Perhaps taking its cue from Thomas Paine’s aphorism “That government is best which governs least,” the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, meeting for the first time since Aug. 3, decided to continue their recent pattern of widely spaced deliberations at least through October. That proved to be the most contentious matter addressed in the Sept. 7 session, prompting an extended round of discussion concerning possible dates and unavoidable conflicts.
Noting that the recent pattern marks a significant break with a long-standing tradition of biweekly meetings, Commissioner Patsy Keever asked County Manager Wanda Greene if the less frequent meetings violated any bylaws or other rules. Greene answered in the negative, and Sept. 28 and Oct. 19 were unanimously approved as the next meeting dates (as were all other items on the agenda — except for one board appointment). (Note: Days later the Board changed course again and set the next meeting for Sept. 21.)
Chairman Nathan Ramsey joked that scheduling dates after the Nov. 2 election was probably a bad idea, since “there may be a lot of new faces here.”
Auditing the auditors
The sole voice of dissent during the unusually lengthy meeting was that of perennial gadfly Jerry Rice. But before Rice took the wood to the commissioners in general and Greene in particular, he was presented with a certificate of appreciation from The Autism Society of North Carolina “in recognition of your support for persons with autism and their families.”
Mental-health activist Kathy Rion, the mother of two developmentally disabled sons who are also mentally ill, bestowed the award on Rice at the conclusion of her public comments in support of creating a local crisis facility as part of ongoing statewide mental-health reform. Rice, she said, has been an advocate and a counselor to many families for the past 15 years, taking time out from work and on evenings and weekends, and the mental-health community has no better friend.
After accepting the award, however, Rice laced into the board for its lack of awareness on mental-health issues. “You said you wanted a mental-health task force, but I talked to four of you five commissioners today, and not one of you knew that the task force [established three years ago] is defunct.”
(After the meeting, Rice told Xpress that Greene had disbanded the task force — see below.)
“We, as a task force, asked for audits of Blue Ridge Mental Health,” continued Rice, “but the county manager said we don’t need it.” After citing multiple other audits that the county has reportedly commissioned in the interim, Rice held up a memo from Western Highlands Interim Director Larry Thompson, concerning Unaka in Madison County (one of several private treatment facilities that have replaced the no-longer-extant Blue Ridge Mental Health system). “After one week on the job, the new director of Unaka has discovered that the clinic has not paid withheld employee taxes to the IRS since 1996,” said Rice. “The amount of outstanding wages and penalties exceeds $200,000, but no one [else] has found it.”
Soon after, Ramsey told Rice that his allotted time had expired and thanked him for his comments.
The health of mental-health care
The county manager gave a mental-health update, saying there was both good and bad news. Concerning reform, she reported, “We are further ahead than any other authority in the state.” But the downside, continued Greene, is that “we’re getting the problems first.” She went on to list numerous successes and hang-ups in the transition to a new treatment system, noting, “One challenge has been separating what problems have been caused by the reform and what are problems that have always been here.”
“Crisis stabilization is a major issue,” said Greene, citing the need for mobile crisis services, a 23-hour stabilization unit, and a child crisis-stabilization program.
Greene’s assessment seemed to echo Rion’s comments during the public-comment period. Rion had said she knows from her sons’ experiences how inadequate the current system can be. Mental illness, she noted, often leads to interaction with law enforcement — which, in turn, can quickly lead to incarceration at Broughton State Hospital or other such facilities. Broughton, lamented Rion, is not equipped to handle developmentally disabled clients; patients like her sons can face serious, even life-threatening, hazards when exposed to mentally ill adult patients, she maintained. Community-based crisis facilities, argued Rion would be the best way to handle such temporary problems, which are often precipitated by changes in medication that can be quickly addressed in a clinical setting.
Greene and the commissioners discussed other details of the reform effort, and the county manager ended on a positive note, observing, “Considering the complexity of what we are doing, I think things are going very well.”
Greene’s report was followed by another one from Linda Poss, who chairs the Mental Health Advisory Task Force. Poss outlined specific gaps in mental-health services that the relict task force believed must be addressed quickly. According to the group’s findings, treatment programs are going well compared to support for collateral issues such as affordable housing and crisis facilities, she said. And because “we tend to criminalize mental-health problems and put many of these people into the criminal-justice system instead of health care,” issues such as jail consultations and mental-health court also need attention, said Poss.
In addition, she acknowledged that the task force, which started out with 30 members three years ago, had dwindled, though she didn’t directly state that it had been disbanded. Those who want to remain active should be reassigned to other panels in order to keep their expertise and energy in the system, said Poss.
Poss later confirmed to Xpress that Greene had decided that the task force had completed its mission. Therefore, she said, “I gave our task force members the information that we were going to be disbanded.” (Greene apparently does not have authority to dissolve a task force created by the Board. At press time the status of the body is up in the air.)
In passing (and not failing)
Other business included a report by Buncombe County Board of Education Chair Roger Aiken on the state of the county schools. Enrollment, SAT scores and other standard assessment criteria are all up (including record-breaking scores on end-of-grade tests), he said, but the dropout rate is still too high. Aiken also praised the commissioners for their support of the schools, noting that, due to cuts in state funding, “If we had not pushed for the local funding, we would be having a lot of problems we aren’t having.”
Carol King, executive director of the Pack Square Conservancy, spoke to the commissioners about the Conservancy’s budget, which must be approved by both the Asheville City Council and the county commissioners. Fund-raising efforts, said King, have so far netted somewhat more than $3 million of the estimated $12.5 million price tag for reconfiguring the downtown park. No contracts will be approved until 80 percent of the funds have been “signed in,” she said.
Director of Minority Affairs Brenda Mills introduced assorted changes to the county’s Minority Business Plan, which she said are needed to bring the plan into compliance either with state law or with actual practices.
County Attorney Joe Connolly presented a draft ordinance that would have banned skateboarding or trespassing on all county property “properly posted to prohibit such activity.” The ordinance was drafted, Connolly told the board, in response to complaints from some county departments about skateboarding as well as littering, vandalism and loitering on certain properties. Both Keever and Commissioner David Gantt expressed concern about the skateboard provision, however, and the ordinance was tabled for further consideration.
The commissioners also made the following appointments: Isaac Coleman to the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council; Erich Schmid to the Industrial Facilities and Pollution Control Financing Authority; Nathaniel Cannady to the Planning and Zoning Commission; and (in the only split decision), Cheryl McMurray Shenault to the Historic Resources Commission.