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Census tract limits Swain’s options for ARP spending

Census tract limits Swain’s options for ARP spending

Swain County Board of Commissioners voted to spend its American Rescue Plan allocation on pay for employees since a guideline regarding “qualified census tracts” limits the county’s ability to put the money toward infrastructure projects. 

Swain County Manager Kevin King said the ARP guidelines say that the population of an area has to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic and the criteria for deciding that is by having a qualified census tract. 

“They (the Department of Treasury) look at a county’s population density and minority groups in the area — that’s a qualified census tract and we don’t have one,” he said. “It puts a lot of counties at a disadvantage.”

Not that Swain’s allocation — $2.77 million — would have gone far toward any major infrastructure projects like expanding water/sewer or broadband, which is why Swain followed suit with Macon County by increasing pay for its employees instead. 

“We’re doing what Macon and lot of other counties are doing by offering premium pay,” King said. “It’s hard with the amount of money we got, we couldn’t get into the assistance programs for sewer and water. We wanted to look at the Ela area, but we knew we couldn’t qualify because of the way the law is currently written.” 

Improving pay for employees seemed a safer route, especially since the county has also struggled to recruit and retain employees the last few years. Just like Macon County, Swain continued to lose public health and public safety employees to surrounding agencies that could offer more competitive pay. 

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Commissioners approved offering $1.50 more an hour for three years for full-time employees up to 40 hours a week. Similar to Macon, that premium pay will be retroactive back to March when ARP was passed. 

 “I think this will make the county more marketable,” King said. “If they would go back and look at changing the requirements it might be different, but right now we don’t feel comfortable spending the money on anything else. I think we did the right thing.”

King said he was hopeful other money would become available specifically for infrastructure projects. The North Carolina state budget that recently passed included some funding for Swain County projects, including $50,000 for improvements at Alarka Community Center; $250,000 for improvements to the county fairgrounds and $100,000 to replace the HVAC system at the county recreation center. 

King said Swain as well as Haywood County is expecting to get additional funds from the federal PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) program this year. The PILT program provides payments to counties and other local governments to offset losses in tax revenues due to the presence of substantial federal land acreage within their jurisdictions.

King said Swain could end up seeing $1 million a year in additional PILT funds since Swain is 85 percent occupied by federally owned land.

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