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Empty jail beds fuel feud between Swain sheriff, county

The new Swain jail costs the county $610,000 a year more than the old jail: $450,000 in debt payments and an additional $160,000 on overhead and staff.

The county hoped to make $500,000 a year housing prisoners from out of the county to offset the cost.

The county’s old jail was unsafe and dilapidated, so a new one was in order anyway. County leaders figured they may as well make it extra big and try to subsidize the cost by housing inmates from out of the county, and end up with a new jail for relatively little of their own money.

But revenue projections fell far short. Over the past 12 months, the county only made $140,000 housing out-of-county prisoners, a far cry from the half million it hoped for, according to County Manager Kevin King.

King said that the jail is not an undue burden for the county, however.

“We are making it just fine,” King said. “We are covering the debt. We are covering the operation. We are covering personnel.”

That said, if the new jail brought in more money, it could bolster the sheriff’s budget — which is a bitter source of contention between the county commissioners and Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

“When he first started as sheriff, I told him all this is done as a business plan,” County Manager Kevin King said. “The more revenue generated the more deputies and law enforcement we are going to be able to fund.”

When the new jail opened last fall, the county added five additional jailers, two new deputies and an extra secretary.

But King said the additional staff was contingent on an influx of inmates, which never materialized.

“It is like McDonald’s or anywhere else. If you aren’t selling hamburgers they are going to lay people off and send them home,” King said.

As the county grappled with a budget shortfall for the new fiscal year, commissioners looked to the jail to make cuts. The county cut four positions that had been added in the past year.

Two of the laid-off staff had been hired as jailers but had since been made deputies after Cochran realized he didn’t need that many jailers. A third layoff targeted one of the two new deputies added over the past year. The fourth layoff targeted the additional secretary position added over the past year.

 

An ongoing feud

Cochran still has one more deputy and three more jailers than he did a year ago, but has publicly criticized the commissioners’ decision to cut his staff. He accused the county commissioners of jeopardizing the safety of Swain County’s citizens by underfunding his department.

Cochran had increased deputies on the night shift from two to three. Now, he’s back down to two. If both are tied up on calls, residents are left with no backup, he said.

King points out that Cochran’s budget is still bigger than his predecessor’s, former sheriff Bob Ogle.

In reality, the Cochran’s budget comprises the exact same percentage of the total county budget now as it did under Ogle.

For the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the sheriff’s office accounts for 8 percent of the total county budget and the jail accounts for 7 percent of the county’s budget. It’s the exact same percentage as 2005-2006, the last budget allocated by commissioners under the tenure of former sheriff Bob Ogle.

Cochran’s supporters have accused the commissioners of playing politics with his budget. The commissioners are all Democrats, while Cochran is a Republican.

“There is nothing political about this issue,” King countered.

King pointed to the number of new vehicles the county provided Cochran’s office this year. Typically, the county replaces two or three vehicles a year, and sometimes skips a year altogether. This year, the county bought five new vehicles for the sheriff’s office.

Cochran and the commissioners have been warring over the sheriff’s budget since Cochran took office in late 2006. Cochran suffered a major blow to his own salary when the commissioners ended a lucrative arrangement to feed inmates enjoyed by Cochran’s predecessors. When the commissioners decided to end the long-standing practice on the eve of Cochran taking office, it was seen as political retribution.

Cochran has a lawsuit pending against the commissioners, claiming they effectively reduced his salary in violation of state statutes. Commissioner David Monteith has consistently sided with Cochran and against his fellow commissioners on budget issues.

 

Budget expenses

Swain county budget expenditures by year:

Jail, 2009-2010:    $875,000

Jail, 2006-2007:    $715,000

Percent of total county budget both years:    7%

Sheriff Dept., 2009-2010:    $964,000

Sheriff Dept., 2006-2007:    $796,000

Percent of total county budget both years:    8%

Tensions escalate between commissioners, audience

A member of the public was escorted from a Haywood County commissioners meeting Monday (June 15) by a deputy after getting into a verbal altercation with Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

Tension has been high at county meetings for the past two months as commissioners wrestled with a budget for the coming fiscal year. The recession has strapped the county, prompting a 1.7 cent property tax hike along with layoffs, furloughs, shortened work weeks and a reduction in benefits for county workers.

