Tough times lead to tough choices

For its entire existence, this country’s leaders have wrestled with the slippery issue of power and how much is too much for government at all levels. In times like these, as tax revenues disappear while the free market struggles, the issue takes on even more significance.

So when Haywood officials said last week that their decision to privatize trash and recycling services was more about fiscal reality than philosophy of government, there was no reason to doubt them. Still, this move toward getting out of the trash business presents an interesting opportunity for a discussion about local government and its responsibilities.

Haywood commissioners made some waves last week when they voted to stop providing a service that was costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of operating their own convenience centers and a “pick” line at the county-owned recycling center, commissioners voted to privatize many solid waste services. The decision will save nearly $500,000 per year. Another switch that’s liable to happen within a year — the closing of the transfer station in Clyde — could save an additional million dollars a year. A task force studying the cost of these services also says hiring a firm to manage the entire landfill would provide large cost savings.

All that sounds great from a budgetary perspective, and one would think there would be widespread praise for the savings. Unfortunately for the Haywood commissioners, that’s not what happened. As always, people’s lives are in the crosshairs when a decision of this magnitude ripples through the system.

More than 15 county employees will lose their jobs as the county shuts down a line of service that has been expanding for the last couple of decades. Leaders of the municipalities are upset and most private trash haulers don’t seem happy.

So what’s next for Haywood and other counties struggling with declining tax revenues while the cost of everything else — gas, health care, wages, to name a few — continues to rise? Perhaps the sheriff’s department or the health department will go private. Government at all levels is better off by privatizing and outsourcing services that the private sector can provide, right?

“I think it’s function-specific,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “There are things that only government can do that cannot be logically privatized: law enforcement, emergency services, education.”

Swanger’s right, but there is some irony in the fact that this move by Haywood comes at the same time the burgeoning Tea Party movement is criticizing government spending at all levels, and a local group has been riding Haywood commissioners incessantly. Let’s be clear that the hectoring by these government critics has nothing to do with the decision in Haywood. Still, there’s little doubt that the rise to power of the Tea Party is related to the economic crisis and government spending, which becomes an easy target when times are this tough. More than ever, there is a clamoring to cut costs and keep taxes low.

I’m not one of those who believe too much government is necessarily a bad thing. There are certainly inefficiencies in government regulations and bureaucracies, but the oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico right now points to real and ongoing need for oversight of certain businesses. The vital services that government provides to citizens are a reflection of our fundamental values as a society, whether it’s health care for the poor and elderly, or EPA regulators to keep an eye on industrial polluters. In many cases the only entity that can step in and provide these services is government, and that’s the way it ought to be.

The question of how far government’s hand should reach into our lives will never be settled outright. From our local courthouses and town halls to Raleigh (where a privatization of mental health care a few years ago has left us with a broken system) and up to D.C. (where many question using tax money to bail out banks and automakers), it’s a fundamental issue our founding fathers left unsettled.

These are the same philosophic issues that pitted Thomas Jefferson and his anti-government, agrarian vision against the Federalist Alexander Hamilton and his pro-business, strong central government beliefs. This was the central controversy at the time the republic was formed, and it still bedevils our government at every level.

I suspect that in the next few years we’ll see more attempts by local governments to divest or privatize services. It will be up to voters to decide whether that’s good or bad. Haywood commissioners can say this is about the budget and not philosophy, but it’s hard to see the difference from inside the voting booth.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Ghost Town saga reaches deeper into WNC

Western North Carolina is a patchwork of small communities, close-knit groups operating independently to make their own town or area thrive. Whether it’s in the Nantahala Gorge, up the plateau in Cashiers or in downtown Canton, there are real people busting their butts each day who hold the well-being of their own “neighborhood” as a sort of higher calling. Personal success is intimately linked to the success of the community.

The latest — and in all likelihood, the final — effort to salvage the Ghost Town theme park that helped transform Maggie Valley into a unique kind of tourist town is a story that stretches across the mountains into several of these small communities. How this story finally unfolds will help define the future for those who call these places home.

