Commission to vote on COVID-19 emergency funding March 17

Buncombe County seal

Update March 16, 1:42 p.m.: According to a March 16 email from Lamar Joyner, clerk to the Board of Commissioners, the board’s regularly scheduled pre-meeting has been canceled.

Update March 14, 7:45 p.m.: According to a March 14 Facebook post by Board of Commissioners chair Brownie Newman, the commission “will be limiting our agenda items for the time-being to core issues that require Commission approval. With this in mind, I am going to take the discussion of the hotel occupancy tax off our agenda for the March 17 meeting.”

Newman encouraged community members with an interest in the topic to share their opinions via email for the time being. He said he would be discussing alternative input opportunities with his colleagues on the commission.

Buncombe County’s response to COVID-19 continues. The agenda released March 11 for the Board of Commissioners regular meeting on Tuesday, March 17, included consideration of a state of emergency for the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But following N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s declaration of a statewide emergency on March 11, Brownie Newman, the board’s chair, accelerated the process by declaring an emergency using his executive powers on March 12.

However, coronavirus business still remains for the full board when its members meet Tuesday in Room 326 at 200 College St. The commissioners will hear an update on the local status of COVID-19, then consider a $250,000 appropriation to provide funding for Buncombe’s emergency response.

Of that money, $200,000 would be available to the county’s public safety efforts, while $50,000 would be allocated to human services. During a March 12 press briefing, Newman said some funding may be used to rent hotel rooms for homeless residents or tourists who need to isolate themselves after experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. However, he noted that spending plans would remain flexible to respond to needs as they arose.

Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, medical director for the county’s Health and Human Services, said that roughly a dozen people in Buncombe County had been tested for the coronavirus as of March 12, with no cases confirmed positive so far. She noted that testing would be expanded to include patients with a fever, lower respiratory symptoms and a negative test result for flu.

Mullendore emphasized that residents who suspect they may have COVID-19 should call their health care provider and avoid contacting 911 unless they are critically ill. Those with no provider can call Buncombe’s health department at 828-250-5109. More information on coronavirus prevention and preparation is available through the county website.

In other business

The commissioners face a lengthy agenda beyond the coronavirus matters. Among other business, the board will hear an update on the county’s contract with the private Medical Emergency Ambulance Transport, or MEDIC.

Citing “the number of quality of care concerns during the period of the agreement” in a presentation available before the meeting, EMS training officer Jamison Judd recommended that the board not renew service with the company. Initial approval of the contract last March proved controversial: The board passed the agreement in a 4-3 vote, with Newman and board members Jasmine Beach-Ferrara and Amanda Edwards in opposition.

Although an occupancy tax discussion is listed as new business on the commission’s agenda, its substance concerns a letter to state legislators previously presented by Newman at a Feb. 18 pre-meeting of the board. That document, added to the agenda at the request of Newman, Beach-Ferrara and Edwards, calls on Buncombe’s General Assembly members to oppose any new legislation restricting how the portion of hotel taxes reserved for community needs — currently 25% of the total — can be used.

Also in new business, the board will consider accepting over $64,000 in grant funding from the Dogwood Health Trust. The money is slated to support three separate projects: internet kiosks at Buncombe community centers to improve census participation, inclusive playground equipment at Charles D. Owen Park in Swannanoa and needle litter disposal units throughout the county.

Consent agenda

The board’s consent agenda for the meeting contains just two items, which will be approved as a package unless singled out for separate discussion. Besides approval of the minutes for the board’s March 3 meeting, the only other item is a resolution to award Jonathan Scruggs, a retiring deputy in the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, with his badge and service firearm.

The commission’s regularly scheduled pre-meeting at 3 p.m. in the same location has been canceled. The full meeting agenda and supporting documents for the regular meeting can be found at this link.


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is a contributing editor of Mountain Xpress, reviewing coverage of Western North Carolina's governments and environment. He was formerly the paper's news editor; his work has also appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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