Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of

Jackson County commissioners passed a slate of sweeping development regulations in 2007 designed to rein in what they saw as runaway development. Commissioners touted the regulations as protecting not only the environment and but also the quality of life from irresponsible mountainside construction.

The end of the laissez-faire building climate in Jackson County, that had paved the way for a proliferating number of gated communities over the past decade, angered real estate and building interests. The homebuilder’s lobby pledged to oust the four commissioners who voted in the regulations.

They failed to do so two years ago, however, when both Commissioner Mark Jones and Joe Cowan were re-elected. This year, they have their shot at Shelton and Massie. While Brian McMahan was the lone vote against the regulations in 2007 — and works for the county’s largest gated community Balsam Mountain Preserve — he has been subject to the same attacks as his fellow commissioners.

That didn’t stop the three of them — Shelton, Massie and McMahan — from taking the stage at a candidates forum sponsored by the Jackson County Homebuilder’s earlier this month.

Their opponents, however, declined an invitation to a forum hosted by Jackson County environmental groups.

What could have been tit-for-tat forums — dominated by the opposing forces of developers and environmentalists — instead fell flat. Since challengers stayed away from the environmental forum, the sitting commissioners were left preaching to the choir, and a small one at that since there was little motivation among the general public to attend a one-sided forum.

The sitting commissioners criticized the challengers for failing to show.

“I wish they could have been here tonight. I wish we could have had some good dialogue on the economy and the environment,” McMahan said.

“I think our opponents are conspicuously absent,” William Shelton said.

“I am sorry you didn’t have the opportunity to hear from our opponents, to hear what they believe in,” Tom Massie said. “We don’t know where they stand on these kind of issues.

Shelton and Massie have rejected the accusation that the development regulations passed in 2007 are to blame for the slump in real estate and development.

“We have tried to beat the drum that the policies in Jackson County are not what has killed our economy. These ordinances did not kill the economy,” Shelton said.

Massie said the challengers on the ticket want to “roll back the ordinances.”

“The subtext of their message is they don’t like the ordinances and they want to go back to the way it was four years ago. But we’re not going to go back to the way it was four years ago,” Massie said.

Haywood commissioner candidates debate merits of spending

Taxes and spending in a recession economy have emerged as the top issue in the race for Haywood County commissioner this year.

Challengers vying for a seat on the board have jumped on the bandwagon of critics who have continually called into question county spending.

While county cut its budget dramatically in the face of the recession — from scaling back library hours to slashing public school maintenance —it wasn’t enough to avoid a small property tax hike last year.

As a result, commissioners caught flak for raising the tax rate by 1.7 cents amidst one of the worst recessions to strike the country. Critics claim the board is spending beyond taxpayers’ means.

But others criticized commissioners for making excessive cuts and slashing millions from the budget. Nonprofits in particular were hit hard after being completely dropped by the county.

“It’s something we had to do to reduce the tax burden on the people in the county,” said incumbent Kirk Kirkpatrick, adding that commissioners have cut the budget almost $9 million in the last four years — a 10 percent reduction. He anticipates the county board will have to make even more cuts over the next four years.

Democratic candidate Michael Sorrells said the commissioners could have reduced the budget further. “They cut the least painful things,” Sorrells said. “Well, now we’re going to have to look at the hard parts.”

But Upton says commissioners have already worked thoroughly and diligently to come up with the best possible budget. “[We] have put in many hours, most of it televised,” Upton said. “...I think this group has done an excellent job of balancing the budget and also listening to our citizens.”

Republican candidate Denny King disagreed. He pointed to big ticket items as the culprit: commissioners bought the abandoned Wal-Mart to replace crumbling DSS offices, expanded the landfill, bailed the Haywood County fairgrounds out of debt and tacitly signed off on a new Haywood Community College building.

“In my opinion the biggest thing that has caused taxes to go up is we are borrowing a lot of money. Every time we borrow money, budgets have to be cut or taxes have to be raised,” King said. “I think we will just really have to reduce the money we borrow on projects. If we don’t, the county services are going to have to continue to be cut and property taxes will have to continue to go up.”

Before tackling the budget, Republican David Bradley vows to communicate frequently with Western North Carolina’s delegation in Raleigh to underline the county’s needs. “Get more of a two-way conversation,” Bradley said. “Voice our concerns, not just carry out what’s dictated.”

With the recession likely to continue, Bradley said he would focus on diversifying the local economy. Tourism is always one of the hardest-hit industries during economic downturns, so Bradley wants to focus more on promoting emerging industries, like organic farming and technology-based business.

Meanwhile, Republican Tom Freeman said he would look at unconventional ways to save money, such as turning off the lights after hours at the historic courthouse and justice center. “I know it’s just lights, but it adds up,” Freeman said.

He would also keep employees from driving county vehicles home. If elected commissioner, Freeman would make unannounced visits to each department to see if all employees are being productive. “[Commissioners] need to go out and look, see what’s going on,” Freeman said.

 

The Wal-Mart debate

Earlier this year, commissioners decided to purchase the abandoned Wal-Mart in Clyde to house the Department of Social Services and Health department, both of which have long awaited moves from aging buildings. The project will cost taxpayers about $12.5 million.

This comes on top of the tens of millions dropped over the past eight years on the new justice center, a parking deck, a major school construction bond, and property on Jonathan Creek to house a future county sports complex — although not all the current commissioners were on the board at the time of these decisions.

So when the old Wal-Mart purchase came along, “it sure enough put everybody over the edge,” Bradley said.

But Kirkpatrick says that commissioners don’t spend money without thinking long and hard first.

“It’s always been tough for us to actually spend the money,” Kirkpatrick said. “We weigh the good for the county versus holding on to it.”

Incumbent Bill Upton points out that the Wal-Mart decision took commissioners two years. As the recession worsened, the property’s price became unbeatable — and no one else was picking it up.

“To me, it was our chance,” Upton said. “We couldn’t refuse.”

Even if the old DSS building were repaired, there would still be the issue of insufficient space, privacy and parking, Upton said.

While $12.5 million seems like a lot of money, constructing a building from scratch could have taken up to $30 million, Upton said. Repairing the crumbling former county hospital dating back to the 1920s and 1950s where DSS is currently housed would likewise be more expensive, commissioners asserted.

Kirkpatrick said buying the deserted Wal-Mart was a good move, considering the substantial cost of repairing and updating the old DSS headquarters, pressure from the state to bring the building up to code, and the county health building also being in disrepair.

“It also creates additional viability for stores in that area,” Kirkpatrick said, citing the gaping hole left in the strip mall when Wal-Mart pulled out.

Bradley said commissioners knew for years that the DSS building was in major disrepair, and they should have set up a separate fund to address the problem, which could have been used as a down payment on the old Wal-Mart.

Bradley said the purchase will be very beneficial in the long-term, but commissioners should have saved ahead of time.

Since funding sources are in place from the state and from a lease agreement with Tractor Supply, Sorrells, too, supports the Wal-Mart purchase.

