GEP does produce private-sector jobs
To the Editor:
I thoroughly agree that it is past time to wake up, get Jackson County moving.” For too long we have relied upon the national and state governments to provide leadership and direction for us in Jackson County and Western North Carolina. It is past time that we came together and charted our own economic future. One of the leaders in this economic renaissance is Timm Muth, the director of Jackson County’s Green Energy Park (JCGEP).
Commissioners, I appreciate your taking a look at various county departments for efficiency, effectiveness, and fiscal responsibility. It is important for our county representatives to promote open, honest, accountable, and fiscally responsible government at all levels. Otherwise, we might as well hold out a tin cup to Washington, D.C., and Raleigh and be grateful for the pennies that we do get back from the dollars that we send them.
Muth appeared before you on Jan. 3 of this year asking for a replacement to his departing assistant. You asked him some pointed questions and made the excellent suggestion that he produce a cost-benefit analysis study so as to better show you how the JCGEP benefits all of Jackson County.
I went to the JCGEP a few days before your Jan. 18 meeting and had Muth show me what he has done, what he is doing, and what he wants to do with his operation. Frankly gentlemen, the benefits of the JCGEP for the county are impressive. Capturing methane gas from the old Dillsboro landfill and using it to create viable, tax-paying, private-sector jobs is no small feat.
According to a study just recently released by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (www.p2pays.org/ref/-53.52107.pdf), there are currently over 15,000 private sector jobs that have been created to recycle valuable materials here in North Carolina. These private sector jobs, which have been promoted by operations such as the JCGEP, have increased by 4.8% since 2008. The total annual payroll for these recycling jobs in North Carolina is $395 million. There are numerous other benefits created from these public-private partnerships.
What Muth has done at the JCGEP not only is currently paying economic dividends for the investment that our county is contributing, it also has the strong probability of promoting many more private-sector jobs, tourism dollars, and tax monies to return to the citizens of Jackson County.
In the coming weeks and months we’ll be talking more about the JCGEP and the unique, positive benefits that it creates for Jackson County. In the meantime I would urge all of you commissioners to call Timm Muth, invest a little of your time going to the JCGEP, and find out the many positive benefits generated there. Remember, gentlemen, that these benefits that you will see are not in the future, but they are occurring right here and now in Jackson County.
Future of Green Energy Park might lie in the numbers
Jackson County has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Green Energy Park since launching the innovative project about five years ago.
Rent and usage fees offset a portion of the costs. Taxpayers, however, largely underwrite the venture, an examination of county finance records show. The county has kicked in a total of $1.2 million since 2006 (see infobox).
The park is built next to a closed county landfill near Dillsboro. Methane, a byproduct of the decomposing trash, is captured and used to heat a greenhouse and help power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing studios and a metal-art foundry. Plans call for building pottery studios. Some of that structure is already up.
A $204,730 Rural Center Grant is being counted on to help complete the pottery studios, but word on whether the county will actually get that money hasn’t yet come.
At question is whether the county’s new conservative majority of commissioners will continue subsidizing the project, with or without grant assistance — particularly since the Green Energy Park epitomizes the environmentally friendly, look-toward-the-future thinking of the three Democrats ousted in November.
By the numbers
An examination of the current year’s budget for the Green Energy Park shows rent is projected to bring in $25,000, and “donations” an additional $10,000. The overall budget for the Green Energy Park is $458,152, but that number is misleading because it includes the Rural Center grant for $204,730, intended to offset the exact same amount in expenditures for building the pottery studio.
No grant, no building, Muth explained in a recent interview.
Utilities get a $17,000 budget line item this fiscal year. Salaries and wages, $99,756 — Muth is paid $64,626.12. His helper, Carrie Blaskowski, who left the county post to join a family business, was budgeted to receive $35,129.38.
Muth, in a commission meeting , asked permission to advertise Blaskowski’s open position. Instead, commissioners ordered — or rather, Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, and Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, ordered — a top-to-bottom cost analysis of the Green Energy Park. (New Commissioner Charles Elders, also a Republican who ran on a platform of change with Debnam and Cody, hasn’t proven much of a talker during the meetings, leaving onlookers little choice but to assume he is in agreement with his two conservative cohorts.)
Two Democrats, Joe Cowan and Mark Jones, remain on the board of commissioners, but to date have appeared reluctant to publicly defy the board’s newcomers. Perhaps because they want to work together the best they can for the good of the county. Or perhaps because they anticipate running for reelection themselves in two years, and learned from their fallen fellow Democrats that a financially strapped voting electorate doesn’t have much patience.
Cowan, in fact, joined conservative commissioners earlier this month when they peppered Muth with questions about the park. For his part, Jones didn’t exactly defend the project. But Jones did point out that carbon credits from the Green Energy Park could be sold in the future, helping offset some of the project’s cost.
What’s it all about?
“This is about trying to create jobs,” Muth said.
If completed as originally envisioned, the Green Energy Park will create 15 to 20 new jobs for Jackson County. The project was intended to be economically self-sustaining — though Muth said no timetable was ever mandated.
“They never gave me a date,” the park’s director said.
Although the Green Energy Park is clearly Exhibit A for a majority of commissioners anxious to publicly flex their conservative muscles, Muth might have picked up a somewhat unlikely ally: Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, the darling of the conservative trio of commissioners.
Wooten was picked to temporarily replace County Manager Ken Westmoreland after the three newcomers showed him the door. (Or, that’s what Westmoreland said happened. Debnam claimed the veteran government administrator volunteered to leave on his own.)
Wooten, in addition to having a majority of the board’s blessing, brings 30 years of experience in managing Western Carolina University’s budget and the nimbleness required to survive in that position. In other words, Wooten has virtually unassailable financial credentials, vast political know-how, and an ability to leave the job of county manager at any point if his relations with the board prove untenable.
“Tim and I have met a couple of times, and I have had the opportunity to visit the Green Energy Park and take a tour, so I have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Wooten emailed The Smoky Mountain News in response to questions about the park.
“We’re going to hold on the request for filling the position until we can complete the cost analysis,” he wrote. “I’m going to propose to the commissioners that they have a work session on possibly the afternoon of Jan. 28, and the Green Energy Park would be one of the items for discussion. I think we can complete our fact-finding by then and provide some better information to the commissioners for their consideration. …It’s obvious to me that the Green Energy Park can probably not be self-sustaining in the short term but when we consider some of the indirect benefits of the park then the numbers become more manageable.”
