The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is looking for ways to help the Blue Ridge Parkway trim its chronic overgrowth troubles.
The parkway doesn’t have the money or resources to regularly trim trees that encroach upon its many overlooks, a persistant problem over the years further exacerbated by federal budget cuts. The natural vantage points are one of the top tourist draws along the parkway.
The Haywood tourism agency feared the overgrown overlooks would mean less visitors traveling the scenic road, and several years ago came up with the idea of paying to cut the trees itself. But budget concerns of its own have prevented the tourism entity from sticking with its tree-cutting campaign consistently.
At its meeting last Wednesday, the tourism board talked about a couple of different approaches it could take in the coming year to cut the overgrowth.
The county tourism agency is considering giving the parkway money to hire seasonal workers for two months. The parkway could use its existing seasonal maintenance staff and simply extend their contract by an additional two months to focus on overlook clearing. For those two months, the workers would focus specifically on the appearance of Haywood County’s nearly 70 overlooks.
“The parkway hires those people (seasonal employees) to start in May, and what we might consider doing is paying to bring them on in March and pay them for March and April,” said Lynn Collins, director to the tourism agency.
The total cost for the additional months depends on how many seasonal employees the parkway hires, Collins said. The tourism agency would give the parkway $6,500 per employee and must give the parkway a commitment by January.
Agency officials also contemplated working with Haywood Community College’s forestry students or friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the makeover and maintain the overlooks.
Western Carolina University is facing, at best, an austere financial year.
Chancellor David Belcher, in his first address to faculty and staff, was blunt about the financial difficulties facing the university. He warned his new employees that all spending would be scrutinized, and said they must fully and satisfactorily justify any new programs and course offerings, particularly electives.
The state, when all was said and done, cut WCU’s overall budget by 13.4 percent. While university leaders were prepared for an economic wallop, they were caught off guard by the sudden yanking of another $2 million they’d planned on. This happened when the state didn’t let universities use money left over from the previous budget year. The plan had been to use this carry-forward funding, as had been a usual financial practice at WCU, to help cover ongoing expenses, Belcher said.
Combine the $2 million with the other state cuts, and WCU found itself with a total $4.85 million overall deficit.
“We cannot run a university this way,” the new chancellor said, explaining that the university’s top officials balanced the budget by whittling away at expenses. This included money set aside to maintain WCU’s information-technology infrastructure.
“Send your most positive thoughts to our IT system,” Belcher told his employees. “It cannot malfunction this year.”
Many in the crowd chuckled — and it really was a crowd, so many faculty and staff showed up for what is generally a beginning-of-the-year formality a balcony was opened in the fine and performing arts center’s auditorium to handle overflow. Belcher added in a serious tone: “No, I’m really not kidding.”
“The budget situation remains uncertain,” he said. “But I assure you that we will make it through these tough financial times.”
Belcher emphasized the need to raise enrollment numbers — which leads to increased state money and tuition money — but doing so while not lowering the caliber of students the university accepts. Additionally, with the state now heavily emphasizing retention and graduation rates, a shift in emphasis must take place, he said.
“Improving our retention rate is everybody’s responsibility,” he said.
But Belcher told faculty he wanted to shed his “reactionay mantle” that defined his first two months on the job. He planned now to throw himself headlong into crafting a new strategic plan for the university. The chancellor urged faculty and staff to join him in taking ownership of WCU.
“The strategic planning process is an opportunity to identify what we will pursue and what we will not pursue,” Belcher said. “In light of the current conditions, we cannot be all things to all people. Everything cannot and will not be a priority.”
The strategic planning process will be led by a steering committee called the 2020 Commission, and will include participation from various stakeholders on campus, such as faculty, staff and students. And, he said, from the external community – alumni, donors, and business and community leaders.
The target is to have a plan ready for presentation to the Board of Trustees at its June meeting 10 months from now.
“Achievement of such a plan will require rejection of myopia and commitment to the good of the whole,” Belcher said. “We will be guided by our commitment to student success – the success of every student. And we will retain that value that has defined us for years, an external focus and external engagement.”
Belcher announced the formation of the Chancellor’s Leadership Council, a group composed of about 40 campus leaders from the faculty, staff, student body and administration.
He also unveiled a more inclusive budgeting process designed to provide additional input into decision-making and enhance transparency. That process will include an annual budget hearing that will involve the newly formed leadership council. Belcher also asked Faculty Senate and Staff Senate to consider the creation of a joint budget and planning committee to ensure that faculty and staff concerns are integrally involved in the budget process.
