Jackson County commissioners have been asked to select their Top Six road priorities to pass along to the state Department of Transportation — a decision that could help decide whether a controversial, five-mile bypass around Sylva is ever built.
The commissioners’ input will help shape an even bigger to-do list: a Top 25 for the entire 10-county region of DOT’s Division 14. The projects on that list, in turn, eventually must vie for funding statewide.
The list compiled by the county’s board of commissioners is likely to figure heavily in whether the bypass (once dubbed the Southern Loop, now called a “connector” by the transportation department) moves forward. The bypass would be a new major highway bisecting Jackson County, with the intention of diverting traffic from N.C. 107.
Jackson County’s planning board recently compiled their Top Six projects. That recommendation was done to help guide commissioners in making their own selection.
All that sounds very tentative and preliminary. But, in fact, a 10-year work program compiled last year by the transportation department shows right-of-way acquisition on the bypass is scheduled for fiscal year 2016; construction would start in fiscal year 2018. The existence of actual startup dates for the project (if approved) are likely to underscore opponents’ beliefs that the transportation department has “fast-tracked” the new highway over widespread public wishes to the contrary.
Funding already has been secured, too, for an environmental study of the proposed bypass’ path, Julia Merchant, transportation department spokeswoman, confirmed last week.
“(But) the environmental planning has been placed on hold as the department waits to see the outcomes of the feasibility study to improve N.C. 107 and receive the county’s list of transportation priorities to determine how the county would like to move forward,” Merchant wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News.
Commissioners are expected to work on the list for the next couple of months. The regional ranking must be completed by summer, said Ryan Sherby, who oversees transportation for the state agency Southwestern Development Commission.
“The county commissioners represent the citizens of this county,” said Susan Leveille, a member of the Smart Roads Alliance, an activist group in Jackson County. “It matters a lot that they make decisions based on what the citizens want and what is in the best interest of the citizens in the future.”
Leveille questioned the potential cost of a bypass.
“It is our hope that (commissioners) will put other DOT projects ahead of this bypass that the citizen and experts say will not cure the ills on N.C. 107, and will cost so much in money and natural resources,” Leveille said.
• Redesign N.C. 107 in Sylva to improve traffic flow
• Add a west bound on-ramp at exit 85 on U.S. 74
• Improve Cashiers crossroads intersection, possibly with a roundabout
• Redesign U.S. 23 business from town to the hospital
• Install new interchange at U.S. 441 and N.C. 116
• Build N.C. 107 connector (Southern Loop), specifically on the existing Cane Creek/Blanton Branch corridor
Source: Southwestern Development Commission
The financial situation facing REACH of Jackson County is so bleak the nonprofit is facing the possibility of shutting down, leaving women and children who live in abusive relationships nowhere locally to turn for help.
The nation’s economic downturn, coupled with what seems to have been terrible business decisions by the agency itself, have threatened to end the 32-year history of REACH.
The nonprofit in November 2001 opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse. The “village,” as it’s dubbed, is now in foreclosure. Associated costs continue to bleed dollars although REACH is no longer making loan payments.
A couple of caveats: First, the current executive director of REACH, and the board members who oversee the agency, were not the ones making the decisions that helped land this anti-domestic abuse group in such dire straits.
Secondly, who can in good conscience flatly assert the prior board’s desire to build the village was a bad one? The federal government and state government approved the concept, local leaders joined in the general celebration when ribbon-cutting time came, newspapers across the region published articles and editorials that were supportive and full of acclaim; not one reporter, including this one, ever attempted to crunch the numbers themselves.
And, indeed, maybe the blame lies with nobody, but instead is the inevitable result of an impersonal crashing economy. Hard times certainly brought down bigger prey than this one small nonprofit group: whole housing developments went under. Banks went under. During the last election, Democratic control of the state and nation went under. Now, REACH, too, might go under.
The facts are these: If the people of Jackson County want the anti-domestic violence agency to continue operations, three things must happen. Wallets must open, volunteers must step forward, and the agency must successfully and completely reinvent itself.
