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Historic courthouse welcomes back county offices

After two-and-a-half years of operating in temporary quarters, the big move is here.

Stacks of boxes are piled high in the hallways and offices of Haywood County workers, awaiting transfer to their new home. This weekend, they’ll be moved in a flurry of activity to the restored historic courthouse, which finally opens for business on Monday, June 29.

The renovation of the 1932 landmark into modern county offices has been much anticipated, once again consolidating many county services under one roof, bringing together departments like the Register of Deeds, Tax Office and county administration.

“I think it’s a very good example of restoring a historic landmark to modify and meet office space needs,” said County Manager David Cotton.

A ribbon-cutting for the historic courthouse will be held sometime in mid or late July to coordinate with the release of a book documenting Haywood County history, said Cotton.

County employees have, for the past few weeks, gone through the tedious process of packing up boxes of county-owned and personal items. Employees won’t actually be the ones moving the boxes — the county has hired movers to do that at a cost of $14,325 — but they’ll still have to oversee the transition.

Also making the move are hundreds of thick deed books — including the birth, marriage and death records of county residents dating back generations — make it safely to their new home in the historic courthouse. The books will be delicately vacuum-packed for preservation and moved on pallets.

The move back to the historic courthouse means the county can stop paying rent to the tune of $5,500 a month for temporary office space in the Waynesville Plaza. It will also free up significant office space in a county-owned building near K-Mart on Russ Avenue.

The county hasn’t completely rid itself of satellite office buildings, however, which still house myriad departments from planning to elections to social services. Some of those departments are eyeing the vacated space in the Russ Avenue building and making a pitch to move there.

“There will be county departments that will backfill the building,” Cotton said. “We’re still working on that, meeting with the directors that have expressed an interest in moving out there.”

There are myriad options for how county office space could be reshuffled. Cotton is compiling those to share with county commissioners at their July meeting.

The county has shelled out $363,000 for new furnishings for the historic courthouse. Each employee will receive a new office set, including a desk, credenza, storage and seating, at a cost of $2,400 per employee, Cotton said.

Employees will be able to take whatever furniture they want to keep from the Plaza location, and the rest will be auctioned off.

Tensions escalate between commissioners, audience

A member of the public was escorted from a Haywood County commissioners meeting Monday (June 15) by a deputy after getting into a verbal altercation with Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

Tension has been high at county meetings for the past two months as commissioners wrestled with a budget for the coming fiscal year. The recession has strapped the county, prompting a 1.7 cent property tax hike along with layoffs, furloughs, shortened work weeks and a reduction in benefits for county workers.

Commissioners have faced stiff opposition bordering on belligerence over the proposed property tax increase. So it didn’t take much to ignite the short fuse between commissioners and the public this week.

Commissioners were considering a request from Stephen King, the solid waste director, to lease two new pieces of heavy machinery for landfill operations. King had gotten the OK from commissioners several months ago to hunt for the best deal to replace a bulldozer and excavator that King says are on their last leg.

King found what he considered the best deal out there, but as he began discussing specifications for the equipment, Kenneth Henson piped up from the audience with questions about the undercarriage on one of the pieces. Henson, a grader who is intimately familiar with heavy machinery, challenged King’s knowledge of the equipment, engaging King with questions about the type of undercarriage.

Kirkpatrick told Henson that was enough.

“You don’t want to know?” Henson asked commissioners.

“I do, but I can’t let you talk out in a meeting that way. If I let you do it then I have to let everybody do it,” Kirkpatrick said.

“All I’m trying to do is save the county money,” Henson said.

“I understand,” Kirkpatrick said.

“No, you don’t,” Henson shot back.

“Shut up,” Kirkpatrick said, firmly pointing his finger at Henson.

As the situation seemed poised to escalate further, a sheriff’s deputy who was standing by the doors at the back of the room approached Henson and asked him to leave. As Henson rose, he chastised Kirkpatrick for his method of silencing a public outburst earlier in the meeting.

In that incident, Jonnie Cure, a leader of the group opposing the tax increase, had let out a guffaw while Commissioner Bill Upton was speaking. Those around her chided in with a chorus of “no’s” to express their disapproval at Upton’s comments. Upton had been explaining the difficult decision between even deeper cuts to county staff and services versus a tax increase. Upton said the county’s level of services, whether it’s teachers or law enforcement, is important to residents.

