Buncombe County Commission

In the final meeting of the outgoing Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, unanimous decisions concerning millions of dollars in county funding blew through the chamber like driven snow, passed laughingly and with almost no discussion. There wasn’t even a token snowball fight.

But it wasn’t all fun and games on Nov. 16, and for those who felt chilly and sodden, the annual auditors’ report proved arid enough to dry wet mittens and soaked socks. The only evident conflict concerned the ongoing I-26 connector six-lane/eight-lane dispute, when Chairman Nathan Ramsey made a motion to alter the language in a proclamation written by Commissioner David Young.

Cool advice

During the public-comment period preceding the formal session, assorted county residents offered the commissioners advice about the next four years. All except Patsy Keever (who made an unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor) will be reinstalled Dec. 6.

County resident Hope Herrick urged the commissioners not to revisit countywide zoning, saying the issue had been laid to rest by the nonbinding referendum a few years ago. Herrick also said she’d like to see the county and city governments cooperate more closely, adding, “My dream is to have them come together as one government.” She didn’t indicate whether she envisioned eliminating citywide zoning as part of such a merger.

Vehement URTV critic Fred English once again spoke out against the incipient local public-access TV channel. “I don’t want that filth in my house,” he declared. English maintains that such a station will be a conduit for pornography, and he wants to be able to “opt out of paying for it and to get it out of my house.” Charter Communications, said English, has “lost $3.8 billion in the past year,” and when URTV comes on line, he plans to switch to satellite TV.

Board meeting regular Jerry Rice congratulated the re-elected commissioners on “being here to look at me for another four years,” which generated some good-natured banter about their hopes that he would “retire.” Rice, however, declined, saying one issue he plans to pursue in the new term is “accountability on the part of [the] Buncombe County Schools. I think accountability comes when you keep kids in school, not when they are dropping out.”

Rice also weighed in on the county’s rapidly changing mental-health services, part of state-mandated mental-health reform. “Some things have not been included in the accounting of BMMY’s assets: WNC Housing, Ridge Housing, Ross Creek Housing and Blue Ridge Homes were all part of the mental-health system. What do they fall under? We need to be looking at them, too.” BMMY (Buncombe, Madison, Mitchell, Yancey) Facilities Inc. is the holding company that has held many of the Blue Ridge Center’s assets during the transition to the new mental-health system.

Larry Thompson, director of the recently created Western Highlands Network, later told Xpress that the housing facilities Rice mentioned are private corporations that used to receive some funding from the Blue Ridge Center, which is why their names appeared in earlier annual audits. The first three were never part of the BRC, while the latter refers to homes managed by the Blue Ridge Area Foundation, which was created by the BRC and subsequently spun off.

Incoming iceballs

Also during the public-comment period, unsuccessful Board of Commissioners candidate Don Yelton acidly corrected Vice Chairman Bill Stanley, saying Stanley had given misinformation during a candidate forum concerning the reason the board no longer televises public comment. Yelton requested that the board resume televising the public-comment period; Stanley made no response. Yelton also asked for a study of the conditions in county community centers. “At Red Oak Community Center, it was recently revealed that the water quality had not been checked since 1985,” said Yelton, citing it as an example of problems he believes are systemwide.

Yelton also asked the county to investigate conditions at the landfill. Excavators there, he said, had discovered “buried asbestos and had to wear HAZMAT suits.” Construction and demolition debris is being buried in the lined landfill, said Yelton. He also noted that we should be recycling all waste paper generated in the county, citing recent reports indicating that even if the United States marketed all of its waste paper, we would still not meet China’s massive demand for recycled fiber.

County Manager Wanda Greene matched Yelton’s edgy tone as she corrected him, saying, “No asbestos was found at the landfill.” The workers, Greene explained, had worn the HAZMAT gear as a precaution, in case they encountered such material.

Yelton, a former county recycling coordinator, later told Xpress that C&D debris qualifies as inert waste and can therefore be buried in an unlined landfill. Depositing it in the lined “cell” is filling it up faster than is necessary. Yelton also said the county has no permit on file with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Raleigh for a new cell; the current one, he asserted, will be full in six months. Yelton characterized this practice as “total mismanagement.”