The U.S. Postal Service wants to close Fontana Dam’s tiny post office to save money, a downsizing move critics say would further isolate the small community.
This far-flung outpost in Graham County is frequented by tourists, and serves as a vital waypoint for thousands of hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Despite the region’s remote location, it turns into a bustling place in the summer with throngs of tourists coming to Fontana Village Resort — as well as an influx of seasonal workers topping more than 140. Those seasonal workers rely on post office boxes to get their mail, with so much demand some years the Fontana post office has run out of post office boxes.
Residents also rely on the post office boxes, according to Craig Litz, an employee at Fontana Village Resort.
“You have a significant number of people who live in the village,” Litz said. “Their round trip to the next closest post office is 45 miles.”
And it will hurt the resort as well, he said.
“From a business standpoint we have tons of guests at Fontana Village resort who forget stuff that we have to mail back to them,” Litz said. That would now require a trek to town every time grandma left or glass or junior left this favorite stuffed animal behind after their stay.
The next closest post office is in Robbinsville or the Nantahala Gorge, a 45-mile trip respectively. Factor in the slow speeds required on the curvy, twisty roads, and a trip to the post office would require a two-hour investment.
The community, just this year, become a bonafide town. The new town is home to only 33 fulltime residents, but that population number is deceptive: about 100,000 people a year visit the resort.
The Fontana post office is perhaps most critical, however, to hikers along the Appalachian Trail.
The long-distance hiker traversing the 2,200-mile trail from Georgia to Maine mail themselves care packages, as do friends and family, full of needed supplies.
“Everything from food to extra socks,” Litz said.
The Fontana post office is a key drop point for these care packages.
“In the spring time, we have a room dedicated just to stuff from the hikers,” Litz said. That’s when thru-hikers doing the entire trail are coming through in waves of 30 a day.
Hikers also use the post office to send unneeded equipment back home, such as winter jackets they started the trail with but no longer need. Fontana Dam is just 1.8 miles from the trail.
“It’s very important — Fontana is part of the long-distance hiking experience, and part of the logistics of resupply,” said Laurie Potteiger, an AT thru-hike veteran and information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conference, headquartered in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.
Fontana Dam is the first post office hikers hit after starting the trail in Georgia, once any distance under way, that’s in such close proximity to the trail.
The proposed closure is part of a broader cost savings measures by the U.S. Post Office. Last week the postal service announced it would study whether to close nearly 3,700 local offices and branches because of falling revenues. Facing an $8.3 billion budget deficit this year, closing post offices is one of several proposals the Postal Service has recently considered to cut costs, and one of three that are drop points for Appalachian Trail hikers.
Fontana’s leaders are fighting the proposed closure. They have appealed to U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, for help.
Shuler hopes to stop the closure, spokesman Andrew Whalen said this week.
“We are doing our best to ensure it stays open,” Whalen said Tuesday. “We’re drafting a formal appeal to the U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission.”
The oft-threatened closure of the state prison in Haywood County has finally come to pass, but by now, it hardly comes as a surprise.
“Every year, they would always say it is going to close,” said Haywood Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.
And so every year, county leaders appealed to mountain legislators to save the prison, who in turn mounted political pressure on their colleagues in the General Assembly to put the prison back in the budget.
The prison was spared the chopping block, but the victory was always short-lived, giving way the following year to cries of “here we go again” and another round of lobbying.
“I think our representatives at the state level had indicated inevitably it was going to close. They could push it off or prolong it, but inevitably they wouldn’t have the votes to keep it,” Kirkpatrick said.
“At some point we realized we were going to lose it,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.
It’s not clear exactly what the state will do with the prison it abandons. Haywood County has an idea, however, that’s still in its infancy and might not come to fruition, but county commissioners are giving a hard look.
Commissioners are contemplating leasing the prison from the state and going in to the inmate business. For $40 a night, the county would house prisoners from other places — from other counties that don’t have enough space in their own jail or from the state itself.
Commissioners say they won’t plunge headlong toward owning a prison yard unless it makes sense.
“You don’t just necessarily want to take it because you can,” Swanger said. “You want to make sure what you are taking. We have to make a wise decision.”
They asked County Manager Marty Stamey to put together a feasibility study and hope to hear back in another week.