“It was an inopportune time, but inopportune times bring opportunity,” Sorrells said. “...It appears to be a solid move.”

But Sorrells adds that some of the commissioners’ spending has addressed wants and not needs in some cases. He pointed to the million-dollar purchase of a 22-acre Jonathan Creek property for a future county sports complex.

“Should that property have been bought? Probably not,” said Sorrells.

Freeman opposes the Wal-Mart purchase. As a self-employed building contractor for 25 years, Freeman says there was nothing majorly wrong with the old hospital building. It needed “cosmetic work,” a new roof and handicapped access to bring it up to state codes.

King agreed.

“It could be renovated and brought up for less money than what the Wal-Mart building cost,” King said. King said he would have voted against buying the old Wal-Mart, but that ideally it would been sent to the people for a vote. “It is their money,” King said.

 

Tackling trash

County commissioners are considering an overhaul of Haywood’s current trash operations. Earlier this year, they decided to shut down the recycling pick line, laying off employees who manually sorted recyclables. Instead the county now sells loads of recycling in bulk without being sorted first. Commissioners also privatized operation of the convenience centers, where county residents who don’t have curbside trash pick-up can drop off their garbage.

As part of the ongoing overhaul, some commissioners want to shut down the transfer station, where town and private haulers take their loads of trash rather than making the long trek to the White Oak landfill. Commissioners are also considering turning over landfill operations to a private company, including selling off space in the landfill.

Kirkpatrick said the next county board must continue examining the efficiency of the county’s trash operations. It’s become increasingly expensive for the county to comply with strict environmental standards and replace aging equipment, and commissioners must scour for savings.

“You have to continually analyze what’s going to be best for the whole,” Kirkpatrick said.

At this point, Kirkpatrick opposes closing the transfer station.

“I’ll have to be convinced otherwise, and I’m not saying I can’t be,” said Kirkpatrick, who wants to maintain an open dialogue with towns before making a final decision. “What we want to do is what’s cheapest and do what’s best.”

Sorrells said he has already been researching and visiting the solid waste department. While he hasn’t come to a conclusion yet on whether the transfer station should be closed or the landfill privatized, Sorrells said making trash operations more viable is essential.

“The users are probably going to have to pay its way in order to make it more efficient,” Sorrells said of the transfer station, should it remain open.

Shutting it down has drawn ire from towns and private haulers as a double-standard, since convenience centers used by residents out in the county would continue to be subsidized.

Upton is still undecided on which path to take. The issue is a complicated one, so he’s waiting on more information despite all the research that’s already been done. “I feel like I’m back in school,” Upton said. “I think the more we research, the more we study and the more we listen to people, the better decisions.”

Bradley said commissioners must be open-minded when tackling the trash problem. Private companies will have a knack for solid waste operations since that is their main focus. As of now, Bradley is also undecided on the transfer station.

Freeman is adamantly opposed to privatizing only parts of any county department or closing the transfer station. “That’s just running from the problem,” said Freeman, adding that the issue is one of proper management.

King said the county needs to study the issue more and that he doesn’t know enough yet to say what the right thing is.

 

Commissioners vs. HCC

For months, county commissioners were at odds with Haywood Community College over new construction and maintenance needs at the college. Commissioners eventually approved the $10.3 million professional crafts building after accusing HCC of overspending on a green design and showcase features. A quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters to fund new construction and expansions at HCC should be used responsibly, commissioners said.

Kirkpatrick said he and fellow commissioners asked the tough questions. Though he’s not “completely comfortable” with HCC moving ahead on its craft building, the college board of trustees unanimously stood by their recommendation that it be approved.

“I don’t think it’s my responsibility to usurp their responsibility as a board,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s their money.”

As a school board member for six years, Sorrells supports the community college’s pursuit of a craft building but questions putting so much of the quarter-cent sales tax proceeds in one basket.

Upton said it is “mighty tough” to vote against education. He felt better about the purchase after the HCC board of trustees came to a consensus. “I feel pleased that we moved on that one,” Upton said.

Bradley said the HCC craft building needed to be replaced, but its size should have remained under 20,000-square-feet so the college could avoid more stringent environmental regulations for larger buildings.

Freeman said he voted for the quarter-cent sales tax, believing it would only be used to fix roads and maintain existing buildings. “What do they need that new building for?” Freeman said. “Fix the ones that are there.”

If the economy was booming, the new craft building might be acceptable, Freeman said. For now, Freeman is wholeheartedly against the new construction.

King also said the building was too expensive and wouldn’t have given it the green light. He said rather than borrow money, the college could have saved up sales tax revenue until the building could be paid for upfront.

“I think most citizens in the county, including myself, felt like this money would be spent on a yearly basis as it comes in,” King said of the special quarter-cent sales tax.

 

The 9-12 factor

Bradley and King have been endorsed by the WNC Tea Party. A local offshoot of the Tea Party, known as the Haywood 9-12 Project, has been a recurring critic of commissioners during the public comment period at nearly every county meeting for the past year and a half.

Though a handful of 9-12 activists have been especially vocal, Kirkpatrick points out that its members don’t represent all 60,000 residents in Haywood County. Kirkpatrick says he has supporters as well as opponents within the ranks of the group, and he hopes all voters will research before casting their ballots. “Don’t just vote to get someone out,” Kirkpatrick said.

While some members get “extreme,” Sorrells says everyone can agree with the core principles of the 9-12 group: a small, efficient government and fiscal responsibility.

Upton said his goal has always been to listen to the people, and he doesn’t mind the 9-12 group constantly turning up at commissioner meetings.

“I haven’t taken the 9-12 Project as a negative,” Upton said. “Because we want people voicing their opinions. If we don’t hear, we don’t know.”

Bradley said the group has been consistent in calling for fiscal responsibility.

“This is a nonpolitical organization,” Bradley said. “They’re looking for people to make best use of county funds.”

King said he appreciates the endorsement.

“I am glad they did chose me. I have a lot of respect for the Tea Party,” King said.

Freeman would not comment on the group because he said he wasn’t familiar enough with them.

 

Upcoming challenges?

Many candidates said the budget and setting the tax rate after the property revaluation will be the two biggest challenges in the next four years. The value of lots and homes in upscale developments are expected to drop, while the value of medium priced housing will hold steady. Property taxes will be adjusted according to the new appraised values.

“I’m afraid there’s going to need to be a greater tax burden on those with less valuable properties,” Kirkpatrick said.

“It’s going to disproportionately affect the lower-income portion of the population,” Bradley agreed.

Kirkpatrick said another major hurdle will be funding the school system, which will soon suffer the absence of stimulus funds that have helped prop it up during the recession.  

With the senior citizen population set to mushroom, there will be an increasing need to  provide services to the elderly. Upton said commissioners must plan for the impending crisis.

— Staff writer Becky Johnson contrbitued to this story.

 

In the running

Three of the five seats on the Haywood County board are up for election this year. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis will not be running for re-election this year, meaning at least one new face will join the board come fall.

