Malicious prosecution lawsuit unfounded, magistrate rules
A malicious prosecution lawsuit by a woman accused of misappropriating flood relief donations should be dropped, according to the recommendation of a federal magistrate reviewing the case.
Denise Mathis, former director of the Haywood County Council on Aging, claims she was wrongly accused of mismanaging the finances of her former agency. Mathis lost her job and was charged with 14 counts of embezzlement in 2006 for allegedly misappropriating $100,000 in flood relief donations — one piece out of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that poured into the county in the wake of massive flooding along the Pigeon River that wiped out dozens of homes and businesses in 2004.
In an attempt to clear her name, Mathis sued District Attorney Mike Bonfoey and Waynesville Detective Tyler Trantham for malicious prosecution and accused them of inadequately investigating her case. She also sued them for conspiracy and making false public statements.
But the federal magistrate found no evidence that Bonfoey or Trantham set out to malign Mathis. They were acting in their official capacity as a prosecutor and police detective and cannot be sued simply because the target of an investigation doesn’t like the outcome.
“To do so would subject every prosecutorial decision, every investigation that leads to charges, and every decision of a grand jury to be second guessed by a federal court,” Magistrate Dennis Howell wrote in his recommendation.
Whether the case is indeed dropped will be up to a federal judge, who will presumably take the magistrate’s recommendation into account.
“The Magistrate’s ruling confirms the town’s strongly held belief that Officer Trantham acted professionally in all respects and that absolutely no wrongful acts were committed by him or town employees,” Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said.
The embezzlement charges against Mathis were ultimately dropped. While the $100,000 in question did not make it into the hands of flood victims as donors intended, it likewise didn’t go into Mathis’ pocket, a police detective and financial investigator determined. It was used to cover salaries and overhead of the nonprofit agency — and it therefore would be hard to make the embezzlement charges stick in court, Bonfoey said of his decision to drop the charges.
Jonathan Creek park moves closer to reality
Haywood County commissioners decided Monday to move forward with the design phase for a proposed public park and sports field in Jonathan Creek.
The county’s Recreation and Parks Department is accepting conceptual proposals from local consultants until Dec. 30.
Though the public park is a recreational priority, the recession has pushed the project to the backburner.
“This has always been one of our front projects,” said Claire Carleton, recreation director for Haywood. “But [we realize] that this is not the time to ask for additional county funding.”
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick is looking forward to making progress on the park.
“We really need to proceed with a plan if we’re going to do anything with this in the future,” said Kirkpatrick. “The property is just sitting there.”
The 2007 comprehensive master plan calls for lighted baseball/softball fields, picnic facilities, creek access, a multipurpose field and sustainable design concepts at the new park.
The planning and design stage, which will include public input, is expected to take four to six months.
As of now, about $15,250 has been set aside for the planning process. Most will be funded with tourism revenue, with about $10,000 coming from lodging taxes collected in Maggie Valley and Waynesville.
Much public money has already been invested in the proposed park since 2007.
The county dropped $1 million on the 22-acre parcel in the midst of a heated bidding war that year. Soon after the county successfully bought the property, it became entangled in a lawsuit with a farmer who argued the property owner, Lucius Jones, had promised the land would be signed over to him upon Jones’ death.
The county did not settle the case until November 2008, and since then it has been leasing the property to the very same farmer.
Developers have plans for sites near Wal-Mart
A local developer has purchased a key parcel alongside Super Wal-Mart in Waynesville, potentially kick-starting long-awaited commercial redevelopment along the South Main Street corridor.
The coming of Super Wal-Mart was heralded as an instant recipe for growth around it. But by the time Wal-Mart opened its doors a year ago, the recession was in full swing. Not only has a South Main boom failed to materialize, but Home Depot killed plans to open a store there.
But Brian Noland, a Waynesville developer and Realtor, is drafting plans for a retail strip sporting six storefronts along South Main Street with hopes of attracting national franchises.
“I put myself in their shoes, and if I am looking to go somewhere, that is definitely a hot spot,” Noland said, citing traffic volume from Wal-Mart and the easy access off the U.S. 23-74 bypass.
Noland closed on the two-acre parcel this month for $600,000. The total project will cost several million dollars, he said. Noland hopes to have the building completed and occupied by early summer.
Mark Clasby, the Haywood County Economic Development Director, said he is glad to see movement in the area. While Waynesville has the consumer demand to support many of the national franchises Noland is likely courting, scouts often look solely at population data, Clasby said.
“But we know there are more people than that because of tourists and the second-home market. They just don’t necessarily show up,” Clasby said. “It will take some salesmanship to convince [retailers] from a demographic standpoint that ‘You need to be here.’”
Noland has a national franchise broker working to line up leases. Noland said he was “a very small fish in a big sea,” but believes if he builds it, they will come.