Wooten this week said he does not feel Jackson County is the point of actually abandoning the project, but rather re-examining and rescaling the venture. The interim county manager said he needs, with Muth’s help, to understand commitments made on previous grants — particularly, would the county have to repay money in the event of changes to the Green Energy Park?
County contributions to Green Energy Park
• 2006-2007 – $100,000.
• 2007-2008 – $210,000.
• 2008-2009 – $447,383.
• 2009-2010 – $264,530.
• 2010-2011 – $218,422.
Public hearing set for landfill problem
Jackson County’s old solid waste landfill is leaking contaminants in higher concentrations than allowed into the groundwater, and satisfying state demands to safely contain the situation will cost taxpayer dollars.
Altamont Inc. representative Joel Lenk told commissioners this week that drinking water in the area has not been contaminated and is safe to use. The old landfill is less than a mile from Dillsboro. Several families living near the it rely on individually drilled wells for water, according to a report based on the company’s findings.
Altamont, headquartered in Asheville, collects water-monitoring samples at the old landfill for Jackson County.
Commissioners this week set a public hearing — as mandated by the regulating agency, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources — on possible remedies. The hearing will be held Feb. 7 at 1:30 p.m. After that, the next step will be to develop a state-approved corrective action plan, Lenk said.
The most expensive remedy, which involves treating the groundwater at the site, could cost more than $1 million. Responding to questions by Chairman Jack Debnam, Lenk said, however, the county will probably be able to pay his company an additional $10,000 per year for sampling and to satisfy the state.
Debnam, newly elected in November, initially proposed setting the hearing time for 1:45 p.m., with a regularly scheduled meeting starting at 2 p.m. Mark Jones, a veteran commissioner on the board, suggested moving the time back because, he said to Debnam, “you might draw a bigger crowd” than realized given the possible environmental implications.
Jones’ concerns that holding a public hearing during working hours might not give people an adequate opportunity to attend, however, were brushed aside. Debnam pointed out the board would be providing people the state-required 30 days notice.
• Groundwater sampling starts in 1998, Altamont company hired.
• Jackson County starts testing residential water-supply wells on annual basis in the late 1990s from residents who consented to sampling.
• At the same time, Jackson County installed and began monitoring landfill gas probes along the perimeter of the property.
• The last shipment of waste was taken at the landfill in June 2001.
• A monitoring well was installed into bedrock in 2004 to determine whether impacted groundwater was migrating northward toward a residential water well.
• In 2005, a full-scale operation of extracting landfill gas started. It was thought that the removal of the gas could provide benefits to groundwater quality.
• In July 2010, an additional bedrock monitoring well was installed to evaluate groundwater quality in fractured bedrock southwest of the landfill.
Commissioners demand ‘green’ wonder prove black-and-white dollar value
How fickle fortune can be, Timm Muth, the director of the oft-touted Green Energy Park, found upon tendering a simple request this week to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
Muth’s desire to advertise an open staff position gave way instead to a drilling down into the project’s overall worth — or, rather, its continued cost. The park, envisioned at the outset some five years ago as economically self-sustaining, has to date not been.
But it will be, Muth said. Just wait until the original vision is completed: the addition of a new pottery studio and studio spaces. Then, Muth said, the rent received from artists and craftspeople will prove the tipping point.
“I don’t see how you can make that statement,” newly elected Republican Commissioner and local businessman Doug Cody flatly responded after eliciting from Muth that there’s an absence of hard numbers to back that claim. Prove it, Cody told him. Perform a cost analysis, top to bottom.
The Green Energy Park opened late in 2006 to overwhelming public acclaim. This was a time, not so long ago, when Democrats ruled Jackson County and North Carolina.
The park was deemed a “technological first,” an environmental wonder, “the first place anywhere” to take landfill gas and use it to make biodiesel fuel, as Muth said then. By his side were officials eager to share in the glory of such a thing. Those officials included Larry Shirley, then the director of the North Carolina State Energy Office, who proclaimed: “This is an example of what will take place across the nation and the world.”
Maybe not. These days, the wind is blowing right, not left. And the Green Energy Park might not survive conservative commissioners’ efforts to back election promises they made to scrutinize the county for fiscal waste and potential savings.
The Green Energy Park was built next to a closed county landfill outside Dillsboro. The $1.2 million project was a means of recovering methane — a byproduct of the landfill’s decomposing trash — to heat greenhouses and help fuel a blacksmith forge. A crafts village (hence the pottery studio Muth mentioned) was part of the plan.
Last summer, the Green Energy Park served as a backdrop for a visit by Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The officials came for a tour, along the way dubbing the project a symbol of the new green economy.
Less than three months later, Republicans grabbed control of the state’s General Assembly and of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. In addition to Cody, Republican Charles Elders was elected, as was Chairman Jack Debnam, who ran as an Independent but relied on the GOP’s local political structure and advertising dollars to help secure victory.
Debnam started Muth’s difficulties in front of the board, reeling off a series of questions in Socratic fashion about the project’s cost to taxpayers: some grant money that had been built into the Green Energy Project’s budget hasn’t come through; the irony that thousands of dollars are required from the county to support the park’s utility bill; about rent and such not offsetting other costs.
Muth, who surely had some sense of what was coming because there were references to a prior tour of the facility by the board’s new members, seemed unprepared to answer such pointed questions.
About that pottery studio, Cody said: “All that sounds good on paper, but it costs money.” Cody made additional requests for hard numbers. And he asked the director, “What’s the end game on this thing?”
Democrat Commissioner Joe Cowan joined in with questions. He told Muth the board hadn’t had been given adequate time to review the information that was provided. More time also was needed, Cowan said, to review the director’s request that he be allowed to advertise for a new employee to replace Assistant Director Carrie Blaskowski.
Muth left to Cody’s words, “I’d just like to reiterate that I’d like to see a cost analysis done on the whole thing.”
More Blue Ridge Parkway viewshed protected
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) recently protected Blackrock Ridge in northern Jackson County, a striking and important component of the Plott Balsam Mountains. The Plott Balsams, which reach 6,000 feet in elevation, tower above Waynesville, Sylva and Cherokee. Blackrock Ridge is a 60-acre parcel just a little south and west of Waterrock Knob, which is located at milepost 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Blackrock Ridge lies within the Yellow Face/Blackrock Mountain State Natural Heritage Area and Audubon North Carolina’s Plott Balsams Important Bird Area. The tract ascends Blackrock Mountain where it adjoins The Nature Conservancy’s 1,595-acre Plott Balsam Preserve.
