Towns Say County Threatened to Halt 911 Service - TribPapers

Towns Say County Threatened to Halt 911 Service

Buncombe County – Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder wants towns to pay for 911 services. Yet, Weaverville and Woodfin believe citizens already pay that money as county taxpayers.

At last week’s May meeting of the Weaverville Town Council, this contentious issue came to light when the council took up a discussion called Consolidation of 911 Call Center & Interlocal Agreement Proposal.

“We at the staff level are not opposed to consolidating 911,” said Weaverville Town Manager Selena Coffey. “We believe consolidation is a good thing in the county, including the municipalities. One of the issues, the biggest issue, frankly, that we’ve had, is that we see this, and I think we can speak openly enough about this and that Woodfin’s mayor and town manager would agree, we see this as a situation that our residents are being [asked] to pay double essentially for 911 services.”

Weaverville discusses Buncombe’s proposal

Coffey then explained that Weaverville, Woodfin and other municipalities held via email and video conferences with the county about the issue. In essence, the county wants to charge, under their cost model, Weaverville $56,664.31 as a starting point, but the cost would go up from there based on several factors. 

The matter arose when Black Mountian, in an effort to save money, wanted to eliminate their call center, which takes calls from the Buncombe 911 line. But what might save money for one town is a cost increase for others. Buncombe County was dispatching to other towns, like Weaverville and Woodfin, without an additional fee.

Weaverville Mayor Al Root added to Coffey’s comments, saying, “I think it is important to remember Black Mountain and Montreat they were trying to do their own dispatch, and so for them, when they decided to do this instead, they were saving money.” 

Root added that they [the other towns] were not thinking about the principle of the matter. He also said the issue is not black and white. “…there are some cloudy issues. However, I just keep things pretty simple in my mind, and my question has been, ‘what are you asking me to pay for beyond what we’re already paying for as a taxpayer of Buncombe County?’…Now, frankly, I’m already paying for that as a county resident. It’s already been handled. I hope it’s being handled appropriately. I hope they [the county] are not ignoring the folks in incorporated areas. Giving them second rate service.”

Root said he, along with taxpayers of the town, are already paying extra to have a town police force. “This, I think, is nothing more than a grab. They don’t care that we’ve already paid our county taxes. They want more money from us to fund the machine.”

He concluded, “I think certain people at the county are just shrugging their shoulders saying, ‘Asheville does, now other folks do it. Why don’t you guys just do it too.’ Just ignoring the fact that they are basically treating the county taxpayer, which we are, in a totally inappropriate fashion.”

He then addressed a letter from Pinder giving what he sees as a threat. In the letter, Pinder says, “if you would like for Buncombe County emergency services to continue to provide law enforcement dispatch services beyond June 30, 2021…”  Root interprets is to mean if Weaverville and Woodfin have not signed the proposal by that date, the county will quit dispatching law enforcement calls for the town.

Buncombe County’s position

The Tribune reached out to Pinder with questions about the issue. 

Tribune sent: In the letter, you say, “if you would like for Buncombe County emergency services to continue to provide law enforcement dispatch services beyond June 30, 2021…” Does this mean after that date that the county 911 center will no longer take 911 calls from Weaverville residents and pass them on to Weaverville Police? Would they pass them on to Buncombe County Sheriff’s deputies or just disregard them?”

Pinder did not respond, but instead, Lillian Govus, Director of Communication and Public Engagement, replied, “Buncombe County 911 will continue to take all 911 emergency calls regardless of jurisdiction. If the call is for emergency law enforcement response within the jurisdiction of the Town of Woodfin or the Town of Weaverville, the call would then be transferred to a group or person of their choosing for dispatch to an officer. (Asheville and Biltmore Forest are current examples of this.)” 

When asked if this was double taxation for county residents who live in towns, Govus said, “There is a distinction between call taking and dispatching services. Per N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-1400, Buncombe County Emergency Services is the primary public safety answering point as well as the first point of reception for taking all 911 calls in the county. Accordingly, County Emergency Services has a mandate to take all calls and dispatch for all emergency medical services. As a mandate, this is funded through county tax.” 

