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Cutbacks could be less severe in Swain budget

Though the Swain County government hasn’t escaped the recession completely, the blow dealt by the economy has been softer there than in other places.

While other local governments are contemplating tax increases, Swain County commissioners are looking to lower the county’s property tax rate by one cent. And while local governments across the state are laying off lots of employees, just three positions will be cut from Swain’s county departments.

Those proposed cuts were laid out in a commissioner workshop last week focusing on the 2009-2010 county budget.

In general, the Swain County government runs a tight ship, said County Manager Kevin King, which is why large cutbacks haven’t been necessary.

“We’re bare bones in our line items,” King said. “It’s not like we have this fluff in our budget. We’re cutting it close every year.”


Positions cut

County employees are taking the biggest hit under the proposed budget cuts. They will be made to take a mandatory week of furlough. Commissioners volunteered to take two weeks of unpaid leave.

The three positions that would be cut under the proposed budget come from fee-structured departments or were put in place over the last year.

One deputy position will be cut, and the building inspections department will lose two positions — a building inspector and an environmental health specialist. The department has seen a dramatic reduction in its workload due to the slowdown in the second-home market in the mountains. King said building inspections are down between 50 and 60 percent in the county, and that the county took in just $200 in building permit fees in April.

All told, the personnel moves — with the furloughs and the eliminated positions — would save $233,000.

“I hate to see anyone get laid off or lose their job,” lamented Commissioner Phil Carson.

King assured commissioners that while things may not seem that bad right now, the cuts are necessary as a precautionary measure.

“We’ve been through tougher times, but if you have three to four years of this economy and you don’t do these cuts, you’ll be back in the same shape,” the county was in previously, King said. Swain’s fund balance once hung at dangerously low levels.

Commissioners hope to ease the burden on county residents by proposing a one-cent property tax cut, from the current rate of 33 cents per $100 of valuation to 32 cents.

Under the property revaluation that went into effect this year, properties values rose an average of 30 percent. It’s unclear whether the move will satisfy the scores of Swain residents who have turned out to protest the revaluation figures.


New jail

As it stands, the county has to find $110,000 additional monies to cut before its budget is balanced. But more cuts could be possible if the county’s new jail fails to produce enough revenue to make the hefty $454,000 per year loan payments on the facility.

Revenue on the jail has so far not met projections, King said. The county projected $565,000 in revenue, but has collected just $100,000 so far this year.

For the upcoming fiscal year, the county has projected its revenue based on 25 out-of-county prisoners housed at the jail each day. The county receives a certain amount of money from housing state and federal prisoners from other counties.

However, Sheriff Curtis Cochran reported that the jail is averaging between 15 and 20 out-of-county prisoners per day.

King asked Cochran to let him know if he doesn’t think the jail will be able to increase its out-of-county prisoner numbers to meet projections.

“I guess we’re going to be optimistic about the future of the jail,” King said. “I guess. If not, we’re going to have to scale back $300,000 somehow.”

Swain jail keys found in get-away truck

The Swain County Sheriff’s Department got a welcome piece of news recently when it learned the escape of an inmate won’t cost as much as previously thought.

Jailer Anita Vestal and accused murder suspect Jeffrey Miles were picked up in Vallejo, Calif., April 20, nearly a month after Vestal allegedly helped Miles escape. The county won’t have to pay the cost of driving across the country to retrieve the inmates, which wasn’t clear previously. Instead, the N.C. Department of Corrections is in charge of handling the pickup, said Swain County Chief Deputy Jason Gardner.

Gardner said that Vestal and Miles “are in the process of getting picked up,” but he has been provided with little information about when the pair will arrive.

“They won’t tell us anything,” Gardner said. “They’ll call us when they’re an hour out.”

Gardner said Vestal and Miles will return to the Swain County jail “very temporarily” for processing but will be held elsewhere.


Replacing locks unnecessary

Two jail keys allegedly used in the escape were recovered by Vestal’s father, Ronnie Blythe, when he retrieved his pickup truck that Vestal and Miles had used to flee to California, said Gardner. Blythe turned the keys over to the Swain County Sheriff’s Office. If the keys had not been located, the locks at the jail would have had to be replaced at a cost of nearly $40,000.

Vallejo police didn’t find the keys when they conducted a search of the vehicle. Gardner suggested that they may have simply skipped over it.

“These keys that fit the jail here look more like a regular key,” Gardner said. “They may have saw it, and just didn’t realize what it was.”