Meanwhile, a second so-called “outparcel” in the Super Wal-Mart complex has also sold. A 1.8-acre tract behind Hardees sold for $550,000. The developer of the site, Donald Holland, has submitted site plans to the town for a car wash and oil change business and an additional commercial building for an unidentified tenant. The site is located along the Waynesville Commons entrance drive off South Main Street.
While Noland has not yet locked in leases, he already has the project underway with the building design. The attractive architecture will sport stacked stone and stucco with varying rooflines and pronounced eaves. It’s a good thing, since a run-of-the-mill, monotonous, low-slung strip mall wouldn’t pass muster with the town’s design standards. Noland has yet to submit his plans to the town for approval, but believes the town will like the look.
The development of the Super Wal-Mart outparcels were considered key to the appearance of South Main. Town leaders hoped attractive developments fronting South Main would visually shield the sprawling Wal-Mart parking lot set further back on the site.
Noland is a Realtor with Remax Creekside Realty. He is currently developing a 46-unit affordable townhouse development in the Clyde area. His first foray into development was in the mini-storage unit business 14 years ago. He has also built and operated three car wash and lube locations in Haywood County.
“I love developing. I really do,” Noland said. “Hopefully, the whole shopping center itself will be a one-stop shop.”
Noland has had the property under contract for 10 months. He purchased it from Cedarwood Development, a national firm that developed the complex known as Waynesville Commons and leases the site to Super Wal-Mart.
Several property owners along the corridor have had their property on the market since the coming of Super Wal-Mart, even booting out current tenants in anticipation of hot demand by national chains seeking proximity to the retail giant. So far, these property owners have failed to find takers.
Best Buy and a Verizon Wireless store are the only two major retailers that have set up shop around Wal-Mart so far.
The 12-acre site immediately beside Wal-Mart that was once slated for a Home Depot does not appear to have a taker yet. Home Depot, which had already purchased the site and even designed a building before backing out, still owns the site and is actively marketing it.
“The economy has obviously had an impact on that,” Clasby said. “It’s not an easy market, there is no question about it.”
No quick fix for rock slide that closes I-40
Western North Carolina is bracing itself for the impact of a massive rockslide that will shut down a major chunk of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee border for about three months.
The rockslide occurred 2 a.m. Sunday morning three miles from the Tennessee state line in Haywood County, burying both sides of the highway under a mountain of rubble 150 feet high and 200 to 300 feet wide.
Three vehicles crashed into the rocks shortly after the slide, and one person was transported to the hospital for minor injuries.
“We were very fortunate. There were no serious injuries or fatalities,” said Nicole Meister, spokeswoman for N.C. Department of Transportation.
Since the slide, the N.C. DOT declared an emergency, shut down 20 miles of I-40, and brought in workers to begin surveying the slide site.
The cleanup will cost from $2 to $10 million.
Visitors driving westward to Tennessee are being turned away at exit 20, while locals are getting the go-ahead to sneak up to exit 15, the main road access for the Fines Creek and White Oak communities, as well as the county landfill.
About 25,000 vehicles pass through the closed section of I-40 daily, with about half of those being commercial trucks, according to the NCDOT.
Geotechnical engineers are working with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land, to determine how best to clean up the rockslide.
On Monday, this process involved flyovers with a helicopter and taking numerous pictures of the slide.
Workers will have to take a top-down approach when it comes to removing the rubble.
“If you pull it out from the bottom, it’s going to keep coming,” said Meister.
This stretch of the interstate in Haywood County has been no stranger to slides.
Sunday’s rockslide occurred just a mile and a half down the road from the series of slides that occurred in 1997, which shut down part of the interstate for six months. It is the third major rockslide in that area since the mid-1980s.
Joel Setzer, a division engineer with NCDOT, said the latest rockslide is comprised of more rocks and a lot less soil, compared to the one in 1997.
Setzer said the amount of unstable material above the road seems to be a bigger problem this time around.
“The remedy to stabilizing the slope and restoring the traffic is larger,” said Setzer.
Geotechnical scientists and engineers do not know the exact cause of the slide, but are looking at several potential factors, including possible tremors; freezing and thawing of water in cracks in a wedge in the slope, causing expansion and contraction of the rock plates.
Haywood County braces for economic impacts of prolonged I-40 closure
By all indications, the closing of Interstate 40 due to a massive rockslide will be more than just a minor headache for many.
Through traffic heading west to Tennessee will be directed to I-26 from Asheville, where cars would have to travel 130 miles to link back up with I-40 across the state line.
Though much of Haywood County will still remain accessible off I-40, it’s feasible that widespread news of the rockslide might turn off visitors to the area.
Most likely to suffer from the road closing are the restaurants, gas stations, motels and tourist-oriented businesses that rely heavily on traffic coming through I-40.
