Discouraged but not defeated, Swain continues quest for overdue cash settlement
The outlook for Swain County doesn’t look any better this year than it did the last three years in its quest to make good on the government’s stale promise of a cash settlement.
Despite being promised $4 million a year during a 10-year period, it seems Swain County is once again being stiffed by the federal government. The county inked the deal in 2010, releasing the federal government from its obligation to rebuild a county road flooded by the creation of Fontana Lake in the 1940s. The county agreed to a $52 million cash settlement in lieu of rebuilding the flooded-out road through the Smokies. But the county hasn’t gotten the annual payment for the past four years, and the allocation was left out the president’s budget again for the coming year.
“The current administration was going to put those monies in their budget. They have failed to do that,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers. “It doesn’t look real promising from a priority standpoint with the administration right now.”
The budget for 2014 is a continuation budget, meaning there will be little room for new allocations, Meadows explained. Had the money been included in the 2013 budget, it may have found its way into the 2014 budget as well.
Since taking office earlier this year, Meadows has worked with Swain County leaders to get the money its residents are owed with no luck.
“It’s very frustrating and disappointing,” said Leonard Winchester, a member of the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County who was an active participant in the North Shore Road settlement process.
When the deal was signed in 2010, the county received an initial lump sum of $12.8 million. It hasn’t seen any more money since.
In 2011, the money was cut from the federal budget following an across-the-board crack down on earmarks. This year, legislators said the allocation was accidentally left out of the budget, and next year is the same story.
Only in 2012 did any money — $4 million to be exact — actually get appropriated for Swain County. It was inserted into the National Park Service’s construction budget, and the National Park Service was then supposed to hand the money over to Swain County. However, the $4 million got caught up in bureaucracy. For two years now, Park Service leaders have refused to let the money go without an additional authorization from Congress, even though the federal General Accounting Office ruled that a seperate act of Congress is not necessary.
“I guess since we don’t need it, we are going to have to get it,” Swain County Manager Kevin King said sarcastically. “Another way the government is keeping us from getting what we deserve.”
King was part of a Swain leadership delegation that visited Washington, D.C., at the end of last month.
At this pace, the North Shore agreement will expire before Swain County receives what it was promised.
“If it wasn’t paid in 10 years, they don’t owe us none of it,” Commissioner David Monteith said.
The county could negotiate an extension of the agreement, but given its past luck, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.
King and Commissioners Monteith and Phil Carson visited Washington, D.C., in late July to meet with Department of the Interior officials and hopefully convince them to release the hung-up $4 million that’s been sitting in the park service budget with Swain’s name on it since 2012.
“That was the biggest reason we went up there,” King said. “It didn’t go as we had planned.”
The attorneys with the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, fed the county the same line as last year — the money is there; it just needs the authorization. It was the same line, even though this year the county had the backing of the General Accounting Office ruling saying that in fact extra authorization is not actually needed.
So, Meadows plans to introduce two pieces of legislation into the U.S. House in the next couple of weeks — one would force the park service to part with Swain County’s $4 million and the other would authorize the park service to pay out the remaining cash settlement balance of $35.2 million when it is appropriated.
“I just want them to get what they are due,” Meadows said, adding that Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., has been very involved as well and will carry the bills through the U.S. Senate.
Meadows split the two sums to give the $4 million authorization bill a better chance at passage.
“The lower the dollar amount, the lower the resistance,” Meadows said. “I want to make sure the $4 million is appropriated.”
Plus, the companion authorization bill won’t actually net Swain County any money unless Congress allocates more settlement funds in the National Park Service budget. It is unlikely that the park service would willingly take money from its budget to fork over the $35.2 million unless that much is allocated through the federal budget.
“I don’t see that happening really,” Meadows said.
But that way, if it is allocated, the park service can’t pull the song and dance about not having authorization.
As a freshman representative, Meadows was dragged into the fray of the ongoing fight between Swain County and federal government from day one in D.C. Meadows said he was previously optimistic that an agreement could be reached with the park service.
“I believed for the last 60 days that we would not have to go this route,” he said.
Both Meadows’ and Hagan’s offices have reached out to various committee chairs, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Hayden Rogers — Meadows’ one-time political opponent and current chief of staff to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. — anyone who can help further their cause.
“A standalone authorization bill is difficult. At the same time, we have been making the case … that the money was appropriated, and it was paid in for this specific purpose,” Meadows said. “When you appropriated for a specific purpose, it needs to be paid out to that.”
Department of Interior officials have told both Meadows and the Swain County leaders that they are ready to sign the check as soon as the authorization bill passes.
“(National Park Service Comptroller Bruce Sheaffer) has indicated twice that he would be glad to write the check and wants to write the check,” Meadows said.
Winchester was pessimistic about the chances of the bill moving through Congress.
“Introducing a bill like that and getting it passed are two different things,” Winchester said.
Considering its past struggles to obtain the North Shore settlement money, Swain County may need an act of God, in addition to act of Congress, if it hopes to see the rest of the money the federal government owes it.
“We have got to have the National Park Service do their part, and they are not,” Winchester said.
But that doesn’t keep the county leaders from continually plugging away.
“We call. We call everybody once a week to say, ‘Hey, we are here,’” King said about his frequent calls to federal officials and legislators.
Meadows said King and the commissioners have worked tireless to get the money owed to the county.
“Those county commissioners are daily trying to look out for the best interest of the people they serve. It makes me want to work twice as hard,” Meadows said.