- Pitchfork-wielding activists demand lower taxes
- Board chips in to preserve Reems Creek farm
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously gave staff the go-ahead to work out an agreement to transfer health-care services for indigent county residents from the Health Department’s clinic to Western North Carolina Community Health Services. The move, which came during the board’s March 3 meeting, could save the county an estimated $2 million to $3 million, according to the county’s estimates.
The downside, however, is that the change will mean eliminating 15 county jobs (though some of those positions are either temporary or already vacant). All told, the county’s clinic employs 81 people, but most of them would simply be hired by Community Health Services to continue in their current jobs. Because the nonprofit meets government guidelines for health clinics, it receives more federal funding and thus can provide some services at a far lower rate. The agency already runs several local clinics.
Money was also an issue for a half-dozen activists from the Buncombe County Republican Action Club, who brandished cardboard pitchforks and demanded a reduction in the property-tax rate, as well as referendums on zoning and district elections. They also called for greater transparency in county government.
The cure for the county’s health-care ills?
The county’s ability to deliver health care to indigent residents is in crisis, Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone told the board.
“In my 28 years of working in human services, we’re facing unprecedented times,” she declared. “The economy is going to drive up demand. I can tell you already that … the demand for mandated core services is up 23 to 45 percent across the board. Even though we’ve been an example in the state and nation in that we deliver health care through our clinic, we have unmet need. We’re averaging about 312 people a month seeking appointments [that] we can’t accommodate.”
The county now spends roughly $4.5 million a year to treat about 11,490 patients at its clinic. Serving an additional 5,000 or so patients per year would cost another $1.5 million—money the county is hard-pressed to come up with in the current depressed economy.
Community Health Services, on the other hand, gets significantly better Medicaid reimbursement and cheaper prescription drugs, among other perks, so it could cover the county’s current patient load for $2.4 million and the expanded number for $3 million—about half what it would cost the county to provide those services, said Stone. Furthermore, the recently passed federal stimulus package allocates $2 billion to help such clinics expand their infrastructure and services.
“We can’t meet the unmet need in the community right now,” noted Stone. “This would let us expand our care and focus on core public health. We would still have leverage through the ownership of the building to make sure our performance standards are met.”
She also voiced the hope that those staffers let go during the transition would be able to find jobs with Mission Hospitals, saying the county would go out of its way to try to arrange this.
The idea was enthusiastically received by the board, though Chair David Gantt was out of town.
“Anytime we can do anything to see the 300 per month we’re not able to see, to expand services at a lower cost, I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” gushed Commissioner Carol Peterson.
“There’s clearly so many wins in this—though [it will require] open eyes on some of the unknown parts of the situation,” noted Commissioner Holly Jones.
Arranging the deal will take some time, cautioned Stone, but the transition should begin by the middle of next year, if not before.
But you will never take … our tax dollars!
Sporting blue face paint and a kilt in a nod to medieval Scottish resistance fighter William Wallace (as portrayed in the movie Braveheart), conservative activist Eric Gorny toted a cardboard pitchfork as he presented a list of grievances to the board during the end-of-meeting public-comment period.
“I think the peasants are starting to rise up—thus the pitchfork,” said Gorny, who lives in Swannanoa. “Not too long ago, it was brought to my attention that the Tax Department was starting the process for liens on 5,000 different properties. We’re starting to hurt. I myself work in the construction trade; I have a hard time making ends meet right now. But I’m still paying a lot of money to the county.”
Asked about the situation, Tax Department Director Gary Roberts said he didn’t know where Gorny’s 5,000 figure came from, but that the department is sending out letters to anyone who’s in arrears on their taxes, as it does each year. Roberts said the number of letters isn’t significantly higher this year, adding that the county will try to work out a payment plan with these people.
To that end, Gorny presented a set of demands to the commissioners, beginning with cutting the property-tax rate by 5 cents, which would take it down to 47 cents per $100 of assessed value. “It will affect most people in this county every single month,” he said. The change would reduce the taxes on a house valued at $150,000 by $6.25 a month.
Gorny also called on the board to hold referendums on zoning and district elections.
“We need district elections in this county,” he declared. “Bring this forward—at least let the people decide if they want to be represented by districts. It would reduce the cost of running for office and better represent the voters.”
A longtime opponent of zoning, Gorny charged that the county had subverted the democratic process when it approved zoning in 2007 despite a nonbinding 1999 referendum in which a majority of the small number of people who turned out rejected zoning.
“Thus the Braveheart theme: It almost seems like tyranny,” he said. “The people don’t want it, and you still forced it on us.”
Lastly, in the name of “open and accountable government,” Gorny called on the board to hear public comment on every item of new business rather than selectively at the commissioners’ discretion.
Other pitchfork-wielding Action Club members also turned out to push the group’s demands.
“Our nation is spiraling rapidly down the socialist path, and you’re helping,” Barnardsville resident Kathy Lack declared. “The whole evening, it’s just been ‘ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.’ Every single thing was giving money away. We’ve got to turn this boat around.”
The commissioners, she asserted, would regret it if they didn’t heed the Action Club’s warning.
“We’re law-abiding people. We brought our paper pitchforks because we’re law-abiding; we’re not trying to do anything bad. But think about it: The patriots are not going to take this forever. There’s going to come a point where it’s going to cross the line, and we’re getting closer to it. Think about it: Do you want to look back someday and wish you’d listened to the person with the paper pitchfork when someone with a real one is after you?”
County supports conservation easement near Vance Birthplace
In other business, the commissioners unanimously approved allocating $50,000 to help obtain a conservation easement for Hemphill Farm in Reems Creek, which would prohibit its ever being developed. The 64-acre property is adjacent to the birthplace of Zebulon Vance (North Carolina’s Civil War governor), a state historic site.
“There was a concern because this farm is so near the Vance Birthplace,” Land Conservation Advisory Board member John Ager told the board. “We’re working on some of the others nearby right now.”
On the open market, the property would be worth at least $815,000, and much of the county’s grant would go to cover the transaction costs, such as getting the property appraised.