According to Jay Leutze, SAHC trustee, the organization had been negotiating with the landowner when it learned the property was going to be auctioned.
“We had five days to raise donor funds,” Leutze said. “We’re fortunate — we don’t have a lot of bureaucracy — and we can be pretty nimble,” he said. SAHC was nimble enough to be high bidder and purchased the tract for around $110,000.
The tract is located near the newly created Pinnacle Park (Sylva’s old watershed), and trails maintained by natural resources students from Western Carolina University link the Blackrock Tract and Pinnacle Park.
Leutze said SAHC was extremely happy to be able to preserve the Blackrock tract. “It’s in a larger assemblage of private tracts and would have surely been developed,” he said.
The proximity to thousands of acres of already protected wilderness makes the tract important as a wildlife corridor. Blackrock Ridge attains an elevation of 5,600 feet, making it an ideal habitat for high-elevation species like the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel. According to Leutze, Carolina northern flying squirrels have been documented on The Nature Conservancy’s Plott Balsam Preserve and the protection of this tract will add further protection and preserve more suitable habitat for the endangered flying squirrel.
Protection of the tract also helps preserve the cultural heritage of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who have strong ties to the craggy peaks of the Plott Balsams.
A nice fit
Leutze said that SAHC breaks the regional landscape up into “focus areas.”
“This allows us to focus on who would be likely partners and where to find likely donors for particular projects,” he said Blackrock Ridge falls within SAHC’s “Smoky Mountains Focus Area.”
“The Smoky Mountains Focus Area, of course, includes efforts to try and help buffer the Park [Great Smoky Mountains National Park] but it also provides the opportunity to try and protect outstanding high-elevation sites like this one that don’t have a lot of protection,” he said.
And parcels that help protect the integrity of the Blue Ridge Parkway viewshed help protect the goose that lays the golden egg.
“A 2007-2008 study noted that 90 percent of the visitors that come to the Blue Ridge Parkway come for the view,” said Carolyn Ward, the new head of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation (BRPF).
That translates into about $2.3 billion for communities adjacent to the Parkway.
“Those of us who live in the area know the value of protecting our natural resources and anytime we can add land, whether by purchase or by an easement, it helps protect that resource,” said Ward.
Ward said that the one of the BRPF’s projects for 2011 would be to help design guidelines for protecting viewsheds along the scenic byway that celebrated its 75th birthday in 2010.
Ward said the foundation would not only focus on the technical aspects and/or options for protecting tracts of land that would be useful to landowners and organizations and agencies but also work on outreach and education for residents to help them see the incredible value of the resource.
“Protecting our viewsheds is critical,” she said.
The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy — headquartered in Asheville — is one of the oldest land trusts in the country.
SAHC was founded in 1974 and works to conserve the unique plant and animal habitat, clean water, local farmland and scenic beauty of the mountains of North Carolina and east Tennessee for the benefit of present and future generations. SAHC achieves this by forging and maintaining conservation relationships with landowners and public agencies, owning and managing land, and working with communities to accomplish their conservation objectives.
SAHC’s flagship project is protecting the Highlands of Roan in Mitchell and Avery counties North Carolina and in Carter County in Tennessee. But its focus areas include the Smoky Mountains, Newfound and Walnut Mountains, Pisgah Ridge and Balsam Mountains, Black Mountains and the Mountains of East Tennessee.
To learn more about the SAHC visit www.appalachian.org.
Property values affected election and are a looming problem
By Mark Jamison • Guest Columnist
During the recent election for county commissioner in Jackson County, both sides made reference to property taxes. The challengers — who ended up sweeping out the incumbents — claimed, to some derision, that Jackson had seen a tax increase even though the marginal rate had fallen. Supporters for the incumbents made frequent reference to the fact that the county had the third lowest marginal tax rate in the state. Both sides were correct in their assertions and both were also somewhat misleading.
The issues surrounding revaluation and marginal tax rates are somewhat confusing and easy to distort for political purposes. The fact that this area of public policy is prone to confusion and misunderstanding is unfortunate because it is an essential issue that has a direct impact on not only every property owner but virtually every resident of the county.
North Carolina mandates that counties determine the value of property within their jurisdiction at least once every eight years. Beyond that, the frequency of the process, known as revaluation is up to the board of commissioners. Statute mandates that values reflect the market value of a property, i.e., the amount a property would sell for in an arm’s-length transaction.
The state allows counties to select among several methods for determining market value. The tax assessor may visit every property. This yields perhaps the most accurate valuation since it presumes that a specific visit will fully account for particular defects or attributes of the property which may affect market value.
This is also time consuming, expensive and may be subject to the art of personal judgment.
The other methods available rely on various statistical modeling techniques and may result in as few as 10 percent of the properties in a jurisdiction actually being visited. In all the methods there are choices in schedules of values that can be applied which might yield differing results. The governing body has some discretion in these choices and makes them based on technical factors which are analyzed and presented by the tax assessor.
The process is more difficult in a developing areas like Jackson and other mountain counties. It is further complicated when the area has market pressures resulting from second home or resort development. Mountain land may be even further difficult to value because the costs of development vary greatly. The presence and complexity of local land use ordinances may impact the value of land, especially steep land that costs more to develop in an environmentally responsible manner.
The process of evaluation is also complicated when large tracts of undeveloped land are part of the market, or when many lots are in the inventory of undeveloped land. One of the most compelling reasons for a subdivision ordinance is the fact that it standardizes the process for platting of lots and therefore provides some order and basis of comparison to the market.
Revenue neutral declaration
After a revaluation, North Carolina mandates (through GS 159 - 11(e)) that a taxing jurisdiction state a “revenue neutral” tax rate in its budget. The Local Government Commission gives a specified method for making this calculation. Essentially, one takes the total value of property within the county after the revaluation and determines what tax rate, when applied to that value, would yield the same amount of revenue as prior to the revaluation.
For example, after the 2008 revaluation it was determined that in order to raise the same amount of revenue as prior to the revaluation, Jackson County would need to charge a rate of 26 cents. The previous tax rate was 36 cents but the total value of property in the county was now valued higher, meaning that a lower rate would bring in the same revenue.
