Buncombe County Commission

Facing the specter of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declaring Asheville and environs a “nonattainment” area in terms of meeting federal air-quality standards, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has unanimously agreed to endorse a regional compact to avoid having the federal government impose a plan for reducing ozone pollution.

At the board’s Dec. 17 meeting, the commissioners agreed to enter into an “early action compact” with Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties — a voluntary commitment to create a serious regional plan to reduce air pollution. (See “Choose clean air — or Uncle Sam will do it for us,” Dec. 11 Xpress.) WNC is a candidate for nonattainment status because local ozone pollution has been measured at levels exceeding the EPA’s .085 parts per million limit for the past three years.

Before the vote, Paul Muller, regional director of the state Division of Air Quality, detailed the consequences of a nonattainment designation. Among them, he said, is that existing businesses wishing to expand would be required to install the most stringent available emissions controls, regardless of cost — meaning that it would cost more to do business here.

In addition, proposed road-building projects would have to be shown (using computer modeling) not to have a negative effect on air quality. If that could not be done, the project would lose federal highway funding and would be delayed or canceled.

Muller also noted that the nonattainment label is not a particularly attractive one for an area that depends on tourism.

“The real purpose of the compact is getting cleaner air sooner,” Muller told board members.

If the area can satisfy federal air-quality standards by 2007, “You’ll never have it on your record, so to speak, that this area is nonattainment,” said Muller.

Vice Chairman Bill Stanley asked whether vehicles would have to be stopped at the county line to make sure their mufflers work properly. Muller said that wouldn’t happen.

Muller also noted that by entering into the compact, the affected counties could come up with their own pollution-reduction measures rather than having the EPA decide for them.

But audience member Lola LaFey called out that the compact is really a loophole, proclaiming: “We need real clean air.”

At that, Board Chairman Nathan Ramsey banged his gavel and said that people aren’t allowed to speak from the audience.

Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Rick Lutovsky told the commissioners that the Chamber’s board had recommended that the county enter into the compact and had pledged its support in developing and implementing the early action compact.

Pay raises for county employees

County Manager Wanda Greene made an apparently persuasive pitch to give county employees a 3 percent raise. When the budget was adopted last summer, the commissioners wound up axing a proposed increase for county workers.

The last cost-of-living adjustment was in January 2001, and many costs (including health-care premiums) have risen since then, noted Greene. The county also needs to keep its salary scale competitive, she said.

The commissioners voted 4-1 (with Ramsey opposed) to approve the cost-of-living increase, which will take effect on Jan. 25. The price tag for fiscal year 2002-03 will be $572,374, with the funds coming from the county’s solid-waste and after-school enterprise funds, Greene explained later. In the next fiscal year, she said the $1.36 million needed to pay for the increase will come from sales-tax proceeds.

School system scrambles for cash

The board also unanimously approved an emergency measure to allow the Buncombe County Board of Education to move $933,700 in nonrestricted capital funds to the school system’s current-expense fund to partly offset the loss of county and state funding.

The schools are still struggling to deal with a $5.8 million shortfall in state and local funding for fiscal year 2002-03 — plus an additional $717,069 the state took back after initial allocations had been made, according to a letter to Ramsey from Superintendent Cliff Dodson. According to the resolution presented to the commissioners, the requested transfer would enable the schools to avoid making further cuts in their operating budget.

In the current fiscal year, the county cut $1.1 million from what the county schools had been budgeted to receive in 2001-02 — instead allocating what the schools had actually received that fiscal year, Greene and Ramsey explained after the meeting.

Congressman Taylor helps secure grants

The commissioners and Greene thanked Rep. Charles Taylor for helping the county snare two big grants: $550,000 for a pilot project at the landfill, and $1.7 million that will enable the criminal-court system to shift its record-keeping to an electronic format.

The City/County Bureau of Identification maintains a central repository of arrest records. The bureau currently relies on a manual filing system to maintain arrest histories used by the courts, the District Attorney’s Office, local and state law enforcement and the general public, according to a county news release.

The grant will pay for converting the manual system to an electronic format, which will enable information to be retrieved more quickly and easily, former City/County Identification Bureau Director Ginger Seay told the commissioners. (Although Seay retired in August, she was instrumental in getting the grant, according to the county.) In addition to Taylor, Seay also thanked Sen. John Edwards, Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford and Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino, among others.

The landfill grant will help cover the cost of researching, installing, equipping and testing a “bioreactor” at the landfill. The pilot project — one of two in the country — involves creating a pipe system to recirculate the moisture, or leachate, in the landfill, which will speed up the decomposition of trash. The project also will involve recovering methane gas produced by decomposing organic matter to be used as fuel.

Director Bob Hunter of the General Services Department told the board that because of the increased rate of decomposition, he hopes to be able to make the current landfill last indefinitely.

“We will never have to site a landfill in Buncombe County,” Hunter declared, prompting applause from Greene and board members.

