Haywood commissioners caught in backlash over new property values

An angry crowd accused Haywood County commissioners this week of unfairly slapping some property owners with higher values while letting others off the hook in the recent countywide appraisal.

About 50 people turned out at the commissioners meeting Monday to complain that appraisers had botched up when assessing their properties. At best, they blamed commissioners for being complicit in an erroneous property revaluation — and at worst for being part of a conspiracy to target certain property owners with deliberately inflated values.

Commissioner Mark Swanger explained that commissioners don’t have a role in revaluation. Revaluation is conducted by appraisers, who examine the prevailing real estate market to arrive at new property values.

Since property values determine how much you pay in property taxes, the biggest fear from the audience was that their taxes would go up as a result of higher property values.

“There are people who don’t have extra money in their pocket to keep on donating to taxes,” said Horace Edwards of Cruso, who helped organize the turnout.

Generally real estate increases in value a little every year. But given the depressed market, many homes have stagnated in value and others have even gone down.

Yet half the property owners in the county saw an increase in value since the last countywide appraisal five years ago. And that’s what Jonnie Cure said she doesn’t understand. How could anyone’s have gone up?

“What has happened in Haywood County? I simply don’t get it. It is truly incredible,” Cure said.

Yvonne Mazet, who lives in a single-wide trailer, said she can hardly afford her taxes now, let alone now that her property values have gone up.

“I don’t feel my taxes should have gone up,” Mazet said. “I don’t think in this economic era we are using our heads very well. I think this is a very bad choice to re-evaluate our property.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said the purpose of a revaluation is not to force higher taxes on anyone.

“Our goal in this process is not to raise people’s taxes. It is to make sure the values are fair when we apply the tax rate,” Kirkpatrick said.

Edwards said it isn’t fair that more expensive homes have dropped in value, while lower or median priced ones increased. Edwards implored commissioners to use the weight of their office to “take some action and fix it.”

But the county is required to base values on comparable sales of similar property.

If expensive homes aren’t selling for as much as they used to, the county appraisers had no choice but to decrease the value of those homes to reflect selling prices the real world.

“We cannot choose to violate the law. That is not an option for us,” Swanger said.

Denny King questioned whether the appraisers accurately pegged market values, however.

“The real test for appraisals is if you put the property up for sale would they sell within a reasonable amount of time for the appraised value?” asked King, who ran for county commissioner as a Tea Party supporter last fall but lost.

Justin Hensley said he never saw an appraiser.

“No one came to our house. I don’t know how they came up with these numbers. You can’t fly over in an airplane and come up with this stuff. It is really unfair and it is totally unaccurate,” Hensley said.

Appraisers indeed visited each parcel, but they do not come inside and usually don’t get out of the car.

In Haywood County, it has been five years since the last revaluation. Counties are required to do one at least every eight. Some speakers questioned why the county didn’t wait another three years.

Jack Wadham said large numbers of people might refuse to pay their property taxes and sue the county over the revaluation. As long as the lawsuit was pending, they wouldn’t have to pay, he said, and the county would go broke waiting to collect taxes.

“That is not a threat. That is just telling you what could really happen,” Wadham said.

The crowd applauded after most of the speakers, occasionally offering up a standing ovation, but did not get unruly.

When public comment concluded, commissioners started to respond to the crowd’s concerns, but the audience got up and walked out, at first one by one, then en masse, in an obvious flout to the commissioners’ attempts to explain the revaluation.

Several in the audience told commissioners the revaluation would cost them their seats in the next election.

“It was kind of convenient that you did not do this on an election year,” said Cure. “I am sure you are hoping we forget you did it by 2012.”

Swanger repeatedly urged those who complained about their property values to appeal. The first step is to make an appointment with the county’s property appraisal office. The appraisers will share how they arrived at the property value, generally by citing the price fetched by similar property that was sold. The property owner can then explain why they believe the value is wrong.

David Francis, head of the county tax department, said the appeal process works. He shared an example from one property owner who has utility lines on their property that would hurt its selling price. The county appraiser agreed and adjusted the value accordingly.

“I know there is a lot of frustration out there. Give us a chance to sit down and explain it to you,” Francis said.

 

What is property revaluation?

In North Carolina, counties are required to conduct a mass appraisal of real estate at least every eight years. Property taxes are based on property values.

The reval is intended to level the playing field, bringing the county’s assessed value of a particular property in line with the true market value so everyone is paying a fair share come tax day.

In Haywood County, the total value of all property remained flat. If you add it all up — the value of every home, lot and tract of land — it amounts to $6.791 billion, an increase of less than one percent over last year’s total value of $6.787 billion. Roughly half the property owners saw their values go up, while half saw their values go down.

When property goes up across the board in a revaluation, the county typically lowers the tax rate to offset what would otherwise be an increase in property taxes. This time, since there was no net gain in the property tax base, the tax rate will likely remain about the same, and whether your individual taxes go up or down will likely depend on how your property values performed.