Swain County commissioners have already struggled to pay for unforeseen costs at the county’s new $10 million jail facility. Most recently, commissioners granted a request from Cochran in April for an additional $139,000 to cover the cost of unemployment insurance, supplies and maintenance.

Charges against Vestal, 32, include: conveying messages with convicts or prisoners, providing drugs to an inmate, felony conspiracy, and felony harboring escapee. Felony conspiracy and misdemeanor escape from jail will be added to Miles’ murder charges.

Swain jailer, murder suspect captured in California

A jailer and the murder suspect she allegedly freed from the Swain County Detention Center a month ago were apprehended in Vallejo, Calif., on Sunday (April 19).

The jailer, Anita Vestal, 32, was unharmed, much to the relief of her parents and law enforcement who thought her life was in danger from the murder suspect, Jeffery Miles, 27.

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran had no comment on the capture.

Vestal’s father, Ronnie Blythe of Whittier, told The Smoky Mountain News a few weeks ago that he was unconvinced that his daughter willingly let Miles out of jail. Blythe said she might have been enticed or coerced to let him out.

Vestal’s parents released a statement following the capture of their daughter and Miles: “We are thankful that Anita has been found and is safe. We would like to thank those in the community who have offered us support through their prayers and kind words. We do not have any further information about the events which have transpired throughout this ordeal and therefore we cannot comment further on this situation.”

Miles is one of six people charged with killing David Scott Wiggins, 33, and Michael Heath Compton, 34, who were shot to death in their Bryson City home in August.

Vallejo Police Lt. Abel Tenorio said his department received information from Sheriff Cochran a couple of weeks ago that Vestal and Miles may be in the area.

Vallejo officers determined that the pair might have been at a hotel in the area on Sunday and set up surveillance. When Miles exited the hotel room SWAT team members approached him in unmarked vehicles and apprehended him after a short foot pursuit, Tenorio said.

Vestal was then apprehended in the hotel room, Tenorio said, adding that the pair was unarmed.

On Monday they were being held in the Solano County Jail, said Tenorio. It could take several days before they are extradited to Swain County to face the escape charges, Tenorio said.

Video surveillance of the jail shows that Miles unlocked his cell door and then unlocked an outside fence. He then hid in Vestal’s vehicle in the parking lot.

Vestal and Miles drove to her Bryson City apartment where they switched vehicles and then went on the lam for a month.

Sheriff Cochran and jail administrators have been criticized by former jailer, Steven Osborne, who was fired after the escape. Osborne told The Smoky Mountain News it was wrong Cochran fired him over the incident and said he and other jail employees had warned the sheriff and jail administrators several times that Vestal and Miles were getting too close personally. Osborne said they ignored the warnings.

Swain’s tax base just got even smaller

Swain County, 86 percent of which is already owned by the federal government, lost a little more land from its tax rolls this month when commissioners voted to transfer 621 acres of land to become part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian reservation.

The tribe has owned three parcels of land — located in the Cooper’s Creek area, Kituwah, and Governor’s Island —for seven years. The tribe paid $11,500 a year in property taxes to Swain County for the tracts.

But after owning the land for the required amount of time, the tribe was legally able to petition for the land to become part of the Qualla Boundary. That way, it won’t be subject to property taxes.

Swain County is operating under a tight budget, and losing the property tax base will be a small blow, to say the least. But the Cherokee plan to build affordable housing and a mental health center on the parcels — things that could benefit those who live and work in Swain County. Commissioners weighed their options, and decided it would be easier to support the Eastern Band’s proposal.

“If the tribe were going to use the property for something controversial like gaming, we would say that we wouldn’t necessarily like that,” said County Manager Kevin King. “Yes, the county could fight it, but in the end, if they can demonstrate the need for it, you’re never going to win.”

King also said the commissioners wanted to keep the tribe and county on good terms.

“We have a really good relationship with the tribe, and we want to continue it,” King said.

Receiving the support of Swain commissioners was a final step in the process of placing the land into the Eastern Band trust. Now, the tribe is waiting for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to give final approval to the move.

Eastern Band Principal Chief Michell Hicks praised the commissioners for their support.

“Us mountain folk here in Western North Carolina, we know we have to work together to accomplish things for the people of our tribe and our communities,” Hicks said.