“The reason people move to Haywood County is the services we provide,” Upton said, prompting the outburst.

“Ms. Cure, I don’t believe I have ever interrupted you. In fact I have listened. We learn that in school,” responded Upton, the former superintendent of the school system.

Kirkpatrick stuck up for Upton and told the audience there would be no more outbursts or “talking out loud” during the meeting. Henson apparently resented the way Kirkpatrick had put his foot down with Cure.

“You talked to her like a dog, and you aren’t going to do me that way,” Henson said as he was escorted out.

Henson could be heard grumbling as he moved into the hallway, followed by the deputy saying, “You can’t do that in a public meeting.”

Kirkpatrick apologized to the audience before resuming the meeting.

“It has been a long six months. I apologize for that statement. It is unfortunate and all I can do is say ‘I’m sorry,’” Kirkpatrick told the audience after Henson was escorted out.

Henson remained outside the building talking with other opponents to the tax increase. He was still there nearly an hour later when the commissioners’ meeting concluded and Kirkpatrick emerged.

Kirkpatrick approached Henson, presumably to clear the air, and the two engaged in a 5-minute conversation on the sidewalk about what had transpired during the meeting. County Manager David Cotton stuck close to Kirkpatrick’s side. The deputy who was on hand for the meeting stood a few feet away as well.

Henson said he was legitimately trying to help by educating the county on the specifications for the excavating equipment they were poised to purchase. Henson said he was afraid the county was getting hoodwinked by the promise of special features on the equipment that are unnecessary.

Henson said the county could tap into the glut of used machinery on the market and easily modify it for landfill work. Instead, the county leased two new pieces of machinery billed as having a landfill-rated undercarriage at $20,000 a year for both.

Kirkpatrick said it was his responsibility to maintain order at meetings and he couldn’t allow audience members to pipe up in a confrontational manner throughout the course of the meeting. Kirkpatrick also said the county puts faith in the knowledge of their staff who researched the equipment needs and the best deal.

The two ended their conversation amicably.

More than 1,000 purebreds vie for top honors at inaugural dog show

Haywood County became the Westminster of Western North Carolina this past weekend as more than 1,000 dogs and their owners flocked to the area to compete in the first AKC-sanctioned dog show ever held in the far western region.

The parking lot of the Haywood County Fairgrounds was crammed with RVs, trucks and vans from all over the Southeast, many bearing signs that warned other vehicles to “Stay back — Show Dogs in Tow.” The lot and the barn on site were transformed into a temporary staging area for 131 breeds to be groomed, clipped, and kept cool for the competition.

The show was the first official American Kennel Club event offered by the Western North Carolina Dog Fanciers association. Members of the club were astonished by the turnout.

“With the economy and this being our first event in a site unknown, we hoped and prayed for a turnout of 600 to 800,” said Nancy Davis, president of the WNC Dog Fanciers Association.

The sheer number of breeds was quite a site to behold. They ranged from more common — 14 border collies, 24 boxers; and five basset hounds, for example — to rarer breeds like Portugese water dogs, Pyrenean shepherds, and Salukis.

Starting at 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the first round of competition — best in breed — kicked off the show. Groups of dogs competed for top honors, trotting along the rubber red carpets set up in a series of show rings. In one ring, large standard poodles pranced in a circle with their owners, showing off their gait. In the next ring over, a judge inspected a group of impeccably groomed Malteses for flaws under their coats.

According to Davis, “Dogs are judged against a written word picture of what the perfect example of what a pug, sheltie, or whatever breed would be.”

To succeed in the confirmation round — i.e., best in breed — “You should have a good example of what a breed should be,” said Davis.

Nearby, a large Newfoundland named Timber Knolls Westpoint Sylvanus (or Thayer, for short) had just been crowned best in breed and was waiting with his owners, Mike and Glenda Garrett of Asheville, to get his picture taken. The Newfoundland’s glossy, thick coats are often the ticket to snatching a top prize. Thayer’s owners attribute his gorgeous coat to a good diet of expensive dog food and supplements, but nothing too out of the ordinary, aside from extensive grooming, is involved.

“We kill a couple vacuums a year,” in the grooming process, proclaimed Mike Garrett.