 

Democrats

Kirk Kirkpatrick (incumbent)

41, attorney, Waynesville

“I’ve seen the good times and the tough times. I think that experience will be helpful for this county in the next four years.”

Bill Upton (incumbent)

65, retired superintendent of Haywood County Schools, Canton

“I feel like I listen...I’m sensitive to the needs of the people.”

Michael Sorrells

54, owner of service station, convenience store and cafe, Waynesville.

“I’m very knowledgeable about Haywood County...I understand how government works, and I’m already educating myself to be in the position.”

 

Republicans

David Bradley, 44, sales, Clyde

“I try to look long-term versus short-term...We can’t always take a hammer to the project.”

Tom Freeman, 53, self-employed building contractor, Waynesville

“I’ve had my own successful business for 25 years...When projects come up...I could go look at them, give my opinion on it and go from there.”

Denny King, 53 manufacturing engineer, Beaverdam

“I am in favor of a limited government to keep our taxes low in the county.”

Haywood commissioner candidates

Democrat candidates, pick three

Raymond L. Brooks, 59, owner of trucking company

Brooks has worked with citizens for more than 30 years as a preacher at Waynesville’s Bible Baptist Church. He wants to reduce the county debt and be more careful with spending. Brooks would also like to bring in more jobs and help the education system.

voteraymondbrooks.com

J.W. “Kirk” Kirkpatrick, 41, attorney, incumbent

Kirkpatrick has served as county commissioner since 2002, and became chairman of the board in 2008. He says his experience will be helpful in successfully managing county funds. Kirkpatrick would also like to continue work on the Wal-Mart renovation project and see good and reasonable use of the Haywood Community College’s quarter-cent sales tax.

John C. McCracken, 66, retired assistant superintendent and finance officer for Haywood County Schools

McCracken wants to hold the line on spending until the economy improves and keep the tax rate as low as possible. He said as a former Board of Education member, he’s already learned a lot about how the county budget operates.

Rhonda Schandevel, 45, dental hygienist

As a parent of a disabled son, Schandevel is a long-time advocate for children with special needs. She wants to work with the economic development commission, tourism development authority and local chambers of commerce to bring jobs with good wages and benefits to Haywood County.

www.facebook.com/pages/VOTE-for-Rhonda-Cole-Schandevel/112728778739407

Michael Sorrells, 53, owner of service station, convenience store and café

Sorrells has served on the Haywood County School Board for six years. He oversaw the construction of a new school in Bethel and flood repairs. No burning issues drove Sorrells to seek office, other than hopes to move Haywood County forward with better leadership.

www.michaeltsorrells.com

Bill Upton, 65, retired superintendent of Haywood County Schools, incumbent

Upton is nearing the end of his first term as county commissioner. Education is his first priority, both in the public school system and at Haywood Community College. Upton vows to keep the tax rate as low as possible, pointing out that 83 of the state’s 100 counties have higher tax rates than Haywood County.

* Frank “Danny” James will appear on the ballot but dropped out from the election last week due to personal reasons.

Republican candidates, pick three

David Bradley, 44, sales

Bradley hopes to create a diverse economy with stable jobs, especially for younger generations. Bradley says Haywood should focus on more than just tourism and create policies that are friendly to entrepreneurs. He hopes to create a strategic plan for the county with specific goals and objectives for the next 15 years.

www.bradleyforcommissioner.com

Tom Freeman, 52, building contractor

Freeman says his children and grandchildren have already been burdened with the commissioners’ out of control spending and the county’s high taxes. As commissioner, Freeman would like to work on getting the county debt-free by slowing down spending and putting an end to borrowing.

Jeanne Sturges Holbrook, 48, self-employed

Holbrook would like to stand up to state lawmakers who push state mandates on counties. She would also like to address the high percentage of the county population dependent on public assistance. Holbrook said she would be independent and objective if elected as commissioner.

www.holbrookforcommissioner.com

Denny King, 52, engineer

King said he decided to run because he believes the commissioners are spending too much money. King is a strong advocate for property rights and running a smaller, constitutional government. He opposes the proposed health board rule, which carries a maximum penalty of a misdemeanor for creating a public health risk by improperly storing trash.

www.dennykingforcommissioner.com

Michael “Hub” Scott, 45, maintenance supervisor for Canton paper mill out on disability

Scott plans to hold down taxes, spending and regulation. He hopes to provide incentives to keep established businesses running and attract new ones. Due to a brain tumor, Scott is now on disability. He promises to donate his salary as commissioner to the community kitchen in Canton.

Fiscal responsibility resounding theme in Macon election

This year in Macon County, three seats on the board are up for election. Each commissioner represents a geographic district in the county, although all voters get to vote for all seats. Once the board is elected, the sitting members choose a county chairman from their ranks.

There are two Republican candidates running for the Franklin district, Ron Haven and Charlie Leatherman, not profiled here since they automatically advance to the general election.

Franklin district

Democratic candidates, pick two

Carroll Poindexter, 50, building/ electrical instructor

Experience: Poindexter works part-time as an instructor for building and electrical courses. Poindexter is a former code enforcement officer who worked for the county.

Platform: Poindexter is running on a platform of limiting taxes and communicating more openly with the voters of Macon County. His goal is “to be a servant for the people, hold the line on taxes, and make sure the people are informed.”

Poindexter is critical of recent school expenditures in the county that will raise the tax rate.

“Our government has a record of passing things before they have figured out how they are going to pay for or operate it,” Poindexter said.

Ronnie Beale, 54, owner of Beale Construction

Experience: Beale has been a commissioner four years and serves as chairman.

Platform: Beale is running on a platform that emphasizes job growth and retention and the creation of more affordable housing in the county. He points to his record of establishing the county’s mental health task force and child daycare committee as proof of his record of looking for solutions for working families. Beale favors a steep slope ordinance, but wants it to incorporate the needs of the construction industry.

“We all recognize that these ordinances have an impact on property rights. I believe we must be very careful how this ordinance is crafted, but I also believe that future potential buyers will be looking for a safe place to construct their house and I do believe that a Steep slope ordinance will be of help in providing safety not only for the new homeowner, but also for their neighbors.”

Bob Simpson, 61, self-employed contractor

Experience: Simpson has been a commissioner for eight years. He is a trustee of Southwestern Community College.

Platform: Simpson is running on a platform that emphasizes fiscal responsibility. He believes his experience on the county board is crucial as the county faces its budgeting process in a harsh economy.

“I think the most important issue is the budget. We’re experiencing zero growth and the bills keep coming. This will take experience to get through.”

Simpson also supports steep slope regulation, provided it does not prevent property owners from developing their land.

“I’ll continue to be open, and my votes will reflect the concerns of everyone in the county.”

 

Highlands district

Democratic candidates, pick one

Michael David Rogers, 47, Highlands, contractor/grader

Experience: Rogers owns a landscape/grading business and runs a Christian-based recovery program at the Pine Grove Baptist Church. He also serves on the Appearance Committee for the Town of Highlands.