New Swain jail continues to rack up costs

Weeks following an escape at the brand-new Swain County jail, county commissioners agreed to an emergency appropriation of $139,000 at the request of Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Cochran asked commissioners for the money at their meeting Monday (April 6) to cover the costs of things like unemployment insurance, supplies and maintenance.

The county is already shelling out $454,000 per year to cover the cost of the loan on the $10 million facility. And in September of last year, commissioners agreed to provide $205,000 for five new staff positions to get the jail up and running.

The $139,000 doesn’t include another $40,000 that will likely have to be spent to replace the locks at the jail if a key used in the March 21 escape of inmate Jeffrey Miles isn’t located, Cochran said.

Swain’s fund balance is currently at 9 percent, barely above the 8 percent minimum mandated by the Local Government Commission.

“Do you feel like we could really justify adding $139,000 to our budget?” asked Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay on Monday.

County Manager Kevin King said Tuesday that the approval of Cochran’s request will bring the fund balance dangerously close to the minimum amount that is mandated.

Cochran said he simply didn’t anticipate the exact costs of moving into the new facility.

“We moved into a brand new facility, and we’ve had to buy things that we honestly just didn’t budget for when we moved in,” he said.

Cochran said he’s already shifted some staff positions in an effort to cut costs. The move will eliminate two positions at the jail and add a school resource officer position.

“We’re just trying to move people around to get the most effectiveness, without hitting me in the back pocket or you in the back pocket,” Cochran told commissioners.

Commissioner Philip Carson questioned whether Cochran could benefit from more jail staff to provide extra security, in lieu of Miles’ escape.

“Have you considered an extra set of eyes in that control room per shift?” Carson asked. Jailer Anita Vestal is accused of helping Miles plan his escape. She was the only one in the control room watching over the cells when the escape happened.

Cochran said he would welcome extra help, but has no money to pay for it.

“I would not turn down extra eyes, but that monkey’s on your back if you want to fund it,” Cochran said to the board.

When commissioners built the jail, they made it bigger than necessary to house Swain’s inmates. They hoped to house inmates from other counties and subsidize the cost of the jail. The 106-bed facility is double the size of the old jail and has plenty of extra room.

“As (Cochran) gets more and more inmates, more and more money’s going to come in,” said Commissioner David Monteith.

Cochran said the number of inmates in the facility has already increased.

“When we moved into the new facility, we had 28 inmates,” he said. “Today, we have 56.”

According to Cochran’s office, most of those are from Swain County. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only out-of-county entity housing its inmates in the jail.

Commissioner Steve Moon asked Cochran about the maximum number of inmates that could be held at the jail.

“What’s keeping us away from that?” Moon asked.

Moon’s question was met with a peal of laughter from the audience. Though not said outright, it seemed implicitly understood that the escape of an inmate has likely been a deterrent to other counties’ desire to house inmates at Swain’s facility.

Fired jail employee says he warned of relationship between murder suspect and jailer

The Swain County sheriff and jail administrators were warned that a jailer who freed a double murder suspect March 21 was getting too close to the prisoner but didn’t do anything to intervene, a former jail employee who was fired over the escape last week said.

The fired employee, Steven Osborne, told The Smoky Mountain News that he and other jail employees informed Sheriff Curtis Cochran and jail administrators Martha Marr and Jenny Hyatt numerous times that the jailer, Anita Vestal, and suspect, Jeffery Miles, were getting too close personally.

“They should have fired her when they had the chance,” said Osborne. “We saw it coming. We told them (sheriff and administrators) they were getting too friendly several times. It was a big topic.”

Miles and Vestal still had not been located at press time March 31.

The sheriff and the jail administrators failed to take action to end the relationship, said Osborne.

“They knew she was getting friendly with him,” Osborne said. “They had a meeting with her about two weeks ago. They didn’t do anything but slap her on the hand and let her go back to what she was doing.”

Cochran said there was no reason to suspect Vestal would do anything like this.

“She was a good detention officer,” Cochran said. “I never had any problem with her.”

The consequences of doing nothing could prove fatal, literally, said Osborne.

“Now there’s a killer loose on the street,” Osborne said. “Who knows when he’ll kill again or if he already has. This could have been prevented if they would have gotten rid of her.”

Osborne’s job at the jail was to watch over the security cameras to make sure inmates were not fighting or, in the worst case, escaping.

