off the table.”
Billy Woodard (D) says he won’t criticize commissioners without knowing the complete situation, but admits many residents are concerned about the county’s finances and the possibility of a huge tax increase. Woodard plans to examine exactly how money has been spent by current commissioners.
Woodard said the sheriff should work hard to bring federal prisoners to Swain’s modern jail. “We didn’t need such a big jail, but hindsight is 20/20...I don’t think if we arrest every criminal in Swain County that you could fill that jail.”
John Herrin (R) said commissioners should be conservative with their projections for how much money taxes will bring in. They should track the budget at every meeting, and post every expense on the county Web site.
Commissioners should also take a hard look at how to avoid landing in the red.
“If that means more taxes, then that may be where we have to go.” But before taking money out of taxpayers’ pockets, Herrin said the government should exhaust every other option.
Andy Parris (R) said there’s been some irresponsibility on the part of the county board. Cutting the sheriff’s department was a mistake, Parris said. “That was purely a political move...that was a stab at him [Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran] and that wasn’t a very smart one.”
James King (R) said Swain had plenty of money before commissioners went on a spending spree that put them in bad shape. All departments should have a working relationship with the board so that they follow the budget that was accepted at the beginning of the fiscal year. Changes should be made upfront and not in the middle of the year, King added.
The sheriff should work with other counties that don’t have jails of their own and also try to bring federal prisoners from all over the state to Swain County, King said.
Jerry Shook (R) said commissioners must make hard decisions and not be afraid to make cuts in the budget when necessary. Shook said there are some in the county who are getting “personal servitude” and are unjustifiably being paid with taxpayer money.
Shook said it’s a shame how commissioners have treated Sheriff Curtis Cochran. Shook says that the county has served as a training grounds for law enforcement agencies who move on to surrounding counties that pay higher salaries. Shook said these officers should sign a contract to work in Swain for a certain number of years if they receive county funding for training.
Swain County is nearing the end of an ongoing saga with neighboring Graham County over who will provide emergency services to Deal’s Gap.
The sparring counties reached a tentative agreement last week pending approval by both boards.
According to the agreement, Swain will reimburse Graham $250 for each time it sends an ambulance to Deal’s Gap, as well as pay any portion of ambulance bills that is uncollectible.
“It is good news. We can still be a friend to Swain County and help them out in that area but in this case we are being fairly compensated,” said Steve Odom, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.
In exchange, Graham will also reimburse Swain for taking care of emergency calls at Graham’s Tsali mountain biking area, which is closer to Swain.
Kevin King, county manager for Swain, called it a fair agreement and said he expects commissioners to approve the plan next week.
Deal’s Gap — an outlying Swain territory that is completely bordered by Graham — receives droves of thrill-seeking motorcyclists headed to the Dragon and Hellbender, world-famous sections of winding roads. But it would take an ambulance 45 minutes to get there from Swain, so Graham has long provided emergency services to the territory.
Graham was being hit in the pocketbook by routinely covering all 911 calls to the area and grew weary of responding to an increasing number of serious wrecks. Each time Graham sends an ambulance out of the county to the remote Deals Gap territory, “We have to call in backup crews to cover our own county,” Odom said.
And patients treated don’t always pay their ambulance bill.
“A lot of times we are left holding the bag,” Odom said.
Odom said Swain was taking advantage of Graham. The county proposed everything from annexing the territory to demanding $80,000 annually from Swain.
But Swain County claimed it was incurring its own expenses transporting Graham patients to area hospitals from the Tsali campground.
After a months-long stalemate on the issue, Graham decided to drop all emergency services to the area in January. Swain leaders retreated from their line in the sand and said for the first time, they would be willing to negotiate.
But according to King, the two decided to cooperate again after a rockslide shut down the Dragon.
“A lot of conversation came out of those few days it was closed,” said King.
While King is unsure on why Graham County backed down from its initial demands, he suspects the county could not find figures to back up their initial request, which he called extravagant.
Before the tentative agreement was reached, Swain’s rescue squad had independently collaborated with the Steacoah rescue squad to come up with an agreement of its own. Stecoah would provide first-responder coverage to the area until Swain could make the long drive to Deal’s Gap.
King said the new arrangement will again solidify the relationship between the two counties.
“We’re all mountain people and trying to reach an agreement,” said King.
Becky Johnson contributed to this article.