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.

Crowd berates Swain commissioners, supports DSS board

A large crowd turned out at the Swain County commissioners meeting this week to voice support for the beleaguered Department of Social Services Board.

Supporters said local board members tasked with overseeing the agency have been unfairly criticized following the death of 15-month-old baby and a criminal investigation into an alleged cover-up.

DSS workers failed to heed complaints from relatives that the baby was in danger and later falsified documents to hide any negligence on their part, according to family members of the child and law enforcement documents.

County commissioners called on the DSS board to suspend employees named in the investigation with pay, including DSS Director Tammy Cagle and Program Manager T.L. Jones.

However, the DSS board was deadlocked on the issue after a three-hour meeting last week.

That prompted the commissioners to call for the resignation of DSS board members in a strongly worded statement sent to media outlets the following day.

“The commissioners urge all the current DSS Board members to immediately resign, so that these positions can be filled with people who are not afraid to put the best interests of children and families of Swain County first at all times,” the statement read.

Three of the five DSS board members resigned by week’s end.

But those who spoke out at the commissioners meeting Monday said the DSS board members have been blamed unfairly.

County commissioners were out of bounds in their statement, according to Betty Sandlin, one of several who gave commissioners a dressing down at the meeting. Sandlin called the press statement by commissioners “abominable,” “despicable,” “unethical” and “disgraceful.”

Sandlin said DSS board members are outstanding citizens, dedicated members of their church, and active in civic affairs.

“You had the unmitigated gall to suggest they don’t have any interest in the children in this community,” Sandlin told commissioners. “You made a colossal error in judgment. Many of us are beginning to wonder whether we made colossal errors in judgment when we voted for you last November.”

DSS board members also took to the podium to defend themselves, claiming they have been unfairly denigrated.

“To vilify the DSS board the way you did is absolutely inexcusable,” said Bob Thomas, a DSS board member. “These libelous insinuations are totally irresponsible, unacceptable and downright obscene.”

Thomas said he resigned not because commissioners asked him to but because he was “fed up and frustrated beyond description.”

DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble, who suffers from a heart condition, said the controversy in recent weeks has taken a toll on his health, including sleepless nights and a loss of appetite.

“This was truly a most troubling episode in my life,” Gribble said.

Gribble said he has no apologies for how the board has handled the recent crisis.

The press statement by commissioners questioned whether DSS board members’ were putting other interests above those of the community at large and of children in particular.

“The board of commissioners feel that the needs of the children should have more priority than the needs of the director or employees,” the statement read.

Gribble said he was offended by the accusation.

“I am deeply, deeply troubled by the loss of a defenseless innocent child,” Gribble said. “I agreed to serve on this DSS board because I thought I could make a difference. I have an earnest desire for the safety and well-being of children.”

 

Deadlocked DSS board

Four of the five DSS board members met for three hours behind closed doors last week to debate whether to suspend Director Tammy Cagle and the other employees named. When they finally emerged to the waiting crowd — including family of the dead child and family of the social worker accused of falsifying records — they announced they had not been able to reach a consensus and directed any further questions to the DSS attorney.

While it is legal to discuss personnel decisions in private, public bodies such as the DSS board must vote in the open, allowing the public to witness where each person on the public board stands. This is intended to ensure a transparent, accountable and democratic form of government.

The DSS board never formally voted in public, but instead announced it could not reach a consensus.

With only four board members at the table, it would be easy for them to recognize who was on what side, and whether a formal vote would be futile. The fifth board member was out of town.

Board Chairman Jim Gribble would not reveal which of the board members were in favor of suspension and which were not.

 

Standard protocol

County commissioners asserted that suspending those named in the investigation is crucial to restoring public confidence in the agency and ensuring the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

DSS Board Member Thomas countered that in his eyes people are innocent until proven guilty.

“I refuse to compromise my convictions for the convenience of the situation,” Thomas said.

Thomas said DSS Director Cagle has the support of her staff, witnessed by 25 DSS employees who came forward to speak on their boss’s behalf as the board weighed whether to put her on leave.

Commissioners pointed out in the press statement that it is standard protocol for any government agency to suspend employees with pay during an ongoing investigation, regardless of guilt or innocence.

“It has never been the intention of the board of commissioners to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, but suspending the employees would help authorities with the state conduct an unbiased investigation and have more flexibility to do their job,” the statement issued by commissioners read.

According to commissioners, the state Department of Health and Human Services likewise wanted the employees put on leave with pay.

But several audience members at the meeting challenged that. They said they didn’t believe the state had recommended suspending the DSS employees and asked for proof.

In a public statement, Sherry Bradsher, the state director in Raleigh, said that personnel decisions ultimately rest at the local level. But she added that the DSS board should do what it takes to ensure public confidence in the agency.

