They moved a little slowly — some with the help of canes — but their message to the commissioners was clear: Don’t end the group meal program for the elderly.
A crowd of about 55 people, many of them elderly, filled the chambers of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on June 4 to protest a move to eliminate the congregate meal program for the elderly on June 21.
The local Council on Aging (in cooperation with other agencies) runs the program, which serves meals at the West Asheville Center, the Senior Opportunity Center, the Lakeview Senior Center, New Hope Presbyterian Church and Asheville Terrace.
After hearing from only about half of the 19 speakers on the topic during the board’s public-comment session, the commissioners decided they would save the program — though they also want to make it more efficient.
“Without this meal, I would have to look somewhere else for a meal that would cost me an arm and a leg,” said Gloria Newber, adding that without the program, she might end up in a nursing home.
Others told the commissioners it was important for older folks to get out of the house and socialize to keep them active and healthy.
“Which is the healthier? Getting out to be part of life or just waiting for a meal to be delivered?” asked Geraldine Israel, who added that many older people also vote. “There are a lot of upset seniors right now.”
The proposal to cut the program came about when Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene — dealing with the local effects of the state budget crisis — told the Aging Coordinating Consortium that the county was eliminating about $355,000 in non-mandated funding for elderly programs for the upcoming fiscal year (2002-03).
The consortium (a volunteer community group that makes funding recommendations) reacted with a recommendation based on favoring services that directly delay or prevent institutionalization and keep seniors in their own homes, explained Barbara St. Hilaire, chairwoman of the consortium. That meant that the Council on Aging’s congregate nutrition program (which costs about $230,000 annually to operate) was a lower priority.
“In an effort to ensure that no older adults went without adequate nutrition, we recommended an increase in funding for Meals on Wheels,” St. Hilaire told the commissioners.
After the cuts were announced, the nonprofit Irene Wortham Center offered to provide 45 free meals a day, and the Eblen Foundation and Nazareth Baptist Church offered to help as well, St. Hilaire said.
But the timing bothered Shelia Roberson, program supervisor for senior programs in the city of Asheville’s Parks and Recreation Department. Noting that she’d arranged a van to bring a group of senior citizens to the meeting, she complained that there had been no immediate backup plan in place to fill the gap when the cuts were first announced.
The commissioners react
Midway through the long parade of speakers, Commissioner David Young declared: “I just can’t believe that without having a solution in place that we would just stop this. I just don’t think this is the way we ought to be handling this situation. … We want to see it fixed but we don’t want to see it stopped.”
His statements prompted audience applause and concurrence from the other board members.
Though the crowd was impassioned — and effective — the participation in the program was only obliquely addressed in the public session. St. Hilaire told the commissioners that participation in Buncombe’s program has declined over the years, a trend echoed across the county.
Four hundred elderly people eat regularly at the meal sites; of those, an average of 135 people per day are served, St. Hilaire said later. Though the food itself only costs the county $3.50 per meal, the overhead at the meal sites brings the cost to $8.60 per meal, St. Hilaire said. Add in transportation costs and average price of a meal at the congregate meal sites rises to $20 per person, Greene said later.
A group composed of people interested in the issue is scheduled to meet this week to brainstorm for solutions, St. Hilaire noted.
At Greene’s behest, the commissioners delayed a public hearing on the county’s budget until 6 p.m. on June 18 (Room 204, Buncombe County Courthouse) because of funding uncertainties at the state level.
Buncombe County may have a $12.2 million deficit for fiscal year 2002-03, county officials revealed last week. That’s because Gov. Mike Easley canceled state reimbursements to local governments, Medicaid costs are up and education costs are increasing, county officials say.
“They need to get off their backsides in Raleigh,” thundered Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, who had traveled to Raleigh to lobby legislators. “They’re taking our money.”
Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey urged county residents to contact local legislators to push for state relief — including returning the local reimbursements and allowing counties to collect a half-cent sales tax a year early.
“Otherwise, it’s going to be a very difficult year,” remarked Ramsey, referring to the possibility of severe budget cuts or a tax increase.
