ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Despite not seeing eye-to-eye on other items during their Oct. 17 meeting, Buncombe County commissioners were unified in approving changes to the county’s economic development incentive policies, creating new preschool opportunities and tapping a law firm to file suit against opioid manufacturers.
In preparation for starting litigation against the makers of painkillers, commissioners selected Mississippi-based McHugh Fuller Law Group, which is partnering with a consortium of other law firms and representing about 75 local governments in opioid-related suits in federal court.
The suit is in response to the rising level of opioid-related overdoses and deaths. Statistics from the N.C. Division of Public Health show that at the end of August, Buncombe County had 230 opioid-related emergency department visits. Last year, in the same period, the county had 84 such incidents, a 173 percent increase.
The firm will file and represent the suit on behalf of the county at no charge but will retain 30 percent of the proceeds in the event of a favorable outcome.
“Our community is devastated on a resource level as paramedics respond to overdoses and families lose loved ones. It’s a crisis,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. “So I hope by engaging this firm they will be warriors for our community and get resources back to our community for treatment.”
Two other law firms responded to the county’s call for legal help in the matter. County staff attorney Brandon Freeman told commissioners that staff recommended McHugh Fuller Law Group because it’s ready to begin work immediately. “There is sometimes a benefit to being in the front of line on this. That is one thing we found attractive,” he explained. “If we went with another firm, there would be a planning stage before we could move forward.”
Michael Fuller, an attorney with McHugh Fuller, said, “We are out in front because we started this and have been pushing it. We built a team that can handle the massive cases, without delay.”
Fuller said a lawsuit could be filed as soon as next week.
Commissioners unanimously approved having McHugh Fuller Law Group take the case.
No small potatoes
Commissioners are signaling a shift in philosophy and priorities regarding how economic development incentive dollars will be doled out. While the baseline requirement of a $1.5 million investment of buildings, equipment and jobs to be considered for incentives remains unchanged, some incentive money will now be used to help small businesses get a leg up.
The current budget has almost $5 million set aside for such incentive packages, with just over $3 million of that committed to seven projects. Commissioners approved removing about $1.5 million from the overall $5 million pool, while also agreeing to approve incentives on a case-by-case basis rather than allocating an estimated amount for the year.
From the savings generated by the change, commissioners tabbed $200,000 for small-business loans and $250,000 for preschool expansion efforts. County staff added that minority businesses will be given preference in regard to the loans.
County Planner Jon Creighton outlined changes to the policy, with the most significant being the amount a business must pay its employees in order to be eligible for incentives. Wages must start at, or reach within four years, 100 percent of the county’s average wage rate ($20.93 per hour), with incentives increasing as salaries increase.
Further, the county will pony up more incentives for employers paying 50 percent or more of child care expenses for their workforces. Applicants for incentives must provide a schedule on when investments will be made and jobs created, along with policies on workforce diversity and company sustainability practices.
“The economy is good. Buncombe County is a desirable place to locate to. Do we need to pay incentives as high as we’ve paid in the past? This equates with good times,” said Creighton of the more stringent incentive requirements.
Last year, Commission Chair Brownie Newman campaigned on raising the wage required to qualify for incentives, as well as bringing small businesses into the economic development fold. “In the past we’ve had great projects, but they weren’t really raising the wages in the community. This new policy clearly only contemplates considering partnerships where we raise wages in community,” he said before commissioners unanimously approved the incentive tweaks.
The latest move will utilize space at the Lonnie D. Burton Child Development Center for 18 additional preschool slots. The plan will cost the county $40,000, but that amount was previously allocated for a preschool initiative that ultimately offset its costs with grant money, thereby freeing the dollar up for this purpose.
County staff said while it might be challenging to find staff for the classroom with the school year already underway, the intent is to have children in the new spots as soon as possible.
Earlier in the meeting, commissioners discussed county staff pay cuts and moving the county toward 100 percent renewable energy. Xpress recapped those issues in a previous article here.
You can watch the entire Oct. 17 meeting here.