Jackson County rides out budget storm unscathed

Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland said he would deliver a balanced budget with no cuts to services or staff and that is exactly what he did on Monday night.

While neighboring counties are taking drastic measures to offset budget shortfalls for the second year in a row, Jackson County is once again holding steady.

Westmoreland presented a draft budget to county commissioners at a county meeting Monday (May 17).

“We have not had to cut services. We have not had to furlough individuals. We have met all of our obligations,” Westmoreland said in his characteristic business-like language.

The one exception to a budget that essentially holds last year’s line items is the additional money to outfit and operate the county’s new library branch at the old Jackson County Courthouse site.

Westmoreland’s proposed budget includes $121,000 for staffing, collection materials and additional operating expenses for the library. Since the new library is not scheduled to open until January, the extra money in the budget is designed to cover costs for six months. The funding will have to be continued into the following fiscal year.

If there was a surprise in the proposed budget, it was Westmoreland’s decision not to meet the Jackson County Schools’ request for an increase in operating funds to offset their anticipated decreases in state funding.

Jackson County Schools Superintendent Sue Nations asked county commissioners to help the schools bridge an expected budget gap that could extend to nearly $1 million if Gov. Perdue’s proposed discretionary cuts take effect.

Westmoreland’s draft budget includes a meager $18,000 increase for the schools’ operating budget, when Nations requested an increase in excess of $350,000 to help pay for faculty and support staff.

Westmoreland said as early as March that he would produce a budget that held departmental funding levels steady but would not involve service cuts or tax increases.

Commissioner Tom Massie welcomed the draft budget and commended the county’s department heads for recognizing the difficulty of the economic climate.

“We’re finding savings every day in the budget and that’s why we’re not having to make some of the cuts going on in neighboring counties,” Massie said. “That reflects good management.”

Massie pointed to the fact that the county could carry over money from this year’s budget if their spending rates hold steady through June.

In the current fiscal year, Jackson County’s expenditures are 11 percent below their budgeted allotment to date, despite the fact that the county’s revenues are 1.6 percent below their predicted levels.

The county will hold a public hearing on the draft budget at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 7, in the county boardroom.

New owners take long view on Balsam Mountain Preserve

As one development after another began to bite the dust two years ago, lenders who had bankrolled the mountain building spree in its heyday fretted nervously. The demand for high-priced lots had evaporated into thin air.

Banks reluctantly foreclosed, resigned to the downturn and hoping to wait things out — wait for the financial markets to stabilize, baby boomers’ 401Ks to rebound, and the buying and building to resume.

But not Mark Antoncic. Unwilling to write off one of his hand-picked investments, Antoncic rolled up his sleeves and did what few lenders want to do.

Antoncic’s firm seized control of Balsam Mountain Preserve, a 4,500-acre mega development between Sylva and Waynesville.

While some foreclosures take a year or more to play out, this one moved at lightning speed. Antoncic forced Balsam Mountain Preserve into foreclosure last October and by March, he held the keys to the gates — a record five months. When asked how he did it, Antoncic smiled.

“We are very good,” he said.

With other mega developments spiraling into bankruptcy and foreclosure across the mountains, lenders and developers are taking notes as they watch the turnaround of Balsam Mountain Preserve. One key is a high-quality development to start with. The other is a savvy and well-leveraged lending firm behind the scenes, which, like TriLyn, was willing to take the reins when the developers floundered.

“The alternative could be horrible,” said Antoncic, a founder and managing partner of TriLyn. “You can imagine what this place would be like shut down. You would have to close the golf course, weeds would grow up on the tennis courts. You see a lot of that around the country and some of that you can’t reverse the damage for the property owners and the community. We made a conscious effort not to let that happen.”

Property owners who paid half a million for lots in the upscale development are breathing a sigh of relief after a rocky year.

“So far so good,” said Dave Sparks, a homeowner in Balsam. “It could have gone a lot of other directions.”

Instead, their Arnold Palmer golf course is open again, the security and maintenance staff is back to full force, and their private mountaintop dining room is back.

The quick timetable was critical.

“We have kept the wheels on the cart in doing that,” Antoncic said.

When in doubt, foreclose

Antoncic’s career in real estate investment and finance placed him in the realm of troubled and distressed assets before the term was a household world. He recently founded Carpathia, a third-party real estate adviser firm, named after a sea vessel that rescued 705 passengers from the Titanic, which the firm calls “one the greatest all-time distress-situation performances.”

