“Just because an investigation was initiated doesn’t mean there was a smoking gun.”
— Buncombe County Attorney Joe Connolly, speaking about a Justice Department probe into the Sheriff’s Department.
At the urging of advocates who want more money for public-access TV, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners agreed Aug. 6 to hold off on approving a new cable TV franchise agreement with Charter Communications until October.
The delay will enable a privately hired consultant to review the current contract proposal and see what it would take to finance a fully equipped studio that could double as a multimedia arts-and-education center.
The idea was floated last month by Asheville digital-media consultant David McConville and other members of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Information Technology Council. Such a facility, they maintain, could be a practical economic-development tool, helping Asheville and Buncombe County become a multimedia hot spot (see “Pay TV,” July 31 Xpress).
“It’s great,” McConville said later. “It gives us a good opportunity to review the proposed franchise and bring all parties to the table and make sure that we can all work cooperatively to ensure the entire community can benefit from the franchise.”
At last week’s meeting, commissioners stressed that they want the best deal for the county.
“We welcome anybody who wants to give input,” said Commissioner David Gantt.
During the public-comment session, county-government watchdog Don Yelton did just that, urging the board to work with UNCA, A-B Tech and Blue Ridge Motion Pictures on the project and to cooperate with Black Mountain and other local municipalities. McConville said later that supporters of the project have already been in touch with the two schools and with Blue Ridge.
The commissioners’ decision to delay was the most significant item of business at the sparsely attended meeting, which nonetheless offered a few other interesting tidbits.
Feeling the pinch
The effects of county budget cuts continue to be felt.
Gantt, an attorney, told his fellow board members that he’d received dozens of calls from other lawyers upset about plans to move the county law library from the Buncombe County Courthouse to Pack Library. The planned move — now halted — came in response to last spring’s mandate that county departments cut their budgets by 5 percent, Library Director Ed Sheary explained later. It would have paved the way for eliminating a vacant position, said Sheary. With support from the other board members, Gantt said he would meet informally with a group of lawyers to talk about the future of the law library, whose budget for subscriptions has been slashed by half.
Although the commissioners decided not to establish a housing trust fund this fiscal year (and also reduced funding to local nonprofit housing agencies), the board did unanimously decide last week to team up with the city of Asheville to create a joint County/City Housing Task Force. The group will be charged with feeding info on current housing needs and programs to the Board of Commissioners and City Council, recommending changes in current housing policies, and raising awareness of and support for housing issues in the community.
No smoking gun
County Attorney Joe Connolly told the board that an investigation of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has apparently turned up no evidence of discrimination against women.
The probe, initiated in June 2000, centered on whether the Sheriff’s Department was operating in accordance with federal regulations governing employment policies and practices in its treatment of women in the uniformed-officer division, Connolly noted.
The county wasn’t informed of the basis for the investigation, which the Justice Department closed recently without taking any action or making any suggestions for changes, noted Connolly.
“Just because an investigation was initiated doesn’t mean there was a smoking gun,” he observed.
Air agency legal settlement
The board quietly approved a legal settlement with Haywood County concerning the latter’s share of the proceeds from the Western North Carolina Regional Air Pollution Control Agency.
Buncombe County resident Betty Donoho is suing the city of Asheville, Buncombe County, Haywood County and the former air agency over which entity gets the surplus funds left after the agency dissolved in July 2000. Donoho contends that under the state constitution, the agency’s fines and forfeitures should be paid to the public schools; the lawsuit is pending in the N.C. Court of Appeals.
Haywood County (which precipitated the agency’s dissolution by withdrawing from it) sued Buncombe County over its share of the money. In the consent judgment, Buncombe agrees to pay Haywood $203,715. The amount represents two-sevenths of the air agency’s fund balance, plus Haywood County’s portion of the agency’s noncash assets. If Donoho wins, the agreement holds that Buncombe County won’t owe Haywood County a share of any agency assets awarded to the schools.
Tax talk & more
After Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey observed that he didn’t recognize Libertarian Clarence Young without his signature Mohawk haircut, Young went on to offer a tax suggestion during the public-comment portion of the meeting. He proposed that those bemoaning the cuts occasioned by the commissioners’ 59-cent tax rate voluntarily pay more, with the board determining how best to spend that money.
“I live in Buncombe County, and anything is possible,” Young observed.
Though the commissioners didn’t jump on the suggestion, they did approve some routine tax-related items, including: accepting a tax-settlement report, issuing an order to collect taxes, and agreeing to take worthless accounts off the tax books. They also agreed that the Tax Department would do its next revaluation in 2006.
