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Mandated cutbacks mean tough decisions

The first Friday in February came with some bad news for the Swain County School District and systems around the state. Word came from Raleigh that school budgets would be cut by 7 percent in the upcoming fiscal year.

The Swain school system already trimmed costs by $75,000 in December when the state called on schools statewide to send back a small percent of their current budgets. Schools were bracing for more cutbacks , but didn’t know how much.

“In the beginning, they were saying between 2 and 7 percent, but realistically around 4 percent,” said Steve Claxton, community schools coordinator. “Now they’re saying no, it’s looking more drastic than we first projected.”

A worst case scenario could call for 7 percent budget cut, which would amount to $952,000. While the exact amount won’t be known for some time, administrators are bracing for some tough decisions.

“We’re going to take a pretty serious cut. That’s plain and simple,” said Claxton. “Everybody knows that. The revenues just aren’t there.”

Layoffs are now a very real possibility, and likely a necessity. Hopefully the school system can achieve a workforce reduction through attrition. For the past two years, between 15 and 17 teachers retired at the end of the school year. If the same scenario happened this year, the school could chose not to fill vacancies and naturally reduce the number of paid positions. But that won’t be the case.

“We don’t have those numbers this year, so it’s really concerning us,” said Claxton. “This year we’re looking at people if they even are qualified to retire.”

The school also loses a certain number of teachers every year who move to other counties. But if there aren’t enough teachers in that category, the school may have to broaden its scope, he said.

Talk of layoffs has caused a cloud to hang over the schools.

“It’s creating a real feeling of uneasiness,” said Claxton.

Four-legged crisis brewing in Swain

Swain County’s complete lack of services to handle the growing stray animal population is putting a heavy burden on a nonprofit shelter and forcing county commissioners to weigh their options.

“We have absolutely nothing right now, and we are trying to develop a plan,” said County Manager Kevin King.

It’s been months since the county canceled its contract with Valley River Animal Control, an Andrews agency that made weekly rounds to pick up strays. Granted, people plagued by stray dogs or cats lurking about their yard had to corral them until the animal catcher came through. But it was better than nothing — which is what residents have now.

The contract with Valley River was the county’s sole strategy for handling strays. It doesn’t run an animal shelter or have animal control officers of its own.

A local shelter run by the non-profit, no-kill organization P.A.W.S. (Placing Animals Within Society) has long acted as a de facto county shelter. That role was tough but manageable.

But without Valley River, PAWS has been left to shoulder the entire burden of stray animals. The small shelter is overwhelmed by those trying to dump off strays or unable to care for their own pets.

“Once the contract was ended, I think our requests on a monthly basis have doubled,” said Ellen Kilgannon, PAWS’ executive director.

In all of 2008, PAWS fielded 633 requests to take in stray animals. In December alone, the organization took 85 calls. The economic downturn isn’t helping — Kilgannon said lately, PAWS has seen a spike in “people that can’t afford to keep their animals anymore.”

If the trend continues, PAWS could field more than 1,000 requests in the next year.

PAWS is already stretched to capacity, said Kilgannon. It only has slots for 16 cats and 15 dogs at one time. She wishes the county would build a shelter that could accommodate more.

“We would very much to like to see the county have an open admission shelter, that being, you could take an animal to the shelter and then they would accept it and there would be no limits on the numbers they could accept,” Kilgannon said.

Any takers?

Building a shelter is one option on the table, King said. But the county isn’t eager to bring animal control services in-house. Swain would rather contract with an outside agency to handle strays — whether it’s to haul them off or house them in a shelter somewhere else.

The county has been in negotiations with several agencies since August, but without much success.

“Up until this time, we still don’t have a contract with anybody,” said King.

One problem the county is running in to — other counties are already struggling to handle their own stray populations, and are hesitant to take on that of another county.

“The majority of people we’ve talked to have said if they had the space, they would be talking to us more seriously,” King said.

It’s a problem that PAWS is already familiar with. If their shelter is full, it’s often forced to tell disbelieving callers that their only option is to hang on to the stray until space opens up.

“We apologize and say we can put an ad in the newspaper to try and find the animal a home, but that’s about all we can offer them,” Kilgannon said.

First things first

Building a shelter is not the county’s top priority. First, the county is attempting to put an animal control ordinance in place. The ordinance has already been drafted and is currently being reviewed by the county’s attorney. Then, the county would like to hire an animal control officer. After those things are in place, the county may consider building a holding facility or even a larger shelter facility.