Pilot Travel Center, a truck stop in Waynesville near exit 24, was already feeling the impact of a desolate I-40 on Monday afternoon. A few trucks were scattered here and there, but the vast majority of parking spots sat empty.
Ashley Duckett, an employee at the Pilot convenience store, said business was “dead” on Sunday, the day the rockslide occurred.
“It’s usually booming,” said Linda Henry, another employee at the store, adding that business will definitely hurt without truckers stopping by to fuel up, have a meal, or take a shower.
The people who did walk into the store were only interested in one thing: directions.
“Every other person coming in here is asking how do I get to Tennessee? How do I get to Knoxville? How do I get to Gatlinburg?” said Henry.
The store received so many requests for directions that the manager taped up directions on the door and readied a pile of printouts of Mapquest directions at the counter.
Next door at the Midway Motel, owner Brooke Gayne said she didn’t expect anyone to check in Monday night.
“It’ll be bad,” said Gayne. “I don’t see too many people coming past [exit] 27.”
Exit 27 leads to the heavily-trafficked Great Smoky Mountain Expressway.
Summer Smart, a waitress at the Haywood Cafe near exit 24 on I-40, said the restaurant had not seen one trucker all day.
Smart remembered a drop-off in business after the last rockslide in 1997 closed down a section of I-40 for months. Though locals remained faithful customers, holiday travelers who usually flooded the restaurant were hard to find that year.
James Carver, owner of Maggie Valley Restaurant, also recalled facing a hardship after the last rockslide.
“Business went down a great bit,” said Carver. “It just brought everything to a standstill.”
Carver said businesses would continue to feel an impact even after N.C. DOT cleans up the rockslide and restores traffic.
“It takes a while for word to get around that everything’s open,” said Carver.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce are already working hard to spread the word about alternate routes to keep tourists from Tennessee trickling into the region.
The TDA will post these very detailed directions on its Web site and social media sites, attaching to their Web site a map with alternate routes.
“With several alternate routes available, there really is no reason to cancel any travel plans to the area, whether for these last weeks of leaf-looking or the upcoming ski season,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority
Collins reassures those forced to make the detour that there are “terrific scenic routes with some amazing views along the way.”
Wayne Carson, a staff member at the Canton visitor’s center off I-40, said he’s noted a spike in the number of visitors who want to avoid the interstate anyway.
He said all summer, tourists have requested directions for traveling on back roads and visiting smaller communities on the way.
Carson directed some confused visitors headed toward Gatlinburg through Cherokee and then over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via U.S. 441 on Monday. It is possible that towns along that route will see a pick-up in visitors who would have normally taken I-40 to Tennessee.
Unlike the 1997 rockslide, which shut down roads for the peak summer and fall seasons, this latest rockslide occurred at the beginning of the off-season for most businesses.
“Fall foliage is winding down, but we’re going into ski season. We don’t want to jeopardize that either,” said Collins.
According to Collins, many visitors who come to ski at Cataloochee Ski Area come from the Southeast, not Tennessee.
Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the ski resort, said they still anticipate a good ski season since a colder than average winter has been forecasted.
Brown said the rockslide will definitely impact business, but by how much is anyone’s guess.
“We’re going to do our best to facilitate individuals from that neck of the woods,” said Brown.
Meanwhile, Alice Mosteller, vice president of a real estate agency in Waynesville, is worried that the rockslide might negatively affect a real estate market that’s just beginning to pick up.
“Just anything that would keep people from coming here is not good,” said Mosteller. “This is the most beautiful time of year possible. What a horrible weekend for it to happen.”
Haywood again looks at old Wal-Mart for DSS building
Haywood County commissioners are once again considering the abandoned Wal-Mart shell for a new Department of Social Services building.
The current DSS building is housed in a cramped and crumbling 80-year-old building that was once the county’s old hospital. Patching the building has become an expensive proposition, with the latest issue a leaking roof that would cost $260,000 to repair. The county’s facility director, Dale Burris, said there is no easy patch that could solve the problem.
“We can’t find where the leaks are to be honest. You patch one area and it comes in a different area,” Burris said.
Commissioners have long known that the DSS building either needed a major and costly top-to-bottom overhaul or relocation to a new building. When Wal-Mart left a gaping hole in the strip mall where it was located to take up new digs on the other side of town last year, commissioners began eyeing the vacant spot. They decided not to pursue it at the time given the county’s economic situation with the recession. At that time commissioners were seeking a federal loan of up to $11 million to purchase and renovate the retail building.
Commissioners decided they should revisit it, however.
“It’s going to be a constant stream of tax dollars going into a building that is 80 years old,” Swanger said. “I think we would be remiss to marry ourselves to this building. If we put a quarter million dollars into it, we will do the same thing the year after and the year after, and at the end of the day we will still have a bad building.”