Thayer would go on to compete in the working group competition. For that portion of the show, dogs are split into six groups. Thayer is in the working category — his breed was bred to work for humans due to their strength and webbed feet, which make them strong swimmers. Newfoundlands were originally ship dogs.

Other categories are toys (bred to be companions, like Malteses); terriers (bred for ridding farms of vermin); herding; non-sporting; and sporting (such as golden retrievers and Irish setters, which are bred to retrieve or flush game).

Whether their dogs won or not, owners were thrilled to find an AKC-sanctioned event in Western North Carolina. That was the case with Candler residents Noreen Atkins-Atwell and James Atkins, who brought their two Irish wolfhounds — Champion Summerhill Ulstermyst Crash and Summerhill Abbey Vale Xanadu.

“We’re so happy they’ve started to give shows closer to home,” Noreen said.

Many came to support a new regional competition, like Kari Hill from Greenville, S.C., who stood outside grooming her Scotty, Lorelei Charhill Sea Siren.

“We definitely came specifically to support the new club,” Hill said.

Participants in the show took a piece of Western North Carolina home with them. The prizes were pieces of pottery handcrafted and donated by Sylva potter Gloria Stockton.

And the show is almost certain to attract some return visitors to the region.

“We had a lot of positive comments about our area and how beautiful the site was,” Davis said. “There were some challenges, but people were overall impressed and said they want to come back.”

Haywood erosion enforcement shot down in court

Landowners have won a lawsuit against Haywood County claiming they were victims of overbearing enforcement of erosion control laws.

Judge Laura Bridges issued her ruling this week, although the case was heard six weeks ago. Bridges ruled in favor of the landowners, Ron and Brian Cameron, who had sued the county to get out from under its erosion enforcement citing a state forestry exemption.

Landowners engaged in forestry are held to less stringent erosion standards than developers. Ron Cameron thinks the county’s erosion control officer Marc Pruett simply doesn’t like the fact that the state forestry exemption trumps the county’s erosion laws.

“Is his argument really with the forest exemption, and I am really just being used as scapegoat?” Cameron said in an interview this week. “Between our costs and the county’s costs, we have spent half a million so far arguing over whether Marc Pruett should have control over this land or the state forest service should have oversight of this land.”

The Camerons built a 1.5-mile road network on a 66-acre tract in the Camp Branch area of Waynesville, claiming it was for logging.

The county argued that the Camerons were merely hiding behind the logging exemption, however. The county claims the Camerons’ real intention was to develop the property, witnessed by the creation of a development master plan, registering a subdivision name with the county and applying for a septic tank evaluation.

Ron Cameron said he was merely exploring options. At the time he built the roads in question, his only motive was forestry, he said. Cameron points to the four different foresters he hired since buying the property six years ago as proof that he was interested in pursuing forestry. The county counters that he never did any logging other than cutting trees that lay in the path of the roads he built.

Judge Bridges apparently wasn’t comfortable assigning hidden motives to the Camerons.

“The Camerons have not logged the property but neither have they developed the property,” Bridge wrote in her ruling. “There are no signs on the ground that a development is planned. No lots have been surveyed or staked. No subdivision roads have been created.”

Bridges, who toured the property as part of the trial, called the road network built by the Camerons “crudely constructed logging roads and not development roads.”

The county claimed the Camerons needed to bring their roads into compliance with the county’s erosion laws. After the Camerons filed a lawsuit protesting the county’s jurisdiction over their roads, the county responded with a retroactive $175,000 fine against the Camerons for refusing to come into compliance.

“The fine was issued in my opinion as an intimidation technique,” Cameron said in an interview this week.

Cameron is seeking his attorney fees and court costs in the amount of $260,000 to be paid by the county.

“We tried various ways to not let this progress this way,” said Attorney Jeff Norris, who represented the Camerons.

Cameron said he offered to drop the case and not pursue damages or attorney fees if the county would drop its fines and let Cameron return to his forestry exemption. The county would not let the Camerons walk away without bringing the roads up to county standards, however.

It is not yet known whether the county will appeal the ruling, staving off the Camerons’ demand for attorney fees barring a second ruling.

“The county is disappointed,” Chip Killian, the county attorney, said of the ruling. “We are looking at it closely and will have to make a decision whether to appeal or not.”

