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After much deliberation, Swain County commissioners voted 3-2 against an $8,800 pay raise for the Department of Social Services director in the face of a severe budget shortfall.

Director Tammy Cagle asked for the raise to be compensated for additional work she must now undertake to create a child support enforcement division for the county. The state shut down regional offices that formerly handled child support enforcement due to its own budget woes.

“It’s going to be a hardship,” said Cagle. “I have to learn the whole program myself because we have never had child support in our office.”

A plan for the program must be in place in 28 counties across the state, including in Swain, Macon, and Cherokee counties, by Jan. 1.

Cagle and County Manager Kevin King agreed that it would be cheaper to do the work in-house rather than contract it out.

The county would eventually have to hire two employees to handle the new division. Each one would have 66 percent of their salaries funded by the federal government, and incentive programs would make it possible to break even on the program, King said.

King also pointed out that it would cost Cherokee County at least $300,000 to hire three workers, and it would cost Swain a minimum of $100,000.

While Cagle argued she cut back about $51,000 from her own department, some commissioners remained unconvinced about approving a pay raise.

Commisssioner David Monteith, who voted against the motion, said tough times sometimes call for sacrifice by employees.

“I mean no disrespect,” said Monteith. “But sometimes you just gotta work harder to get the job done.”

Commisssioner Genevieve Lindsay voted for the pay raise, stating that this was not part of Cagle’s job. “This would be a new job,” sad Lindsay.

Chairman Glenn Jones made a motion to raise Cagle’s salary by $4,400 but no one seconded the motion.

“It’s hard times. This is something extra she’s got to do,” said Jones. “We’ve got to get some kind of compensation for her job.”

Commissioner Steve Moon supported the pay raise, stating Cagle went out of her way to save money for the county, “not like some other departments in the county.”

Whether they were for or against the pay hike, commissioners uniformly commended Cagle on doing a commendable job.

“This lady deserves this, but I cannot justify it when we’ve laid off people,” said Monteith.

It looks like the Department of Social Services in Haywood County won’t be getting a new home after all. Haywood County commissioners decided against purchasing the old Wal-Mart building, which would have housed DSS as well as the health department, in a closed session last week (May 4).

“The commissioners decided that now is not the right time in light of everything else what we’ve had to do as a county in response to the global economic crisis,” said County Manager David Cotton.

County officials were seeking a USDA loan between $10 million and $11 million to fund the purchase and renovations to the building.

Finding a new home for DSS has long been on the county’s to-do list. The department is housed in a decrepit, crumbling old hospital, and is so cramped for space that some closets double as offices.

The old Wal-Mart would have been less expensive than building on a new site.

“In our capital improvements plan, we’d actually identified needing $20 million to $25 million to buy a piece of land and build from scratch,” Cotton said.

The old Wal-Mart purchase is not completely off the table, Cotton said. He said the company that owns the building, RBC Ventures, is still open to the idea of if county officials change their mind.

A lawsuit filed against the Haywood County Department of Social Services charging the agency could have prevented the death of a 22-month-old baby but failed to take her out of harm’s way continues to make its way through the courts.

The child, Adrianna Lynn Earley, died in November 2006 of “acute oxycodon toxicity” after she got into her mother’s pills in Waynesville, court documents state. The mother, Heather Lacey, admitted that she had prescriptions for Oxycontin and Percocet. She was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2008.

Assistant District Attorney Jim Moore prosecuted the case and told The Smoky Mountain News last week that Lacey and the child were spending the night at a couple’s house in Waynesville. When Lacey and the child went to bed the pills were in Lacey’s purse. Lacey woke up to find the child dead and the pill bottle open, Moore said.

Moore said leaving the pills so the child could get to them was reckless and careless. District Attorney Mike Bonfoey compared it to “leaving a loaded gun in reach of a child.”

Now that the criminal proceedings are complete, the baby’s father, Joey Earley, has filed the civil lawsuit representing the child’s estate. The lawsuit charges that DSS could have prevented the death of the child but failed to heed warnings about Heather Lacey being a danger to the baby.

“They (DSS) had a report before them that this lady was dangerous to the child, and they didn’t take action to protect the child,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Randy Seago of Sylva.

Superior Court Judge Laura Bridges in Jackson County has ordered the Haywood County Department of Social Services to turn over Lacey’s medical records after they were requested by Seago. Seago said the medical records deal with drugs Lacey was allegedly on when DSS was investigating her.

Haywood County and DSS hired Attorney Christopher Geis of Winston Salem to represent them in the suit. DSS’ position in the case is that it did the best it could for the child and could not have prevented the death, Geis said.

There is no trial date set, but Seago thinks the case could be heard this summer.

It took a court order from Superior Court Judge Bridges presiding in Jackson County to release the medical records because such documents are confidential.

Geis said Heather Lacey is now in the custody of the Women’s Prison in Raleigh but is scheduled to get out this month after a 13- to 16-month sentence.

Specific damages being sought in the case are unknown because in North Carolina civil suits heard in Superior Court only specify “over $10,000.”

A hulking space in the strip mall along U.S. 74 in Clyde that has sat vacant since the departure of Wal-Mart could get a new tenant — the Haywood County departments of Health and Social Services.

A new building to house both departments is the next project on the county’s list of capital improvements. A larger and more conducive space for DSS, which is currently housed in the county’s decades-old former hospital, has been a particular priority. The county is currently shelling out almost $30,000 per year to maintain the cramped, run-down DSS building.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the building is not adequate,” said County Commissioner Mark Swanger. “It’s in disrepair and it’s very expensive to maintain. You’re dealing with an almost 80-year-old building.”

DSS has almost completely outgrown its space.

“They’re pushing maximum capacity and in some cases they’re really pushing the limits of being able to provide services in the space they have,” said County Manager David Cotton.

Relocating the county departments to the old Wal-Mart location would provide thousands more feet of space.

The move may also provide the county with the best hope of finding a tenant for the empty big box structure. Competition to attract tenants is set to increase in Haywood County as the amount of empty space increases.

Goody’s clothing store is going out of business nationally and will leave behind a store front in a strip mall in Waynesville. Home Depot canceled plans at the last minute to open a new store in Waynesville, leaving a gaping site in a brand new big box retail complex where Super Wal-Mart moved to.

And in the wake of a cratering economy, most large retail chains aren’t in the market for new locations. Belk’s clothing store, currently located near Ingles, once expressed interest in relocating to the old Wal-Mart building to give it more space, but the company changed its mind.

“Right now, there’s not a whole lot of retailers that are looking to expand,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s Economic Development Director. “Everybody’s pretty cautious right now. The county’s interest (in the Wal-Mart property) is very encouraging.”

Old retail outlets or malls that have been repurposed as office space are known as greyfields, said Clasby, and it’s a phenomenon that’s happening around the country. In Buncombe County, commissioners are currently looking at converting the Biltmore Square Mall, which is for sale, into a county office building.

The relocation of county offices to the old Wal-Mart building isn’t definite, although county commissioners discussed the purchase in closed session. The county has asked Cotton to explore the possibility of the Wal-Mart site, but officials are investigating other options. Those include everything from renovating the current building used by DSS to finding a vacant parcel and building a new facility, Cotton said.

The economic downturn has tightened the county’s budget, which may lead some to question the county’s timing of buying or building a new facility. But the current economy has presented some good deals, said Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“Now’s the time to take advantage of lower costs in loans, construction and purchase of property,” he said.

Money from the proposed federal stimulus package could help finance the purchase or construction of a facility, said Cotton, though it’s unclear how long it will take for the money to trickle down to local governments.

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