There is a certain bunker-mentality feel when you visit the administrative offices of REACH of Jackson County these days. Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer and the agency’s finance director, Janice Mason, are consumed with counting pennies. The two women’s workdays, and even some of their off-work hours, are spent discussing and mulling over how to best spend what they do have.
No money hasn’t meant no need: During fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.
No matter what happens to the nonprofit agency, Jackson County won’t be getting out of the domestic violence caretaking business, said Bob Cochran, director of the county’s Department of Social Services.
“If REACH weren’t there,” he said, “we would have to look at other ways to provide these services as a county and as a community.”
There are a few counties in North Carolina where local government does directly provide such services. Cochran really hopes it doesn’t come to that, however. He wants REACH to survive. Cochran said he intends to provide the agency’s workers with whatever support he can, including speaking on the nonprofit’s behalf to county leaders.
“REACH is just critical,” he said.
Shortly after she and her husband left Maine two years ago and Roberts-Fer started her new job in Jackson County, she had a terrible realization, one of those ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into’ moments.
“The agency was in financial trouble the day I came in,” Roberts-Fer said.
REACH didn’t have enough money to make payments on the loans they’d taken out. The nine-apartment village, no matter how skillfully operated and managed, would never actually generate the funds to pay those loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The only income to offset the expenses was rent from the tenants, and “even if fully rented, it does not pay the mortgages and expenses,” the agency’s executive director said. “The numbers didn’t work, and they didn’t work from Day One. We told them (the note holders), to go ahead and foreclose. Take it.”
The village is a complex of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and a community center. There is a playground and commons area. As envisioned, the village apartments would serve domestic-abuse victims from Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Graham, Clay and Cherokee counties, along with those from the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
A decade later, however, and the dream is dead. The two note holders, the N.C. Housing Finance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are well into the foreclosure proceedings.
Adding to the problems: Insurance payments on the agency’s emergency shelter went sky-high after Bonnie Woodring, who was seeking protection from an abusive husband, was gunned down by John Raymond “Woody” Woodring in September 2006. He shot her inside the shelter after muscling his way in. Woodring later killed himself.
Additional security measures at the shelter were added in the wake of the shooting, another expense for REACH. It was critical that the agency reassure other domestic-violence victims they would find safe haven at the emergency shelter. Roberts-Fer said the shooting cast a long shadow over REACH: financially and emotionally, and that the legacy continues today.
There have been additional money woes: Water to tenants has been cut off at least once because REACH failed to pay the bill. The agency’s payroll was missed twice. Health insurance coverage lapsed for a time. Everyone kept working anyway, and eventually the agency’s employees did get paid — at least they did until about half of them were laid off as part of cost-savings measures. Today, there are seven fulltime REACH employees and two part-time workers. Additional staff reductions are likely, Roberts-Fer said.
Another, unidentified local nonprofit is weighing whether to continue offering low-income housing at the village, located just off N.C. 107 near Wal-Mart, but REACH wants shed of its role in the project. And as quickly as possible: Just keeping up with maintenance is proving too large a financial drain on the cash-strapped nonprofit. Selling it proved impossible because the village was worth less when appraised than what REACH owed on it, Roberts-Fer said.
As quickly as a new emergency shelter is ready, the agency plans to abandon the village lock, stock and barrel. The tenants in the village, she said, have been warned. Boxes of items are stacking up on the steps, waiting to be moved to the new location.
“Even then, though, we are going to be in trouble financially,” Roberts-Fer said.
The agency’s thrift shop is barely breaking even. Donations are down, and buyers don’t seem much interested in what items the REACH thrift shop does have to offer, she said.
Grants and other funding streams are drying up as North Carolina grapples with a shortfall numbering in the billions. And even more critical: A somewhat obtuse administrative detail on the state’s part, which is choking REACH’s finances, and is reportedly causing other nonprofits in North Carolina trouble, too.
The state once paid grant money upfront, apparently recognizing that the wiggle room for most small nonprofit agencies is marginal at best. No more — these days, payments don’t begin until about four months into the fiscal year, creating a cash-flow crunch.
“Last year, the only thing that got us through was a particular grant that gave us a little room to survive,” Roberts-Fer said.