Twenty-six cents is not, however, the “revenue neutral” rate. The LGC calculations recognize that each year properties are added or improved thereby increasing the tax base. The “revenue neutral” rate therefore allows for the application of a growth-rate factor.
In the case of the 2008 revaluation that calculation yielded a “revenue neutral” rate of 27.05 cents. In other words, for every $1,000 of assessed valuation the property owner would pay 27.05 cents or $270.50 on a $100,000 property. Under the concept of revenue neutral, that means that if the value of the property had increased exactly at the same average rate as all of the property in the county that the owner would pay the same taxes as before the revaluation.
Of course, a county is made up of thousands of pieces of property. Not all can be expected to increase in value at exactly the same rate so the actual tax an owner may be assessed after revaluation depends on both the average increase in values for the entire county but also on how that particular property compares.
My friend saw her property in Frady Cove increase in value from about $300,000 to more than $900,000. Her property was valued significantly higher than the average increase, consequently she paid significantly more in taxes. My house in Webster saw an increase in value of about 30 percent, much less than the average. My taxes went down.
So who was right?
So, were the challengers right in claiming there had been a tax increase? Well, technically they were since the new rate set by the commissioners was 28 cents, which was higher than the revenue neutral rate of 27.05 cents. Those who argued that there was actually a decrease because the rate went from 36 cents to 28 cents were wrong — they didn’t understand the concept of revaluation and revenue neutral.
But those who argued there was a tax increase in terms that made it seem immense were perhaps stretching a point. The increase was about $9.50 per $100,000 of assessed value, or $95 on a million dollar property — not nothing, but not a political point scored either.
And what of the incumbents, who pointed with great pride to the “third lowest marginal tax rate in the state.” Well, if you’ve followed the discussion so far you may have noticed that marginal rates might not mean much in an area with a very hot real estate market. Since 2000 there have been three revaluations in Jackson County resulting in property values increasing by about 200 percent on average.
Mega increases avoidable
Of all the things the commissioners who lost in the last election could be criticized for, the most serious error is the one no one talks about. The 2008 revaluation came at the height of a sizzling real estate market. It was apparent that because of some of the gated developments and very high lot and land prices that the revaluation was going to reflect some astronomical increases.
Contributing to that problem was the use of a statistical method in the process that had the potential for allowing some of the prices in places like Balsam Mountain Preserve to leak out and impact other areas — something that generally should not happen if the process is to be equitable and truly reflect market value.
One didn’t have to be especially prescient or have a crystal ball to see that we were on the cusp of a real estate bubble. I wrote about that potential in 2006. By 2008, when we were on the cusp of the bubble bursting, it was evident that there were serious problems in the market.
Jackson County had done a revaluation in 2004. The increases in that cycle were alarming. Jackson County had been on an eight-year cycle prior to 2000 and had justifiably shifted to a shorter cycle to minimize the impacts of the hot market. The idea was to reduce sticker shock and made good sense. The downside was that short cycles can lock in huge increases in market values right on the edge of a slowdown. The ordinance process the county engaged in may have exacerbated this, although certainly not in the way the alarmists in the Cashiers market claimed.
It was reasonably predictable that the ordinance process would at least pause the market while developers adjusted to the new regulations. That was a good thing, but it was also something that needed to be accounted for in the revaluation process — both in the methods chosen and in the schedule of values.
By mid-2008 when the revaluation was completed it was clear that the market was seriously challenged. By accepting the 2008 revaluation, higher land values were locked in and the distribution of the increases was clearly troubling. Valuing steep land in larger tracts at $16,000 an acre or more was not sustainable.
The problems were foreseeable and predictable. Going ahead with the 2008 revaluation was a serious mistake, and we’re about to see the consequences. We are scheduled for a revaluation in 2012. The complete collapse of the real estate market will have some serious consequences for that revaluation. It will be difficult to find “comps” — comparable values — needed to establish a shape to the market. How do you determine market value when there is no market?
Currently, much of the land that was slated for development in 2008, land in the former Legasus developments for example, is now virtually worthless. Lots that may have been worth $400,000 may now be in foreclosure. Land that was slated for gated development and relied on developers for community wide infrastructure may now only be saleable as lots or tracts having substantially less value and potential.
Who’s going to pay?
The county may have a current dilemma collecting revenues from some of these lots. That could have an immediate impact on budgets and require tax increases, but even worse consequences occur if a revaluation shows the true current value of some of the land previously targeted for development. It is possible that a huge slice of tax base has virtually disappeared, meaning that the next revenue neutral calculation would result in the marginal rate going up significantly to 35 or 50 cents.
I want to make perfectly clear that this discussion in no way endorses development. It isn’t about how we develop or preserve land or what we may want our communities to look like. It is solely about state mandates and current processes that have tremendous impacts and consequences.
The immediate solution may be deferring the 2012 revaluation. That does nothing to remediate the values locked in from 2008, but it may allow the market to recover and mitigate some of the foreseeable problems. Over the long run though we must rationalize the property tax system in a way that accounts for these systemic problems. The state must recognize that a system that works for stable developed areas like the Triangle has hugely negative consequences on rural areas.
Some will say that given the current state budget crisis that now is not the time to address these issues. I would argue that now is the best time to address these issues. I would like to see the rural counties of the state through both boards of commissioners and the representatives in Raleigh convene a planning group and design some specific changes in state law and policy that give local jurisdictions the tools they need to raise revenues in an effective and fair manner.
Pride of the Mountains is California-bound
Nearly 400 members of Western Carolina University’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band will travel to Pasadena, Calif., to march in the internationally televised 2011 Rose Parade.
The band is scheduled to appear at the 49th position in the parade, which begins at 11 a.m. on Jan. 1.
“The Rose Parade is seen by millions of people from around the world, and the Pride of the Mountains will be serving as marching musical ambassadors for Western Carolina,” said Bob Buckner, director of the WCU Pride of the Mountains Marching Band. “It’s a role we accept as a high honor, and we are ready to take on the challenges — both logistical and financial — of transporting our students, their instruments and other equipment to California.”
Three trucks will carry the band’s instruments, uniforms, equipment and even band member’s luggage to California in order to save about $40,000 in checked baggage fees. Students loaded the trucks Monday, Dec. 20, and will fly to California starting Dec. 28.