Carpathia specializes in counseling lenders who don’t know what to do about the failing developers they loaned money to.

Lenders are typically eager to avoid foreclosure. They opt to cut their losses and accept whatever loan payoff they can get rather than assume ownership of a gated community with lot sales going nowhere.

But Antoncic’s advice? Err on the side of foreclosure.

“The sooner you do it, the better off you are going to be,” he said. “You have to be proactive, not reactive. You can’t rescue everything, but you can’t just sit back and hope it goes away.”

Antoncic does not recommend one-size-fits-all advice through the newspaper. The closest he came to such an edict, however, was to say that lenders should choose their investments more wisely upfront.

“We are real estate professionals,” he said. “We own real estate, we manage real estate, and we finance real estate all up and down the capital stack.”

The principals of TriLyn have managed $15 billion in investments over their careers.

“We don’t look at this as just a loan. When we make an investment, we make it based on the quality of the real estate with the expectation and capability to take over the asset and run it,” Antoncic said. “Where lenders sometimes fall down is they make loans on assets they don’t really understand.”

The question to ask is: “Could we own this and would we want to own this?” he said.

It’s the same reason Antoncic could pull the trigger on foreclosure without being bogged down in the courts for a year or more.

“It was structured properly on the front end to provide for that,” Antoncic said.

Foreclosures rarely end well for the banks these days. The lender is usually standing alone on the courthouse steps when the property gets auctioned to the highest bidder. The bank becomes the proud new owner, not quite sure what to do with its new real estate.

As a result, most lenders owed money by developers are willing to take what they can get. A partial payoff is better than none at all. If the developer shows promise, the lender may grant generous extensions or refinance the loan to avoid foreclosure.

Balsam developers tried to settle for less than the full amount owed. It was close enough that most lenders would have agreed.

“Our view is very different than a typical lender. A typical lender would not want this on the balance sheet,” Antoncic said.

Balsam Mountain Preserve borrowed $20 million from TriLyn in 2005 to finance infrastructure for the development, including the pricey golf course. The debt owed to TriLyn reached $22 million by the height of foreclosure. It included most of the original loan, plus months of interest at higher-than-normal default rate and attorneys fees. It also included money fronted by TriLyn to keep the lights on and the grass mowed as Balsam developers began to run out of cash to make payroll on their own.

TriLyn is not a sharky lender of last resort. It doesn’t make risky loans with astronomical interest rates. It doesn’t target naïve developers, waiting to gobble them up at the first sign of a stumble.

But Antoncic wasn’t going to settle.

“Should we have taken less and walked away with it?” Antoncic said. “We wouldn’t have gone into this project if we didn’t think it had a long-term prospect. We had planned the investment to be five years. The market is what the market is, so it is going to take longer.”

He hopes patience will pay off.

“If you bail today, you lose all that. We would turn over a good asset to someone else,” he said.

The key, however, is a “good” asset.

“We can fix this. It is fixable, unlike so many other projects around the country,” Antoncic said. “So many had no business being built to start with. There is a list around the country that will never get anywhere.”

Doing the math

Before the recession, lots in Balsam Mountain Preserve sold for an average of $500,000. Those days are over, at least for now, Antoncic said.

“The whole market is down 30 to 40 percent. If we did not react to that appropriately we would be as guilty as the next guy,” Antoncic said.

Of the 354 lots in the development, only 120 remain.

When asked how he plans to market them, Antoncic has no magic formula.

“Carefully and strategically,” he quipped, then turned serious. “I don’t know what an appropriate marketing campaign looks like today. I don’t think you can force feed the market anymore.”

The marketing campaigns of days past instilled prospective buyers with a “fear of loss,” said Ken Costanzo, the new president of Balsam. Buyers were convinced there was a limited pool of resort mountain real estate and they could miss out if they hesitated.

Now “there is lots of inventory out there and there aren’t buyers lining up for it, so it is a different world,” said Costanzo.

Antoncic has two options to profit from lot sales at Balsam Mountain Preserve.

He could slash lot prices and unload the inventory with minimal effort, luring buyers by the bargain alone. Lots would go more quickly, saving on overhead and operations that could otherwise drag on for years, and avoiding expensive marketing campaigns.

Or Antoncic can keep lot prices high enough that Balsam retains its image. He’ll be in the game longer, be stuck subsidizing the golf course and other operations for possibly years to come, as well as fund a marketing campaign.

