Democrats ‘struck speechless’ by state budget cuts

Under the newly verdant trees shading the lawn of the historic Haywood County Courthouse, 29 people silently lined the sidewalk last Friday, sending the message that they were “struck speechless” by slashed state funding proposed by House Republicans.

Their signs bore slogans decrying the deep cuts handed down to schools, universities, the elderly and environmental programs, among others.

Pacing in the sun on the courthouse steps behind them, Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was anything but speechless. He’s the group’s spokesperson, and it’s probably fair to say that he’s livid about the cuts.

The phrase that he keeps returning to, and indeed the one that he has trotted out on the House floor throughout the budget debate to characterize the Republican’s approach to cuts, is “ready, shoot, aim.”

There’s no money, he said, he gets it. But there must be a line drawn somewhere, and he is concerned that the money-slashing sword is being drawn too quickly and wielded too loosely.

“We’re talking about fundamental services that are being cut to our people,” said Rapp. “These cuts are draconian, destructive and deeply disappointing.”

The ones he seems most viscerally worked up about are the ones that affect children and the elderly — the House plan calls for $1.2 billion to go from school funding and 50 percent of the money senior centers get would be taken away. Project Care, an in-home service for the elderly that got its start in Haywood County, would be eliminated completely. More at 4, a preschool program would take a big hit, as would its early development companion, Smart Start.

Rapp tends to refer to such educational reductions as “eating our seed corn,” and, he said, he thinks it’s going to have a negative impact on the future.

Rapp and his fellow Democrats have a plan to stave off some of the slash-and-burn that would sweep across the state if a similar budget emerges from fiscal wrangling in the Senate later this month. Rather than cutting the state’s sales tax by a penny, keep the sales tax at its current level. A one-cent sales tax billed as temporary to solve state budget shortfall two years ago was set to expire this year. Keeping it in place would at least defend schools from some of the more painful and deleterious blows.

“Nine-hundred million of that $1.2 billion could be erased by simply continuing that one-cent sales tax,” said Rapp.

The idea, though, isn’t likely to get much traction in a General Assembly that’s ruled by Republicans, many of whom ran on a no-tax-increase platform of fiscal conservatism, or at least promised a lightened tax load.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who bumped out incumbent Democrat John Snow last November, is one of Rapp’s Senate counterparts. He’s not going for the sales tax extension, and his Republican colleagues, he said, are unlikely to do so, either.

“It was a temporary tax for two years and it expires June 30, and if they thought that they needed a tax for longer than that, they should’ve voted for it,” said Davis.

If all goes to plan, he expects that he and his Senate colleagues may be proffering their own budget — similar, he said, to the House offering — within a few weeks.

Davis concedes that these cuts aren’t easy to swallow, but he maintains that, for now, they’re necessary.

“We’re not too excited about cutting good programs, but there’s only so much waste, fraud and abuse in the budget,” said Davis.

Davis said that he is hearing pleas from constituents, however.

“The magnitude of this problem is significant. I have lots and lots of people calling me, writing me letters, emailing me, telling me that they know we have some serious problems, but don’t cut my programs,” said Davis. “This is not easy.”

For Davis, the loss of legitimate programs is lamentable but necessary to right the state’s listing fiscal ship. He’s hopeful that things will soon get better, good programs can be restored and rainy day funds replenished. But today, even a great program may not be great enough to stay around.

“We cannot fix our state budget without touching those items, so some programs are really getting the ax,” said Davis. “But you know, nothing is a good deal if you can’t pay for it.”

Rapp, however, said the cuts have become unpalatable.

“I don’t think the average citizen anticipated the depth of cuts that they’re making,” Rapp said.

Haywood schools bracing for deep state budget cuts

The state’s bloodletting has begun, and for Haywood County Schools, the losses might add up to more than $4 million siphoned off next year’s budget.

School officials have been steadily crunching numbers since the state House of Representatives offered a look into its proposed budget this month, and their calculations paint a fairly grim picture for some of the system’s programs.

Line-item cuts from the state that target specific budget items range from a 5 percent reduction in transportation funding to 100 percent pulled from things like dropout prevention, school technology and staff development.

Those cuts, trimming from 17 categories, total $2.4 million and mean a loss of 46 positions, many of them teacher assistants.

Then there’s the $1.6 million more in “discretionary reversion,” which means that the school system can work out on its own where that money has to be saved, but it’s got to somehow.

Altogether, the proposed House budget would cut 13 percent from the school system’s budget.

Meanwhile, courtesy of another state mandate that governs how much the school system pays into its employees’ retirement and health benefits, they’ll have to spend an extra $138,403 to cover those expenses. And since the percentages they pay into those funds are set by the state every year, they’re stuck with those increased costs.

There are other increases, too, that the school system has identified as needs, but they’re realistic about the likelihood of getting them. From a guidance counselor for Haywood Early College to two school nurse positions to rotate among the schools, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte is careful to say that they’re not just wants, but things the system might need to fund from somewhere.

“We may have to, or lose programs or even lose accreditation,” said Nolte.

In addition to the jump in operating expenses, school officials have found around $1.6 million in capital improvements that will need attention sometime soon. Some of those, like window tinting and new blinds, aren’t particularly urgent.

Some, like exit doors stuck shut by warped sidewalks, can’t wait.  

All this at a time when the county, too, is looking at its budget, trying to trim fat in anticipation of its own cuts from the state.

It would seem, then, that the schools are in a predicament. And that is the pitch education officials gave to county commissioners this week when they met to float their potential budget and test the waters on what kind of support they’d be getting from commissioners this year.

