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Cash settlement amount proves a sticking point

Negotiations over a cash settlement for Swain County have been stalled for more than a year as opposing sides argue over a fair dollar amount.

Swain County officials have met three times with the U.S. Department of the Interior to discuss a dollar figure for the cash settlement, but negotiations were called off last July. The leading reason is a change in Washington administration, from a new president to a new secretary for the Department of the Interior and various players down the line — all of whom must be briefed and educated on the long-standing controversy.

The negotiations also ground to a halt after the U.S. Park Service mentioned a dollar amount for the settlement that is drastically lower than what Swain County expected to hear.

For six years, Swain leaders have operated under the assumption they would get a $52 million cash settlement from the federal government if they gave up their claims to the long-promised North Shore Road. The federal government promised to rebuild the road after flooding the old one during the construction of Lake Fontana in the 1940s. Building a new one would traverse 30 miles of backcountry in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an expensive and environmentally unsound proposal — thus making the cash settlement a more viable alternative.

U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has been fighting for a cash settlement since taking office three years ago and stands by the number of $52 million.

“That number has been pretty consistent. That is the number that has been out there,” Shuler said.

Shuler said he does not know why the park service came up with such a low number in negotiations.

“It may have just been thrown out there to say ‘Let’s see if they’ll take this,’” Shuler surmised. “I think like with any negotiation, one group will start out low and one group will start out high.”

That said, Shuler doesn’t want to bend on $52 million, nor do the Swain County commissioners who will ultimately accept or reject any offer on behalf of the county.

According to those familiar with the negotiations, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Dale Ditmanson has been actively pushing for a far lower number. In a response to written questions, Ditmanson countered that claim, however.

Ditmanson said that the park service has not yet made Swain an offer for a monetary settlement. When asked how he would characterize the figure he allegedly brought up during the negotiations, Ditmanson did not respond.

It is unclear how much sway Ditmanson will have over the final number the Department of the Interior puts on the table.

“As superintendent, my primary responsibility is to do due diligence in identifying a justifiable basis for a monetary settlement and briefing the leadership of the National Park Service and the Department of Interior,” Ditmanson said in his written response to questions.

Ditmanson said the purpose of the negotiations right now is to determine exactly how Swain County has calculated the figure of $52 million and whether it is accurate. The premise is that it starts with the value of the road at the time it was flooded and adjusts it for inflation and interest. But exactly what the starting number should be is a matter of debate.

“Determining a basis or calculation for a monetary settlement is a primary purpose of the meetings with the four parties,” Ditmanson said. The basis will be explained in the final agreement, he said.

The sum of $52 million was arrived at by the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County, a group that formed to advance the cause of a cash settlement. In 2002, the group hired the accounting and auditing firm of Crisp and Hughes to do the calculations.

Shuler said he has been educating the new guard in Washington about the North Shore Road issue, including a meeting with President Obama’s chief of staff and a breakfast with the Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“We have to reengage them back into the process,” Shuler said.

As for Ditmanson, he has briefed the assistant secretary of the Department of the Interior and the acting director of the National Park Service. There is no permanent director appointed yet.

The past three negotiation meetings have had a delegation from Swain County, the state, the National Park Service and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built the dam and lake that flooded the road. Ditmanson expects another meeting between the parties to be held this fall.

Shuler said the decision of how much to appropriate for a settlement is ultimately up to Congress, and he will fight for what he calls a “complete settlement.”

Shuler managed to rally support among fellow congressmen and senators for a cash settlement two years ago. But that was when building the road was still on the table and the park service was in the final throes of a major analysis weighing the pros and cons of each option.

During the analysis, the park adopted the figure of $52 million and quoted it extensively as a leading alternative to building the road during a lengthy public input process. That led the public to believe that if the monetary settlement was supported, that’s the amount Swain would be getting.

But Ditmanson now says the figure was used only for “analysis purposes,” largely because it lacked anything more concrete. The $52 million figure had been proposed by Swain’s leaders, so the park ran with it during the analysis.

When the analysis concluded and the park came out with its official stand on a cash settlement instead of the road, the $52 million figure vanished and was replaced with the language “monetary settlement,” with “an equitable method” for arriving at a dollar figure to be determined through negotiations. Ditmanson was appointed as the Department of the Interior’s point man in those negotiations.

Ditmanson said his job is now in the “due diligence” stage.

Shuler said the full settlement of $52 million is needed “to heal some wounds and bring people back together in the community.”

When asked about the public relations crisis the park service would likely encounter by refusing to endorse a settlement of $52 million, Ditmanson said his responsibility is merely to determine an equitable amount.

“I cannot comment on how the public will respond,” Ditmanson said.