But it’s the route Antoncic is choosing. Existing property owners are glad the new owners don’t subscribe to the fire sale mentality.

“I think it would tend to have a negative impact on the community,” said Dave Sparks, a homeowner in Balsam.

It would likely anger the 170 individual property owners who bought into what they presumed would remain an upscale development.

TriLyn has hiked both the fees paid by the property owners association and club dues for members who use the amenities, bringing revenue closer in line with expenses.

The former owners were taking a substantial hit on golf course operations and overhead for the amenities, including a horse stable, pool, tennis courts and clubhouse.

Antoncic also plans to cut costs, claiming the former owners weren’t very efficient. The move bring the operations “closer to break even,” Antoncic said, but they will still have to be subsidized.

Dave Sparks, a homeowner at Balsam, said property owners aren’t mad by the move.

“Quite honestly, they should be higher,” he said of the fees. “We expect that. That was in play before all this stuff crumbled.”

Of the 170 individual property owners, 120 are club members — about 30 fewer than last year. But Sparks said it is not because of the fees. Some simply don’t visit their property that often, and others bought lots only as investments and never visit.

Sparks is just glad the golf course has reopened after being closed abruptly during foreclosure last fall.

Not ‘just another’

gated community

Balsam Mountain Preserve has just 354 lots despite its massive size. Most of the 4,400 acres are protected in a conservation easement. It was the region’s first eco-development, and the lot prices and culture — top-notch amenities, an environmental ethos, strict covenants and a woodland estate setting — cater to affluent buyers.

Balsam Mountain was created and run by Chaffin Light Associates until the foreclosure. Unlike some developers who forayed into the mountain real estate world during the boom, Chaffin Light was no amateur. Massive developments touted as sustainable and set in striking landscapes — from Colorado’s snow-capped mountains to coastal South Carolina — are a Chaffin Light specialty.

But the firm failed to adjust to the new real estate reality brought on by the recession, Antoncic said.

A new president, Ken Costanzo, is now at the helm of Balsam Mountain Preserve. Costanzo was the chief operating officer of the Cliffs, the epic Tiger Woods golf resort with properties spanning from Western North Carolina to Upstate South Carolina.

Costanzo said Balsam doesn’t have the same uphill fight as other developments.

“It’s not just another beautiful mountain golf community,” Costanzo said. “Golf is important, but there is so much more to offer here.”

Unfortunately, Balsam’s presumed turnaround doesn’t offer a model for other faltering developments to follow. Many troubled developments are carrying far more debt than they’re worth and lack infrastructure to make lots sellable. Golf courses exist only in master plans not on the ground. Roads haven’t even been built yet.

But Balsam was nearly complete and had a realistic debt load.

“Unlike so many around the country, the assets were good. The infrastructure is here, it is built out,” Antoncic said of Balsam Mountain Preserve. “If there is a leader in the market, we have the ability to be that leader.”

Antoncic said there is still a lot of carnage to come in the real estate market. He estimates a turnaround is three to five years away.

“At one point, I was concerned we were just having warm-ups, but I think the game has started,” Antoncic said.

Boosters of the mountain real estate scene like to think the area was insulated from the downturn, that the spectacular scenery and lifestyle here was so desirable prices here didn’t fall. Not so, Antoncic said.

“It is better than other parts of the country, but it is not as though the region escaped the downturn,” he said.

Eventually, confidence of buyers will return. After all, there’s still 77 million baby boomers out there dreaming of their own golden retirement.

Proposed road calls for bridge over N.C. 107 in Jackson

A new road that would traverse the campus of Southwestern Community College and provide a new link between two of Jackson County’s major roads is in the final planning stages.

The proposed two-lane road is designed to alleviate congestion and improve traffic flow at the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 and help transit to and from SCC, according to N.C. Department of Transportation project engineer Steve Williams. The congested intersection is flanked by an Ingles grocery store and a Lowe’s home improvement store.

According to NCDOT projections, daily traffic on N.C. 116 is expected to increase from 10,200 vehicles per day in 2008 to 19,100 vehicles per day by 2035, and traffic on N.C. 107 is expected to increase from 23,300 vehicles per day in 2008 to 51,100 vehicles per day by 2035.

Engineers have developed two options for the new road. Both follow the same route and include plans for a bridge over N.C. 107, but they differ in the style of intersection.

SCC President Cecil Groves said the new road was crucial for the college’s expansion.

“The road is essential to the future development of the college, particularly with regard to our ability to handle traffic patterns and expand the number of students,” Groves said.