“We have offered guidance and a strong reminder to the board of its responsibilities as defined by General Statute, which includes its authority over the director,” Bradsher said.

Gribble said the state made recommendations but no mandates on whether the employees should be suspended.

 

In the dark

County Commissioner Steve Moon was the lone commissioner who didn’t believe DSS employees should be suspended or that DSS board members should resign. Moon, who is the uncle of the DSS director, chastised the other commissioners for sending out the press statement without his knowledge. He learned of it when watching the news on television.

“Why was this done without telling me? I was totally out in the dark until I saw it on WLOS. No one called me. I had zero input on that decision. I would like to know why,” Moon said.

Moon blamed County Manager Kevin King, but King said he was acting at the direction of three of the five commissioners by sending the press statement. King, along with the three commissioners, were in Raleigh on county business at the time.

Commissioner Robert White was put in charge of calling Moon to let him know. White said he tried to call Moon but couldn’t reach him.

Moon also was upset that the DSS board members weren’t personally notified, but learned from reporters that commissioners were calling for their resignations. Moon apologized to the board members in the audience even though he wasn’t part of the decision.

“I am sorry. I am really, truly sorry it has come down to this,” Moon said, prompting an extended standing ovation from the large crowd. The crowd was so large the meeting was moved into a courtroom instead of the regular meeting room.

Speakers also lashed out at the media, blaming the press for negative publicity of the county.

“They are having a heyday,” Thomas said, coining the coverage a “media frenzy.”

Indeed, newspapers and television stations from across the region have reported on the raid of DSS offices by the State Bureau of Investigation and the investigation into the baby’s death.

Sandlin blamed the commissioners for “fueling a media circus” and portraying a “demoralizing” picture of the county.

“The snap judgment of a few irritated commissioners to make us a public spectacle only served to fuel the media and further hostilities,” Gribble added.

While the DSS board defended its name, family of the Cherokee baby who died reminded the audience why they were here in the first place.

“We are sorry your feelings got hurt, but you guys get to go home to your families, hurt feelings or whatever. When we go home, we are missing a member from our family,” Ruth McCoy, the child’s great aunt, said at the meeting.

While the alleged cover-up at DSS has gotten most of the attention, McCoy said the agency is equally at fault for leaving the baby in an unsafe home despite pleas by relatives to remove her.

“We are here because they didn’t do their job. None of this had to happen,” McCoy said.

Some speakers expressed their condolences to McCoy for the family’s loss.

 

Vacancies on the board

Following the resignation of three board members, the DSS board is short three members. Of those, one is appointed by the county commissioners and the other two by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

County commissioners voted this week on a replacement, selecting Georgianna Carson. Carson is the daughter of a long-time doctor in Swain County who helped found the hospital.

Commissioners were split on who to appoint, however. Commissioners Moon and White wanted to appoint Paul Crawley, owner of a soda fountain shop, but Commissioner Phil Carson, David Monteith and Donnie Dixon backed Georgianna Carson.

It could be the end of next week before the state makes its new appointments.

“It is always challenge in smaller communities finding people that are willing to serve and volunteer even under normal circumstances,” said Sherry Bradsher, director of state health and human services.

Given the tremendous publicity surrounding DSS in such a small community, appointments will take more careful consideration than ever, Bradsher said. For those who do volunteer, Bradsher wants to understand their reason for doing so, and ability to be in a tough spot.

“We want to be sure the people we appoint are going to be fair and good listeners and make the decisions that are appropriate for moving the agency and the county forward,” Bradsher said.

 

Timeline of recent events

• Thursday, March 3 — Swain County commissioners vote 4 to 1 for the DSS board to suspend with pay those named in an SBI investigation.

• Tuesday, March 8 — After a three-hour meeting, DSS board members are deadlocked over whether to suspend employees and announced no consensus.

• Wednesday, March 9 — County commissioners call for the resignation of DSS board members in a strongly worded press statement.

• Thursday, March 10 — Three DSS board members resign.


 

Related documents

Swain commissioners call for DSS board resignations
Jim Gribble and Bob Thomas resignation letters
Public statement by DSS Board Chairman Jim Gribble
Public statement by DSS Board member Bob Thomas
Read the warrant

Swain commissioners want DSS workers suspended

The state could step in to run the Swain County Department of Social Services if the top leaders are among those put on leave during a probe into an alleged cover-up.

Swain DSS falsified records relating to the abuse and neglect of a 15-month-old baby who later died, according to an investigation by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office and the State Bureau of Investigation.

The family of the child have asked those named in the probe, including the DSS director and program manager, be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

“I don’t think it is right for them to keep working,” said Leighann McCoy, one of the family members. “Look at all the lives they have in their hands. Their jobs are a matter of life and death.”

The Swain County commissioners have concurred, although they don’t have authority over DSS employees — that lies with a separate DSS board.