Graham proposes takeover of Swain land

Swain and Graham counties are at odds over who should provide rescue service to the isolated Deals Gap territory, a dispute that could lead to a redrawing of county lines.

The Deal’s Gap area is a satellite territory of Swain County, lying on the other side of Lake Fontana and surrounded by Graham.

Deal’s Gap is home to the infamous Tail of the Dragon, a stretch of U.S. 129 sporting 318 curves in just 11 miles. Motorcyclists and sports car drivers flock to the road from across the country to race the mountain curves. The result is lots of wrecks, requiring rescue service to an otherwise remote area. Until now, Graham has taken on the burden of responding to wrecks since it is so much closer.

“When it started getting popular, what was no more than four or five calls a year at most has turned into a nightmare,” said Steve Odom, the chairman of Graham County commissioners.

Graham County has grown weary of providing rescue, fire and law enforcement to the increasingly popular area and getting nothing in return.

“Graham County is trying to be a good neighbor, but it has gotten to the point where it has exceeded the good neighbor part,” said Lynn Cody, Graham County manager.

Graham is giving Swain County three options: move the county line so that Deal’s Gap is part of Graham, pay an annual fee to Graham County, or station their own rescue personnel and law enforcement in the area.

“If we are going to take care of it, we should just have it part of Graham County,” said Sandra Smith, a Graham County commissioner. Smith proposed petitioning the state legislature to redraw the county line. But they decided to first sit down with Swain County leaders before running to Raleigh.

Graham and Swain county commissioners met on Tuesday (July 28) to discuss the issue.

Swain County will likely fight any attempt by Graham to take over the territory — or the property tax revenue that goes with it. Swain collects $195,000 a year in property taxes from the 1,900-acre territory.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said he would rather the county provide emergency services to the area themselves — despite the long distance — than cede territory to Graham County or pay an annual fee.

“Let’s face it. Every county is scrambling for money and their piece of the pie,” said Brad Talbot, owner of Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. Talbot agrees that both counties have legitimate issues to work out, however.

Tit for tat

Graham County leaders claim their residents are bearing the burden of providing services in Swain County and need money — whether it’s the property tax revenue from Deal’s Gap or an annual contribution from Swain — to offset their costs.

“It all boils down to finances,” Odom said.

Graham County responds to an average of 30 wrecks a year on the Swain County portion of the Tail of the Dragon, many of them with serious injuries that tie up medics and ambulances for hours.

Swain County countered that patients are billed for ambulance service, so the county recoups most of their costs. But not all patients pay up, resulting in a net loss, Smith said. And other patients decide to drive to the hospital on their own or are treated by medics at the scene and never taken to the hospital, so the county is unable to bill them at all.

“That’s a lose situation for us because we don’t get paid for it. It is a dead run,” Odom said.

Graham budgeted $890,000 on EMS services last year and only collected $725,000 from patients.

According to David Breedlove, the emergency services director for Swain, no county is able to break even on emergency services.

While Graham County presented charts and dispatch logs showing the number of calls and accidents its people responded to in Deal’s Gap, Swain County countered with some facts and figures of its own. Since Graham County has no hospital, many patients from there are brought to the hospital in Bryson City. Many are then sent on to the larger hospitals in Sylva or Asheville, a service provided by Swain County’s ambulances. Swain County provides transport for an average of 100 Graham County residents a year from the Bryson City hospital to their final destination.

Breedlove said it balances out the services Graham provides in Deal’s Gap.

Swain County commissioners mostly listened during the meeting on Tuesday as Graham County leaders laid out their position. The two boards decided to reconvene at 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 24, in Robbinsville.

“We got a lot of the plate. We’ve got to digest some if it,” said Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County commissioners.

What is Swain doing all the way out there?

The Deal’s Gap territory is technically part of Swain County, even though it lies on the other side of Fontana Lake, isolated from the rest of the county and surrounded by Graham County.

It hasn’t always been that way, however. The convoluted geography dates back to the creation of Lake Fontana. The Little Tennessee River once served as the county line between Swain and Graham. When the river was dammed up and a vast territory along the lakeshore was ceded to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Deal’s Gap area became inaccessible to the rest of Swain County without driving all the way around the lake and through Graham County to get there.

New Swain jail fails to rake in overflow inmates

When Swain County opened a new $10 million jail last fall with 109 beds — four times bigger than necessary for its own inmates — it was banking on housing federal prisoners and those from other counties to subsidize the cost.

Instead, the number of inmates housed from outside the county has shrunk dramatically, not grown. As a result, the oversized jail has been a drain on county coffers and proved a source of contention in an on-going feud between the sheriff’s office and county commissioners.

County Manager Kevin King says the onus falls on the sheriff to court inmates from other counties to fill the jail.

