Meetings Multiply as Role of County Government Expands

Commissioners Dislike Being Blind-sided

By Leslee Kulba- The Buncombe County Commissioners held four meetings in six hours, Tuesday. The first meeting was for the pre-session (cutely, “precession”), formerly conducted fifteen minutes before the commissioners’ formal meetings to hammer out last-minute agenda items.

Under former County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene, commissioners met in threes, to work around open meetings laws, and so, reportedly, the Republicans could get a different slant on items than the Democrats. Those meetings were not public, the Republicans on occasion cried “Unfair!” and now the meetings will be open to all members of the public able to swing a long lunch hour twice a month. They will also be televised and available on the YouTube.

More Public Meetings –
It is possible Kermit Tolley and MEDIC have cycled out of their regular appearances on commissioner agendas. Tolley has been attempting for over a decade to get patched into the county’s 911 service.

The owner of a private ambulance company, he has been helping keep response times down in the county by serving as a backup; now he’ll be able to keep times even lower, thanks to the county finally granting him a franchise agreement to use 911.

Approval was contingent upon passing an inspection, and terms of the franchise agreement include establishing regular hours of service, keeping the ambulances stocked to specifications, and submitting to monthly performance reviews and random inspections.

The reasons for holding MEDIC at bay have shifted through the years. If MEDIC had been posing a hazard, this was not part of the conversation. Instead, issues included submitting one wrong form with the application and not being in the county’s emergency management plan while being a part of the real-world action. Then, a report presumably concluded their services were not needed after including their contributions in the overall successes of the county’s emergency response system. Most recently, the reason for not allowing a private company in the game was it would cut into the revenue streams of county fire departments, who have found they can use ambulances as cash cows to collect Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara

Board members Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Amanda Edwards, and Brownie Newman expressed apprehension about letting a private, for-profit company answer to a humanitarian need. Even BPR News, after the award of the franchise, made it sound as if there were something sinister about the for-profit angle; the implication, of course, being a profit motive could interfere with judgment to serve in the best interests of the community. Restated, members of the public were supposed to play along with the notion that mere mortals ascending to government; particularly in Buncombe County, could not be corrupted by pecuniary interests.

Notwithstanding the ongoing federal investigation of two former county managers and affiliates within the organization, as well as the contemporary departure of a rash of key staff; WLOS is now reporting that at least two Buncombe County fire departments are under federal investigation.

Details have not been made public, but it is known that the Skyland Fire Department was issued “several” subpoenas and a spoliation letter on March 13. Following that, news broke that the Riceville Fire Department was also under investigation. WLOS speculates this may have something to do with a $150,000 loan from Riceville to Skyland and other loans of about $500,000 made by the former county manager – none of which were approved by normal and authorized channels.

Another topic discussed was corporate welfare. It seems Linamar will be extended more time to meet its targets for economic development incentives. In 2011, the county approved giving the Canadian-based company $6,800,000 for the creation of 250 jobs paying an average salary of $39,000 and investing $75,000,000 in “improvements and facilities.” The City of Asheville agreed to pay an additional $2,200,000; the State of North Carolina, $2,600,000. Then, in 2014, the county approved giving an additional $2,200,000 to the company as the city and state increased their contributions by $1,000,000 and $500,000, respectively. [ED NOTE: Reports of these numbers vary wildly.] The county imposed targets to show taxpayers the “investment” was performance-based and thus handled accountably.

Less Public Meetings –
The point being, if Buncombe County government is so much better than the greedy, corruptible private sector at responding to emergencies and financing commercial development, maybe it should also be given more responsibility in the housing and childrearing sectors. And that’s what the other two commissioner meetings covered.

The newly-formed Affordable Housing Committee will meet at 2:30pm on third Tuesdays. While free and open to the public, these meetings are, for all intents and purposes, as accessible to the working poor as a properly-noticed meeting on a yacht in the Outer Banks. The commissioners approved forming the committee after yet another round of disgraceful public sausage-making as they continue to work to right the course of the county following years of covert and illegal practices under former management. Commissioner Al Whitesides was among the chiefest to criticize the practice of blindsiding the commissioners with the expectation they would rubber-stamp huge, revolutionary policy.