Commissioners have faced stiff opposition bordering on belligerence over the proposed property tax increase. So it didn’t take much to ignite the short fuse between commissioners and the public this week.

Commissioners were considering a request from Stephen King, the solid waste director, to lease two new pieces of heavy machinery for landfill operations. King had gotten the OK from commissioners several months ago to hunt for the best deal to replace a bulldozer and excavator that King says are on their last leg.

King found what he considered the best deal out there, but as he began discussing specifications for the equipment, Kenneth Henson piped up from the audience with questions about the undercarriage on one of the pieces. Henson, a grader who is intimately familiar with heavy machinery, challenged King’s knowledge of the equipment, engaging King with questions about the type of undercarriage.

Kirkpatrick told Henson that was enough.

“You don’t want to know?” Henson asked commissioners.

“I do, but I can’t let you talk out in a meeting that way. If I let you do it then I have to let everybody do it,” Kirkpatrick said.

“All I’m trying to do is save the county money,” Henson said.

“I understand,” Kirkpatrick said.

“No, you don’t,” Henson shot back.

“Shut up,” Kirkpatrick said, firmly pointing his finger at Henson.

As the situation seemed poised to escalate further, a sheriff’s deputy who was standing by the doors at the back of the room approached Henson and asked him to leave. As Henson rose, he chastised Kirkpatrick for his method of silencing a public outburst earlier in the meeting.

In that incident, Jonnie Cure, a leader of the group opposing the tax increase, had let out a guffaw while Commissioner Bill Upton was speaking. Those around her chided in with a chorus of “no’s” to express their disapproval at Upton’s comments. Upton had been explaining the difficult decision between even deeper cuts to county staff and services versus a tax increase. Upton said the county’s level of services, whether it’s teachers or law enforcement, is important to residents.

“The reason people move to Haywood County is the services we provide,” Upton said, prompting the outburst.

“Ms. Cure, I don’t believe I have ever interrupted you. In fact I have listened. We learn that in school,” responded Upton, the former superintendent of the school system.

Kirkpatrick stuck up for Upton and told the audience there would be no more outbursts or “talking out loud” during the meeting. Henson apparently resented the way Kirkpatrick had put his foot down with Cure.

“You talked to her like a dog, and you aren’t going to do me that way,” Henson said as he was escorted out.

Henson could be heard grumbling as he moved into the hallway, followed by the deputy saying, “You can’t do that in a public meeting.”

Kirkpatrick apologized to the audience before resuming the meeting.

“It has been a long six months. I apologize for that statement. It is unfortunate and all I can do is say ‘I’m sorry,’” Kirkpatrick told the audience after Henson was escorted out.

Henson remained outside the building talking with other opponents to the tax increase. He was still there nearly an hour later when the commissioners’ meeting concluded and Kirkpatrick emerged.

Kirkpatrick approached Henson, presumably to clear the air, and the two engaged in a 5-minute conversation on the sidewalk about what had transpired during the meeting. County Manager David Cotton stuck close to Kirkpatrick’s side. The deputy who was on hand for the meeting stood a few feet away as well.

Henson said he was legitimately trying to help by educating the county on the specifications for the excavating equipment they were poised to purchase. Henson said he was afraid the county was getting hoodwinked by the promise of special features on the equipment that are unnecessary.

Henson said the county could tap into the glut of used machinery on the market and easily modify it for landfill work. Instead, the county leased two new pieces of machinery billed as having a landfill-rated undercarriage at $20,000 a year for both.

Kirkpatrick said it was his responsibility to maintain order at meetings and he couldn’t allow audience members to pipe up in a confrontational manner throughout the course of the meeting. Kirkpatrick also said the county puts faith in the knowledge of their staff who researched the equipment needs and the best deal.

The two ended their conversation amicably.

Haywood commissioners exhaust search for budget cuts, tax increase looms

A proposed tax increase that Haywood residents have fought hard against could likely be avoided if residents would just pay their taxes on time in the first place. But property tax collections are down this year, presumably due to the economy, and is a major factor in the county’s budget woes.