Because our communities are small, those with lots of money have lots of power, the “big fish in a small pond” scenario. Al Harper, a successful entrepreneur whose holdings include the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, is one of these folks.

According to a story in this week’s Smoky Mountain News (page 6), Harper is close to securing a loan for $15 million. He plans to use about half the money to pay off a portion of the theme park’s $13 million in debt. A bankruptcy court has decided the rest of the debt will be wiped away, leaving about 200 businesses large and small to write off what in some cases is a substantial debt (in the interest of full disclosure, the theme park owed some money to this newspaper for advertising costs that will never be collected).

That decision also leaves many investors, some local and some from far away, with huge losses. Those running the park since its re-opening in 2006 have cost a lot of people a lot of money.

It’s the little guys in the small towns that make this story interesting. Among those is Ghost Town employee Randy Bryan. He cashed out $200,000 in his 401K to invest in Ghost Town. He’s lost every penny.

“If I was ever going to give up on something, this would have been it. But I refuse to quit, I refuse to lose. I believe too much in it,” said Bryan.

Maggie Valley resident Alaska Pressley also invested substantially in the park.

“Any price is worth it to help this area,” she told a reporter last week.

There is that community spirit, that willingness to risk a life’s work for a community and — if it had worked out — some financial reward.

This Ghost Town tale is now part of the story of Bryson City. In order to get the loan, Harper is putting up his railroad as collateral. That means if the park does indeed go belly up, which many believe it will, a portion of Bryson City’s tourism lifeblood may disappear with it. In its worst year, Harper says the railroad attracts 150,000 customers. That’s a lot of people spending money in a lot of stores and restaurants in Bryson City. Those people disapper, and Bryson is City hurts.

We haven’t had the opportunity to interview business leaders in Bryson City about this new scenario, about how their future is now directly tied to Maggie Valley and Ghost Town. I suspect those who have dedicated their lives to Bryson will be there, willing to step up and fill the void if the need arises.

Tourism is a unique business. It’s not high-speed fiber-optic stuff, it’s not about connectivity or e-commerce. Sure, marketing these properties will rely on some of that. But when it comes down to it, it’s about selling an experience. Harper’s business model at the railroad and, we suspect, at Ghost Town is about creating memories, tugging at the nostalgic fiber that runs through all of us.

I’m certainly no judge of his chances for success, but I will bet on the resiliency of these communities regardless of whether this final gamble pays off.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

An engaged – and very angry – electorate

The primary election is over now, but even before the vote tallies made winners and losers out of so many candidates, this election season seemed to be sweeping in a tide of activism in the mountains.

The truth of this struck home the night of April 22. I had just moderated a political forum in Swain County, which was a first for me. More importantly, it was the first time many in Swain remembered a political forum being held during the primary election.

The turnout from the public wasn’t as good as it could have been, but that’s to be expected. Most people are content to read about the issues in the papers or vote for friends or friends of friends, and go on about their business. I’ve had an opportunity to attend dozens of local forums over the years, and more often than not organizers end up disappointed with the attendance. At the Swain County Center for the Arts at Swain County High School, about 75 folks showed up.

But not everyone is content to sit at home and read about it. As former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neil is credited with saying, “All politics is local.” County commissioners are about as local as it gets, and their decisions affect our lives in everything from the quality of our schools to public safety.

This truism manifested itself in two ways. One, the number of candidates running for county commission and sheriff in Swain County was, in a word, staggering. For the most part the candidates were well meaning people with a desire to give back to their communities. With 13 candidates running for commissioner and eight running for sheriff in Swain County, the election was somewhat of a free for all.

In Haywood County, a total of 11 candidates ran for three open seats on the county board. I can’t remember a time when so many local elections had so many viable candidates running for office.

The second point that hit home after the Swain forum was about the organizers. Neither Vicki Crews or Robin Hamilton are lifelong residents of Swain. Both moved here as adults, and neither come from a background of political activism. They simply wanted to get all the candidates together and allow the public — and themselves — the opportunity to gather some information prior to the May 4 primary.

