Buncombe County Commission

Most of the audience at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ meeting consisted of schoolteachers and administrators waiting to receive recognition from the board for their achievements in education. With only about 20 people in attendance, the Sept. 7 meeting was a fairly low-key affair; commissioners proclaimed Sept. 25 as Hunting and Fishing Day, and October as Sister Cities Month.

Discussion did become heated during the public-comment portion of the meeting, when Gerald Dean tried to hold the commissioners to “the numbers,” meaning the results of the county’s upcoming, nonbinding vote on zoning. Dean asked glibly, “If voters came back with a 51 percent no-zoning vote, which is the majority of the people — would any one of you vote [for zoning]?”

Not “if it’s 50 plus one person” answered Commissioner David Young — who turned out to be the only commissioner to answer Dean directly.

“I’m not playing the numbers game,” replied Commissioner Patsy Keever, looking annoyed. And under her breath, she added, “Y’all are playing games.”

“I didn’t hear that,” said Dean. “I told ya I can’t hear sweet, young women.” Keever ignored the jab.

Chairman Tom Sobol looked even more irritated. “I told you before, Gerald, [my answer] was carried in the [news]papers before.”

“You say you’re going to look at it again. Well, get some binoculars this time,” quipped Dean, bringing loud guffaws from the audience.

And county resident Peter Dawes called for commissioners to stop holding pre-meeting sessions. “I heard a member of staff say [during a pre-meeting session, which isn’t videotaped for later broadcast], ‘Do I want to bring this up in front of the television [during a formal session, which is taped]?’ I don’t think this is proper behavior. … I wanted to make sure that people who work 9 to 5 and who aren’t present in this room are aware of these circumstances.”

Dawes then took issue with Friends for Animals, the nonprofit organization that contracts with the county to provide animal-control services. Citing the Friends’ alleged offenses, Dawes angrily objected to the commissioners’ recent approval of a $160,000 payment to nonprofit, despite allegations that Friends for Animals had abused animals and mishandled its contract. The shelter has an annual budget of about $680,000. Dawes and fellow reporter Don Yelton maintain that they were thrown out of an animal-control board meeting by the private contractor, even though the meeting was held on county property.

“You have denied there are problems, staff has denied problems, and it’s becoming obvious there are problems. … [The shelter] needs to be put back under the scrutiny of you people, and not under a private company. And I know the person who heads this thing contributes heavily to your political campaigns,” Dawes declared angrily. The commissioners did not respond and proceeded to hear the next member of the public.

Yelton also addressed the commissioners, deploring what he called the misuse of $1.6 million in public funds being spent to renovate the Re/Max building, citing an allegedly mistaken appraisal that had undervalued the property.

Inmate workers save county money

Lt. Ray Evans announced that the Sheriff’s Department’s prison-inmate worker program has saved the county a total of $456,474 this year. Without the program, the county would have had to hire regular workers at higher wages. Inmates worked 75,000 hours at minimum wage. Most of the savings were realized in the detention facility’s kitchen, where inmates worked about 50,000 hours on 10-hour shifts, serving food to other inmates.

Litter campaign results

Commissioner David Young commended Quality Forward and other civic organizations for their efforts this year to clean up litter, citing the 2.3 million pounds of trash picked up during last fall’s campaign.

N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt has declared Sept. 17-30 Litter Sweep Week, in an effort to encourage citizens to get involved. A cleanup of the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers will be held this Saturday, Sept. 18, at 10 a.m. Interested citizens should contact Quality Forward for more information (254-1776).

County and city schools commended

About 10 school administrators and teachers were applauded as they proudly gathered at the podium to be commended for their efforts to raise student SAT scores. Never before have all six county high schools scored above the national SAT average in one year. Students at the Buncombe County and Asheville City schools raised their overall SAT scores to place fourth and second, respectively, out of 117 school systems statewide.

Water Authority gets money for improvements

Some of the bylaws of the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson need changing, declared Director of Water Resources Tom Frederick. Most of the changes are minor — merely “housekeeping,” he said, although one is substantive: Under the proposed rules, a board member could be terminated before the expiration of their term for “appropriate,” rather than “good cause.” This would give the board “more flexibility,” Frederick said.

Sobol, who is the Authority’s current chair, expressed uncertainty about his eligibility for reappointment to that body and asked the county attorney for clarification. After some discussion about the number of consecutive terms a member may serve on Authority, Sobol commented, “There ought to be someone [from the Board of Commissioners] on that board with a $20 million budget.”

The commissioners unanimously approved the new bylaws. To alter the Water Agreement, which spells out Authority bylaws, changes must be approved by two of the following three bodies: the Asheville City Council, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, and the Authority itself.

The Authority recently received two grants. One, a $3 million state grant, will help pay for repairs to the aging water-distribution system. The county is chipping in $289,960 worth of matching funds.

The other grant — $730,000 from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund — will help the Authority preserve and improve water quality in the lower Mills River and Wash Creek watersheds, which provide water for the Authority’s new treatment plant, scheduled to come on-line later this month.

This grant will pay to: replace eight streamside pesticide-mixing stations with USDA-approved, agrichemical-handling facilities; preserve and widen the buffer zone along the Mills River; control erosion and river sedimentation; and develop a long-term, watershed-protection strategy. The Authority will match these funds with $100,718, plus in-kind services valued at $30,972. The city of Hendersonville will contribute $15,000 to relocate the pesticide-mixing stations.

Consent agenda

Commissioners took the following actions as part of their consent agenda:

• Authorized hiring two new school resource officers for the Buncombe County Schools system. One will be stationed at the new Buncombe Community School-West (formerly known as Wolf Creek School); the other will supervise the county schools’ resource officers. These positions will be funded by the Buncombe school system, at a total cost of about $70,000.

• Granted the North Carolina Forest Service $9,115, to come from the county’s contingency funds for permanent personnel. This amount will be added to the county’s $166,434 contribution to the North Carolina Forest Service.

• Approved funding for architectural services for building renovations and design at the following sites: the Re/Max building, Biltmore Press building and the Recreation Services building.

• Approved contracts for construction of Owen Pool.

Upcoming meetings

Sobol announced that the commissioners will maintain their regular schedule of public meetings at the Courthouse in September and October, with community meetings to follow at 7 p.m. at various locations in the county.

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