So last week, commissioners formally called on the DSS board to suspend the employees in a 4 to 1 vote at a special meeting. The lone “no” vote came from Commissioner Steve Moon, who is the uncle of DSS Director Tammy Cagle. Family of the child chastised Moon after the meeting for participating in the vote.

Commissioners emphasized that their recommendation is not a reflection of whether they think the DSS employees are guilty of wrongdoing. Commissioners said that suspending the employees would protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

“It is not out of animosity,” said Commissioner Chairman Phil Carson. “We are just trying to do the right thing during this case and this investigation.”

Swain County commissioners met with the DSS board in closed session for more than an hour Thursday evening prior to commissioners’ vote. The meeting could legally be held behind closed doors since the discussion centered on personnel and a criminal investigation.

The DSS board will meet seperately at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, at the DSS office to discuss commissioners’ recommendation.

Two-dozen friends and family of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died in January, waited outside during the duration of the closed meeting to learn what commissioners would do. Relatives say they had appealed to DSS to take Aubrey away from her caregiver, and had repeatedly complained of suspected abuse and neglect. The SBI is investigating whether DSS employees engaged in a cover-up to hide potential negligence on their part.

Deloris Taylor, a friend of the family, said DSS failures allowed Aubrey’s death to happen.

“There should be a full state investigation and DSS should be held accountable. I think they should face criminal charges,” Taylor said.

Taylor said Aubrey’s case should have been given more attention.

“They shouldn’t just shuffle the paper work,” Taylor said.

Several social workers came to the meeting and expressed their dismay that their agency was under attack. They pointed out the many dedicated social workers in Swain County who put their heart and soul into what is a very tough job.

“I think our county should be supporting our social workers a lot more,” said Alissa Lambert, a child social worker at Swain DSS for three years.

Lambert said the job was so stressful that she burned out and had to find another job.

“The stuff we have to deal with on a daily basis is really difficult,” Lambert said.

Lambert asked where the news media was the rest of the year and during their many fundraisers, from selling hotdogs to a softball tournament to a chili cook-off.

“Nobody sees the positive things we do, the hundreds of families we help on a daily basis,” said Tabatha Medford, a current DSS social worker. “I apply myself in my job every day.”

So far, only one of the employees named has been put on leave — Craig Smith, a social worker with the agency since 2006 making $35,000 a year, who was directly involved in falsifying the records turned over to investigators, according to an SBI search warrant.

Smith told investigators he was acting on orders from his boss. His account of events suggested that the director and program manager knew his report was fabricated — namely that the child had been seen by a doctor when in fact she hadn’t.

But Lambert questioned Smith’s story. She said that supervisors can’t check on the accuracy of every statement in every report.

Lambert said anyone the state sends into run DSS won’t understand working in a small town or the unique culture here.

Swain commissioners call for resignation of DSS board

The following statement was issued by the Swain County Board of Commissioners after the DSS board failed to take action Tuesday night to suspend employees named in an SBI investigation:

The Swain County Board of Commissioners is extremely disappointed with the actions of the Department of Social Services Board. During the last Commissioner’s meeting the Board asked the DSS Board to temporarily suspend employees that had been named in the investigation.  This is a procedure that is followed in most Counties in North Carolina.  It has never been the intention of the Board of Commissioners to accuse anyone of wrong-doing, but suspending the employees would help authorities with the State conduct an unbiased investigation and have more flexibility to do their job.

These suspensions would help DSS regain the trust of the community.  The Commissioners feel that the DSS board members are not working for the citizens of Swain County. The DSS Board did not vote on this issue at their Tuesday night meeting.  The Board of Commissioners feel that the needs of the children should have more priority than the needs of the Director or employees.

Therefore, the Commissioners urge all the current DSS Board members to immediately resign, so that these positions can be filled with people who are not afraid to put the best interests of children and families of Swain County first at all times.

 

Swain commissioners recommend DSS employee suspension DSS board to meet on the matter Tuesday

Swain County commissioners voted 4 to 1 in a special meeting Thursday (March 3) to formally recommend that the  Department of Social Services Board suspend with pay four employees involved in a State Bureau of Investigation probe into an alleged cover-up at the agency.

Commissioners emphasized that their recommendation is not a reflection of whether they think the DSS employees are guilty of wrong-doing. But commissioners said that suspending the employees will protect the integrityof the ongoing investigation.

The DSS board will meet at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, at the DSS office to discuss the commissioners recommendation.

Swain County commissioners met with three members of the DSS board in closed session for over an hour Thursday evening prior to the commissioners' vote. The meeting could legally be held behind closed doors since the discussion centered on personnel and a criminal investigation.

About 30 friends and family of Aubrey Kina-Marie Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died in January, waited outside during the duration of the closed meeting to see what commissioners would do. Relatives say they had appealed to DSS to take Aubrey away from her caregiver and complained of suspected abuse and neglect. The SBI is investigating whether DSS employees engaged in a cover-up following Aubrey's death to hide potential negligence on their part.

