Buncombe County Commission

Since the late ’90s, affordable-housing advocates have been knocking on the door, asking the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to establish an affordable-housing trust fund.

Last week, the board finally opened that door. At the commissioners’ March 16 meeting, board members voted unanimously to set aside $300,000 in the current budget to establish a revolving loan fund designed to increase the amount of affordable housing in the county. The program will also offer 50 percent rebates of building-permit fees once an affordable-housing project is completed.

Executive Director Sarah Uminski of The Affordable Housing Coalition of Asheville & Buncombe County applauded the decision. “It’s the county investing in the community,” Uminski told Xpress later. “And those dollars come back. It’s not that they’ll never see those dollars again.”

In the same vote, the board also set aside $50,000 to help the owners of decrepit mobile homes pay for removing the eyesores. That decision, however, came only after a somewhat prickly discussion of the connection between this issue and the affordable-housing plan.

And in another significant decision, the commissioners also unanimously endorsed recommendations for reducing air pollution in Asheville and Buncombe County.

They also found time to hear still more public comment on the potential benefits and ills of public-access TV.

House and (mobile) home

Back on Jan. 27, the commissioners had asked County Manager Wanda Greene to scour the current budget in search of $300,000 to launch an affordable-housing trust fund.

That move came on the heels of a report from the County-City Housing Task Force, which had recently called on the county to set aside $1.7 million worth of property-tax revenues during the next fiscal year to help bankroll the fund.

But on March 16, Assistant County Manager/Planning Director Jon Creighton was back with a proposal that instead called for setting aside $250,000 for the affordable-housing program and using the remaining $50,000 to launch a pilot program for removing unsafe manufactured homes.

Creighton told the board he’d set his sights on dismantling 15 or 20 mobile homes between now and July 1 (when the next fiscal year begins) and recycling as much of the material as possible.

“Jon, I’m not hearing any connection with affordable housing,” Commissioner David Gantt told Creighton.

Creighton replied that affordable housing could perhaps take the place of those deteriorating mobile homes.

But though Gantt called the proposal a “great idea,” he countered that he’d prefer to see the full $300,000 devoted to affordable housing.

Vice Chairman Bill Stanley said he was inclined to agree with Gantt.

Commissioner David Young pointed out that the $50,000 to remove mobile homes was coming out of the solid-waste budget. Gantt then questioned whether solid-waste moneys could be used to fund affordable housing.

Greene said she’d prefer not to do that — but she thought she could find the $50,000 elsewhere in the budget.

Several members of the public also weighed in, including frequent speaker Don Yelton, who suggested that the county rehab old singlewides and place them on public property to serve as affordable housing.

Edward Narbe of Mobile Home Disposal of W.N.C. (a private company in Candler that does this work) said that, as a taxpayer, he’d prefer to see the county use the money to pay a percentage of the disposal fees for 50 deteriorating mobile homes, rather than paying the entire fees for only 15 or 20 homes.

And county resident Walter Plaue said he resented seeing the county slip the mobile-home-disposal program into its affordable-housing plan. He also predicted that the county’s plan to hand out loans wouldn’t sit well with developers. The city of Asheville, he noted, uses a board including government, nonprofit and private interests to award the loans.

Young, however, countered that he thought private investors would be “all over this,” and Chairman Nathan Ramsey said the private sector would be happy to work with the county.

In the end, the commissioners unanimously agreed to spend $350,000 to fund both programs.

Under the affordable-housing program, low-interest loans will be available for projects benefiting low- or moderate-income people (as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). As the loans are repaid, the money will return to the program, enabling it to make more loans.

The program will help fund: down-payment assistance for eligible applicants who have completed homebuyer-education classes; construction of affordable homes; and a 50 percent rebate on building-permit fees for affordable-housing projects.

A City Council invasion

Asheville City Council members Jan Davis and Joe Dunn slipped out of their own meeting (in progress next door) to pop in on their county counterparts.

Speaking just after the heated public-comment session on public-access TV (see “Public-access TV culture clash” below), Davis joked that it was a pleasure to watch the proceedings from his vantage point in the audience.

“And they wonder why it’s not televised,” quipped Chairman Nathan Ramsey.

“Entertainment itself,” rejoined Davis.

But Davis then got down to business, speaking as chairman of the Asheville-Buncombe Council of the Mountain Area Early Action Compact, which hammered out the bulk of a plan aimed at reducing air pollution in the mountains.

