Commissioners unanimously agree to support prison diversion, community investment programs

There was a large turnout for a presentation about funding the Isaac Coleman Community Investment Program, an initiative that would invest $500,000 in at-risk, or underserved, communities.
There was a large turnout for a presentation about funding the Isaac Coleman Community Investment Program, an initiative that would invest $500,000 in at-risk, or underserved, communities. Photo by Dan Hesse

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners soldiered through a nearly six-hour meeting Tuesday, Feb. 21, that had commissioners in lockstep on all agenda items. It also featured a standing-room-only crowd for the first two hours while commissioners heard about the Isaac Coleman Community Investment Program, an initiative that garnered unanimous approval from commissioners.

The board also gave unanimous approval to a project that advocates assert could delay, or ultimately prevent, construction of a $45 million detention center. Other items included Warren Wilson College’s pitch for $300,000 for swimming pool renovations and a peppering of questions for A-B Tech’s president that led to a continued moratorium on the college’s capital spending and a request for the president to reappear before commissioners during their next meeting in March. Xpress‘ coverage of the A-B Tech agenda item can be found here.

In honor of Isaac

“An amazing plan that will uplift the community” is how Dwight Mullen, a professor at UNC Asheville described the Isaac Coleman Community Investment Program, an initiative that would invest $500,000 in at-risk, or underserved, communities. Mullen, also author of The State of Black Asheville, began a presentation citing statistics he asserts shows the disparities between the African-American and white communities in Buncombe County.

He noted, “A telltale sign of a thriving community is that babies are born with a healthy birth weight,” before citing statistics that, in Buncombe County in 2015, black babies are more than two times likely to be born prematurely and four times more likely to have a very low birth weight. He also noted that death rate for Buncombe County’s African-Americans is 38 percent higher than the white community.

In regard to education, he said that in the Asheville City and Buncombe County school systems, “35 percent of black versus 71 percent of white students are at or above grade level for reading during to 2015-16 school year” for students grades kindergarten through eighth grade. Further, he stated that 32 percent of black versus 67 percent of white students are at or above grade level for math skills. “That ain’t screaming good for white people either,” he said, adding some levity to the serious presentation.

Mullen said he’s often asked if he presents the disparity statistics to embarrass African-Americans, to which he answered: “This is not stereotyping or a way to embarrass you to do well. We are all paying taxes for these schools; we must have data-driven policy. It’s not just your child.”

Mullen cited other statistics about housing, jail population and other issues. He provided Xpress with a copy of his presentation, which you can view here.

County staff then told commissioners the ultimate goal is to invest in neighborhoods, communities and businesses in order to build pipelines from schools to economic opportunity, noting it’s about “putting infrastructure in the ground.” Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone added, “If you travel down this road, we need at least a three-year commitment to see this fire catch. This is not like investing in an agency with a fully developed board. It’s about building something new, and that will take a long-term commitment.”

Commissioner Ellen Frost then asked how the contracts would be monitored “so we can report back to the public how tax dollars are being spent.”

“Benchmarks will be measured and reported. We would like to build a dashboard so the public can see progress, such as metrics in education and economy,” said Stone, who said numbers would be presented via a website and at commissioners’ meetings.

Commissioner Mike Fryar said, “We need to help the kids. Brick-and-mortar projects, that’s OK. But these young people here are our future. I’m totally behind this.”

Commissioner Al Whitesides then gravely added, “We didn’t have a commission that would listen to us 50 years ago,” with a round of applause exploding after his statement.

Stone said the project would solicit proposals, and it would likely be July before any programs get underway.

Afterward, about 20 members of the public spoke in favor of the initiative.

Marvin Chambers, an Asheville native, weighed in: “One problem I see right now is there are no jobs for people that are skilled. Certified welding, tool-and-die making — those are skills no longer being taught here. We need to take a serious look because that brings in industry that used to be here. There’s a need for trade. When you car breaks down, an engineer can’t fix it.”

Meantime, Marcus, a sophomore at Asheville High School, brought an idea to the table. “If you have a certain GPA, the county could give you a [college] scholarship,” he said. “Everybody knows Asheville isn’t broke because it keeps building hotels. So it would be great if you could implement more scholarship programs to help students go to college,” he added to a round of laughter and applause.