Several social workers came to the meeting as well and expressed their dismay that their agency was under attack. They pointed out the many dedicated social workers in Swain County who put their heart and soul into what is a very tough job.

So far, only one of the employees named has been put on leave – Craig Smith, a social worker with the agency since 2006, who was directly involved in falsifying records following the death of a child, according to an SBI search warrant. However, Smith told investigators he was acting on orders from his boss. Smith also told investigators that the DSS director and program manager knew he had never followed up on whether the child saw a doctor, even though he had fabricated a report to the contrary.

Political ill will still lingers in Jackson

The election for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners might have wrapped up last fall, but the war of words didn’t end then.

Last month, newly elected Chairman Jack Debnam wrote to unseated Commissioner Tom Massie’s employer, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, complaining that Massie had possibly abused his position and power while a commissioner. Massie is the mountain field representative for the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which is within that state department.

Richard Rogers, executive director of the Trust Fund, said Monday his agency “did not take any action” regarding Debnam’s complaint about Massie “because the complaint was not associated (with) a CWMTF project and CWMTF has no regulatory authority regarding development or land disturbance.”

Debnam wrote state authorities at the apparent behest of developer and trailer park owner Wayne Smith of Jackson County. Smith complained of being harassed by state authorities because of Massie.

The developer contributed at least $650 and provided billboard space to Debnam’s campaign, according to records on file at the Jackson County Board of Elections.

The N.C. Division of Land Resources determined Smith opened a 4.5-acre mining operation without the required state permit at the intersection of Skyland Drive and Parris Branch, records show. A notice of violation was issued Nov. 2, which happened to fall on the same day as the election.

Smith has been repeatedly cited by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources for sediment control violations, most recently in 2005, when he was assessed a $37,500 penalty, according to records.

Debnam, who ran as an independent but received GOP backing and financial support, declined to discuss the e-mail he wrote on Smith’s behalf.

Massie also declined an opportunity to comment. A Democrat, he lost his commission seat in November.

“A resident of Jackson County contacted me after the first of the year about an issue that he feels may be an abuse of an appointed position on the Mountain Resources Commission,” Debnam e-mailed Coleen Sullins on Feb. 2, the apparent start of the ensuing e-mail battle.

The N.C. Mountain Resources Commission is tasked with making recommendations at the local, state and federal level on how to best protect this region’s natural resources. Massie was appointed to the board by then state Speaker of the House Joe Hackney, a Democrat, in December 2009; Massie’s term on the board continues through Aug. 31, 2013.

Sullins, who works for the state Division of Water Quality, forwarded the e-mail to Jim Simons, who is the director of the N.C. Division of Land Resources, and Richard Rogers, executive director of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. For his part, Debnam included two county employees on the email: Planner Gerald Green and Land Development Administrator Tony Elders. Those men are tasked with working with local developers such as Smith on behalf of the county.

“It appears that Mr. Tom Massie has let his personal opinions and contacts come into play whenever Mr. Wayne Smith or one of his companies becomes involved in any grading projects in Jackson County,” Debnam wrote. “Mr. Massie seems to exert this pressure thru Mr. Gray Hauser with NC-DENR and Linda Cable, former planning director for Jackson County. Mr. Hauser and his department have been repeatedly contacted by Mr. Massie over the past several years to inspect one of Mr. Smith’s projects, to the point of embarrassment to the Jackson County Planning and Erosion Control inspectors. … No one in Jackson County government thinks that Mr. Smith is in violation of that (mining) act or any other ordinances. It is at the point that Mr. Smith has contacted me in my position as chairman of the Jackson County Commissioners to ask for assistance in resolving this matter.”

Massie, not surprisingly, wasn’t happy to learn about the email.

“I look forward to your apology,” he wrote Debnam not long afterwards.

“Jack,” Massie also wrote, “after giving your e-mail additional consideration, I am extremely disappointed that you chose to lend your name and elected position to give added weight to these reputed allegations without making any attempt to check to see if they were factual or to call me personally and ask if I were involved. These allegations are extremely hurtful to all the parties accused and cast dispersions about each individual’s integrity and motivations. I strongly resent this attempt to impugn my character and integrity!

“Forwarding these mistruths to legislators and division supervisors are temporarily harmful to my professional reputation, but the truth will prevail when the facts are investigated. Those same facts will be harmful to your integrity. I am appalled that you did not even invest the time to try to substantiate these outlandish charges. The allegations about me are dangerously close to defamation of character. I would not have thought you capable of such distortion. … You will find that you, in your position as chair of the board of commissioners, have been used to further a personal grudge against me and other innocent parties.”

Bigger building, higher costs, no money

Jackson County commissioners are faced with a dilemma over the new Sylva library slated to open in May: either pony up more money for staff or the library will be forced to cut hours.