It’s all a learning process for the county, which has always contracted out for services to control the stray population.

“This is the first time we’ve had to do it ourselves,” said King. “This is starting from ground zero. We’re trying to get educated on the pitfalls of the process, crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s.”

Part of the process is figuring out how to fund in-house animal control services. The county’s former contract with Valley River was a bargain at only $21,000 per year. King estimates it will be at least triple that to hire an animal control officer and give them the equipment to operate. That amount wouldn’t include an animal shelter building, which could cost roughly $150,000 for a bare bones facility, King said. Macon County recently spent $500,000 to open up its shelter facility.

PAWS: We need help now

While the county looks for a solution, commissioners seem unwilling to help PAWS deal with the flood of animals in the meantime.

Commissioners recently ignored a request from PAWS board chair Julie Thorner for $10,000 that would supplement the organization’s low-cost spay and neuter program. For the past year, PAWS has been operating with a grant that allowed individuals receiving Medicare, Medicaid or food stamps to get their animals fixed for a mere $8. That grant expired in January. Without it, PAWS will have to return to charging between $40 and $50 for spay and neuter surgeries.

The $8 bargain was effective in getting people to fix their animals. In 2008, the number of people spaying and neutering their animals through the program increased 25 percent over the previous year, said Kilgannon.

Though the county couldn’t give PAWS the money, King said commissioners still appreciate the work the organization does on behalf of strays.

“I really commend PAWS for all that they’ve done for the county, because they have a tremendous spay and neuter program which eliminates the need for euthanizations,” said King. “They’ve done a fabulous job.”

But kind words alone don’t provide the financial support that PAWS desperately needs.

The situation in Swain has become so dire that PAWS is taking a serious look at whether it can continue to operate.

“The economic downturn and lack of animal control have really caused us to consider, ‘Do we stay open?’ and ‘Can we continue and afford to keep our doors open?’” said Kilgannon. “Any support that we would see from the county government and the community at this point in time would be a huge morale boost and give us hope.”

Dreams for Swain’s old courthouse hinge on big money

Swain County would need more than $4 million to renovate its historic courthouse, putting plans for a cultural museum to be housed on the second floor in jeopardy.

The 1908 building has undergone few repairs since it was built, and thus accumulated a laundry list of expensive renovations.

“We’re looking for money — lots of money,” County Manager Kevin King told commissioners at the county’s annual retreat last Saturday (Jan. 31).

A structural engineering report commissioned by the county revealed the extent of repairs needed before a proposed cultural museum and visitors center can occupy the building.

The idea for a Swain County history museum and heritage center has been tossed around for years. Significant time has been invested in the idea, including picking stories to highlight, collecting oral histories, and most recently, applying for grants to fund the project.

But without massive structural repairs, the second floor could not safely house the museum or anything else.

“The second floor will hold itself up, but won’t hold much more weight,” explained King.

Repairing the second floor alone will cost $2 million, King said.

And any second floor renovations could delay the opening of a visitors center run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association proposed to occupy the first floor.

“We have to come in and do some massive renovations, and whatever renovations we do will impede the downstairs totally. For one, you’d have to drop the ceiling,” said King.

Of course, the second floor won’t necessarily have to be redone if plans for a museum are scrapped. That’s a decision commissioners will have to make — “if we want to continue with the museum on the second floor, or just the visitors center on the first floor,” King said.

Swain leaders indifferent to lack of building regulations

Attempts to pass Swain County’s first-ever planning regulations are showing signs of movement, but not in the direction that planning advocates hope.

A county subdivision ordinance, primarily setting standards for road widths and grades, was dropped from discussion by county commissioners a year ago after facing fierce opposition at a public hearing. No work has been done on it since, leaving Swain County as one of the few in the region with no regulations or oversight of construction on mountainside slopes.

The commissioners’ lack of interest in planning has now cost the county a grant that would have rekindled the topic.

Until recently, Swain County was second in line for a pot of money to help communities with planning initiatives, funded by the Southwestern Commission and the Department of Transportation.

The county was given the coveted number two spot because at the time, commissioners seemed serious about a subdivision ordinance and other planning issues.

But since the ordinance is dead in the water, the two grant sponsors asked Swain County Manager Kevin King if it was OK to bump the county further down the list and put neighboring Macon County in the number two spot.

King gave the Southwestern Commission and DOT the go ahead, and later informed the commissioners at the board’s annual retreat last weekend.