The county has to file notice of its intent to appeal within 30 days. The county could preserve its right to an appeal by filing notice within the window, buying time to work out the details of its appeal and make a final decision whether to go through one.

Both sides in the case have argued that a terrible precedent would be set if the other side won. If the county wins, landowners everywhere will shy away from logging for fear they could never change their mind without their motives being questioned and triggering retroactive fines. On the other hand, if the county loses, it would provide a road map for developers who want to exploit the forestry exemption.

Haywood passes budget that includes tax hike

After months of struggling to solve a $7 million budget shortfall, Haywood County commissioners voted 3 to 2 Monday night (June 15) to raise property taxes by 1.7 cents in lieu of more severe cuts to county workers.

The two commissioners who dissented gave different reasons for their vote: one opposed any tax increase while the other thought taxes might need to be raised even more. Commissioners Mark Swanger, Bill Upton and Kirk Kirkpatrick voted for the budget and associated tax increase. The county’s new tax rate will be 51.4 cents. The increase amounts to an extra $42 a year on a $250,000 home.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the lone commissioner opposed to the tax increase, said there was no easy answer to solve the budget shortfall. But ultimately, he believes county government should do what a business does when income dries up.

“In private business we have to cut expenses to the level of operating revenues,” said Ensley, who owns a surveying company and has seen his revenue cut in half by the recession. “As a business owner maybe I am more acclimated to making cuts.”

Ensley suggested furloughs and shortened work weeks for more county employees instead of raising taxes.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis voted against the budget because he felt the cuts were too deep and perhaps taxes should be raised more instead.

“Are we increasing the tax enough or are we going to have to hit it harder next year?” Curtis said. “If times continue to go bad, we’ve got no other cuts to make.”

The bare bones operation in the current budget will come back to haunt the county, Curtis said. Whether its deferring the purchase of computer software or replacing roofs on buildings, it will pile up in the laps of future commissioners to deal with, he said. Curtis partly blamed past boards of commissioners for today’s budget crunch. They kept the tax rate artificially low by dipping into the county’s savings, leaving the current board with little options, Curtis said.

Curtis also said county workers are suffering too much of a blow. The county is reducing its workforce by 32 employees. Thanks to early retirement and natural attrition, the county has already eliminated the lion’s share of those jobs, leaving only seven people that actually have to be let go. Another 11 employees will be cut to a 36 hour work week.

Curtis’ larger concern was the decrease to county benefits, namely a suspension of retirement contributions and reduction in health insurance benefits.

County employees will see their deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums skyrocket. Curtis questioned how some county employees will afford it, citing some who earn only $20,000 a year.

“I don’t know how in the world if you are making $20,000 a year you are going to afford an increase in your deductible going up from $900 to $3,000 a year for a family,” Curtis said. “How do these people survive?”

Commissioner Mark Swanger, who voted for the budget, said it went against his principles but had to be done.

“I have always opposed tax increases, but again, circumstances demand in the absence of an acceptable alternative that I vote in a manner that is in the best interest of our county,” Swanger said.

Swanger said the county made many difficult cuts to get this far, from no increase in teacher supplements this year to a total elimination of contributions to non-profits, be it programs for the elderly or Folkmoot.

Commissioner Bill Upton said there were simply no more places to cut.

“We don’t need to go in our budget and find more positions to cut,” Upton said.

The budget process has seen a high level of public input, with many residents turning out to voice their opinions any time commissioners convened. Opponents even pitched in to comb the county budget for more places to cut in lieu of the tax hike.

The county enacted temporary measures over the past six months to make ends meet. Those included a hiring freeze, furloughs, a shortened workweek and suspended benefits. Some employees that have been operating on furloughs and shortened workweeks will return to normal hours with the enactment of the new budget.

Haywood commissioners exhaust search for budget cuts, tax increase looms

A proposed tax increase that Haywood residents have fought hard against could likely be avoided if residents would just pay their taxes on time in the first place. But property tax collections are down this year, presumably due to the economy, and is a major factor in the county’s budget woes.

The amount of delinquent property, personal property and vehicle tax payments is so high among Haywood County taxpayers that the total amount owed in back taxes could make up for the county’s budget shortfall and help commissioners avoid raising the property tax rate.

