Cautious support for aquatic center
“I’m not here to ask for any money,” Pat McClellan assured the Buncombe County commissioners on Feb. 15, speaking on behalf of the proposed Asheville Buncombe Aquatic Center Committee. Instead, McClellan asked commissioners make two appointments to the committee.
Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol agreed to do that, but whether the $5.7 million proposal will sink or swim remains less certain.
The 25,600-square-foot facility, to be located at Asheville High School, would primarily serve the Asheville City Schools, but would also be available for community and county-school programs, particularly water-safety programs, McClellan explained. It could also serve as a site for regional tournaments. But, she conceded, “It’s expensive … as it’s designed right now.” The committee has raised about $500,000 for the project so far, she mentioned.
“We’re obviously interested,” said Commissioner David Young, declaring, “I would love to see this happen.” But he also asked whether the facility would be able to serve all the county’s schoolchildren.
McClellan replied that logistical problems — such as transportation and time missed from regular classes — could make it hard to serve every school in Buncombe.
Commissioner Patsy Keever asked if the committee has the support of the local YMCA and YWCA, both of which have pools of their own. “I wonder if anyone would feel [that this facility] would be a duplication of service?” Keever posed, adding, “It would be good to get [YMCA and YWCA] support.”
The committee, said McClellan, has already collected endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce, the city of Asheville, the local Pepsi distributor, and other organizations. Preliminary talks with YMCA officials indicate that the Aquatic Center would not duplicate the Y’s programs, she said.
And that’s when the money question raised its head again. Don Yelton, a candidate for the chairman’s seat on the Board of Commissioners, asked, “Are you looking at this as something that will be self-sufficient … or a drain on county taxpayers?”
Committee member David Olson replied that the $5.7 million price tag includes a $1 million endowment, to fund needed maintenance. Operating expenses could be funded, at least partly, by user fees and proceeds from regional swim meets. “We can generate money in the community-service programs,” he said, noting that a typical swim meet at a Charlotte facility brings in $5,000, not to mention the economic impact in the community.
But board candidate Gerald Dean asked commissioners whether they’d rather spend $5.7 million on a swimming pool or on new computers (and training) for local schoolchildren.
“Gerald, they’re not asking for county money, son,” interjected Commissioner Bill Stanley, emphasizing the committee’s efforts to raise the needed funds through donations, grants and sponsorships.
Sobol added that countywide recreation services typically require some government subsidy, to ensure that low- and moderate-income residents aren’t left out because they can’t afford user fees.
“I wouldn’t want to hurt kids,” Dean replied. But neither would he want such a project to unfairly burden a 90-year-old taxpayer who’s struggling to pay her property taxes and high prescription-medicine costs. If it came to that, kids could just “go swimming in the creek,” said Dean.
There were no other comments, and commissioners took no immediate action on McClellan’s request.
County nets affordable-housing funds
In January, the North Carolina Division of Social Services awarded Buncombe County a $378,095 grant for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, to be administered by the Affordable Housing Coalition.
“This is [money] that, otherwise, wouldn’t have come to our community,” said Beth Maczka, executive director of the local nonprofit. In recent months, many state resources have been directed toward flood relief in the eastern part of the state, and the housing money was slated for return to the federal government. But with the grant, the TANF program can assist 135 low-income families in Buncombe, providing counseling and up to $1,000 per family in crisis-intervention assistance, such as help with rental deposits, Maczka explained.
The need is dire, she argued: “We are the least-affordable [housing] market in the state of North Carolina.” Displaying charts showing local housing costs, vacancy rates and wages, Maczka remarked, “Our wages do not pay the rent.” About 61 percent of county residents can’t afford the average home in Buncombe, and 41 percent can’t afford typical rents, Maczka claimed.
No one disputed these claims, and the commissioners voted unanimously to approve budget amendments and other matters related to the grant.
But Board of Commissioners candidate Don Yelton commented, much later in the meeting, “God knows we need affordable housing. But over $200,000 [of the grant funds] goes for administration, while there’s just $1,000 apiece for 135 families.”
