By Beth Lawrence
Like many, the members of Jackson County Board of Commissioners have goals they would like to accomplish in the coming year.
Chairman Brian McMahan does not have a checklist, but hopes to continue addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing upcoming capital projects run smoothly until complete.
“So much of what we do is reactionary,” he said. “I think the biggest driver of our year is going to be two things: COVID, hopefully we’ll see it diminish and come under more control with the vaccination efforts underway, second to that is our capital projects; we have the health department that’ll be moving in January … and consolidated permitting. That’s going to be a new change that we’ll be looking forward to.”
Commissioners Gayle Woody, Boyce Deitz and Mark Jones are also excited to see capital projects begin, particularly the animal shelter and swimming pool at the Cullowhee Rec Center.
“I haven’t fought against the animal shelter,” Deitz said. “I fought about the amount of money it seems we’re going to put into it. Hopefully we maybe can find a way to do that and still not spend an exorbitant amount of money.”
Jones wants another project from his prior term as commissioner to change course.
In 2016 the county voted for a ¼ penny sales tax increase. The first revenue from it was used to help construct Southwestern Community College’s health services building, Jones said.
He wants the next income from the tax used for school safety renovations.
“We had one school, Scotts Creek that was built after Columbine, so it has fencing and security features that are up to date,” Jones said. “The other schools…all need to be updated. That’s going to cost about $2 million or about a year and a half of that estimated sales tax coming in.”
Jones also wants funding for additional classrooms and a new gym at Blue Ridge School, improved broadband and cellular service countywide and to work with the N.C. Department of Transportation to improve traffic flow in Cashiers.
Woody and McMahan hope to move forward with the board’s compromise on the Confederate memorial. The board voted in August to cover the rebel flag and wording on the statue’s base.
“Hopefully … we’ll be able to create those plaques and put them up,” Woody said. “We are working on it. We’re hoping to get a grant.”
Woody also looks forward to making progress on an increased teacher supplement. Jackson County is in the lowest third statewide for teacher supplements at $960. Neighboring Haywood’s supplement is $2,600.
“I feel like it’s something that shows how much we value our teachers,” Woody said. “We’re going to have to be thoughtful about how we do that. We can’t raise it all at once, but we definitely can move toward being equitable in our region.”
Outdoor activity is also on the mind of Deitz and Woody; they want to continue to expand greenways and river access.
“COVID has really pointed this out,” she said. “Our little pieces of greenway are being well utilized; sometimes they’re even crowded. (With COVID), you can’t go to the gym; you need to be in those places where you can social distance.”
“People really use that, and once this (pandemic) is over they’re going to want to be out and do things,” he said.
The need for a homeless shelter is a point of disagreement for Woody and Commissioner Tom Stribling.
Woody supports efforts to bring a shelter to Jackson County; Stribling does not.
“A lot of people are screaming that we should have a homeless shelter,” he said. “I’m really not for a homeless shelter because if you build a homeless shelter, who comes there? The homeless people. I’m not meaning to sound cold or mean, but Haywood County’s homeless shelter has been a train wreck since day one.”
He allowed that services already in Jackson County could “just stay,” but he did not offer an alternative to a shelter.
Stribling’s other goal is to see what the county can do to help turn the tide of the opioid crisis.
“There’s people dying of opioids daily,” he said. “People are dropping like flies, and nobody’s doing anything about it.”
Deitz would like to see the county work more closely with Western Carolina University.
“There’s a lot of business opportunities that could be good for the county … got a lot of students up there that eat and shop and do this and that, we’ve got a lot of opportunities there,” he said.
Additionally, Deitz is concerned about environmental issues and keeping the natural beauty of the area in mind with regard to future development.
“I’d like to see some of that growth around the university stabilize,” he said. “A lot of the thing about the university was the mountains. There are places you can be on the campus, and you could be anywhere else because there’s so much building going on in every direction up on the hills and around.”
Deitz would like the board’s good working relationship to continue.
“We’ve got a new commission; I hope we can all work together,” he said. “Contrary to what most people think, this county commission is not very political at all. We don’t want it to be political. We’re trying to do the best we can to help the county and do the right thing.”