The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, County Manager Wanda Greene, Planning Director Jon Creighton, Associate County Attorney Keith Snyder and Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes traveled south to sit in at the Henderson County Board of Commissioners’ Feb. 16 meeting. Discussion centered on the legislative agenda drawn up by the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, but mental-health care and the soon-to-implode Regional Water Agreement were clearly on everyone’s minds.
Chairman Bill Moyer of Henderson County began the discussion. “I think we have come up with a good list of legislative goals,” he said, noting that “the legislature controls us, and we have to work with them.”
Although the association came up with more than 50 goals, the local county boards have decided to focus on the three they deem most critical. Commissioner David Young presented the Buncombe County list:
1) Cap the cost of Medicaid for counties, and phase out all county Medicaid payments over the next five years. “We are one of only two states that pass Medicaid costs on to the counties,” he said.
2) Permit counties to levy a sales tax for school construction.
3) Give counties more revenue options. “Many counties in the state have the option of raising the hotel tax, levying impact fees or creating other revenue streams,” noted Young. “We think every county should have those options.”
Henderson County Vice Chairman Charlie Messer offered essentially the same list, except with numbers 2 and 3 reversed. There was unanimous agreement that Medicaid relief should be tackled first, and the two boards agreed to sign a joint letter to the WNC legislative delegation urging passage of the plan. Two bills have already been introduced in the General Assembly that would impose both the cap and the phaseout.
During a brief discussion of ongoing state mental-health reform, Henderson County board members shook their heads and lamented what they see as severe shortfalls in current care. There was evident agreement when Commissioner Larry Young said, “The mental-health change is really taxing our emergency services.”
Greene, who serves on the Western Highlands Network (which now coordinates mental-health services in eight WNC counties), said, “I think some private providers would offer services if they were certain about rates, but the rates are still unsettled.”
At that, Moyer half-jokingly asked, “Well, who’s going to be brave enough to bring it up?”
David Gantt, vice chairman of the Buncombe board, said: “I want to start off by apologizing to you about the water line for American Freightways. I don’t know who ended up paying for it, but it was wrong for the Water Authority not to fulfill its promise to you.” The Henderson contingent’s grim-faced reaction made it clear that Gantt had hit a very sore nerve dead-on.
Moyer, noting that he’d distributed the Buncombe commissioners’ letter to the Asheville City Council (see accompanying article) to his fellow board members, asked for an update on the situation.
Buncombe Chairman Nathan Ramsey said no reply had been received. “We asked them, if this isn’t a good plan, tell us about a better one,” he added.
Young, meanwhile, asserted that “the only way I know to be fair to everyone is for all of us to be equal partners.” He went on to note the complications involved but added, “If I were in the city, I wouldn’t want to be strapped with $750 million in repairs for my taxpayers.”
Buncombe Commissioner Bill Stanley chimed in, “If I faced a bill for $750 million, I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to anybody who wanted to help out.”
The meeting ended on a convivial note, with Young suggesting (and others agreeing) that the two counties would benefit from holding such joint discussions regularly.