At the Tournament of Roses Bandfest on Thursday, Dec. 30, which friends, family and fans can watch online via a webcast available for $8.50, the band will perform its halftime show “Rock U.”
During the Rose Parade, the band will perform the song “You” by California ska band Suburban Legends, a local favorite in Orange County. Matt Henley, assistant director of the WCU marching band, said the music selection came about as he was thinking about the parade’s theme, “Building Dreams, Friendships and Memories,” and remembered a story about Suburban Legends.
After a member of the group, trombone player Dallas Cook, died in a traffic accident, Suburban Legends held a memorial concert and directed proceeds to Cook’s high school marching band in Huntington Beach, Calif. Cook had credited his experience in high school band for much of his passion for music.
Moved, Henley contacted Suburban Legends about the possibility of playing the group’s song in the parade and building a friendship.
“We love Suburban Legends’ music, and we are excited to play their song ‘You’ in Dallas’ memory and send the message that, like him, we love band too,” said Henley. “We arranged the song for marching band, and that is what we will play on TV as we go around the corner in the parade. Part of our goal was to build a friendship from East Coast to West Coast, and we hope to get the chance to meet members of Suburban Legends while we are there.”
Band members have said they are both excited and nervous to perform in front of so many people. More than 700,000 are expected to attend the parade, and more than 51 million people are expected to watch the internationally televised event on TV.
“I’m actually marching in the Rose Bowl (which will be) watched by a billion people. That is a lot of stress. A lot of eyes would be on me if I fall or trip,” said Candace Rhodes, a freshman music education major from Georgia, in a video she submitted in a WCU video contest, before willing it not to go wrong. “It won’t happen. It won’t happen. It won’t happen.”
When Jeffrey Throop, president of the Tournament of Roses Association, visited WCU’s band in September, he predicted the Pride of the Mountains would be a hit in California.
“I can already tell, you are going to blow everybody away. It’s just so exciting to see you and to see your style. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Throop, who has observed more than his fair share of marching bands during his affiliation of 36 years with the Rose Parade. “I can’t wait to show you off to everyone, to the world.”
Follow the Pride as they travel to Pasadena at roseparade.wcu.edu.
Year in review 2010
Editor’s note: Here is The Smoky Mountain News’ annual Year in Review, but ours comes with a nod and a wink — and an award. News is serious and sometimes tragic, but in hindsight we can at least try to find a little humor in what the newsmakers endured and we all read about in 2010.
The Sisyphus award
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is sentenced for eternity to roll a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top.
The mountain gods showed a similar attitude toward human inhabitants this year, showing a particular inclination to shut down major thoroughfares. At one point, the three primary routes through the southern mountains into Tennessee were blocked with rock slides: Interstate 40 in Haywood County, U.S. 64 between Murphy and Chattanooga, and U.S. 129 running from Robbinsville to Maryville, Tenn.
The only passage was U.S. 441 over Newfound Gap through the Smokies, and even that route was temporarily reduced to one lane following a rock slide of its own.
Mountains have been running amok on the residential side as well. The biggest and most high profile was in Maggie Valley below Ghost Town amusement park, but there were also slides in the Water Dance development in Jackson County and the Wildflower development in Macon County that destabilized road grades and took out lots, as well as a slide in Macon County that led to a man’s home being condemned.
The construction crew restoring the historic Jackson County Courthouse could have used more spinach before tackling the structure’s crowning cupola. The domed top had to be taken down for restoration in June. But when a crowd of onlookers gathered at the bottom of courthouse hill to watch the day it was scheduled to come off, repeated attempts failed. Crews ultimately had to bring in a stronger crane the following week.
The $7 million restoration of the historic courthouse and construction of a new library adjacent to it was supposed to be finished by year’s end, but has been pushed back.
When the U.S. Small Business Administration announced $1.4 million in loans for businesses hurt by the I-40 rock slide in Haywood County, business owners far and wide began hungrily licking their chops.
The October 2009 slide shut down the Interstate Haywood County for six months, choking off tourism traffic and commerce. Gas stations and hotels had to cut hours and even lay off workers as business dried up.
But of the 15 businesses that landed federal SBA loans, few were located in Haywood County. Among the more puzzling recipients: the Fun Depot in Asheville, an indoor kid’s amusement center; and an excavating company in Sevierville, Tenn., a business that hardly seems contingent on passersby on the interstate.
One local loan recipient was a bar in downtown Waynesville — a standard that would seemingly qualify every restaurant in the entire county.
Full House award
Despite a recession, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino barreled ahead with a $630 million expansion. The casino rolled out a major addition to the gaming floor, debuted a 3,000-seat concert venue and topped off a 21-story hotel tower. A 16,000-square-foot spa in the works is a testimony to Harrah’s mission to transform itself beyond a casino to a full-service resort.
The casino’s two existing hotel towers are consistently full.
The casino hit another milestone this year when it began serving alcohol for the first time in its on-site restaurants and at a new bona fide bar and lounge on the gaming floor.
The expansion began in 2009 and is slated for final completion in 2012. A 400-seat Paula Deen Kitchen restaurant also opened at the casino this year.
Best Power Struggle award
Solar panels. That’s what Haywood Community College and the Haywood County commissioners spent the better part of a year at loggerheads over.
HCC wanted to include green features, from rainwater collection to solar hot water in the design of a new $10.2 million creative arts building that will house its famed craft programs like woodcarving, pottery and jewelry making. But Haywood County commissioners accused the eco-efforts of driving up the cost of the building, and as a result threatened to veto the project. The college spent months trying to convince commissioners the building as designed was both frugal and necessary, while commissioner played hardball in an attempt to send the college back to the drawing board. The biggest sticking point were proposed solar panels on the building, which the college claimed would pay for themselves while commissioners remained skeptical.
In the end, the college won its quest to build a sustainable flagship creative arts building.
Last Laugh Award
To Sylva business owner Dodie Allen, who fought back against being ticketed for parking a van outside her downtown auction under the town’s new law designed to free-up prime parking real estate for visitors and shoppers.
Allen protested the citation — and the $50 fine it carried — for 45 minutes at a town board meeting, saying it infringed on her rights and hampered her ability to make a living. Allen argued she was simply loading and unloading at her auction house on Main Street.
