Swain pushes Bryson fire department aside in turf war
Prominently displayed in the window of the Bryson City Fire Department last week were several signs with the same defiant words: “We serve people, not politics.”
The message was a direct reference to a controversy heating up between the town’s volunteer fire department and Swain County commissioners. The two are at odds over how much the county should contribute to the fire department for handling calls outside the town limits. When the Bryson fire department recently asked for more, the county decided it would stop contributing altogether come July. Instead, Swain County will build two new fire stations and buy two new trucks of its own. It will stop contributing to the existing fire stations in Bryson City and Qualla to fund the new ones.
Since 1992, the county has contributed to the Bryson City Fire Department since it provides service beyond the town limits. It is one of three fire stations in the county, along with one in West Swain and one in Alarka. According to Bryson City fire chief Joey Hughes, the Bryson Fire Department was responding to the lion’s share of calls — nearly two-thirds of the total.
“We’ve run more calls in a month than other departments run in a year,” Hughes said.
The county paid the Bryson City department $47,000 this year.
In December, the town fire department asked the county to up the amount to $70,000 to reflect the high volume of calls the department was responding to.
“The letter indicated that they needed more money to operate the department, that they weren’t getting enough to do it,” said County Manager Kevin King.
Instead of responding to the fire department’s request, the county has opted to end their contract altogether starting July 1.
“If we’re going to spend that type of money, it would be better to increase services outside the city limit,” King said.
The county’s new plan is to create a larger, unified department with no involvement from the town. The goal: provide more comprehensive fire service and decrease fire insurance rates for residents.
But Hughes and his department say the county’s decision isn’t a good one. They say the county doesn’t have a sufficient setup to handle the volume of services the town department currently provides. The decision will hurt the town department, they say, but more importantly, it will compromise the safety of Swain’s residents.
“Our budget will be cut in half, and our calls will be cut by two-thirds under the decision,” said Hughes. “We’re not going to be hurting that bad, but it’s the citizens of Swain County that are going to suffer.”
The town of Bryson City contributed $42,000 to the fire department this year.
Dueling fire stations
The county’s new plan calls for buying two new fire trucks and building two new firestations — one in the Ela community, and one at the county’s industrial park. The West Swain fire department will oversee the plan.
West Swain will borrow about $600,000 to $700,000 to fund the project. The county plans to funnel the resources it is giving to the Bryson City and the Qualla fire departments to help cover the loan payments.
In addition to the cost of building the fire stations and buying the trucks, the new plan would cost the county an additional $20,000 per year, which it plans to factor into next year’s budget. Ideally, at least one of the new substations would be up in running in just five months, King said — roughly the time the town’s contract expires.
King said the new stations will mean decreased response times, which in turn would save county residents about $600,000 each year on their fire insurance premiums, King said.
Under the new plan, rescue equipment such as a Jaws of Life would be available at each of the substations, providing residents with an added safety feature.
But Hughes doesn’t think the county’s plan is feasible, and questions why they’re trying to change something that has proven effective — or why they would want to duplicate a service that’s already in place.
“We know what we’ve got works, and what they’re trying to do is untested,” Hughes said. “What they’ve already got is best for the taxpayer. You’re not crossing district lines, and there’s not going to be a controversy.”
Indeed, King argues that Hughes and his department don’t like the new plan in large part because it would mean others would infringe on territory the town department has covered for years.
“They’re just upset because they’ve had that territory for a long time, and they’re not going to be a part of the solution,” King said.
But Hughes said the county never asked his department to be part of the solution.
“Whenever they started planning all this, they didn’t include the town or our fire department in this; they went to the other fire departments and talked to them about it,” he said.
Hughes doubts the county’s ability to execute its plan with the money allocated.
“With that dollar figure, there’s no way under the sun that they can do it,” Hughes said.
And though King said he has assurances from the county substations that they’ll have enough personnel, Hughes wonders if the stations can recruit the manpower to pull it off. His station currently has 34 volunteers; the other two have eight.
“They’ll get enough names on paper, but getting enough qualified, dedicated people is going to be a problem to keep up the response time that we’ve got now,” Hughes contends. “This day and time, it’s hard to get volunteers that are reliable and good at what they do.”
