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Nov. 1—A $25 million question has arisen in the Waynesville town council race at the 11th hour — a question that had not been part of either side's main campaign platform until N.C. Rep. Mark Pless waded into the race in an attempt to influence its outcome.
Pless made a stump speech for Team Waynesville candidates during a rally on the county courthouse steps on Saturday, Oct. 21, promoting the slate of challengers hoping to oust the existing town leaders.
At the rally, Pless touted the infrastructure funds he landed for projects in his district, including Canton and Clyde. Waynesville got nothing, Pless alleged, because town leaders neglected to pick up the phone and ask. Specifically, Pless chastised them for not asking for $25 million to rebuild the sewer plant.
"The town of Waynesville has not asked for a dime," Pless said. "They have yet to ask one dime for the money. We need leaders willing to pick up the phone and call."
When Waynesville leaders later heard about Pless's allegation about never asking for state funding, they did a double-take.
"Nothing could be farther from the truth," Town Council Member Jon Feichter said, calling the allegation "laughable if it wasn't so serious."
Town leaders claim they have communicated with Pless since he was first elected about funding for town projects, including the sewer plant.
"The fact is, the council — both collectively and individually — and our staff have worked tirelessly to find grants since we formally began this process six-plus years ago, and those efforts most certainly included requests to our legislators, including Rep. Pless beginning in December 2020," Feichter said.
The history of asks
Waynesville Town Manager Rob Hites said the town has had numerous communications with Pless about funding for the sewer plant — via email, in person and in letters. One such letter was penned in October 2022, when the town was facing a $5 million shortfall on the sewer plant rebuild due to rising construction costs.
"We hope that you can seek funding to help the Town keep regional sewer rates at a reasonable level by helping us fund this $5 million gap in project costs," states a letter written on town letterhead to Pless and signed by Town Council Member Julia Freeman, a fellow Republican.
Freeman said she called Pless's office and left a message but never heard back.
The very next month in November 2022, the town wrote another letter to Pless asking for $500,000 due to revelation that a bridge leading to the sewer plant had an insufficient weight limit and the equipment needed for the rebuild couldn't cross it. The town thanked Pless "for offering to help the Town and the customers of the waste treatment plant," but no state money was forthcoming.
Waynesville Town Council Member Anthony Sutton said he didn't understand why Pless would say town leaders hadn't spoken to him about their sewer funding needs "unless he was trying to influence the election."
In February, Sutton traveled to Raleigh to attend the legislative dinner put on by the N.C. League of Municipalities. He sat next to Pless where he said he had a cordial conversation about numerous topics, including Waynesville's funding needs for the sewer plant, its new fire station and all-terrain vehicles for the fire department.
"He seemed very positive about all three items, especially after the flooding in Canton," Sutton said.
When the state budget was finally wrapped up this summer, however, Waynesville's needs weren't part of it.
But the asks predate the past year, Hites said. After Pless and N.C. Rep. Mike Clampitt were first elected in 2020, local government leaders across Haywood met with them at the Terrace Hotel at Lake Junaluska.
Hites said the previous legislative delegation indicated they wouldn't insert local earmarks into the state budget — disparagingly known as "pork-barrel spending."
Hoping the new legislators were of a different mindset, Hites said he and Mayor Gary Caldwell shared the town's needs at the Haywood Council of Government gathering attended by Pless. They specifically outlined how the sewer plant serves a large portion of the county, not just Waynesville, and how the cost would be born by all sewer plant customers from Lake Junaluska to Clyde.
"Rob and I both drilled him about it," Caldwell agreed. "We were trying to get anything possible to go toward that. He made the comment he'd need to talk to the other legislators to get them to go along with it, and we never heard nothing."
By then, planning for the sewer plant rebuild was well underway and the town was seeking a no-interest state loan, as work on had to proceed per a mandate from state environmental regulators.
Hites says he remembers a long conversation with Pless following the 2021 flooding in the county when he spent a lot of time briefing him on the sewer plant saga.
By then, a new pot of state grant money for water and sewer projects in distressed communities had become available thanks to federal Covid stimulus money. While the town had already secured a loan in 2020, Hites said the town could subtract any grant funding that came along from the amount it had to borrow.
Pless initiated an email exchange with Hites and the Canton town manager in March 2022 about the new grant funding.
Hites replied explaining the need to get designated as a distressed community to be eligible.
"Anything I can do to encourage them to add Waynesville?" Pless responded.
"I'll let you know as we know more about the process of being included. Thanks a lot!" Hites emailed back.
Pless rally remarks
During the recent Team Waynesville rally on the courthouse steps, Pless said he had not secured money for the Waynesville sewer plant due to the town's refusal to ask for help.
"This outfit will come to Raleigh, yell at me, talk down to me because they don't want partisan elections," Pless said, "but won't come down and say, 'our people are in a lot of trouble, can we have $25 million?'"
He made a direct appeal to voters that if they will elect Team Waynesville candidates, he'll try to funnel state money to Waynesville.
"They better call me and ask for $25 million. I don't know I can retroactively get it to them, but I'm going to try," Pless said.
Following the rally emceed by Pless, The Mountaineer began receiving letters to the editor criticizing town leaders for not asking Pless for money for the sewer plant. The Mountaineer replied by saying the letter contained factual statements that were in dispute, saying time was needed for reporters to get to the bottom of it before printing a potentially inaccurate letter.
One of the responses was shared with Team Waynesville candidates, who then staged a Facebook live video seated side-by-side with Pless, who doubled down on his assertion the town didn't ask for sewer plant money.
"They don't call me," Pless said of Waynesville leaders. "If they did, we wouldn't be talking about this."
On the video, Pless said the town instead pursued the grant and loan route, wasn't able to get funds, so proceeded to approve multiple housing projects so they could "break the system" in such a manner that it would help them qualify for grants.
Feichter is distressed over the allegations.
"Waynesville has its share of problems, and this election should be about finding solutions to them. This kind of nonsense makes that much more difficult. The citizens of Waynesville deserve better," Feichter said.