Buncombe Commissioners

  • Money also available for affordable housing, energy efficiency
  • Dropout rate declines

Like state and local governments nationwide, Buncombe County is facing budget troubles due to declining revenues.

So it came as no surprise when county staff informed the Board of Commissioners during their April 7 meeting that, as instructed by the board, they’re pursuing federal stimulus money for various uses.

Floored: Buncombe County is seeking federal stimulus funds to build a tower adjoining the courthouse, allowing the courts to use space now left vacant due to safety concerns. Xpress file photo

“There’s been a lot of anticipation about this money: $787 billion [the total amount of the stimulus package] gets the mind reeling, that’s for sure,” noted Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton. “A lot of people think it’s going to be bridges, roads, a lot of construction. But over $200 billion goes to health services and human services. There’s a lot of this money out there that’s basically going to help people in need. We’re going after it, but it’s become a hurry-up-and-wait sort of thing.”

To improve the county’s chances of claiming its fair share of the cash, staff are using software to quickly track and apply for grants. They’re also keeping in regular touch with Rep. Heath Shuler‘s offices.

The county is seeking money for a wide range of initiatives, such as: $1.25 million for hiring additional law-enforcement officers (including a drug agent and an animal-control officer) and jailers; $1.4 million to train out-of-work residents for new jobs and fund grants for the homeless, affordable housing and energy efficiency. The city/county Homeless Initiative has already been awarded about $500,000 in grant funds.

Buncombe County will also be looking for funds to help complete a $15 million public-safety training facility and a much-needed addition to the courthouse that would free up space on the upper floors. A substantial chunk of the stimulus package is earmarked for “green” and other energy-efficiency projects, and the county will also pursue some of that money, aiming to make its buildings use less energy and to produce methane at the landfill.

The county may also be able to save money on health care. Part of the stimulus package involves the federal government’s covering a larger share of Medicare costs. In addition, the county is considering a partnership with Western North Carolina Community Health Services to reduce the cost of running the county Health Center. As a federally qualified health clinic, the community nonprofit has already received some stimulus money.

But Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone, who also heads up the Department of Social Services, warned that rather than handing out aid to local governments, North Carolina will most likely claim the lion’s share of any federal dollars headed this way “to make up [the state’s] own shortfall. In fact, I’d expect that to happen on any item where they aren’t legally prevented from doing so.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said an exasperated Vice Chair Bill Stanley. Nonetheless, he added, “I think it’s good the money’s out there, and we’re doing everything we can to get our share. Keep on it.”

Commissioner Holly Jones voiced the hope that the money will create jobs, saying, “I really hope people will be put to work in all this.”

Down but not out

The Buncombe County Schools delivered some good news: a roughly 15 percent decline in the high-school dropout rate, to 380 students last school year, down from 440 the previous year.

School officials attributed the decline to the combined effect of programs aimed at helping freshmen adjust to high school and the Career Academy, which teaches students job skills.

Donna Lanahan, who heads the system’s dropout-prevention program, praised the commissioners’ willingness to fund initiatives to address the problem.

“Your dropout-prevention grant gave our students the opportunity to have in-depth academic support, career explorations and a nurturing academic environment,” she explained. “We’ve been able to hire a graduation advocate to foster a better learning environment for these students.”

She added that while there are multiple ways to measure success, “Numbers are very important to us. This is the lowest rate since the state has measured dropouts by its current method.”

Economic figures, noted Lanahan, show that dropouts typically impose significant costs on local governments and economies, and having fewer dropouts reduces those expenses.

“These economists tried to put a dollar figure by analyzing public aid, health care, criminal-justice costs,” she explained, adding, “They estimated that every high-school dropout costs $127,000. If we consider our reduction in dropouts this year, it represents a saving of $8 million for Buncombe and North Carolina. Behind every number, too, there’s a story of an individual.”

During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Enka resident Jerry Rice, who’s often criticized the school system’s dropout rate, cautioned that due to changes in the way the state calculates the dropout rate, those figures should not be swallowed whole.

But he also said he thinks the school system is making needed improvements. “I think we’re going to see a change of attitude towards administrators, teachers and any personnel that works for the schools,” predicted Rice. “I think it’s going to be ‘Children first—and if you don’t measure up, you can go home.’”

 

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