“What these families need, as much as financial assistance, is training and counseling — how to negotiate with landlords, how to be their own advocates, how to become self-sufficient and make a budget for rent payments and utility costs,” Maczka responded a few days after the meeting (she hadn’t heard Yelton’s complaint, having left before the public-comment portion of the meeting.). “If we just gave them money, and they didn’t understand how to read a lease, what their responsibilities and rights are as tenants, they’d be back in trouble, needing public assistance and housing after four months in the program. Just giving people money doesn’t solve the problem.”
Shorter is better
Perhaps taking a cue from Asheville City Council’s nine-hour marathon meeting on Feb. 8, the commissioners chose to limit their annual retreat to one day, instead of the usual two.
“I’d rather do it in one day,” said Commissioner Patsy Keever.
Bill Stanley readily agreed: He’ll be traveling back to Buncombe from Raleigh on Friday, March 17, and wouldn’t have been able to attend an initial session originally planned for that day.
County Manager Wanda Greene noted that the retreat will be held on Saturday, March 18, in the training room located next to the Recreation Services building. The starting time will be announced later.
Commissioners honored recently deceased county resident Osborne M. Hart. Said Commissioner Bill Stanley, reading a proclamation, “Mr. Hart contributed to many phases of county life, including his service as co-chair of the Citizens Committee for Better Schools, president of Asheville Central YMCA, and board member of the Civil Service Board, First Union Bank, Better Business Bureau and United Way of Asheville … to name a few.” A graduate of Stephens-Lee High School in Asheville and North Carolina A&T State University at Greensboro, Hart was also a decorated U.S. Army veteran who served in three wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Stanley noted.
Tax-appeals board appointments
The commissioners commended Bill Johnson for his 12 years of service on the Board of Equalization and Review, which handles property-tax appeals. Commissioners also reappointed Garrett Ramsey, Gerald Stevenson and Cynthia Eller to continue serving on the board, and appointed Ben Slosman and Frances Nager (Commissioner David Gantt had nominated Andrew Huska and Paul Ballard, but was outvoted by Young, Stanley and Keever). In a unanimous vote, commissioners named Eller as chair of the board.
Fletcher fire reprieve
Members of the Skyland Fire Department board voted recently to delay assuming responsibility for a section of the county previously covered by the Fletcher Fire Department, Commissioner Gantt reported. With the end of its county contract to serve a portion of south Buncombe, the department will be lose about 10 percent of its annual revenues; the delay gives them more time to adjust, noted Gantt.
It’s bad enough to have your name listed in the newspaper for failing to pay property taxes. But Gerald Dean — a candidate for Buncombe County commissioner — held up a letter he’d recently received from the tax assessor’s office, with “foreclosure notice” spelled out in big, red letters. And, despite Tax Administrator Jerome Jones‘ promise that delinquent taxpayers have until March 10 to pay up and avoid the public embarrassment of having their names printed in the Asheville Citizen-Times Dean said he was told he had to pay by the end of February, or face foreclosure. “I didn’t pay on time because I didn’t have the money,” he said, noting that some of his tenants hadn’t paid their rent on time. “But I wasn’t going to kick them out,” added Dean, who, earlier in the meeting, had heard Beth Maczka of the Affordable Housing Coalition call Asheville/Buncombe the “least-affordable [housing] market in the state of North Carolina.” And, although property owners may pay their tax bill by credit card, Dean grumbled, “It ain’t cheap money when I put it on my MasterCard and have to pay interest.”
Two for one
Asphalt contractor APAC-Carolina won a $150,000 contract with the county to pave the road leading to the new soccer complex, next to the BASF plant in Enka. But, at no extra cost, the company has agreed to pave a one-mile walking trail and a 500-space parking lot at the facility, slated to open later this year. County Recreation Services Director Annette Wise noted that paving the parking lot and walking trail would otherwise cost the county another $100,000.