Commission approves $500K for COVID-19 response

Buncombe County workers in personal protective equipment
GEAR UP: Personal protective equipment, such as the masks and gowns worn by workers at one of Buncombe County's drive-through COVID-19 test sites, is among the expenses to be covered by the new $500,000 in funding. Photo by Laura Hackett

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners had few questions as it voted unanimously on March 17 to approve a $500,000 general fund allocation in support of the county’s response to COVID-19. Perhaps the most pressing came from Anthony Penland, the board’s newest member: “Is that going to be enough?”

Since board Chair Brownie Newman declared a state of emergency on March 12 regarding the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Buncombe County has spent roughly $130,000 on expenses related to COVID-19, according to Budget Director Jennifer Barnette. Those costs include personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns for health personnel, takeout containers for school meals and professional consulting on the county’s emergency operations center.

Barnette noted that the budget allocation had already been doubled from the $250,000 request listed on the commission agenda, which was published on March 11. Of the new amount, she said $350,000 would go to public safety, with an additional $75,000 spent on both human services and general government.

In response to Penland’s question, County Manager Avril Pinder said the budget ask was based on immediate needs during a “fast spend-up” to increase Buncombe’s response capacity and purchase necessary equipment. Whether the “burn rate” would remain similarly intense throughout the public health crisis, she continued, remains to be seen.

Newman emphasized that he and his colleagues were willing to support the county’s response to whatever extent Pinder deemed necessary. He said that the board would reconvene on an emergency basis if required to authorize further spending before its next regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, April 7.

“Come to us and tell us what you need so we can mount the most effective response that we can provide to protect public health and safety,” Newman said. “Some of these [needs] are going to be very much outside the kind of core governmental services that we’re used to investing in, and we’re going to need to do things that are likely different than what we’ve done before.”

In other news

Although COVID-19 is dominating Buncombe’s attention, the board also moved forward with a response to the concurrent public health crisis of opioid abuse. The commissioners unanimously voted to accept over $24,000 from the Dogwood Health Trust to support six new needle disposal units in “hot spot locations” throughout the county.

According to a presentation by Amy Upham, the county’s opioid response coordinator, the money would fund a part-time worker to collect needle litter from the units through next February. She said locations for the units were still being finalized but included the Pisgah View community, where “some of their children were getting stuck with needles,” and South Tunnel Road.

Before voting to approve the funding, Commissioner Joe Belcher encouraged Upham to also consider programs that would reduce demand for disposal units. “What are we doing to help those who don’t want to use those needles anymore and to reduce the scale of the problem?” he asked. “It’s a COVID-19 on its own.”

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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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