She went on to say, “The municipality is responsible for funding law enforcement dispatching services for incorporated jurisdictions, either through in-house staff or by contracting with the county for additional service. Previously, in addition to taking the 911 calls, Buncombe County Emergency Services leadership has also been dispatching the calls for service for the Woodfin and Weaverville Police Departments at no cost, which has resulted in disparate treatment for other municipalities within Buncombe County, including Asheville, Biltmore Forest, Black Mountain and Montreat. They fund their own dispatch or contract with the county. These law enforcement dispatch services are paid for by the taxpayers of those municipalities.”

When asked how much was the annual cost of running the Buncombe County 911 Call Center, Govus did not give the current cost. Pinder’s recommended operating budget for 911 Communications for 2022 is $4,341,710.

Weaverville Councilman Andrew Nagle talks with Mayor Al Root (left) after the meeting. Pieces of Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder’s letter, which Nagle ripped up during the meeting, can be seen of the floor.

Weaverville takes no action on proposal

After Root and Coffey laid out the problem with Buncombe County’s proposal, councilmembers chimed in on the matter. Councilman Andrew Nagle had issues with how the county developed the cost model. 

“I don’t think the county commissioners have a good track record at managing money. This is bizarre. I think it is bizarre that she [Pinder] gave us a deadline of 40 days. I would be in favor of suing them and filing an injunction…I’d rather spend the $55,000 on an attorney, which you won’t catch me saying very often than to give it to the county,” Nagle says.t

Weaverville Town Attorney Jennifer Jackson could not give any legal guidance at the meeting, saying she needs to give the matter more in-depth study. Still, she said it does represent a drastic change as to the way the county has been operating. 

Councilman Patrick Fitzsimmons said that the county just needs to increase the taxes for all county residents to make it “equitable across all county systems not double taxation to just some.” 

Nagle said Fitzsimmons would be happy to know that Buncombe County Chairman Brownie Newman is raising taxes on all county residents. At which point Councilman Jeff McKenna added, “And they’re not bringing in new capabilities…its the same system.”

As the discussion came to an end and the council took no action regarding Pinder’s letter, Nagle, in an act of defiance, ripped up a copy of Pinder’s letter and threw it behind him. 

The Tribune spoke to VeHaun

While the matter has not officially come before the Woodfin Town Commissioners, Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun and Woodfin Town Administrator Eric Hardy joined Weaverville’s Root and Coffey in signing a letter to Pinder. 

The letter stated, “Emergency 911 services are critical to all taxpayers in Buncombe County” and that there were “…flaws in the County’s cost-sharing proposal…” saying, “…the county’s proposal places an inequitable burden on individual municipal taxpayers.”

The letter to Pinder concludes:

“Finally, the cost-sharing arrangement proposed by the County contributes to an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ sentiment that undermines trust among partner local governments. We request that the county, including its governing body, begin a dialogue with the county’s small municipalities about dispatch services and in doing so, open the communication channels to help the small municipalities understand the true reasons for its recent cost-sharing proposal.”

The Tribune spoke to VeHaun about the matter, who said, “It ain’t nothing but a damn ripoff from the county is what it amounts to!” VeHaun is the former Buncombe County Emergency Management Director, who oversaw the 911 call center from its inception. He continued his frank statement saying, “My argument has been why should we [the municipalities] pay for it. I mean, that’s something they’re supplying to the whole county, but they’re leaning on the law enforcement side of things too. that’s what’s interesting.” 

Under pressure from protesters last year, Buncombe County took steps to defund law enforcement.

“I was there when they put the 911 system in, and now they’re wanting to change it after furnishing it all these years,” explained VeHaun. 

He also revealed he had problems with the county’s cost model and that the 911 equipment and software are funded by a tax on anyone who has a cell or telephone bill, not the county. The only thing the county supplies are the personnel and a place to house the call center. 

VeHaun also said the town had received Pinder’s letter threatening to cut off 911 law enforcement dispatching to Woodfin as of June 30th saying, “[Our] attitude still is; tell ‘em where they can stick it.” He added there’s nothing in the budget to
pay the fee.

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