“He said it wasn’t his place to get contracts, but it is,” King said. “It is going to take the sheriff talking to the other sheriffs.”

But Sheriff Curtis Cochran says the commissioners should have secured commitments from other counties before embarking on the bigger jail, which was already in the works when Cochran took office in late 2006.

“I believe one thing I would have done was to have contracts in hand,” Cochran said. “I would want to think if I didn’t have contracts in hand I would have thought about a smaller jail.”

The county was supposed to line up commitments as a condition of its federal loan to build the jail. Terms of Swain County’s loan with the U.S. Rural Development program stipulated “the applicant obtain written commitments from the other parties who have verbally committed to wanting access to jail beds.”

That never happened, however. Instead, the sheriff at the time, Bob Ogle, got verbal commitments, King said.


No demand for jail beds

Since Cochran took office, Swain has seen the number of inmates it houses from Graham, Cherokee and Haywood counties, as well as federal prisoners under the custody of the U.S. Marshall Service, all but dry up. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only outside entity contracting with Swain for jail space on a significant level.

The reason appears to have little to do with Cochran, however.

Like Swain, both Haywood and Cherokee counties have built new jails and can now handle their own inmate volume in-house. When Swain embarked on a new jail in 2005, it was common knowledge that other counties were doing so as well, but Swain overbuilt anyway.

Graham County is one of the only counties that still faces chronic over-crowding at its jail. But instead of sending inmates to Swain, it now sends almost all of its overflow to the new Cherokee County jail, according to Graham County’s chief jailer.

Cherokee County is closer for Graham, saving time and money on transport. In addition, Cherokee County charges only $40 a night per inmate while Swain charges $50 a night.

Cherokee County’s new jail — sporting 150 beds — is even bigger than Swain’s. It is often only half full, however — even with Graham County’s overflow and federal prisoners that once went Swain’s way — adding to the glut in jail beds the region seems to have these days.

As for the decline in federal prisoners, that trend was under way prior to Cochran taking office in late 2006. The U.S. Marshall Service had come to view Swain’s old jail as inadequate and unsafe. It was riddled with cracks and leaks and plagued by temperamental locks. But the biggest concern was no sprinkler system, the dangers of which came to light when eight people were killed in a fire at the Mitchell County jail.

“After the fire in Mitchell County there were concerns about older facilities without adequate fire suppression,” said Kelly Nesbit, chief deputy with the western district of the U.S. Marshall Service.

Nesbit began pulling federal prisoners out of the Swain jail and housing them elsewhere. Although Swain opened its new jail last fall, federal prisoners have yet to return. Nesbit said they simply got used to using other jails, and it has taken a while to get Swain back on the radar as a viable facility.

“The federal government moves slow. It just take a while for things to turn around,” Nesbit said.

The U.S. Marshall Service has 15 jails west of Interstate 77 that it uses to house prisoners, Nesbit said. But Bryson City is the location of a federal court, so it would be convenient to start housing them there again, he said.


Whose fault?

Cochran blames county leaders for the decline in federal prisoners. He said the county threw away a chance to put in a smoke evacuation system in the old jail that would have satisfied safety concerns and allowed them to keep housing the federal inmates.

The Marshall Service even came through with a $30,000 grant to help pay for the smoke suppression system, but Swain never acted on the grant and it was rescinded.

Cochran said the Marshall Service pulled strings to get the grant for Swain and was perturbed Swain decided they didn’t want it after all.

“The $30,000 allocated for Swain County was only provided after numerous phone calls and letters between myself and headquarters,” U.S. Marshall Gregory Forest wrote in a letter to Sheriff Bob Ogle in December 2003. Forest wrote that he wanted to continue their “long working relationship” with the county, but that the county “must complete this process without delay.”

The Marshall Service perceived it as a snub, Cochran said.

“They seemed to think that Swain County just wasn’t interested in housing their inmates because they wouldn’t accept the money after they went to great lengths to get it to help upgrade the jail,” Cochran said.

King said the county walked away from the grant because it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of the system.

“The system would have cost a lot more than $30,000. It would have been around $100,000. That was just not doable,” King said.

Ultimately, the decision cost the county more in lost revenue than it would have spent to install the system. The county would have made its money back on the system in less than two years if federal prisoners had continued to flow Swain’s way at the same volume as years’ past. Instead, the county is now entering its third year without housing federal prisoners.

Cochran wasn’t sheriff during the episode over the sprinkler system and said he didn’t understand why they weren’t getting federal prisoners anymore. Cochran recently called a meeting with the U.S. Marshall Service to figure out what the problem was.

“After I got to investigating it a little bit and talked to the right people as to why we weren’t getting inmates, we started working on it,” Cochran said.


