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News Public offers petitions at budget hearing

Fire departments, library among those seeking funding.

The Macon County Board of Commissioners hosted a public hearing Tuesday night for citizens to address concerns for the 2013-2014 fiscal year budget. The commissioners provided time at the beginning of the meeting for local residents to voice concerns about the budget that has been in the works for the last couple of weeks. A total of six individuals expressed their feelings towards the budget proceedings and the commissioners at the meeting.

Kenneth McCaskill who represented Burningtown Fire Department on May 30 at the county board meeting once again stressed the importance of a fire tax increase in his community.

“I just want to stress again what is important to the Burningtown Fire Department,” he said. “We have been conservative in what we've asked for and the reason behind what we're asked for is the importance of public safety and response time. We do appreciate and need your support,” said McCaskill.

The Burningtown Fire Department asked the commissioners to allow a 1 cent increase in their fire tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year.

Michael Gaines was there to support the Otto Fire Department's request to raise its tax rate from .042 to .049 that would allow the department to hire an extra firefighter.

“We already have a low ISO rating so we'll save on our insurance,” he said.

He also voiced his support for Sheriff Robert Holland's request to add two School Resource Officers in next year's budget.

“I don't have kids involved or anything like that, but this is a long term investment in our children and having two officers in our schools would be beneficial,” Gaines concluded.

Attention then shifted to schools operations. With a financial shortfall in the midst, the Board of Education has requested an additional $440,000 from the county commissioners on top of the $7.1 million that it has already been granted in county manager Jack Horton's proposed budget. Acknowledging the funds that have already been granted, incoming Superintendent Chris Baldwin moved to the podium.

“As a current Macon County Schools principal and soon to be superintendent, I want to thank the county commissioners for the increased budget,” said Baldwin. “This board should be commended for meeting their responsiblities to the school system over the past several difficult economic years. In addition to that, they have prevented our students from falling behind due to shortcomings in the state budget. As superintendent, I pledge that Macon County Schools will continue to be a good steward of the public's tax dollar. Thank you.”

Showing their gratitude to Baldwin, the board then welcomed Principal James Bryan of Nantahala School to the microphone. Bryan was there to also show his support for Holland's SRO request. When the request was made, Holland had asked for two, one that would share time at South Macon Elementary and Union Academy and another that would be in Nantahala full time and that would also act as an on-duty officer in the event of an emergency outside of the school. If only one SRO could be allowed for, the one would be in Franklin.

“I'm here to ask you to please put an SRO in the Nantahala School,” said Bryan. “As you know, we are very isolated and if an attack similar to the one at Sandy Hook was to happen, it would take 30 to 40 minutes for the the Sheriff's Department to arrive. In Connecticut, the gunman killed 26 people in eight minutes. What would happen at our school? I just want you to please consider giving us a full time SRO. Thank you.”

Macon County School Board member and Nantahala resident Melissa Evans agreed.

“This is important to me, I have grandkids that go to Nantahala School,” she said. “If something like what happened there happened here, I just want to feel like they would at least have a chance and without an officer on duty, I don't feel like they would have that chance. I know, it's a small little town where surely nobody like that would live, but let me remind you, there was a time when Eric Rudolph was there and he is a known killer. Thank you for your consideration.”

Karen Wallace, director of the the Fontana Regional Library and head librarian of the Macon County Public Library was in attendance to ask for more than what the manager's budget had allocated. The funding being requested would go towards salary increases for employees at the Macon libraries located in Franklin, Highlands, and Nantahala. The facilities employ 30 individuals, most of whom are part time and see a half million people each year. Wallace presented the board with a petition of 1,500 signatures coming from taxpayers in the county to show support for the use of tax dollars for the public library.

“We provide lifelong learning for information, education, and recreational needs for the citizens of Macon County,” she said.

The Fontana Regional Library system receives funding from Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties and also from the state though it functions as a separate local government as a public authority. Horton chimed in with concerns about the funding from the state.

“I want to take this as an opportunity to talk about the funding because Ms. Wallace is being modest,” Horton said. “You would think they would get a lot of support from the state and in years gone by they have, but she gave me a figure the other day that I have to share. The entire budget that they give covers three counties We don't usually see that part. This year the state has given a whopping $318,000. If it wasn't for the counties that fund the libraries, there's no way you could operate it.”

The current amount that is appropriated is $980,000 from the county, a decrease of $50,000 from last year. Wallace requested an additional $30,000.

“We're experiencing an increased demand for our services as more people are experiencing economic challenges,” said Wallace. “We're there helping people find information, find jobs, helping people with literacy skills. Just helping people with whatever we can. We would really appreciate your consideration. Thank you.”

The board thanked those who spoke at the public hearing. Another meeting will be held Thursday to discuss the budget issues that have been presented more closely at 7 p.m. at the Macon County Courthouse board meeting room.


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