Civic

Commissioners Addressing Full Plate of Crises

County Manager Avril Pinder didn’t sign up for what was coming in 2020, but she’s staying the course.

Asheville – At their last work session, the Buncombe County Commissioners heard several reports about the extraordinary actions the county is taking in response to these extraordinary times. The first presentation was an update on COVID-19 numbers, and yes, Phase 3 has returned them to levels unseen since July. The presentation was rather lengthy, but since the COVID-19 story develops too rapidly for updates to make sense in a weekly report, it is best to move along to the next item.

Strategic Partnerships Director Rachael Nygaard followed with an accounting of COVID-19 relief funds received and spent to date. The State of North Carolina received a total of $300 million in CARES Act funding, of which Buncombe County received $9,568,844 in two rounds. After taking stock of various needs, the county kept 69% for its relief activities and passed 25% to its municipal governments and the remaining 6% to its 19 nonprofit fire districts. 

Examples of how funds have been used to date include launching testing sites, setting up quarantines, sanitizing, communicating updates for compliance and personal safety, acquiring PPE, reconfiguring public interfaces, transitioning to telecommuting, providing housing assistance and compliant crisis sheltering, and delivering food. Priorities for the unspent portion include assistance with utility bills, measures for preventing eviction, internet for pre-K and K-12 students learning from home, and childcare for families earning up to 300% of the poverty level.

In addition to CARES Act funds, the county received another $5,430,868 from a variety of private and public funds, which went to the libraries, the sheriff’s department, and Election Services, Emergency Services, Health and Human Services, and Planning. Staff is also pursuing about another $900,000 through applications for Community Development Block Grants and FEMA reimbursement. 

Buncombe Commissioner Joe Belcher requested information on how many people were receiving help,  the demographics of recipients, and how impactful the awards were. Buncombe Commissioner Al Whitesides asked about terms for spending the unused portion, and Nygaard said various parties were lobbying for more time and money, but as of now, what is not spent before the end of the year would be forfeited.

Next was a discussion of absentee and early voting followed by public assurances that it is safe to vote. Emergency Services Director Van Taylor Jones again told of the multi-department team brainstorming possible hazards that could interfere with fair and free elections and listed power outages, severe weather, and demonstrations as examples. At what he described as “all-hazards planning meetings,” he said the emergency group was performing tabletop exercises and walkthroughs. 

One accomplishment was identifying backup sources of power as well as what equipment was not compatible with backup power at the precincts. Another course of action involves explicit training in the proper role of policing in a democratic society. Law enforcement is planning responses for protecting the community as well as officers, and clear boundary definitions are being spelled out for collaborating agencies. Jones said everything at the early voting sites had been smooth so far.

Following that, Justice Resource Coordinator Tiffany Iheanacho introduced the commissioners to a $439,883 Dogwood Health Trust grant they will be asked to approve later. When the trust was created as terms of the sale of Mission Health to HCA, it was decided that a large part of its mission would be addressing “social determinants of health,” or environmental factors or lifestyle choices that lead to avoidable overutilization of emergency departments.

Iheanacho explained that at the peak of the pandemic response, Buncombe County arranged to release 40% of its jail population, prisons congregating settings where social-distancing was difficult. Now, with many people still out of work and thrust into poverty, reports of vast numbers suffering stress and anxiety and turning to drugs and alcohol, and outbreaks of civil unrest throughout the country, Iheanacho said the jails are filling up again.

The problem extends beyond moving people in and out of jail. Iheanacho reported that from January through April this year, 2,310 and 2,436 people jailed in Buncombe County were put on detox protocols for alcohol and opioids, respectively. That translated to 65 and 63 people, respectively and on average, returned to the streets, likely without means, mental and otherwise, for adhering to their protocols. More were released with addictions to substances other than alcohol or opioids. Then, in addition to the unmet mental/behavioral health needs, during the same period, sixty-one people with diagnoses of heart disease, asthma, seizures, hepatitis, and/or diabetes were released without access to care. 

The Dogwood grant would create and support two multidisciplinary teams to help inmates returning to society adhere to their protocols. One would be overseen by the county’s health department, the other, the jail diversion arm of the criminal justice system. Both would work with outside agencies to make sure released inmates have access to adequate medical attention as well as housing and assistance with other “criminogenic needs.” 

Belcher said he’s been having a lot of conversations lately about obstacles preventing former detainees from reentering the workforce. Some barriers are as simple as not having a proper ID or needing help making connections. Belcher acknowledged this would not work for everybody but said sometimes small efforts at acknowledgment and engagement can help those who seem beyond reach. 

Lastly, the county is in the process of creating a policy governing gifts presented to the commissioners or staff on behalf of the county. While such a policy is not unusual, it brought back memories of the time the commissioners were barraged with new policies, described as alignment with best practices but later found to be a direct response to corruption in the highest levels of the organization.