Asheville – “If you feed something, it grows,” remarked Don Yelton during the public comment period that preceded the last regular meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners. It was the conclusion to his criticism of the county’s unsustainable practice of rewarding behaviors like “sitting around,” “not working” and “doing drugs” with housing, food and medical and psychiatric services. “There’s one on every corner,” said Yelton of the increasing homeless population, adding that government can’t continue to raise taxes to accommodate the trend indefinitely. The working poor taxpayers, as evidenced by local governments’ rush to provide property tax relief, on a first-come basis, will dry up as a source of revenue. Additionally, he cautioned, the two-tranche COVID recovery windfalls would not be available in future years.
The commissioners just came out of a work-session in which they held “meetings about meetings” trying to figure out how to spend the county’s portion of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package authorized by the federal government on March 11. So far, the county received three allocations: $6.2 million for emergency rental assistance, $1.2 million for transportation and, most recently, $50.7 million for general fiscal recovery. Funds allocated to municipalities within Buncombe County are not included in the totals. Asheville is receiving $26.3 million, and the others are all getting less than 10 percent of that. The county was paid half of the $50.7 million this year, and it will receive the other half in May 2022.
Presenter Rachael Nygaard explained the county is still waiting for guidelines to evolve. While categories for permissible expenditures were given, some of those terms remain broad and nebulous. In June and July, the county solicited bids for projects with the hope that some awards could be administered by the end of August. A team of 21 county staff members representing 16 departments is now vetting projects according to 10 criteria, which include equity impact, capacity to manage federal grants, potential partnerships, population served, etc.
Staff already gave applicants a preliminary vetting for compliance with three criteria: (1) Are they a public or nonprofit organization with their principal place of business in Buncombe County? (2) Does the project meet the United States Treasury guidance criteria? and (3) Does the project fulfill a public purpose that the county has legal authority to fund? An example of a public purpose the county does not have statutory authority to fund would be providing broadband. The legislature is currently working to change this.
All told, the county received 141 proposals, 26 of which came from county departments. The total amount requested was $243.8 million, with individual requests ranging from about $7,000-$20 million. The median request was $1.7 million. Top requests, by category, were for housing ($34 million), community centers ($25 million), homelessness ($18 million), public health ($17 million), and behavioral health ($17 million). Disqualified projects totaled 17, and their requests totaled $30.4 million.
Funds already subtracted from this year’s $25.4 million tranche include $606,472 for administration; the county has hired one person and intends to hire one or two more. Also, $543,714 will be spent on vaccination outreach and continued COVID response. The commissioners spoke about using funds for some of their strategic priorities, but Nygaard said while individual county departments were eligible, the county as a whole, due to its strong financial performance, was not.
Another carveout from the total was the urgent request from Homeward Bound to fund the conversion of the Days Inn on Tunnel Road into permanent supportive housing for up to 85 persons experiencing homelessness. While the commissioners would not vote on the matter until their regular meeting, Asheville City Council had been given assurance that the Dogwood Health Trust and the county were on board with the partnership before they approved their $2 million grant last week. Now, as in Asheville, the project was going to jump to the front of the line to procure $2 million from the county. The applicant would, however, have to wait like everybody else for receipt of any portion of the $3.9 million balance on its request for county relief.
Nygaard next asked the commissioners for guidance on setting parameters for funding and maybe even designing a process for selection. It is important these days for government bodies to have fair and transparent processes to abstain from any appearance of jumping their friends to the front of the line.
As Yelton had mentioned, there are homeless people, it seems, on every corner. During the COVID shutdown, hard-working people were terminated or lost their businesses and burned through their savings accounts. Even staunch Republicans and Libertarians who disdain government handouts were demanding government relief because they had nowhere else to turn.
Now, when the county had a chance to funnel funds to charitable organizations to help some of these people get back to a normal life, the commissioners wanted to stall. Terri Wells liked the idea of pushing the award date beyond August 31. Chair Brownie Newman wanted to develop a process. Parker Sloan wanted to first see how much the state would be offering in the way of matching funds, and Amanda Edwards wanted to first know what processes the county’s municipalities were using and if there was any potential for leverage. She also wanted more time to see how COVID devastation plays out. Al Whitesides called for slow deliberation and coordination of “all this money coming in and coming in so many directions.”