Buncombe County Commission

“We as a task force believe it is unlikely — if not impossible — to achieve reform goals of consumer choice and privatization.”

— Mental Health Advisory Task Force Chair Linda Poss

The Buncombe County commissioners heard a hodgepodge of community concerns last week — from high housing costs to worries about mental-health reform. But the only substantial problem they were asked to fix on the spot was a school-funding crunch that was partly of their own making.

The Board of Commissioners met Jan. 6 without Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, who was laid low by a respiratory bug. But the four remaining board members still managed to meet for nearly three-and-a-half hours.

School construction shortfall

The effects of state and county financial maneuverings on local schoolchildren hit home last week.

The N.C. General Assembly’s diversion of school funding to other uses back in 2002 cost the Buncombe County Schools about $1.3 million that was supposed to help pay for additions and renovations at Erwin, Reynolds and Roberson high schools, Director of Capital Outlay Bill Hamby told the commissioners.

There’s also less sales-tax money available for the schools, noted Hamby — the result of both an economic downturn and a change in the way the county doles out sales-tax revenues. Although Hamby didn’t dwell on the latter issue, it has cropped up at commissioners’ meetings before — most recently in June 2003, when Commissioner David Gantt tried unsuccessfully to persuade his fellow commissioners to make good on their promise to revert to their earlier method of allocating sales-tax revenues (see “A Bloody Budget Session,” June 25, 2003 Xpress). The current method gives county government more money ($861,000 in the current fiscal year) at the county schools’ expense.

Hamby asked the board to take three specific steps to reallocate the proceeds from a bond issue approved by voters in 1999: amend the list of fundable projects; direct a portion of those proceeds toward the added capital projects; and transfer $1.2 million from the “bond inflation allowance” category to help cover construction costs.

In response to a question by Chairman Nathan Ramsey, Hamby said a county-school staffer would report back to the commissioners about what projects have been left undone because of funding shortfalls.

The commissioners unanimously approved Hamby’s request.

The bumpy road to mental-health reform

Buncombe County Mental Health Advisory Task Force Chairwoman Linda Poss painted a grim picture of how state-mandated mental-health reform is unfolding.

Counties across the state have been given unrealistic time lines for the statewide restructuring and privatization of mental-health services, Poss told the board. Meanwhile, the state still has not provided critical information needed to successfully implement those changes, such as how much new service providers will be paid.

In addition, she reported, beds in state mental hospitals are being eliminated before alternative services are available.

“We as a task force believe it is unlikely — if not impossible — to achieve reform goals of consumer choice and privatization,” Poss declared.

The task force, said Poss, is worried that local schools, hospitals and jails will bear the burden of providing those services.

And because the team directing the new Western Highlands Local Management Entity is the same one that managed the old Blue Ridge Area Authority (which it replaced), giving meaningful input from outside the system has been hard, Poss observed.

The chairwoman also raised a recurring question about how local mental-health assets are being distributed (see “Following the Money,” Oct. 22, 2003 Xpress).

Poss recommended that the commissioners take several actions, including: asking for a full accounting of all local public mental-health funds assets (particularly real estate) and insisting that a diverse group of Buncombe County residents have meaningful input into reform plans.

County Manager Wanda Greene (who serves on the new Western Highlands board) noted that the county had recently taken steps to improve the new system’s accountability. At the final meeting of the now-defunct Blue Ridge Area Authority on Dec. 17, Authority board members changed the governance structure of Blue Ridge Human Services Facilities, the nonprofit that owns the publicly purchased buildings and real estate where public mental-health services are provided. Instead of letting current BRHSF board members appoint future ones, the county commissioners of Buncombe, Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties will make those appointments.

“You now have control of those assets completely,” said Greene.

Ramsey (the Buncombe County commissioners’ appointee to the Blue Ridge Area Authority) added that the Authority had also agreed to transfer $5 million of its remaining fund balance to Blue Ridge Human Services Facilities to help provide for mental-health needs, with $3 million being used to develop an inpatient crisis facility in Buncombe, Madison, Mitchell or Yancey county.

In addition, the commissioners unanimously approved changing the task force’s written goals to allow members to provide continued feedback on mental-health reform.

Housing concerns and more

The commissioners also heard about assorted other matters, including:

• a report from the county’s outside auditors that an audit of the county’s 2003 financial statements had yielded a “clean opinion”;

• a recommendation from the County-City Housing Task Force that the commissioners establish a $1.7 million housing trust fund using property-tax revenues;

• the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s creation of a task force to address local businesses’ skyrocketing health-insurance costs;

• a study launched by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters to investigate the dearth of women and minorities on powerful boards and commissions in both Buncombe County and the city of Asheville;

• a plan (presented by Asheville Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower) for a community-based campaign to renovate Memorial Stadium;

• the work of the Clean Air Community Trust, including both educational efforts (such as a student multimedia contest to highlight air-quality issues) and projects to improve air quality (such as a proposed ride-sharing program);

• a $10,000 donation from Progress Energy to build a fishing pier at Lake Julian (Buncombe County Parks & Recreation Services plans to create a community fishing program at the lake, partly funded by a federal grant); and

• the county Finance Department’s certificate of conformance in financial reporting (for the 24th consecutive year) and its award for outstanding achievement in popular annual financial reporting (for the third straight year).

And despite opposition expressed by Haw Creek resident Fred English during the public-comment period, the commissioners unanimously approved a request from the Henderson County Commissioners to support the idea of an excursion train running from Landrum, S.C., to Hendersonville.

At meeting’s end, the board went into closed session for about 15 minutes to discuss a potential legal matter and an economic-development item.

The commissioners will meet again on Tuesday, Jan. 27 in Room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse. A work session (with opportunity for public comment) will start at 4 p.m., followed by the 4:30 p.m. formal session.

For more info or to download reports from the meeting, check out the county’s agenda page at www.buncombe.org/agenda.

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