Sheriff Van Duncan came before the Buncombe County commissioners with hat in hand, saying his office needs more personnel to meet the challenges posed by the county’s growing population. In response, the commissioners unanimously approved Duncan’s request for $922,301 at their Jan. 22 meeting.
The money will cover salaries, benefits and equipment for 10 new officers: eight regular patrol deputies plus two special officers. One will handle crime-prevention programs (such as neighborhood-watch groups); the other will be assigned to the new Breaking and Entering Suppression Team.
“We’ve experienced quite an influx … over the last year in calls for service,” said Duncan. “We’ve seen a 15 percent increase, up from 40,510 to 46,690 calls in 2007.”
The sheriff noted that his office has already made significant changes to try and meet the increased demand, including switching to 12-hour shifts and going from five patrol squads to four.
“They have done an extremely good job in answering those calls,” he said. “We’ve actually been able to reduce the response time with our existing resources, from 13 minutes to just under 12 minutes. We’re looking for a benchmark of 10 minutes.”
The plan calls for establishing two four-member “power squads” to help with particularly busy periods. “We’re putting them out there during the peak times—about 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.—which will keep things moving,” Duncan explained.
The crime-prevention officer will help promote the formation of more community-watch programs, check on people who say they’re worried about crime in their area, and do outreach to local schools and community groups.
The other special deputy is needed to address an increase in such crimes throughout the county, the sheriff said. “Property crime in Buncombe County is one of our biggest challenges,” he noted. “Much of it is drug-related. What we find out, it’s about 1 or 2 percent of the population that’s involved in about 95 percent of these crimes. We’re trying to use this task force to address this.”
Chairman Nathan Ramsey said he was pleased with Duncan’s handling of the situation but asked for more detail concerning the need for the funding.
“If you go back 10 months, there were those that felt there were inefficiencies in the Sheriff’s Office and that the existing resources they had were sufficient,” noted Ramsey. “What would you say to those asking about getting the most out of current resources before we give out more money?”
Duncan said he’s taken a hard look at the office’s current resources and feels they’ve been stretched as far as is feasible. “While we’ve done a really good job, I feel like we could do better,” he observed, adding, “Everybody’s plate here is very full.”
Commissioner David Young supported the measure, saying, “We want our citizens to feel safe, and I think a 10-minute response time would do that. I appreciate the efforts you’re making.”
Commissioner Carol Peterson also lauded Duncan, adding that she’d like to see him report to the commissioners in the future. He said he would return in February to give a year’s-end report on the Sheriff’s Office.
Haw Creek Park on hold
Residents of Asheville’s Haw Creek neighborhood packed the commissioners’ chamber. Most were there to voice support for an initiative by the Haw Creek Community Association to buy 9 acres of undeveloped land on Maple Drive for a park and trail connecting to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.
Chris Pelly, the group’s president, said the project is needed to preserve an important part of the community’s character in the face of growing development.
“Right now, residents of Haw Creek have to go out onto Tunnel Road and drive to the Folk Art Center to access the Parkway,” Pelly told the board. “With this, it would simply be a short walk. Blue Ridge Parkway officials have endorsed this plan.”
One-third of the property’s $750,000 asking price would be raised via grants and private donations (residents, said Pelly, have already come up with about $125,000 in contributions and grants). Another third would come from the city of Asheville, which approved the funding in November, pending an appraisal of the property. The residents were asking the county for the remaining one-third. The city would maintain the park.
Becky Smucker, who’s lived in Haw Creek since 1980, said she’s “very excited about this development. This will be an asset for the entire county, for anyone who wants to use it.”
Resident John Hale sounded the lone opposition note, saying the park would increase traffic “and attract the wrong kind of person. There will be hundreds of cars going up there. Right now, we know who’s coming into Haw Creek. With this, there would be people wrong for our kind of family-friendly community coming in.”
But several other residents took exception to Hale’s comments. A residential development on the property would probably generate far more traffic than a park, argued Beth Jezek, adding that visitors to the neighborhood’s other park haven’t caused any trouble. “We’ve had people come from as far away as Fletcher, and they’ve always been very nice,” she said. “We welcome them.”
But Commissioner Peterson said she would feel better about approving the expenditure if it were endorsed by the Parks and Recreation Department, which is scheduled to report to the board on Feb. 5 concerning the overall need for new parks in the county. She made a motion to postpone considering the matter until then.
Vice Chair David Gantt disagreed, however, asserting that time is of the essence.
“I think this is a back-door way to kill this thing,” he charged. “This aligns with a lot of our goals, and it helps to protect the Blue Ridge. [Haw Creek residents] have come to us with a very serious proposal, and they’ve already gathered some of the matching money for it. I speak to people up in Virginia who say that no one stops on the overlooks there because all they see is the back decks of people’s million-dollar houses. We have to work to stop that here.” Gantt’s remarks drew applause from the audience.
But Ramsey also wanted staff to study the proposal. “I’ve said before that I’m supportive of this move,” he noted. “I don’t think delaying it by 14 days—we’re not tabling it indefinitely here—is going to stop this deal, because even the city’s money was conditional on an appraisal being done first, and it’s going to be more than two weeks before that can be set up.”
Commissioner Bill Stanley, meanwhile, raised concerns about the cost. “I’m in favor of parks, but I’m also against raising taxes; anyone who knows me knows that,” he said. “It’s easy for $200,000 or $300,000 here or there to start piling up.”
The motion to delay the park proposal passed 4-1, with Gantt opposed.
Airport Authority gets its wings
The commissioners approved a new deal with the Airport Authority, giving the joint city/county body more autonomy in handling certain kinds of property acquisitions and improvements. In addition, the new arrangement expands the pool of people who can serve on the airport board. In the past, the at-large member (who’s appointed by the other board members) had to be a Buncombe County resident. Now both Henderson and Buncombe County residents will be eligible. (Part of the airport property lies in Henderson County.) The Asheville City Council approved these changes in November.
“It isn’t quite an independent airport authority, which is our long-term goal,” Airport Director Dave Edwards told the commissioners. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”
In other business, the board established the CTS Citizens Monitoring Council, appointing Glen Horecky, Robert Aversano, Dave Ogren, Scott Hollowell, Therese Figura, Jim Yerkes and Timothy Moffitt to keep an eye on pollution problems and remediation efforts at the former industrial plant on Mills Gap Road. They were the only people who applied to serve on the council; all seven live in the affected area.