Their goal wasn’t high-minded and it wasn’t devious. Instead, they were driven by a desire to make educated decisions at the ballot box. Plain, simple, and critical to the proper functioning of our system of government.

There’s a lot of anger about government right now, and polls show that Americans have as little trust in their political leader as at any time in our republic’s history. I think the reasons for that are two-fold: one, some particularly controversial issues, like health care and immigration, are fueling passions; and two, the digital age of media gives those who are mad and unhappy more power than ever. Any observer of government knows that anger is the best tool for galvanizing an audience.

But all’s not bad. The very fact that so many people are taking part in local politics, holding meetings, organizing forums and running for office provides ample evidence that the public is engaged, and that the pendulum is swinging. By November, perhaps, we’ll know which way.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Time to tackle immigration reform

Now that the health care debate is over, here’s what we have: a very middle-of-the-road health insurance reform package. Most on the left wanted much more (the public option), while those on the right admitted they’d like to control health insurance and medical costs but spent all their energy fighting the left as opposed to producing their own proposal.

Time to move on. On the next major domestic issue identified by the Obama administration — immigration reform — we can’t do middle of the road. We need bold immigration reform, a way to bottle the allure of America that will attract the 21st century’s top recruits from around the world while at same time enacting laws that will discourage mass waves of illegal immigration.

This is a complicated issue. Reform should not focus so much on punishing those who are already here illegally — especially the kids and young adults who had no choice in the matter — as it should on controlling future problems. We’ve got to provide paths to citizenship for those already here. It’s just ridiculous for our country to spend energy and resources packing up young men in their 20s and sending them back to countries they know nothing about. Did anyone read the story in the Asheville paper last week about the bust where one of the arrested was in his 20s, had been here illegally since age 2, and immigration authorities were going to ship him back to the Latin American country of his birth that he hasn’t visited since leaving? It makes no sense.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote last week (see excerpt) about a dinner he went to honoring the best young scientific minds in American high schools. The honorees read like a phone book from China, Pakistan, India, Vietnam and other parts of the world.

No one is saying that the American kids we all rhapsodize about — the Caucasians playing sports and hanging out at the mall — aren’t just as smart. They’re just different. Our kids usually tend to mature later, get serious about life and school later, and that’s OK. But we need to keep the doors open to those problem-solving immigrants who push their children into science careers.

And then we have the immigrants mostly from points south who have are getting here way too quickly for some but who, obviously, are much more willing to do blue collar work for wages that allow business owners — farmers, contractors, restaurant owners — to earn a profit. When I was 12, the tobacco and vegetable fields provided summer work for Southern suburban kids one generation off the farm who needed a job; today, those same jobs are held almost exclusively by immigrants, legal and illegal.

It’s seems pretty obvious that the future success of the U.S. economy is dependent on rolling out the welcome mat to diversity. Immigration reform needs to slow the flow of illegal immigration from the south while providing reasonable access to those who want to work — whether it’s in the fields or in the labs — and those who want to attend our universities and colleges. The country that leaves the door open will rule the 21st century, and I’m afraid that we are leaning more toward an irrational fear of immigrants. If that sentiment takes roots, we’ll all suffer the consequences.

(Scott McLeod can be reached in This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Elder abuse case shines light on larger issue

If you believe people usually get what they deserve, then the recent conviction of a Jackson County man on elder abuse charges was welcome news. Best of all, it could open the door for similar charges against others taking advantage of the elderly.

Mark Hawk pled guilty to a felony charge of elder abuse and four counts of embezzlement. According to the charges and testimony from family members, Hawk duped his elderly aunt out of nearly $60,000 after gaining a power of attorney. He was sentenced to just five days in jail but was also ordered to pay restitution of nearly $54,000.

The winner in this case, however, isn’t just this victim — Earla Mac Cowan — and her family. It’s the thousands of other seniors in our region who could potentially suffer from the same fate. As many as 10 percent of all seniors who rely on family members for care are victims of some kind of abuse, and for every instance of abuse reported another five go unreported.