In other budget-related action, the board unanimously voted to approve a local-option half-cent sales tax, though it won’t be effective until July 1, 2003. The tax will replace the half-cent sales tax the N.C. General Assembly adopted last year as a budget-balancing move. The state tax is slated to expire June 30, 2003.
State legislators had offered local governments the option of passing this sales tax to give counties and municipalities a reliable revenue source, replacing the annual reimbursements they’ve generally received from the state. For the past two years, the state has withheld those reimbursements to plug holes in its own budget.
Stanley, the tie-breaker
The four commissioners who attended the board’s May 21 meeting had deadlocked on whether to double fees for developers and to change subdivision regulations to comply with the state fire code (See “Subsidizing development?” in the May 29 Xpress). With Stanley back in town, the issue was resolved.
The two controversial proposals were part of a package of 13 revisions to the subdivision ordinance recommended by the Buncombe County Planning Board. The board had unanimously recommended requiring at least a 20-foot-wide right of way (instead of the current 15 feet) for access roads to certain subdivisions, so emergency vehicles would have an easier time getting in and out.
The Planning Board also proposed doubling subdivision permit fees, which now stand at $50 for minor subdivisions (those with between four and 10 lots), and $100 for major subdivisions (11 lots and up). The proposal also called for a $20-per-lot fee for all subdivisions.
The Planning Board reasoned that developers should pay for the time county staff spends reviewing proposed subdivisions — rather than, in effect, forcing all county taxpayers to foot the bill through property taxes.
Stanley added some new information to the mix last week, telling board members that a lawsuit may be filed in the eastern part of the state that would challenge the new right-of-way requirement in the state fire code.
After a bit of discussion, Young proposed adopting the package of subdivision amendments — except for the controversial fee increase and the right-of-way change.
Ramsey said that although he didn’t want general-fund revenue to subsidize developers, the board didn’t have enough information about how much time Planning Department staff members spent reviewing subdivisions.
“I think we’re subsidizing developers,” remarked Gantt.
“We don’t know what it costs,” countered Young.
Gantt offered an amendment to Young’s motion that would increase the development fees as proposed. But with Stanley there, the motion flopped 3-2; only Gantt and Commissioner Patsy Keever voted in favor of it.
Then the board voted unanimously to adopt Young’s proposal, with the understanding that the Planning Board will review the right-of-way issue again.
A shiny new Planning Board
After delaying a vote on appointing new members to the Planning Board from the previous meeting so that Stanley could participate, the commissioners picked nine of 16 applicants to sit on the newly revamped board. The new board has representatives from each school district and two at-large members. They are: Roy Chapman, Julie Combs, Karl Koon, Jay Marino, Jim McElduff, Alan McGuinn, Bill Newman, David Shenaut and David Summey. Of the three members of the old board who had reapplied for seats (McElduff, McGuinn and Steve Towe), only Towe was not reappointed.
After the vote, Keever noted that the commissioner would be remiss not to thank the previous Planning Board for its service. But the three Planning Board members who attended the meeting had already left.
The commissioners met in a closed session for about 10 minutes to discuss a federal lawsuit filed May 22 by Pete Bradley, former Woodfin police chief and former state Department of Motor Vehicles officer. Bradley is suing a long list of people and entities, including the DMV, District Attorney Ron Moore, Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford, Sheriff’s Capt. Lee Farnsworth, Deputy Joseph Austin and Buncombe County itself. The 62-page lawsuit alleges DMV corruption; it also claims in part that Moore released a confidential State Bureau of Investigation report (that included information about Bradley’s personal life) to the Sheriff’s Department. The suit claims that, in turn, the sheriff and his employees released the report to Woodfin Mayor Homer Honeycutt. The Sheriff’s Department dismissed Bradley as a volunteer reserve officer in September 2000, the suits says, and Bradley was fired as Woodfin police chief in February 2002. In part, Bradley is seeking back pay, plus compensatory and punitive damages.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the following items by consent at its June 4 meeting:
• The minutes of its May 21 regular meeting.
• Set a public hearing for June 18 on naming State Road 3437 Lake Drive.
• Appointed Gary Roberts for a four-year term as Buncombe County Tax Collector, starting July 1.
• A budget amendment reflecting state cuts and reallocations for the Health Center ($146,150).