At the time commissioners were considering the old Wal-Mart site, County Manager David Cotton had said buying land and building a new DSS building from scratch could cost up to $25 million. Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the old Wal-Mart site would save millions over constructing a new DSS building, a cost that his children will bear.
“They will say ‘Why didn’t you seize the opportunity when you could have,’” Ensley said.
The former DSS director, Tony Beaman, stepped down earlier this year. The department now has a new DSS director, Ira Dove.
The old Wal-Mart could also house the health department, which is in need of new quarters.
Haywood says state shirking responsibility
Haywood County commissioner sent a strong message to Raleigh this week, chastising state government for not stepping in to help when the county got sued by a landowner when trying to enforce erosion control standards.
The county spent $282,000 on attorney fees to defend the case. The county lost and chose to cut its losses and settle out of court, forking over another $75,000 from county coffers.
“The state needs to step in with its attorneys and defend a lawsuit like this,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. “They should not expect the taxpayers of that county to fund it.”
Fewer than half the counties in the state handle their own erosion enforcement, but instead turn the job over to the state, since the erosion laws are in fact state laws.
Commissioners said it was unfair that the county should bear the burden of liability and was a deterrent to continuing erosion oversight in-house.
The head of the state sediment and erosion control division, Mel Nevils, came to the meeting from Raleigh to beg the county not to give up on local erosion oversight. Nevils said the lawsuit was unwarranted and the county had acted appropriately, even following Nevils’ own recommendation in the matter.
Ensley told Nevils that if the county is doing such a great job then the state needs to ante up should the county get sued in the course of doing its job. Ensley told Nevils to take that message back to “whoever his bosses are.”
Commissioner Skeeter Curtis jumped on Nevils as well.
“Can you tell the people of Haywood County why you refused to come in a defend this case or provide legal fees?” Curtis asked.
Commissioner Mark Swanger said the county wants to develop a threshold or litmus test for high-risk cases, which could then be handed off to the state to absolve the county of the liability.
“The state has deeper pockets and resources than does Haywood County,” Swanger said.
“What we don’t want is for everyone to send us all their problem sites,” Nevils said. “I can’t tell you we would take a case just because y’all felt you might get sued by it.”
Swanger pointed out the hypocrisy of the state’s stance. Haywood County could walk away from local erosion oversight altogether, dumping the entire responsibility on the state. The state would then have to assume oversight of every erosion permit in Haywood County, not just one or two that the county wanted to pass off as high risk.
Swanger didn’t let up, but continued to push the point, asking again and again over the course of the nearly two-hour discussion whether Nevils would make a commitment to take certain cases.
“We need something that can act as a buffer,” Swanger said. “We simply cannot afford that kind of fees for this program without some kind of assistance from the state.”
“The state can’t afford to pay that either. That is taxpayers money as well,” Nevils replied.
Nevils said he couldn’t make any promises, and that perhaps a change was needed at the legislative level.
Swanger said Nevils indeed had the power to accept certain cases referred up the ladder to the state. Nevils said he would not make a wholesale promise but at least agreed to consider it.
The lawsuit has unfortunately made county erosion inspectors gun shy, commissioners said.
“It weakened the local program. There has been a lot of damage,” Curtis said. “It is a shame it has to be that way.”
Nevils said the state has seen a handful of cases with facts very similar to this one — where a landowner claimed roads were for logging but appeared to be for development — and all were won by the state.
“Then why didn’t we win this one?” Curtis asked.
The audience shifted uneasily in their seats waiting for Nevils’ nswer. Critics of the outcome have largely pointed fingers at the judge as being off base. Judge Laura Bridges heard the case while on temporary assignment in Haywood County due to a vacancy on the bench locally.
Nevils hesitated before saying that in his opinion the ruling was “not an appropriate ruling.”
“I was shocked at the ruling,” Nevils said.
N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, attended the commissioners’ discussion of the issue.
“This is a judicial decision that absolutely leaves me dumbfounded and puzzled,” Rapp said. “Haywood County to me is a model. You have top-notch people.”
What the case was about
When Ron Cameron built a 1.6-mile road network on a 66-acre tract up Camp Branch in Waynesville, he claimed the roads were for logging. Logging activity falls under a laxer set of erosion rules than residential development, which is held to a more stringent standard.
The county questioned the landowner’s true motives, however, citing Cameron’s creation of a development master plan, registering a subdivision name with the county and applying for a septic tank evaluation. The county insisted on holding him to the higher erosion standard and levied him with hefty fines. Cameron sued to get out from under the county’s jurisdiction, ultimately prevailing in a three-week trial in May.
Today, Cameron has the land up for sale. It’s being billed by his Realtor as perfect for development. One of the selling points listed in ads: “Roads already in.”
Cameron recently applied for a septic tank permit for a five-bedroom house on this presumed forestry tract.