These cases present a particular quandary for law enforcement and the judicial system. Most of the time it occurs among family members, making it that much more difficult to prosecute. When is a gift of a large sum of money theft versus just that, a gift? Worse, who wants to publicize internal family issues that are often embarrassing and painful? This case is the first ever conviction on an elder abuse charge in the seven western counties that comprise the 30th judicial district.

Michael Rich, Elder SAFE project coordinator for the 30th District Alliance, found out about Cowan’s case and became an advocate for the family members who sought prosecution. He says the challenges faced by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in the past had left them wary of taking on cases like these. To be found guilty under the elder abuse statutes, the victim must be elderly and disabled. In many cases it was easier to just convict abusers without the more stringent penalties included in the elder abuse statute.

Rich, however, says the Jackson County case may help in many ways. “Once it’s known in the community that the law has some teeth, then it’s easy to get people to come forward ... Law enforcement and I are in agreement that however we can get someone, that’s how we’ll get them. But we do know that in certain cases the elder abuse statute is a more serious felony,” he said.

What can we learn from this case?

Well, family members of this particular victim are encouraging those who suspect that abuse has taken place to be strong in seeking prosecution: “... people just have to know there will be doors slammed in their faces, and they have to keep on knocking loud and be ready to go through,” said Ann Buchanan, the niece of the Jackson County victim.

Second, law enforcement in this region is gaining experience in fighting these crimes, so that should reassure those who suspect abuse is taking place. Sybil Mann, who is head of 30 Judicial District Alliance for Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault and over the SAFE program, has been promoting awareness of elder abuse issues in the seven western counties among service providers, law enforcement and the judicial system. Rich, who is program director for SAFE, is doing work on the ground to help those who suspect abuse is taking place.

As our population continues to age, we should be acutely aware of family members and friends who could become susceptible dependant on others for care. And we can be thankful that SAFE is out there, helping those who harbor suspicions that terrible things are happening.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

‘Judge not,’ or so my mom always taught me

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

— From the Gospel of Matthew

 

Purveyors of religion have recently been touting the need for elected officials to make public proclamations of their faith, citing examples of martyrs, saints and Jesus himself proclaiming themselves Christians in the face of certain death. Truth be told, equating such life and death drama as being similar to whether a county commissioner makes a specific kind of prayer at a county board meeting is like comparing an earthquake to a hiccup.

For those who haven’t been following this controversy, a recent court ruling in North Carolina has reaffirmed longstanding case law that says praying to Jesus — thereby referring to a specific religion — to open a county board meeting does not pass constitutional muster. Forsythe County commissioners who want to get a better interpretation of what they can and can’t do are challenging the court ruling allowing only a prayer to a generic god. That lawsuit will sort things out, which is a good thing as leaders in many of our western counties are caught in the crosshairs and trying to figure out how to handle this divisive issue.

Perhaps I’ve lost some of my youthful hellfire, but personally I don’t particularly care what kind of prayer opens a public meeting. I wouldn’t care if a Hindu commissioner gave some prayer that satisfied his own spiritual yearning. I don’t care if Christians do the same. As long as the leaders are carrying out their official duties in an ethical, honest and straightforward manner, let them pray to whatever god leads them down that path.

But my personal feelings, and the personal feelings of those giving elected officials a hard time, are irrelevant. More importantly, what happened at a recent Haywood County board meeting points out exactly why we need laws to govern this issue. Here’s what one citizen said: “If the majority of people want public prayer in the name of Jesus, we ought to have it.”

No, we shouldn’t, and that’s exactly the problem. The majority who wants the prayer is a mostly benign group of local citizens who want nothing else than for their leaders to proclaim their faith and pass laws accordingly. As has been pointed out many times, though, we are a religious nation governed by law, not a lawful nation governed by religion.

