“Grandad, who are the idiots that are proposing we close the library?” Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides recalled his grandson commenting on a recent drive through Oakley.
“I didn’t have the nerve to tell him,” Whitesides continued, that the idea to shutter the Oakley/South Asheville branch, along with the current libraries in Black Mountain and Swannanoa, had come from a master plan commissioned by the county Board of Commissioners. (See “Reading Rooms,” Xpress, Sept. 1, avl.mx/as4.)
Whitesides’ grandson — as well as community groups that have stridently opposed the plan since its presentation in May — can breathe easier after the board’s Nov. 2 meeting. In a unanimous vote, the commissioners directed Buncombe staff to maintain the county’s current library branches and explore other ways to improve the system. The vote also confirmed that Pack Memorial Library will remain at its current Haywood Street location instead of moving to a proposed new building on county-owned land on Coxe Avenue.
The original $81 million library proposal, developed by Dallas-based consultancy 720 Architects, had suggested closing some smaller branches so Buncombe could focus its resources on fewer, larger branches distributed throughout the county. Maureen Arndt, the consulting firm’s principal, had noted the Oakley and Swannanoa libraries were located within 10-minute drives of bigger facilities already.
But residents objected to the elimination of their neighborhood libraries despite their small size and relatively poor physical condition. During an Aug. 10 listening session regarding the Oakley facility, for example, Elizabeth Wallace of the Oakley Neighborhood Association said eliminating walkable branches would disproportionately harm low-income residents without vehicle access.
“When this was first presented to us, I think there were a lot of unique and creative ideas for our libraries that I personally was really excited about,” said Commissioner Amanda Edwards prior to the vote. “After hearing from so many residents across Buncombe County about how closely tied they are to the particular library in their community … it certainly shifted some of my own personal excitement.”
Edwards said that she now hoped to modernize the county’s existing libraries. Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara added that Buncombe should prioritize addressing safety and accessibility concerns at the current facilities that had been raised through the planning process.
“The consultant looked at data and numbers. And what gets lost in that is the intangible quality of the libraries and what they really mean to people,” concluded Jim Blanton, Buncombe’s library director. “They mean so much to so many folks, and we really need to invest in them to make sure they’re up to par.”
County to consider referendum on affordable housing bonds
In 2016, Asheville residents authorized city government to issue $25 million in new debt to support affordable housing projects. According to county Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman, Buncombe may put a similar spending plan before voters as soon as next year.
Newman said Nov. 2 that the board’s Affordable Housing Committee, consisting of himself, Edwards and Commissioner Parker Sloan, had recently been exploring the idea of a public bond referendum. In an Oct. 5 presentation to that committee, county Finance Director Don Warn outlined a hypothetical repayment schedule for $50 million in affordable housing debt and noted that a referendum could be held during the 2022 midterm elections.
While the board has yet to commit to a bond referendum, its members unanimously approved a letter asking The Trust for Public Land for “technical assistance and research on funding strategies for land conservation and affordable housing.” Newman said the national nonprofit has offered to study “the public’s priorities and the feasibility of funding options” at no cost to the county.
Commissioners also unanimously approved several changes to the county’s personnel ordinance, including an overhaul of its conflict-of-interest policy. The new rules explicitly define a conflict of interest as “when private interests interfere or appear to interfere with the performance of official duties” and provide more detailed guidance on accepting gifts while conducting Buncombe business.