Near the end of an approximately three-hour Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting on Dec. 5, about a dozen students from high schools in the county gathered around a microphone to make a point to their commissioners.
They held petitions with signatures from about 1,800 high school students, college students and community members who support establishing a deadline for the county and community to operate entirely from renewable energy sources. Representatives from several county high schools and UNC Asheville approached the microphone one after another to announce the total number of signatures they had gathered from their schools.
“Every time I asked someone to sign this, they were ready to get a copy of it and take it to all of their homerooms, all of their classes, all of their clubs, all of their sports in support of this bill,” a student from the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville told the commissioners. “There are so many young people that are so ready to see the change that we’ve all been waiting for.”
Commissioners voted to establish formal goals on six issues: renewable energy, opioid abuse, affordable housing, early childhood education, justice resource support and the diversification of the community workforce. Of the six issues, renewable energy attracted the most input during the period of public comment set aside for the resolution.
The issue prompted spirited responses from the commissioners. “I was sort of teetering with this,” said Commissioner Al Whitesides, “but the one that really pulled me over was my grandson, who’s a sophomore in college in Texas. … Let’s face it, [young people] are the ones who are going to inherit this mess, and the least that we can do is start cleaning it up.”
Several commissioners, however, questioned the feasibility of the plan and weren’t optimistic about the timeframe established in the goals. “I brought my kids up with a saying: ‘Do you want it or do you need it?’” said Commissioner Robert Pressley. “We need 100 percent. I wish we could get there.”
Commissioner Mike Fryar expressed similar concerns “We can’t get there, young people,” he said. “I wish we could.”
Nevertheless, in a 4-3 vote, commissioners approved setting goals to make all county operations run on renewable energy sources by 2030 and all community operations run on renewable energy within 25 years. Fryar, Pressley and Commissioner Joe Belcher voted against the resolution. In addition to its renewable energy goals, commissioners approved the five other strategic initiatives on its list.
County employees to get promised pay increase
County Manager Mandy Stone reported on the implementation of a 1.5 percent budget-neutral pay increase for the county’s lowest-paid employees. In 2016, the board approved a 3.5 percent pay increase, of which 2 percent went to all employees, and 1.5 percent was to be allocated at the discretion of the county manager.
Former County Manager Wanda Greene was tasked by the commission with giving that 1.5 percent raise to the county’s lowest-paid employees. She distributed more than $100,000 dollars in raises: 16 percent of that money went to county employees making less than $40,000, and 84 percent went to employees making more than $40,000 a year. Employees making six-figure salaries received 28 percent of all raise dollars. (See Raising questions: Past pay increases present puzzles, Xpress, Sept. 17.) Greene announced her retirement in May and is currently under investigation by the FBI.
“What we know is that the 1.5 [percent] went to a variety of employees,” Stone told commissioners at the Dec. 5 meeting. “Not all of them are lower-paid employees, so my intent tonight is to honor your direction and set right a past action that did not honor the intention of this board.”
The increase will become effective for 472 employees, a group that includes such positions as administrative assistants, court security and landfill employees, on Dec. 9. Those employees will also receive a one-time payment of $500 “because we’re not able to go back retroactively, and you clearly intended this adjustment to be effective July 1,” Stone said.
Commissioner Ellen Frost said the raise was the right thing to do. “In the last few months, Buncombe County employees have been, for lack of a better word, dragged through the mud,” she said. “People can drag commissioners through the mud all they want, but the employees are our backbone and they come to work tirelessly. They don’t care about political parties, and this was something that was promised to them a long, long time ago.”
In other business
- The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution appointing a five-member library board of trustees. Three members will come from one of each of the commission districts, and two will be selected at large. The board will serve as a general advisory group to the commission and to the community as well as serving as a means for the community to become more involved in library business.
- The commission approved a resolution moving its period of open public comment, which now happens at the beginning of the session, after “new business” on the meeting agenda, meaning public comment will now occur near the end of the meeting.