The amount of delinquent property, personal property and vehicle tax payments is so high among Haywood County taxpayers that the total amount owed in back taxes could make up for the county’s budget shortfall and help commissioners avoid raising the property tax rate.

The situation was brought to light at a workshop commissioners held last week in an effort to take a last look at the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Public outcry over a proposed property tax increase prompted commissioners to make a final evaluation of places to trim, but to no avail.

The outstanding revenue from delinquent property taxes is about $1.4 million, according to county tax collector David Francis. Additionally, another $500,000 in vehicle taxes and personal property taxes is past due, bringing the total amount of past due taxes to about $1.9 million.

In a normal year, the tax collection rate is about 97 percent, but collections for the year are currently running about 94 to 95 percent.

The estimated revenue that would be generated by the proposed 1.7 cent property tax increase is just $1.2 million. The current property tax rate in Haywood County is 49.7 cents per $100 valuation.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis argued that the county had not figured delinquent tax payments into the budget, and therefore was not considering all options when it came to balancing it.

“We’re going to let 5 percent of our people who have not paid their taxes have a tax increase for all of (the residents), and we haven’t put one dime in the budget for this money,” Curtis said. “We would not have to have a tax increase. I don’t understand how we can sit here and put a budget together when people owe us.”

But other commissioners cautioned against assuming that everyone will pay up.

“We are making a lot of assumptions right there that everybody is going to pay and everything is going to get better,” said Commissioner Bill Upton. “Some people think it’s going to get worse.”

The county hopes to recoup $500,000 of the outstanding taxes over coming months and factored that into the proposed budget. But that’s just an estimate of what the county could recover, said Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“There’s no guarantee,” Kirkpatrick said. “If everybody paid their taxes when they ought to, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

County taxpayers have indeed been hit hard in the recession, and the effect has trickled down to the county’s budget. Francis said that the county has experienced two major bankruptcies in the past year — Ghost Town in the Sky theme park, which owes the county $43,000 in back taxes, and an excavating company, which owes the county $21,000.

Francis said that personal bankruptcies throughout the county have risen dramatically this year. Last year at this time, there were 30 declared bankruptcies; this year, there are 65.

Commissioner Mark Swanger joined the chorus cautioning against assuming the county can recoup too much of the outstanding taxes.

“It’s not a projectible revenue stream,” Swanger said. “You can’t spend anticipated collections.”

The county is still stuck between a rock and a hard place as it looks to make up for a projected budget shortfall. Many of the budget cuts suggested by citizens have already been made, or they are mandated services that the state says the county must provide.

“At the end of the day, the state and the federal government tell the counties in North Carolina that you will provide these services,” said County Manager David Cotton. The county doesn’t have cart blanche discretion to cut anywhere wants, but instead has few areas where it can actually cut.

The county has already trimmed back personnel, where it spends the majority of its dollars. Cotton said the elimination of a proposed 32 full-time positions will put the county back six years in terms of staffing levels.

The state is also talking about passing on more mandatory expenses to counties in order to make up for its own severe budget shortfall, so counties are anticipating the possibility of deeper budget cuts in the future.

Still, citizens are none too happy about the county’s proposed property tax increase.

“The burden is falling too heavy on us,” Johnnie Cure, a leader in the tax opposition movement, told commissioners at the budget workshop. “Where is this going to end?”

Kirkpatrick said commissioners have almost exhausted every option in looking where to cut.

“Who else can we pass it on to?” Kirkpatrick responded to Cure. “It’s not going to come out of the sky. If the state says the county has to do it, we have to do it. We don’t have a choice. We’re trying to be the best stewards we can.”

So far, the county commissioners have been unable to come up with a good alternative to offset the proposed property tax increase, so that option still seems likely to pass.

The county commissioners will vote on the budget at their regularly scheduled meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, June 15.

New landfill proves money pit for Haywood

Haywood County commissioners grappling with the $4.4 million price tag of a landfill expansion briefly eyed the steep engineering costs as a place to trim this week.

