Commissioners approve animal ordinance, new human services facility

Buncombe commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of a $48.5 million expansion of the county's Department of Health and Human Services facility. (Photo by Jake Frankel)

Buncombe commissioners don’t often hold marathon sessions, but on Jan. 20, their agenda started at 8:30 a.m. and took all day: By the end, they had waded through an overview of several county departments, heard preliminary funding requests from local nonprofits, taken a second vote on the changes to the Animal Control Ordinance, directed staff to look for inexpensive options for replacing the county’s aging indoor-swimming pool and voted 6-1 for  a $48.5 million new building for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Tethered debate

As they had on Jan. 6, when first considering amendments to Buncombe’s Animal Control Ordinance, commissioners voted 4-3 in a legally required second vote. And as before, the issue raised hackles.

“The proposed amendments will require animal-control officers to decide if an animal is experiencing any ‘obvious neglect,’” said Patrick Erwin of Chainfree Asheville, a group which successfully advocated for a ban on tethering in the Asheville city limits a few years ago.

The group asked commissioners to table the amendment. “It will mandate that every dog in the county will have to have ‘adequate exercise’ and ‘social interaction,'” said Erwin, referencing key points in the amendment. “How is the public to know what … officers consider [to be] ‘adequate exercise’ and ‘social interaction,’ or ‘obvious neglect?’”

Erwin said such requirements “will render the new ordinance unenforceable for tethered dogs, and still mean that a tethered dog can be on its — now 15-foot — chain as long as the animal control officer deems it’s not being neglected.”

“It’s not right that animals are kept tethered like that,” said Robin McCollough. “I was involved in the rescue of a tethered dog in Brevard. Neighbors of ours kept asking for animal control to be sent out, but [officers] couldn’t do anything about it because [conditions] met the requirements of the law.”

“I think we probably all agree that we want to do what’s best and be realistic,” said Winslow Umburger. “It doesn’t cost anything to give this more time and let groups come together and present more viable solutions than the ones that are in this amendment.”

Commissioners Miranda Debruhl, Mike Fryar, and Joe Belcher had opposed the revised ordinance a few weeks ago. This go around, they proposed additional changes.

Fryar proposed an amendment requiring that animal-neglect complaints “must be made by citizens that live within a 1,000 feet of the animal’s home.”

He said, “We should not be sending animal control staff out … for [the benefit of] special interest groups, when animals are a community issue.”

His motion failed 3-4, with fellow Republicans Belcher and Debruhl supporting it and Democrats David GanttHolly Jones, Brownie Newman and Ellen Frost opposing.

Debruhl then proposed two suggestions: the first to strike the lines under the newly written equestrian section of the ordinance that set specific measurements for adequate space for horses. Her motion failed 3-4 on a party-line vote. Debruhl then made a motion that all current structures be grandfathered in. That also failed 3-4.

Finally, Belcher proposed changing language that he had found vague on Jan. 6: “I move to remove to language ‘social interaction’ and ‘adequate exercise’ and replace it with ‘obvious distress.’”

That also failed 3-4, again on a party-line vote.

“Our animal ordinance has become a model for the rest of the country,” said Frost. “We were the first county in the state to have a leash law, to have rules about pick-up trucks, to pass a spay-and-neuter ordinance. All of those were met with far more resistance. But when we look back, we see all the good that’s come from it.”

The final vote was 4-3 on a party-line split.

New digs for DHHS

On a 6-1 vote, commissioners also passed a $48.5 million expansion of the Department of Health and Human Services facility. “We see 100,000 people face to face every year,” said Mandy Stone, DHHS director. “We rely a lot of technology, and it’s technology that has allowed us to remain in [our current space].”

But the Coxe Avenue building — once a Sears and Roebuck store — has been cramped and inadequate for some time.

“Our front desk staff are literally sitting elbow to elbow, and … this is the place where an individual citizen would come and share very confidential information.”