The situation was brought to light at a workshop commissioners held last week in an effort to take a last look at the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Public outcry over a proposed property tax increase prompted commissioners to make a final evaluation of places to trim, but to no avail.

The outstanding revenue from delinquent property taxes is about $1.4 million, according to county tax collector David Francis. Additionally, another $500,000 in vehicle taxes and personal property taxes is past due, bringing the total amount of past due taxes to about $1.9 million.

In a normal year, the tax collection rate is about 97 percent, but collections for the year are currently running about 94 to 95 percent.

The estimated revenue that would be generated by the proposed 1.7 cent property tax increase is just $1.2 million. The current property tax rate in Haywood County is 49.7 cents per $100 valuation.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis argued that the county had not figured delinquent tax payments into the budget, and therefore was not considering all options when it came to balancing it.

“We’re going to let 5 percent of our people who have not paid their taxes have a tax increase for all of (the residents), and we haven’t put one dime in the budget for this money,” Curtis said. “We would not have to have a tax increase. I don’t understand how we can sit here and put a budget together when people owe us.”

But other commissioners cautioned against assuming that everyone will pay up.

“We are making a lot of assumptions right there that everybody is going to pay and everything is going to get better,” said Commissioner Bill Upton. “Some people think it’s going to get worse.”

The county hopes to recoup $500,000 of the outstanding taxes over coming months and factored that into the proposed budget. But that’s just an estimate of what the county could recover, said Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“There’s no guarantee,” Kirkpatrick said. “If everybody paid their taxes when they ought to, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

County taxpayers have indeed been hit hard in the recession, and the effect has trickled down to the county’s budget. Francis said that the county has experienced two major bankruptcies in the past year — Ghost Town in the Sky theme park, which owes the county $43,000 in back taxes, and an excavating company, which owes the county $21,000.

Francis said that personal bankruptcies throughout the county have risen dramatically this year. Last year at this time, there were 30 declared bankruptcies; this year, there are 65.

Commissioner Mark Swanger joined the chorus cautioning against assuming the county can recoup too much of the outstanding taxes.

“It’s not a projectible revenue stream,” Swanger said. “You can’t spend anticipated collections.”

The county is still stuck between a rock and a hard place as it looks to make up for a projected budget shortfall. Many of the budget cuts suggested by citizens have already been made, or they are mandated services that the state says the county must provide.

“At the end of the day, the state and the federal government tell the counties in North Carolina that you will provide these services,” said County Manager David Cotton. The county doesn’t have cart blanche discretion to cut anywhere wants, but instead has few areas where it can actually cut.

The county has already trimmed back personnel, where it spends the majority of its dollars. Cotton said the elimination of a proposed 32 full-time positions will put the county back six years in terms of staffing levels.

The state is also talking about passing on more mandatory expenses to counties in order to make up for its own severe budget shortfall, so counties are anticipating the possibility of deeper budget cuts in the future.

Still, citizens are none too happy about the county’s proposed property tax increase.

“The burden is falling too heavy on us,” Johnnie Cure, a leader in the tax opposition movement, told commissioners at the budget workshop. “Where is this going to end?”

Kirkpatrick said commissioners have almost exhausted every option in looking where to cut.

“Who else can we pass it on to?” Kirkpatrick responded to Cure. “It’s not going to come out of the sky. If the state says the county has to do it, we have to do it. We don’t have a choice. We’re trying to be the best stewards we can.”

So far, the county commissioners have been unable to come up with a good alternative to offset the proposed property tax increase, so that option still seems likely to pass.

The county commissioners will vote on the budget at their regularly scheduled meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, June 15.

New landfill proves money pit for Haywood

Haywood County commissioners grappling with the $4.4 million price tag of a landfill expansion briefly eyed the steep engineering costs as a place to trim this week.

During a county meeting, commissioners questioned the hiring of two separate engineering firms for a total of $345,000 to design and oversee landfill construction. Commissioner Kevin Ensley was the first to broach the subject, asking why the county couldn’t just hire a single engineer rather than contracting with two entire firms.

Stephen King, the director of solid waste, cited the litany of state and federal regulations involved in building a landfill, from geotechnical permits to myriad testing of soil samples by various labs.

“It is very specialized,” King said. “It will take a whole team to get done what needs to be done.”

