Full retreat

It wasn’t all dull reports and fat sheaves of paper at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ annual planning retreat, held Jan.17-18 at the Crest Center & Pavilion on Ben Lippen School Road in Emma. Some of the most revealing discussions took place during meals and fireside chats — perhaps because the blazing fire created at least the illusion of warmth in the consistently cold and noisy facility, where participants were often shivering as they strained to hear the proceedings. There was even a video rundown of major events over the past four years that have affected or been affected by the commissioners’ work, with particular emphasis on the recent floods and the November election.

Among the wide-ranging roster of reports, which touched on many aspects of county government, was one on personality profiles of county workers. The county has required all administrators and asked all employees to take a DISC personality-profile test — a quiz that pigeonholes an individual’s tendencies in a mere 10 minutes. This management tool, explained county EMS Director of Training and Development Clint Gorman, can help people work together by highlighting individual strengths and weaknesses. someone with an analytical turn of mind, for example, might want to have all the details of an issue for study, whereas a more action-oriented person might do better with a summary. Even the information packets prepared for the commissioners were tailored to each individual based on the results of their DISC test, Gorman revealed.

In a similar vein, staff introduced a new “results-based” model that will be used in hammering out the budget for fiscal year 2005-06. Instead of using the previous year’s budget as a template and adding or subtracting from various programs’ allotments, money will be allocated according to what the county would like to see happen. At this point, it isn’t clear how this will actually affect budget planning. And since most staff have not yet been trained in the new system, all subsequent discussions about money during the retreat focused on previous years’ spending and possible changes.

e-Gov

Web-based information systems generated considerable discussion. Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes led a series of presentations on the increasing sophistication of the county Web site (www.buncombecounty.org), noting that “a lot of people don’t know how much you can do” online. A planned public-relations campaign will use various media to help get the word out, including ads on city buses. Among the most popular pages on the site are the ones for the Register of Deeds and the Tax Department, she reported.

Kim Pruett, information-technology director for software, said a team of employees is scanning “about a million documents, so law enforcement and the Division of Social Services can look back 10 years for information.” Ultimately, said Pruett, all arrest and court records will exist only in digital form, making the data far more accessible and easy to use. Using a new arrest-search form, authorities can search the database by any of a dozen or more parameters, including first or last name, aliases, arrest number, case number, date, birth date, residence and so forth, rather than relying on a hit-or-miss search through paper records.

The administration, reported County Manager Wanda Greene, “is headed toward a paperless record system as fast as we can get there.” Asked about it later, Greene said the electronic system relies on a daily backup plan. “We have a records-retention policy that applies to electronic records just like paper ones,” she said. “We’re hoping to clear a fair amount of floor space. It’ll make county government look entirely different in about 18 months.”

Another computer-based resource, the county’s geographic information system mapping program, is becoming an increasingly sophisticated tool for planners, said Greene. GIS maps showing the sources of all calls to the sheriff’s department, the origin of all visits to the county health center, and the recipients of Medicaid and adult services, for example, can be invaluable in determining where to locate service facilities. And using overlays printed on clear stock, Greene effectively emphasized the major hot spots.

Director of Election Services Trena Parker reported that, in her view, the 2004 elections went very well in Buncombe County. But Parker also alerted the commissioners to a significant expense the county may soon be facing. “It is not whether, but when the state will require a voter-verifiable, auditable paper record for all elections in North Carolina,” she warned. This is expected to cost somewhere between $250,000 and $1 million, and it’s unclear how much of it will be covered by federal funds appropriated under the Help America Vote Act (see “Rolling the Dice; Voting in the Computer Age,” May 19, 2004 Xpress).

Dream a little dream

During one fireside session, the commissioners were asked to offer up their priorities for the coming year — both old problems they wanted to see addressed and new initiatives. The ideas were many and varied, and Hughes grouped them by subject area. Each commissioner was given 10 stickers to place on his or her priority items, plus two “heart” stickers to indicate achievements that would make them feel their terms had been successful.