Groves said the new road would give SCC an exit out of the back of the campus that would greatly enhance its ability to complete construction projects related to its expansion. It would also make the N.C. 116 entrance safer for faculty, students, and staff.

The 0.7-mile connector road would run along the edge of the SCC campus and connect N.C. 107 at Evans Road to N.C. 116 at Bonnie Lane.

The NCDOT will hold an information session to share designs for the new road from 4 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 20, at the Balsam Center on the SCC campus.

The meeting will provide an informal venue for dialogue about the proposed road’s effect on the community.

According to Williams, the two scenarios mainly affect the intersection with N.C. 107.

The major components of the plan involve the construction of a roundabout on N.C. 116 –– close to the site of the Jackson County Schools bus garage –– that would serve in lieu of a stoplight at the intersection.

The new road would then cross a U.S. Forest Service property, traverse the SCC campus, and eventually intersect with N.C. 107 just over the hill from Smoky Mountain High School — after crossing 107 with an overhead bridge.

In one set of plans, the new road would have a second roundabout that would provide access to N.C. 107, while the other option traffic would access N.C. 107 directly from Evans Rd.

The new road would be built with a sidewalk and bike lane to accommodate pedestrian traffic and cyclists.

In order to move forward with the new road, NCDOT will need to purchase additional right of ways from landowners and undergo the necessary environmental assessments for the road project.

Sylva cardboard box venture collapses

Stonewall Packaging, a cardboard plant in Sylva, laid off 43 workers last week and shut down operations after coming on line just a few months earlier.

Stonewall Packaging was a venture of Jackson Paper, also a cardboard plant in Sylva, which employs 120 people. Jobs at Jackson Paper are safe, according to the company.

The closing of Stonewall has less to do with the economy and more to do with a stroke of bad luck. When Jackson Paper launched Stonewall, it secured commitments from box companies pledging to buy its cardboard. One of those that pledged to buy a large volume fell through, however. Stonewall was unable to find a new buyer for the corrugated cardboard sheets being churned out.

The cardboard industry is consolidating, with a smaller number of larger companies dominating sales — making it harder for ventures like Stonewall to find a seat at the table.

The Stonewall plant was built last year at a cost of $17 million. The closure is “very disappointing,” according to company officials.

“This is not the outcome that we had hoped for with our investment in Stonewall, and we did everything within our power to prevent it,” Jackson Paper President Tim Campbell said.

The fate of the new facility — whether it will be sold or kept in hopes of one day ramping up again — is unknown at this time, according to company officials.

Stonewall Packaging had been offered both state and county incentives in exchange for job creation and the capital expansion. The state agreed to give the plant $200,000, but had yet to award the money. Jackson County offered Stonewall Packaging a property tax break of up to $1.3 million during the next several years, but it was contingent on the creation of jobs.

What was Stonewall?

Jackson Paper’s official role in Stonewall is that of an investor, although the two plants had a symbiotic relationship. Stonewall was an attempt at vertical integration by Jackson Paper, which makes the wavy middle layer found in corrugated cardboard.

Making a cardboard box is a four-step process. Each step is carried out by a different plant: one to make the wavy middle layer, one to make the outer layers, one to sandwich them together, and one to cut and fold the sheets into finished boxes.

With the cardboard box industry consolidating into the hands of larger plants, Campbell feared the chain his niche product relied on would prove too fragile. Jackson Paper would find an increasingly limited number of buyers for its wavy middle layer of cardboard.

Enter Stonewall.

Stonewall would buy the wavy middle layer produced by Jackson Paper, buy the outer layer from other plants, and sandwich them together to make sheets of corrugated cardboard on site. The venture would secure a stable buyer for Jackson Paper’s product.

Unfortunately, that model collapsed when a box company lined up to buy the cardboard did not uphold its commitment.

Jackson Paper has found buyers to pick up the slack now that it can’t sell its product to Stonewall.

“Operations at Jackson Paper are strong and expected to remain so,” Campbell said. “Jackson Paper has been able to replace those orders lost in the Stonewall shutdown with orders from other customers.”

But that doesn’t blunt the disappointment both managers and employees have over the fate of Stonewall, Campbell said.

“This is a terrible situation for the dedicated and hardworking employees of Stonewall Packaging. Our thoughts and prayers are with them during this difficult time, and we will do everything possible to support those affected,” Campbell said.