A engineer can be the county’s best friend in a project of this caliber, serving as both as a liability shield and a taskmaster to keep the contractors on time and on budget.

“I think having a good engineer is critical,” advised Chip Killian, the county attorney.

Ensley questioned a clause in one of the contracts, however, that would bill the county $900 a day for engineering services should the project extend beyond the estimated nine-month time frame.

“If we run into a problem like with the historic courthouse and it goes on and on, that could get expensive,” Ensley said. Ensley said the bid for the job should cover the work, period.

Commissioner Mark Swanger asked whether the county attempted to negotiate the terms. It appeared not. County Attorney Chip Killian said he had not read the contracts yet and couldn’t comment on whether the language was standard or troubling.

“We really need some of these questions answered,” Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said. “I would also like to know if this is the best price they can come up with. Everybody is having to give a little now. Let’s see if they can, too.”

The contracts were with Asheville-based McGill and Associates for $175,000 and a second contract with Joyce Engineering, landfill specialists based in Maryland, for an additional $170,000.

Killian worked over the two contracts following the meeting. The county was unable to lower the price but altered some of the language.

“Mostly to protect the county against anything, essentially to make sure if they don’t perform their task we aren’t liable for it,” King said of the changes.

As for the heafty $900 a day Joyce was seeking should the project run over schedule, the language was clarified so the contractor, not the county, would be responsible for paying up. Both were approved by commissioners following the rewording.

Restoration blends function with history

After more than two years, the Haywood County historic courthouse has finally been returned to its original grandeur.

The painstaking process of restoring the stately 1931 building, long an icon of the Haywood County community, has had its share of bumps and challenges along the way. The project fell severely behind schedule during the first year, prompting the county to fire the contractor, which resulted in a costly lawsuit. Others — like the ghosts workers allegedly saw — were easier to overcome, or at least learn to live with.

The building, which will host county offices, was slated to open in June, but likely won’t be ready until later this summer.

In the end, lead architect Chad Roberson with Asheville-based PBC&L is happy with how the project turned out.

“It’s a substantial civic building, and it was an anchor of the community, so it was built to be around for years,” Roberson said. “Now, we’ve given it another lifespan.”

The courthouse was literally built to last. To get the project started, significant demolition had to take place in order to begin updates.

“The existing courthouse is built very well, and so we had to do a lot of demolition in there to make it usable for modern needs,” Roberson said. “The demolition was very substantial.”

To figure out how the courthouse originally looked, Roberson and his crew pored over old photos of the building. Those proved key in helping to restore the building’s grandest space — the old courtroom. Photos came in handy when reconstituting the courtroom’s mezzanine balcony, which had been walled in and turned into offices over the years. Missing sections of ornate trim that once lined the walls of the balcony were handcarved to once again return the beautiful detail to its original glory.

“There was 1970s paneling on the inside, and when we pulled it off, they found the trim and the ornamentation,” Roberson said.

Painstaking measures were taken to restore the courtroom, including hand carving to fill in gaps where the ornamentation had been damaged or was missing and adding antique wooden benches to reflect how the courtroom looked in 1931.

“The courtroom was the most challenging by far,” Roberson said. “It’s a very monumental space and needed to be restored carefully to what it was originally. It was definitely the toughest room.”

Other measures were taken to make sure as many original materials as possible were used. For instance, in the first floor historic corridor, unique tiles line the walls. However, some of the tiles were missing — forcing contractors to go searching for matching replacement tiles elsewhere in the building. They found some on the third floor under a layer of 1970s era paneling.

Additionally, all the doors and windows of the buildings are original. Some of the doors still bear the sign for their old use, such as lawyer’s and sheriff’s offices. The doors were refurbished, and in some instances relocated from one floor to another.

Roberson said one of the most challenging parts of the project was adding the stair tower and elevator tower addition at the back of the original building.

“Joining those two different architectural styles was one of the biggest challenges we had,” Roberson said. “One part was built in the early part of the 20th century, and we had to add a modern addition to it in the 21st century.”

In the end, the rewards were worth the obstacles.

“The building is an amazing building, and there have definitely been challenges in getting it completed,” Roberson said. “But I think in the end, it was definitely something we are very proud of and the county is very proud of.”