That’s not how the situation is shaping up for fiscal year 2011-12, which starts July 1.
“Worst case, we won’t be able to function,” she said bluntly.
Why? There is no cash reserve. Zero. Nothing. Nada.
Banks, understandably, haven’t been eager to extend a line of credit to REACH. They’ve been turned down twice, even though one of the board members is an experienced banker. His bank, in fact, said no thanks.
Here’s the solution, perhaps the only means of saving REACH of Jackson County: A fairy godmother, or a slew of community donors, come up with a cash reserve for the agency of between $100,000-$150,000. This would give REACH the money needed to ride out the state’s Scrooge-like methods of doling out funds. Additionally, this three-month reserve fund would provide REACH the money needed in the future. The budget, Roberts-Fer said, would be stabilized.
“The board has already agreed we’d only use the money as cash flow against receivables,” she said.
Additionally, REACH is streamlining operations. Only essential, core services are being offered: the REACH crisis line, for example, the emergency shelter and legal advocacy.
“We’re determined that this will not be the last year for REACH,” Roberts-Fer said.
Jackson County commissioners have been asked to select their top six road priorities for consideration by the state Department of Transportation, a decision that could help decide whether a controversial bypass around Sylva is ever built.
Division 14, a 10-county region of the transportation department, plans to use the information to help it decide which projects should be included a bigger to-do list: A top 25 for the entire division. These projects, in turn, eventually must vie for funding statewide.
The list compiled by the county’s board of commissioner is likely to figure heavily in whether the Southern Loop moves forward. The Southern Loop would be a new major highway that would bisect Jackson County, with the intention of diverting traffic from N.C. 107.
Opponents to the Southern Loop have questioned the need and scope of the project, and whether the transportation department has “fast-tracked” the new highway over public wishes to the contrary.
Funding already has been secured for an environmental study, Julia Merchant, transportation department spokeswoman, confirmed today (Friday).
“(But) the environmental planning has been placed on hold as the department waits to see the outcomes of the feasibility study to improve N.C. 107 and receive the county's list of transportation priorities to determine how the county would like to move forward,” Merchant wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News.
Asked how important commissioners’ decision would figure, she replied:
“In terms of the state DOT’s ranking system, the priorities set by a county or region certainly send a message and may give a project more points. However, each project is weighed and ranked on the value it would add to the transportation system, and the priorities set locally and regionally are just one factor in that decision process. Basically, there’s no rule saying the state will automatically pick up a region’s top priorities. That said, local and regional input is still very important to the state’s prioritization process, and that’s why we have numerous channels for gathering such input.
“Conversely, a project could theoretically end up on our Work Program even if a local or regional authority does not include a project on its list of priorities. However, it would be very unusual that a project would meet criteria to qualify as a priority on DOT’s list if it wasn’t also supported locally and regionally.”
For more on this issue, read next Wednesday’s print and online edition of The Smoky Mountain News.
Webster Enterprises, a community rehabilitation program serving those with disabilities and disadvantages in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, wants money from the three counties so the nonprofit can create additional jobs.
“I wouldn’t ask, if we didn’t really need it,” said the group’s executive director, Gene Robinson. “I wouldn’t have the nerve if I didn’t think it was an excellent investment.”
Robinson asked Jackson County commissioners this week for $20,000 to be given to Webster Enterprises during the next fiscal year, and for a low-interest loan of $50,000.
The group plans to ask both Macon and Swain counties for $20,000 each, too.
“We’re going to create jobs, a lot of jobs,” Robinson told Jackson County’s commissioners.
Webster Enterprises wants to provide training and support to more than 50 people with disabilities. Robinson said the workers would make disposable drape covers used by hospitals during surgeries.
“Do you have immediate contracts with hospitals, suppliers?” Commissioner Charles Elders asked.
Robinson said not exactly — Webster Enterprises sells to a third party buyer who packs a to-go kit, complete with the drape, goggles, sponges and more, to hospitals.
