Ever rented an apartment with a leaky roof, running toilet, busted steps, a low-voltage current humming through the bathtub -- and a landlord who doesn't see a problem?
Up until Jan. 21, renters in Buncombe County facing such predicaments had no official county-government office to turn to. What did they do? "They called me," says Deputy Fire Marshal Mack Salley. Many of the problems faced by renters in substandard housing are also fire hazards, so the Fire Marshal's office seemed the logical place to turn.
Apparently, the Buncombe County commissioners agree: At their Jan. 20 meeting, they unanimously approved a minimum rental-housing code which, among many other things, officially designates the Fire Marshal's office as the place to turn when facing such problems.
The ordinance sets health-and-safety standards for rental housing, covering such basics as heat, water and electricity. The new law is complaint-driven, with no routine inspections in the cards as yet. Organizations like the Affordable Housing Coalition and Pisgah Legal Services, both of whom hear from a fair share of disgruntled tenants, applauded the code's approval.
"Without this code, there's nothing to define what's fit and habitable," said one code supporter at the meeting.
In the past, says Salley, either he or Dennis Parker (the office's other employee) would register the complaint and visit the property to take a look at the problem. If safety problems existed, the office would contact the landlord and ask him or her to fix it. "Most of the time, they did," Salley told Mountain Xpress in a later interview.
For 10 years, Salley's office has been unofficially taking these complaints and entering them into a binder. Now, it will do the same thing -- only with the county's stamp of approval. The code, says Salley, gives his office "a little bit of backing from the government." And, in preparation for the ordinance, commissioners recently approved a third position for the Fire Marshall's office.
That backing, Salley hopes, may make talking to landlords a little easier than it was before the ordinance. "We had to do a sales job," he says, to convince owners that making repairs was in the "best interest of the business."
Even though the ordinance, says Salley, will actually create more work for his office, it will definitely help tenants. As for the landlords, Salley notes that his office has never had two complaints about the same landlord.
After-school care remains in county's hands
Instead of letting the YMCA run the show, the county will hang onto its after-school program at all but one of its 18 sites, commissioners unanimously decided.
The YMCA will run the site at Black Mountain Primary School beginning this fall, with support from parents in that area, said County Manager Wanda Greene.
The county will raise the fee for after-school care by $7 per week (to $35) and the summer-camp fee by $15 per week (to $75). Most of that new money will be used to fund raises for after-school-care staff, who regularly leave their positions to work in fast-food restaurants, says Buncombe County Director of Childcare Services Fran Thigpen.
Many parents were miffed when they discovered, in November, that the county had been talking to the Y about taking over the program, and they let county staffers know it during a series of meetings on the issue in late fall.
Greene, who admitted that her office had neglected the after-school-care situation in the past, called it the hottest issue she's handled so far.
Greene, Thigpen and representatives from the YMCA and YWCA (another after-school-care provider) all reported that communications among them are good.
Commissioner David Young apologized to the YMCA, calling the ordeal a "roller-coaster ride" that has "trashed" the Y in the process.
It's been no picnic for county after-school staffers, either, said Oakley Site Director Michelle Pittillo, during a teary turn at the mike.
"We strive hard to do our best," she said. "My staff at Oakley are the best that I could ever ask for. We run a great program."
Going to the dogs
"I want to see you enforce your laws," Buncombe-ite Anne Santangelo told commissioners during their 3:30 p.m. presession. Santangelo says she's been "plagued" by a pack of dogs running wild through her property, and despite the county's leash law, animal-control officers can't do a thing to make the dogs' owner contain them.
Santangelo, who lives outside of Woodfin, said she's afraid to walk in her own neighborhood.
The commissioners are tentatively scheduled to consider an amendment to the county's animal-control ordinance at their Feb. 3 meeting.
Commissioners calling Taylor
In response to a plea from local nonprofit RiverLink, commissioners agreed to attempt to make contact with 11th District U.S. Representative Charles Taylor concerning his refusal to endorse the French Broad River's bid for federal American Heritage River status.
Asheville City Council has also been trying to reach Taylor about the same issue, but (as of Jan. 21) to no avail.
Without Taylor's support, the initiative is pretty much dead in the water, Commissioner David Young told Mountain Xpress at commissioners' Jan. 10 budget retreat.
Karen Cragnolin, the director of RiverLink -- which is leading the local Heritage effort -- told commissioners that no other river in the running is "having this kind of problem."
She read the commissioners poems about the river written by school children in the region. "I love skipping rocks in clear blue water, watching the water tickle by/I don't want to see the river die," wrote third-grader Shaina Stewart.
Heritage rivers, said Cragnolin, will be privy to hot leads on gaining federal grants. "This is an opportunity to bring our tax money home," she argued.
"Some 10 rivers are going to get this money, and I want [one of them] to be here," Cragnolin proclaimed.
"So do I," echoed Commissioner Patsy Keever.
Commissioners sent Taylor a letter on Jan. 23 requesting a joint meeting with the Asheville City Council, according to Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes.
The Buncombe County Commissioners meet at 4 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, in the commissioners' chambers on the third floor of the County Courthouse.