The fact-finding mission would include estimated utility costs, staffing and upkeep.
With the county jail next door, the prison wouldn’t need its own cooks or medical officer or canteen. It could piggyback on the jail’s support staff and really only need the guards. The number of guards could be adjusted depending on how many prisoners materialized.
The county could also operate just half the facility, cutting down on utilities.
The beauty of the deal may be the rate the state will lease it for. Commissioners are hoping for the bargain rate of a $1 a year.
Why such a good deal? It’s doubtful the state would find a buyer for a 128-bed prison on the open real estate market, and at least leasing it to the county would keep it from being a maintenance headache and liability for the state.
No matter how cheap the lease is, the county doesn’t want to be saddled with a deteriorating facility that becomes more work than it’s worth. But based on an inspection of the prison by the County Maintenance Director Dale Burris, it is in surprisingly good shape.
“The buildings are old but very well maintained,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley
The big kicker, however, is whether there are actually inmates out there who need to be housed somewhere.
When someone is first charged with a crime, counties bear the burden of housing them in their local jails. Only after they go to trial and get sentenced by a judge are they shipped off to a state prison.
The state doesn’t seem terribly pressed for space: the existing population at the Haywood prison is easily being absorbed into the state’s other prisons. So demand for bed space, if it exists, would likely come from other counties who have maxed out their own jails.
But there’s the rub.
“A lot of the counties have built new jails,” Haywood Sheriff Bobby Suttles said.
Over half the counties bordering Haywood have recently built new jails of their own and have room to spare: Swain, Jackson and Madison counties all have new jails, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is about to build one.
Cherokee County also has built a large new jail, capturing overflow inmates from other far western counties.
With so few jails at capacity, there might be little overflow for Haywood to capitalize on — if not for a new state law that would keep inmates serving minor sentences in county custody. (see related article.)
The new law would pay counties to house inmates convicted of misdemeanors and serving less than 180 days. In the past, they would have entered the state’s prison system.
It will give Haywood another 14 prisoners a year, not enough to make leasing the shut-down state prison viable. But Haywood could volunteer to keep some of those convicted misdemeanor prisoners on behalf of other counties, who have enough room for their own inmates but not enough room to take on the extra load.
“We are trying to determine how many of those there actually are in the state,” Swanger said, adding however that there probably won’t be that many
And that may sideline the whole idea.
“I am skeptical about short-term profitability,” Swanger said.
Suttles is more inclined to strike while the iron is hot, assuming that the inmate population is bound to grow in the future.
“Eventually, I think there will be a need for it, to hold inmates. It would be real handy,” Suttles said.
The fences around the perimeters of the state prison and county jail are practically touching already.
Commissioners are contemplating a worst-case scenario where the county essentially mothballs the site for now to see if more demand materializes. And in the meantime, the county looks out for its interests by keeping something else from moving in there, something that may not be compatible with the county’s neighboring jail or public dumpster station.
“If we don’t lease it and the state sells it, who is going to be our neighbor?” Swanger said.
Counties with jail beds to spare will soon be able to make a little cash housing state prison inmates.
Under a new program introduced by the N.C. General Assembly earlier this year, minor criminals with short sentences won’t be housed in state prisons anymore. The new measure will mean more heads in local jails and, for some counties, a little more money in local funds, too.
Currently, county jails hold inmates charged with a crime and awaiting trial. Once sentenced, they are shipped off to state prison, unless their sentence is less than 90 days, in which case they serve the short time in the jail.
But starting next year, county jails could end up housing inmates with sentences up to 180 days who would have otherwise ended up in the state system. It will only apply to prisoners convicted of misdemeanors; felons will still go into the state system.
Essentially, it’s a logistical move, said Eddie Caldwell, vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association. They’re the group that’s going to manage the project.
“The legislature believes that there is available capacity in the county jails, but we’ve never had a mechanism to match up the heads with the beds that are available,” said Caldwell.
The program is completely voluntary. Local sheriffs don’t have to take on the prisoners if they don’t want to.
But for those who do have extra room, they’ll get paid to house these prisoners that would have otherwise ended up in the state’s prisons. How much counties would get is not yet known, according to Keith Acree, public affairs director for the department of corrections.
“The payment structure has yet to be determined, whether it’s a flat rate or something else,” said Acree. But, he said, what is certain is that on January 1, the department of corrections will get out of the business of housing misdemeanor criminals.