County blames Cochran

County commissioners suggested Cochran is to blame for a declining number of inmates being housed at the Swain jail from outside the county. The theory was vocalized during a county budget workshop in June. Cochran heard about the accusation and challenged King to name the counties that allegedly had a problem with him.

“I said ‘If there is somebody out there let me know so I can make amends,’” Cochran said. Cochran asked for the clarification three times, including twice via email.

King responded that he knew of no entity in particular other than a miscommunication with the Eastern Band last year. The Eastern Band, however, is the only entity that actually houses more prisoners with Swain now than it did three years ago.

Cochran said he is doing what he can to court other counties.

“When we moved into the jail I sent out an email to every sheriff’s office in the state and let them know we were in our new facility and had bed space,” Cochran said.

Cochran also met with the Graham County commissioners in the spring, and recently met with the U.S. Marshall Service.

One cloud hanging over the Swain jail is the escape of a murder suspect earlier this year. The suspect had been slipped a key by a jailer who ran away with the suspect. Cochran said the inside job was not a reflection on the security of the jail itself.

The escape has no bearing on whether to house overflow inmates there, according to Nesbit with the U.S. Marshall Service and the chief jailers from Graham or Cherokee counties.

“That’s happened in federal institutions before,” Nesbit said of escapes. “It is just part of the kind of business we are in.”


Declining inmate nights

Out-of-county inmates housed in the Swain jail have declined drastically under Sheriff Curtis Cochran compared to the last year of former sheriff Bob Ogle’s tenure.

2005-06    8,029 inmate nights from out-of-county

2008-09    3,940 inmate nights from out-of-county

Empty jail beds fuel feud between Swain sheriff, county

The new Swain jail costs the county $610,000 a year more than the old jail: $450,000 in debt payments and an additional $160,000 on overhead and staff.

The county hoped to make $500,000 a year housing prisoners from out of the county to offset the cost.

The county’s old jail was unsafe and dilapidated, so a new one was in order anyway. County leaders figured they may as well make it extra big and try to subsidize the cost by housing inmates from out of the county, and end up with a new jail for relatively little of their own money.

But revenue projections fell far short. Over the past 12 months, the county only made $140,000 housing out-of-county prisoners, a far cry from the half million it hoped for, according to County Manager Kevin King.

King said that the jail is not an undue burden for the county, however.

“We are making it just fine,” King said. “We are covering the debt. We are covering the operation. We are covering personnel.”

That said, if the new jail brought in more money, it could bolster the sheriff’s budget — which is a bitter source of contention between the county commissioners and Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

“When he first started as sheriff, I told him all this is done as a business plan,” County Manager Kevin King said. “The more revenue generated the more deputies and law enforcement we are going to be able to fund.”

When the new jail opened last fall, the county added five additional jailers, two new deputies and an extra secretary.

But King said the additional staff was contingent on an influx of inmates, which never materialized.

“It is like McDonald’s or anywhere else. If you aren’t selling hamburgers they are going to lay people off and send them home,” King said.

As the county grappled with a budget shortfall for the new fiscal year, commissioners looked to the jail to make cuts. The county cut four positions that had been added in the past year.

Two of the laid-off staff had been hired as jailers but had since been made deputies after Cochran realized he didn’t need that many jailers. A third layoff targeted one of the two new deputies added over the past year. The fourth layoff targeted the additional secretary position added over the past year.


An ongoing feud

Cochran still has one more deputy and three more jailers than he did a year ago, but has publicly criticized the commissioners’ decision to cut his staff. He accused the county commissioners of jeopardizing the safety of Swain County’s citizens by underfunding his department.

Cochran had increased deputies on the night shift from two to three. Now, he’s back down to two. If both are tied up on calls, residents are left with no backup, he said.

King points out that Cochran’s budget is still bigger than his predecessor’s, former sheriff Bob Ogle.

In reality, the Cochran’s budget comprises the exact same percentage of the total county budget now as it did under Ogle.

For the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the sheriff’s office accounts for 8 percent of the total county budget and the jail accounts for 7 percent of the county’s budget. It’s the exact same percentage as 2005-2006, the last budget allocated by commissioners under the tenure of former sheriff Bob Ogle.

Cochran’s supporters have accused the commissioners of playing politics with his budget. The commissioners are all Democrats, while Cochran is a Republican.

“There is nothing political about this issue,” King countered.

King pointed to the number of new vehicles the county provided Cochran’s office this year. Typically, the county replaces two or three vehicles a year, and sometimes skips a year altogether. This year, the county bought five new vehicles for the sheriff’s office.