Though they didn’t pin down an exact percent increase on what they got last year, they’re looking to commissioners to at least stick to the funding formula they’ve been using for the last few years, and any extra on those capital projects and operating increases they could scrape up wouldn’t hurt, either.

They’re not looking for any help, though, in making up the difference cut by the state because, said Nolte, they’re well aware that more cash from the county just isn’t there.

“I don’t think we can, in good conscience, expect the commissioners to come up with revenue that they don’t have,” said Nolte. “It’s impractical, in my professional opinion, to say to our county commissioners, ‘Hey, the state cut all of this; fund it.’ There is a worldwide economic crisis, and to our knowledge, our commissioners do not have new revenues that would make up for any state cuts to any agencies.”

But with finances tight on every front, what they’re asking might still be too much.

“If we fund you at your requested level, that would be a 1.5 cent increase on the tax rate. That’s what you’re asking us to do,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the board’s lone Republican. Ensley told school officials that, while he understood their problems, he was committed to a revenue-neutral budget, which would be a hard feat to accomplish while doling out extra money.

When asked what they would do if the county couldn’t fund them with any extra dollars, Superintendent Anne Garrett said they’d make do.

“Well, we would have to make it work because we wouldn’t have a choice,” said Garrett.

But even if the county does pony up for as much as the school needs, it will still mean some pretty painful slashing next year.

Last year, of the school system’s $72.5 million budget, the state picked up the tab for 62 percent of it. They’ve been reducing funding pretty steadily since recession came into full bloom in 2009; the system has lost $5.2 million since that year.

But this year, they will, at one time, be losing 77 percent of what they’ve lost in the past three years combined.

In terms of real jobs, the biggest hits are coming for teacher assistants. A whopping 49 percent of state funding for those positions is going right out the window, which translates to 32 assistants.

While the state suggests that every class through the third grade have a dedicated assistant, Haywood County can’t reach that threshold with the resources it has now. Apparently, no one can, according to school officials.

Right now, they’ve got assistants in all the kindergarten and first-grade classes, with a few rotating in second and third grades. If the House cuts go through, that would whittle that number significantly, essentially down to just the kindergarten aides.

Nolte said they would probably be able to stave off that particular carnage thanks to some forward planning last year. They got a slice of a federal money pie called EduJobs and then promptly squirreled it away for just such an occasion. They can now dip into it to fund some positions in the coming year.

Here’s the problem with that, though: it’s only enough to fill in that gap for one year. And depending on the state of the financial world this time next year, they could be back in the same place.

“Basically, what we’re doing is trying to do one more year and hope it comes back,” said Commissioner Michael Sorrells.

In other places, though, they don’t have the caches to shore up the gaping funding holes the state might leave.

Some school bus replacements will have to be put on hold and dropout prevention, staff development and several other programs will be scuttled altogether.

One pretty high number on the House cuts list is the 68 percent of textbook funding they’d pull. But, said Nolte, that’s not the big hit that it seems, as Haywood schools have been moving away from textbook reliance for a while now.

It makes sense — in a digital world, it’s unlikely that the classroom will be the only bastion of traditional paper texts. It helped their test scores, said Nolte, and now it’s helping their bottom line, too.

If the Senate’s budget is anything like the austerity of the House’s, school officials said that next year will be tough. But they’ve been preparing for this situation since 2009, having been forewarned by economists and government sources alike that the upcoming school year would be the nadir of the crisis for public finances. It’ll be rough, but they can probably ride it out.

There are a few stashes here and there that the school system could raid if things got dire, their yearly lottery payout being the fattest. But with 16 schools and even more offices, Nolte said they’re protecting that money to use for maintaining the buildings and grounds, since all the other pools that once paid for those improvements are drying up.

“We have 1.47 million square feet under roof, and it just takes some revenue to fix the pipes and the valves that start to leak and the roofs that wear out,” said Nolte.

Plus, he said, that final pot may soon be gone, too, diverted to other state needs. Two years ago, the school stopped getting ADM funding, which gave them money based on their schools’ pupil population.

“The lottery is being seriously eyed by the legislature,” said Nolte.

Really, though, what he’s concerned about is what comes next if things don’t get better. There comes a point where only so much that can be cut, and he worries that they’re on the express train to it.

“At some point in time, there’s going to be a straw or two that breaks the camel’s back. There’s really not a lot of cushion left there,” said Nolte. “We’ve lost over 50 positions in the last three years and we’ve tried to spread those, but at some point in time, there’ll be a saturation point.”

Folkmoot funding gets the ax

Folkmoot festival has lost a vital source of advertising money, jeopardizing its ability to lure visitors to Haywood County during the festival’s two-week summer run.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority announced its intention this month to yank its annual contribution to Folkmoot USA. The TDA has given Folkmoot between $6,000 and $12,000 every year since the festival’s inception in 1984.

Folkmoot President Chuck Dickson made a heartfelt pitch to the TDA board last week, asking them to reinstate the funding.

“Folkmoot has helped put Haywood County on the map and has definitely enhanced Haywood County’s reputation as a tourist destination,” Dickson told the 15 members of the TDA board.

TDA board members cited a still-slumping economy and overhead associated with a new downtown Waynesville visitor center as the culprits.

The festival turns Haywood County into an international bazaar every July, with more than 200 dancers and musicians from a dozen countries staging a series of performances and parades. The TDA funding is spent marketing the festival to audiences across the South.

Last year, Folkmoot only got a portion of what they requested — $6,000 of the $9,000 they were looking for — which covered just under a third of the $19,000 spent on advertising.

Cutting the contribution altogether would hurt Folkmoot’s ability to publicize the festival. Dickson said Folkmoot helps TDA achieve its own mission of luring overnight visitors.