Robust citizen input vexes public officials
Johnnie Cure said she never expected to become a local celebrity when she started speaking up during the public comment period of Haywood County commissioners meetings.
Typically taking the county to task over what she perceives as excessive spending, Cure has become a regular fixture on the front row of county meetings in recent months. As a result, she gets primetime on the county’s government access channel where the videotaped proceedings are aired repeatedly in the days following the meeting.
“People I don’t even know will say ‘Good going,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Glad you are standing up for us,’” Cure said.
While he can’t hold a candle to the number of Cure’s appearances, Ted Carr gets his share of street compliments following meetings where he speaks out.
“I am surprised at the number of people who say ‘I saw you on the commissioners meeting. You made some good comments,’” Carr said. “A lot are people I wouldn’t expect to be paying attention but who watch it quite religiously.”
The barrage of public comment — both the volume and repetitiveness — has tried county commissioners’ patience over recent months, however.
“Rumor has it they want to move the public comment session to the end of the meeting, which would require common citizens to sit there for the whole meeting before we have the opportunity to speak,” Cure said.
Carr said he hopes the commissioners won’t change the format, either by moving comments to the end of the meeting or by taking them off the air. If they do, it will be perceived as trying to stifle the public, he said.
“I think it would hurt the community. The community wouldn’t get the impact of what individuals have to say,” Carr said.
But commissioners say they have no intention of changing the meeting format.
“Everybody has a voice and should be heard,” Commissioner Bill Upton said. “We aren’t trying to suppress that. I feel like we are very open. I think this board has been very patient.”
Those who are regulars during the public comment period say they aren’t purposely grandstanding or filibustering.
“What is being expressed are legitimate comments that do have merit,” said Bruce Gardner, part of an organized grassroots movement called the 9-12 Project.
Gardner said shifting the public comment period wouldn’t silence them.
“It wouldn’t stop me,” Gardner said. “But it would lose some effectiveness. All the good ideas don’t generate from the front of the room anyway. We elected these people and need to interact with them.”
Cure thinks any move on the commissioners’ part to shift public comment to the end or even take it off the air would be perceived as stifling public comment.
“I think I am getting on their very last nerve,” Cure said. “They want to shut us down, turn us off, they want to reduce our exposure. They don’t like us. They do not want to held accountable. They don’t want to be asked any questions.”
Local activism, national movement
The recent outpouring at Haywood commissioners meetings — centering around fiscal restraint — is a local manifestation of conservative activism witnessed nationwide since the loss of power by Republicans in the last election. With the national Republican Party struggling to redefine itself, the social issues that had galvanized the party for the past two decades are being traded in for economic talking points.
“The Republican Party is in a bit of an idea vacuum and leadership vacuum,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “Instead of coalescing around a national leader, you are seeing this bottom-up activism.”
Ted Carr, a Haywood County Republican, said the commissioners are “caught in the firestorm.”
“Nationwide, citizens feel like they aren’t being heard,” Carr said while speaking to the board during its public comment period this week.
Linda Bennett also drew a comparison to national movement when speaking to commissioners last month.
“Over the past several weeks and months, we have seen the town hall presentations on the TV where people have had a lot of passion,” Bennett said. “I think you have also seen record numbers in your courtroom you haven’t seen it the past. They are here for a reason.”
Accommodating despite the costs
Haywood County commissioners’ approach to the recent wave of public comments has varied. In general, they are polite and accommodating, listening intently and often taking notes. They usually devote a portion of the meeting to addressing concerns raised during public comment, and have even assigned county staff to prepare PowerPoints and compile timelines to address recurring points of contention.
“We are trying to be as transparent and open to the public as possible,” Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said.
Nonetheless, commissioners have shown signs of aggravation, witnessed by an exchange between Kirkpatrick and Cure at a county meeting this week.
“Ms. Cure, I am never going to be able to answer all your questions for you to your satisfaction,” Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick has pointed out that the cost of airing public comments costs all the taxpayers.
“The more we televise, the more cost that is to the county,” Kirkpatrick said. “We would televise everything we did if it didn’t cost. But it does cost us money.”
Despite concerns over cost, commissioners said they have no plans to discontinue public comment as part of the televised meetings.
“I don’t want to deter the public from seeing what people have to say on television,” Kirkpatrick said.
Haywood County is one of the few counties in the region that tapes and televises their meetings. For those who don’t have cable, a copy is placed at each library and can be watched online. Commissioners even tape and air their work sessions in addition to regular meetings.
“We are the most open board by far. We have taken to televising work sessions,” Commissioner Upton said.
Cure questioned just how much the public comment really costs, however. The cost of actually airing the meetings is the same no mater how long they are. The added expense is related to the filming, done by a private video production company that charges $175 an hour. Assuming public comment takes up an hour at each meeting — although it is often half that — it comes to less than $5,000 for the whole year to televise the public comment portion of the meeting.