Over the years, she said, the department had come up with creative solutions for maximizing the space, such as converting most paper files to digital and keeping the rest in a storage facility; consolidating systems to lower the amount of staff needed; moving services near consumers; beefing up phone-answering services so that fewer clients have to visit the building; and contracting out as many duties and tasks as feasibly possible.

Despite such efforts, Stone said, DHHS is “literally bursting at the seams.” Further, its current situation is against the law: State statutes mandate that “direct staff’” — those who engage face-to-face with the public — must have 80 square feet of workspace each. North Carolina officials are aware of DHHS overcrowding, said Stone, and the department faces possible fines and even federal intervention if not addressed — “which may sound great,” Stone joked, “before they bill us.”

She also noted that the state is typically very lenient as long as progress is being made to resolve the situation. The solution is more space.

Planning Director Jon Creighton provided some possible options for a second site elsewhere in the city, but he and Stone both agreed that keeping it on Coxe Avenue was the best idea.

“Forty-seven percent of our clients live within five miles of Coxe Avenue,” said Stone. “And the city [of Asheville] has shown that they understand the value of having services in close proximity.”

But during public comment, former Buncombe County School Board member Lisa Baldwin was skeptical and noted some lack of information on the proposals. “Human Services has a request for money, but there was no link to that information [on the meeting agenda online]. I can only assume it’s related to the building that was proposed [to commissioners] in the past that would exceed $40 million in taxpayer dollars. I’d like you to consider that the existing building is possibly underutilized; hours could be extended, which would benefit clients as well. We have one of the highest employment rates in the state, and as employment increases, I would expect the need for Human Services to decline.”

But households on food assistance and Medicaid, as well as applications, have only been increasing, Stone detailed. The need for additional Medicaid services could quality another 12,000 people for aid. “What we traditionally see post-recession is a decline in those numbers,” said Stone. “What we’re seeing this time is, at best, slowing of growth.”

Commissioner Brownie Newman questioned the big price tag, wondering if ideas for recouping revenue had been thoroughly explored. “There a compelling case that something has to be done here,” he said. “But is there anyway to lower the cost?”

Newman was particularly concerned with an additional parking structure included in plans.

“We’re talking about $25,000 per [parking] space? … How much more expensive is it to build in a tight, restricted location like downtown compared to one of the other properties under consideration? I see all the advantages of the [Coxe Avenue] location, but I just am trying to understand how much more expensive a [downtown] site like this is, compared to a location with a little more space?”

Creighton admitted that it would be less in pure dollar terms to build further from downtown, such as at the Innsbruck Mall or in Erwin Hills, but doing so would hurt service accessibility — the centrality of the current location and its proximity to the city bus station is very convenient, accommodating such residents as the elderly, who would have a hard time reaching a more distant, sprawling location. “I don’t think, with the situation that we’re in, that the cost is that much more,” he said.

“When we’ve looked at moving DHHS out of downtown before,” said Stone. “There’s been a fair amount of opposition from businesses as well as from the city. … They see the value in [DHHS] continuing to be there,” Creighton said.

The proposal passed 6-1, with Newman opposed.

Pooling resources

The long session and its early start (8:30 a.m., when commissioners don’t usually meet until late afternoon) were spurred by County Manager Wanda Greene‘s suggestion. As she explained to Xpress, in previous years, staff “were sending all of this [information] out to [commissioners] in writing, and they would end up getting very anxious, because it’s just so much. If you’ve noticed, we’ve talked about $100 million [in projects] today.”

Greene noted that she intends to spread out presentations on budget issues over the course of the next few meetings, though likely  none so long as the Jan. 20 session, which included the capital funding requests from county departments.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s already time for the 2016 budget,” she told commissioners during the session. “We’re trying this year to be a little more methodical in bringing you the information in pieces instead of dropping all of it onto you in May.”

The daylong review also introduced preliminary funding requests from nonprofits, including the Asheville Art Museum, Coburn Science Museum and Asheville Housing Authority. Although nonprofit funding has typically been one of the most controversial issues to come before commissioners, Parks and Recreation sparked the most conversation due to an in-depth discussion about the state of county pools and related facilities.