It’s welcome news for some counties that have new or unfilled jails where empty beds are eating up money.
“If you’ve got a county that has beds sitting vacant, there’s a certain amount of cost built into that bed anyway, so the cost putting an inmate in there is incremental,” said Caldwell. “We think that those sheriffs who have vacant beds would be glad.”
Especially if it means they can make a little money to cover their jail overhead.
Originally, state lawmakers wanted to save money by dumping the misdemeanor criminals on counties without compensating them, an idea bandied about for several years, said Caldwell. Several other states already do it.
But clearly the state’s sheriffs didn’t like the idea unless it came with money to cover the inmates room and board.
In the current scenario, the state is still projected to save a bit of money. They’re closing four small, minimum-security prisons, including the Haywood Correctional Facility, which will cut some costs.
And the state will increase court costs starting this month to cover the cost of housing prisoners.
Statewide, the changes should affect between 5,000 and 6,000 inmates, said Caldwell. It’s hard to really pin down an exact annual number of those that could land in county jails — those with sentences between 90 and 180 days with misdemeanor crimes.
On one day in March when he took a tally, there were 1,700 inmates who fit the bill, and he figures that’s about average.
In Haywood County, there were 14 inmates convicted in 2010 who match the criteria. Jackson County had four, Macon County had eight and Swain County only two for that year.
So, on the surface, it doesn’t seem such a big deal for smaller, rural counties.
But in Wake County, the state’s most populous, there were 296 convictions in 2010 that would have to be housed locally somewhere under the new rules. And portioning those out could be a boon to empty jails.
Eventually, Caldwell sees this program giving counties an incentive to build bigger jails than they may need, theoretically paid for by prisoners other places didn’t want.
Currently, the N.C. Sheriff’s Association is figuring out how many beds there are in facilities around the state, then contracts will be signed before the program goes into effect at the beginning of next year.
In what promises to become an increasingly expensive proposition, county taxpayers must now pick up the tab for cleaning up illegal methamphetamine labs.
The federal government notified states in February that it would no longer pay for such clean ups, which involve dangerous, potentially explosive, chemicals and toxic residue. The state covered the cost for a while, but after spending about $165,000 to clean up some 50 labs in North Carolina in the past six months, the state has spent all it wants to and will now place the burden on counties.
More than 230 meth labs were discovered and destroyed in North Carolina last year; Jackson County destroys between one and nine of the illegal labs a year.
Jackson County this week got stuck with its first meth-lab bill.
In this case, the bill was estimated to come to just $1,500, but that’s because the meth lab deputies busted was a particularly primitive operation. Some cleanups downstate of “superlabs” have cost as much as $20,000, according to news reports.
The lab operators were using a makeshift method recently developed called “shake-and-bake,” said Lt. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in which the ingredients are mixed in soda bottles. This can pose great potential dangers, because the shaken chemicals are highly volatile.
During a discussion at a Jackson County meeting this week, Commissioner Doug Cody worried aloud about the possibility of a “huge cleanup” in the future, and the potential cost to a county unprepared for such a financial blow. Queen said that law enforcement and prosecutors routinely seek restitution, but “as the saying goes, you really can’t get blood from a turnip.”
In other words, getting money out of convicted drug dealers could prove an uphill battle for local governments.
Queen said deputies received an anonymous tip late last week that resulted in the bust. Following the lead, they set up surveillance at the bottom of Greens Creek Road on July 29, and discovered Keisha Leigh Maki, 25, of Granite Falls, and Billy Ray Davis, 54 of Waynesville, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.
The couple was hunkered in the weeded area near where Greens Creek goes into a culvert and crosses under U.S. 441. Queen told commissioners this week that the two were using creek water as part of their meth-cooking cooling process.
Whenever local officers breakup a meth lab, a hazardous-materials mitigation team must come and remove the chemicals involved, and everyone involved — officers and suspects — go through decontamination.
Maki and Davis were both charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, trafficking, possessing precursors for methamphetamine, conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both were being held early this week under $100,000 bonds. Their first court date on the charges was scheduled for Aug. 16.
Since 1917, the Red Cross has flown its archetypal white flag in Haywood County. In the 94 years that have since passed, the charity’s presence in the county has been steadily dwindling. First, the Waynesville chapter disappeared. Then the Canton chapter fell by the wayside.
The weight fell on what became the Haywood County chapter of the Red Cross, but now that last holdout is looking at closing its doors as well.
