Buncombe proposes $815K for COVID-19 housing, utility assistance

Buncombe County seal

The people of Buncombe County have spoken, and their message is clear: Show us the money.

Public comment on a grant application for up to $900,000 in federal coronavirus relief identified individual housing and utility assistance as Buncombe’s greatest need, according to a county staff presentation. The Board of Commissioners is set to vote on a plan that would direct the aid toward that purpose at its regular meeting of Tuesday, Oct. 6.

As previously reported by Xpress, federal guidelines require the money to be spent outside of Asheville city limits and on “activities that prepare, prevent or respond to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.” If Buncombe were to receive the grant, funds would likely not be available to assist residents until January due to multiple levels of required governmental review.

While the county would request $900,000 in aid, just under $815,000 would be made available for housing and utility payments. Running the program would eat up more than $60,000, while financial management of the grant itself would account for $25,000.

Despite this overhead, the grant would still represent the largest funding source yet made directly available to Buncombe residents who need help with bills due to COVID-19’s economic fallout. By comparison, the joint public-private One Buncombe Fund had distributed just over $453,000 in emergency assistance to county households as of Aug. 18.

Further public comment will also be accepted on the plan during the Oct. 6 meeting; those interested in commenting must register online by Monday, Oct. 5, at 3 p.m. Comments can also be sent to Rachael Nygaard, the county’s director of strategic partnerships, by phone at 828-250-6536 or email at Rachael.Nygaard@buncombecounty.org.

In other news

More than $374,000 in additional coronavirus relief is coming into county coffers to support public health. Nearly $305,000 will fund nurse salaries, medical supplies and language interpretation at Buncombe’s COVID-19 test sites, while over $69,000 will supplement the county’s payments to foster parents by $100 per month through December.

But Buncombe also faces over $364,000 in previously unbudgeted costs related to the repair of a retaining wall at the Montford North Star Academy. According to a staff report available before the meeting, “the wall is located in a historic district and must adhere to the Historic Commission guidelines; therefore, it is anticipated that additional funding will be needed.”

Other school-related expenses on the agenda include $770,000 for new safety projects, with $110,000 recommended for Asheville City Schools and $660,000 for Buncombe County Schools. Those costs would be funded by new debt and repaid using Article 39 sales tax revenue.

And Enka High School may get a new barn for its agriculture program, thanks to an item added to the agenda by Republican Commissioners Joe Belcher, Anthony Penland and Robert Pressley. A quote for the barn attached to the online agenda estimates the cost at $38,790; a Sept. 4 press release from Buncombe County Schools noted that Enka students had received a $25,000 grant toward building the structure from the N.C. Outdoor Heritage Advisory Council.

Consent agenda and public comment

The board’s consent agenda for the meeting contains seven items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. Highlights include the following resolutions:

  • Accepting a grant of nearly $136,000 from the Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life to the Buncombe County Board of Elections. The money will be used “to secure temporary staffing for election processes.”
  • Waiving an occupancy tax penalty of $513 assessed to Holiday Inn Biltmore East for late payment. According to a letter submitted to the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, the hotel’s accountant “totally forgot” to pay the tax in June before leaving for vacation but has otherwise maintained a punctual payment record.

The commission will also hold a briefing at 3 p.m.; no schedule was available as of press time. 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, Oct. 5, at 3 p.m. All commenters will receive three minutes to address the board.

Both the briefing and regular meeting will be livestreamed on the county’s Facebook page and will subsequently be available via YouTube.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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