Times are tough, and in response Jackson County department heads have been ordered to reduce spending by 3 percent between now and June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Additionally, a hiring freeze will continue and the use of part-time employees will be curtailed as much as possible to save dollars, interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told the Jackson County Board of Commissioners this week.
Every county in North Carolina has braced for upcoming cuts as a result of the state’s $3.7 billion shortfall. But Jackson County is having problems just getting through the next few months, at least in terms of meeting its projected revenues and expenditures for the current fiscal year.
Wooten, who took over the county’s top paid slot in January on a temporary basis after serving as Western Carolina University’s finance officer for 30 years, crunched the budget numbers and determined Jackson County was facing a shortfall of its own: $336,004, to be exact.
Property taxes haven’t been collected at the rate projected, and the failure of residents to pay vehicle taxes compounded the problems, he said. Jackson County’s budget for this year assumed a property tax collection rate of 95.4 percent. The actual collection rate is running about .62 percent behind.
Wooten instituted these additional steps:
• Travel to conferences and for professional development will be approved only when it is necessary to maintain a license or certification. All travel must be approved in advance, and out-of-state travel is out, unless it involves licensing.
• Equipment not yet purchased has to be approved by Wooten before being bought, and the purchase won’t be approved unless it is absolutely necessary.
• Employees have been asked to avoid stockpiling supplies, and to buy only what is needed to get through the year.
County employees must submit lists of budget savings to Finance Officer Darlene Fox by Feb. 11, according to a memorandum sent this week by Wooten to department heads.
“In addition to these immediate budget actions, I will be evaluating other county policies and practices to determine if budget savings are available by implementing modifications,” he wrote.
Wooten warned county employees that the new budget for fiscal year 2011-12 would likely reflect an expected three to five percent reduction in tax and locally generated revenues, and to plan accordingly.
“It is apparent that our tax base will not increase at levels similar to past years,” Wooten wrote.
A meeting to form a new Friends of the Green Energy Park organization in Jackson County is set for 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18.
“In order to continue operating and moving forward, the Green Energy Park will need a lot of volunteer help,” said Timm Muth, the park’s director. “We can use help with everything from working on equipment to pulling weeds, and a whole lot in-between.”
Muth will share long-range and short-term plans, and lead a discussion about the future form of the park.
Jackson County commissioners have discussed weaning the Green Energy Park from county subsidies over five years, which translates to about a 20 percent cut in county funding annually until that goal is reached. Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since it opened in 2006.
The Green Energy Park uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio.
Volunteers with skills are needed — or an interest and willingness to learn — in the following areas: bookkeeping, giving tours, planning art classes, marketing, fundraising, gallery operations, landscaping, equipment maintenance and more.
The meeting will be held in the new Jackson County Senior Center off Webster Road near Southwestern Community College.
There aren’t any strip joints, dirty bookstores or other adult establishments currently in Jackson County, but Sheriff Jimmy Ashe wants regulations put in place ... just in case.
Passing an adult establishment ordinance, Ashe said this week to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, is “more of a preventative matter” at this juncture.
“I think we are just getting ahead of the game in case this is ever facing us,” the sheriff said. “It may never happen, or it may happen in five years.”
Besides, Ashe added, “I think this is the Bible belt of North Carolina, and we have traditions and cultures here.”
And those traditions and cultures apparently don’t include off-color shim-sham shops.
Ashe said he became concerned about the lack of regulations in Jackson County when Harrah’s Cherokee Casino started work on being allowed to serve alcohol. About that same time, the state loosened laws on alcohol-serving clubs, and Ashe said he started getting concerned.
The Jackson County Planning Board put together an ordinance with the guidance of County Planner Gerald Green. Commissioners decided to hold a public hearing March 7 at 1:30 p.m. on the proposed regulations.
Green explained the ordinance, if adopted, would require businesses pay a $5,000 fee to open up, and entertainers $2,500 each to strut their stuff. The county-issued licenses would be good for one year before requiring renewal, at 50 percent of the initial fee. Other requirements would include criminal-background checks, buffers from institutions such as churches, and standards on “touching” and “covering.”
The Green Energy Park would stand on its own financially within five years if Jackson County adopts recommendations made last week by interim County Manager Chuck Wooten.
