More than five months after Buncombe County learned of a nearly $51 million federal allocation for COVID-19 relief, the money is on its way to the community. During a special Aug. 31 meeting, the county Board of Commissioners unanimously approved over $9.3 million in grants from the funding pool established by the American Rescue Plan Act.
The largest single grant of $4 million will support broadband infrastructure expansion in unserved areas of the county. Brownie Newman, the board’s chair, said that investment would leverage an additional $6 million from the state of North Carolina and private broadband providers.
Other allocations include $1 million for the county’s COVID-19 public health response, $500,000 toward small-business grants through the One Buncombe Fund, nearly $420,000 to the Verner Center for Early Learning for high-quality child care and $200,000 to the nonprofit Center for Agricultural and Food Entrepreneurship. Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina will receive an additional $1 million toward the renovation of a Tunnel Road hotel to provide permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness; on Aug. 3, the commissioners awarded $2 million, also from ARPA funds, to help the nonprofit purchase the property.
Also included is $1.04 million for one-time bonuses to Buncombe staff, including public health and emergency medical services workers, who faced a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure during the first year of the pandemic due to their interaction with the public. Commissioner Parker Sloan said the money was well deserved given the tireless work of county employees to protect and serve residents.
“The easiest decision I’ll make all year is supporting premium pay for our folks that helped in this effort,” he said.
The commissioners did not set a timeline for awarding the approximately $39.4 million in remaining funds, but Newman noted that the board planned to seek additional public input before making more decisions. He said support for small-business, minority entrepreneurs and affordable housing would be key priorities in assigning the money.
County approves $500K for emergency storm response
While Haywood County saw WNC’s worst damage from Tropical Storm Fred on Aug. 17, Buncombe did not escape unscathed. According to Van Taylor Jones, the county’s director of emergency services, residents made 201 reports of road damage, 147 of bridge damage and 107 reports of structure damage — with over 30 representing the complete loss of a building. He said Barnardsville and Candler were the two communities hardest hit by the storm, although impacts were observed throughout the county.
County Planning Director Nathan Pennington requested $500,000 to immediately address the most critical safety issues, including neighborhood access routes that had been washed away and remaining debris that could cause further flooding on waterways such as Cane Creek and Pole Creek. Commissioners unanimously approved the funding in anticipation of reimbursement from state or federal disaster relief.
Jones thanked the commissioners for their continued support of emergency responders but emphasized that more resources would be needed in the coming years due to the impacts of climate change. “There’s a new era of what we’re facing, not just in Buncombe, but all over the United States: this whole global warming issue,” he said. “Wildfires increasing, ice storms, severe weather like we saw in Texas last year. … Because we have these vulnerabilities, our preparedness and readiness level is very important.”