In Haywood County, Commissioner Mark Swanger has been a school board chairman, a county board chairman and is now a county commissioner. Swanger has very earnest and intelligent views when it comes to the interplay between the public and public servants. He recognizes the danger when the majority believes it can pass any measures that the majority supports, despite what courts — the check and balance on our legislators and our executive branch — have ruled.

“I am very uneasy with anyone telling a commissioner or anyone else what the content of a prayer should be. That’s what the Taliban does,” Swanger told The Asheville Citizen-Times.

 

In your heart, not on your sleeve

I was sitting in church on Ash Wednesday last week when the priest said something that caught me completely off guard. Next to Easter, Ash Wednesday is the best attended of all masses, he said. He didn’t say it outright, but the inference was that some come to get the sign of the cross on their forehead with ashes and then go out into the world for all to see.

The hypocrites — Matthew’s words (see the beginning of this column), not mine — were also at work at the recent county board meeting. No, I’m not questioning the religious beliefs of those who spoke, for it seemed very clear that they had very strong feelings about faith.

What is hypocritical is for anyone to put themselves at the gates of Christiandom and declare that they know what is right when it comes to prayer. Can anyone take seriously those who proclaim that a county official who refuses to pray like they want him or her to pray is somehow not a real Christian?

This prayer controversy is not akin to abortion or the death penalty or providing government aid to the poor. In debating issues like those, one’s personal faith does cross into the public sphere, and we seek out leaders who have the same beliefs as us. That is how our system works.

But let’s not judge our elected officials — or anyone, for that matter — based on an interpretation of what constitutes proper prayer. Doing so belittles the personal covenant of faith and vainly attempts to elevate ourselves as judges in a sphere where mere mortals don’t have standing. As the familiar boyhood taunt goes, who died and made them god?

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

If not now, then health care reform may never pass

This country must pass health care reform that accomplishes two major objectives: providing coverage for everyone and controlling skyrocketing costs. I believe that the bill must include a public option for those who are now uninsured. And just like automobile insurance, anyone who enters the workplace must be required to have health insurance, either from their employer, their own private plan, or from the public option.

Conservatives and liberals alike agree that our health care system is not sustainable in its present form. Employee-sponsored health care premiums doubled in the past nine years, rising three times faster than wages. American families spend more on health care than we do on food or housing. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if costs keep increasing at the current rate, 25 percent of the nation’s economy will be tied up in the health care industry by 2025.

The fundamental questions for those advocating reform is how can we cover those who now don’t have access to care while controlling costs in an industry where price has become irrelevant? When is the last time you asked your doctor how much a test, an operation or a drug was going to cost?

According to The Wall Street Journal, the current system of employer-provided benefits “has divorced the consumer — the patient — from the real cost of services. It encourages excess spending, runaway lawsuits, defensive medicine (doctors ordering unnecessary tests and procedures out of fear of being sued), and huge malpractice premiums.”

•••

This is a complex issue, and understanding it has become even more difficult amid the tidal wave of misinformation that is circulating. It’s unfortunate for those of us who believe health care reform is critical that this debate is occurring during an economic crisis that has forced unprecedented government intervention into private industry. Both the outgoing Republican administration and current Democratic administrations supported government taking new and expanded roles to stave off a long-term economic disaster. Intervention to rescue the banking and automobile industries, along with Obama’s stimulus package, have further fueled the long-running fear of too much government intrusion.

The health care problems, however, can’t be solved without government intervention. Government is already the major player in the industry through Medicaid and Medicare. But here’s the truth — Obama does not support a government takeover of our health care. That’s not even being discussed and is a complete distortion of reality.

What he does want is a public option for insuring the 45 million people who currently don’t have health insurance. That option is the best chance for controlling insurance premiums, which in turn will prompt the insurance industry to work with health care providers to keep costs down.

There are other major problems on the other end of the healthcare spectrum that must be resolved as part of reform. Many who have insurance are denied coverage or reach their caps when they face serious problems like cancer or heart problems. Also, changing jobs with a pre-existing condition can be devastating, often leading to a denial of coverage or skyrocketing premiums. A plan for affordable portability of coverage must be included in any reform measure that is passed, along with measures that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage just when it is needed most.