Cochran and the commissioners have been warring over the sheriff’s budget since Cochran took office in late 2006. Cochran suffered a major blow to his own salary when the commissioners ended a lucrative arrangement to feed inmates enjoyed by Cochran’s predecessors. When the commissioners decided to end the long-standing practice on the eve of Cochran taking office, it was seen as political retribution.

Cochran has a lawsuit pending against the commissioners, claiming they effectively reduced his salary in violation of state statutes. Commissioner David Monteith has consistently sided with Cochran and against his fellow commissioners on budget issues.


Budget expenses

Swain county budget expenditures by year:

Jail, 2009-2010:    $875,000

Jail, 2006-2007:    $715,000

Percent of total county budget both years:    7%

Sheriff Dept., 2009-2010:    $964,000

Sheriff Dept., 2006-2007:    $796,000

Percent of total county budget both years:    8%

Swain backs down from hardline stance with Bryson City Fire Department

Swain County will continue contracting with the Bryson City Fire Department to provide county fire service, despite threatening to cut ties with the department after it asked the county for more money.

Earlier this year, the county balked at a request from the town fire department to up the amount of its contract from $40,000 to $70,000 per year for fire protection provided to county residents outside the town limits of Bryson City.

County Manager Kevin King countered that the county would not only not pay more, but would cancel the contract altogether and build two new fire stations of its own — all by July 1 of this year. It was an ambitious plan to choose a site and build the stations in just four months, especially since the county didn’t have any money set aside to do so.

Not surprisingly, the plan did not materialize quickly enough, causing the county to renew its contract with the town department for another year.

“West Swain is trying to develop a plan to do a satellite station in the outlying areas, but right now, it’s just not developed yet,” explained King. “We just needed an extension of time with the Bryson City Fire Department in order for them to do that, so they asked the town a few months ago if they’d be willing to entertain a year’s extension.”

The town fire department agreed, though it won’t be getting any of the additional money it had initially requested. Still, Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes said he was satisfied with the outcome. The town gets to retain its call volume and won’t loose county funding.

“I think it comes to a real good agreement, not just for us, but for the taxpayers and everybody,” said Hughes.

The contract also includes one important change — it provides the Bryson City department with more flexibility in how it spends county dollars. Before, the majority of the county’s money could only be spent on certain things: specifically, the maintenance of two trucks and half the cost of the building maintenance.

Now, “we just bill them quarterly and get our whole $40,000 that way,” Hughes said. “It’s giving us some more flexibility.” For instance, the town department can spend money on gear and radios rather than truck and building maintenance, if it determines one need is greater than the other.

“In a roundabout way, they did up the money,” by providing more flexibility, Hughes said.

However, the county has warned that the arrangement with the town won’t last longer than it has to. Instead, it’s just a stopgap to give the county more time to hammer out its plans to build new fire stations of its own.

“The county is looking at long-term fire planning for the entire county over the next five years,” King said. “Basically, we just passed the year’s contract to give us another 12 months to work on the long-range planning process.”

Hughes is skeptical that the county’s plan to build two new fire stations will work. He wonders how the county will get the money for the project, since there are already capital projects like the senior center that sit uncompleted.

“Already, they have a building they can’t finish, and now they’re applying to build another building,” Hughes mused.

Swain budget cuts target Sheriff’s office

Swain County commissioners have opted to target one department rather than spreading out county budget cuts among all county employees.

Commissioners have scrapped the idea for a mandatory one-week employee furlough, which they had initially seemed to support, and have instead proposed cutting three deputies and one secretary from the Sheriff’s office.

It’s a move that could further the divide between commissioners and Sheriff Curtis Cochran, who is suing the county for allegedly paying him too little.

County Manager Kevin King proposed laying off a single deputy at an initial budget work session May 14 and enforcing a mandatory county employee furlough to help make up for the budget shortfall. King also proposed laying off two other positions — an environmental health inspector and a building inspector; both in departments that have taken a big hit with the slowdown of second home construction.

Then, at a second budget work session on Thursday, June 11, the majority of commissioners apparently changed their minds. Commissioner David Monteith, however, said the change of heart took him by surprise.

“We had a budget retreat four weeks ago, and four of us had tentatively told King we were OK with one position from the sheriff’s department and the environmental health and inspections departments being cut. Plus, we were going to have a furlough,” Monteith said. “I thought everybody was for this and all of a sudden, they weren’t.”

Monteith is adamantly against cutting sheriff’s department positions and says he won’t vote for the budget if that proposal is included.

“Times get hard, and crime goes up. Why are you going to pick on the one department that if crime goes up, you need these people on the streets to do their jobs?” Monteith demanded.

Apparently, the proposal to cut more law enforcement positions was laid out by King after the first budget work session as an alternative to a mandatory furlough.

