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State budget commits substantial funding to critical needs in WNC

The General Assembly delivered a budget, albeit three months late. File photo The General Assembly delivered a budget, albeit three months late. File photo

This year’s state budget process may have been one of the most discordant in recent memory, but Western North Carolina’s legislative delegation was able to secure record-setting funding for critical needs in a relatively poor region that sometimes feels overlooked when Raleigh gets to dishing out the dough. 


“The last budget was the best budget in anyone’s memory and this one was even better,” said Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon). “Big picture, we had a very successful year. We certainly got our share.”

Corbin said that the total appropriations for his 50th Senate District, which contains the 118th, 119th and 120th House districts, are close to $300 million, not including larger projects with multi-year funding. He credits the success to his experience and his close working relationship with the House reps in his district.

Nearly three months late, the budget still hasn’t “passed” — Gov. Roy Cooper won’t sign it, saying it “seriously shortchanges our schools, prioritizes power grabs, keeps shady backroom deals secret and blatantly violates the constitution” — but it will become law without Cooper’s signature after 10 days.

The budget does, however, finally provide for long-awaited Medicaid expansion that will provide more affordable health care to an estimated 600,000 lower-income people across the state. Corbin bucked party leadership for years in support of expansion.

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It also provides pay raises between 4% and 11% for state employees (7%), including retirees (4%), bus drivers (9%), highway patrol (11%) and teachers (7.4%). Education advocacy groups say that’s not enough, especially in light existing low pay for teachers. Masters pay, once given as a supplement to teachers with advanced degrees, remains absent from the budget.

Once again, the General Assembly has included a personal income tax rate cut, from 4.75% to 3.99% — another step toward a stated goal of abolishing the tax altogether by 2030. The cut will save a person earning Haywood County’s average per capita income  of $31,302 about $238 a year.

Nearly $400 million will go into workforce development, a critical need especially in the west and especially in light of the state earning CNBC’s “top state for business” designation for the second year in a row. The state also will invest more than $600 million in mental health programs, seen as critical for combating the opioid crisis.

Proposed casino expansion in the state proved to be a stumbling block right up to the last minute, even after Rockingham County Republican Sen. Phil Berger’s backroom arm-twisting failed to sway members of his own caucus. Berger’s attempt to tie casino expansion to Medicaid expansion in an all-or-nothing bill also failed.

Few will ever know the lengths Berger went to working on behalf of the casino development  donor  who contributed to his 2022 campaign because a provision in the budget threatens the public’s right to the General Assembly’s public records. The move was strongly opposed by the North Carolina Press Association, calling it “unprecedented and unjustified.”

On a regional level, the eight westernmost counties in the state represented by Corbin and Reps. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain), Karl Gillespie (R-Macon) and Mark Pless (R-Haywood) will receive substantial funding for a variety of needs.

In analyzing the list of appropriations made to eight western counties, community colleges appear to be near the top of the list, but the legislative delegation’s greatest priority is as clear as a cool mountain stream — sewer and water upgrades, part of a $2 billion statewide push to prepare for growth and bolster conservation by updating crumbling infrastructure.

“There was a lot of water and sewer things in the budget because there’s as a lot of need,” Corbin said, adding that the statewide availability of the $2 billion was only a fraction of the $6 billion in water and sewer requests the General Assembly entertained.

Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon Counties

Gillespie secured $11.4 million for Murphy’s Tri-County Community College, an institution he’s been passionate about since taking office in 2020. The money will be used not only to expand TCCC’s cultural and historical education facility, but also to establish a heavy equipment operator program.

Gillespie also secured $10 million for the construction of an indoor firearms training facility at Southwestern Community College’s Macon campus.

“The facility is intended to deliver firearms training with controlled access. It is my understanding that, in addition to Southwestern Community College-PSTC Academies, BLET, NPS-PRLEA, the facility will be available to numerous state agencies,” Gillespie said.

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Rep. Karl Gillespie. File photo

Those agencies could include the highway patrol or SBI, as well as sheriff’s offices from the seven westernmost counties and local police departments in Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties.

There’s also $3.4 million for the construction of a new seniors/veterans services center in Cherokee County, $2 million towards the construction of a badly needed justice center in Graham County, $1 million to help Clay County build an arena and farmers market and $250,000 for Hayesville Moves, an integrated network of biking, equestrian, hiking, and walking trails.