“We put heads in beds — perhaps more than any other event in Haywood County,” said Dickson. “In 2010, 5,000 people attended ticketed events, 2,000 attended free events, and over 50,000 attended the parade and Festival Day, two events for which Folkmoot receives absolutely no money.”

Dickson came armed with both a crowd of Folkmoot supporters and an economic impact study done by Western Carolina University in 2008.

The study walks through the particulars of just how much money and business the festival pulls into the county, but the final total was over $4 million for the 2007 festival.

“These contributions not only increase the appeal of the festival from year to year, but help reinforce the attractiveness of the area in general and that of all other cultural events in the region,” summarized the study.


TDA cuts spurred by budget woes of its own

None of the TDA board members were arguing against that claim. In fact, several espoused the merits of having such a large and unique event housed in the county for such a long time.

However, they weren’t enamored enough to restore the funding.

The TDA board cited the same oft-repeated reason for budget cuts heard at the local, state and national levels of late: it’s the economy, what else can we do?

“It’s more about looking at harsh finances right now and looking at the bigger picture. I would rather give people more money, but we’re just in a situation with the budget and the money’s just not coming in,” said Jennifer Duerr, TDA board member and owner of the Windover Inn.

The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by nearly $300,000 in three years.

This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.

TDA Board Member Ken Stahl floated the idea that Folkmoot lobby Buncombe and Jackson counties for contributions, but Dickson said that tactic was a bit of a long shot, given that they only put on a max of two shows in those counties.

The official suggestion was that Folkmoot apply to special pots of TDA money controlled by individual communities within the county. Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde each get a slice of TDA money to spend on pet projects, from concerts to brochures to micro-level marketing. A quarter of the total TDA budget is divvied up among the county’s five locales.

The TDA board told Folkmoot to take its request to the five committees that oversee the five pots of money.

Folkmoot has historically been paid out of the general fund since the festival is county-wide and holds events in literally each of the five locales, Dixon said. So which one would Folkmoot apply to? The board told Dixon to apply to all five.

The problem there is that those committees won’t have any cash to hand out until autumn at the earliest. In fact, grants for this round of funding were approved later at the same meeting.

Not everybody on the TDA board was in favor of cutting Folkmoot from the tourism agency’s general budget.

Mark Clasby, the county’s economic development director who also sits on the TDA, was vocally opposed to revoking the money.

“The recognition Folkmoot has brought to Haywood County is tremendous, and I disagree with the recommendation that you’re making,” Clasby told board members. “I think it’s wrong.”

Clasby said that Folkmoot is so well-known it’s one of the tools he uses to pitch Haywood County when he’s out courting business development for the county, and that if any organization deserves the money, it’s Folkmoot.

“I certainly understand the budget situation we’re all facing, but at least give them some funding and support,” said Clasby.

TDA Board Member Jennifer Duerr countered Clasby’s view, arguing that it’s just about a change in the way funds are given out, thanks to the economy. The dwindling general fund should be kept for county-wide causes, she said.

“It’s not that we want to not give the money, it’s just not there. Do we give the money to one event, or keep it to represent the entire county?” asked Duerr.

Other members voiced similar views, with Alice Aumen, the board’s chairperson, saying that this year’s budget has been particularly trying.

“It has been one of the most difficult years since I’ve been on the board,” said Aumen.

James Carver, owner of the Maggie Valley Restaurant and board member, said he’d love to give Folkmoot money this year, but that it just wasn’t there.

“I‘ve always been a big supporter of Folkmoot, but money’s down,” said Carver.

In the end, the TDA board gave Dickson and his compatriots their apologies and an invitation to come back and ask again next year, but if they were hoping for a check, they went away empty handed.

“What we would like to leave Folkmoot with is that it is an important event. We all hope it’s going to be a great year for travel and tourism and revenues are going to come up,” said TDA Board Member Sue Knapko, encouraging festival officials to come back again if the committees don’t work out.

Here we go again: Sylva town leaders spar over DSA funding

The organization many credit with helping to create and nurture Sylva’s vibrant downtown scene is facing the possibility of going belly up over funding issues.

During a budget work session last week, a majority of town commissioners indicated they might vote against giving money to the Downtown Sylva Association. DSA, as it’s dubbed, formed 18 years ago under a different name — Sylva Partners in Renewal — but with the same basic mission: to promote the economic growth and vitality of downtown Sylva.

The group is seeking $25,000 from the town as it moves toward dropping what it claims is an unsustainable funding method — begging for money directly from merchants — developed as a defense during previous funding attacks. DSA has created a wedge on the town board, marked by narrow split votes flip-flopping for or against DSA, depending on the winners in the last election.

The town’s support dropped from $20,000 to a low of $2,000 a year, and surged back to $12,000 last year following a brief shift in power on the board that favored DSA. This amount contrasts, by way of example, to the $45,000 a year Franklin’s town board chips-in for its Main Street program.

As happened previously in Sylva, a fiscally prudent threesome is in power these days, meaning the DSA could get far less than the amount requested. Zero dollars doesn’t look farfetched, in fact, with commissioners Harold Hensley, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen making no bones about their overall unwillingness to continue underwriting an organization they have declared too Main Street/Back Street/and a couple-of-side streets-centric. The same three town commissioners were in power when the town first yanked DSA funding seven years ago, but subsequently lost their majority control.

Commissioners Chris Matheson and Stacy Knotts are expressing support for funding DSA. Mayor Maurice Moody is, too, but he doesn’t get a vote unless there’s a tie. That possibility is not as completely farfetched as it might appear.

