The ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic rang heavily throughout discussions at the Dec. 7 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
Board members signed off on three funding initiatives designed to boost job retention and creation in sectors harmed by the pandemic, offered bonuses to county staff involved with COVID-19 response and formally affirmed an extension of the county’s indoor mask mandate by Chair Brownie Newman.
No one spoke at a public hearing on the funding, after which the board unanimously approved appropriations totaling $1,675,000 from the county’s federal American Rescue Plan Act money for three different economic development projects. The largest award, $1.25 million, went to the Mountain Community Capital Fund, which offers small-business loans to local entrepreneurs with limited collateral for traditional banking.
An additional $375,000 was awarded to the Eagle Market Streets Development Corp. for its Community Equity Fund, which focuses on the development of minority-owned local businesses. And $50,000 went to the Asheville Area Arts Council’s Creative Sector Recovery Grant Program, targeted specifically for the region’s artists and arts organizations. (All three awards had been included in an $11 million tranche of funding approved Nov. 16 but required the additional public hearing under state law.)
“As folks know, the commission reviewed over a hundred — well over a hundred — different proposals, and I think these really stood out … as really strong ideas for helping the people in our community who are out there, who have a vision for owning their own business or growing a locally owned business, which is really the heart of our economy,” said Newman.
Commissioners also approved a policy for doling out over $1 million in pandemic premium pay to Buncombe staff. Employees will be eligible for the money, drawn from federal ARPA funds, in four different tiers for employees based on their involvement in the county’s COVID-19 response, with some receiving bonuses as high as $3,000. The county estimates that 757 workers are eligible for at least some bonus pay, which will be distributed by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, board members voted unanimously in support of Newman’s extension to the county mask mandate, which had been set to expire Nov. 30, through Wednesday, Jan. 5. The vote was a formality, as the chair had announced the extension Nov. 30, but marked a newly united front on the issue for the commissioners; Robert Pressley, the board’s only Republican, had voted against an extension Sept. 21.
Newman noted rising COVID-19 case numbers, increases in holiday travel and shopping and the potential risks of the coronavirus’s omicron variant as reasons for extending the mandate. Buncombe is alone among Western North Carolina counties in imposing an indoor mask requirement, although elsewhere in the state Durham, Orange and Wake counties have continued to keep mandates in place.
Board member Al Whitesides suggested that the mandate remain effective “until further notice” instead of continually being extended. “When you look at the seriousness of what’s going on with the virus — I’ll be the first to say I hate wearing the mask, but I want to stay around a few more years, too.”