Buncombe County Commission

Board gets bitten by appointment

When the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners named Friends For Animals representative Bill McKelvy to a newly created animal-control board, some animal-rights advocates went for the jugular.

“Putting … McKelvy on the board is like having the fox guard the henhouse. … It’s like spitting in our face,” proclaimed Buncombe County resident Elaine Lite at the commissioners’ regular Dec. 21 meeting. Other animal-rights organizations are not among the commissioners’ 11 appointments to the new Animal Services Advisory Board, she pointed out. And commissioners appeared to have completely ignored the recent onslaught of complaints voiced about both McKelvy and the FFA, which contracts with the county to provide animal-control services.

“What influence does [McKelvy] have, that he can sway you?” Lite asked commissioners accusingly .

“I resent that,” Commissioner David Gantt fired back. “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“It had nothing to do with deep pockets or political influence,” Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Patsy Keever added. She told Lite that she, too, had experienced reservations about appointing McKelvy — but had concluded that he needed to have a voice on the new board, which will serve in an advisory capacity on animal-control and animal-rights issues. Keever then tried to steer the discussion away from personal attacks on McKelvy.

But animal-rights activist Stewart David — a former FFA board member — argued, “Having an FFA member on [the new board] is a conflict of interest.” Commissioners neglected to appoint any FFA critics to the new board, he mentioned. David also referred to the FFA’s handling of animal issues as displaying “gross ineptitude.” Echoing Lite’s complaints about the FFA, he urged commissioners to amend their contract with the organization and demand that its board open both its meetings and financial records to the public. “I know this is just animals to you, but we have to do better than this,” concluded David.

Buncombe County resident Virginia Smith asked questions about the new board that commissioners couldn’t readily answer: Will the public be able to bring their concerns before the board? Will board members be able to attend FFA meetings and visit the local animal shelter it runs? Will shelter employees be well trained?

Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol noted that commissioners will adopt bylaws for the new board in January, before its first meeting later in that month. He also emphasized that commissioners had decided to create an 11-member board — instead of the nine-member body originally contemplated — in order to incorporate more diversity.

In addition to McKelvy, commissioners unanimously appointed Pat Lance (representing the WNC Nature Center), Ellen Frost (a kennel owner), Ray Morgan (a hunter), Jerry Plemmons (a retired school principal), Margaret Pressley and Michelle Richardson (both veterinarians), Gay Snelson (a farmer), Robert Morgan (a volunteer with local animal-adoption programs), Beverly Taylor (a horse breeder) and Courtney Mumm (representing the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department). Buncombe County employees Mike Bradley and Stan Clontz were named ex-officio members.

After the meeting, longtime Buncombe County Board of Commissioners observer Jerry Rice remarked that commissioners bypassed their usual method of making appointments to boards and commissions: They made the 11 nominations as a group, presented by Keever, instead of allowing commissioners to make individual nominations.

“[The McKelvy] appointment is going to come back and bite them,” predicted Rice.

A better way

To sum up Buncombe County resident Gerald Dean‘s list of complaints to the Board of Commissioners, there has to be a better way.

First on the list of this regular speaker at commissioners’ meetings was the case of an elderly resident — Robert Ellis — who was recently arrested and jailed because he’d violated Asheville zoning ordinances on his property, which lies outside the city but falls within its extra-territorial jurisdiction. As Dean spoke to commissioners on Dec. 21, the overhead monitors displayed a photograph of the man’s property — best described as a junkyard.

“We need some way to get the word out before a situation gets bad,” said Dean, arguing that a little forethought on officials’ part could have prevented the need to arrest Ellis — and brought fellow citizens to his aid sooner. Dean helped Ellis get out of jail and has spearheaded a volunteer effort to help the elderly man clean up his property.

Not stopping there, Dean went on to say that commissioners need to work to attract more well-paying jobs to the county, and to change their regular meetings from Tuesdays — the same day Asheville City Council meets — “so we don’t divide people between [the two meetings].” Further, Dean suggested, commissioners’ meetings shouldn’t start before 6 p.m. (currently, the commissioners’ pre-meeting begins at 3:30 p.m., and the regular session starts at 4 p.m.).

Dean then attempted to read a letter about Ellis, but his time ran out (public-comment speakers are allotted only three minutes each). He pleaded for more time, but board Chair Sobol cut him off, declaring that commissioners have to set the same limit for everyone. At that, point Dean accused Sobol of not wanting the public to know about Ellis.

“It’s not a county matter,” replied Sobol.

After the meeting, Dean and Sobol were more congenial: “When are you gonna come to church?” Dean teased Sobol as they shook hands. (The two men, it turns out, attend the same church.) Sobol promised he’d be there soon.

Dean also offered more information on Ellis just after the meeting. While admitting that the gentleman is a “pack rat,” Dean pointed out that he’s also a World War II and Korean War veteran who twice survived having warships shot out from under him — once, by hanging onto a piece of plywood for three days with two of his shipmates while awaiting rescue. Dean urged “a little respect” for Ellis and suggested that residents should have come to his aid. “If it wasn’t for men like Mr. [Ellis], our native language [might] be Japanese!” he concluded.

A paramedic’s worth

Local paramedics shouldn’t have to put in a 56-hour work week just to make a decent living, former Buncombe County paramedic Eddie Harwood complained to commissioners at the Dec. 21 meeting. “I know from working over there myself, it’s hard to [work that many hours] and have a family,” he said.

Harwood went on to assert that the average paramedic in Buncombe County puts in 800 more hours per year than the average worker; that only two paramedics in the county make more than $10 an hour; and that one top paramedic (despite working in a supervisory capacity) still doesn’t make much more than $9 per hour. “Most of your paramedics are working three jobs just to get by,” he said.

Harwood has made the same complaint to commissioners in the past, urging better wages for paramedics. But at this meeting, Buncombe County Emergency Management Director Jerry Vehaun countered with some numbers: Once overtime hours are calculated, paramedics working for the county make more than $30,000 per year — significantly more than those working for Mission St. Joseph’s or other health-care services in the area, according to Vehaun. He noted that Buncombe County paramedics’ higher annual pay stems from their longer work week, which is based on shifts of 24 hours on duty, 48 hours off.

On an hourly basis, Vehaun added, Buncombe County paramedics make $9.94 — compared to $9.82 at Mission St. Joseph’s. He went on to emphasize that Buncombe County evaluates the pay scales of paramedics and other emergency-services personnel each year.

Board of Commissioners Chair Sobol assured Harwood, “We’re concerned about … the job market as much as anyone else.”

And County Manager Wanda Greene suggested that Harwood meet with Vehaun to discuss the issue further. Harwood responded that he simply wants the board to address Buncombe County’s pay scale for paramedics, and heavy work schedule.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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