Local governments in all three counties will receive a total of nearly $2.6 million for water and sewer upgrades in Andrews, Murphy and Robbinsville.

“Each town’s water and sewer needs are different, but generally, many of the water/sewer requests our office receives are to replace aging infrastructure,” Gillespie said. “One specific example is with the town of Murphy. The mayor indicated to me that the town has been facing major challenges with aging water lines, some of which date back to the late 19th Century.  These funds will help the town modernize their downtown water lines, and in turn, help to provide residents with safe and reliable drinking water.”

Appropriations made in Macon County include $400,000 to the town of Franklin for costs associated with the fire substation construction project, another $352,000 for other projects and $5 million to the town of Highlands for the completion of dredging in and general restoration of Mirror Lake.

Jackson, Swain and Transylvania Counties

Like Gillespie, Clampitt scored his one of his biggest appropriations for an educational institution in his district, Sylva’s Southwestern Community College. The funding totals $20 million, for capital improvements including a new business development center, library and indoor firearms training center.

“Expanding services at SCC is very important,” Clampitt said. “Community colleges are an easy reach for individuals to get an education that enhances their skills and results in higher pay.” 

Clampitt is also the local legislator responsible for Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, which wasn’t overlooked either. Western will receive $9 million towards a $95 million appropriation to expand the college of engineering and focus on advanced technologies, like robotics.

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Rep. Mike Clampitt. File photo

In anticipation of revenues derived from the state’s legalization of sports betting back in June, the college is also slated to receive $1.2 million.

A retired fire captain, Clampitt made sure to get $800,000 for a new pumper truck for the Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department.

Funds totaling $6.4 million will go to the renovation and expansion of the Marianna Black Library in Bryson City.

One major disappointment for Clampitt, and others, was that the proposed split of the judicial district included in an earlier version of the budget ended up being stripped out (SEE COURTS, p. 14).

Clampitt did, however, secure funds for two justice-related initiatives, a recurring $242,000 for an additional district court judge and a recurring $4.2 million for a public defender’s office in the 43rd prosecutorial district, which encompasses Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.

The public defender funding will establish the office, including a public defender, 14 assistant public defenders and a support staff of seven.

“The district is very large, and we have a grand amount of cases that are constantly ongoing. We have a big need to expedite due process. We’ve had issues in the past having attorneys available to do that work,” Clampitt said, adding that the additional judge should help take some of the burden off the existing judges.

During the last round of legislative redistricting, Clampitt picked up a new county, Transylvania. Judging by his list of appropriations for the local governments there, they are probably happy to have him.

A substantial $10 million allocation will allow the county to pursue — you guessed it — water and sewer infrastructure projects. An additional $13 million will go to Brevard for similar projects. Tiny Rosman, population 708, will also see $10 million to manage its own “liquid assets.”

There’s even another $14 million for water infrastructure of a different sort, the state’s largest trout hatchery, which is in Transylvania County.

Then, there’s $7 million with which the county is expected to pursue an expansion of its solid waste facility, and another $2.3 million for general capital improvements.

Brevard will share $200,000 with Henderson County for the Ecusta Trail, a proposed 19.4-mile rails-to-trails route that will connect the two.

Haywood County

Just edging out Transylvania County’s $56.5 million haul is Pless’ Haywood County, which will see more than $60 million in total inflows.

Chief among them is a single $38 million appropriation so the town of Canton can continue to treat its outflows.

“I shared with the budget chairs that we had a unique situation in Haywood County,” Corbin said, crediting the influence of Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), who represents a portion of Haywood County, for helping to make the appropriations possible.

When Pactiv-Evergreen first announced  it would shutter its century-old paper mill in Canton this past March, the general public was immediately concerned with the fate of the workers, the economic ripple effects and the future of the site — in that order.

But there’s always been a strong undercurrent of concern among municipal government administrators over the town’s wastewater, which had been treated for free by the mill since at least the early 1960s. A contract in force guarantees Pactiv’s continuing operation of the wastewater treatment plant for two years after any shutdown, and that clock has been ticking for some time.

The town is still without a site, a permit and a whole lot of time to figure things out, but now at least they’ll have the money to change that.

To give the town a few more years to put its own solution into place, some sort of agreement will be hammered out to ensure the continuing operation of Pactiv’s wastewater treatment facility beyond the contract date.