“Our chapter has been struggling financially for several years,” said Kim Czaja, the chapter’s financial director, who will be out of a job in September.
They’ve made some pretty hefty strides in the last few years — cutting the yearly debt from $28,000 down to just around $2,000 — but it just wasn’t enough.
Really, though, said Czaja, what’s happening to Haywood is just a snapshot of a very turbulent climate in the Red Cross around the country.
Chapters in Cincinnati are merging to save money, Buffalo is slashing 50 jobs in their blood division and the agency said it’s cutting administrative jobs, consolidating things like payroll and accounting, which are currently done by each chapter.
“There are layoffs going on throughout the Red Cross as a whole,” said Czaja. “It’s just a change right now, and I’ll be honest with you, it’s like any change, it can be painful but it is a very good thing because it’s definitely going to make the Red Cross stronger.”
Some of the services the local chapter offers will also go through an evolution, probably being administered out of the regional office in Asheville.
The western region of the state has seven Red Cross chapters. Haywood County was the only one west of Asheville, and it’s been that way for years, said Czaja.
“We want to continue to be strong in the community, but it is going to be different,” said Czaja.
She estimates that they serve around 7,000 to 8,000 people every year. That includes all the classes — CPR, first aid, swim and lifeguard courses — blood drives, water safety classes in schools, helping businesses craft emergency plans and local versions of the disaster assistance the Red Cross is known for globally.
They also offer financial help to military families and get them in touch with service members overseas when there’s an emergency at home.
The restructuring is a new proposition; Czaja, who is only part-time and the chapter’s only paid employee, just learned of the changes last week. So that means she’s not yet sure how or when the fallout will actually fall.
“There’s a lot of fear because the doors may be closing,” said said. But she’s hopeful that the group’s role in the community won’t diminish and that they can continue serving the county through volunteers. She started as a volunteer herself.
“I understand decisions like this have to be made,” said Czaja. “The most important thing is that the services continue.”
Swain County should finally have a budget by early August, nearly six weeks after the start of the new fiscal year.
Commissioners passed an interim budget to keep the county running over the summer, one of only two counties in the state that didn’t pass a full budget by the July 1 deadline.
That, said County Manager Kevin King, was because he was waiting on the state to adjust what the county is due under a new formula for Medicaid reimbursement. The formula was tweaked recently, and the state and county had to work through exactly how much Swain should get.
After the adjustments, which should be in by mid-August, King expects the county to get a few hundred thousand extra dollars.
Because the deficit would be too great to make up out of the county’s savings, King said he was forced either to wait and hope for the Medicaid money or propose county layoffs or a tax hike.
He chose to wait.
With the numbers now in, commissioners this week got their first look at the proposed 2011-12 budget, which will take effect in September.
If commissioners approve the budget on August 8, the county will have $14.9 million to work with, up $2.5 million from last year’s budget.
The increase is going to two building projects on the county’s to-do list this year: new classrooms at West Elementary School and the construction of the Swain County Business Education and Training Center on Buckner Branch.
The property tax rate will stay the same, despite the additional spending. The school project is being paid for out of a capital reserve fund where savings had been set aside for school construction.
The training center, a joint effort by Southwestern Community College, the Fontana Regional Library, Swain County Schools and the county, is being underwritten by a $1.1 million grant from Duke Energy.
The elementary school upgrade is coming from a capital reserve fund set aside for school improvements suggested by a committee last year.
Otherwise, the budget is nearly identical to last year’s numbers, but the county will have to take a $158,000 dip into its fund balance to come out with a balanced budget.
That, said King, is because the county has suddenly lost around $300,000 in revenue it has counted on for years from the Tennessee Valley Authority.
As a government entity, TVA doesn’t pay property taxes, but does make “payments in lieu of taxes” for Fontana Dam and its generators. A new formula for the payments has drastically reduced what Swain historically got and diverted the money to Graham County instead.
That’s affected their fund balance too. The county was chastised in 2009 by the Local Government Commission for letting the fund balance, essentially the county’s savings account, dip too low. State law mandates that the account be at a minimum of 8 percent of the county’s annual budget, equivalent to one month’s expenses.
“Last year it was at about 13 percent,” said King. “But we’ve had decreases in our TVA [revenue], so it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of about 10 percent.”
He said he’s not yet certain of the exact numbers, since he is expecting some payments to the county’s accounts soon that will change the account’s balance.