The new library is four times bigger than the current one, and as a result needs more staff. It needs another $170,000 to remain open the same 45 hours that it is now. That’s a 35 percent increase over the county’s current funding for the Sylva library of $500,000.

But Jackson County is facing budget shortfalls, not surpluses.

“We’ve been hit pretty hard,” Commissioner Doug Cody said. “We are taking the punches really well so far. We are trying to be creative.”

The new library will have three desks — a main check-out counter, a children’s desk and a reference desk — compared to just one at the current library. The new library also has a large computer lab.

The current Sylva library is so tiny that any of the workers behind the circulation desk can easily pop over to the computer area or the children’s section. They can be reshelving books one minute and fill in behind the counter the next.

But the new library is far more spread out. The computer lab has its own room for example. And the main adult book stacks are on a separate floor from the circulation desk.

As a result, the new library needs twice the staff: the equivalent of 15 positions compared to just seven now.

“If the funding is not increased the hours of operation will have to go down,” said Chuck Wooten, interim Jackson County manager. “I can imagine there would be a lot of pushback from the public to do that.”

More than half of county residents have library cards. The public anted up generously for the new library, a sign of its popular support, Wooten said. Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million in grants and local contributions to furnish the library.

The Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet even commissioned a fanfare to honor the library, specially written by a composer to be performed at the grand opening in June.

“I think it would be very disappointing to the people in this community to not have convenient access to their wonderful new library,” said Karen Wallace, the head of the Fontana Regional Library system. “If we don’t get an operating budget increase, they won’t have the access that the facility warrants.”

Wallace pointed to the $8 million price tag for the new library and restoration of the adjacent historic courthouse.

“It is a big investment to build that facility. To not to be able to use it to its potential would be really disappointing to people,” Wallace said.

Cody and Wooten met with Jackson librarians last week to go over the figures. Cody said commissioners will likely hold a work session on the issue to figure out what to do — one of many hard decisions as part of developing a budget for the coming fiscal year.

“I’m sure there will be some nervousness over the situation, but we just have to drop back and punt and see where we stand on this,” Cody said.

Ideally, the county could increase library hours from 45 a week to 60 a week, Wallace said. The North Carolina Public Library Director’s Association recommends that the main library in a county should be open a minimum of 60 hours.

But doing so would take another $125,000.

Wooten agrees that would be wonderful, but whether it is doable is another story.

“We are really opening our library at the worst possible time,” Wooten said.

Cody said he would like to see library hours increased as well, but probably not until the economy improves.

“I don’t see us initially getting to 60 hours. And conversely I don’t want to see them be open any less either,” Cody said. “If you only operate 30 hours, that is not giving people much opportunity to use the facility.”

Commissioner Mark Jones said the county will obviously have to give the library more money, but isn’t sure whether it will be the full $170,000. Jones wonders if there is any middle ground.

“Can we shave off a little time here and a little time there?” Jones asked. “These are tough times and we have to make tough choices.”

But Mary Otto Selzer, a volunteer with Friends of the Library, said the public wants longer hours, not shorter ones, pointing to the input gathered during focus groups held in conjunction with planning for the new library.

“One of the things we heard loud and clear from people was they would like to see the library expand its hours,” Selzer said. “We need to listen very carefully to our community to address the community’s needs. We hope the commissioners will find a way to at least maintain the 45 hours a week we are currently open.”

Selzer pointed to the current lack of evening hours. The library is never open past 6 p.m. It is only open six hours on Saturday and not at all on Sunday.

“For folks who work and working parents there is not a lot of opportunities to use the library,” Selzer said.

Library use across the country has increased during the recession. Those forced to cancel Internet service at home have turned to public computers at the library. More people are checking out movies instead of going to the video store, reading newspapers and magazines at the library instead of home subscriptions and borrowing books instead of buying them.

The library is also a place used by job seekers and those going back to school, he said.

Indeed, Wallace said the computer terminals are popular with those looking for work, since many jobs require people to fill out online applications. Wallace also said they’ve seen an increase in people who have turned to distance learning for new degrees, which require online exams.

Jones suggested enlisting volunteers. That plan has shown promise for the Green Energy Park, which attracted 45 prospective volunteers to an organizing meeting last week following news that the county would cut its funding. The Green Energy Park houses a collection of artist studios fueled by methane seeping out of decomposing trash at the old county landfill.

“Ask not what your county can do for you, but what you can do for your county,” Jones said.

 

Coming from behind

While another $170,000 annually is a substantial increase, Jackson librarians point out that the library is severely underfunded today. Part of the increase is merely catching up to where they should be already, according to Wallace.

When compared to surrounding counties, Jackson County libraries are indeed underfunded. Library funding amounts to $15 for each county resident. Per capita, that’s 36 percent below Haywood County and almost 50 percent below Macon County. Jackson’s library funding is 25 percent below the state average for all 100 counties.

