As Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Tony Baldwin explained to the county Board of Commissioners during a May 19 meeting, the system’s pandemic response has completely exhausted its $4.6 million rainy day fund — and the schools now project a $2.1 million deficit by the end of the fiscal year.
Funds supported with tax money from Buncombe County, the city of Asheville and the Tourism Development Authority are being managed by the nonprofit Mountain BizWorks. Because of this arrangement, government and TDA officials say they will play no direct role in determining what area businesses and nonprofits receive public dollars.
County government only plans to keep about $3 million of the state allocation; the remainder would be distributed to Buncombe’s municipalities and fire districts using the same formula as for county sales tax. Asheville would receive roughly $944,000, or 21% of the money, with the Skyland Fire District receiving the next largest award of nearly $67,000, or 1.5%.
Debra Campbell, Asheville’s city manager, said she was recommending no new spending for projects that Council had previously explored, such as renewable energy on city buildings. All departments have also been asked to cut their budgets as much as possible, “with a focus on minimizing operational impacts.”
According to a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina in May 2018, the Asheville-based company allegedly sought and received payment for fecal, blood and urine tests that have not been scientifically proven to diagnose any medical condition.
According to a staff report available before City Council’s meeting of Tuesday, May 12, 60 hotel rooms at the Red Roof Inn in West Asheville would replace the city’s emergency group shelter at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, which has a capacity of 50 and currently houses 32.
As they also had argued during an April 16 special meeting, Republicans Joe Belcher, Anthony Penland and Robert Pressley said they continued to be left out of key decisions about how to restrict business and social activity in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
At an April 21 meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners lent their unanimous support to designating 16,000 acres of the Pisgah National Forest in the county’s northeast as the Craggy Mountain Wilderness and National Scenic Area. And on April 28, Duke Energy unveiled the most detailed public explanation to date of how company leaders are thinking about the longer-term future.
The legislative change allows the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority to use $5 million from its Tourism Product Development Fund — which previously had to be allocated to nonprofit entities or local government and spent on capital projects — for grants of up to $50,000 in support of tourism businesses other than lodging.
The two bills signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on May 4, both unanimously passed by the General Assembly, together designate nearly $1.6 billion for the state’s COVID-19 response and grant flexibility in many areas of regulation.
“My whole world seems to be closing,” says Danny Bernstein, an Asheville-based outdoors writer who regularly leads hikes for the Carolina Mountain Club and Friends of the Smokies. “Staying 6 feet apart is easy on the trail. But how can we have outdoor activity if almost every piece of public land is closed?”
The plan, which has been under development since July and was initially expected to be adopted in September, lists four “community focus areas” for Buncombe’s leaders: an educated and capable community, environmental and energy stewardship, resident well-being and a vibrant economy.
Even as people resume small gatherings, they will be expected to maintain a physical distance of at least 6 feet and follow public health guidance on sanitation and masks. The county’s cap on wedding and funeral attendance remains at 10 people, less than the state limit of 50.
Cancer therapies, joint replacements and other elective procedures that had been postponed due to the initial COVID-19 response will be the first to return. Since North Carolina’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was announced on March 3, the Mission system has treated just over 20 inpatients for the disease.
“It’s important to get our economy moving forward. We’re helping with unemployment payments, stimulus money and the businesses that continue to be open,” Gov. Roy Cooper said at an April 23 press conference. “But I won’t risk the health of our people or our hospitals. And easing these restrictions now would do that.”
The spending reductions presented on April 21 by Budget Director Jennifer Barnette totaled about $1.5 million — less than 7% of an estimated $22 million gap between revenues and expenditures for fiscal year 2021 — in areas ranging from the Buncombe County Detention Center to information technology.
“This COVID-19 crisis is a crisis for many of us and for us as a society, but it’s also an opportunity because it gives us a chance, a very rare chance, to step back from our busy lives and reflect on where we want to be going as a society,” says Rose Jenkins Lane, spokesperson for Hendersonville-based nonprofit Conserving Carolina.
“Consider the consequences if we move to open things up too early or too fast: We risk losing all the gains and advantages our proactive and aggressive measures have afforded us,” said Fletcher Tove, the county’s emergency preparedness coordinator. “If we get rid of our parachute too early, we’ll go into another free fall.”
Xpress reached out to several organizations responsible for monitoring the region’s air and water to learn how the environmental situation has changed since Buncombe County issued its COVID-19 state of emergency declaration on March 12, which marked the first local guidance for people to reduce nonessential business and travel.
The commission’s Democratic members passed direction for expanded community testing and contact tracing over the objections of its Republican contingent. Joe Belcher, Anthony Penland and Robert Pressley stressed their commitment to ensuring the county’s safety but expressed concern over the process by which the resolution was introduced and some of its terms.
According to the formal agreement, up for a Board of Commissioners vote on Tuesday, April 21, both city and county staffers would remain employees of and still be paid by their respective governments while carrying out their new duties. Asheville and Buncombe County would be required to cover the expense of all personal protective equipment for workers from the other government.