Because, in the melodrama that is the Sylva town board, Allen a couple of months ago announced he planned to resign … though he wouldn’t say why, when, or how exactly this exit would take place. If history serves as a guide, Allen’s resignation might not happen at all, or even be mentioned again: A few years ago Allen made exactly the same sort of pronouncement, only to continue blithely on without public explanation about why he wanted to leave in the first place, yet never did.

So, while Moody holds the potential tiebreaker, that might be as close as the mayor gets to being able to demonstrate his voting power.  

DSA is fighting back. About 20 merchants turned up at last week’s meeting to demonstrate their support for the group that represents them. Most were DSA members who’ve ponied-up money over the past few years as the town’s financial support teeter-tottered.

One state Main Street requirement is that town programs must have a paid director. DSA’s version is Julie Sylvester, who receives $20,000 a year for 20 hours. She also receives $250 a month for a health-savings account.

Robin Kevlin, speaking for DSA, told commissioners their support is critical.

“We must have active involvement of both public and private sectors for continued growth and prosperity for the town of Sylva,” said Kevlin, who works at the downtown office of Metrostat. “The Main Street program is a proven strategy for revitalization, a powerful network of linked communities, and a national support program that leads the field.”

Kevlin went on to describe downtown Sylva as the “heartbeat of northern Jackson County” and “the reason we move here and stay here.”

Jackson County Planner Gerald Green added his voice in support of DSA, playing off Kevlin’s heartbeat analogy.

“With a healthy heart the rest of the community can remain strong,” Green said in a flash of inspired speechifying.

Sylva in the past has touched on the possibility of forming a special tax district, where businesses pay a surcharge on their property taxes to support downtown initiatives. The idea was not universally supported by merchants or building owners and was dropped, however. In the absence of a tax district, the DSA relies on money from the town and from voluntary membership dues.


DSA puts its future in hands of town leaders

Downtown Sylva Association will no longer ask merchants for membership money, a financial model that has proven unsustainable, according to Julie Sylvester, executive director of Downtown Sylva Association.

The organization hopes to rely more on funding from the town, but this comes at the same time town leaders are poised to cut funding to the organization.

“The DSA has now reached the point where its solvency will be in danger unless the town acts to provide the level of funding the DSA requested of $25,000,” Sylvester said. “Unfortunately, the funding that has been set aside in the town budget for the DSA has fluctuated over the past several years, forcing the DSA to tap into its dwindling reserves to make up the difference.”

Sylvester said the group deserves money from the town’s coffers given its contributions to the community.

“The Downtown Sylva Association provides events that highlight the beauty of downtown Sylva and its community and attract visitors from both the local area, and from surrounding states,” Sylvester said in a written statement. “Without the DSA, the town of Sylva would not have received $100,000 in grants from the State of North Carolina’s Main Street program in the past year alone.” DSA also led a $120,000 fundraising effort to build Bridge Park.

DSA sponsors festivals and concerts that bring visitors downtown to spend money, helping the economy and generating tax revenue. Other DSA events “help us build a strong, family friendly community,” Sylvester said.

“In the past, the DSA received its funding through a combination of fundraisers, sponsorships, membership driven revenue and local government funding. In light of the current economic climate and the fact that only one or two other Main Street programs out of more than 50 operate with a membership based organization, the DSA made the decision to discontinue its local business membership program at the end of this fiscal year,” Sylvester said. “This has put the DSA’s funding in the hands of local government.”

Who exactly will pay for all that electricity?

With Jackson County set to take possession next month of the renovated historic courthouse and new library, commissioners agreed it’s high time to get some ground rules in place for their future tenants.

The county wants formalized agreements not only with Fontana Regional Library, but also with three nonprofits promised space in the historic courthouse: the arts council, genealogical society and the historical society, so that there is “a written understanding on how that building would be used,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said, “and no misunderstandings.”

Jackson County has been grappling with how to pay for the extra overhead associated with the new and bigger library, plus the renovated historic courthouse, in this time of budget restraints. Bigger heating and cooling bills, higher liability insurance and more janitors could cost the county an extra $70,000 to $90,000, Wooten estimated previously.

The three community groups offered space in the historic courthouse had not been asked to share in overhead previously.

“Their understanding is there was no expectation on them to compensate the county in anyway for the space they occupied,” Wooten said of discussions he’s had with those groups involved, adding that he’s putting together a usage and utilities reimbursement proposal based on square-footage usage.

Wooten also raised concerns about liability insurance.

Commissioners agreed that Doug Cody, Mark Jones and Wooten would meet with the other parties involved to reach an understanding.

In other library-related news, Wooten said the county would use a moving company to cart the books and other items from the old building to the new library.

Jackson educators expecting deep state dollar cuts

Jackson County Schools isn’t asking for extra money this year from county commissioners despite an expected 10 percent or more cut from the state.

What is taking a back seat in these tough economic times, however, are school-board members’ wishes to build a new gymnasium and fine arts building at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva.

“Our school board is ... unanimous in wanting to finish the fine arts building and gymnasium,” Alie Laird-Large told commissioners during a joint workshop this week, adding that she hopes a “conversation at some point” could take place on that plan. A site has already been prepared.

Laird-Large said she and the other school board members would like to get some architectural designs and plans done, if possible. There were no commitments one way or another from commissioners.

What dominated the bulk of conversation during the work session were the possible state cuts to education funding. Gwen Edwards, the schools finance officer, outlined scenarios if what is currently being considered in the state House becomes reality. As she pointed out, the numbers “are changing by the minute,” so getting a fix on the future is proving difficult.

Funding for teachers assistants, textbooks, school buses and more is on the table, Edwards said. She projected the schools could lose $2.3 million under the House proposal. An additional $1.1 million or so in federal funding, temporary dollars, are also going away this year, Edwards said.