Thanks to unexpectedly low ozone-pollution levels in WNC last summer, the region is no longer facing a “nonattainment” designation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and local-government measures to improve air quality are now voluntary (see Feb. 17 Xpress, “Threat or Promise?”).

Davis mentioned that the Southern Environmental Law Center was considering whether to sue the EPA; that threat, he said, had prompted Transylvania and Henderson counties to back out of the early-action compact. Ramsey, on the other hand, said that Henderson County officials hadn’t definitely backed out. (As of last week, the local governments planning to stay in the compact included Haywood and Madison counties, plus the city of Asheville, said Buncombe County planner Mike Bradley after the meeting.)

At first, admitted Davis, he’d figured it would be merely a feel-good initiative. But now that business, environmental and government reps have come together to produce the plan, said Davis, he feels otherwise.

The commissioners unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the recommendations of the Mountain Area Early Action Compact for reducing air pollution.

Then Dunn — after comparing his and Davis’ arrival at the meeting to the “British invasion” — presented a lengthy report about financial troubles at the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. The city and the county share the profits from local ABC stores.

Board members took no action on Dunn’s report.

Public-access TV culture clash

Public-access TV continues to dominate public comment as the commissioners’ scheduled April 6 vote on whether to launch negotiations with the nonprofit that would run the proposed station draws near. Last week was no exception.

In the opponents’ corner were the Rev. Jerry Young (representing 10 members of the Community Council for Biblical Values) and six others.

Their argument largely boiled down to fears that there’s too much potential for offensive content to risk having public-access TV. County resident Walter Plaue, however, also argued that there’s plenty of space on the existing educational and government channels for nonprofits to have their say.

In the proponents’ corner stood Marketing and Communications Director David Bonyun of United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, and Commissioner Gantt. Both maintained that the potential for good (such as providing an outlet for local nonprofits) outweighs the bad.

Gantt and vocal public-access opponent Chad Nesbitt then sparred during Nesbitt’s address to the board. Without providing specifics, Nesbitt proclaimed that he’d found a show called Children and Art that he labeled “child pornography.”

“I’m gonna fight you tooth and nail, because I will not let any type of this child pornography get on television,” thundered Nesbitt.

“It won’t be on, Chad, and you know it,” Gantt replied tensely. “State law prohibits exactly what you’re talking about. You know that and I know that. I’m not really sure what the angle is here, but it’s against North Carolina law.”

“Here’s your angle, David,” Nesbitt countered. “You cannot, you absolutely cannot go against the First Amendment with regards to art, anything of artistical value. And there are people in the United States that think that putting children in front of a camera, half-clothed, or naked totally, is art.”

“Not in this community,” Gantt answered.

At least two people offered less confrontational views. Clarence Young of Weaverville (a self-described “Libertarian Republican”) pointed out that Gantt is in favor of public-access TV, yet he supported the decision to stop televising public comment at Board of Commissioners meetings.

“I can only guess at this philosophical contradiction,” mused Young before going on to suggest including people with a variety of political perspectives on a government-controlled public-access TV board.

Leicester resident Alan Ditmore noted that the Amish find buttons to be obscene. Dressed in a T-shirt and tattered jacket, he concluded: “I find neckties to be obscene. And we have a number of them here today, including the Bible values people. … I think the North Carolina obscenity law considers prurient interests. And if nobody was attracted to neckties, I doubt they would be so common. So that makes them prurient and [so] fall under the North Carolina statute.”

A busy night…

In other business, the commissioners also:

• agreed to increase the total funding for building the new North Asheville Branch Library from $925,600 to $939,100 and extend a contract with KCB Construction. (The increased cost and delay are partly due to problems with a storm drain on the Merrimon Avenue site, a sinkhole that has opened up on the site, and weather delays);

• delayed a vote on whether to endorse the public-policy initiatives of the Employers’ Coalition of North Carolina, after Gantt balked at the workers’ compensation component;

• approved hiring four county employees (at no cost to the county) who would provide maintenance for mental-health facilities through a contract with Blue Ridge Human Services Facilities, a nonprofit spinoff of the Blue Ridge Center.

The board also heard a report by Buncombe County Board of Education Chairman Roger Aiken on efforts to curb the dropout rate, and an economic-development update by UNCA Chancellor James Mullen.

At meeting’s end, the commissioners shooed the audience away and went into closed session to discuss two economic-development matters, a personnel issue and a pending worker’s compensation claim.

The board also delayed a presentation on capital projects until their next meeting — a budget workshop, scheduled for 4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30 in the county’s Training Room (199 College St. in Asheville). As usual, the meeting is open to the public.

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