Asheville – The last meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners was marked by a collection of extraneous revenues and expenditures. For starters, The American Rescue Plan was announced by the US Department of the Treasury on March 18 and made $1,400 payments to individuals. It also allocated a pot of $350 billion to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments. Outside of any amounts to be spent in Buncombe via awards to the state or Asheville, the county received a direct grant of $50.6 million.
County CFO Don Warn, therefore, told the commissioners the county needed to staff three new positions immediately to start administering the funds. More would be needed later. The job descriptions included tracking and reporting funds and other administrative headaches that accompany complying with guidelines for administering federal grants. A future position might involve public engagement.
By way of the consent agenda, the commissioners accepted a competitive grant award of $20,000 from the Volkswagen settlement. In 2016, Volkswagen was found guilty of installing a gizmo in its diesel engine vehicles that reduced emissions only when tested, so as not to impede actual mpg. Volkswagen subsequently entered into a $14.7 billion settlement with federal agencies, with $2 billion of the sum to be spent on zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, like the four vehicle charging stations the county will construct.
On expenditures, the commissioners unanimously approved a $100,000 performance-based grant for System Logistics Corporation (SLC). SLC is a global manufacturer that, according to Dun & Bradstreet, did $140.58 million in business in 2019. The reverse-Robinhood gift of taxpayer dollars is expected to trickle down to the community through high-paying jobs and capital investment that will increase the county’s tax base.
The commissioners also voted to help the City of Asheville “create a comprehensive Community Vision Document” for repurposing what is anticipated to soon become the former site of the Vance Monument. Asheville has already committed to paying $139,685 for demolition and interim site remediation, but they were asking the county for $35,000, or half the estimated cost of the visioning effort.
Commissioner Robert Pressley did not approve. He said the commissioners had been told they could do nothing about the monument because it was on city land, and so they merely “accepted” the report. To Pressley, that meant they acknowledged its existence, but to Chair Brownie Newman, that meant they had approved its call for demolition. Either way, Pressley was outvoted.
An attempt by Tennessee Lawyer Edward Phillips to stop the removal of the Vance Monument on behalf of a group that raised over $100,000 to restore the monument just a few years ago, failed in Buncombe County Court.
COVID keeps meeting online
As COVID appears to be on the wane, the commissioners considered how they will handle the upcoming public comment. Newman suggested continuing with call-in only for the next meeting; accepting calls and in-person comments for both meetings in May; and then, if all is going well, returning exclusively to in-person meetings, observing necessary COVID protocols.
Pressley thought participants should sign up in advance even if they were going to appear in person. He reasoned registering those wishing to comment would give staff time to prepare sufficient socially distanced staging and/or overflow space. It was decided the deadline for in-person and phone-in comments would be Monday at 3pm. Everything has its disadvantages.
Who Submitted What?
At the commissioners’ work session, they heard a presentation about a draft policy for submitting and approving requests for proclamations. Allowed topics were, “commendable community or public service contributions, outstanding achievements as it relates to academics, athletics, or community service, and acts of leadership or valor.”
Topics not allowed were, “positions … on matters unless they are germane to or have a direct impact on the core functions of Buncombe County government” and “promotion or endorsement of political candidates, political causes, religion, or religious institutions.” Staff would review the requests for, among other things, “alignment with the mission and values of Buncombe County government.”
It appeared staff had been overwhelmed with requests, but when Newman asked for a tally, County Clerk Lamar Joyner said, “I get maybe one or two every quarter or so, and some of them are more staff-driven.” So, Pressley asked why they were bothering, and Joyner said the board had requested it over concerns about commissioners acting unilaterally.
Commissioner Terri Wells asked what the pros were, then. Presenter Tim Love said having a process typically makes things more democratic, rather than leaving access only to those who have an in with a particular commissioner. It would, therefore, likely increase the number of proclamations, but that would be a good thing. Joyner added having a timeframe for resolutions would also give staff time to vet the requests.
Newman thought most requests would be for celebrating really great things in the community. However, he cautioned, the county is a diverse community with a wide range of views on many issues. Having been around the block, he knew that people would try to get an issue on the agenda by way of a proclamation because doing so would drag the commissioners into a de facto debate about it. The proclamations, he felt, should have broad acceptance and not be controversial, so he asked staff to maybe flag proposals that could be Trojan Horses.
The commission, he added, should not adopt a proclamation on an issue on which it hadn’t voted. Again, he foresaw persons asking for, for example, a proclamation to honor a particular person, whose views on a hot topic were well-known, and thereby backing the board into a position of perceived support. The finalized policy will return to the board for a formal vote.