The park, which uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio, touched off a storm of criticism and a corresponding groundswell of support recently after county commissioners questioned expenses.
In particular, new Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, has wanted to know when — as promised by the previous commissioners — the Green Energy Park would be financially self-sustaining.
Wooten laid out a solution during a county work session last week. He suggested the county wean the Green Energy Park gradually, reducing support to the park by 20 percent starting the next fiscal year for each of the next five years.
Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since 2006. The county anticipated spending $1 million anyway to deal with methane gas issues related to closing the landfill. Under Wooten’s plan, the county would cover expenses related to the maintenance of the closed landfill that would exist regardless of the Green Energy Park.
Wooten, in prepared comments, noted: “In addition to the gas reclamation, the jobs created at the park, and the educational value provided to the community, the county has also benefited indirectly from the park.”
The grounds department, Wooten said, estimated it saves about $39,000 each year by using the greenhouses at the park for growing annuals and propagating shrubs and trees. Additionally, the park has assumed some of the expenses for dealing with the volatile pollutant that otherwise would fall to the county.
Wooten added that he believes building a volunteer force to help cover costs and needs associated with the innovative project won’t be difficult.
“There’s a lot of support out there for the Green Energy Park,” Wooten told commissioners.
Board Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, told park Director Timm Muth: “The supporters of your park are passionate, and I appreciate that … my question to these people is, ‘What can you do to help us keep the park?’”
Debnam went on to extol the Friends of the Library organization, which has raised the money necessary to build and furnish a new library for Sylva. He suggested that group of volunteers could serve as a model for something similar for the Green Energy Park.
Muth seemed receptive to Debnam’s and Wooten’s suggestions. He went on to apologize to commissioners in the event they believed he behaved less than professionally when questioned by them in a previous meeting.
The director went on to note he believes Jackson has “transformed” the former Dillsboro landfill from “an eyesore to something the county can be proud of.”
Muth, who had earlier noted to commissioners: “I know I just kind of talk and talk,” then proceeded to express his apparent ongoing discontent with news coverage over the five-year history of the venture. He said special events at the park haven’t received the front-page placement in local publications that he believes they merit. Muth concluded his soliloquy with bemusement about how to “engage the media.”
There is one surefire, never-fail method of engaging reporters and getting that coveted front-page coverage: continue having commissioners raise questions about management of the Green Energy Park, and about whether taxpayers’ dollars are best spent underwriting the park and Muth’s $64,626.12 annual salary.
Weaning the Jackson County Green Energy Park from county subsidies in the next five years could be possible under a plan outlined by interim County Manager Jack Wooten.
• Continue a freeze on the vacant administrative support position at the park. Volunteers instead will be found to help Director Timm Muth staff the office and serve as administrative helpers.
• Actively pursue grants in support of the general operations or program expansion at the park.
• Reactivate an advisory committee to guide the director concerning park operations.
• Review and update all operating procedures and policies for the park.
• Develop a comprehensive marketing plan, and put up signs to guide visitors to the park and give them information once inside.
• Seek additional tenants.
• Identify partners within the community and identify new business opportunities for the park.
• Continue providing grounds maintenance and routine building maintenance.
• Have the park’s director provide written quarterly updates to commissioners and appear annually before the commissioners with representatives from the advisory committee.
When Jackson County opens its new library, it will be with a little more than just the usual fanfare. Thanks to the efforts of the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet, the occasion will also be marked by a performance of “Smoky Moutain Fanfare,” a new piece of music commissioned especially for the library’s christening.
The score was penned by composer and teacher David Sampson, a friend of the quartet and a sought-after composer from New Jersey.
Quintet member David Ginn said inspiration for the concept struck him as he was driving by the new facility in mid-construction; he realized that such a monumental and unique project needed something equally unique to commemorate its birth.
“A project this special, it’s got to have it’s own fanfare,” Ginn recounted, and shortly thereafter, he took the idea to his four fellow members.
Trumpeter Brad Ulrich was scheduled to have dinner with Sampson around the same time, and after a mention of the idea and a little more discussion, the seed of an idea began to spring to life. The rest, said Sampson, is history.