The bottom line, though, is that revenues are down. And unless expenditures start dropping with them, the county must keep returning to the prospect of raiding its savings.
Currently, Swain is taking Graham County to court over the lost TVA monies. King said they hope to have their money back within a year. But Graham has filed a suit of its own, so the legal entanglements might not be so easy to sort out.
The proposed budget will be available at the Swain County Administration Building until Aug. 8, when commissioners will host a budget hearing and then vote on the document.
Local and state leaders in Western North Carolina are vigorously opposing a cost-savings plan to consolidate administrations of 15 of the state’s smallest community colleges, including those of Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College.
A joint state legislative committee on government efficiency has recommended merging the leadership of community colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students. The group said this would save taxpayers about $5 million a year.
“I’m still not clear in my own mind about what exactly we are try to accomplish through this, except to save a little bit on administration,” said Bill Upton, a Haywood County commissioner and a retired educator of 38 years. “But what is it going to cost? Ultimately, I think it would be the staff and students who would suffer.”
Scott Ralls, president of the state’s community college system, agreed with Upton, saying what isn’t clear on a simple spreadsheet “is the role of community in community colleges.”
SEE ALSO: Are community colleges efficient?
“HCC, for example, is the best community college in the nation — for Haywood County,” Ralls said in an interview last week at Haywood Community College. He was in town for a meeting of the state’s community college presidents.
Over the decades, counties and schools such as Haywood County and HCC have together created this community-unique college, Ralls said, with the programs and the instructors tailored to fit the needs of Haywood County’s residents. Start lumping the leadership of various community colleges together, and you risk destroying what is arguably one of the best community college systems in the U.S., he said.
“The nature of these colleges would not be as colleges anymore, but as the campuses of other colleges,” Ralls said.
Any potential savings would be negated by the heavy toll, in terms of the loss of its colleges, to the communities involved, Ralls said.
HCC President Rose Johnson serves as an example of what intricate roles a community college leader plays in the lives of residents. Johnson became president of HCC in January 2006.
She helped start a green initiative through the chamber. She has volunteered on the elk project in Cataloochee Valley. And Johnson has worked directly with local businesses such as Evergreen Packaging to tailor employee training.
President Ralls said the smaller, rural colleges listed in the report for consolidation provide education and training in 36 counties with an average unemployment rate of 11 percent, compared to the current state average of 9.7 percent. They include nearly half of the state’s 40 most economically depressed counties.
Additionally, 23 percent of the funding for the state community college systems comes now via the support of local county commission boards.
On a practical level, Ralls said, how willing will those community leaders be to keep chipping in dollars if local control is jerked away?
Probably not very willing at all, said Conrad Burrell, chairman of Southwestern Community College’s Board of Trustees and a former Jackson County commissioner.
“The state’s system was created to serve the needs of the community, and this would be taking away from the community,” Burrell said. “We’re all different, with each of our colleges responding to the differences in the communities. I feel this would be detrimental, and it would be wrong.”
But on paper, and given the difficult economic times, the proposal would appear to have merits. Additionally, SCC seems to exist as a perfect model of how multiple counties actually can be served — and served very well indeed — by a centralized administration. SCC is headquartered in Sylva, with facilities in Macon, Swain, Cashiers and on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Twenty community colleges in North Carolina, such as SCC, already currently serve more than one county.
“The high level of local control that allows colleges leeway in how they implement administrative structures and activities is staunchly supported by college administrators, but it reduces the efficiency of the colleges and the system office,” the report notes. “Back-office functions — administrative activities that do not necessarily require face-to-face interactions, such as payroll or receiving — are performed at every college, resulting in 58 iterations of each activity.”
It’s cheaper per student, too, the larger the college, with the report finding that cost ranged from $447 to $1,679 for each student. As for administrative costs at colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students, the cost per student averaged $983; this compared with $647 at larger institutions.
“Larger colleges benefited from economies of scale,” the report notes.
The mergers would involve combining the administrations of two or more colleges into one, creating a multi-campus college. The government group suggested such functions such as senior administration, financial services, human resources, public information, institutional information and information technology could merge.
In turn, the newly merged administration would determine the staff needed at each campus to ensure smooth operations of the college.
The State Board of Community Colleges would be responsible for determining the actual number of mergers based on the groupings of colleges selected. The government group noted that, assuming each merger involves two schools within 30 miles of each other, at least one of which is a small school, there would be 15 mergers. However, the system could opt to merge three or more schools to create one multi-campus college under the recommendation.