During a county meeting, commissioners questioned the hiring of two separate engineering firms for a total of $345,000 to design and oversee landfill construction. Commissioner Kevin Ensley was the first to broach the subject, asking why the county couldn’t just hire a single engineer rather than contracting with two entire firms.

Stephen King, the director of solid waste, cited the litany of state and federal regulations involved in building a landfill, from geotechnical permits to myriad testing of soil samples by various labs.

“It is very specialized,” King said. “It will take a whole team to get done what needs to be done.”

A engineer can be the county’s best friend in a project of this caliber, serving as both as a liability shield and a taskmaster to keep the contractors on time and on budget.

“I think having a good engineer is critical,” advised Chip Killian, the county attorney.

Ensley questioned a clause in one of the contracts, however, that would bill the county $900 a day for engineering services should the project extend beyond the estimated nine-month time frame.

“If we run into a problem like with the historic courthouse and it goes on and on, that could get expensive,” Ensley said. Ensley said the bid for the job should cover the work, period.

Commissioner Mark Swanger asked whether the county attempted to negotiate the terms. It appeared not. County Attorney Chip Killian said he had not read the contracts yet and couldn’t comment on whether the language was standard or troubling.

“We really need some of these questions answered,” Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said. “I would also like to know if this is the best price they can come up with. Everybody is having to give a little now. Let’s see if they can, too.”

The contracts were with Asheville-based McGill and Associates for $175,000 and a second contract with Joyce Engineering, landfill specialists based in Maryland, for an additional $170,000.

Killian worked over the two contracts following the meeting. The county was unable to lower the price but altered some of the language.

“Mostly to protect the county against anything, essentially to make sure if they don’t perform their task we aren’t liable for it,” King said of the changes.

As for the heafty $900 a day Joyce was seeking should the project run over schedule, the language was clarified so the contractor, not the county, would be responsible for paying up. Both were approved by commissioners following the rewording.

Swain’s tax base just got even smaller

Swain County, 86 percent of which is already owned by the federal government, lost a little more land from its tax rolls this month when commissioners voted to transfer 621 acres of land to become part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian reservation.

The tribe has owned three parcels of land — located in the Cooper’s Creek area, Kituwah, and Governor’s Island —for seven years. The tribe paid $11,500 a year in property taxes to Swain County for the tracts.

But after owning the land for the required amount of time, the tribe was legally able to petition for the land to become part of the Qualla Boundary. That way, it won’t be subject to property taxes.

Swain County is operating under a tight budget, and losing the property tax base will be a small blow, to say the least. But the Cherokee plan to build affordable housing and a mental health center on the parcels — things that could benefit those who live and work in Swain County. Commissioners weighed their options, and decided it would be easier to support the Eastern Band’s proposal.

“If the tribe were going to use the property for something controversial like gaming, we would say that we wouldn’t necessarily like that,” said County Manager Kevin King. “Yes, the county could fight it, but in the end, if they can demonstrate the need for it, you’re never going to win.”

King also said the commissioners wanted to keep the tribe and county on good terms.

“We have a really good relationship with the tribe, and we want to continue it,” King said.

Receiving the support of Swain commissioners was a final step in the process of placing the land into the Eastern Band trust. Now, the tribe is waiting for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to give final approval to the move.

Eastern Band Principal Chief Michell Hicks praised the commissioners for their support.

“Us mountain folk here in Western North Carolina, we know we have to work together to accomplish things for the people of our tribe and our communities,” Hicks said.

Past pursuit of building projects proved less than organized

Commissioner Tom Massie wants to see the county formalize how it funds capital projects.

Under the current method entities simply approach the county when they are in need and ask for funding. Massie suggested that entities fill out an application requesting capital project funding, and then county staff can study the forms to determine if the projects are really needed.

The application would give different capital projects a ranking and help the county prioritize projects. He said the N.C. Institute of Government recommends that local governments handle capital projects this way.

Under the county’s current system there is some disorganization, he said. For instance, he said SCC said it didn’t need anything eight months ago and now needs about $1 million for a new building.

Having a formal system will provide a rational and logical explanation as to why projects are needed. He said since he has been on board, some projects that have been approved were nice but not necessarily needed. The application process would enable the county to plan five to 10 years down the road, Massie said.