Of his composition, he said he hit the books — and the Internet — for some Appalachian research before diving into the piece. He wanted, he said, for it to have the same unique mountain flavor that makes the Smoky Mountains so appealing and steeped in history and tradition.
Sampson listened to bluegrass, gospel hymns and the shape-note singing that found its genesis in the heart of Western North Carolina. He tried to translate that down-home, celebratory flavor into notes that brass instruments could understand.
“There is certainly a hint of North Carolina,” said Sampson. “Anytime you expand a place that’s designed for learning, it’s a time to celebrate.”
Although he relied on his research to guide him when crafting the tune, Sampson said the process itself was an exercise in spontaneity — once he started banging out the melody, the rest of the piece seemed to tumble out after it.
While he put his heart and soul into the music as its creator, Sampson said he left room — as he always does — for the performers to impose their own take on what he’s come up with.
For this particular fanfare, Sampson said he has such confidence in the talents of the players that he’s sure they can’t help but make it better.
“I know these musicians are very high level,” said Sampson. “When you’re dealing with a group that has a lot of experience, if they bring that to my music it’s going to make my music even richer.”
And he’s not remiss in his judgment of the quintet. All five members are seasoned performance musicians with university-level musical training; many members still actively teach the craft at nearby Western Carolina University.
They’ve traveled extensively, performing not only around the region but around the globe, in locales as diverse as Russia, the United Kingdom and China.
And while Ginn said they haven’t put the finishing touches on their performance of the fanfare just yet, they’re very excited about the one-of-a-kind opportunity to play such a piece. In fact, said Ginn, the June opening of the library may be the song’s first and only chance to come off the page, so they want to get it just right.
“It’s almost like a limited edition,” said Ginn. “I don’t know that this is something that will be performed again in the future.”
The library, Ginn said, is such a special project, built by the hard efforts of countless volunteers, that the quintet is excited to play its part in the excitement of finally seeing it come to fruition.
“There’s a lot of people that have volunteered and dedicated their time to making the library happen, so this piece is kind of dedicated to them also,” said Ginn.
Sampson, whose full resume includes commissions from such impressive outfits as the National Symphony Orchestra and the International Trumpet Guild, along with a plethora of grants and endowments, said he’ll be there for his piece’s inaugural performance when the library opens to – and with – great fanfare in June.
Watercolor drawings of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, painted by local artist Eva Scruggs using walnut stain, are now on sale as note cards. The depiction is modeled after a 1914 photo of the structure. Boxes are available at Used Book Store in Sylva, with proceeds going toward the new library complex attached to the historic building.
Good things come to those who wait.
It’s an adage Jackson County library users will need to bear in mind this spring during a month-long closure of the Sylva branch during the massive move into its brand-new, first-class digs.
Librarians face the daunting task of packing up 35,000 books in circulation at the current library and arranging them in their new home. It can’t be done while continuing to keep the doors of the library open, according to Betty Screven, public relations chair with Friends of the Jackson County Library.
Volunteers with Friends of the Library are lining up to help with the operation. In fact, they’ve already started.
They have been combing the stacks of the Sylva library outfitting each book with a special radio-frequency identification tag. The new tags will take the place of the traditional barcodes used to check out books today.
Radio-frequency tags allow entire piles of books to be scanned at once, not only making it easier to check books in and out but also to keep track of collections. Librarians can inventory of a whole shelf in seconds without ever taking a book off. Library users will even be able to check out their own books.
The technology is considered cutting edge, but making the transition to the radio-frequency tags is too expensive and time consuming for most libraries to tackle.
The new library, which was constructed as an enormous wing on the back of the historic courthouse, will be more than three times bigger than the current one. The county is spending $8 million to build the library and restore the historic courthouse.
Jackson County Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million to furnish the library — from shelving to armchairs to desks — with $400,000 of that devoted to buying new books and materials. Newly purchased library items will come already equipped with the radio-frequency identification tags.
The new library will have a soft opening sometime in May with a grand opening planned for Saturday, June 11.