The only folks who ever hear what’s said at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ pre-meetings are the regulars. And that, according to quintessential regulars/perennial county watchdogs Don Yelton, Jerry Rice and Eric Gorny, is a grave disservice to Buncombe County residents.
All three men are as regular as the furniture at the commissioners’ biweekly meetings. And all three typically sign up to speak during the untelevised public-comment period at the pre-meetings.
That arrangement amounts to “public comment being swept from your agenda,” charged Rice on April 9, in the midst of his remarks about a state-mandated reform of the mental-health system. Because public comment isn’t televised and is mostly relegated to the pre-meetings, he maintained, county residents never get to hear what their fellow citizens have to say — for example, Rice’s contention that the commissioners set property-tax rates based on “what the budget needs.” (Commissioners have often maintained that property taxes are “revenue-neutral,” because the the tax rate is adjusted after each revaluation to produce about the same amount of revenue; Rice implied that the commissioners might not actually do that in this instance.)
He also held commissioners’ feet to the fire on the issue of mental-health reform, saying they are “behind the eight ball, not knowing what’s going on.”
The state, explained Assistant County Manager Jerome Jones, has mandated that the number of regional authorities — such as WNC’s Blue Ridge Center for Mental Health — be reduced from 33 to 20. To fulfill that mandate, Buncombe officials are working to create a new nonprofit consortium that would represent nine WNC counties.
Rice, however, voiced concern that the participating counties, “rather than devising a plan [up front], are making it up as they go along.”
Meanwhile, Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey, in a brief dialogue with Rice, acknowledged that with state funding in short supply this fiscal year, “We’ll be lucky to fund the level of services we currently offer.” But Ramsey, echoed by Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, also insisted that no services would be lost. Ramsey conceded, though, that there might be a brief period when some services wouldn’t be available.
It’s a question of priorities, Jones explained: Under the new system, children’s services (in general, not just at Blue Ridge) are at the top of the list, whereas adult-alcoholism support could end up at the bottom. The state’s idea is to cut overhead costs by decentralizing mental-health services, let private providers take over the bulk of those services, and set up nonprofits to fill in the gaps, noted Jones.
Another goal is to get rid of duplication of services, Ramsey remarked.
The mental-health reform discussion prompted Yelton to remark, “What just happened here is another example of why public comment should be televised.” Jones’ response to Rice, argued Yelton, was a good explanation of what’s happening on the issue. Not televising this segment of the meeting deprives citizens of their opportunity to voice opinions and ask questions, he said.
Gorny, for his part, picked up on a notion that’s been bandied about for years: Change the day the commissioners meet so it doesn’t conflict with Asheville City Council meetings. Gorny also emphasized that more public comment needs to be allowed during the regular, televised meetings.
Commissioners made no response, breaking for 30 minutes before the regular session began at 6:30 p.m.
Litter’s got us by the bag
“If we weren’t out there picking it up all the time, we’d be buried in it,” Susan Roderick told the board. She was talking about litter. Roderick, the director of the nonprofit Quality Forward, urged the commissioners to persuade the Sheriff’s Department, state troopers and other agencies to beef up enforcement of state and local litter laws.
Besides staging periodic cleanups, Quality Forward also provides anti-litter education; those efforts include talking with students and developing a new TV campaign. To underscore the latter point, Roderick had county staff screen two sample ads, featuring such local notables as Jack Ingram, Ann Vasilik and Chairman Ramsey — all pleading, “Please don’t litter our mountains.”
“A half-second of fame,” Ramsey quipped after seeing the ad on the big screens in the commissioners’ chambers.
“Don’t quit your day job,” wisecracked Stanley.
Sounding a more serious note, Quality Forward board member Dave Westling mentioned that the N.C. Department of Transportation spent $10 million picking up litter in 2001. “We talk about a budget shortfall, [yet] the only reason we spend this kind of money is because people litter,” he commented.
“It’s going to stop when people get tickets,” declared Commissioner David Young. He supported Quality Forward’s recommendation that commissioners ask local law enforcement to run a sting operation like the one recently completed in Mecklenburg County. That sting netted eight litter citations in just four hours, QF Clean Community Coordinator Kelly Green reported.
In Buncombe County, 60 litter citations were issued last year. Nearby Polk County, which is much more sparsely populated, issued nearly 80 citations that year.
“It’s embarrassing,” admitted Commissioner David Gantt, agreeing to QF’s request for tougher enforcement. He suggested ranking counties based on how much litter they have and publicizing the results: “We don’t want to be the dirtiest county in North Carolina. Let’s shame people into doing the right thing,” Gantt declared.
Although the commissioners took no formal action on the litter issue, they did voice consensus on seeking tougher enforcement in the county.
For more information on Quality Forward programs, call 254-1776.
Child Abuse Prevention Month
One in every five children in the U.S. will be abused or neglected at some point, Bill McGuire told the Buncombe County commissioners on April 9. The new director of WNC Child Advocacy and Prevention Services was on hand to accept commissioners’ proclamation making April Child Abuse Prevention Month. Last year, he reported, about 4,000 Buncombe County children were abused or neglected.
North Carolina ranks an abysmal 41st in the U.S. when it comes to key indicators of children’s health — such as their safety, physical well-being and emotional health — according to a fact sheet McGuire gave commissioners.
The commissioners gave April triple-duty, also naming it Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month and Motorcycle Awareness Month. They also proclaimed April 21-27 to be National Volunteer Week in Buncombe.
In other business, commissioners voted 5-0 to reappoint Richard Harris as the county’s representative on Weaverville’s Board of Adjustment.
The commissioners also approved an application for state Rural Operating Assistance Program Funds for Transportation. The annual grant — totaling $167,529 — funds such services as Mountain Mobility, which transports elderly and disabled Buncombe residents and also provides employment-related transportation for Work First clients.
The county is seeking an additional $95,510 to support current employment-transportation services and to expand the services, reported Planning Director Denise Braine. The state has cut Buncombe’s annual ROAP grant by 5 percent from the last fiscal year. Without the additional funding, some services can’t be provided, she noted.
The Buncombe County commissioners approved the following items by consent at their April 9 meeting:
• the minutes of their March 19 regular meeting;
• conveying two lots acquired through the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to the town of Black Mountain to be used for recreational purposes;
• a petition to add Justice Ridge Terrace to the state highway system;
• a request by the town of Woodfin that the state Department of Transportation shift responsibility for maintaining the following state roads to the town: 1712, 2080, 2081, 2082, 2083, 2084, 2085, 2086, 2087, 2264 and 2282;
• a capital-projects ordinance appropriating $14,668 in contingency funds for improvements to Hominy Valley Park;
• the following budget amendments: summer youth programs ($38,000); Recreation Services for fireworks at Lake Julian ($9,000); Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention ($266); Sheriff’s Department donations ($2,983);
• a release report correcting Tax Department errors;
• a resolution declaring the county’s intention to reimburse itself from the proceeds of one or more tax-exempt financings for certain expenditures to be made in connection with the purchase of computer equipment and software for one-stop permitting;
• a $366,676 grant agreement to improve security at the Asheville Regional Airport.