The state of the county

Hard as he tried, Dr. Arlo Jennings just couldn’t pay someone enough money to work at Mission St. Joseph’s Health System.

Jennings, the system’s vice president/chief information officer, recently offered his top candidate for a computer-security administrator’s job an annual salary of $61,000. Jennings thought he had a deal — but lost out to a Charlotte employer willing to pay $85,000 a year, plus a $15,000 signing bonus.

He still hasn’t filled that position.

It’s a frustrating problem, Jennings told the Buncombe County Commissioners at their March 18 daylong planning retreat, held in the county’s training room on College Street. He was one of 23 speakers at the session, designed to prepare the commissioners for budget proposals and update them on various issues, according to County Manager Wanda Greene.

The local schools aren’t producing enough graduates with the high-tech computer skills needed at the hospital system, Jennings maintained. Those graduates who do have the skills often leave the area, and people hired from outside WNC don’t always stay.

Jennings’ complaints came on the heels of presentations by administrators from A-B Tech and the Asheville and Buncombe County schools, about their respective computer-related training programs and needs.

“The schools are not meeting these needs,” asserted Jennings, noting that, while local students may have good basic skills, they aren’t trained on mainframe computers. “When you get to the working environment, we have to retrain you.”

With more than 5,000 employees and at least 2,000 personal computers, Mission St. Joseph’s Health System has a huge demand for computer-literate employees. Employees need to know more than how to run a PC; they need to understand the infrastructure of large computer systems, he said.

“Do you know what a nanosecond is?” he asked the commissioners and the audience. Commissioner Patsy Keever volunteered a “no,” and Jennings informed them that a nanosecond is a billionth of a second. He said some local college students in their fourth year of computer studies don’t know terms like that, either.

“Dr. Jennings, you’ve been pretty tough on us,” said Keever, before asking him for suggestions.

First off, school administrators need to ask employers what their needs are, Jennings answered. Of the local schools, he said, only A-B Tech officials have asked him that question. But building relationships between schools and employers needs to start at the K-12 level.

“Schools need to work with some of the organizations and have a better match for what the needs are,” asserted Jennings.

On further questioning from Commissioner David Gantt, Jennings suggested that the commissioners could also work on bringing more technology-based industries to the county, “primarily so I can steal [their employees] and I don’t have to pay relocation costs.”

From the audience, A-B Tech President K. Ray Bailey offered to work with the county manager to pull together a group of people to address the issue. During a break in the meeting, Bailey said he envisioned a one- or two-day technology symposium that would bring together various groups, including the public schools and UNCA.

The hospital system isn’t the only local employer facing problems. Speakers from Sonopress, which manufactures CDs and DVDs, told the commissioners that they, too, have trouble finding qualified job candidates.

“Recruiting technically skilled people has always been a dilemma,” said Kimberly Fulcher, who oversees recruitment at the Weaverville plant.

Fulcher reported that the company recently needed to hire 15 people in two weeks. And, though Sonopress prefers to hire locally, she ended up recruiting employees in Virginia Beach.

“We spent about $700,000 bringing labor to this area,” she told commissioners, including the company’s payroll, recruiting fees and relocation costs for people hired.

The company hired more than 450 employees last year, at an average hourly rate of $11.82, she said.

Retaining employees is another problem for Sonopress, noted Fulcher. Exit interviews reveal that the high cost of living in this area drives away employees, she said.

And Fred Delonti, the company’s manager of DVD engineering, suggested that industry shouldn’t have to bear the whole burden of training and recruiting employees.

“Sonopress can do so much to go ahead and keep these people, but we need you to go ahead and help us,” he urged.

“I don’t know how you fight that,” responded Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol, noting that the marketplace controls the cost of living.

Landfill innovations may cut costs, protect ground water

Instead of asking for money, Buncombe County solid-waste officials unveiled a plan designed to save the county millions of dollars.

The innovative plan — which involves recirculating leachate (runoff) in the county landfill — could serve as a national pilot project, saving money while reducing environmental impacts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave preliminary approval to the project on March 14.

EPA approval is required because the newest section of the landfill has a different type of liner that isn’t covered by the rules for recycling leachate. The Buncombe County landfill was the first one in the state to use the new liner technology, which is believed to be less likely to leak, officials said. The data gathered from the Buncombe County project could pave the way for changing the rules to allow leachate recirculation with the new-style liner, said Joseph F. Wiseman Jr., vice president of Camp Dresser & McKee, the Raleigh firm that designed the current landfill.

The two older sections of the landfill (which opened in 1997) were designed before the alternative liner technology became available, according to General Services Director Bob Hunter.

The liner, which cost the county $400,000 less than the kind it had been using, consists of a 1/2-inch mat containing bentonite, a type of clay found in western states. The older-style liner used in the landfill’s first two cells is made of bentonite mixed with native soils, Hunter explained later.

Currently, rain that falls on the landfill is pumped into a 1.5-million-gallon pond. Trucks haul the leachate to the Metropolitan Sewerage District for treatment, which costs $220,000 per year. Under the new plan, that would be necessary only after a really heavy rain. Instead, the leachate pumpted into the pond would simply be recirculated through the landfill.