Using music to write history

Bluegrass recording artist Buddy Melton feels like he owes Jackson County. He had never played an instrument until he started fiddling in his college dorm room in Cullowhee. He had never experienced the roots of mountain music until he found Gene Brown’s house in Cope Creek and began sitting in with the pickers. And then there’s the fact that he wouldn’t exist at all had not his parents, who both hail from Jackson County, brought him forth.

“My music career started in Jackson County, and everything I’ve done since then is the result of what happened in Jackson County,” Melton said.

In creating “Songs for Jackson County,” an informal musical history that explores some of the county’s most emblematic stories, Melton feels like he is offering some payback for what has become a successful music career. Melton recently released a self-titled bluegrass album featuring Tony Rice on guitar, a sure sign of his enduring presence as a fiddler and vocalist.

Melton and his former bandmates — Mark Winchester, who has won Grammy Awards with Emmylou Harris and Brian Setzer, and Milan Miller, a Haywood County native — created “Songs of Haywood County” in 2006.

“We were just writing songs to be writing, and there were some graves up above my house, just two graves in a meadow that no one ever came to,” Melton said. “ And I decided to go ahead and research it.”

One of the graves, as it turned out, belonged to Dave Mason. Mason was the first man in Haywood County to be hung for murder, and the detailed accounts of his trial included the fact that his father called out from the crowd as his son prepared to be dropped, “Take it to the grave, Davey.”

It’s that kind of poetic moment that makes for a good song, and Melton, Winchester, and Miller felt they were onto something.

“We wrote it and then we got talking and it was like, ‘Hey, there are a lot of stories out there in this part of the world that deserve songs,’” Melton said.

What the threesome created in their first historical album, they have tried to improve in their latest release.

Creating a collection of historic songs isn’t purely a songwriting project. Melton said his first concern was to make sure the history was the primary focus, so his song selection had to conform to the information at hand.

“You research the history and the stories, and the songs you end up writing are really based off of what factual information you’re able to find to lend themselves,” Melton said.

The music also has to fit the characters and setting of the stories that needed to be told, so “Songs For Jackson County” shows off a range of styling and instrumentation.

“I think it just came down to the feel of the song. We didn’t set out to do a bluegrass record or a country record. We just set out to make a historic record that suited the stories,” said Melton.

Singing for Jackson County

Part of the reason Buddy Melton felt he needed to create this new history record is because he wanted to preserve the stories he grew up with. He credits local historian and genealogist Bill Crawford with passing down many of those tales, but the liner notes of the record cite many other local sources, including Gary Carden, Nina Anderson, George Ellison, and the Jackson County Genealogical Society.

“The good thing about Jackson County is folks like Bill and many others have really tried hard to preserve the history,” Melton said

The subjects of the songs for the album range from characters who gained national attention in their days –– like Aunt Samantha Bumgarner who became a Columbia recording artist as a clawhammer banjo player in the ‘20s –– to characters whose fame has been preserved primarily in local legend, like Dave Hall.

Mark Winchester and Milan Miller shared the songwriting load equally with Melton, and their hand in the record shows the quality of their music pedigrees.

“I think these two guys in particular have the gift of taking the facts and still making them artistic, not stiff,” Melton said.

Winchester’s work on Jack Lambert’s “Letter” and Miller’s effort on “Cowee Tunnel” are remarkable.

Melton’s best song on the record didn’t come easy.

Buddy grew up with the story of Dave Hall, a man who refused to enlist in the Confederate Army, was called a coward, and spent his time in a cave above Big Savannah. Hall would watch for Union cavalry raids, and when he saw the riders coming through the valley, he would sound off on a horn that echoed through the valley.

The liner notes for Dave Hall are accompanied by a picture of his cave.

“With only a few belongings and a bugle, he left his home and took up residence in the hills above the village. Located at the head of what is now Cabe Road, Dave built a shelter within a large rock outcrop that had a spring flowing at the back.... From this elevation, Dave could see the entire valley and serve as a lookout for the people below,” the notes read.

The enigmatic objector/hero is the perfect vehicle for Melton’s singing, because the story is so emblematic of a mountain war experience in danger of being lost to history. Melton visited the cave with Charlie Cabe to get in touch with the story.

“When I crawled up in the cave –– it’s more of an outcropping –– you could see where he had taken rocks and mud and jointed it and sealed it up,” Melton said. “You could see where there was a spring in the back that he used for water and it really brought it all to life, because there really wasn’t much written down.”