The commissioners also took care of some ceremonial business. They presented County Budget Officer Mamie Scott with a Distinguished Budget Presentation Award from the Government Finance Officers Association and recognized Finance Director Donna Clark for having been awarded a certificate of excellence in financial reporting. Board members also gave a pat on the back to Department of Social Services employee Brent Deter, who won a Ketner Award from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners for creating a computer data base to track foster-child placements.
“Without our wonderful county employees, nothing would get done around here,” commented Ramsey.
The board also recognized the work of the WNC Humane Alliance Spay/Neuter Clinic and retiree Buddy Ray‘s 21 years of work at the county garage. In addition, the commissioners issued a proclamation for the library’s “Together We Read — The French Broad” program and took note of Women’s Equality Day 2002 (scheduled for Aug. 11), commemorating the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.
Notes on state mental health reform
During the public-comment period, county resident Jerry Rice told the board that both the public and the commissioners have been ill-informed about pending mental-health reform, which he termed a “rape of the system.”
“The state has not done a good job of informing counties,” Rice complained.
Commissioner Patsy Keever asked Rice whether that wasn’t something the new Mental Health Reform Advisory Task Force would be looking into. Rice (who’s slated to serve on that body) said it was, though he also called the appointees “little peons.”
The commissioners appear to agree with Rice’s assessment of the information flow. In their consent agenda, board members voted to ask the state to delay two deadlines for reorganizing the local mental-health system by at least six months, because board members don’t have enough information about what services will be mandated and how they will be funded.
Later in the meeting, the commissioners made appointments to the task force, whose members will advise them on what form mental-health reform should take at the local level.
The board appointed the following people to the task force: Blair Clark, Joe Connolly, Spike Gram, Peggy Hart, Brenda Logan, Karen Lohr, Kelly Moser, Linda Poss, Jerry Rice, Kathy Rion, Dr. Tom Smith, Douglas Spires, Tommy Wilson, Sharon Young and Dan Zorn. The following were appointed as ex-officio members: George Bond, Jerome Jones, Mandy Stone, David Thompson and Curtis Venable.
The commissioners also named a number of other people to serve on public boards: Brian Hunter, Pam Nickless and Jay Winer (Historic Resources Commission); Clara Jeter, Claudia Thomas and Marvin Vierra (Minority Business Commission); Beverly Deveroux, Lucille Hestir and Robert Todd (Library Board of Trustees); David Begley and Maggie Smith (Recreation Services Advisory Board); and Rebecca Chater (Board of Health). They also appointed the following people to the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board: David Bailey, Angie Demartino, Rick Elingburg, Joe Hamlin, Vicki Heidinger and Bob Kendrick.
At meeting’s end, the board met behind closed doors for less than a half hour to discuss a potential legal settlement, two economic-development items, and a lawsuit pending against the county (filed by Peter Dawes and Mike Morgan).
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the following items by consent at its Aug. 6 meeting:
• the minutes of the July 9 regular meeting;
• a $257,000 contract with Jerry Payne Construction Co. to build the West Asheville Community Center as an addition to the West Asheville Branch Library;
• an agreement with Haywood County settling a lawsuit over how to divide the assets of the former Western North Carolina Regional Air Pollution Control Agency;
• a request to the state to extend the deadlines for mental-health reform for at least six months;
• a report on the sale and disposal of surplus and junk county property;
• a report on formal bid awards for the third and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2001-02;
• execution of a quitclaim deed to sell foreclosure property to Positive Properties Holdings LLC for $25,802;
• asking the N.C. Department of Transportation to abandon state roads 3569 and 1466;
• setting an Aug. 20 public hearing to consider renaming State Road 3652 Carolina Mountain Drive and renaming State Road 1155 Old Candler Town Road;
• authorizing the chairman to execute an easement agreement for a new electrical line for a new radio repeater tower at the Buncombe County landfill in Alexander;
• asking the state to reauthorize the county’s Work First program under “standard status”;
• creation of a joint city/county housing task force;
• extending Charter Communication’s cable TV franchise to Oct. 1;
• changing the county’s personnel ordinance;
• amending the Buncombe County School Capital Commission Fund to transfer funds;
• amending the Buncombe County School Bond Fund Project Ordinance;
• asking the DOT to name a bridge on Interstate 40 (over U.S. 70) east of Black Mountain (commonly known as the Richard Petty Bridge) as the Lawrence E. Brown Bridge, in honor of the former Buncombe County sheriff;
• road petitions for View Street Extension and Lark Hill Road;
• budget amendments to move $82,000 within the Child Care Services budget and reflect $85,230 in savings in the Health Center’s budget due to a hiring delay; and
• a release report correcting Tax Department errors.