“We’ve reached a crossroads with pools in this county,” said Fran Thigpen, department director. The Zeugner Center’s  indoor pool, she said, is so decrepit that she could not recommend putting any more money into it, even for minor maintenance.

“It’s past its end of life,” said Greene. The pool “will be closed at the end of this swimming season,” with no way it could be reopened, she said.

Zeugner’s is the only public indoor pool in the county and the only one open for the whole year, however. Outdoor pools remain open only for about two and a half months. So the center is, essentially, the only publicly-owned location for local swim meets and practices in Buncombe.

Thigpen and Greene asked for direction on what options the board wanted to pursue. Ideas on the table — some of which were discussed last year — included refitting an outdoor pool with a cover to make it effectively indoors; contracting with other facilities, like the UNC Asheville pool; building a brand new indoor pool for an estimated price tag of $6.5 million; or going all the way and building an new aquatics center that would accommodate everything — pool sports, recreation, exercise classes — all in one place.

But the price tag for an all-inclusive facility could cost more than $30 million.

After much discussion, commissioners spring boarded to the cheapest options, directing staff to look into covering a pool or pools, specifically underutilized ones, and looking for partnerships with, for example, Buncombe County Schools, since a large part of the need for an indoor facility is school swim meets.

The full aquatics center idea washed out, as its high cost might require a sales tax increase.

“One indoor pool is a good thing, and that we need to offer one to the community,” said Commissioner Jones, former director for the YWCA, which has an indoor pool. “When I hear about the larger ideas [like the aquatic center], I can get excited about that.  But that goes into ‘want-not-need’ for me.”

She said, “It’s justifiable to subsidize [public] pools to a degree, but it’s not an endless blank check. Pools are tricky, they’re not moneymakers. They suck the life out of you. I heard loud and clear that some subsidy is going to be needed, [so] a responsible way to go is how to put in another indoor pool in a cost-expedient way.”

Nonprofit presentations and other highlights

  • General Services Director Greg Israel provided details about a funding request for more vehicles for the Buncombe Sheriffs department. The money would fund the purchase of more cost-efficient, lower-emission vehicles. All eight Student Resource officers drive 8-cylinder Dodge Chargers, for example, but work a position that’s almost entirely indoors or on foot, he explained. So 4-cylinder or 6-cylinder vehicles would save the county money.
  • Election Services Director Trena Parker asked for money to upgrade voting machines. “Our current system’s been a good one,” she said. “It’s counting 1.2 million ballots for approximately 10 million votes. But the bottom line is it’s 10 years old, and in the technology world, that’s old.” Several of the machines, she said, were becoming difficult to repair. Indeed, the North Carolina Board of Elections sets a 10-year maximum for voting systems. Unfortunately for Buncombe, the required upgrade comes at a time when Election Services must be prepared for an Asheville City primary, a municipal General Election, and three different primary elections for presidential candidates between Oct. 2015 and June 2016 (as well as the Nov. 2016 presidential election).
  • Colburn Earth Science Museum Director Vicky Ballard said that she “wasn’t actually expecting to announce this yet,” since she “assumed this [funding request] would be later in the year.” But, she said, the museum will be moving to a new location on 1 Haywood St. in the Wells Fargo building downtown once its lease at Pack Place ends in June. Colburn was left in the lurch during the debate and subsequent decision by the city of Asheville in July 2014 to strip the Pack Place nonprofit of its authority and change to a direct leasing arrangement. The museum has been looking for a new location ever since. Colburn, said Ballard, will have 8,000 of space at the new site, and she requested $275,000 to help install a permanent exhibit there. Commissioner Fryar asked if the museum was going to be able to pay the rent in the new location. Ballard was confident they’d be OK: “We’ve got a lot of window space now. We’re not in a basement anymore.”

The next meeting of the Commissioners will be on Tuesday, Feb. 3, at its regular time — 4:30 p.m.

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