Here are some highlights:

Commissioner David Gantt spoke on behalf of natural areas, saying he would like to “systematically inventory what we would like to save with easements or whatever we can do. I would like to see us emulate the five-year-old plan done by Orange County to achieve that goal.”

David Young noted that “our incomes are lower and our housing costs are higher than Mecklenburg County. I would like to see that addressed.” He also said: “We are fairly unhealthy, with soft drinks offered in the schools, for example. I would like to see more done concerning health.”

Bill Stanley reminded his colleagues of a long-running concern, saying, “We really need to press on toward affordable housing.”

Board Chairman Nathan Ramsey concurred on wages. “The biggest challenge we face is income for the average person. … We have had several manufacturing-plant closings, and unless something changes, we will have more.”

Carol Peterson, attending her first board retreat, said she “would like to see more open communication with municipal governments within the county and with other counties in the region.”

At the end of the retreat, the commissioners voted on some four-dozen ideas to produce these 10 top goals for 2005:

1. Fund the capital plan and set up a capital reserve by reserving the equivalent of 1 cent of the tax rate per year.

2. Get citizen input into how we can best communicate with them on issues — make sure the average citizen has an opportunity for good communication with county staff.

3. Identify ways to keep wages up and housing costs steady.

4. Land Legacy — identify/inventory what we have and what we want to save involving all groups.

5. Develop four-year (long-term) funding agreement with schools.

6. Create free, wireless Internet access downtown to make the county more attractive to development.

7. Focus on ways to improve per-capita income.

8. Determine how to help small businesses grow and prosper and incubate more jobs.

9. Identify all options/alternatives for moving forward on affordable housing — identify what the county can and can’t do under N.C. law.

10. Review employee salaries to ensure they’re being correctly compensated.

Planning for rain and growth

County Planning Director Jon Creighton‘s report on phase II of federal stormwater regulations generated considerable discussion. The storm-water plan the county submitted in 2003 will soon have to be implemented, he said.

Zoning Administrator Jim Coman noted, “Development is creating lots of new runoff sources that need to be addressed.” He cited various recent examples of unregulated development that had adversely affected neighboring properties.

Both Stanley and Gantt criticized the department for failing to keep them informed about such problems.

“We would like to rewrite subdivision ordinances for clarity and to add a few standards concerning guard rails and steep slopes,” Coman explained.

Creighton added that “land-use planning was last seriously examined five years ago, but we ran into the zoning vote and tabled some of the ideas and never got back to it.”

Creighton and Matt Stone, supervisor of permits and inspections, led a substantive discussion of the county’s mobile-home-removal program, which completed a pilot project last year. Twenty abandoned, dilapidated homes were removed at a cost of $32,000. “It went a lot better than anticipated,” said Stone, “but we are now getting down to ones that people are using for storage or workshops.”

In the end, Stone was instructed to go ahead and start contacting owners of abandoned, unlivable mobile homes and seeking permission to remove them. If the owners don’t voluntarily comply, the county will condemn the derelict properties and file liens to cover the cost of removal.

More is less

Two relatively surprising ideas came up during the retreat in widely disparate areas.

One is a plan to provide free, wireless Internet access in Asheville’s central business district. Other metropolitan areas (including Austin, Texas; Walla Walla and Spokane, Wash.; and Philadelphia) are implementing wide-area free wireless service to help attract high-tech businesses, reported Information Technologies Director of Hardware And Services Glen Hughes. “A turnkey installation on top of the courthouse, which would provide wireless service in a one-mile radius area, would cost $3,600,” Hughes said. Because it’s a line-of-sight system, it can be blocked by buildings, so multiple antennas would be required to fully cover the downtown area. Asked how much that might cost, Hughes responded, “A ballpark guess would be about $150,000.” A more precise estimate isn’t possible, he later told Xpress, without specifying the area in question.

Director of General Services Bob Hunter, meanwhile, had both good and bad news about the landfill. He offered a sweeping solution to fundamental problems the county faces.

