Buncombe County Commission

The former Carolina Power & Light headquarters at 202 Haywood St. will soon light up the lives of some Sheriff’s Department workers. At a public hearing on May 25, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners agreed to buy the property to provide additional office space for that department.

Finance Director Nancy Brooks read the terms of the motion, noting that the cost is not expected to exceed $2.06 million. She stressed that the price is “not excessive for its proposed purpose,” given the short financing period.

The acquisition was approved with little public opposition; documents relating to the purchase are expected to be finalized by June 15, and the closing is set for June 29.

Water under the bridge

The Buncombe County commissioners’ May 18 meeting featured a heated public-comment session concerning the use of airboats on the French Broad River. The public-comment portion of the commissioners May 25 meeting glided by more smoothly — but not without a few residual ripples

Charles Watkins regaled commissioners with a lively adventure tale: Eight weeks ago, he, his son and his grandson were rafting down the French Broad River, when the current swept the elder Watkins off their inflatable vessel and into the river. Watkins’ son, busy keeping himself and his own son onboard, was unable to help his father; luckily, the victim was wearing a life jacket and managed to swim ashore, arriving in someone’s backyard — by coincidence, the home of someone he knew.

Once safely on land, Watkins attempted to alert several canoers to his condition, hoping they would pass along the happy news to his son and grandson downstream. But no one heeded him, he claimed, until an airboat pilot saw him waving, stopped to help, and agreed to help.

After casting these controversial craft in such heroic light, Watkins suggested gently that their operators have a right, as business owners, to receive “a fair and just return on their investment.” Reserving judgment on the environmental aspects of the debate, Watkins then addressed the noise issue, insisting that the Mission Hospital helicopter makes as much, if not more, noise than the airboats. But he concluded his speech on a diplomatic note, declaring, “I trust the commissioners will find a reasonable solution to this hard problem.”

During the previous week’s public-comment session, Mike Bumgardner — whose business, Airboat Express, boasts the French Broad River’s largest air-powered vessel — had related a separate incident in which his boat rescued canoeists whose boat had capsized.

But Barb McCampbell — who lives along a section of the river plied by Bumgardner — took issue, on May 25, with his self-congratulatory narrative.

“If the fire department had an airboat [which] they used [just] for rescues, that would be a fair argument,” she maintained, stating, “Nobody minds getting out of the way for an ambulance [on the highway] … but who wants an ambulance full of joy riders going back and forth every 20 minutes?”

Soft-spoken audiologist Margaret Gibbs officially damned the boats as ear-damaging, after which environmental activist Sue Konopka professed angrily, “I support the nature which supports us. … We go to the river to escape the very things the airboat brings.”

Toward the end of the public-comment session, Bumgardner allowed that he had done research on a quieter type of propeller and is now investigating the possibility of installing one on his boat.

Chairman Tom Sobol asked for the specifics: “Can you give us a rough idea [of the resulting noise reduction]? Is it 10 percent? 20 percent?”

Though Bumgardner was unable to offer any definite numbers, the commissioners thanked him for his conciliatory efforts and then resolved to turn the entire matter over to the state Wildlife Resources Commission.

Up and away

In the meeting’s only “new business” item, County Manger Wanda Greene presented the county’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, illustrating her report with a colorful slide show. First, she described the numerous projects the county has already completed this year, such as a new pool in Fairview and the extensive renovations to the courthouse, which include the addition of a soothingly decorated, armchair-adorned waiting room for use by nervous crime victims and witnesses before they take the stand.

After discussing some soon-to-be-commenced projects (among them a soccer-field complex behind Sandhill-Venable School), Greene cited Buncombe’s proudest coup this fiscal year: receiving the Innovations in American Government Award for Project Access, a program that provides free prescription medications to medically indigent patients. (Though such patients typically receive free health care, medicine is generally not included in their benefits.)

Then came the numbers. The total for the county’s fiscal year 1999-2000 budget are:

• General Fund $169.9 million

• Non-General Fund $29.3 million.

The General Fund total represents an $8 million (or 5 percent) increase over the current fiscal year. Greene explained that, after asking all departments to submit their budget requests, which totaled $175.6 million, she trimmed them by $7.3 million, yielding the $169.9 million figure.

Greene noted that the budget includes no new county programs. She said the three departments with the largest budget increases are Education, Human Services and Public Safety.

A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held Saturday, June 12 at 9 a.m. at the County Courthouse. Anyone interested can obtain a copy of the budget at the courthouse, from the commissioners’ office, the county manager’s office, or the budget office.

After announcing the hearing, the board went into closed session to discuss a possible lawsuit against the county. (No action was taken.)

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