“We knew this was going to happen, it’s not like this was a surprise,” she told commissioners, adding the schools still hope to receive the nearly $6.8 million the county gave the system last year. Everything that could be done to reduce costs has taken place, she said, including not filling vacancies.

“(So) we’re not asking for increase — but if we could get the same amount of money we’d be very happy,” Edwards said.

Additionally, the schools are seeking $235,000 in capital outlay funding, for such items as roof and boiler repairs, more security cameras and a phone-system upgrade.

Commission Chairman Jack Debnam suggested another joint work session take place when the actual extent of state cuts becomes known.

WCU faculty seeks role in university restructurings

It required barely 15 minutes and a minimum of discussion for Western Carolina University’s Faculty Senate to unanimously vote it be given a role in any future reorganization efforts.

Whether they get what they ask for will depend on WCU’s next chancellor, David Belcher, who was hired two days after the meeting took place. He replaces John Bardo starting July 1.

The faculty leadership’s resolution comes in the wake of at least three internal reorganizations at WCU in just five years. A growing number of faculty members at WCU have protested against what they have dubbed top-down, administrative-driven changes.

Perhaps the prospect of a new boss dampened discussion, or maybe it was the ongoing pressures to a faculty weary of worrying about how deeply the General Assembly will cut into higher education (at least $8.6 million, and probably more, is expected to disappear from WCU). Regardless of exactly why, the group was considerably muted last week when compared to an earlier meeting this month — then debate raged for more than two hours over the faculty’s role in these restructuring efforts.

This time, the most impassioned discussions involved particular points about Robert’s Rules of Order, which included frequent references to the meeting-guideline book, and an explanation by Secretary Laura Wright that the electronic voting clicker wasn’t working again, so should voting take place by a show of hands or by paper ballots? Paper ballots won out.

Cheryl Waters-Tormey, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Erin McNelis, emphasized at the outset that this resolution seeking faculty participation lays out a procedure of sorts for the university.

And, Waters-Tormey added, perhaps more hopefully than anything else, “it is not tied at all” to a resolution that sparked the initial debate and failed the week before. That resolution was brought by nine faculty members who wanted their colleagues in the Faculty Senate to intervene in a particular reorganization — one that would consolidation the College of Education and Allied Professions from five to three departments.

A tenured professor has resigned in protest over the realignment and alleged targeted non-reappointments of some professors.

The substitute resolution just passed seeks the formation of a task force to study reorganization issues, and for the development of a “clear, coherent, and effective” reorganization policy and process that protects the integrity of WCU’s academic mission.

Counties push back against state threat to shift its budget burdens

Budget concerns that the state will dump responsibilities on local governments, and anecdotal assessments of the current economic climate, dominated a meeting last week of Macon County’s elected local leaders.

The informal, relatively freewheeling discussion took place over plates of steak and potatoes in a conference room at the county’s airport. Elected leaders from Franklin, Highlands and Macon County took part, joined by the towns’ and county’s top administrators.

Describing Highlands as the “bellwether” economic indicator for Macon County, Commissioner Ronnie Beale queried Mayor David Wilkes about the spending mood in his better-heeled-than-most town.

Wilkes, who owns and operates three outfitting stores in the Highlands and Cashiers areas, responded the retail sector seems to be emerging normally from the winter doldrums.

“Business is picking up as it usually does, and people seem to have a comfort level,” Wilkes said.

He added that the huge second-home population of Highlands has helped some to insulate the town. Though more-regular folks might forgo the expense of traveling to the area, those who have invested in a real house have proved more likely to continue spending part of the year there regardless of the depressed economy, Wilkes said.

Macon County Manager Jack Horton told elected leaders that Macon County had eight housing starts last month, one of which was in Highlands. Though not outstanding when compared with the housing-boom days, Horton said that number does represent an uptick for the county.

Highlands Commissioner Larry Rogers, who owns a construction company in Highlands, said business is still very slow, as did Beale, who runs a construction company in Franklin.


State eyes county savings

Looming ominously over the discussion were fears the state’s $2.4 billion or so shortfall will result in future hard times for local governments. Gov. Beverly Perdue earlier this month sent unhappy shockwaves through the leadership of the state’s 100 counties with her suggestion counties pick up the tab for some state functions by tapping into the $2.1 billion they collectively hold in reserve through fund balances.

Macon County’s fund balance is healthy, representing about 25 percent of its budget. The state requires counties to keep a reserve of at least 8 percent. The state pointed to these robust fund balances as proof that counties aren’t hurting as much as the state and can afford to take on more responsibilities.

“We don’t feel like we should be punished for being prudent with our money,” Brian McClellan, chairman of the commission board and a financial advisor in Highlands, said of Perdue’s plan. “We don’t think it’s a good idea for them to eyeball our county fund balance.”  

In an interesting reversal of fortunes and a now-the-shoe-is-on-the-other-foot kind of way, county commissioners in February sparked a very similar reaction from local education leaders, when, during a budget work session, commissioners discussed the need for school administrators to give up some of their own $3 million fund balance for the good of the county.

“Their fund balance is our fund balance,” Commissioner Bobby Kuppers said then.

The irony, such as it was, went un-remarked upon at last week’s meeting.

County Commissioner Kevin Corbin, who previously served 20 years on the board of education, said he believes the state will impose a cut of about 8 percent for schools.

“We’re all going to have to live within our means,” Corbin said, adding there’s no way for the county to pick up the tab for state education cuts.

Also of concern to local leaders in Macon County is that Perdue’s proposed budget would force counties to pay for workers’ compensation for public school and community college employees. The state may also cut the county’s share of corporate income taxes.

