• Hard times are here. That was the feeling that pervaded the May 19 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, as members of the public (and some of the commissioners) weighed in on the county’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
That budget reacts to an uncertain economy and declining tax revenues, with $5.9 million in cuts. It also eliminates 86 county positions. The county’s property-tax rate of 52.5 cents per $100 of property value will remain the same.
“I think everyone up here believes in helping people, and we’re going to do the best we can under the circumstances,” Chairman David Gantt said. “You’re counting on us, and we’re not going to let you down.”
For conservative activist Eric Gorny, that wasn’t enough. Sporting a shirt that read “David Gantt hates poor people,” he called for a five-cent decline in the tax rate.
“A lot of people are hurting right now. A lot of my friends are in construction — they’re out of work and suffering right now,” Gorny said. “You have the ability to affect our monthly budgets.”
Commissioner Holly Jones said she had concerns about some of the services the budget designated as “non-core” and thus a lower priority.
“These include some things I think are vital community services, such as libraries and public health educators,” Jones said. “I just want to be really clear that I’m not all about that anymore. I don’t know that I really understood we were heading down just a core-services route. Hopefully we’re not. Hopefully we can roll up our sleeves. There’s a lot of jobs related to each of those non-core services and a lot citizens really need them — like child health and maternity outreach. They’re vital to our viability as a provider of human services.”
“We have a moral obligation to do more than core services,” he asserted. “Wwhen times are tough, we still have to take care of poor people.”
• Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue revealed to the commissioners that it could take some time — “a matter of months,” to be specific — before the county could put zoning back in place, following a March court ruling that found the county hadn’t followed proper procedure when it implemented zoning in 2007.
“Staff have been working diligently to try and meet a target date of June 2,” Frue said. “We have, however, hit on several factors that will make it impossible to meet that deadline.”
Due to those factors — including the sheer amount of notices that have to be mailed out — Frue said that late summer or early fall is a more realistic timeframe for putting zoning back in place.
Because of the new delays, the board voted unanimously — except for Vice Chair Bill Stanley, who was out of town — to extend a moratorium on certain types of “undesirable” land uses such as mining operations and asphalt plants to the end of the year.
• The commissioners also heard about steps the county’s Health Department has taken to prepare for the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, commonly known as “swine flu.”
“As of today there are 5,669 cases in the United States since this started. This hasn’t gone away,” Health Director Gibbie Harris. “Fortunately this outbreak seems to be fairly mild, though more lethal than the seasonal flu, but nothing like avian flu.”
So far Buncombe County has had no cases, though the state has had 12 overall. The state is only testing people for H1N1 that have to be hospitalized.
“We had one probable case, but that turned out to the seasonal flu,” Harris said. “We’ve been lucky,” he added, particularly in “the partnerships we have that allow us to respond the way we did.”
Those partnerships with hospitals, emergency services and local community groups have helped to get information out, speed up testing and ensure that possible H1N1 victims remain isolated in their homes while they’re contagious, a process that can be legally done through an isolation order.
“We had one case where the police had to be called, but otherwise those went smoothly,” Harris said. “It’s helped us ensure that our systems for an emergency like this work well.”
— David Forbes, staff writer