Buncombe County Commission

Commissioner David Gantt has a problem with the county’s animal-control ordinance, which authorizes Friends For Animals, a private organization operating under contract with the county, to go on people’s property and enter their houses without a warrant. Under the ordinance, violators wind up with a criminal record.

“I’ve got a problem with that,” said Gantt, acknowledging his concern with the ordinance after the county commissioners’ April 21 meeting. He would like to see the county reconsider the ordinance.

County staff and Friends For Animals have met together three times, once with public input, to discuss possible amendments to the ordinance.

Gantt also said that he would like animal-control enforcement to be complaint driven. Currently, Friends For Animals patrols the county, looking for loose animals or other violations to the ordinance.

Friends was first hired by the county in 1996 to provide animal control. In recent weeks, including at the commissioners’ April 21 meeting, several citizens complained about the conduct of animal-control “officers” and argued that the ordinance might be unconstitutional.

“I just want the law to be upheld,” said Buncombe resident Peter Dawes. “I think it’s up to you to change [the ordinance],” he told commissioners.

Dawes — who is appealing a charge of violating the county’s animal-control ordinance and is awaiting his day in N.C. Superior Court — also complained that the county commissioners, staff and attorney have not returned any of his telephone calls.

Gantt, a practicing attorney, explained that the county cannot legally speak with Dawes, because he has retained a lawyer and has a court date.

Both Gantt and County Manager Wanda Greene praised Friends For Animals. “I think that they’re doing a good job,” Greene said.

Earlier in the meeting, Friends For Animals board member Bill McKelvy thanked commissioners for their overall support of Friends. He named some of the group’s recent achievements, including a request from Spay-USA that Friends consider opening a spaying training program in Asheville. He reported that Friends receives more than 750 calls per month from the public, and that only a few people are having problems with the organization.

He then gave each commissioner an autographed copy of the book Finding Your Calling, Loving Your Life.

Public-comment limits

Public-comment portions of Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meetings are not for lambasting commissioners or their staff, commissioners reaffirmed in their April 21 pre-session meeting.

There should be no personal attacks or references to personal things, Board Chair Tom Sobol said. “Public comment is not an interrogation of county commissioners. … We are not on trial,” he said.

It’s also inappropriate to ask which way a commissioner is going to vote on a specific issue, chimed in Gantt, adding, however, that commissioners can answer such questions if they want to.

During the commissioners’ previous meeting on April 14 — their first since the controversial Seabrook retreat, and the same meeting at which they passed the county’s new junk-car ordinance — several Buncombe residents had unleashed biting public comments on topics ranging from the retreat to the possibility that commissioners had consumed alcohol on county property.

Some counties don’t have public-comment periods at all, do they, commissioners asked each other, turning to Greene for confirmation. “In my experience, many counties don’t even have public comment, and none are as open as yours,” she agreed.

Commissioners have reminded themselves of this before. They remained in agreement at this meeting that they don’t want to drop the public-comment portion of their meetings.

Pack closes for summer

Pack Memorial Library will be closed for the summer.

Falling ceiling tiles and a faulty wiring system in the 20-year-old downtown building necessitates its closing on June 5 for repairs. It should reopen on Aug. 24, said Asheville-Buncombe Library System Director Ed Sheary during a report to commissioners on April 21.

“We have an issue of tiles falling from the ceiling, and it’s growing at a faster and faster rate,” said Sheary. In addition, mercury lights are overheating and have burned some electrical wiring, creating a dangerous situation, he said. Some tiles have fallen during library hours, but the tiles are very light and haven’t hit anyone, he said.

The library’s staff and some of its books will be re-located to other branch libraries this summer. Programs such as the children’s summer reading will continue at other branches, he said. Some of Pack’s reference books will not be available during the closing.

The Asheville-Buncombe Community Technical College library is already usable by anyone living in Buncombe county, said Sheary. And for a fee, UNCA will issue library cards to nonstudents living in the area. Also, the Warren Wilson College library is considering allowing public-library cardholders the use of its facilities during the summer.

