Strange at best, tacky at worst — library plaque to bear two boards’ names

Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody said he was as surprised as anyone to learn that his name would be included on a bronze plaque destined to hang on the newly renovated courthouse and library complex. So was his fellow board member, Charles Elders, who noted last week that frankly it seemed kind of peculiar, even a tad inappropriate, to him.

That’s because during last November’s campaigns, the two Republicans and Jack Debnam, an Independent-but-conservative candidate for commission chairman, were rather free in their criticisms about expenses connected with the $8 million renovation of the old courthouse and construction of a new library annex in Sylva.

Cody was careful to note that he didn’t actually campaign directly against the new library — which, in fact, he didn’t, but he frequently questioned the cost.

Debnam said he truly couldn’t care less whether there’s a plaque or not — the library belongs to the citizens of Jackson County, he said, not to government officials.

“I don’t even know why we have to get into this self-glorification,” Debnam said.

Be that as it may, how then did it happen that two boards of commissioners are destined to have their names listed on the bronze plaque? It will list eight individuals from two Jackson County commission boards, an odd merging of the very men who waged war in one of the most bitter political battles this community can remember.

When it was done, Democrats William Shelton, Tom Massie and Brian McMahan were gone; Elders, Cody and Debnam were in.

Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan are twice designated on the future plaque, because they were and are seated on both the former and current boards. The two men were not up for election last November.

“Nothing is simple in life when it comes to local politics,” County Manager Chuck Wooten wrote Architect Donnie Love in an email dated Jan. 24, which he made available to The Smoky Mountain News. “I suspect with a new board in place when the library opens they will also want to have a presence on the plaque. I’ll talk to the chairman and let you know.”

This followed a query by Love about who should make the plaque, and whether the new county manager was “comfortable with the wording, spelling etc.”

Well, no, it turned out he wasn’t. Wooten, in addition to adding the extra commissioners, removed former County Manager Ken Westmoreland’s name. It should be pointed out that he did not add his own name, either. Wooten said he simply didn’t like the idea of having a county manager, any county manager, on the plaque.

The changes did not cost the county any taxpayer money, Wooten said.

Dottie Brunette, head librarian in Jackson County, declined to comment on the library plaque, or on public speculations she was offered a Faustian deal: agree to the names being added, or risk losing library funding. Wooten flatly denied such a conversation took place.

He was, however, clearly sensitive about talk in the community concerning the plaque leading up to the library’s grand opening. The day before, on June 10, Wooten again emailed Love, querying him about the not-yet-delivered plaque:

“Could you determine when he anticipates delivery or should I pursue ordering the plaque from someone else? I’m having a temporary sign printed for this weekend to head off rumors about excluding the prior board of commissioners from a permanent sign. You know how local politics can be.”

Mary Selzer, who helped head a fundraising campaign for Friends of the Library, said Shelton, Massie and Jones were “the three commissioners who had the vision, and who got the project approved and funded, working with then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland.

“Without their commitments and hard work, the courthouse would still be standing empty, and we would still be having discussion about where to put a library in Jackson County.”

Massie and Shelton declined to comment.

The cost to the county — and ultimately the taxpayers — for the new library complex was approximately $7.1 million. The total project budget was more than $8.6 million, but the Friends raised the $1.5 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment plus an additional $300,000 to cover campaign-fundraising expenses and to expand the library’s collection.

Selzer added in a delicate step-on-nobody’s toes straddle, “the current board of commissioners did allot money to keep the current level of services at 45 hours.”

Staff, too, was added. The library saw funding increase from $500,000 to $675,000 under the new board of commissioners. The library, Selzer noted, was the only county department that actually received a financial increase.

The delivery date for the new plaque is unknown. So, exactly, is where on the courthouse/library it will hang once it arrives.

Few find anything to like in Haywood budget proposal

Haywood County residents told commissioners just what they thought of funding reductions at a hearing last week over the county’s new budget.

Thirty people came to the meeting, where commissioners took comments on the 2011-12 budget, which decreases funding to schools by 3 percent.

Though fewer than a third of the crowd voiced their opinions, many who did either opposed the education slashing or chided the board for its increasing debt load, proposed increase to the tax rate and recent property revaluation.