Buncombe County Solid Waste Environmental Manager Denese Ballew explained later that the project will be designed to “recycle” landfill cells. Along with the plans for speedier decomposition, the methane-gas recovery will help free up space now taken up by air pockets. And once the organic material has degraded, the project calls for “mining” out overlooked recyclables (such as metal and plastic), removing the degraded soil (to spread on top of new trash), and then relining the cell for the next round of trash, Ballew said.

Taylor was on hand to receive the thanks of the board (including Commissioner David Young, who ran against Taylor several years ago).

“We certainly appreciate your work and advocacy on our behalf,” Ramsey told Taylor.

Taylor said the grants mean that federal tax money is returning to Buncombe County. He also touched on a handful of other topics, including the economy, a project to bring broadband Internet access to WNC, and air pollution — the latter issue raising a few eyebrows in the audience.

“Western North Carolina does not generate that much air pollution,” Taylor insisted, claiming that the region receives a lot of its air pollution from other locations.

As noted in the Dec. 11 Xpress, the notion that most of our air pollution is blown in from somewhere else is a myth. In fact, a years-long study by air-quality experts with the Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative found that to be true only at some of the higher elevations between here and Tennessee. But nearly everywhere else, say the experts, we’re stewing in our own smog — especially in the valleys where most of us live and drive our NOx-spewing internal-combustion engines.

Taylor’s comment also jarred audience member Jim Guido of Asheville, especially in light of the board’s vote to participate in a regional compact to reduce air pollution.

“I’m confused,” Guido mused after the meeting. “If Mr. Taylor is right in his declaration that we’re doing a good job in Western North Carolina and our pollution is imported, then why was there a desire and an eagerness to pass a motion that … the five counties proactively pass measures to reduce local industrial emissions? If they feel that way, why didn’t they question Mr. Taylor’s viewpoint?”

Guns and money

The prospect of spending money on automatic weapons worried a couple of audience members.

The Sheriff’s Department was asking that $26,577 in forfeiture funds from the Metropolitan Enforcement Group — an interdepartmental drug task force — be allocated to the State Bureau of Investigation to buy Lawmen’s Colt AR-15-A-3 tactical carbines. The MEG consists of members of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, the Asheville Police Department and the SBI, noted Greene.

Ramsey reported that he’d received three or four calls on the matter. And county resident Alan Ditmore asked from the audience whether the guns were indeed automatic weapons. Though he didn’t get a firm answer, Charles Moody, special agent in charge for the SBI’s Western District, told Xpress later that the weapons are semiautomatic assault rifles to be purchased for SBI agents in the 16 counties in his district.

“Hopefully, they’ll have bigger guns than the bad guys,” commented Ramsey.

LaFey, a member of the WNC Peace Coalition, told the board the money would be better spent on such needs as education, youth programs and addressing water problems.

“Please don’t accept this money, and ask that it be reallocated” to more peaceful uses, LaFey urged.

When it came time to vote, however, the board passed the entire consent agenda (including the gun item) without comment.

Bestowing laurels

The board also recognized three high-school athletic teams, whose members dutifully filed to the front of the room. The board congratulated the T.C. Roberson High School boys’ baseball and soccer teams and its girls’ cross-country running teams for winning state championships. They also gave kudos to T.C. Roberson’s Maggie Kovatch for being named a state cross-country running champion.

The board unanimously decided to pass the vice chairman’s title from Stanley to Young. The commissioners also made appointments to the following boards: Ann Cross, Planning Board; Mary Adomi, Adult Care Home Community Advisory Committee; Susan Driscoll, Nursing Home Community Advisory Committee; Larry Modlin, Reorganization Commission; Commissioner David Gantt and Elizabeth Graham, Metropolitan Sewerage District Board; Linda Ferguson, Evelyn Arthur, Martha Marshall and John Parham, Blue Ridge Area Authority; and Johnny Hayes (ex-officio), Mental Health Reform Advisory Task Force.

At the request of Manufactured Home Park Review Board Chairman Roy Chapman (and with the backing of the Buncombe County Planning Board), the commissioners decided to dissolve the Manufactured Home Board and transfer its duties to the Planning Board. In essence, Chapman (who now sits on the Planning Board) told the commissioners that the board had outlived its usefulness and suffered from lackluster attendance. (During the public-comment portion of the meeting, county-government watchdog Don Yelton said he disagrees with dissolving the board without consulting stakeholders like himself, a licensed mobile-home park owner.)

County Attorney Joe Connolly reported that county residents Mike Morgan and Peter Dawes had paid the county $4,000 in attorney’s fees after losing their lawsuit a year ago over the placement of cameras in the commissioners’ chambers.

At the meeting’s end, the commissioners retreated to Ramsey’s office to hold a 25-minute closed session on the lawsuit filed two years ago by Betty Donoho (and later joined by the Buncombe County Board of Education) against the city of Asheville, Buncombe County and the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency to prevent to prevent more than half a million dollars in civil penalties originally collected from local air polluters from going to a newly established Clean Air Community Trust Fund.

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