“To me and the other commissioners, this one made the most sense,” said Commissioner Steve Moon.

The two deputies commissioners propose to lay off have only been in their positions since April, when they were promoted from their former position as jailers. Sheriff Curtis Cochran said the two were not needed in the jail, and asked that they be moved to the sheriff’s office as deputies. The county agreed.

As is frequently the case when looking at who to lay off, the county decided that “the last people hired are the first ones to go,” King said.

“We looked around and they were the last in and the first out,” said Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones.

Though supportive of the layoffs, Moon had initially expressed reluctance to trim positions in law enforcement.

“I’d hate to see us lose a position in the Sheriff’s department because in hard times, crime is rampant,” he said at the first budget workshop. “We need to support them, not cut positions.”

Now, though, Moon appears to have changed his stance.

“It’s unfortunate that we had to lay off some employees, but if we laid off the ones who are hired last with the shortest time on the job, to me that seems fair, though it’s unfortunate,” Moon said.

Moon said he never supported an employee furlough, though he didn’t speak out against it at the first budget workshop.

“I never did agree with the employee furlough. I did not like that idea,” Moon said. “People live payday to payday, and I didn’t think that was fair to the employees with the county.”

Monteith disagrees, though he said he didn’t entirely like the furlough either.

“I didn’t like to give the employees a furlough, but I would have rather done that than firing four out of one department,” Montieth said. “I just thought it would make more common sense to drop the salaries of all the people rather than pulling the cuts from one department.”

Moon and Jones say the Sheriff’s office will manage just fine, however.

“No, it’s not a good time to cut employees from the sheriff’s department, but now Cochran should have the same amount of deputies that (the former Sheriff) Ogle had,” said Moon. “Hopefully he can manage with what he’s got.”

Commissioners were scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday, June 16, as this paper went to press. The budget is expected to pass.

Swain given option to rescind property reval

Swain County will be able to rescind its latest property revaluation — which caused property values to increase by an average of 30 percent — thanks to a bill in the General Assembly.

The county had hoped to scrap its property revaluation after commissioners feared the increased values would prove too much for local citizens to bear. A bill in the General Assembly would allow the county to just that, and instead conduct a property revaluation in another four years. However, Swain County commissioners failed to pass a resolution in support of the measure and missed the deadline for the county to be eligible.

On Monday, June 15, Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, successfully amended the bill to give the county until June 30 to pass a resolution.

County residents have protested the property values en masse, submitting more than 3,000 informal appeals out of a total of about 11,000 property parcels. Many were shocked that values would rise in an economic downturn. However, sale prices have remained high in Swain County, though the number of sales has dropped off.

“A lot of people’s taxes were going to have to go up, and like I’ve said before, it’s never a good idea to increase taxes,” said Commissioner Steve Moon.

Though commissioners proposed lowering the tax rate to 31.7 cents per $100, they ideally hoped to be able to drop the revaluation altogether and conduct another one in four years, when the economy has bounced back.

“It’s bad economic times, and every household is suffering,” said Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones. “It’s just not a good time right now to raise taxes.”

There’s one downside to scrapping the revaluation — the county spent $240,000 to conduct it and can’t get its money back. However, there’s little the county could have done, because state law at the time required it to conduct a property revaluation.

“When we spent it, we thought that was a necessity. It was required at the time,” said Moon.

In the end, commissioners believe they’ll just have to cut their losses and sacrifice the cost the revaluation for the greater good of county residents.

“If we can do away with it to the benefit of the majority of the people, we need to do away with it,” Moon said.

Commissioner David Monteith agreed.

“I sure do support throwing out the new one and going back to the old (values),” Monteith said. “It’s just too hard on people. Even though the county’s going to lose money, I still support doing away with it.”

Parents turn out to support Swain principal

A group of nearly 45 parents and friends came out to show their support for embattled Swain County West Elementary School Principal Rick Abel at a school board meeting Monday night (June 8), but left with few answers to their questions surrounding Abel’s departure.

Concerned parents believe Abel was pushed out, claiming he was wrongfully terminated, but have struggled to find answers as to why. A banner held by supporters of the popular principal at the meeting read, “Join hands for Mr. Abel.”

School board members made it clear from the beginning that they would not respond on personnel matters relating to Abel. The school board claims that Abel resigned from his post in mid-April.

“Board members will not respond to individuals who address the board, except to clarify,” said school board member Mellie Burns. “If we have a specific question, we will ask.”

Chairman Charles McMahan assured the audience that “there’s nothing secretive,” about the board’s personnel policy and lack of answers.

Some of the public speakers referenced a widespread belief that Abel’s status as an outsider and possible personality conflicts with school establishment led to his termination.