Hughes said it’s critical to have a big pool of volunteers to pull from, because most work full-time. If a fire emergency happens during a weekday, 10 out of 34 volunteers may show up, he said. That number would be closer to two or three volunteers if the same percentage showed up at a smaller station.
Hughes planned to reason with commissioners to keep the Bryson City Fire Department’s contract at a special called meeting Monday night (March 2). But while Hughes calls the county’s new plan, “a shady deal,” King said the fire department has blown the whole thing out of proportion.
“They’re trying to turn it into something it actually is not,” he said. “We’re talking about public safety for the entire county in an effective manner.”
New polling place to end Cherokee voters’ commute to Bryson
People in Cherokee will no longer have to drive or hitch rides into Bryson City to cast ballots during early voting.
The Swain County Board of Elections recently agreed to establish an early voting site in Cherokee, a move that will likely increase voter participation.
A 92-year-old woman from the Big Cove community in Cherokee came to the board of elections and asked it to set up an early voting site on tribal land. Otherwise, Cherokee voters had to travel as many as 40 miles roundtrip to cast their ballots in Bryson City.
“It was placing undue hardship on the voter,” said John Herrin, a member of the Swain Board of Elections.
When it comes to elections for tribal offices like chief, Cherokee runs its own elections. But for state and national elections, Cherokee voters cast ballots under the auspice of either Swain or Jackson counties, depending on which side of the reservation they live on. Jackson already had a polling site set up for Cherokee voters.
“Jackson County residents basically could go a couple miles from their home, while Swain County residents had a 20-mile drive,” Herrin said.
A site for the new polling location has yet to be chosen. The site will only be open during early voting. On Election Day, Cherokee voters will still have to leave the reservation to vote in the Whittier precinct.
Herrin hopes the establishment of an early voting site on the reservation will encourage better voter turnout.
Cherokee voters already showed good turnout in the last election, with 70 percent casting a ballot, according to Board of Elections Director Joan Weeks. But while 25 percent of all registered Swain County voters cast early ballots, only 17 percent of Cherokee did so — a discrepancy likely linked to the distance of the nearest early voting site.
The early voting polling site might also increase participation in local off-year elections, such as county commissioner races, which Cherokee voters previously haven’t turned out for in high numbers.
“Typically, you see a lot of participation from the Reservation on presidential and senatorial elections, and not nearly as much during off years for local county government,” said Herrin. “We might see a lot more, considering they don’t have to be inconvenienced as much as in the past. We can’t just go out there and beat on their doors and beg them, but we can definitely make it as easy as possible to vote,” Herrin said.
Bryson halts sewer connections outside town limits
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
Developers in Swain County eyeing a quick, easy connection to Bryson City’s sewer system for their newly built properties are out of luck — at least for now. Bryson’s town board is currently denying sewer services to anyone that lives outside of the immediate town limits.
The essential nature of winter
When late November finally arrives, my wife, Elizabeth, and I go into another mode. Her busy season in the gallery-studio she operates here on the town square in Bryson City pretty much comes to an end. The Elderhostel programs, workshops and lectures that keep me on the road from mid-March into November come to an abrupt halt. From now until early spring we get to spend more time together at our home place in a little cove four miles west of town. Winter is our time of the year.
New mayor embraces new face of Bryson City
By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
The election of Brad Walker, Bryson City’s new mayor, is more than just a changing of the guard — it’s representative of how the tiny Swain County town has transformed in recent years from a remote location in the Smokies to a much sought-after tourist destination.
Parking problems plague downtown Bryson City
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Entire half hours dedicated to finding a parking space. Cars backing into each other. Employees and customers with nowhere to park. The parking situation in Bryson City is reaching crisis levels, and local business owners are pleading for the town to help them.
Bryson City seeks citizen input in land-use plan
Want to build anything you want in a downtown location that receives a ton of visitors each summer? Then Bryson City, with its total lack of rules governing development, is just the place for you.
Swain leaders tout river access, horse ring upgrades
Not that many years ago, anglers and boaters wanting to gain access to the Tuckasegee River in Swain County essentially had to bushwhack their way to the water.
Peaceful sounds: Bryson City woman organizes local musicians for a cause
By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer
Downtown Sylva will host a non-partisan stand for peace on Saturday, Feb. 17, with 12 hours of non-stop music.
Recesses in nature: Bryson City group sets up new caving club
By Michael Beadle
There are still dark corners in this world yet to be explored.