Buncombe County Commission

“It’s unconscionable.”

— Assistant County Manager Jerome Jones

For months, mental-health advocates have been pressuring the commissioners in Buncombe and seven other Western North Carolina counties to grant them equal representation on the new mental-health governing board. And they’ve insisted that state law backs them up.

County officials, however, had argued that a state statute allows them to appoint a majority of county-government representatives if they so choose. That position was reinforced in March by a spokesman for the state Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.

Last week, however, the Buncombe County commissioners learned that the state attorney general’s office had ruled — back in February — that advocates were indeed entitled to an equal number of seats on the new board.

The attorney general’s office, however, didn’t spell it out for the group of WNC county officials crafting a plan for mental-health services until September, Assistant County Manager/Tax Department Director Jerome Jones told the commissioners during the board’s untelevised “pre-meeting” on Sept. 16.

“It’s much ado about nothing,” commented Chairman Nathan Ramsey.

“Yeah, it’s unconscionable,” lamented Jones.

The ruling means that the governing board of the new Local Management Entity — charged with managing mental-health services in an eight-county region — will include eight county-government staffers or commissioners and eight spots for mental-health professionals, family members or care recipients.

The new entity is slated to replace the Blue Ridge Center and coordinate mental-health, developmental-disability and substance-abuse services — provided mostly by the private sector — in Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Rutherford, Polk, Transylvania and Yancey counties.

The new governing structure is a far cry from both the proposal suggested by county staffers back in March (which called for eight county and only three non-county representatives) and a subsequent proposal calling for eight county and five non-county reps.

Mental-health advocates — including Bob Carey of Yancey County — had been insisting all along that the counties must follow the state statute that established the new boards, which calls for at least 50 percent non-county representation. After the meeting, Carey said via e-mail: “I am disappointed that the county managers group, and most commissioners, had to have a legal ruling force them to allow more citizens on the LME board. We all would prefer that they had come to realize (as the Yancey County manager and commissioners did) that not only the law but the spirit of reform is involvement of the public — especially consumers, family members, advocates and providers.”

And his wife, fellow advocate Nancy Carey, commented: “If there were ever a time that all stakeholders need to pull together and work together, as partners, to assure that system reform works, it is now!”

And as longtime Buncombe County watchdog Jerry Rice noted during the commissioners’ public-comment session: “They was right from the beginning. The law was on their side from the beginning.”

But Commissioner David Gantt maintained that the commissioners’ chief concern all along was to have a strong board that would get off to a good start.

“Nobody has any problem with eight and eight,” asserted Gantt.

Also still unclear is whether county staffers (rather than commissioners) can serve on the mental-health board, noted Jones.

And then there’s the question of whether the Local Management Entity will even be ready by January, Blue Ridge Center Director Larry Thompson told Xpress.

The commissioners adopted the new board structure as part of their consent agenda before moving on to a host of other key issues.

RU on TV?

Public-access TV came a step closer to reality in Buncombe County after the commissioners unanimously voted to sign an interlocal agreement with Asheville to allow a single nonprofit organization to run a joint channel.

The next step will be for the nonprofit URTV to work out the funding details with both the city and the county, Public Access Channel Commission Chairwoman Beth Lazer said after the meeting.

The commission has been working since 1999 to establish such a station, which would be partly funded by revenues from the separate cable-franchise agreements that Charter Communications has with both the city and county.

With the charisma of a country preacher, Fairview resident Mack B. Pearsall held commissioners spellbound as he spun a far-ranging vision of possibilities for a media center that would house public-access TV, a media-arts center, and a multimedia-oriented business incubator. He also carefully laid the groundwork for a future funding request to help launch both URTV and the media center. Members of the Media Arts Project and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce — on hand to show support for the proposal — watched from the audience.

If all the necessary steps fall into place, Lazer said a public-access channel could begin broadcasting early next year.

“I’m very excited,” she exclaimed.

Squared away

Although most of the action concerning the Grove Park Inn’s proposed high-rise in downtown Asheville was happening at the City Council meeting next door (see “The option play” elsewhere in this issue), the commissioners also took up one aspect of the question — whether to approve the Pack Square Conservancy’s proposed design guidelines for new construction in Pack Square and City/County Plaza.

City Council had already given the guidelines — which specify maximum building heights and other design issues — its seal of approval. And at first, the commissioners apparently considered the matter so noncontroversial that it was included in their consent agenda. But Commissioner Patsy Keever questioned whether that would mean she’d have to vote against the entire consent agenda — which mostly consists of budget amendments and routine resolutions. At that point, the board decided to make the guidelines a regular agenda item.

In the end, the commissioners approved the guidelines 4-1, with Keever casting the lone opposing vote.

“I still have a real problem with the height of the building … and where they want to put it,” said Keever.

City and county agree

When city and county officials are brawling, it draws big headlines. When they’re getting along … well, the news is often relegated to the end of a story like this one — or perhaps not reported at all.

Tapping into a cooperative spirit, the commissioners unanimously agreed to sign an interlocal agreement with the city of Asheville to consolidate their separate emergency-dispatching facilities into a combined public-safety communications center.

The first step calls for the Buncombe County Emergency Services Department to begin receiving and dispatching all calls for service now handled by the Asheville Fire and Rescue Department. That move is slated to happen within the next three months, once the county buys the needed equipment and hires three staffers, Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun told the board.

By January 2006, the county will build a consolidated center to receive and dispatch all public-safety calls in the county — for Asheville Fire and Rescue, the Asheville Police Department, the Buncombe County Emergency Services Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, according to the agreement.

On the road again

Want to give the Buncombe County commissioners a piece of your mind? Perhaps you’d like to ask a question — or even shower them with praise? Either way, you may want to attend one of four upcoming meetings (all of them begin at 7 p.m.):

• Oct. 7, Enka High School cafeteria;
• Oct. 14, North Buncombe High School cafeteria;
• Oct. 21, Owen High School cafeteria; and
• Oct. 28 at T.C. Roberson High School cafeteria.

For more information, contact Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes (250-4105; e-mail: kathy.hughes@buncombecounty.org).

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