“That ordinance was dead anyway,” King told commissioners. “So we don’t have anything in place right now until somebody asks to put it on the agenda.”

King paused to see if commissioners showed signs of interest in the issue, but they remained silent, making it clear they had no intention of being the one to bring the ordinance up again.

Some Swain County residents think now is the time for the county to revisit the issue of planning. The economic downturn has slowed development, leaving commissioners time to hash out details.

“Right now, while land prices are dropping out the bottom, they should be trying to do something,” said Swain native Boyd Gunter. “You got a breathing spell here.”

Gunter, who lives in the Alarka community, has already seen too many developers ravaging his mountains.

“I own mountain land, and I don’t want to see it destroyed,” he said. “It’s just pure negligence on these Realtors’ parts to think you can come and build a house anywhere.”

Gunter has been pushing Swain commissioners to put development regulations of some sort in place for at least two years, but to no avail.

Broken bridge ignites debate with Park over North Shore cemeteries

Swain County residents with family buried in cemeteries in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park claim the park service is dragging its feet repairing a washed out bridge used to visit the old graves.

A bridge spanning the mouth of Hazel Creek in the North Shore area of the Park came apart last summer. It will cost upwards of $500,000 to replace it, according to the U.S. Park Service. The Park is requesting federal money to build back the bridge, but it will have to compete against dozens of other national parks for a limited pot of funds.

Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the Smokies, came to the Swain County commissioners meeting last week, where he got an earful from a few angry Swain County residents who want the bridge repaired immediately.

David Monteith, a county commissioner, said the bridge provided a vital link for those wanting to visit cemeteries where loved ones are still buried in the Park. To reach the cemeteries in the North Shore backcountry, people generally take a ferry across Lake Fontana and walk the rest of the way on old roads, or are driven the remaining distance by park rangers.

In the summer when lake levels are up, the bridge is submerged and the ferry motors up the mouth of Hazel Creek to let people out. But when lake levels drop the rest of the year, the bridge becomes the only way to span the mouth of Hazel Creek. Without the bridge, people have to hike up and around on a narrow trail for more than a mile to reach the same cemeteries.

“Right now, the way it stands between late September and late March, it makes it totally impossible for the handicap and elderly to go up Hazel Creek,” Monteith said. “If you are on a cane, you can’t get there.”

Monteith said it also puts a crimp on visitation from hikers, backpackers and fishermen who visit the backcountry.

“That’s major money coming into Swain County,” Monteith said.

Monteith accused Ditmanson of not wanting the bridge built back. Monteith said the Park has inflated what it would actually cost to build the bridge. The higher price tag is going to keep it from being built back, Monteith said.

Monteith consulted the contractor that built the original bridge for an opinion on what it would cost today. The figure he came up with was $100,000 — not $500,000.

Monteith is a leader in the movement to build the North Shore Road, a group that has historically been at odds with the Park.

Monteith offered to write Ditmanson a check for $100,000 if he would go build the bridge back. Ditmanson wouldn’t accept it, which Monteith said shows that the Park doesn’t really want the bridge built back.

“You are trying to block us out,” Monteith said.

Monteith cited what he feels is a pattern of negligence by the Park Service toward the Swain County portion of the Park.

“This is part of us. It feels like they take everything away from Swain County,” Monteith said. “We are losing everything about the Park on this side of the mountain.”

For example, trashcans in the North Shore backcountry have been removed because rangers didn’t want to come empty them.

Monteith said the bridge could have been saved if the Park acted faster. But Park Spokesperson Bob Miller said the Park did not know the integrity of the bridge was compromised until it was too late.

“The first we heard that there was a problem with the bridge is the folks at Fontana Marina called us and said the bridge was floating in the lake,” Miller said.

The Park hired a crew of underwater divers to go in and inspect the submerged bridge and supports. They hoped they could simply tow the wooden bridge back in place and bolt it back, that perhaps the clips attaching the bridge to the beams were all that had rusted out. But it turns out the beams themselves were too corroded, Miller said.


Getting the money

Even if the Park’s request is granted, the money won’t come through until 2011 at the earliest, or 2015 more realistically.

The Park Service is typically working on a five-year time line. So projects that get money today were actually approved five years ago.

Here’s how the process works. Once a year, every park puts together a list of repairs it needs for roads, bridges and facilities. The Department of Interior looks at all the lists and decides which ones get money.