But those educators actually working in the state community college system warn to look deeper.
“If you’re just materialistic in looking at the numbers, maybe it looks good,” said Donald Tomas, who became SCC’s president just at the beginning of this month. “SCC is sitting at 2,800 students right now, with double-digit growth (over the past few years) — are they projecting all this out a few years?”
An apparent lack of projecting into the future contained in the report, and of getting into the nitty-gritty of the numbers actually used to compile the recommendations, is what Tomas said disturbs him the most when he looks at such sweeping recommendations.
“What is the criteria that they are using?” he said. “If you just look at the savings it all sounds good. Until, that is, you get behind the scenes and really try to understand what they are looking at.”
Tomas seems to make a valid point: the report, one that if adopted would make irrevocable changes in the name of saving dollars to North Carolina’s community college system, is just 32 pages in length. It does not assess the rapid growth currently being experienced by the state’s community colleges and how that will play out in the future, nor does it discuss more abstract concepts, including whether there would be continuing local funding support if the recommendations were adopted.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the community college system in North Carolina: The state’s community colleges serve some 243,854 fulltime students, with enrollment over the past few years (since the recession started) increasing by 28 percent, with no drop in numbers anticipated, according to President Ralls.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who served as the vice chancellor of administration and finance for Western Carolina University before retiring after a 30-year career as an educator, said he believes there are too many unanswered questions to take such a huge gamble for relatively small apparent gain.
“Obviously, the identity with a local community college is important to each county and its citizens,” Wooten said in an email. “I believe commissioners will not be as interested in allocating funds for a community college if the local identity is lost. Certainly, there are some efficiencies to be gained by eliminating duplicative administrative positions; however, the local county will be impacted by losing jobs.”
Johnson, president of HCC, believes merging colleges — say, HCC and SCC, though the report doesn’t specify particular mergers, only in broad terms merging the ones that are “too” small — would be bitter pills for the communities being pinpointed to swallow. Each community pushed for a community college, usually provided the land needed for the colleges, handed over many dollars over the years, and have taken enormous satisfaction in the colleges that were built.
“I believe it would remove the pride of having a higher-education institution, that was created by the community and sustained by the community for all these years,” Johnson said. “I believe the greatest danger is of losing that community involvement.”
Thom Brooks, SCC’s vice president for instruction and student services, also believes consolidating college administrations would have serious local consequences.
“Our success as a community college is directly attributable to responsive local leadership that ensures that we meet the unique needs of our students and communities in a timely and effective manner,” Brooks said in an email. “I am unaware of many models where education is enhanced through added bureaucracy and long-distance decision making.”
N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he’ll oppose any move to merge community colleges, terming the report “pennywise and pound foolish.”
“It is a bad idea,” Rapp said, “and it would undercut local autonomy.”
That said, Rapp also emphasized the report points out some areas for increased efficiencies in the state community college system, particularly through combined purchasing power.
President Ralls said there has been movement in that direction, and noted that in recent months the community college system has sought private-sector advice on saving money through collaborative purchasing.
Ralls said while he did not want to dismiss the importance of potentially saving $5 million a year, the truth is the potential savings through mergers represent just .04 percent of an overall education budget of $11.9 billion.
He wrote in summation to the Program Evaluation Division’s recommendation that compiled the recommendations, “I would hope that there may be several places state leaders would want to look first before tackling the costs, both tangible and intangible, that would come through such a drastic change to our state, our citizens’ access to education, our communities and our colleges.”
Dianne Lee is one of the lucky ones — an experienced and talented stained-glass artist, she has a ready-made job to replace at least some of the income she earns at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee.
This month, NCCAT Director Elaine Franklin was forced to notify 50 percent of the teaching center’s workforce they were losing their jobs because of state budget cuts. That translates to about 30 fulltime jobs in Jackson County, plus another five to 10 at the center’s campus in Ocracoke. The annual salaries of the laid-off workers ranged from the lower end of $20,000 up to $80,000, Franklin said.
Lee was one of the victims. She has worked at NCCAT for 18 of the institution’s 25 years, helping with programs and running NCCAT’s Alumni Weekends. NCCAT provides training and development for teachers around the state, keeping them inspired and, in turn, more likely to stay in the profession.