Massie made the recommendation to fellow commissioners at a capital projects workshop last week.

Swain leaders indifferent to lack of building regulations

Attempts to pass Swain County’s first-ever planning regulations are showing signs of movement, but not in the direction that planning advocates hope.

A county subdivision ordinance, primarily setting standards for road widths and grades, was dropped from discussion by county commissioners a year ago after facing fierce opposition at a public hearing. No work has been done on it since, leaving Swain County as one of the few in the region with no regulations or oversight of construction on mountainside slopes.

The commissioners’ lack of interest in planning has now cost the county a grant that would have rekindled the topic.

Until recently, Swain County was second in line for a pot of money to help communities with planning initiatives, funded by the Southwestern Commission and the Department of Transportation.

The county was given the coveted number two spot because at the time, commissioners seemed serious about a subdivision ordinance and other planning issues.

But since the ordinance is dead in the water, the two grant sponsors asked Swain County Manager Kevin King if it was OK to bump the county further down the list and put neighboring Macon County in the number two spot.

King gave the Southwestern Commission and DOT the go ahead, and later informed the commissioners at the board’s annual retreat last weekend.

“That ordinance was dead anyway,” King told commissioners. “So we don’t have anything in place right now until somebody asks to put it on the agenda.”

King paused to see if commissioners showed signs of interest in the issue, but they remained silent, making it clear they had no intention of being the one to bring the ordinance up again.

Some Swain County residents think now is the time for the county to revisit the issue of planning. The economic downturn has slowed development, leaving commissioners time to hash out details.

“Right now, while land prices are dropping out the bottom, they should be trying to do something,” said Swain native Boyd Gunter. “You got a breathing spell here.”

Gunter, who lives in the Alarka community, has already seen too many developers ravaging his mountains.

“I own mountain land, and I don’t want to see it destroyed,” he said. “It’s just pure negligence on these Realtors’ parts to think you can come and build a house anywhere.”

Gunter has been pushing Swain commissioners to put development regulations of some sort in place for at least two years, but to no avail.

Massie questions permit hold-up

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie is skeptical of whether it is legal for the county to withhold permits that Duke Energy may need to tear down the Dillsboro dam.

Massie also questions whether Duke actually needs the county permits to tear down the dam.

“First, I am unsure that Duke even needs a permit from Jackson County, as the state of North Carolina and the Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for issuance of any permits for sediment removal within the state’s waterways,” Massie stated in a letter to County Manager Ken Westmoreland dated Dec. 15.

Massie is the lone commissioner wanting to back down from the fight with Duke over saving the dam, urging fellow commissioners for the past six months to back down, but to no avail.

Massie is also concerned that Duke isn’t being treated fairly by the county: “If anyone else had the necessary state and federal permits our issuance of a Land Development Compliance Permit or any others would be simply a formality to comply with our local laws.”

Massie added that the county must avoid any appearance of discrimination against Duke.

Moreover, Massie said the removal of the sediment from the river is a benefit to all, and the denial of the permits can be “construed as petty and/or obstructionism at best.”

The legality of withholding the permits is “questionable” and could embroil the county in an unnecessary legal battle, Massie wrote in the letter.

In the letter Massie urged Westmoreland to make sure the county is within its legal rights prior to issuing or denying the permits, including checking with the N.C. Attorney General.

“If these permits are denied, I would like to have a copy of the formal findings, including the legal basis for any denial,” Massie wrote.

If the legal findings are unclear, Massie urges the county to issue the permits.

Macon leaders struggle with budget shortfall

K-4 school on hold due to economy

Due to the national economic downturn the Macon County commissioners have decided not to fund the construction of a new $15 million K-4 school at this time.

County Manager Jack Horton said it appears there is no way the county can incur that level of debt without imposing a property tax increase, which, he said, is out of the question during hard times.

Horton acknowledged that the county has not abandoned the idea of building the school but has simply put it on hold.

The commissioners made the decision on Saturday while reviewing budget figures during their annual retreat.

The new K-4 school was proposed to relieve overcrowding at Cowee, Iotla and Cullasaja schools.

