New library funding: a conversation with county manager

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If Swain County Commissioners buy into the plan proposed for a new Marianna Black Library and fund the $6.65 million facility, the board would likely have to turn to increasing taxes—particularly if the search for grant funding for the project doesn’t come up with the necessary funding to start the project before 2020.

Recently, representatives with the Marianna Black Library Campaign Planning committee presented plans for the new building to be located on property donated by Toni Wright Davidson and Don Davidson on Fontana Road. The land donation made in 2014 stipulates construction must begin by 2020. 

The library committee has committed to help raise $1.5 million toward the project, and the recent presentation included a feasibility study by architect Keith Hargrove, who estimated the 19,553 square-foot building to cost a total of 6.65 million including construction, site work and permits. 

Kevin King, Swain County manager, explains the county does not have cash in hand and would have to pursue a loan package for the project, which would also be contingent on approval through the Local Government Commission. 

When it comes to the funding, King said, “At this point, the only option they’ve got that the commissioners are in charge of is the [property] tax rate. I’ve told them on a few occasions it would amount to about a 2-3 cent tax increase to cover both the increased operational costs and loan payment.”

He estimates funding the project and the additional operational costs involved with a larger facility would amount to about $500,000 in the first few years. 

If the board were to pursue a sales tax increase to fund the project instead of increasing property taxes, they would have to get authority for a referendum from the General Assembly. Then, Swain County voters would have to approve the sales tax increase. That options seems to have a slim chance, since a referendum to increase sales taxes on the ballots last year to fund school capital projects failed. 

Swain County often looks to grant funding to make up the difference in limited local funding sources. However, as it was discussed when the library planning committee presented the new plans to the board, there are few “brick and mortar” grant funds available. 

On the other hand, Swain County has had some success in securing grants for capital projects in the past. 

The Detention Center is the among newest county buildings, finished in 2006, but some of the cost of loan repayment is offset by a larger facility and housing inmates for other agencies. In the case of the jail, the county was in a position where it had to replace the 1920s facility. 

“It was a public safety liability,” King said. “We had to get out of that facility.” 

The county was able to secure a USDA loan that also reduced the cost of the loan, he said.

Other newer buildings have been grant funded, including the Senior Center, the Business Center and the 911 building. 

Other facilities have been feasible through special circumstances. For example, the Department of Social Services’ building was secured through a deal with then Smoky Mountain Health and Human Services (now Vaya Health) and purchased by the county form that agency through a loan. Most of the repayments came from state and federal sources, according to King. 

Other facility investments designed to boost economic development—specifically tourism—like the Swain County Heritage Museum and the turntable on Mitchell Street used by Great Smoky Mountains Railroad—have been funded by the Swain County Tourism and Development Authority, whose funds come from the hotel occupancy and room tax. 

The success of getting the federal building on Main Street earlier this year will help alleviate the space crunch at the administration building and Swain County Middle School campus. Even so, many of the county’s programs still work out of mobile units, such as Bright Adventures and Family Resource Center. 

“We have a lot of folks operating in Swain County that still need permanent structures,” King said. 

One potential source for funding that has not been discussed is designating interest funds from the county’s North Shore payments. The county has an account in Raleigh, N.C. where the payments from the Department of Interior go as a part of the $52 million settlement agreement over the North Shore Road that was never completed. The county can only draw on the interest, and has used it to fund one time expenditures, such as the purchase of new vehicles or other equipment. 

In the current year’s budget, the county appropriated $200,000 from the fund. King said he was unable to estimate how much interest will accrue for the upcoming years’ budgets considering the recent $4 million payment the county has received. The county has yet to receive the bulk of the payments—$35 million remains. 

The county has designated some county funds toward the new library property, including paying for initial mapping and clearing of the site. However, the commissioners have not said they will fund the construction and the 2020 deadline—when the Fontana Road property will revert to the Davidsons who donated it— draws near. 

Those involved seem open to finding creative solutions but there remains no easy answer for commissioners. Like the county, the library is searching for grant funding. 

At the board’s meeting last week, commissioner Danny Burns volunteered to be the liaison for the new library planning committee. 

“The library has been on the radar for a long time,” King added. “The lease option is a good idea, but at the end of the day, you’re not going to save a bunch of money.”

Smoky Mountain Times

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