Since the Sylva library is so small and antiquated, however, it isn’t used as much as libraries in other communities. Macon County sees nearly twice the library use of Jackson, for example.

Until now, that’s allowed the Sylva library to get by on fewer dollars.

Dottie Brunette, the head librarian in Jackson County, said she would have been hard-pressed to squeeze more staff into the existing library. There simply wasn’t enough elbow room for more people behind the small desk.

Jackson’s librarians are bracing for an explosion in library use when the new one opens, however.

Since a new library opened in Franklin in 2007, library use has shot up 50 percent. When Transylvania and Polk counties opened new libraries recently, they saw even bigger increases. The upsurge wasn’t a mere blip following the opening of a new library, but went up and stayed up permanently.

The stage is set in Sylva for an even more dramatic increase in library use than what was seen in other communities where new libraries opened. The current library is so bad, a smaller segment of the public uses it.

“The library has not been able to meet their needs. If you come to the library and can’t get what you need, after a while you just stop trying,” Wallace said.

Only 50 percent of Jackson residents hold library cards. In Macon County, that number was already 75 percent prior to the new library opening. Additional library use could only climb so high, and indeed most of the increased use in Macon came from existing cardholders simply visiting more often. But in Jackson County, the increase will not only come from more trips among existing users but from brand new users.

Wallace also pointed out that new library construction has been prominent in the public eye.

“I anticipate the numbers may be even higher in Jackson,” Wallace said. “I say that because the building of this library has had a very successful marketing campaign. And this library has been a long time coming.”

Jackson’s libraries are at the bottom of the barrel in yet another category. The volume of books and materials per capita are less than in Haywood, Macon or Swain. Again, there simply wasn’t room for stuff.

“There’s books lying across the tops of shelves because we have no room,” said Brunette.

 

Out of the blue?

In addition to the extra staffing, the county is on the hook for bigger heating and cooling bills, higher liability insurance and more janitors. County Manager Chuck Wooten estimates the cost of running the building will go up by $70,000 to $90,000, from $50,000 now.

Wooten, who came on board as interim county manager at the same time the new commissioners took office, said he does not know if these calculations were done previously.

“I could not find where there was an estimate of what it would be with the new building,” Wooten said.

An increase in library funding has blindsided three newly elected commissioners as they grapple with how to cut the county’s budget.

“Doesn’t seem amazing to you that this just came up? Why couldn’t this have been figured out when we thought about building the building?” asked Commission Chairman Jack Debnam. “If I got ready to build a building, I believe I would look at how much more it would take to staff and maintain it.”

Three conservative newcomers to the county board ousted their more liberal opponents in the November election, partly on the resounding Republican platform of reducing government spending.

But now this has landed in their laps, they said.

“This should have been anticipated two or three years ago when they started this project,” Cody said. “I am not trying to throw blame on anyone, but when you have a two-story building you effectively have to double your staff to keep people from carrying the place away.”

According to Tom Massie, a former commissioner who lost re-election last fall, the old board was well aware of costs the new library would require.

“We’re not stupid,” Massie said. “We knew it would cost more and we would have to rearrange funds. You do that in every budget year.”

Massie said deciding how to spend limited county money goes with the territory.

“We had our priorities and they have their priorities, and those are the tough decisions they will have to make,” Massie said.

Massie said the new board is learning that the job isn’t as easy as it looks.

“They had all the answers in the campaign,” Massie said.

Massie said the rubber will meet the road over the next few months as the new board develops a budget for the coming fiscal year.

“Come July 1, they are going to own the new budget,” Massie said.

Commissioner Mark Jones, who served on the old board with Massie and is still on there now, also said the increased costs aren’t exactly a surprise.

“We were aware that the new facility, with the size and the fact that it has multiple levels, would take additional staff,” Jones said.

Jones said when the last board embarked on the new library in 2007, they didn’t realize how much the recession would hurt county coffers.

When asked if the new library was a bad idea, neither Debnam nor Cody would go that far.

“I’m not going to go there,” Debnam said, when asked if the library shouldn’t have been built. But said “they should have considered it.”

“Regardless of how anyone feels about it, the library is there,” Cody said. “I have been through it and it is a beautiful facility. I am not going to tell you or anyone else I would have done anything any different. It is great.”

Everything is on the table financially in Macon County

Macon County Schools, like other local school systems in North Carolina, has been warned by state leaders to plan for cuts that could mount as high as 15 percent.

Along with other county departments, the school system will have to make some difficult choices in the days and months to come, Macon County commissioners agreed during a recent work session. Such as tapping into the schools’ fund balance — broadly speaking, the difference between assets and liabilities on its balance sheet — to help reconcile financial needs with actual available dollars.

Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman said this week the schools’ current fund balance comes to about $3 million. This money, Brigman noted, includes certain money allocated last summer by the federal government.

