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Misleading claim by Down Home North Carolina isn’t their first

A social media post from April, 2018 shows another exaggerated claim of victory by           Down Home North Carolina. Facebook photo A social media post from April, 2018 shows another exaggerated claim of victory by Down Home North Carolina. Facebook photo

Perhaps the only true statement in a June 7 Down Home North Carolina email is that the fight against jail expansion in Haywood County is far from over, but given the rest of the email’s misleading content, it’s no longer clear if the nonprofit activist group has the credibility to remain part of that fight. 

“When I first opened the email, it just kinda took me aback,” said Haywood County Commissioner Brandon Rogers. “It’s definitely misleading.”

The email came hours after a June 7 Haywood County budget meeting; members of Down Home had organized against the possibility of Haywood County constructing a $16 million jail expansion almost as soon as it was first mentioned in late 2019, speaking out at meetings and holding demonstrations while demanding funding for mental health and drug treatment instead of incarceration

When the Haywood budget was approved that morning, Down Home’s communications team seized on the fact that the budget did not list the $16 million jail expansion project. 

“Today, with a vote of 3-2 the Haywood County Commissioners chose not to include the $16.5 million dollar jail expansion project in the county’s budget,” reads the email, which had the subject line, “This morning, a win in Haywood!”

The email goes on to claim that “Having this costly project not be included in the budget should be seen as a big win for our community” and that “Our efforts prove that when we work together and build our power, we can and will win.”

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There’s just one problem with that, though. The jail project will likely never appear in the budget, because that’s not how local governments pay for capital projects. 

“The jail project has never been in the budget. It wasn’t even discussed to be in the budget, so I don’t know where they were coming from with that,” said Commissioner Tommy Long. “They didn’t talk anybody down from putting it in a budget or voting for it or voting against it, so the statement they made was just totally inaccurate.”

Large capital projects, like the jail expansion or Waynesville’s new sewer plant, are usually funded through any combination of grants, fund balance allocation and/or loans — commercial or institutional — but are almost never budgeted as a line-item for the full amount. 

Although the county is still very early in the process and has spent only a small sum on soil evaluation tests at the proposed site, Down Home’s role in the project’s progress is overstated, according to Commissioner Jennifer Best. 

“When people come to the commissioners’ meetings and they speak, we definitely listen to their concerns. I met with some of the Down Home group right after I was seated,” said Best. “Many of them have come on different days and spoken at the commissioners’ meetings and we definitely listened to them, but their efforts did not stop us from proceeding with jail expansion.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said that there’s plenty more discussion to come on the jail project and that funding mental health and substance abuse treatment won’t entirely prevent the need for a new jail, but he agreed that the claims by Down Home weren’t accurate. 

“Yes, the email is misleading, but how many things aren’t nowadays?” Kirkpatrick said. 

Chairman Kevin Ensley said that at least two other media outlets asked him about the email and were under the impression the project had been mothballed. 

“I said, ‘Look, this was a little bit of misinformation,’” Ensley told them. 

When reached for comment, Vicente Cortez, Down Home’s organizing director based in its Burlington office, couldn’t demonstrate an understanding of local government finance. 

“I know that budgets have to be finalized by July 1 and that’s what the spending will be for the next year and we were expecting the county commission to include some allocations for this jail expansion in their budget,” said Cortez. “They did not, so we consider that a win.”

Confronted with comments from all five commissioners who called the email misleading, Cortez refused to back down from calling the event a victory. 

“We won this arc of the campaign,” he said. “Commissioners passed their biggest spending package of the year, and there were no funds allocated to the jail.”

The misleading statements in the June 7 email aren’t the first made by Down Home, but they do contribute to a pattern of exaggerated claims of success. 

In April 2018, almost 30 Down Home supporters showed up  to a meeting of the Waynesville board of aldermen to ask that the town pay all its employees a living wage of at least $12.30 an hour. 

They were quickly told that only seven out of 175 town employees earned less than that, and that the lowest-paid workers made $12.15 an hour, and that budget plans long in the works would soon elevate those remaining seven employees to at least $12.30 an hour.  

When the group emerged from the meeting, they immediately took to Facebook, proclaiming, “Thanks to the efforts of our Haywood County chapter, the Town Council has committed to wage raises by July 1.”

A dubious claim, to be sure — considering the pre-existing budgetary plans to raise those seven employees from the $12.15 level. 

“I’ll say I appreciate their involvement, their wanting to get involved, but when you’re not factual or you’re misleading, like they are, I don’t know that they have the credibility that they need to make you listen to what they’ve got to say,” Rogers said. “I’m always open to listening to what anybody has to say, but when they’re misleading and it’s a pattern, you take a little pause. It makes you not want to listen.” 

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