By JONAH LOSSIAH
ONE FEATHER STAFF
BRYSON CITY – Several members of Governor Roy Cooper’s office held a meeting at the Marianna Black Public Library in Bryson City on Thursday, Nov. 21.
The meeting served several functions, which included providing updates on items like Census 2020, and it allowed local leaders in the region to provide updates on their services. The second half to the meeting was dedicated to hearing community comments that they would deliver back to Governor Cooper. The meeting was being led by the Drew Christy and Matty Lazo-Chadderton. Christy is the Director of the Governor’s Western Office, and Lazo-Chadderton is the Deputy Director of Outreach of the Governor’s Office of Public Engagement.
Joe Sam Queen, the N.C. House Representative for District 119 (Swain, Jackson and Haywood Counties), spoke regarding budget updates in Raleigh. “We’re in what we call down there the ‘veto garage.’ There is a consensus Republican budget from the House and the Senate which the Governor has vetoed. The veto was overridden in the house, but it’s not been overridden in the Senate, they haven’t had a vote on it. The issues are that we’re continuing to operate the state with funds that are recurring but not non-recurring funds are not included. So, school teachers are being paid at what they were paid last year. They don’t have their raises that the Governor’s intended, or the raises that the House conference budget intends.”
He said there have been contentions with Medicaid expansion, teacher raises versus cooperate tax cuts, and infrastructure improvements and investments.
After State Rep. Queen, an update was provided about the increased threat of landslides in the region due to consistently extreme weather conditions over the last two decades. Another group came up to talk about workforce development in the region, as well as programs like NC Job Ready and the Finish Line Grant. The local and regional heads of emergency management also provided some information.
Once all the updates were provided, the meeting was shifted to the community comments section. At that time, they asked if anyone at the meeting had questions that they would like to have recorded and go to Governor Cooper.
Mark Sale, the Superintendent of Swain County Schools, was the first to speak up in the room. He spoke on the issues of poverty in the region, and how that directly affects the school system.
“Because of where our county sits and because of the funding formula that is currently used to appropriate what we have to use in the school system, we find ourselves at a disadvantage. Because we are treated equally. I understand there are small schools money and there’s low-wealth money. But, I’ll tell that out of both of those we have about $166,000 that come to use a year. That will pay for two teachers or maybe three assistants…asking for the governor and his office to consider the fact that one size doesn’t fit all. And that sometimes the smaller districts may need a bigger piece of the pie, because we have some unique needs that are based around poverty and around a sense of hopelessness. . ”
Tom Sutton, Mayor of Bryson City, spoke on the need for infrastructure improvements and funding for those. He also complimented initiatives like ‘Hometown Strong’ and ‘Downtown Strong’ which Bryson City is a part of, but that more is needed to get the time where it should be.
Zeb Smathers, Mayor of Canton, asked the Governor’s office to consider the necessity of a driver’s license in WNC. He spoke of how difficult it is to get your license back in North Carolina, but the fact that western North Carolina lacks an expansive public transportation system makes it much harder on citizens in the region.
Lisa Barker, who works with Swain/Qualla Safe, asked them to consider the structure of grants and how it affects small, struggling towns. She said that they have had to reject some grants due to the 20 percent match structure because they simply can’t afford it.
“Over the last several years, there have been studies done across the state about the funding with domestic violence and sexual assault programs, and how rural counties get left behind. They tried to come up with a formula, I think we got our hopes up with some family violence prevention state money. That the rural counties were going to get more funding because of the lack of private enterprises that we could get to. That didn’t happen…we are struggling,” said Barker.
Jeremy Collins, Governor’s Office of Engagement director, was one of the people responding to these questions.
“The thing that is common in this room that’s also common across state is, ‘we’re doing all that we can do, we don’t have the resources to meet our needs.’ Particularly in the school context, but also in the border infrastructure context. It’s ironic that the HR director used DOT as an example. Because if you want to know the story on North Carolina, you can look at the story of DOT vs DPI,” said Collins.
“North Carolina decided well before anybody in this room was alive that we were going to let the state control highways, roads. We got some of the best roads in the country. We were going to leave it to local communities to fund and maintain public education. What we’ve done is…we have gotten ourselves across the state in a place where what we invested on the front end, what we wrote into it, has now come to pass. We can talk about changing the formula in this place, but what my push the governor is, is we have to rethink this narrative of who’s going to be responsible for this.”
All the questions were discussed by the Governor’s team and the community members, and once they were all recorded the meeting was adjourned.