“I’m going to make lemon out of lemonade,” said Lee, who in a lengthy phone interview sounded more worried about her colleagues’ employment prospects than her own. “I am losing sleep over them — some are scared to death.”
And, in fact, it’s not going to be easy in this harsh economic climate for the NCCAT workers to replace those state salaries and benefits. They are more likely, experts say, to join the ranks of the growing underemployed in North Carolina.
“This thing has come in waves,” said Victor Moore of OnTrack Financial Education and Counseling, a nonprofit based in Asheville that offers consumer credit advice for North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties.
Moore said the first wave of help seekers to come to OnTrack when the recession hit were people who basically had engaged in bad loans and were defaulting at the first hint of economic trouble. Then, the construction and building industry faltered, and threw many in the region out of work. The land speculators were next — plans to “flip” properties and make quick profits were no longer viable options, and some people with second homes were also soon in trouble.
Now, to an extent, come the underemployed, Moore said. These might be workers who find a lower paying job, but can’t bank on 40 hours a week and aren’t working up to their earning potential.
Lee, for instance, won’t necessarily start showing up in the official monthly unemployment rate, because she will be operating her business, the Stained Glass Bungalow in Waynesville.
The unemployment rate decreased in just under half of North Carolina’s 100 counties in May, which state officials attributed to a rise in seasonal employment. The state rate was 9.7 percent for that month. Jackson stood at 8.8 percent, Haywood 9 percent, Macon 9.9 percent and Swain 11.1 percent unemployment.
But those numbers fail to take into account the underemployed, a demographic Lee and her laid-off colleagues who are lucky enough to find work are likely to fit — people in WNC who lose one level of job and pay, and are forced to accept a lower level job for less pay and, often, fewer hours.
“Because they are not just going to go out and find comparable employment right now,” said Amy Grimes, director of The Community Table, a soup kitchen in Sylva. “Or, the jobs they can get pay them less than collecting unemployment, which was based on the job lost.”
A recent survey at The Community Table showed an increase in the number of people seeking help who are college educated, Grimes said.
Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, said the unemployment numbers don’t truly reveal the extent of the problem.
“They don’t include the people who have given up on the system,” Clasby said, adding that he worries about what’s coming down the pike for North Carolina.
The state budget problems might continue to compound, he said, leading to even more job losses in the local and state governmental sectors.
“It could be an even bigger problem next year,” Clasby said.
Franklin, head of NCCAT, gets emotional when she talks about having to lay off about half of the 82-member staff, which followed a budget cut by the state General Assembly from $6.1 million to $3.1 million.
This wasn’t about performance issues, this was about money, said Franklin.
“We’re losing good people,” Franklin said, apologizing for tearing up during the interview. “We also told them we hoped to be getting funding through grants and contracts — I hope to hire them back if we can.”
Lee said she has no bitter feelings toward NCCAT or Franklin, she just regrets losing a job she loved so much. Franklin, Lee said, did what she had to do following such drastic budget cuts.
“NCCAT is the only organization in the nation who does this sort of work for (state) teachers,” Lee said. “I cannot tell you how much it means to me.”
Lee has just two years left before she could draw full retirement benefits from the state, and she said there is a possibility that she’ll move to get the necessary time in with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
There are jobs openings to be found locally, but they pay $8.50 to $9 or so an hour, said Ann Howell, branch manager in Sylva for the N.C. Employment Security Commission. Howell went last week to NCCAT to talk with the people being laid-off.
“I try to be positive,” the 26-year agency veteran said. “You’ve got to be positive — new doors open everyday. Right now, in these times, perhaps it’s not the brightest doors, but there are some jobs out there.”
The N.C. JobConnector is a new state service that’s proving helpful, she said. It uses an automated system that matches job orders and job seekers based on job-order requirements and job-seekers’ experiences. People are alerted by email to possible employment opportunities — kind of like match.com for employers and prospective employees.
Dale West, a regional manager for the Employment Security Commission based in Macon County, said she is stunned by the impact the construction drop-off had to Western North Carolina’s overall economy, and that the waves are continuing to roll in.
“I knew the construction trade was a major force in our economy, but I’m not sure I understood how big a force it was,” she said.
The jobs lost did not come in one fell swoop, West said, but in a continuous trickle from such tangential businesses as building supply companies.
“A few from lots of different places,” she said.
West also pointed out that many of the people who work in construction or related trades can’t draw unemployment because they worked as sub-contractors, and their bosses did not have to file unemployment taxes as a result.