Although I think the public option is necessary, compromises can be found. Some are suggesting allowing the insurance companies to develop low-cost plans for those who currently can’t afford care. This plan includes a trigger for a government option to come into play only if the private companies can’t get the job done. The public option is better, but a compromise that earned some Republican support might be the best possible solution — and the only way to get a bill passed.

•••

One issue that hasn’t been discussed much as part of this health care overhaul is personal responsibility. We can’t cut our health care costs substantially if Americans continue to suffer from chronic conditions that are preventable.

Our children are suffering from an obesity epidemic. Many of us eat too much and exercise too little. Go to any middle school in the country and observe the children. It is a sad thing to see so many who are obviously on their way to a lifetime of battling obesity.

I don’t have a problem paying taxes to provide health care for a working mom who has a full-time job that pays just above minimum wage and doesn’t offer healthcare benefits. I do, however, have a problem paying for those who cause their own health problems by eating badly, not exercising, and perhaps smoking. I’m not sure how it can be done, but we must encourage lifestyle changes that could substantially reduce total healthcare costs.

•••

Healthcare reform has discussed by nearly every administration since World War II, and we have yet to make meaningful headway. Congress has made more progress in the last six months on this issue than ever before, and citizens need to encourage their lawmakers to finish the job.

Florida’s loss likely means our gain – and challenge

It’s always a little embarrassing to look on another’s misfortune and discover that you may be the beneficiary of their problems, but it does happen.

And so I read a story about Florida’s economic woes and couldn’t help but see a bit of a silver lining for us in North Carolina and in the mountains.

Here are a few lines from that article:

“Already, (Florida’s) hold on retirees is weakening, with thousands of disenchanted ‘halfbacks’ moving to Georgia and the Carolinas in recent years ....

“Choked by a record level of foreclosures and unemployment, along with a helping of disillusionment, the state’s population declined by 58,000 people from April 2008 to April 2009, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Except for the years around World Wars I and II, it was the state’s first population loss since at least 1900.”

Now most of us who live in the mountains don’t want a huge influx of new retirees or even young families. In fact there are many who say there is nothing positive about our region becoming the “New Florida.”

The point is we don’t want to become the new Florida. This recent economic slowdown has provided time to re-assess the dangers of unchecked growth. Many of us, this newspaper included, are committed to fighting for progressive planning measures so that when growth comes we can protect the landscapes, mountain ridges, streams and small towns from losing those qualities that make this area so special. We don’t want the crime and sprawl that make it so easy for Floridians to run from.

That said, there is certainly the reality that our economy here in Western North Carolina has gone stagnant. Too many of our residents are worried about their jobs and their families.

So if Florida’s allure as “the” retirement and relocation spot in the East is fading, there’s little doubt the coastal areas of Georgia, South and North Carolina, along with the mountains of WNC, stand to take its place. There really is no other place in the eastern part of the country that has the amenities to fill that role. It won’t happen overnight, but I suspect the next 10 to 20 years will see change in this region that many of us could never have imagined. On the one hand, it is exciting to live in what promises to be a vibrant region for the next couple of decades, while on the other hand this prospect should put us on guard.

Those of us in the media have an obligation to our communities to keep the growth issues out in the public arena. Striking a balance between inevitable growth while nurturing and improving the wonderful lifestyle we now enjoy won’t be easy, but it can be done.

•••

I’ve been reading some essays by William F. Buckley Jr. — who died in 2008 and is generally regarded as the godfather of the modern American conservative movement — and was left bemoaning how political discourse has withered to such a state of pathetic, inane screeching and labeling.

It also left me pondering another more important question: is it possible to combine some of the tenets of conservatism and progressivism into one coherent political philosophy? That’s something I want to explore in some columns in a few upcoming issues.

Many of my liberal friends and many of my Republican friends are likely foaming at the mouth at such a proposition. But Buckley was a master of big ideas, not small labels, and therefore his conservatism has about as much in common with today’s Republican ideals as night has to day.

