Buncombe County Commission

The joint city/county minority-business plan, more than a year in the making, is good — but it needs more work, Buncombe County Commissioners decided at their Jan. 6 meeting. After hearing complaints from several black-community leaders that the plan is incomplete — and, according to publisher Clarence Benton, “doomed to fail” — commissioners unanimously tabled it, with plans to bring it back before the board at its first meeting in February.

“We need to make sure those concerns are addressed from the point [of view] of this board,” said Commissioner David Young.

Board Chair Tom Sobol agreed, but added that, “At some point in time, we have to take the position that 75 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.” Unlike the city, the county now has no minority-business plan in effect. The plan spells out procedures for contracting more work to minority-owned businesses.

Members of the black community raised several concerns about the plan. Benton told commissioners that the plan is mired in bureaucracy, though he believes the commissioners’ intent is good. “The ball was dropped at much lower levels,” he said.

“What good is classroom achievement when we can’t even participate in business?” NAACP local-chapter President H.K. Edgerton asked commissioners, before imploring them to take another look at the plan.

Marilyn Bass has worked for the city in minority affairs since the early ’80s and has held the joint city/county position of director of minority affairs for the past year, since the city and county consolidated their efforts. She listed numerous complaints of her own about both the plan and the office she headed until handing in her resignation, about 10 days before the meeting.

County department heads, she said, have not kept her office informed about construction and other bids that could possibly go to minority-owned businesses. “We’re talking about equal opportunity to bid,” she explained in a later interview. She also complained that her office is understaffed and underbudgeted.

In addition, Bass questioned the inclusion of foster parenting in minority-business statistics. “That is not a business,” she declared.

Bass expressed dissatisfaction with what she feels are vague county goals for increasing the amount of business conducted with minorities (the plan calls for such business to “increase by 100 percent”). Bass told Mountain Xpress that she does not believe the county makes doing business with minorities a priority.

After the meeting, County Manager Wanda Greene defended the county’s efforts. Though acknowledging that Buncombe’s record of contracting with minority businesses has been weak, she asserted that the county is trying to improve. Greene estimates that about 5 percent of county contracts now go to minority-owned businesses. Unlike the city, she argued, the county does not undertake a lot of construction.

Bass later questioned that assertion, however, citing a number of significant county construction projects during the past year, including a new library and swimming pool and renovations to the Health Center.

Laura Todd Thomas, who chairs the Minority Business Commission — which drafted a large portion of the plan — introduced it to commissioners. In a later interview, she said she feels encouraged by the commissioners’ wanting to take a closer look at the plan. “I applaud the county for going back and basically wanting to strengthen the plan for minority businesses,” she said. “We’re not disappointed that it didn’t pass.”

Thomas seemed less pleased with the reaction of Asheville City Council members, however, after she presented the plan to them on Jan. 5. “I was very disappointed in the city’s attitude toward the plan,” she said. Council members took issue with the plan’s call for including “good faith efforts” to deal with minority-owned businesses in the evaluations of city department heads. The council also questioned the NAACP’s permanent seat on the commission.

Thomas defended this seat, on the grounds that the NAACP already has its own economic-development program. And Jill Arrington, who heads the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation, asked commissioners for a permanent seat on the commission for her organization.

“The city and county have apparently different feelings about what the plan should be,” said Thomas.

In the coming weeks, city and county staff, as well as an ad-hoc committee appointed by Mayor Leni Sitnick, will meet to discuss the disputed points, Greene said.

Kayak park

Local kayakers will soon have a new county playground. Commissioners approved a plan to transfer $30,000 in city funds to the county for a slalom kayak course at The Ledges River Park along the French Broad River, just south of the Madison County line. The course was originally planned for Jean Webb River Park on Riverside Drive. City officials have informally approved the transfer.

“It won’t be a world-class course,” said kayaker and Asheville City Schools teacher Gordon Grant — but it will be an excellent teaching and training course for kids in the area. Kayaking, he said, has “tremendous spectator appeal. It meets many needs.”

“We will be ready to go as soon as we get the [Army] Corps of Engineers permit,” Director of Buncombe County Recreation Services Annette Wise told commissioners. Obtaining that permit, she said, shouldn’t be a problem.