Osborne, who was a control officer for seven months, was on break when Miles used a key that Vestal apparently provided him to unlock a door and let himself out of jail. Osborne wasn’t watching the cameras when Miles unlocked a gate on the outside of the jail and hid in a van until Vestal drove him to freedom.

Osborne said he spent his 15-minute break talking to deputies outside the jail. Vestal took over for him while he was on break, he said. This is when the escape happened, Osborne said.

Vestal didn’t cover for him the entire break. She said she had to go to the pharmacy to pick up medication for inmates, Osborne said.

When she left, another jail employee, Jamie Sneed, took over, Osborne said.

Osborne had been back watching the cameras for about 10 minutes before he noticed Miles was gone. Osborne said he then called the sheriff, and the search, which included a helicopter and numerous roadblocks, began.

The reason Osborne was given for his firing was that he was no longer needed and that he was being let go because he left his post.

Osborne contends he did nothing wrong and had a piece of paper taped to the side of his computer stating he was allowed to take breaks as long as someone covers for him while he’s gone.

Miles is one of six people charged with killing David Scott Wiggins, 33, and Michael Heath Compton, 34, who were shot to death in their Bryson City home in August.

Sheriff Cochran had no comment on Osborne’s statements, saying he doesn’t discuss personnel issues publicly.

“The sheriff is just trying to take heat off himself,” Osborne said. “The sheriff doesn’t talk about any of this. It’s a dirty deal.”

The relationship between Vestal and Miles included her doing extra things for him like getting him magazines and spending time talking to him, Osborne said.

Vestal would stand in Miles’ cell and talk with him for two to three hours, said Osborne.

The relationship had been going on at least since the Daytona 500, Osborne said, remembering that they watched the February NASCAR race together.

Vestal would also write notes to Miles, said Osborne.


Family, friends worry about Vestal

Prior to working at the jail, Vestal was employed at the Cherokee Lodge in Cherokee as a front desk clerk. She was fired in October because her training for the job at the jail was taking up too much time.

She often brought her four children to work with her, and they would hang around in the lobby. Her husband, Brad Vestal, would also hang around the hotel while she was at work.

Many people who knew Anita Vestal said she loved her children dearly, and that is what is so shocking about her leaving them behind to run off with an accused murderer.

Her sister, Lea Ledford, said she doesn’t know what would motivate her sister to do what she did.

“It’s blown the whole family back,” Ledford said.

Vestal’s nephew, Ace Ledford, theorizes that maybe she was promised some money if she helped him escape.

“I’ve never known her to run off without her kids or her husband,” said Ace.

Ace, 20, said he is angry at his aunt for letting a suspected murderer out of jail.


What motivated Vestal to set Miles free?

Western Carolina University professor of criminology Dr. Fred Hawley said criminals are often charismatic and able to persuade people to do things they normally wouldn’t.

Inmates have lots of time to think and plot and find out where people’s vulnerabilities are, said Hawley.

The escape shows the consequences of jail employees fraternizing with inmates, said Hawley. This is a “worst-case” scenario of a jailer and an inmate bonding, Hawley said.

“This is pretty unusual,” he said.

Often it is less severe, with jail employees bringing inmates drugs or snacks, he said.

Vestal may have let him out of jail because she was blackmailed, Hawley said. Threats by outsiders could have been made against her family if she didn’t let him out, Hawley said. Another possibility is that Miles swept her off her feet, said Hawley.

Vestal may have let Miles out of jail because he made her feel attractive or special, said Psychologist Lynne Barrett of Waynesville. She must have thought that he wouldn’t harm her, said Barrett.

As for why Vestal would trust someone charged with murder, Dr. Barrett compared it to how people believe in cult leaders.

And it could have been that she was smitten with him because he flattered her and made her feel like he could give her things she didn’t have in life.

“When we’re in love we do things out of character,” Barrett said.

It could have been she was bored in her home life and starved for some excitement.

No one, from Sheriff Cochran to Vestal’s parents to the man on the street, has a clue as to why she set Miles free.

Steve Fuller of Bryson City doesn’t know if Vestal is a bad person or if she was blackmailed.

Kerrie Taylor of Cherokee has grim thoughts about what could happen.

“I don’t know if he’s already killed her and moved on to try and hijack someone’s vehicle,” she said.

Sheriff Cochran is also perplexed as to why Vestal freed Miles.

“Why a mother would leave four small children and run off with a guy like this is beyond me,” Sheriff Cochran said. “He’s had to promise her something. What that is is beyond me.”