Even then, the song didn’t write itself. Melton woke up at 2 a.m. one night before the album was due to be recorded with the words and melody in his head.

Melton, Winchester and Miller created “Songs for Jackson County” as a side project. Melton’s band Balsam Range is set to go back into the studio to cut their third album at the end of the month, and Melton recently released his first solo album, backed by some of the best bluegrass players in the business.

With his own daughter 5 years old, Melton feels like the songs are a way to pass the histories down in a way that people of all ages can really understand them.

“The music really makes it all connect, because the stories stick with you,” Melton said. “That very much happens with the kids. We’ll be driving down the road and my daughter will start singing ‘Aunt Samantha.’ As much as I love music, the education and historic value is important. Keeping the stories alive.”

“Songs for Jackson County” is on sale at City Lights Bookstore, Bryson Farm Supply, the Cashiers Farmer’s Market, Jackson’s General Store, the Well House in Dillsboro, and from the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.

More of Buddy Melton’s music is found at www.buddymelton.com.

Ashe holds on in Democratic primary

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe proved he could survive a tough race during the Democratic primary, defeating challenger Robin Gunnels by nearly 700 votes on the unofficial count.

Ashe may have another tough race in November, but on Tuesday night he could celebrate holding off a crowded field and a strong challenge from Gunnels, a former employee. Ashe also had to stave off the efforts of a third-party political action committee en route to winning his third consecutive Democratic primary nomination for Jackson County Sheriff.

In the end Ashe’s popularity in Jackson County and his firm resolve not to enter into dialogue with his critics proved decisive in the hotly contested race.

Ted Coyle, a Caney Fork resident, said the ugly tactics employed by a third-party political action committee from the Cashiers area prompted him to vote for Ashe.

“I was kind of disgusted by the politics of that race coming out of Sapphire and I’m not for private law enforcement on public roads by any stretch,” Coyle said.

The sheriff’s primary was far from typical this year. After Gunnels emerged as an early challenger in the race, his business was burned in a case still under investigation as arson. Gunnels did not blame Ashe or his supporters for the fire, but he insisted it was politically motivated.

On Tuesday night, after the votes were totaled, Gunnels still rued the incident.

“With the whole fire business it took a couple of weeks to get that cleaned up and get back out there,” Gunnels said. “I don’t want to blame the result on anything, but it was a real issue for us.”

Ashe looked vulnerable because he received a controversial pay raise during the recession and had to withstand allegations of questionable financial transactions involving an account from narcotics seizure money.

The contest heated up considerably when a group of Cashiers residents, led by Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn, formed a political action committee aimed at unseating Ashe.

Ashe refused to enter into a back and forth with his critics, instead electing to run advertisements that included personal testimonies of supporters. The tactic seemed to pay off in Jackson County, where Ashe has been one of the most popular and widely recognizable political figures in recent years.

Ashe did not immediately return a request for comment before the news deadline.

Jackson County sheriff

Democrat – one advances

Jimmy Ashe: 2,290

Robin Gunnels: 1,572

Marty Rhinehart: 140

Radford Franks: 116

*The winner will face competition from two unaffiliated candidates in the fall.

Other sheriff races:

Haywood County sheriff

Democratic primary

Bobby Suttles*: 3,720

Dean Henline: 966

*The winner will face a Republican challenger in the fall.

Macon County sheriff

Democrat – one advances

George Lynch: 965

Richard Davis: 776

Ricky Dehart: 114

Shelton beats Brown in Jackson primary

Incumbent William Shelton beat challenger James Bo Brown by almost a two-to-one margin to win the Democratic spot on the November ballot for the Whittier/Dillsboro district seat. The race was the only one of three county commissioners seats up for grabs in Jackson County this year that had a contested primary.

Shelton said the difference in the race came down to the fact that the Jackson County board has tried hard to push the county forward, even during one of the harshest economic climates in history.

“I think it was a choice between moving forward and moving backwards,” Shelton said. “With all the mistakes we’ve made, we’ve tried to lay the groundwork for future growth when the economy turns around, and it will turn around.”

Shelton said he was humbled both by the support he received during the primary run, and also by the significant vote count of his challenger.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has been criticized for giving pay raises to some of its high-ranking employees, for losing a fight with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro Dam, and for enacting stricter building regulations.

Shelton said his board was elected during a boom and worked through a bust and has at all times been proactive about its agenda.

“We’ve tackled a lot of controversy,” Shelton said. “We’ve inherited a lot of controversy and created a lot of controversy. We have not shied away from the issues, and I guess I should say I feel lucky to get the nomination.”