Ultimately, Allen won her battle when it was discovered a key paragraph, the one specifying business owners and their employees can’t park on Main and Mill streets, wasn’t included in the ordinance passed. The town was forced to hold another public hearing and vote again on the town law, this time with the correct language intact.
Extreme Makeover award
Haywood County social workers will soon enjoy new digs. They are trading in a decrepit former hospital dating back decades for an abandoned Wal-Mart store being retrofitted for offices. Their new stripmall-esque working quarters will be a vast improvement over their current accommodations: a four-story brick building that’s cramped and crumbling, with makeshift offices in storage closets, perpetual leaks and rusted window jambs.
The Wal-Mart makeover project will cost the county $12.5 million — about half that to purchase the building and the other half to convert it into an office complex. Critics decried the move as an unnecessary cost in bad times. But county commissioners said the poor state of the DSS building could no longer be ignored, and scoring a bargain price for the old Wal-Mart made it the most attractive solution.
In addition to the Department of Social Services, the renovated building will also house the county health department and the planning department.
Initial construction bids came in higher than expected, so the county trimmed elements of the project to get costs down and then went back out to bid.
Most Creative Accounting
When the public learned Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe was funneling money seized in drug busts to youth sports teams — and as it happened to teams his own kids played on — he claimed it was all for a good cause.
Drug bust money by law must go toward drug crime prevention and enforcement, and Ashe argued that supporting wholesome diversions for kids keeps them off drugs.
The justification gets a little hazier though when it came to other uses for narcotics money by Ashe, like $20,000 to replace carpet in the sheriff’s office or $400 to get himself listed on a national “Who’s Who” list.
Ashe enjoyed an unsupervised, free rein of how to spend the narcotics fund. He failed to get approval from the county on the expenditures, violating state statutes governing fiscal controls for local government. The state Local Government Commission made Ashe comply with new accounting procedures after media reports brought the issue to light.
Janet Jackson award
Haywood County nearly had its own version of the infamous wardrobe malfunction when a river rafter protesting pollution by the Canton paper mill threatened to pull down his pants and bare his buttocks during a public hearing. He was one of several Tennessee river guides at the hearing who claimed to have sores and skin cancers from being in contact with the Pigeon River tainted by chemicals from the mill, and was willing to prove it until the hearing moderator advised him against such public displays.
Evergreen Packaging is seeking a new water pollution permit for the Pigeon River. The state was forced to ratchet down pollution levels in the proposed permit following objections by the EPA. But it wasn’t enough to abate environmentalists, who have filed a lawsuit to impose even tougher limits.
Evergreen is also facing a class action lawsuit by a group of Haywood County landowners. Downstream landowners in Tennessee have won similar class action suits against the mill.
The paper mill sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — and then dumps it back in the river again.
It was a dismal election year for Democrats, but U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, managed to hang on to his seat despite his conservative-leaning mountain district. He handily smashed Republican challenger Jeff Miller and advanced to the next round where he took on none other than House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. He went into the challenge with the intention of losing — or at least knowing he’d lose — because the loss gave him incredible national exposure.
What’s next for the former football player from Swain County? He’s not saying, but former communications director Andrew Whalen left a coveted job as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party to rejoin Shuler’s staff. Something’s afoot with this fiscally-conservative Blue Dog Republican Democrat, that’s for dang sure.
The Mother of all Irony Award
To the Village of Forest Hills, which incorporated in 1997 for the express and unabashed purpose of keeping rowdy, drunken Western Carolina University students from taking over this residential community, is now considering annexing land at Chancellor John Bardo’s behest so that some unknown developer can build a town so students will keep going to Western Carolina University (there’s a little retention problem) because, finally, they won’t have to drive to Sylva to — is this for real? — get good and soused. They’ll instead drink beer and wine and shots of liquor within walking distance of campus as God intended for university students to do.
Additionally, WCU suggests the Boca Raton, Fla.-reminiscent name of Forest Hills be lost in favor of the name Cullowhee. We can only assume the town sign painted in pastels on U.S. 107 will have to go, too, folks.
Only in Macon Could This Happen Award
Where else would a county board of commissioners appoint a man who openly doesn’t support land planning to the county’s planning board, except in Macon County?
In a move so audacious in its sheer lack of thought and concern for regulating unbridled development, we salute the Republican (and one rogue Democrat) commissioners in Macon County for the appointment of Tea Party member Jimmy Goodman to the planning board. Never mind that he’d not been reappointed to that same board for (allegedly and all that) obstructing the other members in, well, their efforts to plan, those rascally planning-board members.
We take our hats off to you, Macon County, and offer sincere thanks for being in our coverage area. You help us remember that we still can be surprised by what actually does take place sometimes on the local political level.
Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College since 1997, retired this year and headed to Texas for a relaxing retirement close to the grandkids.
“As for everything and everyone, there is a season. My season has now come,” Groves said of his departure from SCC.
Three months later, Groves announced his return to the area to be the CEO of Balsam West, an entity that controls a 300-mile fiber broadband ring looping the six western counties. Groves helped create the fiber ring while at the helm of SCC and considered it one of his biggest accomplishments, but with few users, it is struggling to realize its potential.
The Garden City award
In Maggie Valley, the new mantra is call on the name of beauty and ye shall be saved. Residents and businesses alike buried thousands of daffodil and tulip bulbs this fall in hopes that the bursts of coordinated color will swoop in this spring to help save the struggling city from economic depression and the gaping financial hole left by the death of Ghost Town.
The idea is being coupled with another aesthetic assault from the town government’s camp. In November, the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to impose a set of design standards for renovations and new builds that follow a general design plan town planners call “mountain vernacular.”
Officials hope that the visual double whammy will spruce up the town’s face which, they seem to be admitting, is a less-than-pleasant sight to behold.
The Long and Winding Road award
“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen …OK, I guess I’ll stay a little longer.” That’s the tune sung this year by Maggie Valley’s Dale Walksler, owner and curator of the renowned Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum.
After several years in its current location and several more bouts with local officials over the museum’s value to the town, Walksler threatened to pack up his collection and ship out to another, more friendly, but as yet unnamed, locale. This fall, however, he decided to make those empty threats and chose to keep the storied – and probably unrivaled – collection of American motorcycle memorabilia nestled snugly into its Soco Road home.
No word from local officials on how they’re reacting to the decision, but since sharing his thoughts with us in October, it’s been all quiet on the Walksler front. So maybe 2011 will see a happy ending to the animosity?
