Commissioners advance court security plan; approve $111K for county dog park relocation

Sheriff Robert Holland presents board members with a request for $82,502 to pay for a courthouse security equipment package to complement the addition of three Sheriff’s Office deputies that will cost the county $373,432.

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

The Macon County Board of Commissioners gave the green light Tuesday for the funds to purchase a courthouse security equipment package worth $82,502 presented by Sheriff Robert Holland. In addition, the board agreed to three more Sheriff’s Department officers in the next fiscal year for a FY 2020 courthouse security operating total cost of $373,432.

“We’re ready to move forward,” said Sheriff Holland, who along with Judge William Coward, headed a year-long review by a 22-person courthouse security committee. “It’s been a long process, and this is going to be a big change in our courthouse.”

Sheriff Holland had been asked by commissioners two months earlier to research lower prices on the equipment, which includes a network video recorder (NVR) system, seven cameras, door contacts and alarms and five panic buttons.

“We have a quandary,” said Commissioner Ronnie Beale, liaison to the Macon County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). “Ten personnel sounds like a lot in this courthouse, but it ain’t a lot when something happens.”

With the FY2019 budget amendment approval for the equipment purchase, MCSO can now begin the purchasing and officer training process. Sheriff Holland estimates the material will be in place by July 1.

Commissioners were reluctant to delay the purchase in order to incorporate the funds into the FY2020 budgeting process, with only Commissioner Karl Gillespie voting against the measure for budgeting reasons. Gillespie and Commissioner Paul Higdon likewise held their ground that large expenditures should be part of the regular budget process when they were on the losing side of a 3-2 vote to allocate $111,000 for a new dog park.

Stormwater runoff regulations require that the current dog park, located along the Little Tennessee Greenway at Wesley’s Park, must be relocated. Parks and Recreation Director Seth Adams outlined the costs for a new dog park, which would be located on 1.7 acres of county property in the Frog Town area, off Phillips Street.

Grading the area is estimated to cost up to $20,000; two 8 x 8 public bathrooms, $39,000; fencing and gates, $16,000; and benches, $3,600. An additional $6,500 is necessary for an irrigation system should a drought affect the area, and $9,000 to pave the parking lot.

“After the article ran in the paper, my phone has been ringing off the hook with people asking when it’s going to be open,” said Adams. Pressed for an estimated deadline if funds were approved immediately and work began May 1, Adams estimated an 8-10 week construction period.

County wins school health center grant, public health award

Macon County Interim Health Director Carmine Rocco and school Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin informed the board that the county had won a $150,000 school-based health center grant, one of only 18 counties in the state to do so. The grant will be used to benefit South Macon Elementary School with nearby Union Academy to possibly benefit as well.

“We are building on a reputation of concern for mental health,” said Rocco, describing how the grant will add two behavioral health specialists, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and more hours for school nurses. “Young children can benefit from intervention earlier.”

Dr. Baldwin pointed out that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the country for children 10 to 18 years old.

In addition to behavioral health, the grant funds will also address needs in preventive health and nutrition.

Rocco also shared with commissioners the news that the public health center had been awarded the North Carolina Communicable Disease Branch’s “2019 Mighty Oak Award” for its effort containing a meningitis outbreak in February that led to one death, one suspected case and 250 citizens treated for possible exposure.

Speaking during the public comment period, high school teacher and North Carolina Association of Educators member John deVille described to commissioners the reasons why teachers would march on May 1, including for more school counselors and a call for the state to opt in to Medicaid expansion to address the 18 to 20 percent of North Carolinians who have no health insurance.

“We know that students who aren’t having their health care taken care of don’t learn,” deVille said.

The educator added that the march also hopes to call attention to inadequate school funding, which remains below 2008 recession levels, especially in the areas of funding for textbooks, which remains down an inflation-adjusted 39.5 percent and school supplies, which is down 55 percent, he said.

In related news, the county voted to draw down $311,893 owed from state lottery funds to service school debts.

Nantahala kicks off round of community planning board meetings

Nantahala resident and Lazy Hiker brewery investor Ken Murphy spoke during the public comment period to call attention to the needs of his rural community, following a planning board listening session March 21.

“Nantahala is quite remote and particularly vulnerable to burglaries and other crimes,” he said, while calling on the commissioners to fund a sheriff’s deputy and satellite office in the community.

The comments follow a standing-room-only listening session held by the planning board in Nantahala and attended by Commissioner Karl Gillespie.

“It was probably one of the best public meetings I’ve attended,” Gillespie told board members, highlighting the high public interest in the listening sessions, which will continue with one in Cartoogechaye April 18.

Notes from the March 21 meeting provided by Gillespie, indicated concerns including: No Sheriff’s office patrols, limited broadband, lack of public transit and the need for a new community building. Gillespie indicated that after the meeting, Duke Energy was contacted about constructing a community building on land the company leases, and MCSO and Macon Transit were informed about the needs under their purview. 

Gillespie also said he accompanied Rep. Kevin Corbin and Sen. Jim Davis at meetings in Raleigh to advance legislation that would give the county more flexibility to support expanding broadband in rural areas.

Convenience center attendant wages get second look

Macon County’s 11 convenience centers have been staffed for more than two decades by part-time workers who are not afforded retirement, leave or healthcare benefits like other county employees, and receive little in the way of pay increases for their decades of service.

Director of Solid Waste Chris Stahl had been called on by commissioners in February to research how the county might better attend to these employees, which many commissioners see as the face of Macon County to residents and visitors.

“We don’t have a system for part-timers,” admitted Stahl, who apologized to commissioners for not providing them with information in advance of his presentation and proceeded to distribute handouts with four options to address the problem.

Higdon asked the director, “Why do we still want to do everything part-time with the convenience center staff?”

Stahl estimated that running the convenience centers with full-time employees would cost the county an additional $300,000 per year in salaries and benefits and may lead to increased waste management fees.

“It becomes a much more costly system,” he said. He also said it reduces his flexibility to fill gaps when attendants are out sick. 

Stahl called for a system that would raise base pay from $7.50 an hour to $8.50 an hour with $0.50 per hour more for lead workers and longevity increases of 5 percent for every three years of service. The current average convenience center attendee wage is $8.60 per hour.

If commissioners adopt the plan as part of the FY 2020 budget, which begins July 1, payrolls in the solid waste department would increase $40,000-$60,000 per year, Stahl estimated.

When asked how longtime staffers would benefit from the proposal, Stahl gave the example of a 25-year part-time employee who under the proposal would receive eight pay step increases, or a 40 percent pay rate increase if the measure was adopted.

“That’s not nothing,” he said.