Jim Coffey, section chief of the solid-waste section of DENR’s Division of Waste Management, confirmed that Buncombe County has not applied for such a permit, though he added, “I understand they are preparing an application.” Coffey also noted that such applications must be made 180 days before the proposed effective date. County General Services Director Bob Hunter was not available for comment.

Asheville attorney Betty Lawrence spoke about a proclamation on the agenda concerning the I-26 connector, noting that she has worked on this issue for more than a decade. The state Department of Transportation, she told the board, “has been very cooperative, but not ever the first time they are asked.” Lawrence reminded the commissioners that the Interstate 40 interchange had not been included in the initial plans for the connector, nor had the intersection at the east end of the Smokey Park Bridge — “until we insisted, and they finally took that into consideration.” Lawrence concluded by saying, “I support this resolution.”

County resident Haygood Mixson, a chemist, warned commissioners about the danger of “carbon-monoxide hot spots,” which he said can be created by bad highway design. The hot spots, Mixson maintained, are a violation of federal law. He concluded his comments with a rhetorical question for the board: “What would happen if you turned this project down?”

Smileys all around

Roger Aiken, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Education, presented Patsy Keever with a certificate of appreciation for her 12 years of work as a commissioner and her career as a teacher “on behalf of the [school] board and Superintendent Cliff Dodson” (who was sitting in the audience).

Chairman Ramsey also mentioned Keever’s many years of service. “There are some good things,” he said — adding, after a pause, “and some fun things as well. Twelve years is a lot of work.”

Young and Ramsey then presented an award to Donna Clark and the county Finance Department for “outstanding achievement in popular annual financial reporting” and a certificate of achievement for “excellence in financial reporting.” This recognition is extended by the Government Officers Finance Association of the U.S. and Canada.

Chuck Killian of Gould Killian CPA Group reported on his firm’s audit of the county’s financial records for fiscal year 2004-05. After presenting an extended overview that included confusing multiple references to exhibits one, two and three and page numbers ranging from 1 to 105 and back, Killian observed that each section ends with the phrase “unqualified opinion.” This, he said, signifies a clean report.

Ramsey suggested that it might be useful to put a yellow smiley face on each section to make it easier for people to interpret. The audit was unanimously approved.

Reports on health care came next. Division of Social Services Director Mandy Stone told the board about state funding available to hire additional in-home health-care and child-welfare workers, which she said would expand services while saving the county money. And Assistant Health Director Paul Tax reported on proposed budget adjustments that would enable the Health Center to receive full reimbursement from Medicaid for dental and mental-health services and provide mental-health services through the local management entity, the Western Highlands Network. Both matters were approved 5-0.

The road goes on forever

Commissioner Young proposed a resolution concerning the I-26 connector that included this sentence: “This Board requests that the NCDOT design the I-26 Connector with 6 lanes or the minimum amount of lanes that will not slow the process yet be the most viable solution to the traffic demands for this area and will meet the federal standards for level of service on interstates.” The resolution also asked that the design have the minimum possible impact on affected neighborhoods.

Although this language does not preclude the eight-lane option, Ramsey tried to strike the reference to six lanes from the proposal. His motion died for lack of a second, however, and the resolution was adopted 4-1.

The board then approved the transfer of Aston Park to the city of Asheville, which wants to build a tennis center on the site. The approval came with the condition (proposed by Young) that county and city residents not be charged different rates for use of the park, pending resolution of ongoing discussions concerning the Water Agreement. Parks are among the many corollary matters included in the agreement, which the city announced its intention to withdraw from six months ago.)

The commissioners also quickly approved dissolving BMMY Facilities Inc., whose assets will now pass to the Western Highlands Network.

Four resolutions concerning nearly $20 million in reissued bonds followed in rapid succession, amid an atmosphere of merriment and an urgent desire to wrap things up. There were also two board appointments: Robert Phillips to the Adult Care Home Community Advisory Board and Jill Cain to the Nursing Home Community Advisory Board.

All of the items except the I-26 resolution were approved 5-0, and the meeting adjourned at 6:02 p.m.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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