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.

State budget timing critical to local governments

Local boards are finding themselves on the wrong end of the dog when it comes to putting together budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

In Jackson and Macon counties, at work sessions held by commissioners in their respective counties last week, much of the discussion at these relatively informal get-togethers involved speculation on when — and what — might be expected from the state General Assembly.

The state, as it were, would be the front end of the dog.

North Carolina is facing a projected $3.7 billion shortfall. Thousands of state jobs are threatened, with massive cuts expected to come for health and human services, schools and other critical services offered on the state and local level.

So, what does that mean for counties?

“There are certain things we have to provide,” said Evelyn Southard, finance officer for Macon County.

And not knowing how much money will come down the pike from the state complicates matters, she said. When counties will know the full extent of the financial devastation is unknown, but that knowledge is critical to local boards starting preparations on budgets for the next fiscal year.

Macon County Manager Jack Horton warned his board that even though members of the General Assembly are making happy noises about having their budget passed by the end of June, August is more typical, and the state has actually lagged before into October.

“We have to have the (ability) to take care of the county business whether the state gets their house in order or not,” said Horton, a veteran administrator who has also worked over the years in Swain and Haywood counties.

 

Jackson faces immediate shortfall

In Jackson County, officials were concerned about staying within this year’s budget in addition to preparing next year’s.

Jackson County must either slow its spending, interim Manager Chuck Wooten said, or the county must dip into the fund balance — those are the two choices facing Jackson’s commissioners. An across-the-board cut for county departments seems the most palatable option of the two, Wooten said.

The problem is not enough people are paying their taxes in Jackson County. A gap between the budgeted tax-collection rate for the current fiscal year, and the actual collection rate occurring so far is 0.62 percent off what was originally projected. Sounds tiny, but that adds up to big bucks: there is a projected revenue shortfall for the current year of $336,004, including failures to pay vehicle taxes.

The recession has taken its toll on all counties when it comes to people paying their taxes. Jackson’s budget for this year assumes a property tax collection rate of 95.4 percent. Last year, the tax collection rate was only 94.8 percent, but county leaders apparently banked on it coming back up.

Wooten said as a result this year’s budget is “too optimistic,” though he stopped short of assigning blame. Wooten replaced longtime County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland in January.

In response, Jackson County commissioners indicated they would probably become more aggressive in tackling tax scofflaws.

“Why have we not gone after this?” Jackson Chairman Jack Debnam asked, presumably of the only two (Democrats) commissioners who remain from the previous board.

Debnam then answered his own question: “I know, we’re a small county — they could be friends and relatives.”

New Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, warned his fellow members that favoritism must play no role.

“If we go down this road, it is important to treat everyone equally,” he said.

Macon County leaders, by comparison, were merry about having a mere $34,283 projected discrepancy.

“And I think there’s some room in here for our expenditures and revenues to be even better than is shown here,” Southard said.

In other state-local government news, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners last week passed a list of legislative goals the group wants state leaders to adopt. Beale, who attended the meeting, summarized the top five priority goals of the group:

• Oppose shifting road maintenance from the state to the counties.

• Reinstate Average Daily Membership, a formula that uses school enrollment to determine funding levels, and lottery funds for school construction.

• Ensure adequate mental-health funding by seeking legislation for adequate capacity of state-funded acute psychiatric beds; oppose closing state-funded beds until there is adequate capacity statewide, and seek legislation to maintain the existing levels of state funding for community mental-health services.

• Preserve the existing local-revenue base (don’t take money streams away from already-hurting local governments).

• Authorize local revenue options by allowing counties to enact by resolutions, or at the option of boards of commissioners, by voter referendum any or all revenue options from among those that have been authorized for any other county.

Supporters want to keep county funding for Green Energy Park

Supporters of Jackson County’s methane-powered Green Energy Park urged county leaders last week not to slash funding to the innovative project.

“What is the Green Energy Park?” Aaron Shufelt, a glass artisan and intern at the park, asked rhetorically during the public session of the county commission meeting, one of seven people who spoke about the issue.

“(It is) a place where creative and passionate people come together to experience the arts. The Green Energy Park is unique because they are dedicated to preserving the arts through education and the utilization of green energy. The result is economic growth for Western North Carolina.”

Jackson County’s new three-man-slate of conservative commissioners have sharply questioned the viability and future of the Green Energy Park. The project was launched about five years ago (under a board totally dominated by Democrats, now just two remain) as a means of capturing methane from a closed landfill in Dillsboro and turning that waste byproduct into energy. Today, methane helps power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing facilities and a large greenhouse, with the artisans paying rent and fees to the county.