Platform: Rogers is running on a platform of balanced development, job growth, and protecting natural resources. “I am passionate about our natural resources. We have one of the most beautiful areas in the United States to live in, and I want to see us protect it.”

Rogers said he is running for commissioner in order to give Highlands a stronger voice on the county board. He supports the implementation of a steep slope ordinance, a subject with which he has firsthand experience, and he wants to support the school system.

“I feel there is a need for growth in our county, but at the same time, we do need ordinances and laws to protect our environment as well as our citizens.”

Allan Ricky Bryson, 53, business owner

Experience: Bryson has been owner and operator of Highlands Outdoor Tool for 26 years. He is assistant fire chief for the Highlands Fire Department and served two terms as a commissioner but lost re-election in 2006.

Platform: Bryson is running a platform that stresses fiscal responsibility and keeping taxes low. “I just believe we can move Macon County forward in an affordable way without raising people’s taxes during an economic turndown.”

Bryson favors steep slope regulation.

“I’d rather have it written by Maconians than it being written by the state.”

 

Republican candidates, pick one

Brian McClellan, 53, financial advisor

Experience: McClellan is a current commissioner and works as a financial advisor at Edward Jones Investments.

Platform: McClellan is running on a platform that stresses financial responsibility. He wants to limit county spending and attract business to the area.

“Creating a plan for economic development and putting that plan into action to bring non-polluting jobs to our area has been an important part of the process of working to revive our local economy. We need to hold the line on county spending and create opportunities for businesses to locate here in our area and provide us with jobs that will allow us to continue to live here and enjoy the uniqueness and beauty of Macon County.”

McClellan also favors a balanced steep slope ordinance that regulates building without rendering lots “unbuildable.”

Jimmy Tate, 38, landscaping business owner

Experience: Jimmy Tate is president of Tate Landscaping Services and a volunteer firefighter. He has served on the town planning board and land-use committee.

Platform: Tate is running on a platform that stresses fiscal responsibility. As a sixth-generation native of Macon County, Tate said his experience in local political offices will help him to guide the county during a difficult time.

“In a time when our country and state are falling deeper and deeper in debt, we, at the very least, need to be responsible and wise with our decisions and finances at the local level. Public service is all about listening to and respecting the taxpayer, and I want to work in this respect for the people of Macon County.”

Recurring money problems pit HCC, county against each other

Haywood Community College leaders are at odds with county commissioners over funding for the college.

The county slashed capital contributions to the community college by two-thirds due to the recession. The college counted on the annual funding for repairs and renovations and is now hamstrung by the loss.

Unable to produce what was promised during better times, the county commissioners have pitched another solution: dipping into a special pot of money earmarked for expansion projects.

College leaders don’t like the idea. Dipping into the special pot of money to cover repairs — like new roofs or paving jobs — would sideline some of their expansion plans for new buildings.

College leaders responded with a two-fold appeal to the commissioners. They want their annual maintenance funding restored. And they want the special pot of money to be placed in a lock box to fund new construction only.

The college is entirely dependent on the county for construction dollars, whether it’s filling potholes, patching holes in the roof, replacing carpet or building new facilities. While the state funds community college operations, from salaries to the light bills, it doesn’t pay a dime toward upkeep of buildings or new construction. That is left up to counties.

“They have a responsibility to build the buildings the community college needs,” said Bill Bird, a supporter of Haywood Community College. “They need to find the money to do it.”

But the county claims it is cash-strapped and can’t afford to restore the funding that was cut.

“I am looking for a win-win situation, and it is tough to have a win-win situation when you don’t have money,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.

Bird said that the commissioners seem to find the money “to do they things they want to do,” however.

 

Recession hamstrings county

When the recession hit, commissioners slashed the county’s budget by $7 million. No branch of county government was spared. As a last resort, commissioners even enacted a slight property tax increase to avoid deeper cuts.

The college saw its annual contribution for maintenance and construction drop from $500,000 to $165,000.

“Capital outlay across the board was reduced by two-thirds. No particular entity was singled out,” County Manager David Cotton said.

Nonetheless, it created a backlog of repair needs at the college. The nursing building has no insulation and the siding is deteriorating, for example. That was on the list to repair this year, but got pushed back, said Debbie Trull, executive director of administrative services.

“I understand the commissioners are in a real problem financially with the amount of taxes they collect and the amount of wants,” said Larry Leatherwood, the leader of a group that supports full funding for the college’s needs. But the county can’t simply let the buildings at the college crumble, he said.

“If you don’t take care of what you got, you end up spending more in the long run to fix what you had,” Leatherwood said.

College leaders argued that HCC is an economic driver in the community. Its practical degrees, both for young students and the unemployed trying to re-enter the workforce, are invaluable. HCC even partners directly with industry in the county to provide job-specific training.

Enrollment has increased in recent years, and HCC will serve more than 10,000 students this year.

“That is a number, but behind that number is a lot of pressure on the college and its facilities,” said Dr. Rose Johnson, HCC president.

Even before the cuts, the annual funding wasn’t enough.

“We have a lot of buildings there now and to maintain what you own takes right much money every year,” said Neal Ensley, a member of the college board of trustees.

It certainly wasn’t enough to fund expansions. The master plan calls for a new building for the flagship arts and crafts program, an expansion of its equally renowned natural resources department and a new building for emergency services instruction.

“The money you get for maintenance is not sufficient to build new buildings or to make major additions,” Ensley said.

That’s why the college needed a special pot of money. And the perfect solution just happened to come along. In 2007, the state gave counties the option of enacting a quarter cent sales tax. In Haywood County, it would raise about $1.5 million a year — a nice sum to pay for HCC’s expansion plans.

Typically, counties don’t have the power to enact sales tax, but the state made an exception. It came with a hitch: counties could enact the quarter cent sales tax only if it was put on the ballot and passed a countywide vote. Commissioners decided to take the gamble, pledging to dedicate the sales tax proceeds to HCC if the measure passed.

Supporters of the community college mounted a campaign to convince the public to approve the measure, and it worked. The sales tax passed with 57 percent of the vote in May 2008. Haywood County was one of only a few counties where the voluntary tax passed muster with voters.

“I have to thank the people of Haywood County for passing that. It shows the people of Haywood County think the community college is a real source of help for them,” Neal Ensley said.

The pitch to voters throughout was clear. The sales tax would be set aside for construction and expansion on the campus of Haywood Community College.

“The money we were going to raise with the quarter cent sales tax was new money not to supplant or take the place of or eliminate the maintenance money,” said Larry Leatherwood, the chairman of Neighbors of Haywood Community College, a group that formed in 2008 with the express purpose of lobbying the public to pass the sales tax.

College leaders are upset at the prospect of using the special pot of money for general maintenance.

But Julie Davis, county finance director, sees the situation far more positively. The sales tax money offers the college a lucky break.

