What state and federal governments won’t fund, Buncombe County will. That was the takeaway for Buncombe’s Family Justice Center, a central clearinghouse for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse, following a Sept. 21 vote by the county Board of Commissioners.
Board members unanimously approved nearly $97,000 in new spending from the county’s fund balance to cover nine months of services that had previously been supported by the Governor’s Crime Commission. Although Buncombe’s FJC did receive over $847,000 from the state to fund services through September 2023 — the only North Carolina center to get money from that source in the current grant cycle — the allocation fell nearly $309,000 short of a previous two-year state grant.
Paulina Mendez, the county’s family justice division manager, explained in a presentation to the board that the state grants ultimately come from federal funds made available through the Victims of Crime Act. Those funds have dwindled in recent years; while Congress passed a “VOCA fix” in July meant to replenish the money, Mendez noted, its effects wouldn’t be seen for three to four years.
“We’re working to make the services whole so that we can maintain the level of service that we’re providing for our survivors,” she said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel. However, we’re still in that tunnel.”
Without the extra Buncombe funding, Mendez said, the FJC would have to reduce its staffing by roughly 75 hours per week. Such a reduction, she continued, could prevent hundreds of county residents from receiving needed support amid the ongoing stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After approval of the request, county funding will represent 47% of the FJC’s budget in the current fiscal year, up from 35% in fiscal 2020-21. The county’s share of the center’s support has more than doubled from the 18% figure reported for fiscal 2017-18.
The FJC will ask for additional county money in upcoming budget cycles, according to a staff report available before the meeting. Roughly $161,000 in funding to compensate for the lower state grant level will be requested in fiscal years 2022-23 and 2023-24, and about $338,000 will be needed over three years to match an expected $464,000 federal grant from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women.
Mask mandate extended through October
Face coverings will continue to be required of Buncombe residents in public indoor spaces through Friday, Oct. 29, after an extension of the COVID-19 state of emergency and mask mandate issued Aug 18. The board voted 6-1 to keep the mandate in place, with only Republican Commissioner Robert Pressley in opposition.
The county — as well as the entire state of North Carolina — remains at high levels of community COVID-19 transmission, defined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days. The CDC recommends that masks be worn by everyone over the age of 2, even those who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, in areas of substantial or high transmission.
None of the nine public commenters who spoke on the mandate expressed support for its continuation. “The rest of the state is not under a mask mandate. There’s no reason for you to do this, and we will hold you responsible, personally,” said Tamara Parker of Arden, a member of the Buncombe County Republican Party Executive Committee. (Parker was later escorted out of the meeting by law enforcement for refusing to wear a face covering.)