Who is listening?
Haywood County commissioners have become visibly irked that the entourage present at the beginning of their meetings dissipate rapidly following the public comment period and have all but evaporated by the midway point in the meeting. Often later in the meeting, county commissioners take up the issue raised during public comment or provide the information that the critics had been seeking. But by then, they are gone.
During the public comment period at a meeting two weeks ago, county commissioners were asked for a copy of the legal settlement brokered with a landowner suing the county over its enforcement of erosion laws. The county had brought a copy to the meeting in anticipation of such a request. Critics of county spending had previously criticized the legal costs incurred as a result of the suit. The county asked the speaker to come up during a break and get the copy of the settlement, but the individual left without the copy — a point that didn’t go unnoticed by commissioners later in the meeting.
“The settlement offer that they asked for, we have a copy of here, but they have left,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said, then turned to the camera to address the TV audience. “If you are listening to the broadcast, they are available to pick up.”
Commissioners have also shown irritation when the same points are raised again and again, even after they have been addressed. Cure has repeatedly advocated for privatizing the county trash business and during one public comment period accused the county of not seriously examining the option.
But Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said the county had indeed talked about it.
“The majority of people here tonight got up and left after they made their comments. I was hoping after they left they would at least look at our meeting on television to see what we were talking about, but evidentially y’all didn’t do that,” Curtis told the audience during one meeting last month.
The point hit home again at the county’s meeting this week. County staff had prepared a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation in direct response to a recurring public comment.
“Unfortunately we have no one here that normally attends the public comment periods,” Kirkpatrick said, looking around the meeting room that was empty except for two local reporters. “The county is trying to be responsive and put the information out there for the public to hear, and it is disheartening sometimes when no one is here who had asked the questions.”
The meeting had nearly hit the three-hour mark, and given the empty room, Kirkpatrick suggested postponing the presentation until the next meeting. The presentation would have detailed how the county does its purchasing, be it supplies or contracted services. The purpose was to lay out the process so local businesses and contractors could hopefully snag a piece of the county’s business.
“I think there should be a priority given to local businesses whether it is goods or services,” said Bruce Gardner, who twice brought up the issue during public comment periods, recommending a crash course to help local businesses navigate the county’s procurement process.
Cure said it is unreasonable to expect the public to sit through three-hour meetings, even longer sometimes, when they have jobs and families to attend to.
Lengthy criticisms, lengthy answers
Some meetings see much heavier comment than others. On Sept. 20 a half a dozen members of the public spoke up. Topics were varied, but all focused on the common theme of fiscal restraint.
“They are spending my money, our money. We have given them a credit card with no limit,” Cure said.
Speakers have criticized the county’s efforts to harness methane, a byproduct from decomposing trash. The county has been condemned for its recent propensity for landing itself in expensive lawsuits. Commissioners were even chastised for not attending a 9-11 memorial held on the courthouse steps.
“None of you showed up,” Al Goodis told commissioners. “Doesn’t anybody care?”
Clearly offended, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said he did care but didn’t know about the memorial in advance and was out of town.
Often the commissioners’ response to comments takes longer than the public comments themselves.
“Their rebuttal is lengthy,” Cure said.
But Kirkpatrick says it is necessary. Otherwise it appears the county isn’t taking the public’s concerns to heart if they merely listen and don’t respond. So the commissioners have taken to keeping a running list of the grievances brought up during public comment session and then addressing them one by one following the public comment period.
While presented as explanations, they sometimes come across as the last word by the county.
“Personally I am not looking for an immediate answer. I would rather have a studied answer to a serious question,” Gardner said.
Clearinghouse or bottleneck?
In addition to the surge in public comments, the county is also facing a significant volume of public record requests by the speakers. In response, commissioners plan to adopt a written request form for any county documents being sought by the public.
County Manager David Cotton said a clearinghouse for public record requests would solve the problem created when the same person makes the same record request to multiple county employees.
“Had we known, we would have been able to answer once rather than have five or six different county staff answer the same question five different times,” Cotton said.
The written requests would be funneled through the county’s public information officer.
Cure, who frequently requests county finance documents to track county expenses, opposes the idea.
“I believe this protocol to go through an information person is going to be a bottleneck,” Cure told commissioners.
In addition, county staff have been directed to stop compiling information in a specific format, such as spreadsheets, and walking people through the information they request.
“You don’t need to spend special time preparing special documents,” Kirkpatrick said at a meeting two weeks ago.
“Because there’s no end to it,” Swanger added.
Cure said she prefers to go sit down with Julie Davis, the county finance officer, who takes the time to explain the county budget documents.
“She welcomes me to come into her office,” Cure said. “She is a dynamite communicator.”
