“I would expect in 2015 that if we have done better on the poverty rate, we’ll see our poverty rate and our tier ranking improve,” Wooten told county commissioners at a meeting last week.
The N.C. Department of Commerce ranks counties as a 1, 2, or 3 based on several economic factors, with a 3 ranking going to those with the strongest economies. Depending on where counties fall in the ranking, they are able to offer differing tax breaks to news businesses based on job creation and salary expectations. The system was designed to encourage economic development in the state’s most depressed areas.
However, the irony of the rankings has been that some counties prefer remaining in the “economically distressed” category in order to have a better package of tax breaks to dangle in front of potential new business or industry.
Wooten, though, thinks Jackson County should move from a 1 to a 2 ranking when the Department of Commerce releases new evaluations in 12 months.
“Unfortunately, since our poverty rate is above 19 percent and our population is less than 50,000, by statute we have to be a tier 1,” Wooten told commissioners.
The recently released rankings for 2014 list Jackson’s poverty rate a 19.5 percent. Only 29 North Carolina counties have a higher poverty rate.
Wooten, who was previously a vice chancellor at Western Carolina University, thinks the poverty rate of students, part-time students and former students living in and around Cullowhee are partly to blame for the high poverty rate.
“Students living around Cullowhee are poor. That’s something we all know,” said Wooten.
Jackson County had a tier 2 ranking in 2012 and first dropped to a tier 1 in 2013. Swain has a tier 1 ranking also while Macon County has a tier 2 ranking. In the just-released data, Haywood County fell from a tier 3 to a tier 2 ranking.
Economic tier rankings
Haywood 3 2
Jackson 1 1
Swain 1 1
Macon 2 2