Republican Commissioner Doug Cody, a successful businessman in private life, has been crystal clear about his beliefs that the park needs to pay its own way. This isn’t out-of-the-blue posturing on Cody’s part — the previous board of commissioners, too, said they intended for the park to become economically self-sustaining. The sticking point is when, exactly, this should take place.

Green Energy Park Director Timm Muth notes previous commissioners never set a timetable. This year alone, the Green Energy Park is set to receive $218,422 in taxpayer dollars. Total, the park has received $1.2 million from the county’s general fund since 2006.

John Burtner, a blacksmith who has used the park as an incubator to grow his business, credited the venture with keeping him gainfully employed. Burtner said he believes he would currently be out of work without use of park’s shop and tools. The blacksmith has used his two-and-a-half-years there to start equipping his own shop elsewhere, he said.

“This whole time, I’ve been busy, profitable,” Burtner told county leaders.

Commissioners, while deciding the fate of the Green Energy Park, might want to factor in the following. According to the January 2006 minutes of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland noted: “The county had anticipated spending approximately $1 million to satisfy requirements imposed by the EPA and DEHNR concerning the unfavorable release of methane (from the landfill) into the atmosphere. The dollar amount will be expended (in building the park), but for a beneficial use and is a ‘win-win’ situation … because it is so unique, the project will more than likely receive national attention and visits to the area.”

Selling landfill space gains traction in Haywood

Haywood County is seriously considering turning over operations of the county landfill to a private company in hopes of saving money.

The proposal also includes selling space in the landfill, allowing other locales to ship their trash here for a fee. Commissioners have been exploring the idea for nearly a year, and are now closing in on a final plan.

In a work session on the issue last week, commissioners reviewed proposals from private companies interested in taking over the landfill. Of the three companies that showed interest, only one presented a plan that would save the county money, according to Tax Administration Director David Francis.

The clear front-runner among the proposals was from Cleveland, Tenn.-based Santek Environmental Services, a big player in the trash business with 14 disposal sites in eight states.

Santek pitched a full takeover of the county’s White Oak landfill, including the environmental monitoring that has caused the county woes — and fines — in recent months. The company would also install new scales and a scale house for weighing, which are needed to continue operations, Francis said.

The landfill’s roads are notoriously bad and difficult to navigate for residents coming to dump trash. Santek would build a public drop-off station to close the working face of the landfill to traffic. They would also install a truck wash to prevent larger trucks from tracking dirt and other contaminants into the environment when they leave.

 

Selling off landfill space

The real money spinner of Santek’s proposal, however, is letting out-of-county garbage be dumped into the landfill for a fee.

But selling landfill space is a contentious issue. Detractors are concerned that such a move would be the first step towards making the site a kind of megadump, a stream of unsightly truckloads of trash rolling through the county.

The companion concern, of course, is longevity. At current capacity, Solid Waste Manager Stephen King has said that the site could last the county another 30 years. Santek has promised to maintain that number, even with the increased volume.

Bringing in more trash from outside not only provides a revenue stream, but it also allows the landfill to realize an economy of scale. To some extent, overhead to operate the landfill is the same regardless of how much trash is coming in. More volume means each ton of trash costs less to handle.

The county generates 150 tons a day of its own trash. Santek said once the landfill hits a critical mass of 325 tons per day, the cost to the county might start going down.

Once the 325-ton mark is reached, Santek will foot the bill for landfill expansion and closing costs associated with the end of the landfill’s life — two of the largest trash-related expenses.

The county would need to save $454,500 every year for the next 30 to cover the landfill’s projected closing costs. Since the county can’t borrow against the landfill, it must all be saved in advance.

So commissioners were suitably impressed by Santek’s promise of such large savings without losing landfill life.

“So we’re looking at a situation that we can potentially save Haywood County taxpayers a tremendous amount of money and still guarantee the same life?” asked Commissioner Michael Sorrells, to which the answer was yes, according to Santek’s proposal.

The county’s staff analysis of the proposal put savings at $480,000 for a 20-year contract and $462,000 under a 10-year agreement.

Initially, commissioners seemed wary of the promise to maintain a 30-year life. If they can, the question was posed, why can’t we?

And the answer boiled down to expertise.

“They have more available resources than we actually have,” said King, noting that the cost of improving county resources to that level of efficiency would be exorbitant.

The other major asset the Santek plan will pay for is landfill expansion, which Francis said could cost $15.5 million over the next 30 years.

All told, the Santek proposal would save residents $24 yearly on their annual fees compared to maintaining the status quo of county operations.  

Francis cautioned commissioners that, while the Santek option appears to offer significant savings, it won’t fix every problem at White Oak.

