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The lowdown on the high end

fr wootenThe vibe in the Cashiers library was thick with polite tension as Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten recently stood before a roomful of curious skeptics.

The undertone was summed up by an audience member about halfway through the meeting.

“The feeling in this community is that we contribute a substantial amount in taxes and get very little back in services,” said a man a couple of rows back. “It seems to me that you all need to see how you can make this more equitable.”

The county manager had been invited up the hill to Jackson’s southern end by the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce. The meeting included niceties and formalities, but with an unmistakable whiff of contention. 

“If there are services we’re leaving out, please let us know and we’ll see what we can do about that,” Wooten told the man. 

In addition to the notion of taxes-to-services inequities, discussion during the meeting ranged from fire taxes to ABC store profits to planning board appointments. Other subjects brought up included residents’ perceived wealth and the possibility of getting a new stoplight near Ingles. The audience also had questions about county spending on education,  social services and illegal immigrants.  

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“It looks like historically Cashiers has been doing the heavy lifting,” said a man in attendance.

The township of Cashiers, together with the township of Hamburg, brings in almost 60 percent of the property taxes collected in all of Jackson.

The two townships also produce the most real estate sales. Property transactions in Hamburg in 2013 totaled $46.2 million while Cashiers transactions totaled $71.6 million. The next highest was Dillsboro, at a significantly lower $14.8 million. 

“It is a truth, not a myth. It is what it is,” said Wooten, flashing up property value figures on a projection screen. “There’s absolutely no doubt what’s happening up here on the mountain is significant.”

This is the reason some Cashiers residents appear miffed at the amount of services the area receives from the county. They are paying plenty and wondering if they’re getting overlooked.

One man in attendance complained that there was a perception that services were not needed by the residents of Cashiers.

“I think there’s an assumption that all the people on top of the hill are rich,” he told Wooten. “I assure you we are not.”

The county manager proceeded to lay out a case to the contrary, mathematically illustrating a possible dearth in need. In addition to having a wealth of high-end properties and sales figures, the area also boasts a lot of second-homeowners who live elsewhere.

While Cashiers and Hamburg do indeed account for about 60 percent of the property taxes in Jackson, they are home to only about 10 percent of the county’s population. 

Wooten pointed to the 2010 Census, which indicated that 75 percent of the properties in Cashiers are not occupied by fulltime residents. Such property owners simply don’t require the amount fiscal muscle that populations elsewhere in the county do.

“A lot of tax base is being contributed by people that do not require a lot of services,” Wooten told the crowd in Cashiers. “Let’s face it.”

After explaining that certain services, such as a courts facility, would not be practical to offer in the area, and others, such as schools, seemed currently sufficient, the county manager asked attendees what services they were in need of.

An indoor pool topped this list — it was suggested that Wooten contact a pool designer involved with the 1996 Olympics, who has a home in the area. 

“It’s perfect timing,” Wooten said, “because we’re right in the middle of budget preparations.”

After the meeting, Cashiers Chamber Executive Director Stephanie Edwards said the brimming room was indicative of the amount of community interest and that she was familiar with some of the concerns voiced by attendees. She cheered for the “dialogue” and said it is important to “understand the facts and understand the process of involvement.”

“I think there’s always going to be issues we don’t agree on,” Edwards said. “That’s natural.”

Wooten shook hands and thanked people for their interest as the room emptied out. He noted something about “some great questions” and the evening going “well” as he packed up his presentation. At the next Jackson County commissioners meeting, he’d turn to words like “outstanding” and “positive” to describe the evening’s “back-and-forth.”

But before leaving the library in Cashiers, Wooten quietly summed up a message he hoped the evening’s attendees had heard.

“We have to look at the county as a whole,” Wooten smiled. 

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