Buncombe County Commission

Nov. 16 was Commissioner David Young’s 40th birthday, and county staff didn’t let the day pass unnoticed. During the agenda-review session, Debbie Hay — who works in the commissioners’ office — presented Young with a large medal on a blue ribbon, draping it around his neck. She then led the assembly in a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

The usual assortment of county staff and citizen observers were present, including county residents Jerry Rice and Peter Dawes, who regularly videotape meetings of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. Don Yelton pointed out a discrepancy between the printed minutes of the Nov. 2 meeting and the videotaped version. In requesting a closed session, County Attorney Joe Connolly had cited a case number for a legal matter involving the Proffitt junkyard; the minutes did not include the case number. No action was taken in closed session, according to the minutes of the Nov. 2 meeting.

Yelton’s complaint prompted a reminder from Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes: “The minutes is the record, not what is on TV,” she said, after Chairman Tom Sobol had acknowledged the discrepancy.

County Manager Wanda Greene concurred: “It is important to note, the tapes are not official records, the minutes are.”

Commissioners were in an amiable mood as they began the formal session, following an invocation by the Rev. Dennis Lundberg of the First Christian Church. Commissioner Bill Stanley was absent.

Chairman Sobol then announced Young’s birthday. Young held up the medal, to a round of applause from the dozen or so county staff attending the meeting. Rice, filming from the back, asked, “Is that a purple heart?” Dawes, in an aside at the press table, quipped, “I ought to get one — I was wounded in action.” Dawes was referring to a misdemeanor assault charge he had filed against County Manager Wanda Greene, alleging that she had damaged his eye by shoving his camera while he filmed the opening of the Fairview Public Library on Nov. 8. Greene was found not guilty in an unusually prompt hearing, held Nov. 10 in Buncombe County District Court.

Dawes is also a plaintiff in a separate complaint, filed Sept. 22, in which he, fellow investigative reporter Yelton and Emma convenience-store owner Mike Morgan charged the county manager and county commissioners with obstructing their legitimate investigative newsgathering efforts in Buncombe County. At the request of County Attorney Connolly, commissioners went into closed session after the Nov. 16 public hearing to discuss that case, which is still pending in Buncombe County Superior Court.

During the agenda review, commissioners unanimously agreed to place an additional item on the agenda for new business — a resolution to waive the “multi-prime bidding” requirement for bids on building a new fire station for the nonprofit West Buncombe Volunteer Fire Department. The request was from Patti Glazer of Mathews & Glazer, the architect for the fire station. Assistant County Attorney Stan Clontz told commissioners that the only reason the bidding requirement is applicable to the West Buncombe Fire Department is because of resolutions adopted by the Board of Commissioners in 1998 that require volunteer fire departments receiving direct-pass-through tax dollars to comply with all bidding requirements applicable to local governments. The 1998 resolutions, said Clontz, are a local requirement that could be waived by the board. Commissioners voted unanimously to accept Glazer’s request. The waiver would apply only to the multi-prime-bidding requirement, and not to any other competitive-bidding requirements or minority-owned-company goals, Clontz emphasized. He said he had spoken with the Office of Minority Affairs, which had no objection to the waiver.

World AIDS Day

Commissioner Patsy Keever read a proclamation declaring Dec.1 as World AIDS Day in Buncombe County, urging citizens “to increase their awareness and understanding of HIV/AIDS as a global challenge, to take part in HIV/AIDS prevention activities and programs, and to join the global effort to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.” The American Association for World Health recognizes an increase in the number of people in the US diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, with 688,200 AIDS cases reported as of Dec. 31, 1998, according to the proclamation.

Chris Webb of the Asheville-Buncombe Youth Council, who serves on the World AIDS Day planning committee, and Education Coordinator Lori Thornton of the WNC AIDS Project accepted the proclamation. World AIDS Day activities planned for Dec. 1 include an interfaith healing service at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist church and a candlelight vigil at City/County Plaza at 9 p.m., with a reading of the names of people who have died of HIV/AIDS in Western North Carolina to date.

