More than nine months after authorizing its last COVID-19 relief funding for local businesses, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is set to make an extra $150,000 available through an allocation from county cash reserves to the One Buncombe Fund. The board will hold a public hearing on the matter at a special meeting Tuesday, Jan. 26, and is expected to take action immediately following.
In contrast with the county’s previous $200,000 allocation to the fund, which was split between assistance for individuals and business relief, the entirety of the new money would go to Buncombe-based businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Asheville-based nonprofit Mountain BizWorks would be responsible for administering the program, as it did the previous round.
While county relief has heretofore been available only in the form of low-interest loans, businesses will now be able to seek grants of $5,000 to hire or rehire employees at a living wage. Tim Love, Buncombe’s economic development director, told the board during a Jan. 12 presentation that staff had previously believed such a grant program to be illegal but had since received updated guidance from the UNC School of Government.
Love said that the county aimed for $500,000 to eventually be distributed to businesses. Of that goal, $50,000 is immediately available as unspent balance in the One Buncombe Fund, while an additional $300,000 will be sought from community partners such as other governments, foundations and private entities. At the start of the pandemic, the city of Asheville allocated $100,000 toward the fund, while the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority gave $50,000.
Employees rehired under the program may eventually see their salaries boosted from pre-pandemic levels thanks to a recent revision in the living wage by Just Economics WNC. As of Jan. 15, the organization raised its hourly standard from $15.50 ($14 with employer-provided health insurance) to $17.30 ($15.80 with insurance), citing the region’s increased housing costs. However, businesses with living-wage certification have one calendar year to adjust their pay scales.
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County health officials will also offer a general update on Buncombe’s COVID-19 response at the meeting. The board may discuss revising or lifting its restriction of indoor dining to 30% capacity, which is stricter than the state limit of 50%; while Chair Brownie Newman had previously announced that the county would reevaluate the policy by Jan. 22, no public discussion of changing the limit took place at the board’s Jan. 19 meeting.
Katie Button, owner of Cúrate in downtown Asheville, took the commissioners to task during public comment on Jan. 19. “Independent restaurants are hemorrhaging money and laying off employees,” she said, noting that several across the county had closed permanently due to the pandemic and nearly 20 had temporarily suspended operations due to the 30% policy. “Restaurants across the state are operating safely at 50%. From my perspective, the permanent loss of independent businesses, well-paying jobs and access to benefits and health insurance that are a result of this measure land squarely on the Buncombe County commission’s shoulders.”
And at a 3 p.m. special session held before the main meeting, the commissioners will discuss a county facility study. Buncombe employees, many of whom are telecommuting due to COVID-19, may require less physical space even after the pandemic. According to a presentation shared at the board’s Jan. 19 briefing, 283 staffers have expressed a preference to telecommute on a permanent basis, potentially eliminating the need for 22,700 square feet of office area.
Public comment will only be permitted through live telephone calls at the start of the 5 p.m. 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, Jan. 25, at 3 p.m.