“If it weren’t for the sales tax, I don’t know that the county could come up with the money without increasing taxes,” said Julie Davis, county finance officer. “Thank goodness we have the sales tax to give.”

In reality, the county is only proposing that a small sliver of the quarter cent sales tax go toward maintenance: about $800,000 for two major roof repairs. The rest would still be going to new construction projects for now.

College leaders fear the commissioners are setting a precedent, however. Instead of restoring the annual capital outlay to pre-recession levels, the county may stick with the lower contributions and rely on sales tax proceeds to make up the difference.

“If we spend the quarter cent sales tax on anything but new buildings, we won’t get the new buildings we need,” Ensley said.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said that’s not what he intended nor what the voters were told.

“I looked at it as this was money you would have in addition to what we already gave you,” Curtis told the college leaders. “We have to decide which way we are going to go. Are we going to say we aren’t going to give them any money because the quarter cent sales tax satisfies their needs?”

 

Tension at work session

Community college leaders and county commissioners met last week to hash out the issue. Despite civility by both sides, the tension was obvious.

Commissioner Bill Upton opened the meeting in a friendly fashion, but admitted upfront that everyone may not get what they want.

“Tonight is for us to listen,” Upton said. “We’ll find out what we agree on and what we don’t agree on. We won’t always agree, but we will go away happy knowing that people are listening.”

“I appreciate you laying the groundwork for this being friendly and informative conversation. That’s how we are approaching it also,” Johnson replied.

The format wasn’t exactly what the college desired, however. The commissioners took their usual place behind a long meeting table at the front of the room, while college representatives sat in the audience. To speak, they had to take turns coming up to a podium and speaking into a microphone.

“We envisioned we would all be sitting at a big conference table to allow for more give and take,” Johnson said at one point in the meeting.

The community college came armed with a slide presentation, replete with bar graphs and charts. The first half was aimed at demonstrating the value of the college to the community, followed by budget numbers illustrating the funding shortfall.

The college produced staggering figures: $33.2 million is needed between now and 2014. The number includes new construction, repairs, renovations, equipment and infrastructure.

The figures weren’t pulled out of a hat. Johnson said college staff spent the past two weeks getting estimates from contractors for every item on the wish list.

Of the total, new buildings and major additions account for the lion’s share — $25 million. It would take 30 years for the sales tax revenue to cover it all — even if none of it is diverted for maintenance and repairs.

County Manager David Cotton said the college clearly has needs beyond what the sales tax will pay for at the moment, but there’s nothing the county can do about that.

“I understood the agreement was ‘pay as you go’ and the quarter cent sales tax, whatever that amount was, would be the cap,” Cotton said.

 

Flagship in tatters

The first new building the college plans to tackle is a creative arts building, one of the college’s renowned degree programs. The college teaches commercial woodworking, pottery, weaving, jewelry making and more, along with a business component that helps artists thrive as entrepreneurs.

“It so well-known that people move here to do that program. It has been very important to us,” Neal Ensley said.

But the arts and crafts building is also one of those most in need of repair.

“It was falling down around the students,” Leatherwood said.

The old one will simply be demolished after the new one is built. The cost is estimated at $10 million.

The quarter cent sales tax is on track to bring in $1.5 million this year. It’s enough to cover payments on a $12 million loan over 15 years. That leaves another $2 million on the table for other projects that could be wrapped into the loan and tackled immediately.

Plus, the sales tax will likely reap a little more each year as commerce increases.

“When the economy does recover, I would anticipate some natural growth in the sales tax so I would think over time there would be additional funds annually,” Cotton said.

Not every penny of the sales tax proceeds will go to the loan payments, leaving more to work with.

But, the problem remains whether the county will restore the college’s annual contribution, which went toward maintenance.

“If we don’t get that annual allocation, we can’t function as a college. So that is the true issue,” Johnson told commissioners.

Buildings on campus are valued at more than $50 million, and it takes money to maintain that kind of facility, said Neal Ensley, an engineer and a member of the HCC trustees.

“If we don’t get that [appropriation], it will be a serious problem for the college,” Ensley said.

But that’s something the commissioners can’t answer right now. Next year’s budget is still in its infancy. It will be refined over the next two months as commissioners grapple with the usual tough decisions.

With the economy holding steady if not improving slightly, the county’s revenue should begin looking up. As commerce increases, so do sale tax revenues, which the county gets a part of. And as construction returns, new homes and businesses get added to the property tax base.

The uptick will be slight if anything, and for now the county is banking on a flat budget for the coming year.

“We don’t have the money right now, and it is hard to make people happy when you don’t have money,” Upton said.

“This budget is going to be tough,” Commissioner Skeeter Curtis agreed. “We cut millions of dollars in the current budget. The employees gave up time and money out of their pocket to get us where we are.”

“And jobs,” Commissioner Mark Swanger added.

“We cut the school system, we cut the county, we cut a lot of other people,” Upton said.

The county would be in a difficult position if it restored the budget for the community college ahead of everyone else, Upton said.

“I’m sure our school people would come to us and say ‘How about reinstating our capital outlay,’” Upton said.

 

Root of the conflict

An underlying source of contention is whether the county has failed to deliver on financial promises it made to the college over two years ago.

In 2007 — before the quarter cent sales tax idea was on the horizon — county commissioners and college leaders struck an agreement to give the college an advance on their annual funding. The college had a couple larger than normal projects it wanted to carry out — projects that exceeded the $500,000 capital outlay it was getting from the county each year.

So the county commissioners agreed to take out a $2.6 million loan on behalf of the college to fund the work. The county would then deduct the loan payments from future contributions each year until it was paid off.

“We couldn’t see anyway to get anything done at HCC unless we borrowed the money and paid it back with the $500,000,” Upton said.

The college got to work preparing construction documents and paperwork for the loan. But the construction documents were held up at the state level. In all, the process took two years.

With everything finally in hand, the college came to the county last month ready to make good on the offer of a loan.

But along the way, things had changed. Most notably, the recession had a stranglehold on the county. As part of countywide cuts, the college saw its maintenance and construction funding slashed by two-thirds, from $500,000 to $165,000.

The county commissioners couldn’t guarantee when the annual funding would be restored. That threw a wrench in the plans for a loan. The annual contributions were supposed to cover the loan payments but were no longer enough to do so.

Upton said the commissioners were somewhat surprised when the college showed up last month asking the county to make good on the loan promise made over two years ago.

“For two years, we really haven’t talked about the $2.6 million,” Upton said.

“I disagree,” Dr. Johnson replied.

“Where was it talked about?” Commissioner Mark Swanger asked Johnson.

Johnson said the college board of trustees and the college strategic planning committee regularly referenced the pending loan from the county. County Manager David Cotton was a part of those meetings, and Johnson assumed he was reporting back to the commissioners.

“There seems to be a disconnect between what has been discussed very thoroughly in strategic planning meetings and what has been presented to the commissioners from those meetings,” Johnson said. “We made decisions based on what we were understanding from county staff.”

Johnson said that appears to be the source of the misunderstanding.