Minimum housing code

The county’s proposed minimum housing code would benefit most but not all renters, proponents of the code told commissioners.

The code, which will regulate both new and existing dwellings, will address only life-threatening issues (such as heating, lighting and ventilation) and will be complaint-driven, Buncombe County Fire Marshall Mack Salley explained.

Commissioner David Gantt expressed concern that landlords might retaliate against tenants making complaints by evicting them. “I want to make sure that we’re not making clients worse off,” he said, noting that most tenants in substandard housing don’t have leases.

“There are some who, unfortunately, will be evicted” when they make a complaint, conceded Salley. But that already happens, he said, stressing that this would be the exception, not the rule, and that most Buncombe County properties already meet and even exceed the code’s requirements. Salley also noted that, once a deficiency is on record, a landlord cannot rent that unit again until the problem is fixed.

Curtis Venable, a lawyer with Pisgah Legal Services, said the ordinance deals primarily with safety issues. “I’m not sure what we can do” about retaliatory evictions, he observed. Landlords, said Venable, might argue — perhaps legitimately — that they must have a tenant out to make the needed repairs.

“This is by no means going to be perfect,” conceded Sobol, adding that the commission will have to fine-tune the ordinance later.

Asheville publisher Clarence Benton said he would like to see the “total community involved more. There were no blacks involved on the committee that wrote the ordinance, he pointed out. And when Commissioner David Young reminded him that the ordinance applies only to housing outside the city limits, Benton replied, “We’ve got blacks living out there, too.”

The ordinance’s stated purpose is to “remedy and prevent the decay and deterioration of places of human habitation by providing minimum requirements for the protection of the life, health, welfare, safety and property of the general public and the owners and occupants of places of human habitation.”

County staff will make inspections, but any repairs will be the landlord’s responsibility. If a landlord doesn’t agree to make improvements, the county can impose fines or take the landlord to court. The landlord can appeal any recommendations made. The Emergency Services Department will enforce the code.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the minimum housing code at their Jan. 20 meeting.

A scenic byway

To avoid the “unchecked commercialism” rampant in and around many parts of Asheville and Buncombe County, the residents living along U.S. Highway 74-A worked many months to have their 17-mile strip of road designated as an N.C. Scenic Byway, Mary Jane Hunter, who chairs the Scenic Highway Committee for 74-A, told commissioners.

Last spring, after receiving a 700-signature petition favoring the designation and detailed information about the historical sites along the road, the N.C. Department of Transportation granted Highway 74-A the scenic-highway designation, which recognizes roads with cultural, historical or scenic significance.

The problem, said Hunter, is that businesses and utility companies doing work along the road don’t realize that the special designation carries a different set of rules, including a ban on new billboards.

New signs and road work that don’t comply with scenic-highway regulations are common, said Hunter, who asked the commissioners for help in contacting utility companies and making them aware of the designation. Commissioners promised to help.

“Without any zoning restrictions, you can imagine that the [notification] process is frustrating and time-consuming,” said Hunter.

Drovers Road, as Highway 74-A is also known, is the only scenic byway in Asheville, said Hunter. “People out here are trying very hard to find ways to preserve the way of life that we all want to keep,” she declared.

Computer error sinks Water Authority budget

A computer error that went undetected for four months is what threw the Regional Water Authority’s budget off by $2 million, Interim Water Resources Director Doug Spells told commissioners. Spells, who’s also Asheville’s assistant city manager, appeared before the commissioners requesting a budget amendment for the Water Authority. Before joining his fellow commissioners to unanimously approve the budget request, Commissioner David Young wanted to know if a rate increase lies ahead.

“I think rate increases would be the worst thing you could do to citizens of this area,” he said.

Water rates won’t go up this year, said Spells, but he gave no such guarantee about the following year.

Board appointments

Commissioners appointed William Bailey to the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council. They also named April Kummerle, Faye Carr, John Wolverton, Terry Rolin, Barbara Bellows and Katrine Hudson — all county animal-control employees — as animal-cruelty investigators.

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