“Mr. Abel and his wife are fine people,” said Jerry Shook, a parent from West Elementary where Abel worked. “They are new at this game that we play in Swain County, and don’t need to be treated that way by our county.”

Sara Abel also worked for the school system as a high school guidance counselor. The school board accepted her resignation at the meeting.

Shook urged the board members to search for answers, since the administration has refused to comment on the issue.

“Tonight I come to you with a challenge that you listen to the voice of the people,” Shook said. “Your integrity as a board is being questioned by your actions. You as a board need to find out what’s going on.”

Other speakers mentioned the atmosphere being cultivated in the Swain County School District, alleging that there is a fear of challenging the status quo.

“I was told that situations like this have been going on for so long that nobody could do anything about it,” said Katie Butler, PTO President. “Teachers basically felt it was impossible to do their jobs educating their kids.”

McMahan cautioned speakers from naming specific school administrators who they felt was responsible for cultivating such an atmosphere.

“You may not talk about any problem you have with school employees,” McMahan warned Butler.

Richard Allison, another speaker, added to Butler’s comments about the school atmosphere.

“Teachers have a fear of losing their jobs because of parochial, in-grown attitudes,” Allison alleged.

Teachers were conspicuously absent from the school board meeting, with only one or two in attendance.

Questions surrounding Abel’s resignation continue to grow. Abel and his wife, Sara, were recruited to the Swain County school district from Florida for a two-year contract. Then, on April 20, the school board voted to accept Abel’s resignation. However, Abel told parents at a recent PTO meeting that he never resigned from his position.

The Swain County school administration has said their attorney has advised them not to discuss Abel’s resignation.

The board of education is also continuing to stay mum on the issue. After the meeting, McMahan said he appreciated the audience’s input but stopped short of promising an investigation into the matter.

“I can’t take any action by myself,” he said. “The board has to act as a whole.”

Concerned county residents and parents continue to press for answers.

“I don’t know the details, I know what I hear,” said Gail Findlay, who attends church with the Abels. “I know it sounds like it’s really been a terrible situation at West Elementary. I just want to say I’m sad for our community, and I’m sad for the school system. I wish with all my heart there is something else that could have been done so their reputations as teachers can be intact.”

Shook made perhaps the strongest statement, asking the board to reinstate Abel into his position as principal.

“If this man has done nothing morally wrong, then we should do something morally right,” Shook said.

However, the school system has already selected a replacement for Rick Abel. The school board voted unanimously at its meeting to appoint Mike Treadway as the new West Elementary School principal. Treadway is currently the assistant principal at Swain County Middle School.

Questions mount over popular Swain principal’s sudden departure

Parents at West Elementary School in Swain County are questioning the circumstances surrounding the departure of a popular principal.

In the weeks since Rick Abel’s alleged resignation, conflicting accounts have emerged that have left parents with growing suspicions over what really happened.

Parents say school administrators actively recruited Abel from Florida at the beginning of the school year. Then on April 20, less than a year into his two-year contract, the Swain County Board of Education unanimously voted to accept Abel’s resignation, according to school administrators.

The sudden departure of the well-liked principal took parents by surprise.

“I thought he was a great guy,” said PTO President Katie Butler. “He had a lot of great ideas for our school. He looked at problems and wanted to find solutions to get them fixed. He didn’t just go in and sit behind his desk.”

Jerry Shook, a West Elementary parent and PTO member, said members of the PTO heard a different account than the school district’s at a recent PTO meeting.

“We were alerted to the situation that Mr. Abel was being forced into resignation,” Shook said.

PTO Secretary Kristi Jenkins said that at the PTO meeting, Abel denied ever writing a letter of resignation or resigning, but that he told the PTO board he couldn’t comment further on the situation.

The school district continues to maintain that Abel resigned, but refused to elaborate.

“We can’t give out any information on personnel,” said Swain County Community Schools Coordinator Steve Claxton. “All I can say is that he has resigned, and that’s all we’re allowed to give out.”

Apparently, the school district’s attorney is aware that the situation is of a delicate nature. Superintendent Bob Marr told The Smoky Mountain Times that the school’s attorney instructed him not to speak about the resignation.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, a teacher’s union, has also gotten involved.

“I have been involved in Rick’s case and actually relatively managed his case as we moved through the process,” said Anne Franklin, a NCAE representative out of Asheville. “The particulars of this case I’m not at liberty to speak about. It’s confidential.”

Parents say the school system has been evasive in answering questions about Abel’s alleged resignation.

“I have not heard anything other than it was personnel, and they could not talk about that because it’s confidential,” said parent and substitute teacher Ali Shuler. “That doesn’t get it for me. Not even a year in, he’s being asked to step down. Something’s messed up.”

