At first glance, programs like Mountain Mobility, the Clean Vehicles Coalition, French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization and Buncombe County Council on Aging seem to have little in common beyond their geographical location.
However, these are only four of the more than 199 programs currently administered in Western North Carolina and beyond by the Land of Sky Regional Council.
As the name suggests, regional councils are local government bodies that fund and administer crucial services on a regional scale. However, the name can also be misleading, because some projects serve only a single municipality or county, and others are statewide or beyond.
“The challenge in telling the regional council story is that we do so many different things,” says Nathan Ramsey, Land of Sky executive director.
The latest edition of Xpress’s WTF — “Want the Facts?” — series explains the history, purposes, structure, powers, services and limitations of regional councils.
When and why were regional councils created?
During the Great Society period under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress passed a number of laws funding local infrastructure projects and social services. One of these, the 1968 Intergovernmental Cooperation Act, required municipalities and counties within a region to work together to set infrastructure standards and prevent duplication of projects. Even today, most federal and state grants for these projects require proof of collaboration between local governments and regional scalability.
While the N.C. General Assembly divided the state into multiple regional planning districts in 1969, much of Western North Carolina already belonged to regional government bodies. Three of the four councils west of Charlotte — the Southwestern Commission, the Foothills Commission and Land of Sky — were created in 1966. (The fourth, the High Country Council of Government, was established in 1974.)
How are regional councils structured?
North Carolina’s 16 regional councils are similarly, though not identically, structured. According to Ramsey, Land of Sky is governed by a 60-member board of delegates that meets the fourth Wednesday of every month (except for July, November and December) at 12:30 p.m. at 339 New Leicester Highway in Asheville; since the pandemic these meetings have been hybrid. Nine board members serve on the executive committee, which meets an hour prior to the full meeting and has the power to enact the policies decided upon by the board.
Fifty-three full-time and 44 part-time Land of Sky staff members, under the guidance of the board-appointed executive director, work within five departments: Administration and Finance, Area Agency of Aging, Economic and Community Development, the Mountain Area Workplace Development Board and the Transportation Resource Center.
The full organizational chart can be accessed at avl.mx/bvn.
Although local governments are not required to join regional councils, all four county governments in the Asheville metropolitan area — Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania — and all 16 municipal governments in them — are members of Land of Sky.
“Smaller organizations do not always have the same resources as larger [ones], and Land of Sky helps fill those gaps with the multitude of services they provide,” Fletcher Mayor Preston Blakely, the executive committee treasurer, tells Xpress.
What do regional councils do?
Regional councils have the same powers as other local governments, with two crucial exceptions: They can neither regulate nor tax. Dues from their member governments, federal and state grants and private sector money provides the funding that operates the programs under their jurisdiction.
In the 2022-23 fiscal year, the 20 governments of Land of Sky paid $195,165 in dues; 80%, or $150,000, was leveraged for federal grants. According to Ramsey, $19,000 in local money translated to $8 million in funds for aging programs in the region, and $30,000 of dues resulted in $65 million for economic development programs.
“That’s a pretty good ROI [return on investment],” Ramsey says.
Dues can also be spent for projects that federal and state grants will not fund. An example is the council’s current efforts to establish a foreign trade zone in the region, which aims to attract more business and trade by eliminating import and export tariffs.
What kinds of programs and services do regional councils administer?
The majority of Land of Sky’s budget — 40%, according to Ramsey — goes to its aging department. This is primarily because a 1973 amendment to the federal Older Americans Act changed the administration of senior citizen services from statewide agencies to regional ones. As Ramsey notes, many people in Buncombe County may know of the Council on Aging but have no idea it is run by Land of Sky.
Yet Land of Sky is behind a multitude of other programs as well. It helped administer Buncombe County’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to increase broadband access during the pandemic. It continues to work on digital expansion across the region through its WestNGN program.
Land of Sky oversees an important substance abuse recovery program made possible by an Appalachian Regional Commission grant. Land of Sky administers this program in partnership with the Southwest Commission, so the program reaches 11 counties and not just the four member counties of LOS.
Land of Sky has also been chosen to be the pilot region for a statewide initiative called myFutureNC that helps residents achieve secondary education credentials.
What are the limitations of regional councils?
In a 2008 study of regional councils by the UNC School of Government, 96% of local governments surveyed expressed satisfaction with their regional councils. However, those surveyed also identified three primary barriers that prevent local governments from joining councils: not wanting to lose control over community decisions, lack of trust between governments and concerns about unequal distribution of resources.
With 100% participation, Land of Sky does not have this problem. “Regional councils really are focusing on things that have broad-based bipartisan support,” Ramsey says.
Todd Collins, professor of political science at Western Carolina University, tells Xpress that rural regions like WNC often benefit more from regional council funding than regions with more populated cities with robust tax bases.
That may be one reason why only 62 of 80 local governments in the Centralina Regional Council, which include Charlotte, are council members. However, the Centralina council’s communications manager, Emily Hickok, notes that nonmember governments frequently participate in initiatives, events and trainings.
Residents within Land of Sky’s regional boundaries can learn more by attending council meetings both in person and virtually, as well as signing up for the council newsletter at avl.mx/bxp.
As important as Land of Sky is to its member governments — Blakely praises its “exceptional work and services” — Ramsey stresses that that support is mutual.
“We have a long history of support throughout our region,” he says. “We’re blessed.”