After decades of bitter division among Swain County residents concerning the North Shore Road controversy, people on both sides have come to a surprisingly easy agreement in its aftermath.
County leaders and citizens all agree that an advisory committee must be created to decide how the cash settlement is spent.
“It would be nice if you would have a committee chosen from different walks of life,” said Linda Hogue, a long-time supporter of building the road. “That’s not usually the way it happens around here. A certain few decide what’s going to happen, and that’s what happens.”
Leonard Winchester, a fierce advocate for the cash settlement, likewise said a well-chosen group should accept written suggestions then pass along recommendations to county commissioners.
“If we do that, we can really do some great things in Swain County,” said Winchester.
Commissioners Glenn Jones, David Monteith and Steve Moon all support the idea of an advisory committee as well. Commissioners Genevieve Lindsay and Phil Carson did not respond to SMN’s calls.
“A nonbinding committee would be good,” said Moon, who also suggests placing a suggestion box somewhere to take citizens’ thoughts into consideration. “We really need to get more input from the public.”
Monteith agreed that decisions should not be made unilaterally by county leaders.
“I don’t think it should be left up to five commissioners, regardless of who they are,” Monteith said.
Meanwhile, Jones would like to see a grant system put in place with a portion of the money. An advisory committee would review grant applications and make recommendations to commissioners on which projects should receive North Shore funding.
Bathrooms and pedestals
Despite a cooperative spirit regarding citizen input, the first $30,000 in interest money from the settlement has already been allocated by commissioners in their 2010-11 budget.
So far, $12.8 million of the promised $52 million settlement has been appropriated and is parked in a trust fund. Commissioners can only spend the interest — they can’t touch the principal unless approved by two-thirds of registered voters.
Since interest rates fluctuate, the county doesn’t know exactly how much it will get this year, but it has to estimate an amount and account for in the budget nonetheless.
While some confusion has arisen over how much interest will accrue by the end of this fiscal year, County Manager Kevin King maintains it will come in just less than $500,000. King said that Swain leaders have an opportunity to withdraw from the balance every month.
About $15,000 of the interest has been allocated toward building public bathrooms for Riverfront Park beside the County Administration building.
“We have political rallies, birthdays, weddings, day of prayer, different things out front,” said Jones. With no other public bathroom in sight, employees frequently have to open up the doors to the county building during weekends and holidays to allow visitors to use its restrooms.
Another $15,000 will be used to install five granite pedestals memorializing Swain County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Park Service and the North Shore story.
The pedestals would eventually be included in a historic walking tour of Bryson City.
Winchester said he personally wouldn’t choose to spend the interest on erecting monuments, but he could understand why others would support the idea.
“People put up monuments to recognize organizations and history all the time,” said Winchester. “I don’t have a problem with it.”
But Moon said there are other uses on his mind, especially with county employees struggling under the weight of furloughs and years without a raise.
“It’s been over two years right now … That’s more important than pedestals,” said Moon.
Commissioners’ wish lists
With a bountiful new revenue source in tow, Swain County residents are bound to have differing ideas on how best to spend the North Shore settlement.
Commissioner Monteith raised a stir when he recently proposed using about $4.5 million of the North Shore funds to give every property owner — except for commissioners — a one-year property tax holiday, along with a 3 percent across the board raise for county employees. It would require dipping into the principal, and to do so requires approval by two-thirds of registered voters.
Some decried the proposal as a vote-buying maneuver, but Monteith emphasized that the tax break would be instrumental in helping residents who have all been hit hard by the recession.
“That’s what I was trying to do, help people of Swain County,” said Monteith. “You can’t just pick out who you want. That’s why you have to pick them all.”
In addition, Monteith would one day like to see a museum built in Swain County that would educate visitors on the history and creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The museum would provide new jobs and attract tourists, thereby giving a boost to the local economy.
Moon’s priority is to refrain from jumping into anything major early on and simply allow the interest money accumulate for the time being.
“We don’t need to jump into something blind and commit to something that we might regret later on,” said Moon. “We need to set goals.”
However, Moon would still like to give all county employees a raise and put an end to mandatory furloughs.
“They work hard. That deserves good treatment,” said Moon.
Jones’s chief concern is to leave the principal untouched and use the interest for non-recurring expenses as opposed to regular county operation expenses, like salaries or power bills. For example, the interest money could be used to buy a fire truck one year or an ambulance the next.
What citizens want
First on Hogue’s mind is to create better access to the North Shore cemeteries isolated by Lake Fontana. Numerous family cemeteries now lie inside the national park and are accessible only by foot or four-wheel transport. A low-water bridge critical to access some cemeteries has been washed out for more than a year.
“It’s downright dangerous to go to the cemetery,” Hogue said, adding that cemeteries also need better upkeep, seating for the elderly who visit and handicapped accessibility.
That’s all that Hogue would like to see done in the short-term. “I need to see some money come in before making plans,” said Hogue.
At a minimum, the North Shore money should not be used to pay regular operating expenses for the county, according to Winchester.
Moreover, Winchester would like it acknowledged that the money belongs to all Swain County residents, not just those with ancestors from the North Shore. The entire county bore the cost of building the road that was later flooded by the government and deserves to benefit as well.
“It is an insult to Swain County to refer to this money as if somehow or another it belongs to the people of the North Shore,” said Winchester.
If the decision on how to spend the money were up to Winchester, he’d use the interest money to make high-speed Internet accessible to every Swain County resident. Ideally, a fiberoptic network would be made available to every individual and business in Swain. With a strong fiberoptic backbone already in place, Winchester says the bandwidth and infrastructure could be as competitive as those found anywhere else in the country.
High-speed Internet would allow employees to easily access work-related programs from home, doctors to quickly transmit patient files, and much more.
“That would be a major plus in terms of economic development, in terms of marketing Swain County,” said Winchester. “You always want to get the biggest bang for the buck. We need to look very seriously at the type of projects that leverage this money to get other money.”
What is the cash settlement?
Earlier this year, Swain County ended a long uphill battle over a road the federal government had promised to rebuild after flooding it to create Lake Fontana in 1943.
Swain County residents wrangled for decades over whether the county should pressure the government to rebuild the road or pursue a cash settlement in its place.
In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 to accept a $52 million settlement through installments in coming years.