Butler said school administrators have been “wishy washy” in their answers to questions about Abel’s resignation.

“They’re kind of covering themselves, is what I feel,” Butler said.

Some parents are more specific in their theories about the situation.

“I was really excited when they hired someone from out of the area that had nothing to do with anything that goes on here,” Jenkins said. “I think they don’t like that he doesn’t conform to what they want. He’s there for the school, not the politics.”

As is frequently alleged to be the case in Swain County, some wonder whether political allegiances played a part.

“I feel like it’s political, I really do,” said Shuler.


Won over

Parents say Marr and other school administrators actively courted Abel for the position of West Elementary principal, though Abel was living in Florida at the time and wasn’t looking for a job. The school system refused to comment on whether Abel was recruited.

According to parents, Abel moved to the area with his family to take the job. He became immediately popular, especially with students.

“Kids love him,” said Jenkins. “He’s out there every morning when the kids are being dropped off, opening doors and greeting them. He walks around the classrooms, and kids are always running up to him.”

Abel was a familiar presence around the building, and has employed a hands-on approach. Butler says that in one high-ceilinged foyer, lights kept going out, making the hallway dimmer and dimmer because no one had attempted the difficulty of reaching up to change them. So Abel changed the lights himself.

During a recent teacher appreciation week, Abel received a mound of cards from students, Butler said. The children have always been his first priority.

“He’s there for the kids — he’s not there for the adults,” said Jenkins.

Even so, Abel has won favor with parents for his inclusive approach.

“Any time I had concerns this year, he had an open door policy,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said that while previous principals didn’t ask for help or input from the PTO, Abel asked how he could assist the group in the first meeting he attended.

Butler said parents liked the environment Abel fostered at West Elementary.

“I’ve talked to a lot of parents as PTO president, and they like the changes that they’ve seen,” Butler said. “They’ve enjoyed things getting done a lot quicker, and questions getting answers when they make phone calls instead of getting the runaround.”


Wondering why

Parents say they see no reason Abel would have been asked to resign or terminated from his position.

“Working as PTO president, I saw nothing he was doing wrong enough to be terminated,” said Butler.

“I’ve never seen any wrongdoing,” Shuler agreed.

Frustrations over a growing list of questions are mounting.

“Nobody will tell us anything. We deserve an explanation,” Shuler said.

“I would like answers, I really would, because they’re getting rid of a fantastic guy,” Jenkins added.

Butler says she wants answers both as a parent and as the head of the PTO.

“I definitely want answers,” said Butler. “If he was fired, I feel as a parent, why did someone that is supposed to be in charge of my child get fired? As PTO president, I feel like people are wondering why this is becoming such a big thing, and I have no answers for them.”

Legally, the school system is not allowed to disclose personnel information beyond basic things like date of employment and salary.

“The statute ties their hands. They can’t disclose additional personnel information,” said Amanda Martin, a Raleigh attorney with the N.C. Press Association who specializes in what is and isn’t public record.

However, there is one out that would allow the school board to disclose the falling out with Principal Rick Abel.

State law allows for an escape hatch when a school board comes under fire, allowing them to share otherwise confidential personnel files when “essential to maintaining the integrity of the board.” The board would first have to draft a memo outlining the circumstances that deem it necessary to disclose personnel info. If the school board has its reasons, now just might be a good time to exercise that clause.

A group of parents are planning a rally of support for Abel at the next Board of Education meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, June 8, in the board room at the Bright Adventures campus.

Swain jail escapees returned to NC

A murder suspect and the guard who allegedly helped him escape from the Swain County jail have been returned to North Carolina.

Former jailer Anita Vestal arrived at the Macon County Detention Center Monday (May 18), said Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland. Inmate Jeffrey Miles is being held at a prison in Raleigh, according to Asheville Citizen-Times reports.

Vestal and Miles have been held in a Vallejo, Calif., jail since they were captured at a motel in the area April 19 after nearly a month on the run.

Investigators believe Miles used a key that Vestal provided him to unlock a door and let himself out of jail on March 21. Miles then hid in a van that Vestal drove to her apartment. The pair left in Vestal’s father’s Ford Ranger pickup.

Miles and Vestal waived extradition, which expedited their return to North Carolina. They were driven back to the state by officials with the North Carolina Department of Corrections.

Holland said the Swain County Sheriff’s Department asked him to hold Vestal at the Macon Detention Center prior to her return to the state.

“I think the fact of the matter is because she’s a former employee for the Swain Sheriff’s office, it’s very appropriate for her to be held at a different facility,” Holland said.

Vestal is being held in the women’s section of the prison, and has not had additional security extended to her.

Holland said he had no idea if the arrangement was permanent. The Swain County Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office will decide when and if Vestal is moved.

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