At first, the Park simply turns in a rough estimate of what the work would cost for the Hazel Creek bridge. The Smokies guessed about $500,000. If it makes the government’s short list, then the Park will engage an engineer to do a more sophisticated estimate, Miller said.

“Initially you put in a broad conceptual design and rough estimate,” Miller said. “There is no point to spend money on refining a design until you know that it is even in the pecking order.”

Typically, there’s about $90 million is the pot for road work to be shared under the Department of Interior. The requests that come in are many times that amount, usually a giant laundry list of every project every park would like to see.

“Requesting things you know will never be funded gives the Park Service some idea of how big the road needs are,” Miller said. “If you only request the top three you know will be funded it looks like ‘Oh, you got everything.’”


The pecking order

The Hazel Creek bridge could have a hard time competing for limited national park funds. Technically, it isn’t considered a road used by the public. Rather it’s classified as an “administrative” road used by park personnel only.

“It’s going to be hard for that project to compete very well,” Miller said.

The Smokies saw that disadvantage play out following the floods of 2004, which washed out another bridge in the North Shore area. The Park applied to a pot of emergency money for flood repairs, but was turned down since it was considered “public” use. At the time, Congressman Charles Taylor, R-Brevard, was serving over the subcommittee that controls park service funding and pulled strings to get the repair funded after all. Taylor has since been voted out and replaced with Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who doesn’t have direct sway over the Park budget.

Swain County Manager Kevin King wrote a letter to the Smokies asking for the bridge to be fixed. The letter cites the hardship on the elderly and handicapped trying to visit their family graves.

Miller said he isn’t sure if the local demands, or the issue of cemetery access, will influence the chances for funding.

“It might help to tip the balance or give it a better ranking, but it’s hard to tell,” Miller said.

Miller said the Park is not happy about the bridge washing out either, as it allowed the park rangers better access to the area as well.

But the Hazel Creek bridge replacement isn’t even at the top of the Park’s own list. The list includes items used by far more people or far more urgent, such as restrooms for visitors or saving historic structures in immediate danger of falling down.

Incident heightens tensions between county, sheriff

Allegations that the Swain County Sheriff’s Department mishandled the capture of an escaped inmate earlier this month has strained the already-tense relationship between county officials and Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Jody Smallwood, 37, escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse Jan. 5. The seven-hour search for Smallwood, involving both county and Bryson City law enforcement, ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74.

When Smallwood made a last ditch effort to elude capture at the end of the chase, Cochran says he drew his weapon and fired two shots at the tire of the stolen van Smallwood was driving in order to disable the vehicle. Smallwood was then Tased and apprehended, according to local media reports (Cochran wouldn’t comment on the Tasing).

But a letter received by the county, signed “A Concerned Citizen,” claims the capture of Smallwood was mishandled.

“I have reason to believe that the apprehension of an escaped inmate from the Swain County Jail ... was grossly mishandled and that excessive force was used,” the anonymous letter states.

The letter writer claims that Cochran, who has not undergone basic law enforcement training and had no law enforcement experience prior to being elected in 2006, violated policies and procedures put forth by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office by using deadly force to apprehend Smallwood, even though the situation did not present an imminent threat.

The letter also accuses law enforcement officials of unnecessarily beating and Tasing Smallwood repeatedly.

County Clerk Cindi Woodard emailed the letter on Jan. 12 to the board of county commissioners and to two media outlets — the Smoky Mountain News and The Smoky Mountain Times. Though the letter is public record, making public a complaint that reflects negatively on a county department has happened rarely in Swain County.

The county defended its decision to release the letter, saying that emails received by the county’s account are public record, and that media outlets have before requested to be informed of such complaints.

“We just did proper procedure,” said County Manager Kevin King. “It came to (Commissioner Chairman) Glenn Jones, who received it via the county email account. That made it a public document at that point in time. (Media outlets) have indicated that they want to get those letters.”

Jones said he just wanted the county to play it safe, in case the complaints materialized into something bigger.

“What if something happened and you were to come by and say, if you had this letter, why didn’t’ you send it to me?” Jones said.

Jones said he felt the letter was legitimate, although King said it was signed with a false name. King said he had already “heard rumors from other individuals about some of the stuff,” contained in the letter.

Cochran, meanwhile, says the county probably had its own motives for sending out the letter — and it wasn’t to follow protocol.

“I smell politics all over this,” he said.

