A decade of controversies for Tryon

Published 9:46 pm Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Town of Tryon has had a heck of a decade.
Almost from beginning to end, the past ten years have seen one controversy follow another, from a budget crisis which nearly bankrupted Tryon in 2001, to a

heated break-up with former volunteer firemen in 2005, to a three-year battle with the towns “outside” water and sewer customers from 2006 to 2009.
water quality

The town was seeking old thermometers on “mercury col
By then, Tryon was facing a financial calamity which drowned out all other concerns.lection days” at the start of the new millennium. By the time the town finally satisfied the American Canoe Association in June, 2002, the mercurial water quality crisis measured in parts per million was all but obliterated.
Financial crisis
It was already a tough year in June, 2001, when Mayor Bob Neely announced to the citizens that it was time to “pay the piper.” The town council hiked taxes about 30 percent, raising another $180,000 from property taxes. About half of that was to give employees a 2.5 percent raise and to pay medical insurance increases.
Running the town with the same revenues, Neely said, “is impossible in a world where you have inflation and want to provide the same level of services. We have lost revenue the last several years not raising taxes.”
That was the good news. Within just a few weeks, the mayor, council and townspeople would discover that the towns situation was much, much worse than anyone had known or expected.
It all came to light after councilman Warren Carson, in June, 2001, began investigating why a contractor had halted work on a $660,000 Howard Street sewer project. After Carson and Mayor Neely took their questions to town manager David Draughn revelations of financial mismanagement began cascading over the town.
By the time the auditors reviewed the towns books in December, 2001, the council and the N.C. Local Government Commission had already determined that Tryon had been “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
A total of $100,000 of Clean Water Management Trust grant funds and $177,000 of state Powell Bill street maintenance funds had been misused to cover the towns routine expenses. These funds were now gone and would have to be repaid.
In addition, two $50,000 loans to Tryon had been obtained by Draughn without statutory authority. (Draughn would plead guilty the following July, 2002 to a misdemeanor, “willfully failing to discharge the duties of his office,” and receive a sentence of one years probation.)
Everywhere you looked, it was bleak. Budget revenues had been over-estimated and expenses underestimated. About $66,000 of fire tax revenue was counted twice.
A deadline had been missed for $35,000 of Harmon Field grant funds and the threat loomed that the money might have to be paid back.
The towns bank accounts had not been reconciled since the last audit and the last audits had not been reviewed by council.
The towns “fund balance” savings account, which should have been about $250,000, was wiped out. Instead, the town found that it was in the hole by about $525,000.
Town Manager David Draughn quickly admitted he had “lost focus” and resigned. John Lewis was hired as interim manager. Lewis and Neely began working daily with a CPA to sort out the mess.
The mayor and council members, who were as shocked and surprised as anyone, went to work amending the budget. They shouldered the responsibility without casting blame. They sat through a meeting in July, 2001 where 75 citizens questioned how the town could have gotten into such a position, and they weathered another in August with 80 interrogators.
One speaker in July suggested that town “abolish” its police department. But a few weeks later, when Tryon officials began exploring the possibility of shifting just the towns emergency dispatch service to the Polk County Sheriffs Office, Tryon citizens started a petition drive to “keep Tryon safe.”
By late August, 2001 Mayor Neely had withdrawn from the upcoming mayoral race in order to focus exclusively on the budget crisis.
In September, the town council amended the 2001 budget, the main feature of which was a 50 percent increase in water and sewer rates.
Town officials noted that the detailed budget analysis they had just been through showed the water and sewer department had been losing money, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that the taxpayers had been subsidizing the services through the general fund.
The source of the mercury in the costly ACA suit, defended with the towns general funds, had been found at an outside customers premises.
Service fees were too low across the board. Garbage collection services were costing the town $189,479 per year, $67,000 more than the town collected in fees.
Town spending had begun outpacing revenues back as early as 1991, according to the towns finance officer.
With the utilities rate increase, councilman Clark Benson said, “All were doing is making the water/sewer department self-sufficient, which is what we should have been doing before.”
Even with the 50 percent increase, Tryon rates in October, 2001 remained substantially below those of Landrum, Saluda and Columbus.
To fix the budget, Mayor Neely and the council also cut three police positions and another in the streets and sanitation department. They refinanced a fire truck loan and asked Harmon Field to pay an additional $30,000 a year for town maintenance services.
In November, 2001, a new council would take over town administration, led by Alan Peoples as mayor. Jim Fatland would join them as town manager in June, 2002.
The previous council had fairly well alleviated the worst of the crisis on their way out. Payment of the crisis debt was spread out over the next three years. By January, 2002, Tryon had about $500,000 cash in the bank for operations and reserves.
Nonetheless, seeing the towns total debt approaching $1 million, Peoples began in spring, 2002 another effort to cut dispatch services. The effort to trim the budget continued and over time the new administration would cut total town staff from 36 to 24.
When the town dispatch was cut from a 24-hour to a 12-hour service, the county added $58,000 to the sheriffs budget to make up the difference.
Eventually, Peoples and the Tryon Town Council arrived at a unanimous, controversial decision. They decided that for the long term stability of the town those outside the town receiving Tryon water and sewer services should be considered as candidates for annexation.
That decision would ignite a fire storm not witnessed in Polk County since the county commissioners had considered eminent domain in 2003.
Opposition to annexation hardened months before any plan was in place. A standing-room-only crowd was on hand at a council meeting in October, 2006 just to see what was going on.
By the following February, 2007, it was official. Tryon Town Council announced plans to annex 610 acres, 210 residences, 302 parcels, and 420 residents.
The targeted area included Tryon Country Club, parts of Carolina Drive and Hogback Mountain Road, and extended east to Harmon Field and into Lynn, taking in parts of Old Howard Gap and Capps roads.
Mayor Peoples explained that the towns tax base was stagnant and as the tax burden grew, more and more people and businesses would have to leave the town.
“Thats why you have to grow or die,” he said. “This is about spreading the cost of services over a larger tax base and improving services.”
Opponents said the town just spent too much and was simply grabbing more residents to help foot the bill.
The tone for the rest of the three-year annexation battle was pretty well set in April, 2007.
A non-profit group, Citizens Against Forced Annexation (CAFA), announced plans for a lawsuit. The mayor and council, on advice of counsel, went mum, only further infuriating those who packed into the public hearings the town was required to hold.
By January, 2008, the town had learned that its original annexation plan was flawed under the strict rules for N.C. annexations. It was rescinded and a new plan was launched in May, 2008. The new annexation area withdrew from Lynn and advanced in Gillette Woods.
Again, CAFA brought suit. The case would never be heard in court. It almost was heard in July, 2009, but the judge rescheduled when he heard the parties were discussing a settlement.
No settlement was reached. An election settled the matter instead.
Incumbents who had supported annexation were not re-elected in November, 2009, in a contest which saw less than 25 percent of Tryon voters turn out. The two newly elected council members decided at their first meeting to join another in rescinding the towns annexation plans.
As the next decade was about to dawn, the new Tryon Town Council was planning “a workshop” to discuss the towns financial picture going forward, now that annexation was off the table.
“Grow or die?” remained an active question in Tryon, but at least the town ended the decade with one fewer controversy.This is the third in a series of articles examining the top local stories over the past decade.

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