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N.C. parks prove popular with visitors

More than a quarter million visitors to North Carolina state parks used a new reservations system in its first full year of operation, with most campers preferring short visits to state parks near their homes, according to the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation.

By far, the most popular park for camping and picnicking by reservation was Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, which logged 14,124 reservations during the year ending July 30. It was followed by Kerr Lake State Recreation Area (6,162) and Hanging Rock (5,256), Stone Mountain (5,062) and Carolina Beach (4,410) state parks.

The year-end reservations report showed that the state parks system’s online and call center-based system placed 61,484 reservations for campsites, picnic shelters and other amenities.

“The reservations system has been very popular, and we anticipated an important byproduct would be detailed information about our visitors and how they use the parks,” said Lewis Ledford, state parks director. “Over time, that will help us improve visitor service and gain more insight into how state parks contribute to local economies.”

The state parks attracted visitors from 16 nations during the year with Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom contributing the most foreign visitors, but reservations originated in far-flung locations such as Australia, Namibia and Sweden. North Carolinians, of course, were the most frequent visitors, and most state park campgrounds were populated by people from nearby towns, although there were exceptions. For instance, Hammocks Beach and Pilot Mountain state parks most often had campers from the Triangle area. Visitors from Charlotte most often filled Lake James, Morrow Mountain, New River and Stone Mountain state parks.

Reservations for campsites peaked in the months of April, May and June with a smaller but noticeable spike during August. The typical camping trip involved three people staying two nights on a weekend. In total, 123,149 nights of camping were reserved.

State park visitors were most comfortable making reservations in person at a state park (47.6 percent), while 35.9 percent of the reservations were made online and 16.5 percent were made through a call center. Visitors can camp without a reservation if a site is available when they arrive. Reservations can be made up to 48 hours in advance, online at www.ncparks.gov or by calling toll-free 1.877.7 CAMP NC (722.6762).

Ballot measure would bar felons from serving as sheriff

After six felons in North Carolina ran for sheriff during the May primaries, legislators decided it was time to close that particular legal loophole.

This November, voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would put a stop to convicted felons being able to hold a county’s top law enforcement post. State representatives this summer unanimously signed on to that amendment, forged in the state Senate. A majority of voters must now vote “yes” Nov. 2 for the constitution to actually be changed.

“I don’t believe any sheriff should have any criminal record — whether felony or misdemeanor,” Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland said this week. “No criminal background, at all.”

Currently, once they’ve served their court-ordered punishments and their citizenship rights have been returned, convicted felons can legally run for office, though they cannot carry a firearm. None of the primary candidates who ran for office were actually elected sheriff.

Still, the situation served to underscore the issue’s importance, said Eddie Caldwell of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association.

“It became a little less academic and a little more practical,” Caldwell said.

A bill pushed last year by the association did not pass because of procedural problems. Namely, there was concern that legislators would try to piggyback pet projects on the bill.

This time, however, state leaders agreed not to do that, which facilitated passage of the proposed constitutional change, Caldwell said.

Tough budget facing legislature as session begins

The state legislative session began in Raleigh this week with the big issue being the budget during tough economic times.

The current fiscal year budget of $21.35 billion is expected to have a shortfall of $2 billion, and Gov. Beverly Perdue has asked state agencies, colleges and universities to cut back on spending. For the first half of the fiscal year revenue is running $625 million below what was expected.

During the session the legislature also has to develop budgets for 2009-2010, which begins July 1, and 2010-2011.

The revenue picture is bleak as the recession is expected to continue into 2010. The state is collecting less in sales and income taxes as well as corporate and franchise taxes. Raising the sales tax and increasing the taxes on alcohol and gasoline could generate additional revenue, noted Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva.

According to the Associated Press, the state also has a $780 million rainy day fund that could possibly be tapped. Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said the legislature will have to determine what are priorities when developing the budget, and he said education and job creation are his.

Local legislators are also waiting to see what effect President Barack Obama’s proposed $825 billion stimulus plan will have on North Carolina.

“I’m hoping for solid revenue sharing from the federal side to get us through,” Queen said.

The state’s unemployment rate increased to 8.7 percent in December, the highest since June 1983 when the rate was 9 percent.

“Layoffs continue to hamper many job sectors throughout the state,” Employment Security Commission Chairman Moses Carey Jr. said in a news release.

The unemployment rate a year ago was 4.7 percent.

In December there were 396,846 people unemployed in North Carolina. The national unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in December.

The downward trend in employment in the state is expected to persist for most, if not all, of 2009, and maybe into 2010, according to a report from the Fiscal Research Division of the state Legislature.

Long-term fix must be found for state’s mental health care woes

Perhaps it is going to take a complete fracturing of the mental health system before policymakers finally realize that North Carolina needs more inpatient facilities to treat patients who are a danger to themselves and society. Well, if it’s a total breakdown they’re waiting for, things are getting perilously close.

Coal, energy needs at center of first lieutenant governor debate

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Coal-fired power plants and renewable energies took center stage as topics at last Saturday’s lieutenant governor’s debate in Asheville.

The state of mental health care: A fractured system is in danger of breaking down completely, leaving officials wondering — how did it get this bad?

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Patricia Frisbee Meyer’s son needed help.

The mental illness he had battled since childhood stayed mostly under control, but Meyer knew the onset of a bad episode when she saw it. Meyer, along with her husband, took her son to the emergency room at Haywood Regional Medical Center that Sunday — beginning a saga in which her son was restrained for nearly 48 hours before getting the care he desperately needed.

State says foul on school bond referendum support

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

After investigating the actions of the Macon County School Board for the past two months, officials at the North Carolina State Board of Elections have determined that the school district violated two campaign finance statutes.

Restaurant owners scramble to comply with mandatory recycling law

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Landfills in North Carolina should become a lot emptier due to a new law requiring nearly 8,000 restaurants to start recycling alcoholic beverage containers.

Smathers aims for state’s second-highest political job

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

As mayor of Canton, Pat Smathers has overcome his fair share of obstacles — most notably the floods that devastated this Haywood County community in 2004. Now, Smathers is gearing up to face perhaps the biggest challenge of his career — attempting to become the first Western North Carolinian in more than three decades to win a high-level state office.

State, local well regulators on the way

No one knows how many wells are planted in the mountainsides of Western North Carolina.

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