Jackson and Haywood county commissioners held similar discussions last week. The N.C. Association of County Commissioners had sounded the alarm the week before, calling on counties to voice their concerns.

David Thompson, director of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, said it was “very disconcerting” that counties could be asked to tap their fund balances — saved up over the years often with an eye toward school construction or future building projects — as “the silver bullet to manage the state’s budget crisis.”

Haywood County commissioners passed a resolution last week opposing the state shift of funding duties, particularly for schools. Among proposals on the table: the state would take 75 percent of the county’s share of lottery money intended for schools and make counties pay for new school buses.

“The state said they aren’t going to have any new tax increase but they haven’t said anything about pushing the costs on to us and us having to do tax increases,” Haywood Commissioner Bill Upton said.

WCU Faculty Senate debates whether to intervene in dispute between professors and administration

At least three internal reorganizations in just five years have spurred a growing number of faculty members at Western Carolina University to call for changes to what they describe as top-down, heavy-handed decision making.

Anger and frustration with the university’s administration, coupled with anticipation of Draconian budget cutbacks by the General Assembly, resulted in a highly charged meeting of WCU’s Faculty Senate last week.

A group of professors called on their colleagues in the Faculty Senate to halt a reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions, but some members were hesitant to pick sides in what could be nothing more than an internal departmental squabble. Still unresolved, the issue is back on the agenda again in a follow-up meeting this Wednesday.

After more than two hours of debate — with a vote of 14 against, 11 for and two abstentions — the Faculty Senate last week rejected a resolution brought by nine of their colleagues in the College of Education and Allied Professions. The resolution would have signaled solidarity with, and support for, the faculty raising objections.

The uproar comes after Professor Jacqueline Jacobs, a tenured faculty member in the College of Education and Allied Professions, resigned on grounds that university administration failed to consider information from faculty when reorganizing the department, and targeted certain professors for layoffs.

The controversy has erupted in the run up to an announcement planned this Friday for who will replace long-time Chancellor John Bardo, who leaves his post July 1 after 15 years as WCU’s top leader. Bardo did not attend the Faculty Senate meeting. He has said most of his time is absorbed working on budget issues in Raleigh. The university is facing cuts of at least $8.6 million, and perhaps much higher.


Resolution fails; issue still unresolved

Professors Mary Jean Herzog, Casey Hurley and Meagan Karvonen presented the resolution asking Faculty Senate to endorse a proposal tabling the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions for a year. WCU’s administration had instructed university leadership to prioritize and look for budget cuts.

That resulted in the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions from five to three departments, and the doctoral program — one of only two at WCU, and the university flagship with 40 some graduate students — would be left without qualified leadership, the faculty members claim.

Three tenure-track professors faced the possibility of being laid off, but two have since seen their contracts renewed.

In a rebuttal piece published last week in The Smoky Mountain News, interim Provost Linda Seested-Stanford countered charges that the reorganization was pursued without faculty guidance or help. She assured readers there was “no intrigue, no smokescreen and no deep, dark secret in the reorganization,” adding the newspaper’s reporting of the blowup was “good stuff for a spy novel.”

Though less pointed in her criticisms when speaking to the Faculty Senate, Seested-Stanford described Herzog’s take on the situation as “exaggerated,” and downplayed assertions that faculty were denied roles in university decision-making.

Seested-Stanford assured the Faculty Senate that Perry Schoon, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, had kept her well informed. Additionally, she said, the task force helping develop the reorganization was, in her mind, representative of the faculty at large in the College of Education and Allied Professions. There are about 87 faculty members in that college.

Psychology Professor David McCord, a department head in the College of Education and Allied Professions, leaped to Dean Schoon’s defense, as well.

“The accusation there is no faculty involvement here burns me,” McCord said, adding that his colleagues’ accusations were “inaccurate” and “absurd.”

McCord said he believed Schoon’s selection of members on the task force was the only means available to ensure the formation of a group capable of objectivity, one that could “step back and take a big-picture view … and work with others” while hard choices were being made.

“He wanted each department to be represented by a credible advocate,” McCord said, adding that the reorganization plan represents a better solution than other possible options. The psychology professor did not detail what those options might have been.


‘Culture and climate’ in question

There was some indication a few Faculty Senate members might have voted against the resolution simply because they felt endorsing the demand was outside their purview. The Faculty Senate is an advisory group.

“Let’s focus on the policy issues, and not get involved in management,” said Leroy Kauffman, a professor in accounting and financing and a department head. Kauffman added he believed there were “valid issues” being raised about faculty participation.

Cheryl Waters-Tormey, a professor in the geology department, said she was concerned about endorsing a resolution without knowing how many of the 87 faculty members in the College of Education and Allied Professions actually felt this way.

Karvonen, one of the professors seeking the Faculty Senate’s backing, said “the culture and climate” prevented some in the college from feeling as if they could safely speak out.

Waters-Tormey suggested drafting a new resolution that expressed the Faculty Senate’s support for consensus building, but without picking sides in this particular dispute. English Professor Catherine Carter responded she believed such a resolution, or one that endorsed the concept of transparency, “is like saying we are for clean air and water — it is meaningless.”

Another resolution is in the wings, however, and this one is crafted by the Senate Planning Team, a committee made up of Faculty Senate members and self-described conduit from the university’s general faculty. It will undoubtedly prompt more debate at this week’s meeting.

The new resolution asks that:

• “A task force be created to study university reorganization issues and develop a clear, coherent, and effective university reorganization policy and process that protects the integrity of WCU’s academic mission and provides for meaningful faculty, staff, and student voice;

• Leadership from the Faculty Senate, the Staff Senate, the Student Government Association and the Council of Deans propose the composition and means of election/selection of the taskforce members as well as a timeline for taskforce objectives;

• And each of those bodies must approve the composition of, membership selection methods for, and timeline for the taskforce by May 15;

• And we request that future restructuring does not take place without consulting the faculty on this restructuring committee.”