But now that Canton can get moving on its own project, there’s a possibility that its new treatment facility could actually generate a small amount of revenue for the town.

“It’s always been the idea that it would serve more than just Canton city limits,” said Zeb Smathers, Canton’s mayor.

The town will also receive an additional $4 million to mitigate the impact of the mill’s closing.

Haywood County will get $4 million for the same reason.

Haywood County Schools will get $3 million for the same reason.

Haywood Community College will get $3 million for the same reason.

If that all sounds repetitive, that’s because it is — each of those state budget line items specifically cites the mill’s closing as the reason for the funding. All told, North Carolina taxpayers are coming out of pocket to the tune of $52 million solely due to Pactiv’s decision to pull out of Haywood County.

“This was a sudden impact. This is not unlike a hurricane. The citizens of Haywood County didn’t ask for this. Haywood County government didn’t ask for this. Canton didn’t ask for this. This was imposed on them like a storm, but in this example, somebody caused that storm,” Corbin said. “I have no sympathy for Pactiv Evergreen, the way they did it, the last minute-nature of it. The citizens of Haywood County had no time to prepare. Haywood County government had no time to prepare. Canton had no time to prepare. It was terribly unfair.” 

Smathers said he was appreciative of the local delegation — Corbin, Hise, and Pless — for their leadership, as well as for the efforts of Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and the bipartisan support from other Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly.

Shortly after the mill’s closing was announced, Haywood Community College took the lead as both a coordinating entity and a community resource, establishing scholarships and job training efforts like the new trucking program . Although it’s not mentioned in the budget as directly related to the mill’s closure, there’s an additional $3 million for HCC to renovate and establish a consolidated workforce and industrial training site.

Shelley White, president of HCC, said the school had been working on raising funds for renovation of the existing regional hi-tech center and that the $3 million was about half the estimated total needed to perform some cosmetic upgrades to the 40-year-old site and deal with HVAC and plumbing issues.

Canton, and the county, are both still dealing with recovery efforts related to deadly flooding more than two years ago. One of the smallest appropriations — but potentially one of the most consequential — will give residents more lead time when it happens again. It’s only $140,000, but the river gauge system on the Pigeon has the potential to save lives and untold millions in property damage.

Haywood County’s long-awaited detention center expansion project has been plagued by all manner of snafu. First, it was minor but vociferous public opposition, then COVID-19, then inflation, right-of-way issues, outlandish bids. Pless procured $5 million to help the project, which has been discussed since he was a Haywood commissioner, get across the finish line.

The final tranche of Haywood appropriations goes to five local nonprofits that serve the most vulnerable members of the community. 

Feeding the Multitudes Inc. and The Community Kitchen, both of Canton, are in line for $100,000 each. An estimated 13% of Haywood County residents  experience food insecurity.

“We’ve never gotten state funding before,” said Allison Jennings, executive director of the Community Kitchen. “This is new to me, but I can let you know the money will be spent to make sure operations continue, and it will go a long way.” 

Jennings said their annual budget is $239,000, and that the number of people they’ve served over the past three months has gone up.

The Fines Creek Community Center, Cruso Community Center and the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center will each receive $25,000.

Lyn Forney, executive director of the PCMDC, said her board hasn’t yet discussed what to do with the unrestricted funds, because they weren’t expecting any. The PCMDC operates a number of education-related after school and summer programs for students in Haywood County.

“Most of the grants are designated to specific things,” said Gregory Wheeler, PCMDC board chair. “It’s very rare that you find an opportunity to use money for general operating expenses and to further the programs. We’re one of the only community centers that has paid staff, and in order to continue the programs, we’ve got to pay our staff. We are grateful these funds came unexpectedly, but we’re most grateful that it’s unrestricted.”  

Pless said he’d worked on budget chairs well in advance of making requests.

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Rep. Mark Pless. File photo

“I think a lot of times people don’t exactly realize what goes on down there in Raleigh,” Pless said. “There’s not an opportunity to just throw your ideas out there. You have to go talk to people.” 

Although Pless was successful with most of his asks, he didn’t get the $10 million he — and other western legislators — wanted for a substance abuse treatment center. He said he’d keep pushing for the money, and was hopeful that with Gillespie’s recent promotion to House majority whip, it might come soon.

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