Buncombe County Commission

A hodgepodge of issues faced the Buncombe County commissioners last week — from a pitch for a veterans memorial to tactics that would limit the state’s ability to snatch money away from the county.

But the item that drew the most people to the board’s April 23 meeting had to do with stream buffers and, by extension, property rights — a topic near and dear to the hearts of many mountain residents.

Buffer bashing

A small delegation of McDowell County residents appeared before the commissioners, who were considering a resolution asking that the county be notified if the General Assembly or any state agency “contemplates laws, rules, or regulations affecting stream buffers” in Buncombe County.

The topic has been a heated one in McDowell County, where residents organized last year against proposed regulations to limit development on streams feeding into the Catawba River basin. Buffers reduce sedimentation and other pollution. Faced with intense opposition from property-rights advocates, the Environmental Management Commission decided in March to postpone imposing stream buffers, opting to explore voluntary measures instead, according to the Associated Press. A temporary rule adopted last spring for the main stem of the Catawba River and its lakes limits the clearing of trees and other plants within a 50-foot-wide shoreline zone that runs from Lake James to the South Carolina line.

“We have really been fighting the buffers,” Doris Walston of Old Fort told the commissioners during the board’s public-comment session. “They have no right to come in and take our property this way. … We will fight to the end.”

The resolution under consideration by the Board of Commissioners was similar to ones already adopted in McDowell and Yancey counties.

“We’re not saying we’re for it [or that] we’re against it,” said Commissioner David Young. “We just want to be part of the process.”

The resolution passed unanimously.

Taxing situations

The commissioners also unanimously decided to set a public hearing on enacting a local-option half-cent sales tax that would take effect July 1, 2003.

The tax would replace the half-cent sales tax the General Assembly adopted last year to balance the budget. The current tax is due to expire June 30, 2003.

The new tax would provide a revenue source for counties, municipalities and fire districts, replacing the reimbursements that they have received over the years from the state –but which the state has taken back for the past two years to plug holes in its own budget. In the current fiscal year, Buncombe County lost about $6.2 million.

“Primarily, it’s a more stable source of revenue [than the reimbursements],” County Manager Wanda Greene told the commissioners.

If the Board of Commissioners does not adopt the local-option sales tax, the state will cancel the reimbursements anyway, Greene warned.

The public hearing will be part of the board’s May 7 meeting. The meeting (including the public hearing) will take place at 6:30 p.m. on May 7 in room 204 of the Buncombe County Courthouse.

In part two of the sales-tax saga, Greene asked the board to support an alternate plan in which the state would cancel the reimbursements to local governments, continue the current half-cent sales-tax revenue and keep that, but would assume the counties’ share of Medicaid expenses.

“I think it’s a long shot, but I also think it’s a shot worth taking,” Greene said later.

Buncombe County’s portion of Medicaid expenses is estimated to total around $12 million next year, said Greene, noting that Medicaid payments have tripled during her eight-year tenure with the county.

The resolution passed unanimously.

Someday, a veterans memorial

Tuck Gudger asked the commissioners to help fund a veterans memorial in City/County Plaza as part of the Pack Square Renaissance project, which seeks to revamp the public spaces in Pack Square and City/County Plaza.

Presenting a petition with 650 names on it, Gudger asked for $50,000 for the project; he’s making the same pitch to the Asheville City Council. Spread among all city and county residents, the financial burden would be minimal, he said.

“It’s a half a cup of coffee. It’s two licks on an ice-cream cone to do what we should have done 100 years ago,” Gudger declared.

The commissioners appeared to support the idea, but several seemed to want to consider various funding options. Commissioner Patsy Keever, a schoolteacher, suggested that students be given the opportunity to collect change to contribute to the memorial.

Mental-health uncertainties

The specter of mental-health reform prompted an appearance by Dr. Tom Smith, a retired Asheville psychiatrist and spokesman for Friends of Public Mental Health of NC. During the public-comment section of the meeting, he blasted the state’s mental-health-reform plan. In part, the plan aims to shift public mental-health entities away from offering services to simply managing services provided by the private sector.

“This thing has been an absolute train wreck, folks,” Smith declared. “This plan will tear away our public mental-health system, for all intents and purposes. … The private sector is in no way qualified to pick up the load.”

Young urged Assistant County Manager/Tax Department Director Jerome Jones (who’s in charge of the county’s human-services departments) to keep the commissioners abreast of mental-health developments.

“There’s some anxiety out there,” Young noted. “We need to let folks know what’s going on.

Jones told the commissioners that he would ask Larry Thompson of the Blue Ridge Center to update them soon on the mental-health authority’s progress on soliciting citizen input on the proposed changes.

Aging issues

Buncombe County Aging Coordinating Consortium Chair Barbara St. Hilaire presented an updated five-year plan to coordinate the community’s services for the elderly. The plan, developed by a committee of the consortium, sets out six broad categories of needs for local older adults and corresponding recommendations for addressing them — for example, county support of community efforts to expand the number of subsidized housing units for older adults.

The commissioners accepted the plan, which will be used as a guide in seeking funding and directing the consortium’s work.

Ellen Clarke, executive director of Western Carolinians for Criminal Justice, updated the board on the agency’s Women at Risk program, a 16-week, community-based treatment program for women on probation. The program aims to address the women’s self-destructive attitudes and personal choices, to help deter them from committing crimes that would place them back in custody.

Appointments and more

In other action, the board appointed Ed Metz to the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson (see box) and reappointed Bill McElrath to the Board of Social Services and Bill Church to the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency. (The commissioners had reappointed Church March 19 but apparently overlooked that fact and reappointed him again last week.)

The commissioners then went into closed session to discuss four pending lawsuits.

Consent agenda

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the following items by consent at its April 23 meeting:

• The minutes of its April 9 regular meeting.

• Pyrotechnic experts for a fireworks display to be held June 27 at the Black Mountain Center.

• Road petitions for Autumn Hills Drive, Scarlet Ridge Lane and Amber Knoll Court.

• A sole-source purchase for the Register of Deeds’ office to buy equipment from Cott Systems for $14,599.

• Budget amendments for transportation ($31,725) and aging services ($12,206).

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