Ultimately, the project aims to achieve the following goals:

  • Support and leverage maximum impact of performance-based contracts that define our community nonprofit and faith-based safety net.
  • Invest in small business and income-producing neighborhood learning environments that promote job readiness, skill-trade building and paid apprenticeships connecting with our schools and business community.
  • Through Community Innovation Grants, support community and neighborhood structures to provide youth mentorships and positive environments that foster safety, health and economic self-sufficiency.
  • Continue to offer small Tipping Point Grants to give a lift to informal community and neighborhood ideas and projects.

Commissioners unanimously approved allocating $500,000 toward the project with the intention of funding it for at least three years, as long as benchmarks are hit and supported by metrics.

Diverting construction, convictions

Next, county staff presented a plan for the Buncombe County Justice Resource Center, an effort aimed at ultimately delaying construction of a $45 million detention center, if not eliminating the need for it altogether.

“Seventy percent of our jail population is low-level, nonviolent offenders,” noted Stone, citing an average of 51 of the county’s inmates who receive treatment for mental illness daily. Stone’s presentation also stated almost 800 county inmates were monitored for substance abuse withdrawal, last year.

Stone recommended giving judges and the District Attorney’s Office more latitude to divert people to community-based services.

Buncombe Detention

The program has the support of Sheriff Van Duncan, Judges Calvin Hill and Alan Thornburg, District Attorney Todd Williams and other key stakeholders in the criminal justice system.

“I want to simply say thank you for rolling this around and giving it some consideration. I think this model puts us in the best position to identify people judges realistically feel comfortable letting out of jail, if we know we are putting them into resources that can help, and if we can monitor them,” said Hill. “It’s not realistic to let everyone out of jail. Some people have got to be locked up. I believe if we can get this in place, it will give us the chance to keep you from having to spend $45 million on that new facility.”

Williams said, “We in the DA’s office are very excited to build the program. It will extend our toolbox into new areas.”

Duncan added: “We’re in an exciting time to turn the corner on some things and do something that sets us apart as a county with diversion programs. The program we are rolling out, I think we have to monitor, and monitor it several ways. We have to make sure this in no way compromises public safety.”

The plan will cost $228,226 for the rest of the current fiscal year (ending June 30) and cost $547,000 each additional year. However, it will be funded with federal dollars that come to the county via its detention center, which houses 100 federal inmates.

“I don’t think anyone has the stomach to say they want to fund a $45 million jail,” noted Commissioner Joe Belcher. “If we could delay it for eight years … maybe we could make it go away. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But we’ve got to challenge ourselves on these goals to reduce X,Y,Z,” he said, stressing the need for the initiative to be heavy on metrics.

Whitesides added, “From a community standpoint and as a taxpayer, it’s good to see our criminal justice community working to make life better. This will not only save us money but make taxpayers out of people we now see as tax-takers.”

Commissioners then unanimously approved the Buncombe County Justice Resource Center plan.

Pool party

Wrapping up the meeting was a collective of Warren Wilson College administrators looking to secure $300,000 to renovate its pool. Representatives noted that its location in eastern Buncombe County is advantageous to organizations and individuals in the area who don’t have access to community pools.

The group said it has an anonymous donor willing to shell out $250,000 toward to project contingent on matching funds and that it already has an endowment for pool maintenance, negating the need for further county dollars.

“We are getting more bang for our buck, and it’s a partnership,” said Whitesides. “It’s going to save our taxpayers money and fill a gap in the county that’s needed. To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

And while the other commissioners agreed, they did add stipulations that Owen High School, the Black Mountain swimming team and others would have free access to the pool. Also, all other investors have to come through with their money before the county throws in its portion.

With those clauses, commissioners unanimously approved funding the pool repairs.

Commissioners next meet on Tuesday, March 7. Xpress has a separate article on A-B Tech’s capital projects presentation from this meeting that can be found here.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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2 thoughts on “Commissioners unanimously agree to support prison diversion, community investment programs

  1. Richard Liston

    I am thrilled to see Asheville and Buncombe County recognizing the importance of developing the talent we have in the area. While other communities are building prisons, with this investment this community is working to build human capital and respect for the lives of its residents. We have an opportunity to demonstrate to communities around the nation how to turn the tide. Congratulations!

    Richard Liston
    Sphere College Project

  2. Grant Millin

    Weird there’s no comments to the MacArthur award winning social innovation. I asked how Buncombe’s people with disabilities are included.

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