“One Buncombe” has been the rallying cry for County Manager Avril Pinder since she took the reins of Buncombe County government last year. The phrase is now finding new life as the name of a “rapid relief fund,” the creation of which was unanimously approved by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners at a March 24 special meeting, to help individuals and locally owned small businesses withstand the economic fallout of COVID-19.
As explained by Tim Love, the county’s director of intergovernmental relations, One Buncombe will pool funding from local governments, businesses, foundations and individuals under the Buncombe County Service Foundation, a nonprofit established by the county that currently administers many of its community partnership grants. A seven-member board of directors with representatives from the government, business, banking and philanthropic communities would determine how to allocate the money.
For individuals who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, Love said, the fund could pay for “life-essential needs” such as utilities and mortgages. He clarified that money would be given directly to service providers and not as cash to those without work.
Businesses with fewer than 50 employees could receive low-interest loans of up to $10,000 to help them sustain operations until they could reopen or get additional support from the federal government. According to a recent survey of over 500 Western North Carolina businesses by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Love noted, over 32% of respondents said they had closed their operations, while more than 26% said they had furloughed employees.
“We know there are lots of programs to support small businesses,” Love said. “The challenge we face here is, will these small businesses still be around in time when disaster relief funding is made available to them through the [federal Small Business Administration] and other programs?”
While the commissioners generally supported the proposed fund, Chair Brownie Newman and Commissioner Al Whitesides both suggested that One Buncombe explore small-business micro-grants in addition to loans. Many sole proprietor or two-person businesses such as barbershops, they said, were loath to take on additional debt in an economic crisis and could benefit from as little as $1,000 to cover rent during an extended closure.
The commissioners set a public hearing for Tuesday, April 7, to consider a $200,000 county allocation for One Buncombe. The Asheville City Council, which also met on March 24, will consider its own $100,000 allocation on Tuesday, April 14. Love said individuals and private groups will be able to donate soon through onebuncombe.org; the website was not available as of press time.
In other news
In line with similar moves by Asheville City Council, the Board of Commissioners changed bylaws regarding in-person attendance and public comment through the duration of Buncombe’s local state of emergency. If necessary, the board will now be able to hold meetings entirely by conference call; Michael Frue, the county’s senior staff attorney, proposed the use of Zoom teleconferencing software.
Members of the public would be able to submit written comment of up to 350 words or voice comment of up to three minutes electronically until 5 p.m. the day before a commission meeting. Newman said up to an hour of those comments would subsequently be read into the record during the meeting itself.