Many of the ideas I would associate with the progressive movement — which acknowledges the need to take steps to re-form government (and, therefore, society) in order to deal with today’s realities — can find a home in a school of thought that also cherishes the eternal verities of faith, truth and family, along with a love of country. Such a philosophy must exist without succumbing to the Fox News method of brandishing these verities as weapons against political opponents (especially those who hold dearly to the separation of church and state).

So I’m going to research some of the real-world outcomes that such a school of thought would lead to, and see where it comes out.

Most of those over 40 are probably very familiar with Buckley, though anyone who enjoys political philosophy would do well to read him. My mother-in-law, Lee Sullivan, passed along a memoir written by Buckley’s son about losing his mother and father. That led me to one of Buckley’s books of essays, Let Us Talk of Many Things. Years ago I read a couple of his books about sailing, another area in which he was quite accomplished.

Upon his death in 2008, The New York Times said this: “Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America.”

Aside from starting the influential conservative magazine the National Review and hosting “Firing Line,” an early talk TV show known for its great debate of ideas, he was a prolific writer. As someone who has personally answered the late-night phone calls from irate, sometimes inebriated, readers at the many newspapers I have worked at over the years, I can’t help but have an affinity for a guy who penned a 2007 book called Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription.

Schools vs. prisons is an easy choice

Haywood County’s 1930’s-era minimum-security prison was kept open for another year by our ever-diligent legislative delegation in Raleigh. They saved about 45 jobs and cheap labor for roadside cleaning by keeping the relic open. Meanwhile, Haywood County school supporters were forced to muscle a table through the parking lot in front of Wal-Mart — about a quarter mile as the crow flies from the old prison — because they needed to rattle the can for spare change to try to save teacher’s jobs.

The Haywood County effort to save school jobs is something being replicated, I’m sure, in other places throughout the state as school systems learned they were one of the big losers in this year’s state budget. In Haywood County, that loss was about 32 positions. In Macon County the total was about 14 and in Swain it was three jobs.

Business people have known for a long while that these are unprecedented times. Now local and state governments have finalized their first annual budgets since this recession wrapped its ugly arms around the country, and it’s a picture that is as confusing as it is frustrating. What is happening is this — taxes are being raised while at the same time costs (teaching jobs) are being cut.

So the conundrum is obvious. Should our legislators be fighting to keep open a little, inefficient prison at this time, when state studies have shown these little prisons to be more costly per inmate? It’s easy to juxtapose these two budget outcomes to argue that cutting wasteful government spending is very difficult, even in the face of what was a $4 billion state budget shortfall this year.

The point here is that it is almost impossible for lawmakers to vote for the greater good of the state in the face of pressure from constituents in their own district. The prison is a particular line item, and two similar prisons from the 1930s in Gates and Union counties are slated for closing after lawmakers finalized this year’s budget. Closing all three would have saved the state about $3.4 million a year, according to a state budget analyst quoted in several news stories.

School budgets for each county aren’t line-item expenditures. Lawmakers approve a huge dollar figure for public schools, and then it is doled out based on the number of students in each county.

Last week we editorialized that cutting funding for an after-school program for middle schools students — another of this year’s budget decisions — was a poor decision.

My friend John Sanderson, a former principal and teacher in Haywood County, makes the same arguments for cutting teaching assistants and increasing class sizes in the lower grades.

“I can say without a doubt when you increase class size, particularly at the elementary school level, it does have a negative impact on the classroom,” he told a reporter for this paper last week.

As citizens and as a society we have responsibilities that include paying for prisons and schools. And it is not as simple as an either-or equation, because lawmakers weren’t in Raleigh weighing whether it was better to keep school classroom sizes down or whether to keep a prison open. Unfortunately for all of us — and the lawmakers — it is not that simple.

But our choices are telling. As constituents, there has never been a more important time to get involved and let lawmakers know how you feel. At the local, state and federal level, changes are under way. When there is no money, then the spending choices become ever-more important.

