Buncombe County Commission

Tone of voice matters. A July 20 letter to the Buncombe County Commissioners from the Asheville Humane Society (formerly Friends for Animals) was presented as a tactful request for improved communication. But the letter provoked renewed criticism by AHS/FFA critics who attended the Board of Commissioners’ July 25 meeting.

AHS Vice President Jim Lee, who presented the letter, noted that criticism of the organization at past commissioners’ meetings has often “slid into the obscene personal … and that’s what we object to.” Although AHS board members recognize citizens’ rights to address commissioners during public-comment periods, Lee argued, “Only if the county fully supports us do we [have] the ability to recruit new members, volunteers and contributions.”

Summarizing the letter (and reading some parts directly), Lee said, “We would like to be the first to know of any problems the county might have with our services.” With an implied reference to an Asheville Citizen-Times article reporting the Animal Services Advisory Board’s recommendation that the county terminate AHS’ $600,000-per-year contract, Lee continued: “Our effectiveness depends in large part on our credibility in the community. To that end, we recommend that the county communicate with AHS not through the media, but respectfully and directly with AHS.” Lee concluded that “the county does not tolerate verbal attacks against their employees at its Commission meetings. We similarly expect that attacks directed against AHS employees will not be tolerated.”

Commissioner David Gantt responded, “I agree we went to the Grand Canyon a couple of times on the slippery slope [of criticism].” But, he told Lee, “You’ve got to grit your teeth.” Pointing out that the organization receives $600,000 of taxpayers’ money each year, Gantt said that AHS board members have to accept “policy attacks that might border towards the personal.”

Before commissioners took public comment on AHS’ requests, Commissioner Bill Stanley made a motion that the contents of the letter be adopted as a memorandum of understanding. In his almost 12 years as commissioner, Stanley remarked, there have been lots of animals groups: “All of them have their own ideas.”

Vice Chair Patsy Keever seconded his motion, saying she hoped all the groups concerned about animal welfare in the county “come together [and] work with us.”

But county watchdog Don Yelton broke the mood. He questioned two of AHS’ demands in the letter: that the advisory board be disbanded after it completes a review of county ordinances, and that the county liaison be familiar with animal services and able to “honor the administrative chain of command” at AHS.

“Mike Bradley [the current liaison] doesn’t qualify, so they’re asking for somebody else,” said Yelton. He also emphasized the letter’s conclusion: “Although we are willing to continue to provide services more effectively and more cost efficiently than government could do them, we will not hesitate to withdraw from this contract if necessary to protect our organization.” Yelton insisted, “This is a threatening letter.”

“I don’t feel threatened, and I don’t take your comments seriously,” Stanley told Yelton.

“You never take me seriously,” Yelton retorted.

Other speakers continued the criticism. Former shelter employee Millie Mahoney accused the organization of neglecting to promptly replace exhaust fans, which she said had resulted in the unnecessary deaths of kittens. She also emphasized that attacks on those who criticize AHS must end as well. Mahoney, who was fired from her job, said, “I’m tired of being called a liar.”

Noting that at a previous commissioners’ meeting, critics of the group were called “tarantulas” that need to be exterminated, former Friends board member Stuart David said it’s interesting that the newly renamed group is now calling for an end to personal attacks on them. He also argued that the group’s offer to open general-membership meetings to public comment is a hollow gesture. In the past, he said, board members have walked out, refusing to hear criticism. David then referred to a letter he said had been circulated by Friends supporters to defame his character.

“Stop right now,” Gantt commanded, adding that commissioners are not interested in hearing personal attacks from either side. But Gantt did concede that board members walking out on public comment “would violate the spirit of this agreement.”

Commissioner David Young spoke up for the first time during the hourlong discussion to urge cooperation. “This is a new attempt for everyone to work together,” he said. But Young also acknowledged that the shelter is underfunded, too small, and “totally inadequate.” County commissioners share some of the blame for that, he observed.

“Let’s focus on policy and go on and do what’s best for the animals,” Gantt added.

Young then called for a vote on Stanley’s motion to adopt AHS’ requests; it passed unanimously.

Before the meeting, Keever had remarked: “I think Friends for Animals [AHS] has felt we did not support them [when] there were accusations being tossed about. It got too personal. … We have found that Friends has been doing a good job, [and] we need to support them publicly.”

Ambulance fee increased

Jerry VeHaun, director of the county’s Emergency Medical Services, told county commissioners to blame a $100 ambulance-fee increase on the feds.

For at least 14 years, he explained, Mission St. Joseph’s (a local hospital consortium) has restocked ambulance supplies and billed patients for their cost. “This was a beautiful system, and it worked well — until the federal government got involved.”

But a new dictate from the U.S. Inspector General has put an end to that practice, said VeHaun, without going into specifics. As a result, the county will need to spend $500,000 a year on medical supplies, he said, noting that this is a best-guess estimate considering.how long it’s been since EMS has had to purchase its own supplies for ambulances.

With little comment, commissioners appeared ready to approve the increase. Commissioner Young noted that the end cost to patients will likely remain the same: They’ll just be charged up front for medical supplies. He asked VeHaun to report back to commissioners in 90 days, after determining the exact cost to the county.

Government watchdog Yelton remarked that the change comes from a federal anti-kickback policy aimed at preventing hospitals from giving free supplies to emergency services to solicit their business. With only one major hospital in Buncombe County, he said, kickbacks aren’t a problem, and he urged commissioners to reconsider the increase.

Nevertheless, Commissioner Keever’s motion to approve the $100 increase passed unanimously, raising ambulance fees from $300 to $400.

Straight-piping update

After an hour’s heated discussion about the Asheville Humane Society, you might make a Freudian slip, too. Board of Commissioners Chairman Tom Sobol announced, “Next on the agenda, we have a discussion of straight-pooping — I mean straight-piping.”

That was as exciting as the presentation ever got. Environmental Health Director Ron Thomas reported that such problems are fairly mild in Buncombe County. Of more than 1,000 households near Barnardsville, only 123 were in violation of state regulations, he told the board. Nine were guilty of “black piping” — releasing raw sewage — and 25 had problems with failing septic-tank systems. The remaining violations stemmed from releases of household “gray water.”

All violators will be notified of the problems in writing, Thomas said, and they will have until December to comply with regulations. Commissioners asked to be alerted before more stringent legal action had to be taken.

Thomas said that other possible problem areas in the county will be identified by October and subsequently surveyed.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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