But Kirkpatrick said it is taking too much time.
“There is not necessarily a requirement she speak to you about everything. All we are required to do is provide the information to the public. She bends over backwards to try to accommodate you,” Kirkpatrick told Cure.
Cure said the budget documents are written in a finance code difficult for a layperson to understand, however.
“It is not an issue of IQ, it is a question of the language. I would bet you lunch you can’t understand it either,” Cure said. Cure said she would have to hire a finance person to explain it to her otherwise.
“You may have to,” Kirkpatrick responded.
“So you are saying I will not be able to sit with her and talk with her?” Cure asked.
“What we are saying is we are having an abuse of that. We can’t have the staff spending several hours of their time at taxpayers’ expense to explain things to certain members of the public,” Kirkpatrick said.
Swanger said it is preventing county employees from performing their primary duties.
“We would have to hire extra people and you would be one of the first people chastising us for that expense,” Swanger told Cure.
Al Goodis, who’s become a regular speaker at meetings, suggested the county scan all the paperwork that passes through its hands over the course of a day and put it on the county’s Web site with a searchable database. Along with it, the county should provide a glossary of terms used by government bureaucrats so the public can keep up.
“I feel like you should be trying to help us save our money,” said Goodis.
“We are trying to be as transparent as possible and provide as much information to the public as possible so they can understand it,” Kirkpatrick said. “We do value your public comment, but we cannot make everybody happy.”
Putting the requests in writing serves another end goal: giving the county cover when the information request is met. The person who requested the documents will have to sign for them when picking them up, giving the county cover should they be accused of not complying.
“They come in here and ask the same questions over and over. We have already provided most of the information they ask for, but they keep asking for it,” Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said during one recent meeting.
While the new method of requesting information appears likely to become county policy, commissioners have backed off from any idea to alter they way they conduct the public comment period.
Cure said it would have been a bad move politically, particularly with three of the five commissioner seats up for election next year.
“They will nail the last nail in their coffin if they cut the public comment out. It is a death wish,” Cure said.
As for Cure, she doesn’t plan on running herself.
“I’ve been asked, but I will not do it. My place is at the podium,” Cure said. “I am going to ask questions for a long time.”
Marc Pruett earns praise from all sides for his work
When Haywood County commissioners convened this week to discuss the fate of the county’s erosion control program, they were met by a deep bench of prominent community members who turned out to show support for Marc Pruett.
Pruett is the county’s lead erosion enforcement officer.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a land surveyor, said he has received several phone calls from developers urging him to keep the local erosion department.
“It is running 10 to 1 positive from the people who deal with it on the day to day,” Ensley said. “They prefer dealing with local people.”
Mel Nevils, the head of the state erosion enforcement division, came to the meeting from Raleigh and begged commissioners not to do away with the local erosion department, calling it among the best in the state. If erosion oversight was passed off to state control, the environment would suffer and developers would be more likely to see after-the-fact fines than under Pruett’s proactive approach.
“We don’t have time to work with people to get them back in compliance,” Nevils said. “We don’t have the time to sit there with people and figure out how to get it right.”
State erosion inspectors for the region are based in Asheville. Each one carries a case load of up to 350 development projects spanning three to four counties, Nevils said.
“We would do the best we can. We would pick it up and get here as often as we can, but you will not get the level of service you get from your own folks,” Nevils said.
In Pruett’s approach to erosion enforcement, he strives primarily to educate developers on how to protect the environment.
“My staff can tell you that I often said we must be problem solvers and peacemakers first. Enforcement is a last resort,” Pruett said.
Erosion running off construction sites is detrimental to the environment, muddying creeks, rivers and lakes, Pruett said. But it can also be hazardous when it washes down on public roads, making them potentially slick.
It seemed commissioners never intended to do away with the local erosion control program, but felt compelled to address the issue after the county landed itself in a lawsuit with a landowner as a result of its erosion enforcement. A few members of the public had appeared before commissioners at their meetings calling for them to do away with the erosion enforcement at the local level and pass the duty off to the state.
Members in the audience backing Pruett included General Contractor Ron Leatherwood, Builder Dawson Spano, Rep. Ray Rapp, James Ferguson, Bill Yarborough, Leslie Smathers and more.
New and improved appraisal method aims to better calibrate property values
An analysis of property values in Haywood County aims to reduce disparities between the value listed on the county’s tax rolls and the real-life value.
The project will more precisely hone in on characteristics that affect home values, hopefully resulting in a more accurate assessment in a pending countywide reappraisal of property values due out in 2011. Since the values are used to calculate property taxes, the consequence is whether some people pay too much or too little in property taxes compared to everyone else.
The county commissioners voted last month to hire the firm RSM associates for $211,000 to conduct the analysis.
“It gets us closer and closer to accurate and fair values,” said David Francis, Haywood County tax collector.
