Still in shock

Uncertainty about the future of North Carolina’s only independent regional air-pollution control agency — jeopardized by Haywood County’s sudden withdrawal — cast a shadow over the APCA’s uncharacteristically brief March 13 board meeting. Unless the Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council both agree to re-establish the agency, it will cease to exist on July 1, and its functions will be taken over either by the state Division of Air Quality’s Asheville regional office (which already has jurisdiction over 17 other WNC counties), or by existing county and/or city agencies.

Every board member was present this week, including Don Randolph and Tom Rhodarmer, the two Haywood County appointees who will lose their seats unless their county’s commissioners change their minds before July. From the audience, Jerry Rice questioned the two about what they knew about the county’s pullout — and when they knew it.

“There was no discussion with me whatsoever pertaining to withdrawal,” answered Randolph, who said he was notified of the decision afterward by phone. “It came as a bolt out of the blue to me. I think it was a step backwards.”

Rhodarmer admitted: “I was aware that [the commissioners] were considering doing this. When I was re-appointed to the board last year, they mentioned it to me as a possibility.” The commissioners — who cited citizen concerns about the agency’s open-burning policy as a reason for the pullout — had made comments about withdrawing during a commissioners’ meeting last May in which a Haywood County resident complained about being cited by the APCA for an unauthorized open fire, after the Forest Service had OK’d it.

Randolph noted that, in response to this complaint, the agency had spent the next two months working out a simplified permit process with the Forest Service. “I have heard no complaints since then,” he said.

But Rhodarmer, asked for his personal opinion about the withdrawal, replied, “No comment.” Rhodarmer has elsewhere been quoted as saying that Haywood County might be better off not being part of the agency.

Money matters

The APCA’s Public Information Committee will publicly premiere its new video, “Breathing Troubled Air: A Prayer for the Mountains,” on Tuesday, April 11 at 7 p.m. in UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium. Producing the educational video about regional air-pollution problems cost about $36,000, according to board member Doug Clark.

The agency has issued a $2,500 fine to Carolina Power & Light for the excessive sulfur-dioxide emissions from its coal burners observed by an APCA staffer during a surprise inspection of the company’s Skyland plant on Nov. 1, agency Director Bob Camby announced. CP&L has the right to appeal, but has not yet responded to the citation.

And despite an oral promise — several days before the Haywood County pullout — to perform a long-sought financial audit of the agency, officials in the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Budget Office “are still chasing their tails,” reported APCA Chair Nelda Holder. Besides deciding whether DENR’s auditor will have time to do the work, the state is trying to determine whether the APCA is a “local government entity” that should already have been auditing itself annually, she said. When Clark questioned whether the board was “beating a dead horse” to spend time pursuing an audit when “we’re going to be a diffferent agency,” Holder pointed out that the board had already voted to seek the audit, and that the subject was “not up for debate.”

Clark and Rhodarmer (both former APCA board chairs) have consistently opposed the audit as a waste of time and money. Rhodarmer has charged that the audit is a “personal” issue of board member Arlis Queen (who is also chair of Taxpayers for Accountable Government); Clark, meanwhile, has argued that the routine yearly audit and quarterly budget reports supplied to the board by Buncombe County, which maintains the APCA’s books, are sufficient.

But other board members have expressed dissatisfaction with the sketchiness of the county’s audits and reports — which list expenditures only by broad (and sometimes obscure) categories — and have criticized previous boards for failing even to examine the agency’s budget. Camby inaugurated his tenure as director last fall by revising the budget (at the board’s direction) to include specific line-item expenditures, and by presenting detailed budget reports at the board’s public meetings.

At Monday’s meeting, however, Camby stated that “the budget is now on hold,” because of the agency’s uncertain future.

Dissolving the agency would also raise the question of what to do with its surplus fund balance (derived mostly from fines and permit fees) — about $900,000 (and rising steadily, as interest accumulates), Camby told Mountain Xpress.

Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene, reached later by phone, noted that those funds are restricted and could not be diverted for general use. Greene also said that she is awaiting feedback from county staff (due by March 27) on the county’s options vis-a-vis the APCA, and that she will present her recommendations to the commissioners at their April 4 meeting.

Steve Rasmussen may be reached by phone (251-1333) or e-mail (calendar@mountainx.com).

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