Buncombe Commissioners

  • County worries state may raid local mental-health funds
  • City/county 911 agreement delayed

The effects of a feeble economy keep trickling down, but not in the way the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners might wish. At their June 2 meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution asking state legislators not to raid local mental-health-agency fund balances—built up through years of savings—to make up their own budget shortfall.

Halfway there: A 911 operator in Buncombe County’s Emergency Operations Center. Although city and county services are now under one roof, nailing down a consolidation agreement has proved difficult. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Doing so, say county staff, could put many mental-health patients at risk or even out on the street and create major problems for the county’s medical and public-safety systems.

“These are local dollars earned through careful management,” Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone told the board. “If the state takes our fund-balance dollars, we’ll have no dollars to spend locally to fill gaps.”

Taking away the local fund balance would gut key Western Highlands Network programs, including crisis teams, psychiatric help for rural residents, and lab tests for indigent mentally ill people, noted Stone. The eight-county network cooperates with many other local social-service agencies.

It was only because the county had such funds available that it was able to deal with the 2008 closure of New Vistas, which provided care for 10,000 residents, many of them indigent, Stone emphasized.

Losing the fund balance would also compound an already worsening situation, she said, noting that the state hasn’t paid its share of local mental health costs—amounting to some $4.4 million so far—for the last two months.

“We would not be able to make up that gap without our fund balance—and now they want to take that too,” said Stone. “This is an area where the state turned over responsibility for managing mental health to local entities and, since [then], has been steadily taking away any tools we have to effectively do that. We’d have to reduce services by $1.5 million a year. [Mentally ill people] would end up in jails, emergency rooms, impacting local social-service departments and law enforcement.”

On a motion by Commissioner Carol Peterson, the board swiftly voted to oppose the move in no uncertain terms.

“We have a moral obligation to do this,” board Chair David Gantt declared. “We don’t need the state ripping away money we’ve properly managed and accumulated through good business practices. It’s horrifying to hear this: Every time we have a crisis, the first ones to get kicked off the bus are children, working people and the mentally ill.”

Not so fast

The latest attempt to finalize an agreement consolidating the Asheville and Buncombe County 911 services was once again delayed on a 4-1 vote, as most board members balked at a proposed termination provision. If the county backed out of the agreement, it would have to pay the city $2.5 million.

Last July, the city and county moved their respective services to the county’s new Emergency Operations Center In Erwin Hills, but the legal agreement clearing the way for full consolidation has yet to be finalized.

“This is intended to provide more rapid communications between the different agencies—and we’ve already seen that,” noted Deputy Fire Marshal Mack Salley.

To date, the two local governments have been operating on a preliminary agreement signed in 2003. Back then, city officials asked for a reimbursement provision because Asheville was forgoing state funding it could have received by maintaining its own 911 service—and because the city would have to build a new facility if the county chose to terminate the agreement in the future. The permanent agreement still includes that provision, which also stipulates that if the city terminated the agreement, it would be entitled to keep any equipment it had paid for.

But that didn’t sit well with Vice Chair Bill Stanley. “So wait: If the county backs out, we pay the city $2.5 million, and if they back out, they keep the equipment,” he said. “Either way, we get nothing. That doesn’t seem right.”

Sharing Stanley’s concerns, Peterson asked County Manager Wanda Greene to take the agreement back to City Manager Gary Jackson and modify the provision to include penalties for both parties if the agreement were terminated.

However, Commissioner Holly Jones, a former City Council member, said she could see the city’s point of view and was reluctant to delay the agreement any longer.

“I’m really excited we’re going to have a big city/county win, but that price tag is because the city has forgone dollars they would have [gotten] if they didn’t go into this agreement for the greater good of the community,” noted Jones. “I don’t think the county would ever back out of this agreement, but if they for some reason did, [the city] could never get that money back. It looks a little lopsided, but there’s a reason for it.”

In response, Peterson pointed out that the county has spent more than $6 million on the emergency-services facility, which includes the 911 call center.

Greene said the system is working well for all parties so far and there would be no reason to terminate the agreement, but that she would speak to Jackson about it.

On another motion by Peterson, the board voted to delay the matter for no more than a month. Jones, however, said she couldn’t support that.

“I’m so disappointed: How many months have we worked on this?” she said. “I’d love to have a new day for the city and county. Our staffs have gotten to a place, and I’m ready to adopt this today. What I keep hearing is that the problem with city/county relations is not the staff, it’s the elected officials. We should move this agreement forward.”

Gantt, however, responded that carefully examining the termination provision was no mark of disrespect for the city.

“All of us are trying to get along better,” he noted, “but this is also our obligation to everyone—including city residents—to go over this very carefully.”

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