Last month, in what was hopefully the last time ever, the Republican commissioners, as well as Interim County Manager George Wood, expressed dissatisfaction over a surprise, big-ticket vote that already had majority support of the board. Wood said staff had not had a chance to vet Mountain Housing Opportunity’s request for a $2,200,000, zero-interest, 20-year, balloon-payment loan, as he had only heard about it the day of the meeting. Cindy Weeks, representing MHO, said she had spoken to a few commissioners, and thought that would suffice, as that was the way things had always been done in the county. Commissioner Mike Fryar, who claims to have been left out of the loop as well, gave the impression that former county management had expected MHO to default on previous balloon payments, anyway.

After the minority won a continuation to buy time for staff vetting, Wood returned with a proposal for a revolving loan program with an annual budget allocation. He recommended, if the objective were to create more affordable housing, that MHO be charged 2.5% interest and make frequent payments that could be recycled for additional rounds of affordable housing loans. Shockingly, a majority of commissioners did not like that idea, so a compromise was approved, keeping the loan at 0%, but requiring annual payments between $5000 and $10,000.

At the time, Wood also mentioned two other significant requests for assistance with affordable housing that would be coming before the board. Details discussed at the committee meeting revealed Habitat for Humanity wanted $1,400,000 from the county for a 98-unit subdivision on Old Haywood Road, and Homeward Bound wanted $2,750,000 for a housing project on Oak Hill Drive that would serve people making up to 30% of AMI.

The committee members, Newman and Commissioners Edwards and Joe, previewed these projects and agreed on a schedule for disbursing MHO’s previously-approved loan. They were told the county has about $5,700,000 committed toward affordable housing projects this fiscal year, and that they should expect a similar level of funding next year.

Commissioner Al Whitesides

The commissioners are also forming an Early Childhood Education and Development Committee. Beach-Ferrara, Whitesides, and Robert Pressley are already appointed, and the application window just closed for members to include one representative each from the professional economic development, professional community investment, parental, pediatric, academic professorial, and retired early childhood education communities.

Reaching toward a long-term goal of providing certified, universal early childhood education in Buncombe County, the commissioners last Halloween approved setting aside $3,600,000 from their budget to “invest” in early childhood education. [ED NOTE: Government does not spend, like greedy and profligate for-profits; it invests.] The amount would be a baseline with a 2% annual escalator and recurring, subject of course to any future commission’s whim.

The commissioners have spent a lot of time outside their regular meetings learning about best practices for getting children on an even playing field when they enter kindergarten. It has been said some don’t even know which way to hold a book, and the lack of preparation is highly-correlated with children coming from low-income, traditionally-disadvantaged communities. It would be anathema to bring up single parenthood. Advocates of getting children into preschool have argued it would give children the “home training” needed to learn enough self-respect and respect for others to avoid harmful habits that cost taxpayers dearly – as in hiring more public safety officers, continually building new jails, and treating indigents for addiction-related health problems.

Issues brought up in the past have included shortfalls in space; revenue streams, which are described as, “a complex and fragile mix of federal, state, and local government funding, philanthropy, and fees;” and qualified teachers. One reason the latter remains problematic is, not everybody has the ways or means to take out a student loan in exchange for certification in a $25,000 career. The committee will work toward creating and availing more classroom space, developing a system for deciding who gets subsidized and how much they get, developing credentials-based paygrades for early childhood educators, and also assuming a responsibility for some functions traditionally relegated but perhaps underserved by traditional social services departments.

Off-Track –
In a totally unrelated matter, the commissioners heard a request from former state representative Ray Rapp for a precursor to what conservative leadership in the past had labeled “recreational rail” between Asheville and Salisbury. The push has been mulling around for close to a couple decades, but it has not been entertained by Amtrak until recently. Now, the highly-subsidized passenger rail company has been prevailed upon to consent to running a connector bus to gauge interest before investing in infrastructure. The commissioners were asked to help spike that interest.

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