Officials figure that recirculating the leachate could save $8 million over the life of the landfill. Besides reducing the amount of leachate that would have to be hauled to MSD for disposal, the plan would extend the landfill’s usable life, since the leachate would help the garbage decompose faster, thereby creating more room in the cells.

Recirculating leachate represents a shift in thinking about waste disposal. Before liners were used in landfills, the goal was to keep the garbage as dry as possible, so the leachate wouldn’t get into ground water, Wiseman explained. But current thinking favors helping the garbage decompose quickly, while officials know the liner is still intact, he said.

If the landfill springs a leak 50 years from now — and the trash is already decomposed — it shouldn’t cause a problem for ground water, said Hunter.

Another part of the proposal calls for recovering the methane gas produced during decomposition, using pipes and a vacuum. Quicker decomposition means methane would be produced more quickly, which could make it easier to put the gas to practical use.

“We’d like to capture this gas and, someday, run all the county equipment on natural gas,” Hunter said, because the leachate will have been diluted by rain water and the toxins broken down by bacteria. (Others, however, maintain that the leachate will actually become more concentrated — hence, more dangerous — over time.)

Extending the life of the landfill would also help keep tipping fees down, noted Sobol. The county’s $32-per-ton tipping fee is among the lowest in the state, said Wiseman.

“It’s not our intention to go out and do something, just to save money, that would be a health risk — now or in the future,” Hunter emphasized after the meeting.

He also said that the public will have a chance to comment on the proposal at a series of community meetings, though no dates have been set.

Dr. Rick Maas, the chairman of UNCA’s Environmental Studies Department, feels the proposal’s advantages outweigh its disadvantages.

“Overall, I would support the project,” he said.

One advantage in trucking less leachate to MSD would be a reduced chance of accidents en route, noted Maas.

The proposal could also help keep pollutants in the leachate from slipping past MSD’s defenses. Leachate typically contains a wide range of synthetic and organic compounds found in common household products, such as paint thinner and brake fluid. MSD’s system is probably not set up to deal with all of these compounds, meaning that some pollutants now end up in the air (after MSD incinerates its sewage sludge); in the French Broad River (where treated effluent is released); or in the soil.(MSD produces Nutri-lime, a soil amendment that the agency gives away, from some of the sludge), Maas observed.

Instead, the proposal would use a biological treatment system based on the bacteria in the landfill soil.

One disadvantage of the proposal, noted Maas, is that over time, the pollutants in the leachate would be concentrated, causing more damage if and when the liner sprang a leak. But he said the new-style liners seem to be fairly watertight; any leaks that do occur tend to be along the edges, due to damage from rodents or other small animals — not at the bottom, where the leachate is collected. (The liner technology, however, is only a few years old, so there is no long-term data on how well it will hold up.)

The best (and most costly) way to handle leachate would be to treat it on-site, asserted Maas.

“But given that it’s not very practical to have an on-site treatment system, this recycling system — which enhances the natural biological degradation — is probably the best available alternative,” he said.

The important thing is to catch the leachate before it leaks out the bottom of the landfill, as it’s doing at the county’s former, unlined landfill in Woodfin, said Maas. He also serves as associate director of UNCA’s Environmental Quality Institute, which has been monitoring possible contamination from the old landfill. Pollutants have contaminated the ground water there, he said, although monitoring shows they haven’t gotten into the wells of nearby residents.

Individuals, notes Maas, can help keep pollutants out of the landfill by completely using up household products and rinsing out the empty containers (dumping the rinse water in the back yard — not down the drain) before disposing of them in the trash.

The county used to sponsor periodic household-hazardous-waste collection days, but discontinued the practice because disposing of such substances is too expensive, according to Hunter.

Loophole costs Water Authority millions

The N.C. Department of Transportation is using a loophole to avoid paying millions of dollars to relocate water lines, said Asheville Water Resources Director Tom L. Frederick.

Frederick, who carries out the policies of the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson, estimates that, over the next five years, that loophole will cost the Authority — and water customers — $4.8 million.

That’s no small sum for an agency that’s already facing a revenue shortage this fiscal year. Ever since the recent drought, local manufacturing companies have been using water more efficiently; that trend, plus the closing of Tultex, a significant local water user, has reduced revenues this year to $18.8 million. The Authority plans to trim its $20.5 million budget, reducing expenditures to match revenues, Frederick said later.

The Regional Water Authority is the only such body in the state that has to pay when the DOT orders that water lines be moved because of highway expansion, Frederick said. That’s because the state statute that exempts water authorities from paying to move lines doesn’t refer to the specific statute under which the Regional Water Authority was set up. Therefore, the Regional Water Authority isn’t exempted from paying the fees.

But when Frederick went down to Raleigh last year to make that point to the legislature, a DOT lobbyist argued that if the DOT spends its money on water lines, it can’t spend as much on roads — and the legislation Frederick wanted never got out of committee, he said.

“Our local delegation is behind us, but we haven’t been able to convince the legislature as a whole to adopt the bill,” Frederick said later.

Sobol noted that the loophole is a primary reason that local officials have raised water rates. And Frederick added that the $4.8 million could be better spent on water-system improvements.

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