Audience chastised for applauding nonprofit leader’s mishap
Members of Waynesville’s Board of Aldermen responded harshly to applause from the audience after payments to a nonprofit contractor were suspended because the group didn’t furnish paperwork requested by the town after its executive director was severely injured in an alleged DWI crash.
On July 9, Nicole Kott, founder and executive director of Helping Hands of Haywood, was charged with driving while impaired, reckless driving, failure to wear a seat belt and possession of an open container after failing to negotiate a curve on U.S. 276, striking two mailboxes and then a tree.
According to the citation, her husband told the responding trooper that Kott had been “drinking at the river” and that he’d made their kids ride home with him. Kott was hospitalized with extensive injuries.
“I’m just very sorry and I wish things had turned out differently and I wish I had made a different choice,” Kott told The Smoky Mountain News on Sept. 19.
Back in 2021, aldermen approved a two-year, $70,000 contract with Helping Hands for the purposes of providing temporary shelter to people experiencing homelessness. Contrary to what many have claimed, the money did not come directly from Waynesville taxpayers but rather from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
The first payment of $8,750 was disbursed that October, and subsequent payments of the same amount were made in January, April and July of this year.
Per the contract, Helping Hands is to provide full accounting for the funds, and would only receive subsequent payments after approval by aldermen.
As of Aug. 31, Helping Hands hadn’t supplied the town with receipts from the second quarter of this year. Kott told SMN that she hadn’t planned on submitting the paperwork until it was time to request another disbursement from the town, in October.
Helping Hands also failed to provide a list of responsible parties or a succession plan to town officials.
Each year, the town makes special appropriations to a long list of community partners. Typically, the total amount is equivalent to around one cent on the tax rate. Last fiscal year, the town appropriated $130,000. However, aldermen shaved that total down to $100,000 for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
Only $96,000 was actually appropriated, split among a number of groups including ARC, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Folkmoot, HART, Haywood County Arts Council, Meals on Wheels, Historic Frog Level Merchants Association, CARE, Shelton House, Pigeon Center, REACH, Tuscola High School’s Air Force JRTOC, United Way of Haywood County, Meridian Behavioral Health Services, Waynesville’s Historic Preservation Commission, the Haywood Healthcare Foundation, the American Red Cross, Pathways, Waynesville Public Art Commission and a trio of programs run by Mountain Projects that provide resources to the county’s elderly population, including nutrition assistance.
During a Sept. 13 Board of Aldermen meeting, Town Attorney Martha Bradley said she’d learned from Town Manager Rob Hites that Kott was now paralyzed as a result of the accident. Although that’s not entirely accurate, Kott was hospitalized and unable to walk.
Bradley suggested that the town take a proactive role in the situation by ensuring no more payments could be made until Helping Hands was brought back into compliance.
Alderman Chuck Dickson questioned the need for the suspension, considering that Helping Hands didn’t have a current request before the board, and that aldermen have to approve each requested disbursement at the time of submission anyway.
Bradley explained that the suspension would ensure that in the event the organization carries on with a new executive director, there would be no confusion over the status of its contract with the town.
Mayor Gary Caldwell made the motion to suspend the payments, which was seconded by Alderman Jon Feichter. Once it passed unanimously, some in the crowd began to clap, including frequent critic Shari Morgan.
Morgan, who regularly opines to the board about “socialism,” had earlier called Kott “part of the problem,” and called for an end to the town’s funding of “socialist nonprofits.”
When the applause broke out following the vote, Alderman Anthony Sutton intervened.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “This person has had a catastrophic event occur in their life and they are paralyzed. This is not a moment to celebrate, because certain people are not going to get some of the systems that they need. There is no need to celebrate. It’s catastrophic across the board, and it will affect our community tremendously. There is no reason to celebrate.”
Dickson told Sutton he appreciated Sutton’s statement and chimed in with a statement of his own.
“I’ve been reviewing the North Carolina Constitution recently, which we took an oath to uphold,” Dickson said. “One of the things that’s really kind of interesting in the Constitution is it says that ‘Beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate and the orphan is one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.’”