Haywood residents protest property tax hike during bad economy

Scores of Haywood County taxpayers criticized the county’s proposed budget at a public hearing Monday (June 1) saying commissioners had not looked thoroughly at every possible option before proposing job cuts and a property tax increase.

Nearly 150 residents attended the meeting, many waving signs denouncing additional taxes.

The proposed budget recommends cutting 35 county positions and increasing the property tax rate by 1.7 cents from the current rate of 49.7 cents per $100 to make up for a $7 million budget shortfall. The 2009/2010 fiscal year starts July 1.

“Come up with cost saving ideas instead of the typical knee jerk reaction of raising taxes,” county resident Bill Davis suggested to commissioners.

Resident Ted Carr said it was ludicrous for commissioners to even consider a tax hike at a time when the economy is causing many to struggle.

“With the economy in the tank and the jobless rate as high as it is, I think it’s unconscionable that you’d suggest a 1.7 cent increase,” Carr said.

Others said county residents would suffer with a tax increase.

“For the people who are on fixed incomes, I see a heavy hit if you raise the taxes,” warned resident Yvonne Mazet. Though Mazet opposes a tax increase, she could give few specifics when interviewed about how she would make up for the $7 million budget shortfall the county faces.

“I’m just one person. I don’t know all the answers. I don’t know where to cut. It’s not my job,” Mazet said, adding “I don’t want my taxes raised.”

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the audience of concerned citizens that the budget shortfall had left commissioners with few options.

“I want to find some more money, too, but I don’t know where it’s going to be right now because we’ve cut right down to the bottom,” Curtis said.

Some audience members said they understood the county is in a tough position, but that commissioners had gone too far with some of the proposed cuts.

“Our budget is at a place right now where we’re going to have to juggle, but when we cut our health out and we cut our schools off, we cut our throats,” said resident Danny Heatherly, referring to proposed cuts to the Department of Social Services and the public school system.

Audience members had plenty of suggestions, but in many cases, commissioners had already taken them into consideration.

Resident Linda Bennet suggested the county cut funding to programs that don’t benefit all citizens, like nonprofits.

“I’m not saying they’re not good causes, I’m not saying you’re not being sweet by paying for them, but if it’s not a program that benefits every single person, that’s the program you look at first,” Bennet said.

But the county already plans to cut all funding for nonprofits next year, and pre-emptively pulled funding for the remainder of this fiscal year. The cuts have impacted organizations like the Haywood County Arts Council and the Haywood County Fairgrounds.

Resident Pat Carr agreed with many other audience members, saying that the county should pare down to the essentials like many residents have had to do.

“When I have to cut my budget, I look to see at what is a necessity and what is not a necessity,” Carr said. “I’d much rather see recreation programs cut than teachers cut.”

The county has already proposed significant cuts to recreation, including yanking all funding it provides to individual towns.

“We’re not giving any money to the town of Waynesville (for recreation) this budget,” Curtis said. “Canton is getting zero dollars this year.”

Audience members had other suggestions. For instance, Tammy Maney suggested increasing room taxes paid at area hotels and motels to alleviate some of the tax burden from county residents.

But Commissioner Mark Swanger pointed out that hiking the lodging tax requires approval by the state General Assembly.

“A couple of speakers mentioned the ... increase in occupancy tax, but that requires legislation in Raleigh,” Swanger said. “That’s a state statute that authorizes that.”

State law also dictates that room tax money must be invested back into tourism and can’t be spent on general county services.

Other audience suggestions included closing county administrative offices one day a week, raising the deductible county employees pay on their health insurance premium, reducing the salaries of some of the highest paid county administration, and consolidating some county and town services.

Resident Bruce Gardner said the commissioners need to examine cuts to even the smallest expenses, like turning the lights of the county justice center off at night.

“It’s the little things, it’s the dollars,” that add up, Gardner said.

Some residents blamed the county for frivolous spending in the past, saying it contributed to the county’s tough position today. Tammy Maney made that point just after Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked her to limit her speech to three minutes.

“If you’d been as strict with money in the county as the time limit to get up here and talk about it, we’d all be a lot better off,” Maney said.

Resident Sharon Miller pointed to the county’s grading of the Beaverdam Industrial Park in the east end of the county in hopes it would lure industry as an example of wasteful spending.

