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Buncombe County commissioners see economic recovery get another blow

Commissioner Belcher

By Leslee Kulba

Asheville – There is an air of uncertainty as state and local governments try to prepare next year’s budgets. They’re tweaking five-digit numbers with six- or seven-digit uncertainties. And then, there’s worry that something even more consequential will come along.

However, going through the motions, Buncombe County Finance Director Don Warn presented the county’s third-quarter report. Everything was just fine through March 31. After that, everything went haywire, but due to lags in reporting, the extent of the damage will be anybody’s guess until June. Warn said the county is still projecting a 35% decrease in revenues for the fourth quarter.

Governors across the country have been complaining that the federal government provided no relief for state and local budgets devastated by the COVID-19 response. States fund the education system and provide pass-through funding for public safety, but they unexpectedly found themselves investing immensely in ramping up an adequate emergency-response made more expensive by states having to bid against each other for the same scarce supplies. Then, on top of that, the ensuing economy shut down, reducing sales and income taxes and certain fees to only what could be collected from essential trades and services.

In this context, Buncombe County’s Human Resources Director Sharon Burke informed the commissioners about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act [FFCRA]. As is not uncommon anymore with federal legislation, the county is daily receiving stacks of clarification, Burke explaining that people who had already signed up under old interpretations are now being told they may not qualify. Making the situation worse, this federal policy came down as the commissioners were creating their own extended leave policy.

The act requires “certain” employers to pay staff their full salary for up to two weeks of absence related to personal contracting or suspected contracting of COVID-19. It also calls for employees to be paid 2/3 of their salary for up to two weeks to care for another person who has contracted or is suspected of having contracted the virus – or who cannot attend daycare because of a COVID-19 closure. When COVID-19 deprives an employee’s charge of daycare, that employee would be eligible for up to 10 weeks of additional time-off at 2/3 their salary. [The FFCRA applies to the private sector as well, but that was not part of the discussion.]

So as not to be the final nail in the coffin of state and local governments, emergency responders and healthcare workers were exempted. That is, they were considered too important to miss 12 weeks of work a year, on top of whatever other time-off their contract promised. Burke added that “emergency responders” was defined very broadly and in ever-shifting terms.

Buncombe County Commission Chair Brownie Newman was incredulous that the county should have to pay 1/2 its staff 2/3 their salary to do nothing for 1/4 of the year. Brilliantly, and to everybody’s relief, Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder said the county had already made arrangements to pay for daycare for emergency employees, which would be much less expensive than paying time-off. Still, Newman pointed, the county had no grip on the expanded and ever-changing definition governing exemptions. Staff could at least estimate over half the county’s payroll would not be exempt.

Staff will present the commissioners with a policy proposal on May 5. Burke recommended that it call for paying personnel in full instead of only 2/3 their wages and adopt exclusions as defined by the US Department of Labor.

Prior to Burke’s presentation, Director of Strategic Partnerships Rachael Nygaard spoke about the commissioners’ aspirational strategic plan they started working on in simpler times. Buncombe Commissioner Joe Belcher pointed out that two of the four “Community Focus Areas” were “Resident Well-Being” and a “Vibrant Economy,” both of which have now gone into a tailspin.

Belcher said the commissioners knew he was a big fan of Franklin Covey, a consulting firm most famous for Stephen R. Covey’s best-seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He said economic reconstruction is going to be complex, with lead and lag times, feedback cycles, etc. He said, as leaders, at some point, the commissioners and staff need to convene a much larger discussion identifying factors complicating the current situation, lessons learned for mitigating future disasters, and how the county is going to deal with repercussions that may last six months or six years.

Later, when Budget Director Jennifer Barnette started talking about big-ticket items the commissioners could take out of the current budget, Newman observed he was only hearing comments from the commissioners about why things should continue to receive funding. Staff is now recommending cutting back on ambulance purchases, park improvements, and six of ten proposed IT projects. Investment in solar and transit is still on the table.

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