Buncombe County Commission

Readers keen on keeping up with the latest buzzwords will want to add “hotspot” to their vocabulary. Dog owners, of course, will recognize the term as a reference to the itchy patches associated with flea infestations or mange; and for others, it may evoke images of convenience stores with gaudy orange signs. But to boosters of tourism and intercity business competition, the compound word now refers to metropolitan areas offering free, wireless Internet service.

Back in January, all five members of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners expressed enthusiasm about providing downtown Asheville with what’s known as WIFI service (see “Full Retreat,” Jan. 26 Xpress), and plans are moving right along.

At the board’s March 1 formal session, Jim Roberts told the commissioners: “Wireless is an important part of a city’s infrastructure. Not having it could eliminate us from consideration. Even Mount Airy, famous as the home of Andy Griffith, has a hotspot.” Roberts heads up the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council, a project of regional economic-development commission AdvantageWest.

Roberts added that when businesses evaluate potential sites, “The number of wireless hotspots is a consideration for tech-friendliness.” Asheville, he noted, is already home to a cluster of wireless-tech companies, and “Winston-Salem recently installed a WIFI system in a six-block-radius area for less than $10,000.”

Vice Chairman David Gantt, all but voiceless due to laryngitis, asked staff “where we stand on the WIFI project?”

County Planning Director Jon Creighton replied, “We have identified buildings downtown and are talking to owners about installing antennas.”

Kelly Miller, vice president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, enthusiastically endorsed WIFI, touting a system in Athens, Ga., known as “The Cloud.” With a citywide system in place, he assured the commissioners, it would be possible to spam everyone who visits the city (some 6.5 million people annually) with commercial messages, opening up wonderful business opportunities.

“For instance, if a baker accidentally bakes too many cookies, it would be possible to instantly announce to everyone that there was a buy-one-get-one-free sale, or get-two,” he explained. And without such a system, predicted Miller, “In the next six to eight years we will not be able to compete in attracting conventions.”

But Glen Hughes, the county’s information technologies director of hardware and services, told Xpress that there is no way such a system could deliver commercial messages directly to users. The current cost estimate for the downtown area, added Hughes, is less than $65,000. “That covers equipment, installation and maintenance,” he said. “The system will use existing county bandwidth, so there won’t be any additional operating cost associated with the WIFI.”

Recountable ballots

Board of Elections Director Trena Parker updated the commissioners on pending state and federal requirements concerning electronic voting machines. “It is no longer a question of whether or not a paper record will be required; it is a question of when — and who will pay for it,” she reported. At least five bills pertaining to voting machines have been introduced in Congress and two in the N.C. General Assembly, said Parker.

Providing a voter-verifiable, auditable paper record for all voting systems in North Carolina would cost an estimated $80 million, she reported, noting that the state has allocated $50 million for that purpose. The balance will be paid by the counties, although one proposed bill would require the state to reimburse them.

“The retrofit unit to bring Buncombe’s [Sequoia AVC Advantage] machines up to code is estimated to be $2,500 per unit,” said Parker, “which will cost the county up to $1 million.”

This appears to represent a substantial jump in the projected cost over the past 15 months. Sequoia Voting Systems Vice President Alfie Charles told Wired News (Nov. 21, 2003) that adding a printout capability “would probably cost $500 per machine, since it would have to be custom-manufactured.” However, Charles said the price should come down as demand for the component increases.

Reached at Sequoia’s headquarters in Oakland, Calif., Charles told Xpress: “Compliance with federal requirements has pushed the price up to about $1,000 per machine for the AVC Edge model. We hope it won’t cost much more than that for the AVC Advantage.”

Nonetheless, Parker congratulated the board for having chosen the Sequoia machines in 1999. “Since that time, these machines have registered over a half-million votes. We have never lost a vote and never had any indication that problems have happened,” she proclaimed.

But what Parker didn’t mention is that it isn’t possible to absolutely verify election results on the county’s machines — so no one really knows whether invisible problems have occurred (as she conceded to Xpress last May).

As Harvard professor Rebecca Mercuri, an expert on electronic voting machines, has repeatedly warned, when it comes to voting, “The only thing a computer is good for is as a fancy ballot-printer.” It appears that the General Assembly now agrees with that assertion.

Drip, drip, drip

The commissioners also rehashed their efforts to reach an accord with the city of Asheville on the imploding Regional Water Agreement, though little was said that was new. “Our proposal is the only concrete plan out there,” asserted Chairman Nathan Ramsey. “I’ve spoken to some members of Council and they hope to come up with a plan in the next three weeks to a month.”

Ramsey also said, “We hope to have some three-on-two meetings, so they won’t be public and [we] can have some frank discussions.” Under state law, governing bodies can meet privately if less than a quorum is present.

Gantt added: “One thing about the agreement is that it’s not about the people on Council or on the Board of Commissioners; it is something that will affect us all for years. We shouldn’t play politics with this issue.” Barely audible over the PA system, he continued, “This board is united; we think it is really imperative that everyone be treated fairly. We don’t believe in differential rates.”

Gantt concluded by encouraging public participation, saying, “We need your knowledge, your ideas and energy to help us make this policy.”

Ramsey then reminded everyone of the public hearing on the water agreement scheduled for Monday, March 14, 6:30 p.m. on the fifth floor of the county courthouse.

During the pre-meeting public-comment period, Swannanoa resident Eric Gorney had asked the board to provide more information before the hearing, so citizens would have more of a basis for making comments. “I would like to see a map of all the water lines, the number of unincorporated citizens who get water from the system, and the number of other cities in the county which get water from the system,” he said. The commissioners made no response.

Gush, gush, gush

Tommy Hewitt, representing the United Way of Asheville & Buncombe County, was on hand to discuss the region’s other major water issue. Reporting on his organization’s efforts “to identify unmet needs created by last year’s storms,” Hewitt said, “If people have flood-related problems, even five months later, we want to help them.”

Noting that United Way has been tracking relief efforts by faith-based groups, he said, “We need eyes and ears in the community to let us know who still needs help.”

Commissioner David Young asked, “Do you have any idea if most of the people you deal with registered with FEMA?”

“We know who did register,” Hewitt replied. “We don’t know who did not. What we are hoping to do is to fill in between FEMA and the state.”

Gantt inquired, “Are you helping businesses or individuals?”

“We work primarily with individuals. That’s what United Way does best,” said Hewitt.

That led Commissioner Carol Weir Peterson to remark, “I think it’s very important that this board recognize that our legislative delegation has really worked hard to help with flood relief.” Her motion that the board officially thank the delegation was unanimously approved, as were all other actions taken at the meeting.

Young then asked county Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun how long it would be before state money comes through.

VeHaun answered: “We still don’t know how long it’s going to be. We hope it will be by the end of March at the latest.”

Commissioner Bill Stanley quipped, “Our state government is flowing like a dry creek.”

“But,” rejoined Ramsey, “We all know a dry creek can fill up suddenly.”

Easing out older workers

Personnel Director Rob Thornberry presented a plan designed to encourage county employees 65 and older to retire between April 1 and July 1 of this year, with an eye toward cutting costs (older employees are often the highest-paid). Employees who opt in will receive Medicare supplemental insurance for the rest of their lives, or an equivalent cash payment each month. “All jobs vacated will go into a job-freeze bank,” Thornberry explained, “to be evaluated for elimination or wage reduction.”

“Why would we offer this plan?” wondered Young.

“We have done some of these in the past and have benefited by elimination of jobs,” Thornberry replied. “We have saved money each time.”

The board’s final action was appointing Ray Ellenburg to the Abandoned Cemetery Committee.

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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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