Some, like Marietta Edwards, questioned where the county’s money was going.

“We need money for the schools. We don’t need fancy buildings, we don’t need these high expenditures,” said Edwards. “We need to be careful how we spend our money.”

Others came to plead only for the reinstatement of school funding, which they said was vital to the county’s educational success.

“We’re doing good things here in Haywood County,” said Tuscola High School Principal Dale McDonald. “But the budget has the possibility of losing some assistant principals. In five years, I will not be a principal at Tuscola High School. I’ll be retired. But you’ve got to have somebody ready to step in and fill those shoes.”

Commissioners noted that they weren’t responsible for line item cuts to school budgets. They just provide the funding figure, not specifics on how that money is used.

But school advocates said that regardless of where the cuts come from, they’d still be detrimental to the effort to school the county’s kids.

Commissioners countered the complaints — they understand, said board members, that cuts are never fun or easy. But when state is slashing around 10 percent, there are few options.

“This board takes handling the county money seriously,” said Commissioner Bill Upton, a former Pisgah High School principal and long-time superintendent for the county’s schools. “When I was in schools, it was how you handled the kids that was the most important, and now as a county commissioner it’s how you handle the billfold that’s the most important.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick assured the assembled crowd that setting a higher tax rate — 54.13 cents as opposed to 51.4 cents last year — wasn’t a flippant decision by the board, but it’s how they’ll stay revenue neutral after a property revaluation as the whole state faces dire economic straits.

“What we have to do is weigh what we think is necessary and needed and try to establish the best budget possible with that. We don’t sit up here and establish a tax rate that we’re not going to pay as well,” said Kirkpatrick.

Though the hearing was a chance for citizens to voice their pleasure or grievance with the proposed budget, it was also a forum for commissioners to defend their decisions and fact check some ill-founded constituent complaints, such as the claim by one man that the county was subsidizing a cowboy church at the fairgrounds.

The proposed budget hasn’t yet been adopted by commissioners, but they’re expected to discuss it at their next meeting on June 20.

Cashiers rec center gets green light

The Cashiers Recreation Center is back on track following a unanimous vote this week by Jackson County commissioners to move forward with the $8 million project.

Commissioners voted to use money from the county’s fund balance instead of taking out a loan, and to hire a professional cost estimator to figure out the bottom-line price tag.

Current estimates are based on blueprints that have been on the shelf since 2006. If anything, given the crash of the construction market since then, Jackson County can anticipate a probable improvement on the original guesstimates.

The county already has spent about $3 million on the project in the past five years getting a site ready. County Manager Chuck Wooten said a fire-pump station is still needed to ensure future sprinklers have the water to operate. But otherwise, he said, the county is about ready to go through a punch (or to-do list) for that part of the project.

Cashiers’ recreation center has been a sore point for that community, which is isolated by virtue of geography. The residents in that area shoulder the bulk of Jackson County’s tax base, but often complain of seeing little return for their dollars.

The project hit environmental snags (the site is in the protected headwaters of the Chatooga River), which triggered correspondingly higher costs. The county had to pay an additional $900,000 for site work between 2006 and 2008 to comply with the regulatory demands.

The project almost hit another potential roadblock when Chairman Jack Debnam shied at designating the fund balance as the source of funding. He said he wanted more time to study whether the county might be better off taking out a loan. With Wooten saying commissioners couldn’t move forward at this time without detailing where they’d get the money from, and a motion from Commissioner Mark Jones, a resident of Cashiers, already on the table, Debnam voted “yes,” too.

Money available for railroad, if commissioners ink deal

No actual decision was made, but County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners this week that they have $95,176 set aside in the budget if they want to give the money, as requested, to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

The money would go toward fixing up a steam engine the railroad bought that is currently sitting in Maine. In February, the privately owned business asked for $817,176 in the form of a loan and a grant from Jackson County. A few weeks later, the railroad amended that request to ask for $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan.

Now the loan part is gone, and the railroad just wants cold, hard cash from Jackson County.