And there seems to be more discussion about politics and spending, priorities and values, and those things important to our country. Liberal and conservative groups are getting together to discuss issues and get their opinions out. That’s all good.

On this one, though, the choice is easy for me. I’d take schools over prisons any day. Priorities, priorities.

(Scott McLeod is editor of The Smoky Mountain News and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A few moments – and 10 days – to celebrate cultural understanding

The end of this year’s Folkmoot USA, some of the acquaintances I made during the festival, and my own ongoing interest in all things political has led me along one of those idealistic wanderings that I’ve often tried to swear off. It’s cliché, I know, but I kept coming back to the truth that we should spend more time celebrating what we all have in common instead of fighting over what we disagree about.

A book I recently read probably contributed to the imaginary dance with what could be, as opposed to what is. I had little time to read in April and May, and so spent a long time getting through the popular Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. A book that should have taken a week at most to read sat on my nightstand for nearly two months as I pecked away at a chapter here and a chapter there.

This book has become required reading in many schools, and for good reason. It’s the true story of a mountain climber who almost died attempting to conquer K2, only to be saved by the villagers in one of the most isolated areas on earth. He came away with the notion that these people living in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and their children — especially the girls — deserved an education.

Despite all our preconceived notions of Islamic fundamentalists, the very conservative village elders throughout the region welcomed Mortenson. As they saw how their children were empowered, and how Mortenson had no agenda except that of educating children who otherwise might not ever learn to read and write, they embraced the American and his simple goal of helping kids in these remote areas.

I thought about that book as this year’s 10-day Folkmoot international festival got under way (In the interest of disclosure, let me say that I am president of the Folkmoot board and have been a fan of this festival since I first arrived in Waynesville in 1992). Folkmoot doesn’t do anything as significant as building schools, but it has thrived for 25 years for many similar reasons, I think. Folkmoot touches lives on so many different levels.

When we begin planning for each festival, Folkmoot is a local event for almost everyone involved. Each of these groups was back home in their own country, trying to figure out how much money they needed, which members would be coming, when they would leave, and all those many preparations that go with international travel.

As all the planning comes together and we are just a few weeks away from the start of Folkmoot, those of us in Western North Carolina also begin to get excited about this festival. I know my own children — Liam, Hannah and Megan — are a font of questions and queries about who’s coming, when will they arrive, what shows will we go to, how old are the dancers and on and on and on. By that time they are already learning about all these countries, saoking up knowledge without even knowing it.

As Folkmoot gets under way, we have close to 300 performers from all over the world housed with local guides, spending the day with bus drivers and volunteers, and interacting with Americans from many different socio-economic levels and age groups. It’s my hope that they leave with a better understanding of our values and firsthand experiences of our hospitality, thanks to those interactions and the audiences they perform for. And these performers also share much with us, offering a glimpse of their own culture, and doing so in many different ways.

We invite the different groups here for this festival and, after spending time with people from countries they have never visited, they leave. Again, we hope when they depart they do so with the realization that we are all more alike than different; that when we celebrate each other’s culture we foster a better understanding of this complicated world. That’s the simple message of Folkmoot we want to send home with these wonderful performers.

By my estimates, during its 26-year run Folkmoot has brought a total of more than 7,500 performers to these mountains to share their dance, their music and their heritage. A minimum of 2,600 volunteers and employees has been associated with Folkmoot over those years. Around 250,000 to 300,000 spectators have been to ticketed events over the 26 years of the festival, and that doesn’t include the huge audiences at each Parade Day and International Festival Day.

By any one’s count that’s a huge helping of international goodwill that we here in Western North Carolina are responsible for. Here is Folkmoot’s mission statement: “Folkmoot USA promotes world friendship and celebrates cultural heritage by hosting the North Carolina International Folk Festival and other programs for residents and visitors.”

I don’t want to over-emphasize the impact of this international festival that Western North Carolina has embraced so generously, but let us at least revel for a few moments in the fact that Folkmoot is indeed a unique and inspiring event.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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