The incident should serve as a lesson for law enforcement, said Shirley Hagler of Cherokee.

“I think if you go into law enforcement they should do a background check on you,” she said.

Cochran said all proper procedures were followed when Vestal was hired. She has no criminal background, he said. He added that the jail facility is very secure and not the reason for the escape.

“The jail worked the way it should. You can’t account for the human element,” Cochran said.

As for having any worries about Vestal hanging out with Miles in the common areas, Cochran said: “Those common areas are where the jailers go in and have contact with the inmates. There is no way to avoid that.”

Cochran said Vestal is facing charges for helping Miles escape.

“Her life has changed forever,” Cochran said. “She is going to be facing serious charges when she is caught. She has put everyone’s life in Swain County at risk plus everyone he’s come into contact with since he escaped.”

Cochran said he has been working around the clock on the case with help from the State Bureau of Investigation, Highway Patrol, Bryson City Police Department and the Park Service.

Three of the other inmates charged in the murders have been relocated to Raleigh Central Prison as a result of the escape while the other two remain in the Swain County Jail.

Detective Jason Gardner said the other two were allowed to stay in the county jail because they are not considered a high risk of escaping.

The sheriff thinks the escape was well planned.

Vestal was reportedly text messaging in her apartment complex parking lot the night before the escape. Cochran said the text messages are being sought.

The search for Vestal and Miles was featured on the national TV show America’s Most Wanted over the weekend, but hadn’t resulted in any new leads.

Detective Gardner said there is a possibility they could be in Atlanta where Miles’ wife lives, in California, where he is originally from, or in Alabama or Illinois.


Parents had good relationship with Vestal

Vestal’s parents, Ronnie and Judy Blythe, said they had a good relationship with Vestal.

“It was very good, very close,” Ronnie Blythe said.

Vestal had been married about 10 years to Brad Vestal, who twice declined comment to The Smoky Mountain News when contacted at his apartment in Bryson City.

The Blythes, who live in Whittier, said they have many unanswered questions about the incident. For instance, they don’t know why Vestal and Miles would leave the jail to go to her apartment and exchange the van for a truck. Why wouldn’t she just go ahead and get out of town, rather than waste time switching vehicles?

Her dad said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News that she had never been in trouble in her life. She enjoyed her job at the jail and was proud of herself for scoring so high on the physical and written tests to get the job, Judy Blythe said.

Ronnie Blythe said he is unconvinced that his daughter willingly let Miles out of jail.

“Whether he enticed or coerced her, I may be willing to accept that,” he said.

The sheriff’s office has done a great job handling the case, said Ronnie Blythe. But he is still amazed at how Miles and his daughter disappeared so quickly after the escape.

“If I could tell her anything right now, I would tell her to turn herself in and call home and let us know you’re all right,” Ronnie Blythe said.

The Blythes would also like their daughter to know that she is not in any trouble that can’t be taken care off and that she should return home and get on with her life.

Swain residents lock and load in wake of escaped murder suspect

Swain County residents are locking their doors and loading their guns after a suspect in a double homicide escaped from the county jail Saturday, thanks to help from a jailer who may still be with him.

Lelon Greene of Bryson City has been taking precautions in case the murder suspect, Jeffery Miles, 27, pays him a visit.

“I’ve got two pistols on each side of the bed,” Greene said. “One on my wife’s side and one on mine.”

Angela Winchester has also taken up arms. “I’ve got one gun at the house,” she said. “I’ve made it more easy to get to.”

Winchester fears for the jailer, Anita Vestal, 32, of Bryson City.

“He’s already killed two people,” she said. “He has nothing to lose. Now he might kill her.”

Detective Jason Gardner said the relationship between the jailer and murder suspect is unknown.

Miles, who is from Atlanta, is one of six people charged with killing David Scott Wiggins, 33, and Michael Heath Compton, 34, who were shot to death in their home in August.

When news of the escape broke in town Saturday afternoon residents called each other to warn of the danger.

Winchester first became aware of the situation Saturday afternoon when she went through two roadblocks where law enforcement officers were looking for the suspects. She promptly called her brother’s wife who told her what was going on.

Now there is a debate going on around town as to whose fault the escape is.

The fact that the sheriff has no previous law enforcement experience when elected two years ago has fueled speculation that his office is to blame while others say he had no control. Winchester and her mom, Violet, disagree on where the blame falls.

