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Swain and Graham counties are at odds over who should provide rescue service to the isolated Deals Gap territory, a dispute that could lead to a redrawing of county lines.
The Deal’s Gap area is a satellite territory of Swain County, lying on the other side of Lake Fontana and surrounded by Graham.
Deal’s Gap is home to the infamous Tail of the Dragon, a stretch of U.S. 129 sporting 318 curves in just 11 miles. Motorcyclists and sports car drivers flock to the road from across the country to race the mountain curves. The result is lots of wrecks, requiring rescue service to an otherwise remote area. Until now, Graham has taken on the burden of responding to wrecks since it is so much closer.
“When it started getting popular, what was no more than four or five calls a year at most has turned into a nightmare,” said Steve Odom, the chairman of Graham County commissioners.
Graham County has grown weary of providing rescue, fire and law enforcement to the increasingly popular area and getting nothing in return.
“Graham County is trying to be a good neighbor, but it has gotten to the point where it has exceeded the good neighbor part,” said Lynn Cody, Graham County manager.
Graham is giving Swain County three options: move the county line so that Deal’s Gap is part of Graham, pay an annual fee to Graham County, or station their own rescue personnel and law enforcement in the area.
“If we are going to take care of it, we should just have it part of Graham County,” said Sandra Smith, a Graham County commissioner. Smith proposed petitioning the state legislature to redraw the county line. But they decided to first sit down with Swain County leaders before running to Raleigh.
Graham and Swain county commissioners met on Tuesday (July 28) to discuss the issue.
Swain County will likely fight any attempt by Graham to take over the territory — or the property tax revenue that goes with it. Swain collects $195,000 a year in property taxes from the 1,900-acre territory.
Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said he would rather the county provide emergency services to the area themselves — despite the long distance — than cede territory to Graham County or pay an annual fee.
“Let’s face it. Every county is scrambling for money and their piece of the pie,” said Brad Talbot, owner of Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. Talbot agrees that both counties have legitimate issues to work out, however.
Tit for tat
Graham County leaders claim their residents are bearing the burden of providing services in Swain County and need money — whether it’s the property tax revenue from Deal’s Gap or an annual contribution from Swain — to offset their costs.
“It all boils down to finances,” Odom said.
Graham County responds to an average of 30 wrecks a year on the Swain County portion of the Tail of the Dragon, many of them with serious injuries that tie up medics and ambulances for hours.
Swain County countered that patients are billed for ambulance service, so the county recoups most of their costs. But not all patients pay up, resulting in a net loss, Smith said. And other patients decide to drive to the hospital on their own or are treated by medics at the scene and never taken to the hospital, so the county is unable to bill them at all.
“That’s a lose situation for us because we don’t get paid for it. It is a dead run,” Odom said.
Graham budgeted $890,000 on EMS services last year and only collected $725,000 from patients.
According to David Breedlove, the emergency services director for Swain, no county is able to break even on emergency services.
While Graham County presented charts and dispatch logs showing the number of calls and accidents its people responded to in Deal’s Gap, Swain County countered with some facts and figures of its own. Since Graham County has no hospital, many patients from there are brought to the hospital in Bryson City. Many are then sent on to the larger hospitals in Sylva or Asheville, a service provided by Swain County’s ambulances. Swain County provides transport for an average of 100 Graham County residents a year from the Bryson City hospital to their final destination.
Breedlove said it balances out the services Graham provides in Deal’s Gap.
Swain County commissioners mostly listened during the meeting on Tuesday as Graham County leaders laid out their position. The two boards decided to reconvene at 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 24, in Robbinsville.
“We got a lot of the plate. We’ve got to digest some if it,” said Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County commissioners.
What is Swain doing all the way out there?
The Deal’s Gap territory is technically part of Swain County, even though it lies on the other side of Fontana Lake, isolated from the rest of the county and surrounded by Graham County.
It hasn’t always been that way, however. The convoluted geography dates back to the creation of Lake Fontana. The Little Tennessee River once served as the county line between Swain and Graham. When the river was dammed up and a vast territory along the lakeshore was ceded to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Deal’s Gap area became inaccessible to the rest of Swain County without driving all the way around the lake and through Graham County to get there.