The Size Envy award
They say bigger isn’t always better, but Swain County’s Marianna Black Library isn’t so sure about that. After catching a glimpse of Macon and Jackson counties’ new, improved and enlarged library digs, they couldn’t help but want to gain some growth themselves.
So this October, the library system embarked on an exploratory campaign of their own, seeking input from local residents and guidance from the same consultants used by their neighboring counties. Patron suggestions ranged from expanded collections and more special events to requests for outdoor fire pits, presumably not to be stoked with the library’s contents.
Whether the county’s case of library envy has abated remains to be seen; the consultants won’t be back with final recommendations until the new year. But with Jackson County’s new facility opening up soon, it’s easy to hear cries of “but I want one, too,” on the not-too-distant horizon.
The Earmark to Nowhere award
To earmark, or not to earmark – that, of late, is the Congressional question. And for residents of Swain county, it’s the $52 million question. That’s how much they’ve been promised to repay the cash they laid out on the nonexistent North Shore Road over three decades. When the road was flooded for the war effort in 1943, the county took it on the chin, along with a pledge from the federal government that they’d put it back. But time went on, the county kept paying on the road loans and the promised new road was never to return.
Earlier this year, the county agreed to take a cash settlement from the government in lieu of a road they no longer needed, after laborious negotiations and a good bit of lobbying from Swain County native Rep. Heath Shuler.
But those dollars are in danger now that Congress is swooping in to slash earmarks. To some legislators, that’s just what the North Shore money is, an earmark designed to funnel federal money into local projects. But local proponents counter that it’s not just funding, it’s debt service paying off a 66-year-old IOU.
Whether the money will keep rolling into the county hasn’t been decided. But much rests on convincing Congress members that the settlement is an obligation, not an option.
Billy Graham Hall of Fame nominees
County leaders refused to stop praying in Jesus’ name during their public meetings, despite a federal court ruling that such overt prayers were tantamount to government endorsement of Christianity over other religions — and thus were unconstitutional.
A federal judge in Forsyth County found that specific references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioner meetings “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government.”
But county commissioners in Macon and Swain counties were undaunted.
“If there was a law that said how I could pray, I think I would have to break it,” said Swain Commissioner Phillip Carson.
Or as Swain Commissioner David Monteith put it, “I guess they would just have to arrest me.”
Macon Commissioner Ronnie Beale said Christian prayers reflect the vast majority of his constituents.
In Haywood County, commissioners chose to drop references to Jesus and stick with more generic, and thus legal, references to Lord or God. Jackson County does not hold a prayer during its county meetings.
This is exactly where homeowners down slope of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley found themselves this year. A massive landslide screamed down Rich Cove mountain in February, uprooting yards and bumping into houses on its way. While some residents remain without a well for drinking water and one couple still has not been able to return to their home, they had been unable to hold anyone accountable to cover the damages so far.
But Ghost Town’s liability insurance was canceled a week before the landslide due to late payments, according to the insurance company. Court documents verify that Ghost Town received warnings to pay up to risk cancelation, and eventually received a cancellation notice.
Ghost Town has blamed the slide on a company hired to shore up the slipping mountainside with a series of retaining walls, but the contractors blame Ghost Town for a leaking water line buried behind the wall, according to court documents.
Most Formidable Opponent
As a multi-billion Fortune 500 Company, Duke Energy is used to getting its way. But when it went up against the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians this year and came under fire for desecrating the tribe’s equivalent of an ancestral holy site, it seemed the utility giant had met its match.
Duke Energy had embarked on a $79 million electrical substation on a knoll overlooking an idyllic farming valley in Swain County — a valley that happened to be the home of Kituwah mound, an ancient ceremonial site and political center for the Cherokee. The massive electrical substation threatened to mar the landscape, which Cherokee considered integral to the cultural integrity of the spiritual site.
Duke faced three-fold opposition. The tribe’s government leaders condemned Duke for picking the site and failing to consult with the tribe first. A grassroots activist group formed to challenge Duke before the state utility commission. And Swain County leaders also got mad that Duke had started construction without applying for county permits, and even passed a moratorium barring work on the substation from moving forward.
It didn’t take long for Duke to throw in the towel on the controversial site and instead bought another piece of property in the Swain County industrial park to locate the substation.
Attorney John Lewis may as well have worn a flashing neon sign when he tried to forge a judge’s name in Jackson County.
Lewis forged a court order in a parental custody case, but no sooner had he filed the fraudulent document with the clerk of court then he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk — assuming it was a valid part of the case file — refused. But an agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document. As a last resort, he came around the partition in the clerk’s office, snagged the file himself and put a Post-It note on the document declaring it void, arousing enough suspicion to launch an investigation.
The 31-year-old attorney had also faked the signatures on limited privilege driver’s licenses for at least three clients in Swain County who had their real licenses revoked.
Head in the Sand award
When a recession took hold of the country in 2008, most counties got to work cutting costs to head off impending budget shortfalls. But Swain County was nearly a year late to the party.
Swain County continued with business as usual until summer 2009 when its fund balance dipped so low it was put on the watch list by the Local Government Commission, a state agency that monitors the fiscal solvency of counties.
Counties are supposed to have a savings account, known as a fund balance, that’s equivalent to 8 percent of their total annual budget. Swain’s dropped to only 6.67 percent. The county had to play catch-up to restore its fund balance by laying off workers and imposing furloughs, which amounted to pay cuts.
County Manager Kevin King failed to let the Local Government Commission know ahead of time that the county would dip below the safe threshold, but county commissioners said they didn’t know either until it had already happened.
The Life’s not Fair award
As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Haywood County nearly doubled its per capita recycling rate in two years under the leadership of a new solid waste director, Stephen King, who is passionate about recycling. The county will save money by saving landfill space in the long run, but in the short run, all those recyclables began to overwhelm the system. Faced with the need for more recycling staff, the county instead chose to simply shut down the recycling “pick line” and laid off workers who manually sorted recyclables before they were sold. Instead, the county started selling the recyclables in bulk without separating them first. They fetch a lower price, but allowed the county to save on salaries.
Biggest Loser(s) Award
The biggest election upset of the year was in Jackson County, where Democrats lost control of the board of commissioners for the first time in 16 years.