Winchester believes the ultimate responsibility lies with Sheriff Curtis Cochran. But Violet said the sheriff can’t help it if a jailer decides to let an inmate out.

“Yeah but she was hired by the sheriff’s office,” Winchester retorted.

Detective Gardner said there was “no way” the escape could have been prevented.

Misty Postell of Swain County was in jail recently and said Vestal was the jailer overseeing her.

“She was a nice girl,” Postell said.

Mack Sutton of Bryson City said she thinks Vestal let him out of jail because “that old girl got sweet on him.”

It isn’t the sheriff’s fault the two escaped, Sutton said.

Odis Hyatt said this incident proves that the new jail facility is doing a poor job for what it is costing the taxpayer.

Since he learned of he escape, Hyatt has been keeping his gun loaded. He has trouble accepting that a jailer would help an inmate escape.

“She wasn’t doing her damn job,” Hyatt said, adding that the county needs to monitor more closely who it hires to work at the jail.

Detective Gardner said he is unaware of any criminal history of Vestal other than a possible worthless check charge.

But he said she is not a felon. She had been employed at the jail about eight months.

Gardener said Miles left out a side door, and Vestal left as she normally would. He said it is unclear whether she unlocked the door for Miles electronically though the control room or if he opened the door with a key she had supplied him.

They left the jail in a van and went to her apartment at Bryson Creek Apartments and replaced the vehicle with a red 2001 Ford Ranger with a maroon camper cover and a North Carolina license plate.

The sheriff’s office has spoken with Vestal’s parents who have had no contact with her, Gardner said Monday. Vestal is the niece of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Vice Chief Larry Blythe.

Swain leaders divided on contentious fire station plan

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Two Swain County commissioners are having second thoughts about a move to end contracted fire service with the town of Bryson City after listening to the impassioned pleas of volunteer firefighters who shared their comments at a meeting last week.

Town officials had requested more money from the county to match the high number of calls firefighters were answering outside town limits. The county instead proposed ending the contract altogether and building two new stations of its own, leaving firefighters from the Bryson City Fire Department up in arms.

Commissioners Steve Moon and David Monteith were initially supportive of the proposal to build a new station at the industrial park and in the Ela community, but emerged from the meeting with changed minds after hearing a group of Bryson City firefighters air their concerns.

“Those guys have been here a long time, and I think their wishes should be given full attention, and should even maybe take priority,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “And I was all for building those substations before the meeting Monday night. I’ve changed my mind.”

Moon had qualms about the timing of the project, which will cost an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 to build the stations and buy two fire trucks.

“I don’t think it’s the right time with the state of the economy and our county, and the passion some of these firefighters feel for their fire department,” he said. “Maybe we should table it for a year.”

Monteith also was less sure of the proposal following the meeting.

“I went to that meeting feeling pretty good about what I wanted, but came out and there’s still some answers I need to get,” Monteith said.

Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes, an outspoken opponent of the plan, said he felt commissioners learned something from the meeting.

“I’m not saying someone lied to them, but I think they had some misleading information, and I think we cleared that up and they listened,” he said.

The county’s plan to create new fire stations was largely spearheaded by County Manager Kevin King.

Hughes also questions the project’s timing.

“Maybe one day this might be the right thing to do, but right now it’s not with the economy the way it is,” he said.

Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones, however, did not appear to waver in his support of the new fire stations. In fact, he didn’t realize others on the board no longer supported it.

“I think the consensus of the board is that we’re going to contract with West Swain, but we haven’t voted on it,” Jones said.

Under the proposal, the county would contract with the West Swain Fire Department. The station would be in charge of applying for loans to fund the new stations and two new trucks, as well as hiring someone to construct the stations.

Jones did not have reservations about the county’s ability to pay the estimated $600,000 to $700,000 the new stations and trucks would cost. The county will divert what it currently contributes to the Bryson and Qualla departments to make loan payments on the new stations, and would only kick in an extra $20,000 over what it pays now.

“I believe that we can handle that, yes,” he said.

The positions of Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay and Phillip Carson are not known.


More discussion likely

Moon said he saw a need for more town involvement in making a decision over county fire service. Hughes has bemoaned a lack of communication between the county and town.

For example, a state fire inspector met with county officials several months ago to provide his opinion on county fire service. The Bryson Fire Department was never informed, Hughes said.

“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Hughes said. “If they had wanted to improve something, why didn’t they include everybody in it?”