“This is not a silver bullet that will solve everything,” said Francis. “There will be some time there that they need to get up to that 325 [tons].”

 

Santek’s track record

As the 39th largest waste company in the nation, Santek already runs several other landfills.

Bradley County, Tenn., contracted with the company over a decade ago, after the City of Cleveland, their biggest landfill customer, started trucking their waste elsewhere, leaving the county hemorrhaging money on the site.

County Mayor Gary Davis said that he was initially reluctant to open the dump to out-of-county waste, but saw few alternative options to keep the budget from dipping into the red.

“I was torn. I want the landfill to last forever, but at the same time there has to be enough going into it to produce the revenue to offset those costs,” said Davis, though he said he’s happy with the way Santek’s been operating, and even happier with the no-cost situation it puts his county in. “Bradley County has no cost, period.”

Crawford County, Ohio, went into business with the company because of repeated run-ins with the Environmental Protection Agency and the small matter of an $8 million debt on their landfill.

Crawford County Commissioner Mo Ressallat said his board felt uncomfortable with competing against the private sector, so when the choice came down to going into the trash business to stay afloat or turning over operations to Santek, they chose the latter.

“It was the cost factor,” said Ressallat. “Because we thought the government really shouldn’t be doing business, competing against the private.”

He said that since then they’ve been pretty happy with the arrangement.  “It’s been a good marriage, really.”

In Rhea County, Tenn., the county waste disposal department was running at a $370,000 loss in 2010. But waste officials maintained that it wasn’t the fault of the Santek-run landfill, which they say is profitable. The county’s nine convenience centers were, apparently, to blame, and all are run in-house.

Back in Haywood County, that’s a concern for commissioners, too. Santek’s proposal, unlike some others, didn’t touch the transfer station, so the county will have to make a separate decision about whether or not to close it.

At the work session, Francis clarified that the station would always stay open to individual residents, but “large haulers,” like commercial dumpers and municipalities might no longer get to use the facility, which is another controversial element to the plan.

The Solid Waste Committee is expected to bring recommendations to the board in early February.

Future of Green Energy Park might lie in the numbers

Jackson County has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Green Energy Park since launching the innovative project about five years ago.

Rent and usage fees offset a portion of the costs. Taxpayers, however, largely underwrite the venture, an examination of county finance records show. The county has kicked in a total of $1.2 million since 2006 (see infobox).

The park is built next to a closed county landfill near Dillsboro. Methane, a byproduct of the decomposing trash, is captured and used to heat a greenhouse and help power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing studios and a metal-art foundry. Plans call for building pottery studios. Some of that structure is already up.

A $204,730 Rural Center Grant is being counted on to help complete the pottery studios, but word on whether the county will actually get that money hasn’t yet come.

At question is whether the county’s new conservative majority of commissioners will continue subsidizing the project, with or without grant assistance — particularly since the Green Energy Park epitomizes the environmentally friendly, look-toward-the-future thinking of the three Democrats ousted in November.

 

By the numbers

An examination of the current year’s budget for the Green Energy Park shows rent is projected to bring in $25,000, and “donations” an additional $10,000. The overall budget for the Green Energy Park is $458,152, but that number is misleading because it includes the Rural Center grant for $204,730, intended to offset the exact same amount in expenditures for building the pottery studio.

No grant, no building, Muth explained in a recent interview.

Utilities get a $17,000 budget line item this fiscal year. Salaries and wages, $99,756 — Muth is paid $64,626.12. His helper, Carrie Blaskowski, who left the county post to join a family business, was budgeted to receive $35,129.38.

Muth, in a commission meeting , asked permission to advertise Blaskowski’s open position. Instead, commissioners ordered — or rather, Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, and Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, ordered — a top-to-bottom cost analysis of the Green Energy Park. (New Commissioner Charles Elders, also a Republican who ran on a platform of change with Debnam and Cody, hasn’t proven much of a talker during the meetings, leaving onlookers little choice but to assume he is in agreement with his two conservative cohorts.)

Two Democrats, Joe Cowan and Mark Jones, remain on the board of commissioners, but to date have appeared reluctant to publicly defy the board’s newcomers. Perhaps because they want to work together the best they can for the good of the county. Or perhaps because they anticipate running for reelection themselves in two years, and learned from their fallen fellow Democrats that a financially strapped voting electorate doesn’t have much patience.

Cowan, in fact, joined conservative commissioners earlier this month when they peppered Muth with questions about the park. For his part, Jones didn’t exactly defend the project. But Jones did point out that carbon credits from the Green Energy Park could be sold in the future, helping offset some of the project’s cost.

 

What’s it all about?

“This is about trying to create jobs,” Muth said.