Employ a vet

Commissioners proclaimed the week of Nov. 14-29, 1999, as “Employ A Vet Week,” urging county businesses to employ veterans whenever possible. Vietnam veteran Ronald P. Piercy, an employment consultant with the state Employment Security Commission, accepted the proclamation. Piercy said later that a conservative estimate of the number of veterans in Buncombe County is about 3,000. “A whole lot are retirement age, [but] of the ones still looking for work, only about 50-60 percent are employed.” Statewide, the Employment Security Commission has found employment for about 30,000 vets, he said.

The Buncombe office has special programs for disabled veterans, Piercy said. “We work a little harder with special disabled vets.” Special vets are those with a 30 percent or greater determination of disability from the Veterans Administration, he explained.

Piercy also implements programs to target young troops through Pro Vet, a North Carolina pilot program attempting to place veterans in manufacturing jobs. “We talk with manufacturing plants in Asheville and Buncombe County to come on board with us to hire some of the young troops, so we can get them back into the work force,” Piercy said. There is “no monetary incentive,” he added. “The incentive is to get a good and capable employee.”

Water supply alive and well

“The water supply is alive and well at the present,” reported Water Resources Director Tom Frederick as he presented commissioners with a copy of the Water Resources Department’s annual report, summarizing the activities of the Water Resources Department and the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson for 1998-99.

Frederick reported a “trend toward lower consumption,” with current demand at 21 million gallons a day and a 30-mgd safe yield.

Accordingly, Water Authority expenditures should be about $1.5 million less than the $20.6 million budgeted for the fiscal year that began July 1. The estimate was based on projected consumption. “We are going to continue to track this,” Frederick said. The Water Authority received more than $3.5 million in grants in the past year, for water-distribution-system improvements and watershed-protection in the Mills River watershed, he reported.

But Frederick also warned: “There is a lot of talk on the streets that, as a result of the hurricanes, a lot of money will be going to the East. It may be far more difficult to get [grant] money [and may] make this round more challenging and difficult for us.” Commissioners took no action.

School renovations to begin

In other new business, county Finance Department staff recommended approval of a request from the Buncombe County Board of Education for two budget amendments appropriating funds from the School Capital Commission Fund to be reimbursed by proceeds from the sale of bonds. The first amendment would appropriate $1.72 million to start projects and finalize estimates for 10 school-improvement projects; $375,000 for five elementary-school additions/renovations, and $1.34 million for five middle-school classroom additions. There would be “no known” community impact, according to the request.

The second amendment would appropriate funds for: four elementary-school additions/renovations, at a preliminary estimated cost of $6.55 million (including architectural fees), according to county records ($410,000 of that amount would be funded by sales-tax revenues); an Enka Middle School classroom addition, estimated to cost $1.03 million, of which $93,000 would be funded by sales-tax revenues; and an interfund loan of $1.7 million to the School Bond Fund, to be repaid when bond proceeds are received. Commissioner David Gantt asked Buncombe County Schools Director of Capital Budgeting Bill Hamby to briefly explain, “How can you do all these important things without a tax increase?”

Hamby launched into a lengthy explanation about tax revenues received since 1983 that were designated specifically for major school improvements, renovations and new school construction. He recounted the history of Buncombe County’s four bond referendums and explained the criteria for prioritizing projects to address “equity and fairness across the county.”

“There is $75 million either under contract or planned for this fiscal year,” Hamby told commissioners.

When Commissioner Keever, an Enka Middle School teacher, asked for assurances that school staff would be involved in the planned renovations, Hamby said, “Yes.”

Jerry Rice, who has been scrutinizing school-budget requests for nearly a decade, pleaded with commissioners: “Be honest with the people: There is going to be a tax increase. With all the good intentions, I don’t think taxpayers should be left in the dark. It is an absolute disgrace to say there is not a tax increase coming.”

In a telephone interview the next day, Rice explained his concerns: “It’s the voodoo financing I object to. They really are not telling how they are doing it in a way that people are catching it. I’ve followed this issue for the last 10 years; I’ve been through all the bond referendums. What I’m trying to say is that the commissioners are going to have to come up every year with current expense money, operating money.”

“Yes, there are going to be some additional costs,” Hamby admitted at the meeting. And, in a later telephone interview, he explained: “What I was referring to are new schools that are going to be opened at the beginning of next year. The new Hominy Valley Elementary and Cane Creek schools and, the following year, a new school in north Buncombe. But those are being bought, for the most part, with state bond funds.”