“We expect to extend the original 36-year life of the landfill by 33 percent,” said Hunter. “And we believe we may never have to site another landfill, because after this one is full we can go back and mine the first cells and reuse them.” He also noted, “Given the progress in industry, we may be moving toward an era when landfills are a thing of the past.”

In the short term, however, Hunter said the county is facing a funding problem. Although landfill operations are now entirely funded by tipping fees, rising costs will leave the agency strapped for cash 10 years out. Hunter offered four options for addressing the problem:

1. Fee-based, mandatory, countywide trash pickup provided by competing carriers. Besides reaching the estimated 20,000 households in the county that have no form of trash pickup, this could help solve other problems such as roadside dumping, said Hunter.

2. Leave the trash pickup as is, but assess each household $4 per month. This would fund the landfill but would not address other problems.

3. Raise the tipping fees from the current $32 per ton to $38, either all at once or gradually.

4. Franchise the waste stream with a single designated carrier in each area, as has been done with residential pickup in the municipalities.

Hunter prefers the final option, because it would also address a much larger problem facing the landfill — too little trash. Paradoxically, in order to reduce the amount of material going into the landfill and maximally extend the life of the site, more material must be hauled there. The higher volume is needed to entice private companies to build facilities for composting and processing construction waste at the landfill. Hunter had previously negotiated deals with private operators, but the deals fell through because the county couldn’t guarantee a sufficient flow of materials to make the operations financially viable. Such facilities, said Hunter, could reduce the amount of material going into the landfill by 40 percent.

Of the roughly 1,000 tons of trash per day now generated in the county, some 250-300 tons is hauled to South Carolina. The courts have prohibited counties from requiring that all trash hauled by private companies be kept in-county — unless that requirement is part of a franchise agreement. (More than a year ago, Waste Management threatened a lawsuit if the county tried to impose such a requirement; see “A Trashy Tug of War,” June 18, 2003 Xpress.) Under a franchise system, the county would solicit bids from trash haulers; one of the contract requirements would be hauling all trash collected to the Buncombe County landfill.

David Young expressed concern that such a system might benefit midsize companies that now pay more for trash service at the expense of larger companies like Ingles, which may now receive volume discounts. And Nathan Ramsey worried that it might drive small, local trash haulers out of business.

Hunter reminded the commissioners that when residential service was franchised, 21 companies quickly consolidated into six. Addressing Young’s concern, he noted that immediately before that change, the private companies had been poised to raise rates, whereas the bid process resulted in an 8 percent drop in fees. The county, suggested Hunter, could be divided into six collection districts — which, at least in theory, could be served by six different companies (though he acknowledged that the bidding probably wouldn’t break down that way).

Former County Attorney Keith Snyder, who was sitting in on the discussion, agreed with Hunter that this is the only legal way to take control of the trash stream.

The commissioners, however, seemed uncomfortable with the idea and instructed Hunter and Greene to look into trash contracts with neighboring counties in order to boost the daily tonnage and guarantee a supply. This would require permission from the state, noted Hunter; the current permit authorizes the landfill to accept only in-county trash.

Education costs

In the retreat’s final session, the commissioners heard from assorted local school personnel: Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Cliff Dodson and Board of Education Vice Chairman Jim Edmunds, Asheville City Schools Superintendent Robert Logan and city Board of Education Vice Chairman Lewis Isaac, and President K. Ray Bailey of A-B Tech, all of whom weighed in on certificates of participation as a way to fund various projects on their respective campuses.

In North Carolina, COPs are bond issues authorized by a board of commissioners without the citizen approval required for regular bond issues. As such, they are easier to enact but receive far less public scrutiny. The issues currently under consideration include $30 million for the county schools, $8 million for the city schools and $13 million for A-B Tech. The money would be used to renovate classrooms, expand administrative offices, repair roofs and do needed paving. COP funding will be addressed in a regular Board of Commissioners meeting in the near future.

All of the commissioners and many county staffers said they’d found the retreat useful. Asked if there were any surprises, County Manager Greene told Xpress: “No surprises. Now we’re just thinking about how to get all of this accomplished.”

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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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