Cotton took issue with the comment and called it disparaging.

“You address your board and I address mine. I feel I have kept them up to speed on the process. I did take offense to that remark,” Cotton said.

Johnson apologized and said she didn’t intend it that way. Johnson said the college trustees “moved forward in good faith” on things that apparently weren’t hard and fast decisions.

Swanger said discussions the college leaders had with county staff during planning meetings are just that: discussion, not decisions.

“They are not binding,” Swanger told Johnson. “We need to make sure that monetary decisions are not made based on conversations that were not formally endorsed by this board.”

However, Johnson assumed she would have been corrected somewhere along the way if the loan had been taken off the table.

Upton asked why it took so long for the loan to get squared away.

“Our request for that construction was stalled at the state level for many, many, many months,” Johnson said. “It was not lack of work on the behalf of the college. It was beyond our control.”

Johnson said county staff was updated regularly of the status.

The college had two projects in mind for the $2.6 million: $1.8 million for an expansion and $800,000 for major roof replacements.

As the college waited and waited to get construction documents approved on the expansion, it chose to move forward with the roof repairs. To pay for it, the college borrowed from flood settlement funds. The flood money stemmed from the 2004 flooding along the Pigeon River, which destroyed several satellite HCC buildings near downtown Clyde.

The flood money was supposed to go toward only new construction, theoretically to replace the destroyed classroom buildings, and not things like roof repairs. But the college planned to pay back the borrowed flood money as soon as the loan from the county came through.

Johnson said it is “critically important” to repay the flood money.

“We need to repay the flood settlement fund for monies that have been diverted for other purposes,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the county had previously agreed to pay back what was borrowed from the flood account with the $2.6 million loan.

Commissioners seemed puzzled, however, and asked County Manager David Cotton if he could remember such a promise.

Johnson said she thought the commissioners passed a resolution to that effect. Cotton disagreed. The commissioners did pass a resolution pledging to help the college with a loan, but it made no reference to paying back what was borrowed from the flood settlement fund.

“I wasn’t aware there was an agreement for you to spend money and get reimbursed,” Davis said.

“I wasn’t aware of it,” Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said.

“I wasn’t aware of it,” Commissioner Mark Swanger echoed. “I wasn’t even aware that money was being used. I reviewed the minutes, and it is not reflected in the minutes.”

Mark Bumgarner, chairman of the HCC Board of Trustees, then stepped up to the microphone and said the more important issue was that the county had promised to take out a $2.6 million loan on the college’s behalf. The college was counting on that, he said.

The college will still get the money, Davis chimed in. It will just come from a different source now.

The sales tax has been accumulating since October 2008. In another few months, there will be just the right amount saved up to cover everything the college needs without taking out a loan.

“We will end up with $2.6 million sitting there,” Davis said. “They are going to get the money, it’s just we aren’t going to have to borrow it.”

“And that is from the quarter cent sales tax money,” Dr. Johnson clarified.

“Right,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said.

Ultimately, county commissioners voted not to do the loan, but instead to use money from the quarter cent sales tax.

Using the accumulated pot of sales tax money won’t affect the county’s ability to still take out a $12 million loan for the creative arts building, Davis said.

 

Pinching pennies?

Commissioners questioned whether the college is making the best use of the money it has.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley did a cost comparison of the creative arts building and other construction projects in the county in recent years, including the new jail, justice center and Bethel Elementary School.

“I am a little it concerned with the cost. This is the most expensive building per square foot that I have seen in Haywood County by far,” Ensley said.

“You would have to compare apples to apples,” Johnson replied.

Johnson said the creative arts building requires dust collection systems for the woodworking classrooms, air ventilation for jewelry making and extremely high-energy use for pottery kilns. The college also has to meet energy efficiency mandates imposed by the state for new buildings. The energy used by the kilns and shop tools made it particularly costly to meet those state mandates.

Under Johnson, the college has embarked on green initiatives aimed at sustainability. Commissioner Swanger questioned whether green features incorporated into the building cost more.

Johnson said the building’s green features don’t cost any more than a traditional design would, according to estimates of both.

Nonetheless, Ensley asked the college leaders to go over the plans for the creative arts building and look for savings.

“I want to be a good steward of taxpayers money, and I really wish y’all could take a good look at this,” Kevin Ensley said. “That is my honest opinion — it is a couple, three million too high.”

But it may be too late to realize substantial returns.

“We may have approached the creative arts facility a little differently knowing the facts we know today, but we are sufficiently on the train tracks, and it is really hard to make changes,” said Bumgarner, chair of the HCC trustees.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis asked why all this mattered since the money is coming out of a special sales tax fund anyway.

“I think we have lost focus here,” Curtis said. “The people in this county voted that in and the quarter cent belongs to the community college. It is their money.”

Swanger said it is still tax dollars being paid by county residents, and it should be spent prudently.

In this case, Curtis said, it was up to the college to be prudent with the money.

Swanger disagreed. If the college overspends on the creative arts building, “then the college comes back to us for additional appropriations to fill in other gaps,” Swanger said.

“We aren’t picking up the gap anyhow,” Curtis countered.

Curtis made it clear that he wasn’t happy about the cuts the college suffered at the hands of the county.

“By law, the county is supposed to keep it up, and we just let it go a long time. It was falling apart out there. We have let a lot of our facilities end up like [that],” Curtis said.

“We have to decide what are we going to take care of. This is going to get worse as years go on. That’s the reason we are in the situation we are in now because we haven’t done anything,” Curtis said. “We need to keep this from happening to the next board.”

Curtis expressed similar sentiments last month when the commissioners became the new owner of the fairgrounds. The Haywood County Fair board had relied on an annual contribution from the county to pay off a loan for a new arena. When the recession hit and the funding was cut, the fair board couldn’t pay the loan and faced foreclosure.

So the county stepped in to rescue the fairgrounds, anteing up the money to pay off the loan after all and assuming ownership of the fairgrounds from the nonprofit in the process.

Curtis had the unique stance of voting against a slight property tax increase last year during the thick of the recession. His reason: it wasn’t enough of an increase. Curtis felt the cuts to the county budget went too deep and too far. Curtis’ seat is up for election this year, but he is not running.

Commissioner Ensley pointed out that the county is paying $300,000 a year on a loan for the construction of the HCC Child Development Center, a teaching institution and daycare combined.

“I think it is important that everyone know the full contributions the county is making,” Swanger chimed in. “The child development center is substantial.”

The county also donated a tract of land to the college for future expansion that is valued between $650,000 and $900,000.

Haywood commissioners urged to stick by Christian prayers despite court ruling

A group of Christians paid a visit to Haywood County commissioners Monday night to urge them to pray to Jesus when opening each meeting.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the sole commissioner who referred to Jesus during invocations, decided in late January to refrain from praying at all since he couldn’t legally mention the word “Jesus” while leading public prayer.

Ensley’s decision was prompted by a recent court ruling in Forsyth County that struck down overt Christian prayers by commissioners. Generic prayer, however, is fully acceptable by legal standards.

