Buncombe County Commission

Years of wrangling over the creation of public-access television in Buncombe County culminated in a unanimous vote of support from the Board of Commissioners at their Jan. 18 meeting. The board approved both a 10-page management contract with URTV Inc., a nonprofit corporation, and a funding-distribution plan that will substantially underwrite operations at the station for the next 10 years.

In the public-comment period preceding the board’s formal meeting, URTV opponent Fred English reiterated his concerns about content on any public station, reading what he identified as a news story in which a white supremacist had used public-access television to incite a murder. English also worried that future funding shortfalls might find the URTV board demanding more money from the county.

But three speakers representing at least a dozen people in the audience spoke in favor of the public-access plan and the county’s collateral efforts in government and educational television.

Sandy Mush resident Kurt Mann, the owner of Asheville’s Ironwood Media and a longtime advocate of URTV as an incubator for the local film-and video-industry, urged the commissioners to provide substantial backing at the outset. “We need enough funding for URTV to get a good manager, in order to avoid some of the problems that others have warned about.” He suggested that adequate funds would permit the hiring of a veteran broadcaster rather than a recent college graduate without much experience.

Asheville resident Rose McLarney spoke to the same issue. “It is discouraging to think that after all the work that has been done, URTV might be underfunded,” she said, which “will make it difficult to hire good administrators.”

Sharon Willen, director of business and industrial services at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and a board member of the Media Arts Project, also asked for full funding of the URTV media center.

URTV will immediately receive approximately $380,000 from the county’s escrowed PEG funds (fees added to cable TV bills to cover the costs of public, educational and government television channels). In coming years, the project will receive between $95,000 and $108,000 per year.

Getting it wrong

This first formal session of 2005 followed the board’s annual retreat, a day-and-a-half confab that included the commissioners, county administrators and staffers, school-board administrators, representatives of A-B Tech and the Sheriff’s Department, and members of the local media.

During that conference, board members conducted a lengthy discussion of the URTV proposal, particularly concerning the distribution of funds. In the formal session, it was discovered that the numbers under discussion at the retreat had been low by a factor of three, and the apportionment of cable TV fees had been inaccurately described — a slip-up for which County Manager Wanda Greene took responsibility. This resulted in a five-minute recess of the Jan. 18 meeting, so the corrected information could be distributed to commissioners. Although the numbers changed, the underlying consensus about URTV did not, and the funding was passed unanimously. (See “Full Retreat” elsewhere in this issue.)

Mitigating homelessness

The board also endorsed a joint resolution with the city of Asheville to approve “Looking Homeward: The 10-year Plan to End Homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County.” The resolution was presented to the commissioners by Jerome Jones, chairman of a joint city/county task force on homelessness.

Jones, a former assistant county manager, explained that there are two models for dealing with homelessness. The first method, which is currently in effect in the Asheville/Buncombe metropolitan area, uses continuing care — that is, addressing each problem as it emerges, placing homeless people in temporary housing and offering food, emergency health care, substance-abuse treatment and other services piecemeal. The second approach, which is now being adopted by more and more local governments nationwide, is called “home first” or “housing first.” The first step under this approach is to place a homeless person in a permanent home, subsidizing their rent to some degree and making sure the person is plugged in to support services. “Home first is the key to this plan,” Jones told commissioners. “It’s a paradigm shift. The evidence is that this model saves money in the long run.”

Jones pointed to similar programs with successful track records in New York City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. One reason such programs are cost-effective, according to Jones, is that a very small portion of the homeless population — in Buncombe County, a mere 36 individuals — “uses a huge preponderance of emergency services in the county.” Placing those three dozen folks in stable living situations, he suggested, could result in immediate savings, because home-first systems have shown a low rate of substance-abuse recidivism — the problem that accounts for the biggest portion of system costs. As reported in last week’s Xpress, “Asheville and Buncombe County now spend almost $2 million a year on services for the homeless.”

Jones also noted that while the title of the new plan includes the phrase “end homelessness,” that objective is, strictly speaking, impossible. “But ‘mitigate homelessness’ doesn’t sound very compelling,” he explained.

Approving the joint resolution did not entail any immediate financial commitment. The county’s contribution to the new program will be included in the budget for fiscal year 2005-06.

Other business

The board received a report from David Bailey, CEO of the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, and approved the sale of the Union Transfer and Storage Building to a private developer.

The commissioners appointed Carmella Watkins to the Land-of-Sky Senior Volunteer Services Advisory Council, Johnnie Grant to the Women’s Commission and Alan Edwards as ETJ representative to the Montreat Planning and Zoning Commission.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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