Now that the new school is on hold, “We’ll just carry on as we are now,” said Macon County Schools Director of Auxiliary Services Terry Bell.

Bell didn’t argue with the commissioners’ decision.

“They are in a position better than I to know the current conditions,” Bell said. “If they looked at everything and decided it wasn’t in the best interest, who am I to disagree with them?”

The school being put on hold is not unexpected, said Bell.

“That doesn’t come as a great surprise,” Bell said.

Bell said he wasn’t aware that the commissioners had decided to put the school on hold until The Smoky Mountain News contacted him.

“I have received no official notification on it yet,” said Bell.

Superintendent Dan Brigman was at an orientation in Raleigh with the new school board members on Monday, Bell said. Bell said he planned to meet with Brigman on Wednesday.

The county has already spent about $900,000 on the new school for architectural and engineering plans. County commissioners hope they won’t have to spend more money on architecture and engineering once the school construction does go forward.

Macon County is facing an almost $1.4 million budget shortfall this fiscal year because of the recession.

County commissioners discussed an array of budget cuts to keep the county in the black during their annual retreat at Southwestern Community College’s Macon campus Saturday.

The county’s finance department came up with a list of possible budget cuts, but the recommendations only totaled $583,264, still leaving an $815,336 shortfall. That left the county commissioners with a lot of tough choices to make about where to come up with the rest of the cuts.

The commissioners directed the county manager and finance office to return to the drawing board to find more cuts.

None of the cuts so far include layoffs or salary reductions. But County Commissioner Bob Simpson said if the county can’t find other areas to cut, it could mean layoffs.

Scaling back employee hours is a second resort to meeting the shortfall, as is pulling money out of the county’s reserves. And a third resort is across-the-board-cuts to all county departments including the school system.

Commissioner Brian McClellan said he does not think layoffs will be necessary to cover the remaining shortfall. Dipping into the county’s reserves to cover the shortfall is also a bad idea, said McClellan, adding that if the coming year is equally bad it will be good to have that savings in place.

To avoid layoffs, Commissioner Jim Davis said he would favor cutting retirement benefits, teacher supplements and pay raises. But he doesn’t think those moves will be necessary this year. However, for the coming budget year starting in July, “Everything will be on the table,” Davis said.

Postponing the remodeling of the old library for a new senior center and putting emergency medical services in the current senior center could be delayed to save funds. The project is expected to cost around $878,000.

But the commissioners said the project is crucial to help the senior center and EMS, and decided to move it forward.

Ideally, county commissioners could trim $1.4 million from the county’s budget without altering the level of service to citizens, County Commission Chairman Ronnie Beale said. But whether such a goal is realistic remains to be seen.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers suggested that each department head be given an opportunity to suggest ways to cut their budgets by 2 percent, rather than the commissioners deciding for them.

The county also has about $245,000 in contingency funds built into the budget every year that could possibly be used to cover the shortfall. Beale said contingency funds are set aside in case projects go over budget.

 

Less revenue

The $1.4 million projected shortfall primarily comes from the county collecting less in taxes and fees. Building permit fees are down because construction is down.

The county is bracing for a $100,000 shortfall in sales tax revenue, and the interest on the county’s investments will likely be $350,000 less than expected.

Putting the shortfall in perspective, County Manager Jack Horton said it isn’t that bad given the county has a $47 million budget.

Construction in the county was down significantly in 2008. Typically the county adds about $150 million to $200 million to its property tax base through new construction, but in 2008 it only added about $100 million, according to Horton.

Fewer vehicles being purchased is also hurting the county’s sales tax collections and personal property taxes.

Horton said the state is facing a $3 billion shortfall, putting it in a far worse situation than Macon County.

However, Horton cautioned that when the state gets in a bind it passes some expenses down to the counties.

The county also has a lot of debt to pay down. It has to pay for $4.3 million in debt this fiscal year; $5.1 million in 2009-2010; $4.9 million for 2010-2011; and $4.8 million in 2011-2012.

Impasse proves too much for Mountain Projects

A disagreement between Haywood County commissioners over an intergenerational Head Start and senior day care facility has come to an end.

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