Buncombe County Commission

The May 18 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting began and ended passionately, though the strong feelings roused by the agenda’s first and final topics glowed on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.

“We’ll begin with the good news,” said Board Chair Tom Sobol, following an invocation by the Rev. Robert Drake of the Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Representatives of Families for Kids — a child-welfare-reform project started in 1996 — presented positive statistics about their organization: Since its inception, they said, the number of Buncombe County children entering foster care has decreased by 14 percent, and adoptions have increased by 199 percent.

Then, the group aired a video showing interviews with local foster kids, whose unscripted voice-overs drifted poignantly over scenes of happy adoptive families.

“I feel like I stand out at school,” murmured one foster child. Another confessed, “Sometimes, I feel like giving up hope.” A third child revealed: “When I get to a ripe old age, I want to take care of animals. Animals are so loving.” (Almost all of the children in foster care and group facilities in Buncombe County were abused, neglected or abandoned in their previous homes, according to the video).

But hope was the ultimate theme of the video: “Being a [foster child], I don’t give up as suddenly as most kids do,” one girl offered shyly. And new adoptive parents, many in their 40s and 50s with already-grown children, reported on the joys of shepherding a needy youngster into their families. The video concluded by stressing the many kinds of help Buncombe County residents might offer such children: Those not prepared to adopt could sponsor dance and music lessons, extend tutoring and mentoring services, or provide temporary havens where separated brothers and sisters could spend time together.

After the screening, Becky Kessell, the director of Families for Kids, announced an ongoing project in which pamphlets with pictures of adoptable Buncombe County children will be distributed in local churches, businesses and civic organizations. She then presented commissioners with a plaque inscribed with a prayer for the area’s homeless youth.

“Everyone on the Commission needs a daily reminder,” she chided gently.

Commissioner Patsy Keever, whose eyes glistened toward the end of the film, spoke about the foster children she encounters daily (Keever teaches eighth grade), and Sobol professed his admiration for the “very moving presentation.”

A proclamation naming June “Reach Out and Take a Hand Month,” to promote awareness of foster, care passed unanimously.

@commishsubhead:Exercising their rights

Two other proclamations also passed smoothly at the May 18 meeting. Urging commissioners to approve Friday, May 21 as “Strive Not to Drive Day” a countywide celebration of alternative-transportation options that will include a nonmotorized parade), committee member Jerry Hardesty lamented county residents’ inordinate dependence on automobiles.

“There are lots of benefits to alternative transportation,” he insisted. “We enjoy better health, reduce pollution and get an opportunity to interact with our neighbors.”

Interacting with one’s elderly neighbors will take on added meaning on Thursday, May 27, which commissioners unanimously designated as Older Americans Day. On that day, Buncombe County residents are urged to seek out one or more of the 39,000 senior citizens who live, work and volunteer in the county and thank them for their enormous contributions to the community.

“That sounds pretty young,” grumped Commissioner Bill Stanley, referring to the minimum age requirement (60) one must meet to be considered an “older American” by the county. “I don’t know whether to include those folks,” he mused, to peals of laughter.

One to grow on

“I’m trying to bring this to the top of the city’s agenda,” noted Asheville-Buncombe Library System Director Ed Sheary. In March, the West Asheville Library (the city’s most heavily used branch) was informed that, starting in June, the community room it has used for decades will be appropriated by the Asheville Police Department for use as their Community Resource Center. Since that time, the West Asheville Friends of the Library has gathered 400 signatures protesting this action, and an April 12 meeting attended by Commissioner Stanley and several Asheville City Council members yielded the consensus that the library deserves a new “program room.”

The library’s board of trustees wants the commissioners to: 1) solicit $50,000 from the city to help build the room; 2) ask the city to deed the needed land (between the old and new West Asheville branch library buildings) to the county, and grant the necessary zoning variances to facilitate getting the structure built by next year. Commissioners agreed to both requests.

In other new business, the Board approved raising the salary of County Manager Wanda Greene to $117,000, the average pay for county managers in this state.

“I’ll be glad to do that,” Keever said immediately.

“We’ve been below the market for a long time,” Commissioner David Young conceded a bit sheepishly, while Commissioner David Gantt sang Greene’s praises in no uncertain terms: “She’s able to manage the people as well as the issues,” he declared.

An item from the consent agenda — a $25,000 “challenge grant” for the Erwin Athletic Enhancement Association — was moved to the menu of current issues. The county would allocate the money only after the community itself had raised $100,000. The grant was approved 4-1, with Gantt opposed.

@commishsubhead:Down by the river

Rounding out the meeting was a long and stormy public-comment session regarding the use of airboats on the French Broad River.

These fan-powered flatboats (similar to those used in Florida’s Everglades) have a noble purpose few have realized, asserted Mike Bumgardner, whose company, Airboat Express, offers half-hour tours of the river for tourists, curiosity-seekers and older and disabled citizens who might not otherwise be able to traverse the river: A few weeks back, two floundering canoers were plucked from the current by Bumgardners’ boat.

“I hate to imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t [been there],” he said. Aligning himself with the hapless boaters, Bumgardner declared, with feeling, “I’m fighting for my life.” He said his business is threatened, and he complained about environmental activists who claim his airboat will cause erosion and frighten away wildlife.

Other county residents, however, complained about noise pollution. Barb McCampbell cited statistics on airboats’ considerable decibel level (comparable to that of landing airplanes), and Cindy Farmer, who lives along the French Broad, noted sorrowfully, “We can’t stay in our back yard without earplugs, and I don’t dare put the kids in our canoe when that boat is coming around.”

But another river dweller, Ramona Stevens, maintained that the vessel poses no nuisance, even inviting the commissioners out to her house to see — and hear — for themselves. (Earlier, Bumgardner had issued a similar invitation, urging commissioners to take an airboat ride with him; “We’re going to have a busy day,” joked Sobol after Stevens spoke.)

Casting her vote for the animals, bird expert Charlotte Goedsche revealed that, in Wisconsin, airboats are used for the express purpose of clearing out infestations of unwanted Canadian geese. “Here, we do not need to be cleared,” she declared. And county resident Hazel Fobes brought down the house with her views on the airboats’ menacing legacy: “Once the soil is gone, it’s gone. … And some people might not give a good damn about the otters and the ducks, but I do,” she proclaimed, to wild applause.

Soon after, the commissioners moved to revisit the issue at their next meeting (on May 25). They then went into a closed session, in order to discuss an economic development incentive request and a property acquisition for CP&L. A public hearing regarding installment financing for the acquisition will be held at the next Commissioners’ meeting.

Board appointments

Commissioners reappointed Charles Sevier, Dr. Edith Hapke and John Ager to the Farmland Preservation Project Board.

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