When doing an appraisal on a mass scale — roughly 52,000 parcels of land and 40,000 structures — it is simply too costly and time consuming to personally visit each one.
Instead, properties are weighed by key variables such as number of bedrooms, whether there’s a garage or even if it has a good view. Each variable takes the value up or down a notch, but is only as good as the baseline assigned to the neighborhood. The method is often accused of painting with too broad a brush.
The analysis aims to create more distinctions between properties on a micro level.
“I feel like this will give a more accurate appraisal,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who owns property throughout the county and in the past has felt the county-assigned values were a little off.
Francis had to look no further than his childhood home for a classic example of what many in the county face. The home dates back to the early 1960s in what was then rural Francis Cove. During the building boom of the past decade, wealthy houses cropped up all around it.
“Right next door to the house I grew up in is a development where no house sold for less than $500,000,” Francis said.
While that would naturally push up the value of neighboring properties, there’s no way his boyhood home built in the early ‘60s was worth as much as those houses next door, Francis said. Under the conventional reappraisal method, however, it would have been lumped into the same category.
While the technical lingo for the project is “neighborhood delineation,” Francis likes to call it “fine-tuning.”
For example, while a home with a view is already valued higher than a similar home without a view, the new methodology will adjust not just for a view but the caliber of the view.
“My idea was to drill it down even further,” Francis said.
Worth the cost?
A couple of residents have questioned the expense of hiring the outside consultants.
“I believe that department is fully capable of doing this process on their own,” Ted Carr, a Bethel resident, said during a public comment period at a county meeting last week. Carr was among a group of vocal residents who have become regulars at county commissioner meetings. Members of the group regularly speak during the public comment period, largely preaching fiscal restraint.
When county commissioners voted to hire the consultants, they justified a portion of the expense by tapping into money already allocated for a reappraisal. The county budgets for a five-person staff in the property appraisal department. But it currently only has four staffers, resulting in a savings of $48,000. By not filling the fifth position, the county can apply the savings to offset the cost of the study — in effect only costing the county $115,000 instead of the full $211,000, the commissioners rationalized.
Carr challenged the mentality, however.
“What I am asking is to do what I do at home. When I find some extra money, I might apply it to the mortgage,” Carr told commissioners. “Please, don’t say ‘So where can we spend it?’”
County commissioners don’t see the expense as frivolous, however.
While there will always be inherent disparities in a property appraisal of this scale, the analysis should level the playing field, according to Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.
“I believe this project will help to even out or create more fair market values,” Kirkpatrick said.
Francis said the lessons learned from the consultants could be applied in future years by the county’s in-house staff, making the one-time cost worth it in the long haul.
“They are teaching us a way to do a more fair appraisal,” Francis said.
Haywood County used to contract out the entire job of the countywide appraisal, but brought it in-house following the 2002 reappraisal.
That’s when the county switched from an eight-year reappraisal schedule to conducting one every four years. The shorter timeframe aimed to reduce “sticker shock.” Property values had been rising so rapidly in the mountains that over a span of eight years property was doubling, tripling or even quadrupling in value. While the state only requires property reappraisals to be conducted every eight years, nearly every county in the region has adopted a more frequent schedule.
When switching to the four-year schedule, the county realized it would be cheaper to set up its own department and do the job in-house rather than continue to contract it out.
Commercial versus residential
Along with neighborhood delineation, the firm will conduct the reappraisal of all the commercial property. It appears the last reappraisal in 2006 was favorable toward commercial property. Right now, commercial property is undervalued on the tax books when compared to residential, Francis said.
Naturally, property today is selling for more than it was in 2006, the year of the last countywide reappraisal. Residential properties are selling on average only 12 percent higher than the 2006 tax value. But when commercial property is included in the statistics, sale prices are 23 percent higher on average.
“We are seeing a huge difference in the sale prices on commercial property versus the tax value,” Francis said.
Francis pointed to the Sonoco gas station on Dellwood Road between Waynesville and Maggie, which sold for $1.4 million when the tax value was listed at half that.
The county reassesses property values every four years, with the next one up in 2010. But county commissioners decided to postpone it for a year due to the fluctuating housing market.
Pegging a value on homes and land would have been difficult over the past year, the period when the lion’s share of the reappraisal would have been conducted. Housing prices were still in flux, and to some extent still are, Francis said.
Since a countywide reappraisal hinges on the selling price of existing homes, the lack of a consistent baseline during the thick of the recession led commissioners to delay the process.
“It was just really fluctuating. I thought it was in the best interest of the citizens to wait a year,” Francis said.
Swain County, which had a reappraisal slated to take effect this year, chose not to enact it despite the work already being done. Swain simply tossed out the reval, which had been conducted just prior to the recession but would have taken effect post-recession, and will just stick with current property values until the next reval rolls around in another four years.