“We have worked very hard in the Macon County school system to preserve the fund balance in preparation for the loss of (some state money) to be removed July 1,” Brigman said, which will create an immediate “$2.4 million deficit in our state budget allocations for Macon County as a result of these dollars being taken away.”

Also important to understand, Brigman said, is that additional cuts might well come from the state.

Hard times, however, might call for hard choices.

“I always sound like I’m down on the school board,” Commissioner Bobby Kuppers said, adding that he’s not against school board members — rather, Kuppers emphasized, he’s a big supporter.

However, Kuppers said, “their fund balance is our fund balance — the bottom line is, they can’t look to me for $2.5 million while protecting $3 million … we’ve got to be really smart, and really careful, about what we invest our fund balance in.”

Macon County Manager Jack Horton told commissioners a 15-percent cut by the state to local schools could translate to the loss of 5,000 teaching positions statewide.

Kevin Corbin, a long-time Macon County Board of Education member who stepped in to complete the final two years of commissioner-now-state-senator Jim Davis’ term, said he doesn’t believe the county’s fund balance would be well spent funding continuing expenses such as salaries.

“(But) if this year and next year we have truly bottomed out, then using the fund balance (to bridge the gap) isn’t a bad thing,” Corbin said.

“We’ve had to make some very hard decisions the last three years,” Commission Chairman Brian McClellan said. “It’s going to be more of the same, and nobody is exempt from that.”

Macon County Schools’ entire total budget to operate the school system is $31,579,444.

Green Energy Park recommendations now on the table

The Green Energy Park would stand on its own financially within five years if Jackson County adopts recommendations made last week by interim County Manager Chuck Wooten.

The park, which uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio, touched off a storm of criticism and a corresponding groundswell of support recently after county commissioners questioned expenses.

In particular, new Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, has wanted to know when — as promised by the previous commissioners — the Green Energy Park would be financially self-sustaining.

Wooten laid out a solution during a county work session last week. He suggested the county wean the Green Energy Park gradually, reducing support to the park by 20 percent starting the next fiscal year for each of the next five years.

Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since 2006. The county anticipated spending $1 million anyway to deal with methane gas issues related to closing the landfill. Under Wooten’s plan, the county would cover expenses related to the maintenance of the closed landfill that would exist regardless of the Green Energy Park.

Wooten, in prepared comments, noted: “In addition to the gas reclamation, the jobs created at the park, and the educational value provided to the community, the county has also benefited indirectly from the park.”

The grounds department, Wooten said, estimated it saves about $39,000 each year by using the greenhouses at the park for growing annuals and propagating shrubs and trees. Additionally, the park has assumed some of the expenses for dealing with the volatile pollutant that otherwise would fall to the county.

Wooten added that he believes building a volunteer force to help cover costs and needs associated with the innovative project won’t be difficult.

“There’s a lot of support out there for the Green Energy Park,” Wooten told commissioners.

Board Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, told park Director Timm Muth: “The supporters of your park are passionate, and I appreciate that … my question to these people is, ‘What can you do to help us keep the park?’”

Debnam went on to extol the Friends of the Library organization, which has raised the money necessary to build and furnish a new library for Sylva. He suggested that group of volunteers could serve as a model for something similar for the Green Energy Park.

Muth seemed receptive to Debnam’s and Wooten’s suggestions. He went on to apologize to commissioners in the event they believed he behaved less than professionally when questioned by them in a previous meeting.

The director went on to note he believes Jackson has “transformed” the former Dillsboro landfill from “an eyesore to something the county can be proud of.”

Muth, who had earlier noted to commissioners: “I know I just kind of talk and talk,” then proceeded to express his apparent ongoing discontent with news coverage over the five-year history of the venture. He said special events at the park haven’t received the front-page placement in local publications that he believes they merit. Muth concluded his soliloquy with bemusement about how to “engage the media.”

There is one surefire, never-fail method of engaging reporters and getting that coveted front-page coverage: continue having commissioners raise questions about management of the Green Energy Park, and about whether taxpayers’ dollars are best spent underwriting the park and Muth’s $64,626.12 annual salary.

 

The road to solvency

Weaning the Jackson County Green Energy Park from county subsidies in the next five years could be possible under a plan outlined by interim County Manager Jack Wooten.

• Continue a freeze on the vacant administrative support position at the park. Volunteers instead will be found to help Director Timm Muth staff the office and serve as administrative helpers.

• Actively pursue grants in support of the general operations or program expansion at the park.

• Reactivate an advisory committee to guide the director concerning park operations.

• Review and update all operating procedures and policies for the park.

• Develop a comprehensive marketing plan, and put up signs to guide visitors to the park and give them information once inside.

• Seek additional tenants.

• Identify partners within the community and identify new business opportunities for the park.

• Continue providing grounds maintenance and routine building maintenance.

• Have the park’s director provide written quarterly updates to commissioners and appear annually before the commissioners with representatives from the advisory committee.

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