Moon urged more town input in the process, and was surprised there hadn’t been.

“I thought that they would be more involved, but they did seem caught off-guard, which is another reason to table it,” said Moon. “We need to work together, not as two separate entities.”

“We need some good old sit down coffee drinking meeting to hammer out everything,” Monteith agreed.

In the mean time, Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker said the town board is considering its options should the county decide to terminate its contract, which is worth $47,000 per year. If the county did so, the town fire department would lose about two-thirds of its call volume, and the number of volunteers needed would likely be reduced.

“We don’t know where we are going, but we have two options,” said Walker. “Either go with the new (county) entity, or make a smaller fire department.”

Walker said the town board will meet with the state fire marshal on March 16 to discuss options.

Meanwhile, the county is in no rush to make a decision. Initially, the county had wanted to get the first new station up and running by mid-summer, said County Manager Kevin King. But with both Moon and Monteith wanting to look into other options, that timeline will likely be pushed back.

“I think the public needs to know more about it,” Monteith said.

Moon said this is one of the biggest challenges commissioners have dealt with in a long while, and it’s keeping him up at night.

“Several nights I’ve laid awake,” Moon said. “I want to do the right thing, for our citizens and our people, and I pray about it. I pray for the Lord’s guidance.”


“If it ain’t broke...”

Hughes says he’s representing the wishes of his 34 volunteer firemen in speaking out against the project.

“I wouldn’t be trying to fix something that ain’t broke,” Hughes said.

Hughes also promised that his volunteers won’t leave the Bryson City Fire Department to join the ranks of firefighters at the new county stations, and expressed doubt about the county’s ability to staff the stations.

“The ones that are already in my department, they’re not leaving,” Hughes said.

Hughes says the county proposal would duplicate services. An Ela station would cover the same area the Qualla Fire Department already covers. A new station at the industrial park would also duplicate service that already exists, being “so close” to the Bryson City Fire Department, Hughes said.

If Hughes had his way, he would build additional stations in different locations than the county proposed. In order of importance, Hughes would place substations in Laurel Branch, on the west end of the Gorge, in Brushy Creek, and in Whittier.

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.”

Tight times force tough choices for Swain schools

The Swain County School District has terminated a popular program that emphasized science and math education, offered students smaller classes and helped combat the system’s high dropout rate.

The three-year-old School of Applied Science, Math and Technology was axed last month, despite having two more years of grant funding left. It had 160 students out of 600 at the high school.

The SASMT got a five-year grant from the N.C. New Schools Foundation, which funds programs that offer an alternative approach to traditional high school curriculum.

While the program didn’t cost Swain schools anything thanks to the grant funding, that grant would run out in two more years and the school system would have to shoulder the cost of about $52,000 annually. Administrators felt it would be impossible for them to come up with the money, and opted to throw in the towel sooner rather than later.

“We studied our options for over six months before we made that decision,” said Regina Ash, head of instruction for the Swain County Schools system. “We studied options, we argued about it. This was not something we took lightly. It was not a first choice, but with the budget going the way it is going we felt this was the best option for us.”

The alternative style of learning offered by the SASMT proved popular. Few students left the program, and it boasted an extremely low dropout rate — only one pupil in three years. A review commissioned by the New Schools Foundation gave the SASMT high marks in October 2008, finding that, “achievement has been consistently above district averages in all core subjects.”

“You in essence are closing down a program that has proven to be very effective,” said Sam Houston, president and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Math and Technology Education Center.

While Houston said he cannot speak to the school’s situation, he questioned any decision to terminate the program before the grant ran out.

“It would be wise for them to continue for the next two years,” he said.

The SASMT principal, Jeff Payne, expressed disappointment in the program’s termination.

“We hate to see it going away,” Payne said. “We feel like we were successful, but it’s just one of those things that we hope to learn from the experience.”

The high school has pledged to incoporate the education principles from the special science and math program into all classrooms school wide.


The wrong equation?

The success of the SASMT lay partly in its small size, which helped cultivate an intimate learning environment.

The program operated like a school within a school, with students in the same building but segregated from the regular student body for most of their classes, enjoying smaller class size and a more intimate setting.

“It’s building the relationship on a deeper level, so that the teachers know the kids, their problems, and their families,” said Ash. “When kids and teachers know each other better, they both perform better. The depth of understanding helps the relationship on both ends.”

