Buncombe County Commission

“A sense of urgency is upon us,” said Lt. Col. Rusk G. Henry, who detailed for county commissioners the alarming state of nursing homes in Buncombe County.

Rusk and several others asked the Buncombe County commissioners, at their April 27 meeting, for help publicizing the chronic problems plaguing many local adult-care homes, as documented in reports from the county Department of Social Services.

“Where would you go to find information on a home [for the elderly]?” asked.Rusk, adding, “We need to make the contents of these reports available to citizens.”

“One out of every four persons will spend some time in a nursing home,” said Rusk, who chairs the Buncombe County Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee.

Committee members described a wide range of documented problems at institutional homes, including poor health care, medication management, sanitation and housekeeping, as well as general problems with staff and management.

The committee’s mission is “to promote community involvement and cooperation with adult care homes to ensure quality care for the elderly and disabled,” according to the Buncombe County Government Boards and Commissions handbook.

Rusk also asked commissioners for their help in recruiting new members to the advisory committee. “We’re down five,” he said.

Committee secretary Grier Weeks said, “Families need some help in determining which adult-care homes have chronic problems.

“Some adult-care homes do a fantastic job,” he added. The problems cited in the Department of Social Services reports, while not typical of all facilities, are “fairly pervasive and routine at a number of facilities,” he cautioned. “We need to find a creative way to get this information to the community … to help citizens of Buncombe County become informed consumers.”

There’s a critical shortage of nursing assistants, said Nancy Smith Hunnicutt, regional long-term care ombudsman. “The lack of staff, even in the best homes, is shocking,” she said.

Commissioner Bill Stanley asked, “The state doesn’t require a grade, like for restaurants?”

“They do of restaurants,” Hunnicutt replied sardonically.

Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol said, “I don’t know if it’s legal or moral, but the responsibility falls on the Board.

No action was taken.

School needs

It isn’t just nursing homes in Buncombe County that are experiencing a critical shortage of trained professionals.

“What concerns me most is the growing teacher shortage,” said Joyce Elliott, president-elect of the North Carolina Association of Educators. She blamed low salaries and poor working conditions, telling commissioners that, statewide, 40 percent of young teachers leave public schools within the first five years of their careers.

“If we want to do better, to attract the brightest and most qualified to teach, we need a plan that will increase supplements to teachers,” she said.

Elliott’s comments drew sustained applause from teachers who had filled the commissioners’ chambers.

“If we want to attract industry, we must keep good schools,” concluded Elliott.

In light of the recent tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Bob Bowers assured commissioners, “We do have a good, safe school system.” He added that the Buncombe County schools, in partnership with the county Sheriff’s Department, have a resource officer in every school. “We are taking aerial photographs of all the schools, so we are equipped, if there is a hostage situation,” he said.

Bowers then presented commissioners with the Buncombe County Schools 1999-2000 budget requests. Anticipated needs include $28,977,632 for general operating funds, $266,973 for community school operating funds, plus a $4,578,472 capital-outlay request, to come from restricted sales-tax funds.

“We’re managing your tax money very well and getting good results,” Bowers said. He cited 1995-’98 SAT scores that “far exceed the statewide average and top the national average.”

“The $1,940,456 increase would cover projected cost increases of $1,522,860 for expected salary adjustments, retirement-rate increases and health-insurance increases,” he said.

“The only increase that we’re asking [the county] to fund,” Bowers said, “is the $417,596 toward the recurring costs of our technology program, [which] will allow us to provide a technology assistant in each school.” Bowers explained that the increase would fund 26.5 new positions. Technology assistants would maintain the computer equipment and assist students, Bowers explained.

“I know we need the technology, but that seems like a lot,” Commissioner David Gantt said.

No action was taken on the request.

Other business

In other business, commissioners unanimously approved a $20,000 request by the Buncombe County Medical Society for Project Access, a program providing health care to Buncombe County’s 15,000 low-income, uninsured residents.

Project Access has realized a 1,400 percent return on the county’s investment, in the form of more than $3.5 million worth of donated time from local doctors and other medical personnel, according to project Director Alan McKenzie.

But the number of patients served by Project Access has doubled this year, McKenzie said, and that “dramatic growth has exerted considerable pressure on our finances.”

