From standing ovations to verbal accolades, Tom Sobol’s last Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meeting as chairman turned into a virtual love-fest.
About 50 people who packed the commissioners’ chambers rose to their feet and erupted into applause as Sobol entered the meeting room on Nov. 21.
Sobol lost his bid for reelection on Nov. 7, after a pitched battle with challenger Nathan Ramsey — who himself addressed the Board late in the meeting.
“Your welcome was totally unexpected and I deeply appreciate that,” Sobol told the audience at the meeting’s outset.
Before giving the invocation, the Rev. Buddy Corbin praised Sobol and referred to his “new life beyond politics.” Sobol thanked Corbin for visiting him in the hospital during a recent illness, then welcomed his son, Chester Thomas Sobol III, and mother, Mary Sobol, who were attending a Board of Commissioners meeting for the first time.
Sobol had been admitted to Mission St. Joseph’s Health System the previous week; he reported after the meeting that he may have suffered a mini-stroke. Although his speech seemed unaffected, he walked a bit more slowly than usual.
A little business
Along with bidding Sobol adieu, the Board attended to a few items of business in its 54-minute meeting.
Commissioners proclaimed Dec. 1 World AIDS Day in Buncombe County, in local recognition of the United Nations’ effort to expand and strengthen the worldwide effort to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS.
They also conducted a public hearing on spending $7,153 in matching funds to get a federal law-enforcement block grant of $64,379. The grant will be spent on uniforms and mobile radios, Sheriff’s Department Capt. Lee Farnsworth told the Board. The matching funds come from asset forfeitures seized by the local drug-enforcement unit.
“We’re mighty proud of what you do and the way your represent the county,” Commissioner David Gantt told Farnsworth.
The Board then voted unanimously to approve the matching funds.
Emergency Medical Services Director Jerry VeHaun updated the commissioners on the county’s cost in dealing with a recent federal mandate governing hospitals restocking ambulance supplies. But first, he addressed Sobol.
“I’d like to thank you for all you’ve done for me and for EMS,” VeHaun said.
VeHaun reminded the Board that in July, Mission St. Joseph’s Health System told the county that a federal mandate prevented it from restocking the county’s ambulances with supplies. On Aug. 1, the county began buying its own supplies on the open market.
“We had to really scramble,” VeHaun remembered.
At the time, VeHaun estimated the change would mean the county’s annual cost for ambulance supplies would rise from $60,000 to $500,000. So far, that’s proven on target, since the supply bill for August, September and October has amounted to $40,000-$45,000 a month, VeHaun said. At the end of November, his office will better be able to estimate the annual cost and put together a bid package to see if they can get better prices.
To help cover costs, the county raised its ambulance fees to $400 per trip — an increase of $100 — VeHaun noted. On the positive side, the county will see an increase in Medicare and mileage reimbursements in January. VeHaun attributed that development to lobbying from groups like the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, and gave a nod of thanks to Commissioner Bill Stanley, immediate past president of the association.
In answer to a question from Sobol, VeHaun said that volunteer fire departments were able to buy their goods from the county and so take advantage of a volume discount.
The Board also unanimously agreed to appoint Dr. Robert S. Freeman to fill the Board of Health’s veterinarian slot.
Sobol took a few moments to thank the audience, county residents, current and past Board members and staff members.
“It’s been a pleasure,” Sobol said. “This Board has developed a very special chemistry.”
He also noted that he met with Ramsey, who assured him that the transition will be smooth.
Perhaps alluding to the zoning issue, Sobol told the audience that there are “lines in the sand” that political pollsters say you can’t cross.
“Sometimes you have to cross those lines,” Sobol said. “Despite the political cost, I don’t regret any lines that we’ve crossed, and those we crossed for the county’s best interest.”
After mentioning that the Board has held the line on taxes and still provided necessary services, he admitted: “I am going to miss it.”
The crowd responded with another standing ovation.
Peggy Bennett, treasurer of Citizens for Change (which opposed the incumbents) told Sobol she was glad he was feeling better, then moved on to other points.
She complained about the amount of Federal Emergency Management Agency money the county spent to buy two flood-prone Black Mountain properties and to remove a house and mobile home from them after the 1996 Broad River flood (which came to $102,740, according to the county’s figures). She claimed the county paid far more for the properties than their value and went on to request information about them and other properties the county bought with FEMA dollars.
“I’m concerned,” Bennett said. “I don’t like to see my tax dollars spent in this way.”
Sobol said the county based the property value on independent appraisals and said she’d be provided with the information she sought.
Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton said later that under FEMA rules, the county was required to offer the appraised amounts for the properties.
County watchdog Jerry Rice thanked Sobol for his service.
“Hope we’ve maybe educated you on a few things,” Rice added, prompting a smile from Sobol.
Rice said he’d heard Keever make comments about Ramsey’s lack of experience, and suggested that — if they were concerned about his inexperience — perhaps they could teach him a few things about their areas of expertise. He saved a jab for Commissioner David Young, however, saying: “I don’t know what he can do.”
Register of Deeds Otto DeBruhl and Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air Chair Hazel Fobes thanked Sobol as well.
“There has been no dumping,” Fobes said, an allusion to the “Dump the Commissioners” slogan adopted by the Republican challengers.
“He sees things rightly, and then he seeks solutions to set things rightly,” Fobes continued. “A public servant is a person of dignity, and that’s Tom Sobol.”
She added that the county now needs healing, not hurtfulness and fear.
Black Mountain resident Gay Fox also praised Sobol (who lives in Black Mountain), complimenting him on what she referred to as the tangible things he’s done to change the lives of a lot of people, including making the commissioners’ chambers welcoming to the public.
In a surprise move, Ramsey (who had attended the pre-meeting and regular meeting, in preparation to conduct the next meeting himself) walked to the lectern to address Sobol.
“I wanted to commend you for your many years of service,” Ramsey told the outgoing chair.
Ramsey went on to say he looked forward to working with the other commissioners, whom he said had been very kind to him. He added that he was glad Sobol was feeling better and noted that one doesn’t have to be a county commissioner to make a difference.
“It’s easy to be first-class,” Ramsey said. “I suspect it’s a little harder when you lose. You’ve been first-class throughout this.”
Ramsey added that if he ever runs again and loses, “I hope I’m as gracious and show the class you’ve shown me.”
Sobol thanked Ramsey for his comments.
Black Mountain Alderman Will Kennedy added his praise to the heap.
“We are proud to be part of your constituency,” Kennedy declared.
Vice Chair Keever pointed out that Sobol may have noticed his gavel was missing. The gavel had been mounted on a plaque, which Keever presented to him.
“This is Tom’s day, and we want to express our appreciation to him. He has been a mentor to all of us, except maybe Bill,” she said.
Regarding Ramsey, she noted that he has “big shoes to fill,” adding that Sobol’s absence will mean that all of the Board members — including Ramsey — will have to grow.
“We’re all in this together, Nathan,” Keever said.
County Attorney Joe Connolly finished off the evening’s praise with a lengthy tribute that mentioned Sobol’s leadership in various areas — including finding a site for the landfill, as well as spearheading construction of libraries, swimming pools and soccer fields.
That’s a legacy that a lot of people should associate you with,” Connolly said.
He presented the chair with a framed copy of an Asheville Citizen-Times editorial honoring him and added: “Mr. Sobol, you’ve done a good job.”
“Thanks again for a very special day,” Sobol concluded.