That’s because if the railroad did get a loan from the county, it might well be forced to immediately pay back another federal loan because of an agreed upon debt-equity ratio, Wooten said.

Businessman Al Harper owns the railroad. Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of the railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train moved its administrative office and main depot to Bryson City. Dillsboro languished in the wake of that decision. Last year, and even more this year, the railroad did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.

With the steam engine, Harper is promising to run service out of Dillsboro two to three days per week in June, July and August, and three to four days out of the week in October.

Additionally, the railroad promises during November and December for the popular Polar Express to originate out of the tourism-dependent town.

“If there is sufficient passenger demand then (the) number of days could be increased,” Wooten noted. “There will also be trips on the steam engine originating out of Bryson City with a stopover in Dillsboro.”

Swain County and the Swain County Travel and Tourism Authority each have already kicked in $25,000, for a total of $50,000, to the railroad.

A decision by commissioners in Jackson County won’t be made until the steam engine is physically located in Western North Carolina from Maine, Wooten said.

No tax increase projected for Jackson

No increase in taxes, more funding for the new public library, the same amount for the schools and a more than 3 percent overall drop in spending highlight Jackson County’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Does the proposal simply sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not, interim County Manager Chuck Wooten reassured commissioners this week when presenting the fruit of Finance Officer Darlene Fox and his labors.

The proposed budget would total just more than $58 million; the general fund would come to just more than $49 million. A budget work session is set for 1 p.m. on Monday, May 9, when commissioners meet with the Jackson County Department of Social Services. At 2 p.m., they will walk through the proposed budget with Wooten to determine what, if any, changes they want to make.

“We just trimmed every department,” Fox explained before the meeting while passing out copies of the budget to reporters.

County employees won’t see a pay increase for the second consecutive year, and there is a net decrease in county employment by 17.1 positions (through elimination of open positions, consolidation of some duties, and privatizing some of the solid waste operations).

Additionally, Jackson County would give the school system the $235,000 extra in capital outlay administrators requested recently. School leaders said during a work session with commissioners that the money was necessary to fix roofs, buy security cameras and meet other basic facility needs.

School board members and administrators also requested commissioners hold steady at the same nearly $6.8 million amount budget this year, which is accomplished under the proposed budget.

The new Jackson County Public Library in Sylva would see funding increase from $500,000 to $675,000.

Mary Otto Selzer, who attends virtually every commission meeting, including this one, was pleased with the proposal. She is the co-chair of the Friends of the Library committee that raised nearly $2 million in donations and grants to furnish and outfit the new library. The former investment banker praised the working budget for containing sufficient funds to keep the library operating at 45 hours per week.

“The county and community have made a significant investment in this new facility and we want to have it open and accessible to serve the communities needs,” Selzer said. “The community had hoped our new library would be able to increase its hours of operation from 45 to 60 hours per week  — the minimum level recommended by the state — but this is wonderful news in view of the current financial climate.”

Selzer said Librarian Dottie Brunette is working to set the hours of operation for the new library complex (they are in process now of moving the libraries books and other resources to the building). Brunette, Selzer said, is hoping to offer at least a couple of days with evening hours to better serve working families.

Funding for nonprofits in Jackson County was held at current year levels. New dollars amounting to $7,000 was provided for Mountain Projects; Webster Enterprises has new funding in the amount of $10,000; and The Community Table, which requested $10,000, was recommended for $5,000.

“It’s not a surprise – it’s a tough economic climate,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table, a group helping feed those in need. “Anything we can get in the form of financial assistance is a help.”

Wooten said the financial climate seems to be improving.

“Jackson County continues to feel the impact of the economic slowdown even though some signs suggest things may have bottomed out,” Wooten wrote in his introductory remarks to the proposed budget. “Foreclosures are up and building permits are down; but, overall, it seems we may be witnessing the beginning of a slow recovery.”

Wooten noted that while the ad valorem tax rate of 28 cents would remain the same, and that the fund balance (the county’s rainy day fund) would go untapped, “overall the projected ad valorem tax value and revenues are less than were budgeted in fiscal year 2010-2011.”

The projected tax base is $11,323,240,141, or $74.5 million less than the current fiscal year.

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.

 
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