The sheriff and county officials are currently at odds over a lawsuit that Cochran filed against the county. In it, Cochran, a Republican, demands a pay increase to match the salary of the former sheriff, a Democrat. The sheriff’s salary was slashed when the county did away with a practice that once served as a salary supplement, just as Cochran took office. Cochran claims partisan prejudice played a factor.

But when King was asked whether the lawsuit played a part in the county’s decision to send out a letter that reflected negatively on the sheriff, his answer was, “absolutely not.”

As far as looking further into complaints alleged in the letter, county officials say it’s not their responsibility to oversee the sheriff’s department.

“He’s an elected official, and he’s supposed to take care of his own department,” said Jones.

King agreed.

“We’re not a watchdog of the sheriff — the people are,” King said. “If he’s done wrongdoing, other people would have to bring a suit against the county. We have no control over what the sheriff does.”


Probing the escape

The sheriff’s department has launched an investigation — but not into what happened when Smallwood was apprehended.

“The only thing we’re investigating is how he got out of the holding cell,” said Cochran. “We don’t have an investigation on nothing else.”

There is no statewide policy in place that mandates an investigation when shots are fired. Instead, it’s up to the individual law enforcement agencies.

It may be impossible to ever prove whether Smallwood’s apprehension was handled correctly. But the writer of the anonymous letter received by the county claims that the incident could have gone more smoothly if Cochran, who fired the gun, had undergone basic law enforcement training.

“Maybe this is the kind of law enforcement you have when you give an untrained man a badge and a gun,” it states.

Cochran is quick to defend his lack of experience, and says voters have put their trust in him for a reason.

“I was qualified by the people of Swain County in November of 2006 to be sheriff,” he said.

Old Swain courthouse holds promise as museum, visitor center

A visitor center that would showcase the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a local heritage museum could one day occupy the Swain County historic courthouse on Everett Street if and when the senior center currently in the courthouse moves out.

The visitors center will be run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit that also runs a visitors center near the Smokemont Park entrance in Tennessee. The group has already pledged $100,000 to construct the center, according to Dan Wood, executive director of Swain County Partnership for the Future.

“They’ve been wanting a presence over on this part of the Park for a long time, and it’s a good fit right there with the Chamber of Commerce nearby,” said Wood.

Wood said the visitors center will feature five or six plasma screen televisions, one with a touch screen electronic map. The center will also house a small sandwich shop with drinks and coffee.

“We think a welcome center ... will bring more and more tourists to this area to stop by and map out their trip,” said Wood.

Wood and others had hoped to begin construction of the visitors center as early as March, but it’s now on hold indefinitely until the senior center can be relocated. Plans called for moving the senior center into a new building, but the county ran out of money to finish it.

The new senior center is being built with grant money, but the county only got half the grants it needed. Construction was launched with hopes more grant money would come through to complete it, but so far that hasn’t happened and the half-completed structure is in a holding pattern.

“Everything has ground to a halt with the senior center,” Wood said.

Wood is also reviving the idea for a Swain County history museum and heritage center to occupy the historic courthouse.

The idea has been tossed around for years. Initial plans called for the museum to focus on Swain County stories of national significance, including the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the creation of Fontana Lake, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the region’s natural history.

A three-year planning process identified stories to be highlighted and work collecting oral histories was completed. A cost estimate was done, putting the total project cost at $1.5 million.

“Then, it kind of fell into a black hole of nothingness,” Wood said of the project. “Until I got here about a year ago, nothing had been done since 2004.”

Wood said arranging a move for the senior center has held up the process of planning for a visitors center and museum, which has been admittedly slow.

“Things move like a glacier,” he said. “But now, we’ve started to get money. I’ve written two separate grants (for the visitors center), and they both look good.”

Wood said the museum is likely at least two years from completion.

Swain's drug problem worries officials

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The beautiful mountain scenery that covers Swain County hides an ugly truth — the area is combating a major drug problem, and officials aren’t quite sure how to stop it.

Swain chooses negotiators for North Shore settlement

By Jennifer Garlesky & Julia Merchant • Staff Writers

Two Swain County employees will join representatives from the Department of Interior, the State of North Carolina and the Tennessee Valley Authority to negotiate a new contract that will replace the 1943 North Shore Road agreement.

More than 150 attend Swain’s historic first MLK celebration

More than 150 people traveled from all over Western North Carolina to attend the first official Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Bryson City’s Historic Calhoun House on Jan. 21.

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