At their March 3 meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners gave staff the go-ahead to work out the details of switching the county’s indigent health-care services over to a local nonprofit. Also: conservative activists wielded (cardboard) pitchforks.
• The board unanimously gave staff approval to begin working out an agreement with Western North Carolina Community Health Services to take on their indigent health-care services from the Buncombe County Health Department’s clinic, potentially saving $2 to $3 million in tax money.
However, by shifting those services to WNCCHS, which can provide some services at a far cheaper rate due to its status as a federally qualified health clinic, the county will get rid of 15 jobs, though some of those positions are vacant or temporary. A total of 81 employees work at the clinic, but most of them would simply be employed by WNCCHS, a nonprofit health-care provider with several clinics in the area, at the county’s clinic when the service changed hands.
“In my 28 years of working in human services, we’re facing unprecedented times,” Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone said. “The economy is going to drive up demand. I can tell you already that increase in the demand for mandated core services is up 23 to 45 percent across the board. Even though we’ve been an example in the state and nation in that we deliver health care through our clinic, we have unmet need. We’re averaging about 312 people a month who call seeking appointments and we can’t accommodate them.”
It currently costs the county $4.5 million a year to treat about 11,490 patients at its clinic. To expand those services enough to meet the increasing demand — and serve about 5,000 more patients — would require another $1.5 million, a figure the county’s hard pressed to generate in these tight times.
WNCCHS, on the other hand, because of its federally qualified status, gets significantly better Medicaid reimbursement and cheaper prescription drugs, among other perks. It could cover the county’s current load of patients for $2.4 million and the expanded number for $3 million — half what it would cost the county.
The idea met with an enthusiastic reception from the board (though Chair David Gantt was out of town).
“Anytime we can do anything to see the 300 [people] per month we’re not able to see, to expand services at a lower cost, I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” Commissioner Carol Peterson said.
“There’s clearly so many wins in this — though not without open eyes on some of the unknown parts of the situation,” Commissioner Holly Jones said.
• Bedecked in blue face paint and a kilt, like the portrayal of Scottish rebel William Wallace from the movie Braveheart, conservative activist Eric Gorny toted a cardboard pitchfork and presented a list of grievances to the board during the end of meeting public-comment time.
“I think the peasants are starting to rise up, thus the pitchfork,” Gorny, a Swannanoa resident, said. “Not too long ago it was bought to my attention that the tax department was starting the process for liens on 5,000 different properties. We’re starting to hurt. I myself work in the construction trade. I have a hard time trouble making ends meet right now. But I’m still paying a lot of money to the county.”
To that end, Gorny asked for a 5-cent cut in the property-tax rate, which would take it down to 47 cents per $100 of property value.
“It will affect most people in this county every single month,” Gorny said.
He also asked for public referendums on zoning and district elections.
“We need district elections in this county,” he said. “Bring this forward, at least let the people decide if they want to be represented by districts. It would reduce the cost of running for office and better represent the voters.
A zoning opponent, Gorny asserted that the county had subverted the democratic process when it passed zoning in 2007 despite a nonbinding referendum in 1999 that had come out overwhelmingly against zoning.
“Thus the Braveheart theme: It almost seems like tyranny,” he said, calling for a repeal of the current zoning ordinance and a referendum to decided the issue. “The people don’t want it and you still forced it on us.”
Lastly, Gorny called for “open and accountable government,” specifically for public comment opportunities on every issue of new business, which currently only happens at the board’s discretion.
Gorny wasn’t the only pitchfork-wielder; about five other members of the Buncombe County Republican Action Club showed up to make the same demands.
“Our nation is spiraling rapidly down the socialist path, and you’re helping,” Barnardsville resident Kathy Lack said. “The whole evening it’s just been ‘ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.’ Every single thing was giving money away. We’ve got to turn this boat around.”
She added that the commissioners would regret it if they didn’t heed the Action Club’s words.
“We’re law-abiding people. We brought our paper pitchforks because we’re law-abiding — we’re not trying to do anything bad. But think about it: The patriots are not going to take this forever. There’s going to come a point where it’s going to cross the line and we’re getting closer to it. Think about it: Do you want to look back some day and wish you’d listened to the person with the paper pitchfork when someone with a real one is after you?”
• The board also unanimously approved $50,000 to help put the 64-acre Hemphill Farm, located in the Reems Creek area adjacent to the historic birthplace of Civil War Gov. Zebulon Vance, into a conservation easement, preventing it from ever being developed.
“There was a concern because this farm is so near the Vance birth place,” Land Conservation Committee Chair John Ager told the board. “We’re working on some of the others nearby right now.”
The easement is worth about $815,000, and much of the county’s grant would go to transaction costs such as appraising the property.
— David Forbes, staff writer