For downtown residents who aren’t mobile, the library system’s bookmobile will make downtown stops on Fridays and Saturdays

Gentrification happens

Gentrification is happening all over western North Carolina, and there’s “not a thing we can do about it,” Mac Swicegood told commissioners.

Swicegood, a local real-estate appraiser and a member of the county Board of Equalization and Review, was speaking to commissioners during an update on the number of people who have appealed their property revaluations. The Board of Equalization and Review hears appeals that aren’t resolved by the county Tax Office.

People are moving out of the area because they can’t afford to live here anymore, said Swicegood. “That’s a fact of life, and we’re dealing with it,” he said.

In a separate interview, Swicegood said the whole economic climate in WNC is changing, and “it’s outside of the county’s control.”

At last count, approximately 17,000 Buncombe residents have appealed their revaluations, said Real Estate Assessment Manager Linda Brown, in a separate interview. The deadline to appeal is April 30.

This is Brown’s third tax revaluation, and she characterized it as the smoothest and easiest with “by far the least amount of appeals.”

Gold Star gets an incentive grant

Commissioners awarded Gold Star Coatings a $72,500 economic-development incentive grant for water, sewer and site preparation.

Gold Star doesn’t actually make anything, but it coats fixtures, such as faucets, hinges and door knobs, with a finish that “won’t scratch, oxidize or ever come off,” Plant Manager Joel Erickson told commissioners. The grant was based on calculations that Gold Star’s plant had pumped up the county’s overall property value by about $4 million. Erickson added that the amount is now about $5.5 million, since the company’s recent capital improvements.

The EDI grant was made under the county’s former 1995 policy because Gold Star began negotiating for the incentive prior to the county’s adoption, last year, of a new policy, said Greene.

Gold Star employs 16 people, although the company expects that number to grow to 40 in the next three years, said Erickson. The average nonadministrative worker’s wage is $10.50 per hour. Full-time employees get full benefits, a 401(K) plan and some tuition assistance, he said.

In another matter concerning the disbursement of taxpayer money to industry, Buncombe resident Mike Morgan told commissioners that they had “thrown the taxpayers’ money into the fire” when they donated $50,000 to a group of Champion employees seeking to buy two Champion International paper mills. Why hadn’t commissioners offered to bail out Gerber Products Co., or Ball-Incon, Morgan wanted to know.

The buyout attempt floundered recently, when Champion rejected the employees’ bid.

Commissioner David Young quickly responded that Champion’s rejection is part of a negotiation process, and that the employee buyout remains a possibility. Young emphasized that, although the mills are located in Haywood County, they add about $30 million annually to Buncombe’s economy.

It’s not an issue that stops at county lines, agreed Commissioner David Gantt.

And, said Commissioner Bill Stanley, “[Gerber and Ball] didn’t ask this board for help.”

District-elections committee

Commissioners appointed a committee to consider the possibility of staggered terms and elections by district for the county Board of Commissioners. The advisory committee’s members are: John Daniel, a retired Square-D executive from Biltmore Forest; Elizabeth Harper, a retired state employee from Black Mountain; Russ Parris, a retired U.S. Department of Defense employee from west Asheville; Curtis Venable, an attorney residing in Asheville; and Jane Heath, a former Connecticut board of elections employee who moved to Skyland 15 years ago.

County consent

Commissioners heard or acted on the following:

• Heard County Manager Wanda Greene announce that the county will not need need to create a new position for its junk-car administrator. Instead, the position will be created by reclassifying one that is currently inactive.

• Heard an update from Finance Director Nancy Brooks on the recent refinancing of $37 million worth of county bonds, to take advantage of low interest rates.

• Approved $889,985 for a new county telephone system to replace the county’s 11-year-old one. The new system will allow the transfer of calls to cell phones and pagers, will have voice-mail indicators, and allow the county to monitor certain calls, said Purchasing Agent Wayne Jacklin. Telephone Systems of Asheville, which also installed the old system, expects to finish installing the new one within three months.

• Declared May 10 through 16 as Be Kind to Animals Week in Buncombe County. The county’s fourth annual anti-cruelty walk will take place on Saturday, May 16 at 10 a.m. at City/County Plaza.

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