When the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved a $150,000 allocation for business COVID-19 relief grants on Jan. 26, members did so understanding that a much larger source of aid was on the way for county residents. That funding, in the form of a nearly $7.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is almost here.
On Tuesday, Feb. 2., the board will vote on accepting the federal grant for emergency rental assistance. As explained in a staff report available before the meeting, the funds would support households financially hurt by the pandemic with “rent, rental arrears, utilities and home energy costs, utilities and home energy cost arrears and other expenses related to housing.”
To administer the money, the county’s Health and Human Services is asking to hire four new temporary employees and reassign five existing staff members. Up to 10% of the grant, or about $788,000, can be spent on such overhead costs. All funds must be allocated by Friday, Dec. 31, unless Buncombe receives a 90-day extension from the federal government.
Community groups, including Asheville-based nonprofit Pisgah Legal Services, have warned for months that the area could experience a wave of evictions unless relief is made available for tenants who have missed rent payments from pandemic-related income loss. On Jan. 27, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper extended a statewide eviction moratorium through Wednesday, March 31, a move that should give Buncombe more time to distribute aid to those in need.
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County employees may also receive financial help through a pair of proposals slated to go before the board. The first would extend emergency paid sick leave to staffers impacted by COVID-19, including public-facing workers such as paramedics and sheriff’s deputies required to quarantine after potential exposure to the coronavirus.
The second policy would reinstate a countywide cost-of-living salary adjustment that the commissioners suspended in light of COVID-19 budget concerns. If approved, the move would increase wages by 1.45% starting in April at an estimated cost of $400,000 for the current fiscal year and $1.67 million for fiscal year 2021-22. According to a staff report, Buncombe can pay for the increase through the end of June using lapsed salaries from vacant positions.
Consent agenda and public comment
The board’s consent agenda for the meeting contains eight items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. Highlights include the following resolutions:
- Advertising the county’s delinquent real estate property tax liens for the current fiscal year. According to a 385-page listing of unpaid taxes, Buncombe is owed more than $14.8 million.
- Accepting a federal grant of over $87,000 to hire a temporary public health nurse and support infrastructure at the county’s COVID-19 vaccination sites. The additional position will be funded through Monday, May 31.
- Approving a request by Sleep Inn West to waive a $1,816 penalty for late payment of occupancy taxes. Hotel manager Krutika Patel said a family medical emergency had prevented her from paying the tax as scheduled.
The commissioners will also hold a briefing at 3 p.m. to discuss the county’s COVID-19 response, a facility needs survey and budgeting for local fire districts. The full agenda and supporting documents for the regular meeting can be found at this link.
Public comment will only be permitted through live telephone calls at the start of the meeting; no in-person comments, emails or voicemails will be accepted. Those planning to comment must sign up online or call 828-250-4001 by Monday, Feb. 1, at 3 p.m. All commenters will receive three minutes to address the board.