The Forsyth ruling was not revolutionary. It has been widely established that prayers by government officials during public meetings specifically referring to “Jesus” violate the First Amendment, which holds that the state cannot endorse any one religion.

Speakers urged Haywood commissioners to engage in civil disobedience, arguing that there are some principles worth fighting for.

They vehemently opposed praying to an unknown God to satisfy the minority and called for a vote by citizens on the issue.

“The majority’s with the believers, with the Christians,” said one speaker, emphasizing that he only votes for conservative, Christian leaders.

“Prayer in any other name other than the name of Jesus is an empty prayer,” said Reverend Roy Kilby, who asked commissioners if they are Christians. All five of them raised their hands.

Shortly after the public comment period ended, Ensley said he had changed his mind and wanted to be included in the prayer rotation for meetings again. He said he would recite the opening and closing lines of the Lord’s Prayer, which does not expressly mention “Jesus” but still implies Christianity.

Ensley said he understood that folks were upset, but that he was glad that he helped revive the tradition of a prayer to open commissioner meetings shortly after he was elected.

“I’m glad we at least have it,” said Ensley.

Most commissioners indicated their devotion to Christianity, but said they must respect the separation of church and state.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick stated he went to one of the few Christian law schools in the country, while Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said he’d only stop praying when Washington did.

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that he doesn’t have to use “Jesus” to validate his prayer.

“I know who I’m talking to. That’s the important thing,” said Upton. “I know who the Heavenly Father is, and I don’t back up from that.”

Jackson County board race to meter voter confidence

Jackson

The Jackson County board consists of four commissioners and one chairman. This year, the two commissioner seats and chairman are up for election. Commissioners must live within their voting district to seek election, but the county chairman is elected at-large.

After a year of controversy centered on a number of high-profile decisions on the part of the Jackson County board, three key members are up for re-election in November.

Chairman Brian McMahan, Commissioner Tom Massie, and Commissioner William Shelton have all said they will seek re-election.

The commissioners have been dogged by controversy over the past four years — some by their own design but some clearly landing on their doorstep uninvited.

McMahan said his decision to run was based on his desire to solve problems he inherited when he came on the board.

“Obviously we inherited some problems. I wasn’t part of creating those problems, but I will be past of solving those problems,” McMahan said.

The costly Dillsboro Dam fight, a controversial salary raise for top level county administrators, a tug-of-war over the county airport, and ongoing fallout from the implosion of the county’s economic development commission have kept county commissioners in the news.

However, McMahan cited the board’s ability to keep the tax rate among the lowest in the state while accomplishing key capital improvements as a measure of their success.

Some in the development and real estate industry are still angry over the passage of stringent mountainside development regulations four years ago, crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. However, pro-development interests failed in their bid to oust Commissioners Mark Jones and Joe Cowan when they were up for election two years ago, suggesting the regulations were supported by the general public.

Commissioner William Shelton ran for his first term on a platform of environmental stewardship and responsible growth. After helping the county develop widely lauded development ordinances, Shelton said the faltering economy and some long-standing issues took center stage.

“I feel like in my first term the board has delved into some growth issues and we need to continue on and finish what we started for when the economy starts to grow again,” Shelton said.

Commissioner Tom Massie said he wants to run again to finish what he started.

“Most of the issues I originally ran on have been completed but not all of them,” Massie said.

Massie said he sees the next term as an opportunity for the board to move past the issues they inherited when they came on four years ago.

“We’re starting to get some things wrapped up and put behind us and now we’ll have some more time for projects that would move the county forward,” Massie said, citing the Jackson greenway and affordable housing.

The current members of the board are all Democrats. Jackson County GOP chair Dodie Allen said the party tried hard to find candidates to run, and thought they had found one, but the person changed their mind. As of now, Allen said there are no Republican challengers for any of the commissioner seats that she knows of.

The county heavily leans Democratic, which means the Democratic primary in May decided the final lineup of the board — which would be especially true if no Republicans even run.

Court ruling bars county endorsement of Christian prayer

County commissioners in Western North Carolina face a fork in the road after a federal judge in Forsyth County made it clear last week that prayers mentioning “Jesus” at county meetings are unconstitutional.

They can submit to the law, or continue violating it.

Haywood County commissioners have decided to opt for the first, less litigious route, while Macon County commissioners insist they will carry on with their overtly Christian prayers — despite the potential threat of a lawsuit similar to the one in Forsyth.

In the middle is Swain County, where commissioners may be split over whether to alter their prayers. Jackson County does not have a prayer to open its county meetings.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty ruled that Forsyth County commissioners violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by endorsing Christianity at their government meetings. The ruling will likely carry weight across the state and cause county commissioners to reevaluate their prayer policies.

Although Forsyth commissioners invited pastors from all faiths to give the invocation at the beginning of each meeting, nearly all the ones who showed up led Christian prayers.

This revolving door policy of sorts closely mirrors that of Macon County. Haywood and Swain commissioners lead the opening prayers themselves.

Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian said he’d notified the commissioners of the Forsyth case and advised them to no longer use sectarian prayers. Of the three Haywood commissioners who took turns giving the prayer, two already avoided specific references to Jesus. But Commissioner Kevin Ensley closed every prayer with “In Jesus’ name.”

It happened to be Ensley’s turn to lead the prayer Monday, mere days after the federal ruling was handed down. Before the meeting started, Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked Ensley if he’d be comfortable praying without invoking a specific religion.

Ensley decided to step aside, however if he couldn’t pray according to his faith. Ensley said he took himself out of the rotation for prayer to avoid trouble with the courts.

Ensley and Kirkpatrick agreed they would rather have a generic invocation before meetings than not pray at all.

“If that’s the way the court’s ruling right now, I guess we should abide by the law,” said Ensley. “To me, it’s a freedom of speech issue...It’s a shame that there’s a minority of people out there that’s offended by something they don’t even believe.”

While Kirkpatrick said he also feels strongly about his Christian faith, he only uses generic words like “God” and “Lord,” which are allowed under established law.

“When I give the invocation, I am wary that I’m giving it for the county and not for myself,” said Kirkpatrick. “I think that’s the difference.”

Haywood Commissioner Skeeter Curtis agreed the board should respect the law.

“Whatever the law requires us to have to do, we’re going to have to do it,” said Curtis. “There’s no way that we can go against that.”

 

Civil disobedience in Macon

Macon County commissioners are adamantly continuing their prayer policy, which endorses Christianity.

Macon Commissioner Jim Davis said while he took an oath to uphold the law when elected, he disagrees with this one and believes it needs to be changed.

Davis admits the prayer policy might alienate some, but said he delineates between prayer at school, which is mandatory, and prayer at commissioners meeting, which residents can skip.

As a Christian, Davis said he is not offended by the mention of “Jesus” in prayers before the commissioners meetings.

“I’m just not a very politically correct guy,” said Davis. “We can’t guarantee that people aren’t going to be offended. You have a right to be offended, and I have a right to not be bothered by that.”

Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale said he would suggest continuing a practice that’s “worked for decades” in Macon County.

The federal ruling from across the state will not impact Macon County’s policy, Beale said.

“That’s in Forsyth County, not Macon County,” said Beale, adding that the board does not plan to discuss the prayer policy unless it is brought up.

Beale said he could not comment on the potential for a lawsuit over the county’s violation of constitutional law, claiming the possibilities for someone suing the county are endless.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” said Beale.

Alex Cury, chair of the Western North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it is unfortunate some government leaders are brazenly breaking the law.

“I think that it’s completely unethical for elected officials to ignore the long established law of the land,” said Cury. “I would like to see elected officials follow the law. If they don’t like the law, they can seek a constitutional measure to correct the law. Many of us disagree with the law, but to violate the law is to violate the position of trust.”

There are measures available to any citizen who opposes Christian prayers at government meetings, Cury said.

“But that’s up to the citizens of the community, whether they are offended and want the law enforced,” said Cury. These residents can start by expressing their thoughts and feelings with county commissioners, with legal recourse as another option.

Cury’s recommendation to commissioners is to avoid hot water by opting for a few minutes of silence.

“People who think it’s important to pray can pray silently,” said Cury. “People who are not people of faith can think over what they’re going to say.”

 

Undecided in Swain

Swain County commissioners aren’t eager to discontinue Christian prayers at their meeting but are mulling the possibility.

Kim Lay, who serves as the attorney to the Swain County board, said she is obligated to recommend that commissioners follow the law, whatever that may be.

“I will advise the board when asked what the status of the law is at this time and advise them to follow it,” Lay said.

In Swain County, Commissioners Phil Carson and Steve Moon take turns saying a prayer to open the commissioners meetings, and both routinely offer the prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Both feel strongly about praying in Jesus’ name as an integral part of their prayer.

“If I am called upon to pray, I will pray in Jesus’ name,” Moon said.

But Moon acknowledged that he doesn’t want the county to bear unintended consequences, like a lawsuit that would cost taxpayer money to defend.

“If I was only speaking for myself, I would continue to pray, but since I am a county commissioner and represent the county of Swain, I don’t want the county of Swain to get sued,” Moon said.

Moon said the commissioners will need to discuss the issue and decide what to do in light of the federal court ruling.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith isn’t in the prayer rotation for Swain meetings, but if he was ever given the opportunity to lead the prayer, he says he would do so in Jesus’ name.

“I don’t pray without saying ‘In Jesus’ name,’” Monteith said. “There best be a federal judge there to arrest me because I will not compromise on that.”

 

Crystal clear law

Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on unfazed.

In the latest case, Judge Beaty ruled that striking down Christian prayer at government meetings does not infringe on the private rights of citizens to free speech or free exercise of religion.

The sole question, Beaty wrote, is whether the government has endorsed a particular faith.

The Supreme Court has recognized that legislative prayers that open or solemnize government meetings are part of a “rich history and tradition in this country” and are constitutional. However, the Supreme Court has also emphasized that such legislative prayers should not affiliate government with a particular faith or belief.

The Forsyth ruling quotes a previous case, which states, “Repeated invocation of the tenets of a single faith undermines our commitment to participation by persons of all faiths in public life. For ours is a diverse nation not only in matters of secular viewpoint but also in matters of religious adherence.”

Forsyth County Commissioners now face their own choice on prayer: no longer opening meetings with a prayer or open with a generic invocation.

Becky Johnson contributed to this report.

Congregation backs leaders’ stand on prayer

Responding to a Smoky Mountain News article covering the debate over prayer at public meetings, a group of Macon County residents attended the county’s first board meeting of the New Year to urge the commissioners to hold their ground on praying in Jesus’ name before its meetings.

Rev. Greg Rogers thanked the board for taking a “bold stand” in defense of Christian prayer. His speech was punctuated by “amens” from a large group of supporters gathered in the county’s boardroom.

The meeting began, as it does normally, with an invocation. Rev. Guy Duvall prayed at length and finished his prayer with the familiar words, “In Jesus’ name we pray.”

The county-sanctioned prayer confirmed the position Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale established in last week’s news story when he said he supported the use of praying in Jesus’ name.

Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on the practice.

A current lawsuit, being waged in Winston-Salem, specifically challenges the practice of guest pastors from the community being invited to give the invocations. The same practice is used in Macon County. But Beale said earlier that unless a court case landed on his own doorstep, he has no intention of changing course.

Rev. Rogers promised his support and the support of his congregants in the event of a court battle.

“Thank you. We support you,” Rogers said. “I know there are many who will come to oppose us and say we need a moment of silence instead, but we believe that prayer only works in Jesus’ name.”

Commissioners commit to former Wal-Mart site

After a marathon five hours of discussion on Wednesday (Jan. 13), Haywood County commissioners voted unanimously to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services and health department. Commissioners have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility.

Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which were built 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the renovated Wal-Mart. It would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate the DSS and health department buildings, according to Dale Burris, Haywood’s director of facilities and maintenance.

However, County Manager David Cotton said the buildings “lack flexibility” for necessary renovations and upfits due to inherent design flaws.

Purchasing property and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million, according to research by the county and two architecture firms. Meanwhile, the county claims it could potentially save more than $12 million by taking over the old Wal-Mart.

“To me, there’s no choice there,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Seems quite obvious."

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that the timing was crucial for making a decision.

“I don’t see this opportunity coming this way again,” said Upton. “We just got one shot, and that’s it.”

Commissioners felt especially pressured to move forward, knowing the state could yank 65 percent of DSS’s funds if it continued to flunk state standards. For now, the DSS building ranks in the bottom 1 percent of the state.

Haywood hopes to lock in a federal stimulus loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. That loan would result in $260,000 of annual debt service payments for 40 years and could possibly lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate.

While a group of eight citizens came to the meeting to oppose the purchase, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars, the commissioners were adamant about finally moving on the deal.

Johnnie Cure said she didn’t buy the argument that the county must spend more to save in the long run. “It just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” said Cure. “Your mathematics, it ends up being fuzzy math where you can twist the facts and you can prove whatever you want to prove to us.”

On the other hand, the directors of DSS and health department came to the commissioners to plead their case and demonstrate a dire need for change.

They shared a slideshow of images to vividly illustrate the deteriorating conditions of facilities, revealing peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires, and windows that are permanently stuck open. Some clients have routinely gotten stuck in the DSS building’s aging elevator.

“These are the reasons, the real reasons why we need to do something,” said Ira Dove, director of DSS.

Over at the health department, the two reigning concerns were adequate space and confidentiality.

Health department workers have had to use a garbage can to collect water leaking from the ceiling and surround cabinets with small heaters to prevent pipes from freezing.

Health director Carmine Rocco said the health department could not continue operate the same way year after year, hoping for its needs to be addressed. Rocco applauded the commissioners for their forward thinking approach.

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