Chairman Sobol reaffirmed his support for the program, saying, “Basic health care is not a privilege in this county: It’s going to be a right.”

Commissioner Gantt proposed a resolution to extend the moratorium on the erection of new telecommunications towers, through May 18. A public hearing to consider changes to the existing ordinance is scheduled for May 4.

Gantt read a proclamation designating May 8 as “Hit the Pavement — Not Your Pets Day,” in support of the efforts of Buncombe County Friends for Animals to “educate and involve county residents in mobilizing against all forms of animal cruelty and abuse and the Friends for Animals efforts toward passage of legislation making animal cruelty a felony.”

Mark Poulos, speaking for Friends for Animals, referred to the recent “horrific events” in the news. “Animal cruelty is an indicator crime,” he said. “It is linked to child abuse and spouse abuse.” Poulos urged citizens to take animal cruelty more seriously and to recognize the link between animal abuse and human violence.

Friends for Animals will hold its Fifth Annual Anti-Cruelty Walk in conjunction with Be Kind to Animals Week.

“Bootsie and Mr. Gantt will be there for the walk,” Gantt declared. “I got my dog [Bootsie] from the animal shelter, and I love that dog to death.”

Buncombe County voters may soon be asked to approve $20 million worth of bonds to benefit Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. William Hart of the A-B Tech board of trustees asked commissioners to hold a referendum on whether to issue the bonds, in order to enlarge and improve A-B Tech’s facilities.

“We ask for a bond referendum because we do not want to cap enrollment,” Hart said. The college trustees have determined that the current facilities are inadequate, and projections show substantial additional enrollment in certain programs, Hart told commissioners.

No action was taken on the request.

Public comment

Jerry Rice, a perennial attendee at county-government meetings, stopped videotaping the session in order to address commissioners about the county school teachers’ supplement, a financial incentive offered to certified employees of the Buncombe County Schools, as a means of bringing salaries up to the national average.

“Government expenditure of funds should be monitored with measurable outcomes,” he told commissioners. “If teachers receive supplements, why not maintenance personnel and bus drivers, as well?” he asked. “For all these years of supplementation, there is no documentation showing any tracing or accountability to prove that the teachers’ supplement is doing the job it is supposed to do,” he said.

David Donnell — who has managed a business for more than eight years providing what he termed “quiet-water trips, experience-based education, and river clean-up” on the French Broad River — told commissioners his concerns about a new air-boat business now operating on the river. Donnel said a licensed audiologist had recorded noise levels of more than 108 decibels, 50-75 feet from the river bank, when the air boat passed.

According to his own research, Donnel discovered more than 56 local, state and national organizations with a stake in the river. “Who has authority to regulate?” he asked.

Commissioner Bill Stanley told Donnel that numerous citizens have complained about the noise.

When the three-minute buzzer rang, marking the end of Donnel’s allotted time for comment, Sobol assured him that the county attorney’s office is diligently researching the matter.

Commissioner Patsy Keever noted that, “Historically, boycotts have worked.”

Consent agenda

After the meeting’s customary opening prayer, offered this week by the Rev. Ken Lewis of the West Asheville Baptist Church, commissioners approved their consent agenda and various budget amendments. Items approved include:

• A resolution supporting the construction of a pedestrian overpass on the campus of Warren Wilson College, to be built by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

• A county e-mail policy outlining the terms of access to e-mail and the disclosure of messages sent or received by county employees.

• A resolution approving applications for pyrotechnic experts to conduct fireworks displays. The applications were made by Atlanta Pyrotechnics International for fireworks displays at the Taylor Ranch, and by Travis Tatham for a fireworks display at Biltmore Estate.

• A capital-project budget amendment that includes $350,000 for a kitchen facility to be used collaboratively by Child Care Services and the Buncombe County Council on Aging, and a budget amendment providing $20,000, from contingency funds, for the county medical examiner, for autopsies (the General Assembly recently increased the authorized fee from $400 to $1,000).

• A resolution amending the bylaws of the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission, to allow for the appointment of seven ex-officio members.

• A resolution approving changing the name of the New North Buncombe/Erwin Middle School to North Buncombe Intermediate School.

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