Buncombe County Commission

Most of us are unhappy about paying our bills once; but a flap between the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and the county school board raised the specter of the county’s paying certain bills twice — an idea that didn’t seem to sit well with the commissioners.

At their Feb. 18 meeting, Child Care Services Director Fran Thigpen reported that the school board had asked the county’s After School Care Program to pay a $20-per-hour user fee to cover utilities and maintenance costs. The total additional cost to the county for the program’s 18 sites would be about $250,000 per year. “The program has grown tremendously and has become a vital service to the citizens and residents of Buncombe County,” states the memorandum of understanding spelling out the agreement between the Board of Commissioners and the county school board concerning the after-school program, which provides child care for any student after school, on snow days, during Christmas and spring vacations, and in the summer.

The request, said Thigpen, was actually made last July (two weeks after the current budget year began); since then, the fees have been paid by parents using the program. According to Thigpen, the county has been paying for the utilities and janitorial services for all the county schools, including the after-school program, since 1994.

“Let me clarify,” said Commissioner David Young. “The county already is paying for 100 percent of the utilities for Buncombe County Schools. Correct?”

“Yes, said County Manager Wanda Greene. It’s a part of overall appropriations because of rate increases.”

“But we’re already paying the utilities,” sputtered Young. “Are you telling me the county is being asked to pay for utilities twice?”

“Yes,” said Greene. “We will have to pay fees twice.”

But Buncombe County Board of Education Chairman Roger Aiken told a different story. The county, Aiken explained later (he wasn’t present at the meeting), does not pay for 100 percent of the utilities. Besides, he noted, the county-run after-school program actually makes money — about a $350,000 net profit. The Board of Commissioners, said Aiken, “is trying to make it appear that they are kindly doling out moneys for the schools. The fact of the matter is that the commission has recently taken that money that is allotted for our schools and given a 3 percent pay raise to county employees.”

After questioning whether a county government should even be running a money-making venture, much less passing on the costs to parents, Aiken said he was disappointed by the discussion at the commissioners’ meeting, noting that the county schools are chronically underfunded. “All the schools are asking is that the basic utilities be paid by the county. We’ve been keeping classrooms cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer to stretch our utility dollars. Why would we do that if we had unlimited county moneys?”

Thigpen, meanwhile, made it clear that if the county didn’t pay the money, the increase would continue to be passed on to parents — many of whom might not be able to pay. “We’re serving 800 students a day in the after-school program and 450-500 children in the summer program. I would estimate that one-half to one-third of those children would need some kind of assistance in paying for this significant increase,” she continued. “These fees are currently being absorbed by parents in the short term, but in the long term, it won’t be possible.” In 2002, the cost for one child was $85 per week; without increased county support, the cost would be raised to $100 per week in June.

Despite the confusion over who pays for what, however, concern for the children appeared to win out. Commissioner Patsy Keever, a teacher by trade, said, “This is a valuable program; we can’t afford to say no on any grounds.” Commissioner David Gantt agreed, saying, “This is about the kids; that’s the most important thing.” Young, too, affirmed his support for the program, commenting specifically on the care providers’ consistency and timeliness on snow days. And in the end, the commissioners unanimously agreed to fund the after-school program.

Aiken said he was pleased with the outcome, though he remains frustrated by the county’s attitude toward funding the schools. Asked why the commissioners and the school board aren’t in better communication, Aiken responded, “You’d have to talk to the county manager about that.”

After the meeting, Assistant County Manager Jerome Jones said: “It’s really a matter of schools looking for additional revenues. We have a good partnership with the schools and in supporting the after-school program; we want to pay the user fee. … Whether or not there is an issue of a second payment doesn’t make much difference.” Pressed for details about the financial arrangements, Jones said, “We’re glad to do it, and if it’s still an issue in the spring budget, we’ll take another look then.”

County Finance Director Donna Clark said, “The county pays the school one appropriation, one lump sum for the school year. The school board is requesting the money of the county and would request it of anyone using the buildings. The bottom line is that it is the county’s responsibility to provide this service for the children of Buncombe County.”

Support Our Soldiers

In other news, Commissioner Bill Stanley read a joint city/county proclamation declaring Saturday, March 1 to be Support Our Soldiers Day. The document was drafted by the board of directors of Support Our Soldiers, a newly formed citizens’ group that’s planning a special event at the Civic Center in conjunction with the city and county. The event, said group representative Fred English, will be “a celebration of sacrifice.”

The idea, he explained, “came about four weeks ago when two soldiers were verbally abused in this city, and we want that to stop. The public wants to support our soldiers, and that’s important.” Another goal of the Support Our Soldiers campaign is to create a “war chest” for soldiers’ families. The rally, said English, is not political.

Xpress and Hendersonville Times-News reporters have been unable to locate the soldiers allegedly abused. SOS rally organizers are unable to identify them or provide corroborative information. Most professional journalists regard this story as an urban myth dating back to the Vietnam war era.

Gantt and Keever will attend the rally; the other commissioners will be in D.C. for a legislative-goals conference.

County to maintain health insurance for staffers serving in military

Sixteen county employees have already been sent out on active duty, compared to only six during the Gulf War, noted Board Chairman Nathan Ramsey. And with still more county staffers on alert, the commissioners considered a request that the county cover the health-insurance premiums for those called to active duty. These soldiers were said to be facing one to two years overseas. The county paid the premiums of staffers serving in the Gulf War, however, and the commissioners unanimously approved the new request.

County to give smallpox vaccinations to employees

With the county gearing up to give smallpox vaccinations to all county employees, Health Department Director George Bond asked the county to cover any medical care needed by people having negative reactions to the vaccine, as many health insurers do not cover such problems. The program will begin on Wednesday, Feb. 19, when health-care workers and EMS personnel will be vaccinated. Statiscally, Bond explained, one person in a million has a fatal reaction to the smallpox vaccine; one in a thousand experiences other side effects (including, but not limited to, encephalitis and rashes). The commissioners unanimously agreed to indemnify any county employee so affected.

Other business

The board appointed Jack Williams and Scott Elliot to the Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee. The committee still has six vacancies; to make a nomination, call County Clerk Kathy Hughes at 250-4105.

At 5:30, the commissioners went into closed session to discuss two property acquisitions and one economic-development issue. The closed session ended at 6 p.m.

The commissioners then filed back into the meeting room to film a scripted public-service announcement. At that point, Public Relations Coordinator Judy Rhew ushered this reporter and county resident Jerry Rice out of the boardroom and locked the doors — in an apparent violation of the state’s open-meetings law — explaining that the commissioners were trying to finish up quickly.

Contacted later, County Attorney Joe Connolly conceded that technically, the commissioners shouldn’t have locked the door.

The Board of Commissioners’ March 4 meeting has been canceled; the board will meet on March 18 at the usual time and place.

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