“(You spent) $1 million for the tearing down of a mountain where a year later there’s still no development there,” Miller said.

Resident Johnnie Curé, one of the most vocal of the tax opponents, pointed to the former county board’s purchase of 22 acres of land on Jonathan Creek over a year ago, intended for recreation purposes, as an example of wasteful spending. The former board of commissioners spent more than $1 million on the parcel.

“Why did we spend it when we didn’t have it?” Curé demanded. “You must have a great deal more stewardship when it comes to our money. Stop asking for more and more of it. There is no more to take.”

Curtis encouraged audience members to stay involved in the budget process.

“Stay engaged, because it is your budget, and it is your county,” Curtis said.

Commissioners will go back to the drawing board for another budget work session at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the Haywood County Justice Center. A vote on the budget is scheduled for Monday, June 15 at the commissioners’ meeting at 5 p.m.

Haywood considers cutting jobs, raising taxes

Tight times in Haywood County have forced commissioners to consider significant job cuts and a tax increase in an attempt to make up for the county’s falling revenues.

The county has $72.5 million in requests for the 2009-2010 fiscal year but just $62 million in projected revenues.

At a budget workshop May 14, County Manager David Cotton told commissioners he was recommending cuts of up to 35 positions to balance the county’s budget, which must be adopted by June 30. Cotton called the recommendation “agonizing.”

Cotton said he hopes some of the reduction of force will be done voluntarily through expanded early retirement incentives and employees who take a voluntary 10 percent pay cut, equivalent to a 36-hour work week.

Departments that have seen a slowdown in work due to the economy will likely be among the first hit by layoffs.

“Some of the departments still are not seeing the demand for service,” Cotton said.

One of the most significant slowdowns has impacted the building inspections department. Building permits were down 50 percent in recent months, Cotton said.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in the industry that see lots of positions the county ramped up for that aren’t as busy as they used to be,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who owns a land surveying company. “Unfortunately, because of the national and state economy, we just don’t have the workload we used to have.”

Commissioner Mark Swanger said the job cuts were tough, but necessary.

“I don’t think anybody likes the idea of people losing their jobs,” Swanger said. “It’s just a fact that if the demand for services decreases and there’s no near term expectation that that service demand will recover, we’re faced with a choice.”

Cotton also recommended that employee benefits like pay increases, the county’s 401K match, and the annual Christmas bonus be eliminated or scaled back.


Hike taxes, gain revenue

Commissioners are considering a property tax increase to help balance the budget. Cotton recommended hiking the tax rate between 1.3 and 2.3 cents per $100 of valuation.

The more property taxes are raised, the fewer job cuts county employees will face. Raise the rate by 2.3 cents, and the county could cut the minimum of 25 positions. If the rate is raised by 1.3 cents, job cuts could total in the mid-30s.

Commissioners debated how much of an increase they supported, and finally proposed one in the middle — 1.7 cents.

A wave of public opposition to raising taxes has confronted commissioners at recent meetings, and the board seemed well aware of the delicate balance necessary in making the decision.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out in the community,” Swanger said. “Between 1.3 cents and 2.3 cents isn’t a lot, but it might be the difference between grudging acceptance of a tax increase and revolt. I do sense a level of anxiety and anger out there that I haven’t experienced before. There’s a point where if we go beyond that point, I think we’d regret it.”

Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said despite the opposition to a tax increase, the county was left with little choice.

“Nobody on this board wants to raise taxes,” Kirkpatrick said. “However, we also have a civic and fiduciary responsibility to this county to run it properly and provide for our citizens. That is why we’ve made the decision that we’ve made.”


Schools, nonprofits slashed

Other areas will also see a big reduction in county funding under the proposed budget, such as the school system. Haywood County Schools requested $775,000 from the county for capital projects; Cotton recommended half that amount. Haywood Community College requested $500,000 for capital projects, but would be awarded just $165,000 under the proposed budget.

Nonprofits are also taking a serious hit, which Cotton called, “one of the tougher decisions.”

“The budget essentially eliminates all funding to non-mandated nonprofits,” Cotton said.

The Haywood County Fairgrounds, the Good Samaritan Clinic, Folkmoot USA and the Haywood County Arts Council are among the organizations that won’t receive funding in the coming budget year.

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