If completed as originally envisioned, the Green Energy Park will create 15 to 20 new jobs for Jackson County. The project was intended to be economically self-sustaining — though Muth said no timetable was ever mandated.

“They never gave me a date,” the park’s director said.

Although the Green Energy Park is clearly Exhibit A for a majority of commissioners anxious to publicly flex their conservative muscles, Muth might have picked up a somewhat unlikely ally: Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, the darling of the conservative trio of commissioners.

Wooten was picked to temporarily replace County Manager Ken Westmoreland after the three newcomers showed him the door. (Or, that’s what Westmoreland said happened. Debnam claimed the veteran government administrator volunteered to leave on his own.)

Wooten, in addition to having a majority of the board’s blessing, brings 30 years of experience in managing Western Carolina University’s budget and the nimbleness required to survive in that position. In other words, Wooten has virtually unassailable financial credentials, vast political know-how, and an ability to leave the job of county manager at any point if his relations with the board prove untenable.

“Tim and I have met a couple of times, and I have had the opportunity to visit the Green Energy Park and take a tour, so I have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Wooten emailed The Smoky Mountain News in response to questions about the park.

“We’re going to hold on the request for filling the position until we can complete the cost analysis,” he wrote. “I’m going to propose to the commissioners that they have a work session on possibly the afternoon of Jan. 28, and the Green Energy Park would be one of the items for discussion. I think we can complete our fact-finding by then and provide some better information to the commissioners for their consideration. …It’s obvious to me that the Green Energy Park can probably not be self-sustaining in the short term but when we consider some of the indirect benefits of the park then the numbers become more manageable.”

Wooten this week said he does not feel Jackson County is the point of actually abandoning the project, but rather re-examining and rescaling the venture. The interim county manager said he needs, with Muth’s help, to understand commitments made on previous grants — particularly, would the county have to repay money in the event of changes to the Green Energy Park?

 

County contributions to Green Energy Park

• 2006-2007 – $100,000.

• 2007-2008 – $210,000.

• 2008-2009 – $447,383.

• 2009-2010 – $264,530.

• 2010-2011 – $218,422.

Commissioners tap assistant manager to take the helm permanently

Haywood County selected a new manager at their Wednesday meeting, promoting current interim manager Marty Stamey.

The board decided to make it official with Stamey, long-time assistant county manager, voting unanimously to give him the position permanently.

Stamey took over as interim after former County Manager David Cotton resigned in November. It was the second time Stamey had been tested in the position. He filled in last year when Cotton was out on medical leave in the midst of annual budgeting, where Stamey first proved his acumen for leadership.

Commissioners praised Stamey’s performance over the two terms as interim and lauded his skills, which they said rendered a search for someone more qualified unnecessary.

“We have all worked with Marty Stamey extensively during the past several months. We have all been very pleased with his performance and consider him to be very, very qualified for the position of county manager, so much so that we do not believe a search would produce a more qualified person for county manager,” said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger.

Other commissioners echoed Swanger’s sentiments, pointing to Stamey’s years of service and rapport with employees and the community as qualities to recommend him for the post.

Former chairman and current Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he felt “no need for the county to expend additional monies or time and efforts if we have someone here on our staff that is fully competent to handle the job.”

Commissioner Kevin Ensley also sang Stamey’s praises, adding his pleasure that a Haywood County native was taking the position for the first time.

Commissioner Bill Upton also made a cheeky nod to the new manager’s local roots, noting that he’d had nary a run-in when Stamey was a student during Upton’s tenure as Pisgah High School principal.

With two masters’ degrees and a wealth of experience in health care and emergency management services in the county, Stamey brings education, experience and a local eye to the position. He was named assistant county manager in 2007, following a stint as the head of emergency services for the county.

Stamey himself thanked the commissioners and praised his staff, saying they’re who he was really confident in and expressing hope that he could meet the high standards set by commissioners.

According to Stamey, the position is an honor and a vote of confidence in his leadership, but won’t amend his or the county’s day-to-day operations very much. Stamey’s salary will be just over $124,000, the same as his predecessor. It was upped to that figure when he stepped in as interim last autumn.

He said that one of the big challenges coming up will be tackling the budget as state and national funding dry up and more responsibilities are pushed onto counties.

He said he’s pleased with the promotion, but cautioned commissioners when he was named interim to take time before deciding whether to give him the post permanently in case his style was different than what they were looking for.

“I told them to wait, and let’s see how I do,” said Stamey. “Then they could decide whether they were going to do a search.”

But when asked whether this changes his work load or the way he views his position, Stamey said the title doesn’t really matter.

“It doesn’t change anything at all,” he said.

Stamey’s former position, assistant county manager, will remain unfilled and frozen indefinitely.

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