Shelton will run against a Republican candidate in the fall. He said that election will likely focus on the economy and jobs.

Whittier/Dillsboro district

Democrat – one winner advances

William Shelton: 2,417

James Brown: 1,315

*The winner of this race will face a Republican challenger in the fall. There was no primary for county commissioner chairman or the commissioner for the Sylva district, although both will see competition in the fall election.

Grassroots effort aims to make Jackson County greenest

What if the driveway to the county’s administration building were lined with blueberries?

It was January, and Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin and Heather Stevens were on a walk, dreaming about how green Jackson County could be. They had read an article on a little town in West Yorkshire, England, called Todmorden, which transformed the way it produces food in two years.

“I read the article, and I just thought, ‘Wow,’” Stevens said. “This would be great. We could do this here.”

Cabanis-Brewin and Stevens, long-time organic gardeners from opposite ends of the county, didn’t want the idea to die. Last week, Cabanis-Brewin asked the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to consider taking on the challenge of making the county the greenest in North Carolina. She’ll go back next month with a more formal proposal to be considered on the board’s agenda.

“We would need to formally declare that Sylva and Jackson County have a strategy for economic development and environmental preservation that involves trying to be the greenest county in the state,” Cabanis-Brewin said.

So far, their greenward movement has been based on food. Todmorden revitalized its food economy through a grow-your-own initiative that used publicly owned space for raising vegetables. Today the town’s three schools serve only locally grown vegetables and locally raised meats during meals, and its restaurants draw tourists from all over Great Britain.

Cabanis-Brewin said the Todmorden example — coupled with the knowledge that a Manna Foodbank report showed that more than 100,000 people in Western North Carolina seek emergency food assistance each year — made growing food the perfect place to start.

“You could focus on transportation or energy, but you have to start somewhere,” said Cabanis-Brewin. “And because it’s easy and because it’s spring, we wanted to start with food.”

Stevens called seed companies that have nonprofit initiatives and managed to get her hands on more than 500 seed packets from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and the Seed Savers Exchange. She is working with community partners to find people who are willing to plant the seeds in unexpected places. So far both the Sylva and Dillsboro community gardens have stepped up to the plate.

St. John’s Episcopal Church and the First United Methodist Church in Sylva have taken seeds to plant. Soul Infusion Café, Spring Street Café, and Café Guadalupe have also agreed to plant seeds and look for ways to use more locally grown food wherever possible.

Stevens argues that rainbow chard, purple basil, sunflowers, and scarlet runner beans can be as beautiful as any flowerbeds while still producing food for the table. Cabanis-Brewin told the Jackson County Board of Commissioners that their Buncombe County counterparts authorized a study that showed growing and eating local would bring $452 million into the local economy in Western North Carolina.

Meanwhile, Gov. Perdue recently named the Sustainable Local Food Advisory Council to study how to increase the amount of local and sustainable foods served to public school students.

“It’s a smart thing for business and it’s a smart thing for the environment. The two things don’t have to be in contention,” Cabanis-Brewin said.

Besides, she argued, with Sylva’s historic watershed in trust, the county’s thriving community gardens, and a board of commissioners who were the first to pass building regulations focused on land preservation, Jackson County already has a head start on becoming the greenest in the state.

“We can preserve the time-honored mountain tradition of self-sufficiency, and give our county a bright economic and environmental future at the same time,” Cabanis-Brewin said.

County Commissioner William Shelton, a local farmer who has focused on land preservation issues, said he liked the idea, but he wanted to learn more about the specifics.

“We should never close our minds to these types of ideas, and if there are models out there, then let’s look at them,” Shelton said.

Shelton fears that while the dream of producing food in public places is attractive, the work ethic it would require may be more than people can handle.

“We would have to figure out a way to adapt it to what’s here and what’s practical. It’s the type of idea the whole community would have to be behind,” Shelton said.

Jackson County schools hope for no more job cuts

On Monday evening, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners met with leaders from Jackson County Schools to talk about next year’s budget, but any outstanding fears had already been put to rest.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland said because the county has spent 12 percent less than it budgeted for the current fiscal year, he didn’t anticipate cuts in any county departments.

“I do not anticipate any furloughs, layoffs, or losses of service,” Westmoreland said. “We’re pretty much just going to tread water.”