In a clean sweep, Democrats Brian McMahan, William Shelton and Tom Massie headed to the house, while the conservative ticket of Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody took over their reins.
The new guys immediately started shuffling the deck. County Manager Ken Westmoreland, a target in the election because, among other reasons, he helped institute a pay raise that most benefited longtime employees such as himself, has gone to the house as well. Chuck Wooten, just retired from Western Carolina University, has stepped into his shoes temporarily until a new manager can be found.
Easy Money award
As a new form of video gambling proliferated across the state this year, several towns decided to get in on a piece of the action by imposing hefty business license fees for establishments sporting the machines.
The fees were hardly a deterrent given the lucrative nature of the video gambling machines. When the Canton town board voted to set the fee at $2,500, a business owner attending the evening meeting pulled out his checkbook on the spot. The town manager advised him to come back the next morning.
State lawmakers banned video poker, but the gambling industry came up with a reincarnated version called “video sweepstakes,” which wasn’t subject to the ban. State lawmakers followed suit by broadening the language of the ban, outlawing the sweepstakes machines as well, effective with the new year. But not before towns cashed in.
Maggie Valley and Franklin also cashed in on licensing fees.
Don’t Have to Win to be a Winner award
Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lost his seat in last year’s election, landed a spot back on the board anyway. When former town board member Sarah Graham moved outside the town limits and had to step down, it was up to the remaining board members to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. By a 3 to 1 vote, Hensley found himself back in his old seat, a move that shifted power from the progressive voting bloc to a new majority characterized by a more traditional philosophy.
This marked the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board had to vote to appoint one of their own, the other being the seat of Maurice Moody who left his seat on the board empty after moving up to mayor.
Texas Hold ‘em award
After seven long years, Jackson County finally folded in its protracted and expensive battle against Duke Energy over, well, that’s where things get murky. What started as a noble fight by mountain people to get their due from a utility giant left most people scratching their heads and wondering why Jackson County was still anteing up, long before the game was eventually over.
To casual observers, the fight appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro Dam: Duke wanted to tear it down and the county wanted to save it. But the origin of the conflict was philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams?
Duke proposed removing the Dillsboro dam and restoring a stretch of free flowing river as compensation for saddling the Tuck with a handful of dams, but county commissioners believed they were being short-changed and wanted more, including a trust fund based on a percentage of the hydropower revenues.
Jackson County commissioners hoped to bring Duke to the negotiating table, but Duke repeatedly called the county’s bluff. Instead of folding, Jackson kept throwing in for the next hand until finally calling it quits this year.
Wooten to serve as stopgap Jackson County manager
Chuck Wooten will become interim Jackson County manager for six months or so starting next month.
Commissioners this week in a unanimous vote hired Wooten for $10,000 a month. Wooten retires Jan. 1 from Western Carolina University after 30 years as vice chancellor for administration and finance. He starts his new, temporary job Jan. 3. Wooten once worked as county manager for Iredell County.
“I’m going to try to help this board bridge this gap,” Wooten said, adding that he believes he can help Jackson County successfully move through an upcoming budget cycle and select a new permanent county manager.
Kenneth Westmoreland is technically Jackson County’s manager until Jan. 1 — but his last official day in office took place earlier this month.
Depending on which man you believe, Commission Chairman Jack Debnam or Westmoreland, the three newest commissioners in Jackson County either asked Westmoreland to leave (the county manager’s version), or he left of his own volition (Debnam’s version).
Westmoreland has served as Jackson County manager for almost a decade. His actions as the county’s top leader became a campaign issue, particularly the implementation of a new pay-scale system that was targeted as too generous to long-time employees like himself.
When Democrats Brian McMahan, William Shelton and Tom Massie lost to Debnam (an Independent with GOP backing) and Republicans Charles Elders and Doug Cody, it was general knowledge that Westmoreland’s tenure as manager was likely over.
Two Democrats remain on the board, each with two years remaining in their four-year terms: Joe Cowan and Mark Jones. For the most part, with two meetings having taken place to date, the Democrats have voted along harmoniously with their more conservative board members.
How much power the future county manager of Jackson County will be allowed under this particular board of commissioners is in question. Unlike city managers in North Carolina, a county manager is not granted automatic statutory authority to hire, fire and discipline employees. The manager performs these duties only if the board allows this to happen.
In their first meeting as a group, commissioners took that power into their own hands. Questioned this week, Debnam said the matter would be revisited at a later time, but for now all hires and fires will come before the board.
“I think we needed a little bit more control over what was happening,” Debnam said.
An attorney for everyone
Jay Coward, newly hired to serve as Jackson County’s attorney, will receive $175 an hour, commissioners agreed in a unanimous vote this week.
He’ll also serve the sheriff’s department when the sheriff and his deputies need legal advice.
Coward, a Republican, replaces Paul Holt, a Democrat. The change is one of the outcomes of the upending of Democrats and their long hold on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Voters in November sent three Democrats packing, and elected Jack Debnam, an officially registered but GOP-backed-Independent chairman, and Charles Elders and Doug Cody, Republicans, in the ousted Democrats’ place.
Democrat Sheriff Jimmy Ashe seemed thrilled Coward was again part of the county government family. He lauded the longtime attorney and former commissioner for bringing a breadth of wisdom and experience to the county’s law needs.
Additionally, Coward served as an excellent reason for Ashe to dump his own hand-selected attorney, Mark Welch. Coward, Ashe said, “will be able to accommodate our needs.”
In 2008, the sheriff requested commissioners (Democrats all, then) give him a full-time sheriff’s attorney. They said OK. The sheriff’s department attorney answered directly to Ashe, and, according to the sheriff’s department website, helped with daily legal matters.
This week, however, what was once cited as a critical need (rising foreclosures, among other reasons) gave way to, the sheriff said, more pressing department priorities.
Welch was paid $67,237 a year. With a cost savings of more than $9,000 tied to his erasure as a county employee, commissioners went along willingly with Ashe. But not before new Commissioner Doug Cody queried the sheriff on this change of heart.
Cody asked if Ashe’s newfound ability to rely on the county attorney for legal advice meant the foreclosure rate had decreased. No, Ashe replied, it is still increasing in Jackson County.
But property crime is also escalating. And some of the savings, with commissioners’ approval, went to fund a realignment of sheriff’s department personnel. Those changes, Ashe said, will help the department in its fight against crime — more, apparently than a staff attorney would.