But with all their perks, small classes in an underfunded, rural school district like Swain’s present a host of challenges. Already in Swain, there aren’t enough teachers to go around. The SASMT was sharing teachers with Swain County High School, and with its multiple small classes was stretching teaching resources even further.

“As a small school, the quota of teachers is small and insufficient to cover even the core subjects for all students,” noted the New Schools review.

Limited teaching resources proved to be a fatal blow to the SASMT.

“We started splitting those groups up, and we didn’t have the teacher resources to do it the way they’re supposed to be done,” Payne said.

The school district would have had to hire additional positions as required by the SASMT, including a principal and guidance counselor — a move the system likely couldn’t afford when the time came.

“The problem is they require you to have a separate principal and a separate guidance counselor,” said Steve Claxton, community schools coordinator for the district. “We’re talking about very few students to do those things, and we didn’t see it being fiscally possible for us to continue to have two principals, and a guidance counselor just for (SASMT).”

Particularly, Claxton said, when the district is already facing the possibility of eliminating existing positions in its budget cutbacks.

“We’re looking at losing teachers. How are we going to come up with money to pay people that we don’t pay now?” he said.

But Houston says the benefits students reap from the program make the upfront cost worthwhile.

“You have a very small student population, so when you calculate the per pupil cost, it looks like they are terribly expensive,” Houston said. “But the truth is, the return on the investment is huge.”

While a lack of funding for new positions played a role in the termination of the SASMT, Payne believes small classes could be an inherently flawed approach at small, rural schools. That approach may have worked well in larger districts the New Schools Foundation first experimented with, but likely won’t play out the same way in smaller ones.

“They’ve tried to go to smaller schools, and that’s part of the problem — we’re already a small school to start with,” said Payne.

Even when the SASMT merge back into the rest of the student body, the student population of Swain High School will total about 600.

“I’d rather have a high school with 200, but when you start getting into those really large schools, then you’re looking at losing the relationship component,” Payne said. “Those are the schools that the new schools project will work better for.”

Ironically Payne believes that the small classes that made the SASMT work led to its downfall.

“It got worse and worse to be able to have those small classes, and in my opinion, the division of resources to different programs limited what people could actually do,” he said.

So while the New Schools Project may contain some beneficial ideas, some of them are impossible to apply at smaller schools, says Payne.

“It’s not the New Schools project’s fault that we don’t have the resources, but there’s only so much you can do with what you have.”


Math, science won’t disappear

Swain cut the SASMT at a time when an increasing importance is being placed on math, science and technological education. But the subjects weren’t a factor in the decision to end the program, said Claxton.

Instead, the additional cost the district would have to incur to continue the SASMT when its grant ran out was a deterrent.

“They’re expecting us to continue to run it, versus all the other programs already in place — things like athletics,” Claxton said.

But Payne says it’s more important than ever that students learn the subjects taught by the SASMT.

“Pick up any magazine, or go on-line, and look at what jobs are going to be needed in the next 20 years,” he said. “The world’s changing, and technology is a big part of it, and science and math are a part of that technology.”

Payne worries that those subjects won’t play as big of a role in the regular curriculum.

“It’s not going to be as big of a focus probably,” he said. “I think we had more emphasis, not just by giving them a couple more classes, but also by integrating those areas into their classes.”

Ash, though, assures that the school is making steps to incorporate those subjects into everyday classes, and make sure students know how to apply them in the outside world.

“Our teachers are embedding technology in their instruction, and when our kids are doing projects, they are using technology in presentations,” she said. “We’re making sure that the work they produce is more relevant and more connected with what they’ll be producing in the workplace.”

Plus, the district is emphasizing math and science education in the curriculum.

“We’ve been building our science and math program for a while, and trying to offer advanced courses for our students,” Ash said, like a yearlong Advanced Placement course that covers Physics and Pre-Calculus.


“We’ve learned a lot”

All in all, Swain County school officials say the SASMT was anything but a wash. In fact, the professional development it provided taught the district some valuable lessons and approaches it hopes to hold on to.

“We’ve learned a lot from it, and we’ll incorporate some of those things into the system next year,” Claxton said.

Payne tends to agree.

“A lot of the stuff we learned from this experience we’re going to keep,” he says. “Hopefully, students aren’t going to be missing much at all.”

Payne would like to see lasting change result from the SASMT concepts.

“I’m hopeful that we’ve learned a lot, and that we’re changing the culture of the whole high school and the way that teachers and students interact with one another,” he said.

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