Jackson County Public School Superintendent Sue Nations said her staff had already submitted capital outlay and operating requests to Westmoreland for consideration. The school district is asking for a 2 percent increase in funding to offset increases in insurance premiums and deep cuts in state discretionary funds.

Westmoreland said the county would evaluate the school budget request in line with its other funding obligations.

“It’s not that they would be treated any differently than any county department or agency we fund,” Westmoreland said. “I’m not anticipating any cuts or expansions.”

For her part, Nations was confident that the county would come through for the school district, but she expressed concern about Gov. Perdue’s proposed budget.

“The county will give us the amount of money we had last year, and I hope they’ll give us the 2 percent increase,” Nations said. “But the county can’t pick up what the state won’t give us.”

Perdue’s 2010 budget calls for $135 million of cuts in addition to the $304.8 million worth of discretionary cuts already contained in the budget the General Assembly approved last year for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Overall, the governor’s budget calls for an additional 3.8 percent in cuts plus another $90 million in General Fund reductions to the K-12 budget.

According to the North Carolina School Boards Association, districts across North Carolina had 16,253 fewer state paid public education jobs, including 4,701 fewer state paid classroom teachers, in the 2009-10 academic year. The additional $135 million in discretionary cuts could mean as many as 2,430 additional teaching positions could be eliminated next year.

Nations said her district already employs 95 fewer people than it did in May 2008. She said she does not intend to cut any positions this year, because she hasn’t replaced employees that have left or retired.

“I know we have to do our part. I really do,” Nations said. “But there’s a point at which it’s going to affect the classroom.”

Nations said the district would still benefit from federal stimulus money it received last year. Districts were instructed to use the money over a 27-month period, and last year the stimulus funds offset state cuts nearly dollar for dollar.

Jackson EDC debate is over, again

Anyone who thought the discussion over the Jackson County Economic Development Commission’s missing audits was over when the board closed the issue last December got a surprise on Monday night.

Chairman Brian McMahan announced that he had gotten a letter from the North Carolina Department of the Treasurer that cleared the county of the responsibility to produce the missing audits for the EDC for the years between 2002 and 2005.

The county was previously under the assumption the audits were necessary under state law, but an accountant hired to perform the back audits concluded it was an impossible task due to spotty records from the era. The EDC operated as an independent agency without county oversight during those years.

The county sought advice from the Local Government Commission in hopes of clearing the air once and for all.

“We went through a process where we asked the LGC what is the next step?” McMahan said. “How do we complete this obligation?”

That in turn prompted the state treasurer’s department to weigh in. The answer, apparently, was the county needed to get letters from each town that participated in the EDC and from past treasurers then communicate with the district attorney’s office.

“It is my understanding, if I interpret this correctly, that Jackson County is not being required at this time to comply with the audits,” McMahan said.

Controversy over the EDC erupted in 2005 amid allegations of financial mismanagement by its leaders. While the EDC was a separate entity, it relied on funding from the county. Concerned by the lack of oversight of public funds at the disposal of an all-volunteer body, the county decided to withdraw from the EDC and seized the organization’s records. But part of the records either weren’t there to begin with or went missing in the process.

The county tried to enlist the services of two separate auditing firms to help piece together what happened to the EDC’s finances to no avail.

But the commissioners, all but one of whom inherited the EDC fiasco, have received so much criticism over the issue that they apparently felt the need to go further.

Perhaps their most vocal critic has been Sylva resident Marie Leatherwood. Leatherwood has attended nearly every board meeting since May 2007 demanding at each one that someone be held accountable for what she claimed was the inexplicable disappearance of taxpayer money and the records that proved it. Getting to the bottom of the issue has become a crusade for Leatherwood.

McMahan became so exasperated with Leatherwood’s constant criticism that he invited her to present her evidence to the board. Leatherwood declined, saying the material was too sensitive.

At Monday’s meeting, Leatherwood reacted to the new information so strongly that the commissioners were forced to call a recess to escape her harangue.

“I’m not going to accept any ‘We’ve done it all,’” Leatherwood said. “That’s making a liar out of me.”

McMahan resorted to using his gavel to try to maintain order during the outburst. After the recess, Leatherwood left the building escorted by a sheriff’s deputy.

Commissioner Joe Cowan, who was on the board when the EDC controversy first emerged, was dismayed by the scene. Having remained quiet on the issue for months, he took time to reiterate that the county has never been responsible for producing an audit of the entity’s finances.

“We separated ourselves from the EDC. There was no legal responsibility to do anything with that audit in the first place,” Cowan said.

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