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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.

Commissioners give HRMC board vote of confidence

All three Haywood Regional Medical Center board members were reappointed this week for another three years by the Haywood County commissioners.

Haywood commissioners still split on Mountain Projects deal

Haywood County commissioners continue to disagree on what kind of deal to give Mountain Projects on a tract of county land to house an intergenerational Head Start program and senior day care.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire: Commissioners send meal deal to DA for investigation

The Swain County Board of Commissioners has formally asked the district attorney to investigate spending practices by former sheriff Bob Ogle.

There were valid reasons for Horton’s departure

(Editor’s note: Haywood County Manager Jack Horton tendered his resignation to the board of commissioners on Jan. 3. The three commissioners who wrote this letter supported his resignation.)

This letter to the citizens of Haywood County sets forth our views of events that led to the resignation of former county manager Jack Horton.

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