Newly elected Buncombe County Commissioner Carol Weir Peterson kicked off the Board of Commissioners’ Dec. 7 formal meeting with her first official act: presenting a certificate of appreciation to Jeff Shelton for his 10 years of managing the county animal shelter. Shelton thanked the commissioners for their support, giving credit for any success he’s achieved to the community and the board.
The money trail
The commissioners held public hearings on three proposed bond issues totaling more than $35 million, as part of a process set in motion at the board’s Nov. 16 meeting (see “Paper Blizzard,” Nov. 24 Xpress).
First up was $5.8 million in general-obligation bonds to finance a child-care facility, renovations and paving at A-B Tech, and buying a building for the Department of Emergency Services, among other projects.
County resident Don Yelton questioned the latter transaction, saying, “I thought we bought the moving-company building for EMS.”
County Manager Wanda Greene explained: “We are now selling the Union Transfer Building by upset bids. That sale is included in this year’s budget.”
Commissioner David Young asked Greene, “How much did we pay for that building, and how much are we getting for it?”
Greene replied, “We paid $1.45 million. Our first bid is for $1.6 million.” In response to further questions from Yelton, she added, “We bought the Union Transfer Building out of general funds and will pay the proceeds of the sale back into general funds.” The county bought the building in 2001.
The second bond issue — $14.45 million worth of general-obligation bonds — would replace existing short-term debt with longer-term, lower-interest bonds.
During the public-comment period that preceded the formal meeting, county watchdog Jerry Rice had mentioned an upcoming request from the county school board for $30 million in certificate-of-participation funding. He returned to the subject during the public hearing. “They are proposing a $30 million COP, which is just a slick way of saying we are going to get money without the voters’ approval. … They are trying to ‘slick willy’ this thing in.”
Budget Director Donna Clark countered, “We have a dedicated revenue stream to repay the COP for schools,” referring to the portion of sales-tax revenues that goes to the county.
Rice seemed unimpressed, however. “To say that spending $30 million will not impact other matters is a ludicrous statement,” he rejoined.
The third item involved up to $15.5 million to build an addition to the county jail.
The commissioners unanimously approved all three bond issues, as well as a contract with Ray Bell Construction Company of Brentwood, Tenn., to build the jail annex.
Easing into greenery
Asheville attorney Albert Sneed, the chairman of the county Land Conservation Board, delivered a progress report. About 12 percent (50,000 acres) of the county’s roughly 422,000 acres is protected against development (including national-forest and Blue Ridge Parkway land), said Sneed and fellow board member Kathryn Gubista. The conservation board, formed a year ago to examine issues surrounding conservation easements, has inventoried areas that are high priorities for acquisition. They include large parcels, ridge tops and highlands, land adjacent to already-protected areas, and ecologically sensitive areas. The board has targeted 319 large parcels totaling about 113,000 acres as the focus for future conservation efforts.
Sneed also made a pitch for giving extra consideration to property owners willing to participate in the program. Placing a conservation easement on private land, noted Sneed, means giving up substantial future value in exchange for an immediate tax write-off and a long-term reduction in property taxes. Although there is substantial benefit to the owner, it is far exceeded by the lost value, which Sneed said constitutes a gift to all the residents of Buncombe County.
“One of the things that needs to happen to keep this process moving,” he continued, “is a little grease on the wheels.” To that end, the conservation board recommended that the commissioners approve funding to cover appraisal, survey, legal and transfer costs. “On a $1 million piece of property, it could cost $15,000 to $25,000 for those details, and a willing property owner may not have the cash,” noted Sneed.
There was general discussion among the commissioners and staff about untapped funds in the Farmland Preservation Program that could be used for this purpose. What would it cost the county to provide that “grease” for all the targeted properties? “If our wildest dreams come through, this should not exceed $100,000,” Sneed advised.
Commissioner David Young said, “If we can preserve farmland and protect conservation land, I’m willing to commit more money.”
Chairman Nathan Ramsey added, “We’ll look at the funding later, when we work on the budget.”
And Commissioner David Gantt asked the conservation board to come up with some cost estimates, urging Sneed and his colleagues not to feel constrained by the $100,000 figure. “We’ll certainly put money where our mouths are,” Gantt affirmed.
Smoke, smoke, smoke them cigarettes
Cooperative Extension Service agent Steve Duckett then delivered a report on the federal tobacco buyout, noting that Buncombe County has historically had the second-highest production in North Carolina’s “burley belt” (after Madison County).
Local growers average about 1,000 pounds of tobacco per acre; there were 920 acres in production in 2003, the last year for which complete statistics are available. The buyout, approved by Congress in June, will pay $7 per pound of tobacco quota owned and $3 for every pound grown. Payments will be made over a 10-year period. Funding for the buyout comes from manufacturers of tobacco products, based on their domestic sales.
At the same time, the federal government is getting out of the tobacco business: no price supports, no quotas, and no regulation of tobacco growers whatsoever. The best guesstimates, said Duckett, suggest that about half the growers will quit the business entirely and that prices will probably drop sharply next season and rebound somewhat the following year, as the market adjusts to deregulation. It’s also unclear what crops will be substituted, he reported, adding that there’s a wide variety of options, each of which will create a ripple effect in other agricultural markets.
Ahead of the rest
Western North Carolina appears to be ahead of the rest of the state in terms of progress in implementing the ongoing statewide restructuring of mental-health care, according to Western Highlands Network CEO Larry Thompson. The shift began Jan. 1, as three regional providers shut down and transferred most services to about 200 private providers, while Western Highlands assumed management of the system. Final audits of the three defunct programs will be done within another month, Thompson reported.
At the state level, meanwhile, the most serious crunch is expected to come when Broughton State Hospital, in Morganton, downsizes from 550 to 250 beds. The change is tentatively slated for 2008, though Thompson said it might be delayed. “General hospitals that have psychiatric care are willing to pick up some services,” he reported. “But we are exploring the use of a building on Biltmore Avenue, near Matthews Ford, for a 16-bed facility.” The size, he noted, is dictated by federal requirements to qualify for Medicaid. Thompson added that he hopes to have the necessary code and medical approvals in hand by the end of January and “then talk to the owner of the building.”
The 16-bed crisis facility will provide 23-hour care. A study done of Charter Asheville Behavioral Health System when it was operating here found that “90 percent of patients were sent home in 23 hours,” he said.
Following Thompson’s report, Buncombe County Reorganization Commission member Les Mitchell presented a letter from Chairman Charles R. Mann emphasizing the urgency of providing facilities for mental-health crisis care in the county.
The commissioners appointed Dr. Richard Oliver and Chairman Ramsey to the Board of Health before going into closed session at 5:45 p.m. to discuss an economic-development issue.