The request before commissioners on Nov. 16 was for appropriation of funds for “energy-conservation renovations that will end up saving money,” Hamby said later. The “minor additional operating costs [will be] more than offset by energy-conservation measures. Air conditioning is being added, but other renovations are estimated to more than offset costs.”

After some discussion, commissioners unanimously approved the requested budget amendments.

In other new business, commissioners unanimously approved a request from the county Health Department for a budget amendment reflecting five new positions, to be funded by state grants, user fees and Medicaid revenues; no county funds will be required. The new positions are: a public-health nurse at Erwin Middle School, an office assistant, a public-health-education specialist, a dentist and a dental assistant, to address the continuing need for access to dental care in Buncombe County, according to county records.

Public Hearing

CIBO calls on commissioners to mend divisions

Council of Independent Business Owners President Mac Swicegood read a resolution to commissioners regarding the nonbinding zoning referendum. The resolution, which Swicegood said represents the thoughts of 250 small-business owners employing 14,000-15,000 Buncombe residents, asks for commissioners’ full support in implementing the Buncombe County Land-Use Plan, which CIBO said cost Buncombe County taxpayers more than $144,000 to develop. The resolution asks the Board of Commissioners to “begin immediately mending the divisions created by its attempt to zone the County.”

Emma businessman Mike Morgan told commissioners, “I’ll come [in] on a lighter note.” Picking up on a suggestion by Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle, he suggested a match between County Manager Greene and reporter Peter Dawes as a fund-raising event and a way to settle their differences. Morgan suggested that Mr. Dawes wear “Bozo shoes” and have one hand tied behind his back. Neither Greene nor any commissioner responded to the unusual suggestion.

Don Yelton spoke next, about commissioners’ past refusal to answer citizens’ questions during the public-hearing segment of meetings. “Either answer questions or revise your procedures,’ Yelton said tersely. He also observed that the official minutes of commissioners’ meetings should reflect “truth without malice.”

Yelton then read a two-sentence report of a meeting of the Reorganization Commission. “I do not believe that two sentences constitute full, accurate and open minutes,” he concluded.

As Yelton went to take his seat again, he passed county resident Les Mitchell seated in the front, commenting, “You’re on that committee.”

As commissioners began to leave the podium for a closed session requested by Attorney Connolly, an angry Mitchell, cane in hand, exchanged heated words with county resident Priscilla Dawes, whom he passed on the way out. “You clowns ought to start dressing up if you’re going to run a circus,” he said. Ms. Dawes, who is married to reporter Peter Dawes, said something to Mitchell as two uniformed county deputies moved forward to intervene, if necessary. Outside the room, Mitchell complained: “Don’t you think that is a little ridiculous — a match? Putting the county manager in a ring? It’s an absolute circus. They have no respect.”

Board appointment

At the recommendation of Commissioner Keever, commissioners unanimously agreed to appoint Asheville optometrist Dr. Scott McDonald to serve on the Board of Health.

Consent agenda

Commissioners unanimously approved the consent agenda, which included:

• Approval of the minutes of the Nov. 2 meeting;

• A $45,648 budget amendment requested by the WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency to pay for ozone monitors ordered in the last fiscal year, but not delivered by June 30.

• An ordinance authorizing acceptance of a bid and granting of a franchise to GDS Incorporated for residential-trash collection. This was the required second reading of this item, which passed unanimously on its first reading.

• A resolution approving Atlanta Pyrotechnics International to conduct a fireworks display at the Grove Park Inn.

• Various budget amendments increasing the Department of Social Services’ budget by a total of $256,907. The amendments will enhance services for citizens without increasing the county’s share of the DSS budget, according to the request, prepared by DSS Director Calvin Underwood.

• A budget amendment for Child-care Services to reflect $95,535 in additional revenues for Madison County Smart Start. No county funds are required.

• A $330 budget amendment for Recreation Services, on behalf of the USS Swim Program at Skyland Pool; the self-supporting program will be conducted on a fee basis.

• A budget amendment to eliminate duplicate revenues and expenditures in the Sheriff’s Department and DSS budgets for child-support enforcement.

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