What is the Faculty Senate?

The Faculty Senate has 28 members, and serves as the main policy-recommending group for the general faculty. It is the link between faculty and administration on matters, advising the chancellor on the conduct of university affairs. Additionally, according to the group’s website, it functions to “serve as a collegial forum for the airing of faculty concerns.”

New TDA visitor center will leave Haywood Chamber with funding woes

Less than a year after opening a new visitor center in downtown Waynesville, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce learned last week that its funding for the site is on the chopping block by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

The county tourism agency plans to open its own visitor center downtown and end its subsidy for the one run by the chamber.

The tourism agency is better positioned to operate a one-stop shop for tourists looking for things to do and see in the county, according to TDA Director Lynn Collins.

“Our sole purpose in life is to market Harwood County as a destination,” Collins said.

It makes sense for the TDA, which is in charge of branding and marketing the county, to run its own visitor center for tourists to provide a seamless message rather than contract the role out to the chamber.

“This is a good time for us to take control of our program and tell our story the way we want to tell it,” Collins said.

The chamber received $30,000 from the TDA to run a visitor center. Losing that revenue will not be easy and could mean the loss of staff, according to CeCe Hipps, the Haywood chamber’s executive director.

“Anytime an organization gets that big of a budget cut, we will have to look at how we do our day-to-day operations,” Hipps said.

The chamber says it will not shut down its visitor center, however, despite the loss of funding. A visitor center is still central to the chamber’s mission, Hipps said.

“Chambers are considered a trusted and established source of information,” Hipps said. “Regardless of the outcome of this we will maintain our visibility and maintain our visitor center. Nothing will change for us from that aspect.”

The result: two visitor centers less than three blocks apart in downtown Waynesville.

The turn of events comes as the Tourism Development Authority grapples with budget shortfalls of its own. The TDA raises money with a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, bringing in close to $1 million a year. That money is pumped back into tourism promotions, from national advertising campaigns to mini-grants for local festivals.

As tourism has dropped with the recession, however, the TDA has seen its budget shrink by more than $200,000 in three years. This year alone, the TDA has come up $115,000 short of what it anticipated, leaving the agency struggling to make mid-year budget cuts.

“We didn’t just wake up one morning and say ‘Let’s go take the chamber’s funding away from it.’ There is a quite a bit of planning and pros and cons and up and down that when into this,” said Ken Stahl, TDA finance chair.

However, the chamber learned only last week that its visitor center funding is in jeopardy with the start of the new fiscal year come July. Such short notice will make it hard to adjust, Hipps said.

Key members of the chamber board and TDA board met last week to discuss the issue. Ron Leatherwood, the incoming president of the chamber board, said the TDA might be willing to phase out the visitor center funding over two years rather than doing it all at once. That would certainly soften the blow, he said.

The visitor center funding is more than 10 percent of the chamber’s annual budget, and it will be a challenge to make up the difference, Leatherwood said.

But Leatherwood said he understands why the TDA, which is in the tourism business after all, wants its own visitor center. If they can serve the number of visitors they hope to — 40,000 a year — it will surely be a good thing for the county, Leatherwood said.

“Hopefully it will be successful for all of us. A rising tide lifts all boats,” Leatherwood said.


A full-service visitor center

The TDA envisions a full-service visitor center, where tourists will be awed by an endless list of things to do in Haywood County, from crafts to fly-fishing to motorcycle rides. Not to mention a clearinghouse for all the special events going on any given weekend, something that doesn’t exist now.

“We hope to achieve a little bit of synergism here,” said Stahl.

And since the TDA lives and breathes tourism, it can best disseminate that information, Collins said.

“We have a very good handle on what is going on in the county,” Collins said.

Collins also wants their visitor center to be open seven days a week, compared to the chamber’s visitor center, which is only open on weekdays.

The TDA is negotiating a lease to house the visitor center and its administrative offices in a storefront on Main Street across from Mast General store — in the thick of the downtown action. It’s a better spot for snagging foot traffic than the chamber’s location, Stahl said.

Stahl hopes a new visitor center will catch 40,000 visitors a year compared to the 6,000 seen at the chamber’s visitor center.

“When the foot traffic is in the thousands up there on Main Street, it is an opportunity for us to reach out and touch a lot more people than what we have been for essentially the same amount of money,” Stahl said.

The chamber’s visitor center is past the courthouse in a historic home a block beyond the main shopping district. To Hipps, the location is ideal: at the corner where Russ Avenue, a main corridor into downtown, feeds into Main Street.

The chamber just moved into the building last June. It had been without a permanent home for much of the past decade, bopping from one location to another every few years. A visible spot for the visitor center was the top consideration in the quest for a permanent site.

“That was our main driver. We wanted to have a gateway into the downtown area,” Hipps said.

The chamber’s physical quarters are impressive and inviting. The stately historic brick home has a wide front porch decked out in rocking chairs. The lobby has a grand double staircase and features include hardwood floors and black-and-white checked bathroom tiles. Its interior décor is appointed with comfy sofas and lush ferns. The front lawn is crowned by stately oaks with views down Main Street.

“We wanted something that would give people a really good first impression,” Hipps said.

The chamber made a sizeable investment when signing a three-year lease on the building.

Hipps said tourists quickly make themselves at home there.

“Finding the perfect home for a visitor center was so key. Had we known this a year ago we probably would have looked at other options,” Hipps said.


Move in the cards

Until now, the TDA has been holed up in an obscure county office building carrying out a mostly administrative role. Few in the county could tell you where the agency was headquartered, despite its very showy mission of broadcasting Haywood’s tourism accolades to the world.

Despite a sweetheart deal — the county charged the TDA only $250 a month in rent — the TDA had been contemplating a move to new offices for a couple of years.

But it was spurred recently into action by a massive reshuffling of county office space — one that might leave the TDA with no home at all.

Most of the occupants housed in the same office building as TDA are moving to an abandoned Wal-Mart being remodeled for various county departments. The project was motivated by the need to replace the antiquated quarters of the Department of Social Services but has led to musical chairs for other county offices as well.

The county hasn’t decided yet whether TDA can stay where it is, whether it might give the space to different county departments, or whether it will sell the building.

While it’s not certain TDA will get the boot, it was enough to get the TDA’s attention.

“They have not said definitively we have to move any certain time. Their exact words from the county manager were it would be prudent for you to start looking,” Collins said.

It seemed like a good time to pull the trigger on something they wanted to do anyway.

“We don’t want to wait until the music stops and not have a chair,” Stahl said.

If the TDA is going to fork out substantially more in rent, it will cut into its already tight budget. To make it work financially, the TDA will take visitor center funding away from the chamber to cover the rent, bringing visitor enter operations in-house in the process.

“If we are going to move we want to move into something that totally completes our mission,” said Alice Aumen, chair of the TDA board.

Part of that mission is to bring the TDA to the next level as an agency.

Since the TDA’s creation 25 years ago, it has funded visitor centers run by both the Haywood chamber and Maggie Valley chamber.

While it made sense for the TDA to outsource visitor center operations in its infancy — in the early days it had no staff of its own let alone an office — it has grown into a major marketing force for tourism and needs to take a leading role in serving tourists once they arrive.

There’s another advantage to running its own visitor center: to advance marketing research, Collins said. Currently, TDA staff responsible for marketing the county don’t interface directly with the traveling public on a daily basis. Collins wants to survey visitors and find out what brought them here, where they are from, how much they are spending, who’s in the traveling party, and what they like to do.

“It helps us get to know our visitors better. We can conduct all kinds of market research to build our marketing program appropriately,” Collins said. “If you don’t have research you are flying by the seat of your pants.”

The days of shotgun advertising is over, said Aumen.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to do research on who the actual visitor is,” Aumen said.

Plus, TDA can capture the email addresses of visitors, which are worth their weight in gold for direct marketing through social media like Facebook.

While the TDA is in the business of luring visitors to the county, there’s still an advantage to engaging those who are already here.

“Even though they are already here, we can get information in their hands that would make them want to extend their stay or come back for a visit at another point in the year,” Collins said.


Fulfilling a mission

Before moving in to its new office last year, the chamber invited the TDA to share the space. The two entities could run a joint visitor center and share overhead expenses, Hipps suggested.

Talk of co-locating the chamber and TDA have surfaced on and off over the years, but this marked the first formal invitation to the TDA to move in together.

“We wanted to continue and strengthen our partnership and to continue to work together and collaborate,” Hipps said.

Hipps said the two entities have the same common goal, namely “to promote Haywood County.”

It’s common for chambers of commerce and county tourism agencies to share offices and staff while maintaining separate budgets. It’s done in Asheville to the east and Jackson County to the west.

But co-locating with the chamber did not fit the TDA’s mission.

While tourism is the TDA’s only focus, the chamber recruits new businesses, promotes commerce, supports entrepreneurs and engages in economic development.

“A visitor center is not their primary mission,” Stahl said.

But Hipps said tourism is integral to the county’s economy, and thus integral to the chamber’s mission.

“Our model has always been everyone in this county is connected to tourism,” Hipps said. “We can’t dissect and separate the chamber from tourism.”

That said, the chamber’s visitor center does serve as a point of contact for people moving to Haywood County, buying a second home, relocating their business, starting a new business — all of whom may have started out as just a tourist at one time.

“We are so connected with the big picture that the overall economic impact is much greater than the numbers for foot traffic that comes through the door,” Hipps said. “Our business model is all inclusive.”

The chamber’s visitor center is critical a point of contact for business inquiries, said Leatherwood. You never know when a “lone eagle” will stroll into the visitor center, for example. That term refers to a mobile professional who can do their job online from anywhere and may be seeking a new place to move, Leatherwood said.


A county of many visitor centers

The visitor center run by the Haywood Chamber is one of four funded by the TDA.

“We are probably the only TDA in the state that funds four visitor centers,” Stahl said.

One in Maggie Valley run by the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce gets $30,000 a year from the TDA. The other two — one at the highway rest area in Balsam and one off the interstate in Canton — are staffed by the TDA at a cost of $25,000 each.

The Canton visitor center was opened only three years ago, but tourist traffic there has not panned out. A cinderblock car wash beside a gas station was converted into a visitor center.

Faced with a budget shortfall last spring, the TDA shut the Canton visitor center for six weeks. Traffic had fallen sharply anyway due to a rockslide that shut down I-40. But even once I-40 opened again, numbers remained low. In the fall, hours were scaled back, and in January it was shut completely. The TDA plans to turn it over to volunteers with the Canton merchant association.

The visitor centers in Maggie Valley and at Balsam draw higher numbers of visitors (see chart). Neither is on the chopping block for now.

The TDA will continue funding the visitor centers that perform better, but could not justify funding those that saw such a small number of visitors, Stahl said.

Hipps said the chamber is grateful for TDA support all these years and believes the two entities will continue to work together.

“We have a very successful business model here. TDA has been a part of that success by helping to fund that part of what we do,” Hipps said.

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